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.