October 2008

James Cook, of InterVarsity Faculty Ministry, has kindly posted his audio recording of my THINK! lecture. You can get my handout for the lecture there as well.

UPDATE: the lecture is now available here.

I find reading Steve Fuller to be incredibly frustrating, in part because he often says things that just don’t make any sense. For example, consider the below passage from his book Science vs. Religion?. He is talking about the pro-intelligent design textbook Pandas and People, which was approvingly referenced by the Dover School Board in the disclaimer they wanted to be read to biology students, the disclaimer that sparked the Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

While Pandas is not the book I would write to introduce IDT [intelligent design theory] in a scientific light, it does imply that some forms of philosophical idealism and social constructivism might be considered versions of IDT. For example, in the Kitzmiller trial, the following quote from the textbook was cited as evidence that “intelligent design” is synonymous with “special creation”: “Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features already intact: fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc.” (Davis and Kenyon 1993: 99-100). However, at this level of abstraction, it could equally well serve as a somewhat reified account of how, in Kuhn’s (1970) own words, “the world changes” in a paradigm-shift after a scientific revolution, since the paradigm-shifter acquires a new world-view as a whole, not in parts. (pp. 121-2)

But this is pretty nonsensical, isn’t it? The quote he gives from the textbook is a straightforward quote about special creation. What does that have to do with philosophical idealim or social constructivism? The “it” in “it could equally well serve” presumably refers to intelligent design theory, but I’m not sure. If that’s what the “it” refers to, then it’s crazy to say that intelligent design theory could be an account of how the world changes in a paradigm shift, based on the statement that intelligent design theory is about how species are created. 

For what it’s worth, I should point out that Fuller’s recent set of interviews on the Discovery Institute podcast ID the Future was much more clear. This is surprising to me, because I would think that it would be easier to be clear in print, when one has time to think about what one is saying, than in an interview, where there is pressure to keep talking.


So my THINK! talk went really well tonight, in my opinion. There were about 240 people there, and we had some good questions after I gave my spiel. I was especially happy that multiple people came up to me afterwards and said that they appreciated my intellectual honesty in the way that I dealt with these issues. 

I told some jokes too; it’s nice to keep the audience engaged with occasional laughter. I wish I could remember what my jokes were though! I was concentrating so much on saying insightful things, I wasn’t devoting enough brain power to remembering what I was saying… :)

Anyway thanks to all who attended.

I’ll be giving a talk, as part of the CU Philosophy Department THINK! public lecture series, entitled “An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design”. The talk will be on Tuesday October 28th, and it will be at Old Main Chapel from 7:30 to 9 pm. I’ll talk for 40 minutes or so and then the rest of the time I’ll take questions. (I anticipate that the Q&A session will be quite interesting….) This event is free and open to the public (as are all philosophy talks at CU; the difference with the THINK! series is that the talks are designed for a public audience).

In response to my previous post, I got an email from Nick Matzke, a biology grad student at Berkeley who formerly worked for the National Center for Science Education (a prominent anti-intelligent design group). He suggested that I could respond to his email on his blog, so I thought I’d do so. There was a lot to his email but I’ll pick out one line of argument. 

Here’s what Matzke said about my previous post (with typos corrected):

Unfortunately I think it shows that you’ve been reading ID literature a bit too much without detailed critique! My primary beef is your uncritical use of “chance”, which exactly mirrors the uncritical use of “chance” by Dembski, Ratzsch, et al.

Basically, except perhaps in the case of quantum mechanics, the term “chance” is *scientifically* just a statement about human uncertainty in an outcome due to its being caused by deterministic causes that interact in a complex and unpredictable way.

But in the ID literature, and in your blog, “chance” is opposed to “design”, and when this occurs, “chance” implies metaphysical meaninglessness, “things just happen”, God-is-being-ruled-out, etc. Even worse is when the term “chance” is equated with “natural causes”, which is also something you do, following the ID guys. But natural causes as commonly understood are anything but “chance.” It is not “chance” that water flows downhill, that canyons form as a result, that hard rocks erode one way and soft rocks another, etc. Similarly, the key force explaining “design” in biology, natural selection, is explicitly and obviously the opposite of anything resembling a “chance” process.

To sum up: The correct thing to do, if one is interested in this, is ask if something is due to “design” or “natural causes”, not “chance”.

