July 2008

I’m travelling currently, so I’ll keep the sophisticated philosophy to a minimum, and do some sociology instead. I’ve been wondering — why is it that there’s a trend of theistic evolutionists (like Ken Miller and Francis Collins) vociferously arguing that there’s not scientific evidence for design in biology, and yet there is scientific evidence for design in physics, while there’s no corresponding trend of physicists arguing that there’s no scientific evidence for design in physics, and yet there is in biology? 

(In case you’re not familiar with the argumentative moves of the theistic evolutionists I’m talking about, Ken Miller, in his book Only a Theory, suggests that the fine-tuning argument is a good argument for the existence of God, while Francis Collins, in his book The Language of God, cites the big bang as support for theism.)

I should make clear that there’s a sense in which Miller and Collins presumably would find evidence for design in biology, it’s just not evidence of the sort that intelligent design proponents cite. Perhaps that is the difference, for Miller and Collins — they don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, and yet this seems to be the sort of designer that the intelligent design proponents are arguing for, at least with their evolution-based arguments. The physics-based arguments (like the fine-tuning argument and the cosmological argument) don’t necessarily argue for a designer that regularly intervenes in the universe. 

This does raise a more general issue — is it easier to find purported evidence for God in physics than in biology? Are physics-based intelligent design arguments stronger arguments? And from a sociological standpoint, since we’ve seen an incredible push by mainstream biologists against evolution-based intelligent design arguments, will we in the future see a corresponding push by mainstream physicists against physics-based intelligent design arguments? I have the sense that there’s something different about the physics community, that would lead them to be less opposed to arguments for a designer, but I’ll save my reasons for why I think that for another time.


My blog has now been mentioned at various other blogs (such as here and here and here). I appreciate the supportive words, and I appreciate the constructive criticisms. I don’t appreciate the unhelpful rhetoric, but such is the nature of the ID debate, it seems. (I guess there is a certain amusement value to lines like “Most definitely Monton is a wacko” — it’s a good thing U. of Colorado didn’t figure that out before they decided to give me tenure.)

I have mixed feelings about getting sucking into blog debates. I don’t want to get involved in a back-and-forth that only a few people will end up caring about, but I am tempted to reply to direct objections to me. My solution for now is to let some things slide, but to talk about select criticisms.

The one I’ll talk about for now is Wesley Elsberry’s. Elsberry is a leading critic of the evolution-based intelligent design arguments, and I have high regard for his criticisms. Elsberry expressed surprise that I hadn’t talked about him in my blog — perhaps he didn’t notice that my blog was started recently and only had about 15 posts on it. Anyway, it’s true that I haven’t talked about Elsberry much in my work, in part because I’m not trying to argue that the evolution-based intelligent design arguments are good ones.

So what is my intelligent design work about? I’m giving a partial defense of intelligent design — I’m arguing that intelligent design shouldn’t be understood as inherently supernatural, that it’s legitimate to construe intelligent design as science, that some of the arguments for intelligent design are stronger than many critics recognize, and that it could be pedagogically helpful to teach intelligent design in school. I do think there’s some scientific evidence for the existence of a designer, but there’s not enough evidence to make me sway from my atheism. The evidence that I find strongest doesn’t have to do with evolution; it has to do with for example the origin of life from non-life and the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of physics. I recognize that intelligent design proponents mostly focus on evolution-based arguments, but there are other arguments out there. 

(Now, perhaps you think that the other arguments I’m talking about don’t count as intelligent design arguments, because they’re not about evolution. As I show in my forthcoming book, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly the doctrine of intelligent design amounts to — sometimes people treat it as being just about evolution, but sometimes people (the very same people) treat it as being about scientific evidence for the existence of a designer more generally. Anyway I prefer to think of the doctrine of intelligent design as more general (in the same way that “creationism” was about more than biology — it was also about geology, the age of the Earth, etc), but it’s really just a terminological issue.)

Back to Elsberry. What I was doing in my post that Elsberry focusses on is critiquing this claim by Ken Miller:

A theistic science … will no longer be the science we have known. It will cease to explore, because it already knows the answers. (p. 198)

Elsberry admits that this claim is “somewhat too strongly worded”, but I want to make clear that it’s not just this particular quote from Miller that is somewhat too strong; that claim is a key part of Miller’s book, and he spends a fair amount of space trying to argue for it. But anyway, I’m happy to report that Elsberry and I are in agreement about the truth value of Miller’s claim. It’s false, and that’s all I was trying to argue. 

But Elsberry isn’t so happy. Here is the full passage:

By focusing on the somewhat too strongly worded claim, Monton entirely overlooks the weaker claim that is not susceptible to the sort of dismissal he makes: supernatural hypotheses do nothing to advance science (other than perhaps to mark where further work is needed in proposing and testing non-supernatural hypotheses), do not themselves represent knowledge, and are known to delay the progress of science.

With some nuances, I agree with at least two-thirds of this weaker claim. So far, at least, I haven’t seen supernatural hypothesis doing much to advance science — we don’t have that much scientific evidence for the supernatural (though I think we should keep looking). I’m an atheist, so I think supernatural hypotheses are false, and since knowing a proposition entails that that proposition is true, I agree that supernatural hypotheses don’t “represent knowledge”.

The one I’m not sure about is the claim that supernatural hypotheses are known to delay the progress of science. There are multiple ways of understanding this claim. The strongest claim would be: in every possible situation, introducing a supernatural hypothesis delays the progress of science. A moderate claim would be: in every situation we’ve seen so far, introducing a supernatural hypothesis delays the progress of science. A weaker claim would be: there are some situations where introducing a supernatural hypothesis delayed the progress of science. 

The weak claim is most probably true, though I’ll leave it to the historians to come up with a nice example. The strong claim is surely false: I can imagine a situation where some scientist comes up with a great scientific insight, but she only comes up with that insight as a result of the peculiar religious training she’s had — had she not had that religious training, she wouldn’t have come up with the insight. Perhaps she frames the insight in supernatural terms, but other scientists see that the supernatural aspect is inessential, and embrace the non-supernatural aspect, thus leading to a major scientific advance. 

The moderate claim is doubtful to me, though I’m not willing to definitively pronounce on it one way or another. The problem with such claims is that they involve counterfactuals, which are hard to evaluate (and, perhaps, don’t have objective truth values, a point I discuss in this paper). Consider this counterfactual claim: had Newton not considered supernatural hypotheses, he would have been a better scientist. Is that true or false (or neither)? It’s really not obvious to me what the answer is. I can see someone arguing that the claim is true, since (as we atheists agree) supernatural hypotheses are false, and hence considering them automatically delays scientific progress. But I can see someone arguing that the claim is false, since Newton was in part motivated to investigate the world because of his theistic beliefs, and if it were the case that Newton wasn’t willing to consider the hypothesis that God actively acted in the world, then he wouldn’t have been as motivated to do his scientific investigations in the first place. It’s not clear whether there’s a definitively right answer here. 

Anyway, I appreciate Elsberry paying attention to my blog. It took a while to give a reasoned reply and that partly explains why I don’t want to get sucked into lots of blog debates. (That, by the way, is why comments are disabled on this blog.) But I admire Elsberry’s work, and just because he and I disagree on some issues, I don’t want him to think that we disagree across the board.

I’m guessing that my reaction toward David Berlinski’s writing is not uncommon: I find him an engaging, entertaining writer, and he’s clearly very smart, but I am often frustrated at what he takes to be an argument. For example, in his recent book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, Berlinski goes into a longish digression about quantum mechanics, and at one point writes:

the wave function of the universe cannot be seen, measured, assessed, or tested. It is purely a theoretical artifact. Physicists have found it remarkably easy to pass from speculation about the wave function of the universe to the conviction that there is a wave function of the universe. This is nothing more than an endearing human weakness. (p. 100)

Berlinski is being (purposefully?) condescending here, and isn’t giving those who endorse the hypothesis that there is a wave function of the universe credit for having intellectual reasons for their endorsement. Yes, he does this in an entertaining way, but I wouldn’t let my undergrads get away with arguing like this in their philosophy papers, so why should we let Berlinski get away with it in his book? 

I picked this point to focus on in part because I agree with Berlinski that physicists are too willing to embrace the hypothesis that there is a wave function of the universe. But I have intellectually-based reasons for that thought, reasons that are spelled out in a couple papers I’ve written, such as my paper “Quantum Mechanics and 3N-Dimensional Space“. I would have been much happier if Berlinski had, after insulting those who believe in the reality of the wave function, at least put in a footnote citing for example my article to back up his position. But doing so clearly wouldn’t fit Berlinski’s style. So much the worse for his style.

See below for my two previous posts on Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. In this post I want to talk about the “battle for America’s soul” part.

Miller makes the claim that the intelligent design movement doesn’t just want to “win the battle against Darwin”; the intelligent design movement wants to “win the greater war against science itself” (p. 183). This is quite a strong claim, that the intelligent design movement is anti-science. The way intelligent design proponents typically portray their activity, they are looking for scientific evidence for the existence of a designer. This may be confused science, but it’s not anti-science. Moreover, some intelligent design proponents, like Mike Behe, are tenured professors in science departments at legitimate academic institutions, who publish standard scientific articles in standard scientific journals. It would greatly surprise me if these people were anti-science.

Miller makes this strong claim, but unfortunately he provides minimal evidence for it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only textual evidence he cites is a single passage by Bill Dembski:

The implications of intelligent design are radical in the true sense of this much overused word. The question posed by intelligent design is not how we should do science and theology in light of the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. The question is rather how we should do science and theology in light of the impending collapse of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. These ideologies are on their way out … because they are bankrupt. (p. 190)

This passage is ambiguous. There is a way of reading it such that it is anti-science, and a way of reading it such that it’s not.

On the anti-science way of reading the passage, one would hold that science is key part of Enlightenment rationalism, and that naturalism is a key part of science, and since intelligent design is opposed to Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism, intelligent design is opposed to science.

On the pro-science way of reading the passage, one would hold that naturalism is a key part of Enlightenment rationalism, and there is a style of science where one takes an assumption of naturalism to be part of the methodology of science. One would hold that intelligent design is opposed to the naturalism in Enlightenment rationalism, and naturalistic science, but one would not hold that intelligent design is opposed to science itself. 

It is pretty clear to me, judging from everything I’ve read by Dembski, that he intends the latter, pro-science, reading. I couldn’t defend this by giving an example or two; the only way to really defend this claim is to read a lot of Dembski’s work, and (in my opinion, at least) it becomes clear that Dembski is pro-science; he’s just not pro-naturalism, and hence he’s not pro-naturalism-as-a-scientific-methodology. Now, Miller apparently thinks that if one drops methodological naturalism, then science will stop, because one can simply appeal to God as an explanation of any scientific phenomenon. But as I’ve explained in a previous post, that is a bad line of reasoning. And given that that’s a bad line of reasoning, Miller’s claim that intelligent design is anti-science doesn’t hold up.

My blog has received its first mention in another blog, at Telic Thoughts. Since my blog was new I decided not to promote it at all (other than linking to it from my web site, and telling a few friends about it), and to wait and see when it would get some attention. As a result of this mention, the number of hits/day skyrocketed (from a high of 15, to over 100 today). OK I’m sure this isn’t much by major blog standards, but since I’m new at all this, I was impressed. 

I received an interesting email from someone who saw the Telic Thoughts post. He pointed out that, while we often think of the universe as being very old, from the standpoint of stellar evolution, the universe is quite young. Fourteen billion years is a long time by human standards, but by the standard of how long it takes stars to form and then die (9 billion years for a star like our sun), we’re pretty early on in the universe — we’re in the first or second cycle of stellar evolution. The emailer then writes:

The Universe is only old enough to be in its first generation of G-type solar systems and there’s already life in (at least) one of them. It appears that at the very first opportunity in time for life to emerge in our Universe, it immediately did. It did not take generations upon generations of G-type stars located in habitable zones for life to finally get started.

This seems amazing and points toward some telic destiny beyond the explanation of chance.

I do think this early-stellar-evolution point is an important point, but I’m nevertheless happy with the chance explanation. The reason I’m happy with the chance explanation is that I lean toward the hypothesis that the universe is spatially infinite, with an infinite number of stars and planets. Even though it would be unlikely for life to arise on some particular planet within the first or second phase of stellar evolution, given an infinite number of planets, we would expect it to happen somewhere.

It’s worth noting that there is a potential doomsday-style argument that could come into play here. If the universe is going to exist for a long time, through many cycles of stellar evolution, then it’s very surprising that we find ourselves at the very beginning. But if the universe is only going to exist through a small number of cycles of stellar evolution (or if life is only possible during the first few cycles of stellar evolution), then it’s not at all surprising that we are in the first or second. 

I think this provides evidence for a Steinhart-Turok-style cyclic model, where we are currently in an expansion phase of the universe, but the universe will collapse back on itself in a finite amout of time. If there are only a few cycles of stellar evolution before collapse, then it’s not improbable that we would find ourselves in an early cycle, but if the universe is going to keep expanding, with many cycles of stellar evolution, then it would be quite improbable that we were in an early one. This arguably provides some evidence that there will only be a few cycles.

A final note: doomsday arguments are tricky, and to fully spell out the argument I’ve sketched here would take a lot of care. For some discussion of the trickiness, see my paper “How to Predict Future Duration from Present Age” (and see also the New York Times discussion of my paper here, and the associated blog discussion here). Also see my paper “The Doomsday Argument Without Knowledge of Birth Rank”

There are various ideas floating around about how God (were God to exist) could intervene in the world in subtle sort of way. What I want to point out here is that, if two of these ideas are unified, one gets a nice coherent picture of how God might interact with the world. 

The first idea is that the standard neo-Darwininan evolutionary account is right, or pretty much right. The only detail to be filled in (or potential modification) is what the source of the “random” mutations is. The mutations are random in the sense that they aren’t controlled by the evolving creatures, but (according to the first idea) some of the mutations are caused by God. In this way, God had a role in shaping the evolutionary processes that led to our existence.

The second idea is that, due to quantum-mechanical indeterminism, God can intervene in the world in a non-miraculous way. That is, there would be no violation of the laws of nature if (say) God decided that a particular radioactive atom should decay at a particular time — according to the laws of physics, there was some non-zero probability that the atom would decay at the time, and so the event of the decay doesn’t violate the laws. 

Combining these two ideas, one get the picture where God occasionally intervenes at the quantum level, and sometimes these interventions cause mutations in creatures, and that shapes the process of evolution.

It’s interesting to consider we could get evidence for the existence of a God who intervened in the world in this way. Suppose that we were able to look at a random statistically significant sample of the mutations that have happened, and we discovered that more often than not, these mutations benefitted the creatures in question. This could just be happenstance, just as it could be happenstance that one flips a coin a large number of times and gets significantly more heads than tails. But my sense is that finding a preponderance of beneficial mutations would provide some evidence for the existence of God. 

All this (by the way) provides another bit of evidence that (in principle, at least) one can get scientific evidence for the existence of God.

I’m finally reading a book I should have read a long time ago, Del Ratzsch’s 1996 book The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. Ratzsch is a theist who clearly has some sympathies with creationism (and, more recently, intelligent design), but he takes a fair-minded, nuanced approach to things. This is admirable, and it’s this sort of approach that I want to emulate. 

The start of his book is worth quoting:

Some public disagreements transcend the category of mere debate and become social institutions. Each side develops its own organizations, journals, networks, buzzwords, mythologies, heroes, conspiracy theories, horror stories, dire predictions, standards of orthodoxy, loyalty tests and so forth. The “creation-evolution” dispute currently has that status in American culture — and not for the first time, either. 

Ratzsch doesn’t think this is a good development, and I agree.

Here’s another frustrating aspect of Ken Miller’s book (see the previous post for my first post on this topic). Miller says that intelligent design

would reduce science to just another relativistic discipline. It would tell us that thinking the right spiritual thoughts is essential to the scientific process, and that there are no absolutes in nature. (p. 217)

Miller has a long argument for this, which I won’t try to do justice to here. I just want to register my opinion that I tentatively agree with the “right spiritual thoughts part”, but I disagree with the “relativistic/no absolutes” part.

If science is ultimately a quest for truths about the world, and if God exists, and sometimes intervenes in the world, then to have a completely accurate scientific account of the world, that account would have to include the fact that God sometimes intervenes in the world. If science tells us that God doesn’t intervene, but God does, then science is getting some things wrong. Science would have the wrong spiritual thoughts, and as a result the scientific theories developed wouldn’t be as good as they could be. One could still potentially do a lot of good science, even without including God hypotheses, so in that sense I wouldn’t say that having the right spiritual thoughts is _essential_ to the scientific process. Moreover, if God never intervenes in the world, then it probably wouldn’t matter whether one is an atheist or a theist, as long as one doesn’t (falsely) believe that God intervenes in the world. But if God does intervene, a full scientific theory would have to include that in its account of what goes on in the world.

As for the part about intelligent design leading to no absolutes in nature, I just don’t get it. One set of religious beliefs would be right, and all the competing sets would be wrong. That sounds to me like the opposite of relativism.

Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, has some frustrating aspects to it. For one, he gives the old argument that, if science allows for supernatural hypotheses, then science will stop:

A theistic science … will no longer be the science we have known. It will cease to explore, because it already knows the answers. (p. 198)

This argument has been given before (e.g. by Pennock) and the standard (and in my opinion correct) response has been given before (e.g. by Plantinga). I’m not faulting Miller for giving an argument that’s not new, but I am faulting him for seeming to show no awareness of the standard response. The standard response is that, while theistic scientists could choose to stop investigating the world, and be satisfied with the answer “God did it”, they need not. What theistic scientists can do is investigate the questions: “what did God do?” “What structure did God choose to give the world?” As long as scientists are willing to investigate those questions, then science can go on in pretty much the standard way. Allowing supernatural hypotheses won’t really change anything.

The worry, of course, is that scientists will be too willing to turn to the God answer when problems get tricky. But suppose some scientists do that — is it really so bad? Newton is undisputedly one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, but when he came to the belief that the planetary orbits are unstable, he postulated that God occasionally intervened to keep the planets in their intended orbits. Did exploration stop a a result of Newton’s appeal to the supernatural? No; later investigators determined that the planetary orbits are more stable than Newton had thought. 

In sum: even though I think that supernatural hypotheses in science will ultimately be proved wrong, I don’t see how allowing them will lead to the end of science. Those scientists who are willing to allow for supernatural hypotheses can still search for naturalistic explanations for phenomena.

My previous post reminded me of one of the “open questions” I have over at the International Society for the Advanced Study of Spacetime. You can check it out here.

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