What Matzke is presumably complaining about is this line from my previous post:

If that reaction didn’t have any substantive effects, we would probably conclude that the reaction happened as a result of chance processes. 

To be honest, I don’t think Matzke’s criticism is especially important; I see this as just an issue of terminology. It’s true that intelligent design proponents often use the term “chance” to refer to undesigned processes, and I could see how someone who wasn’t familiar with what they were talking about would assume that they are talking about purely chancy processes, when in fact they are not. But once one gets familiar with the terminology, one knows what intelligent design proponents are talking about, and I don’t think it’s a big deal to use the term “chance” the way that intelligent design proponents do, as long as everyone is clear about what it means in this context. 

But that said, I think that chance plays a more fundamental role in science than Matzke thinks it does. There are two ways in which this is the case.

First, Matzke quickly sets aside quantum mechanics, but in fact quantum mechanics is the most fundamental theory we have concerning physical objects and how they interact. And, according to most interpretations of quantum mechanics, most all physical processes are chancy processes, in the sense that there are multiple possible outcomes that have a non-zero probability of occurring. For example, consider the textbook example of a Newtonian deterministic process, a billiard ball that knocks into another billiard ball and starts it moving. According to quantum mechanics, the wave function of a particle has non-zero value in an unbounded region of space, and that means that there is some non-zero probability that, when the location of the particle is measured, the particle will be arbitrarily far from its starting point. The same holds for collections of particles, and hence, when the billiard ball hits the second billiard ball, there’s a non-zero probability that the second billiard ball will spontaneously end up in the next town over. Obviously, this probability is very small, but the important fact is that it’s non-zero. I would say that any process that has multiple possible outcomes, where each outcome has a non-zero probability of occurring, is a chancy process, and thus billiard ball interactions are chancy. The same holds for flowing water forming canyons, and so forth. 

Here’s the second way in which I think chance plays a more fundamental role in science than Matzke thinks it does. Let’s set aside quantum mechanics, as he does, and let’s suppose that the laws of physics are fully deterministic. Matzke says elsewhere in his email that

the natural Oklo nuclear reactor which you vaguely mentioned was not the product of “chance”, it was just the right combination of uranium ore coming into contact with groundwater.

But what accounts for the existence of the right amount of uranium ore in that location? And what accounts for the existence of the groundwater in that location? There are complex physical processes that led to those events occurring, and (given a fully determinstic theory of physics) those complex physical processes can be traced back to the initial state of the universe (assuming, that is, that the universe had an initial state). So now we can ask the question: why did the universe have that initial state, as opposed to some other initial state that wouldn’t have led to the natural Oklo nuclear reactor? Presumably there was no quantum phenomenon that led to probabilities for the various possibilities for the initial conditions. But in the absence of a designer, my opinion is that it makes sense to hold that it was a matter of chance that the initial conditions of the universe were what they were. And thus, it makes sense to hold that physical processes that happen as a result of the initial conditions being what they are are chancy physical processes. 

(For more on different ways of understanding the terminology of “chance”, I recommend Alan Hajek’s article on interpretations of probability.)

Suppose I did start using the “natural causes” terminology instead, as Matzke recommends. I’d still be opening myself to critique. Prominent philosopher of physics John Norton has argued that the notion of causation is a folk scientific notion; it’s not a concept that one gets from fundamental physics. Thus, if I started using the “natural causes” terminology, I could see someone who has read Norton complaining that I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of folk science; I should be thinking in terms of fundamental physics, and in fundamental physics causation plays no role. 

In sum, as is so typical with language, there may not be an ideal term to exactly capture what intelligent design proponents mean by “chance” and what Matzke means by “natural causes”. But that doesn’t matter, as long as we understand what we’re talking about.

The question of how we detect design is a question that both atheists and theists can equally well engage in. The question comes up when one is engaged in the project of looking for scientific evidence for the existence of a supernatural God, but the question also comes up when, for example, one ponders what structures one would have to find on a planet for one to conclude that the planet is probably inhabited by intelligent aliens. 

William Dembski famously answers that, to infer design, one must find specified complexity. While I won’t try to argue this here, I share the opinion of many that his notion of specification isn’t that well worked out. Del Ratzsch agrees with Dembski that complexity isn’t enough, but Ratzsch argues that what it takes in addition to complexity is mind-affinity, as well as factors that would be relevant to the intent an agent would have to realise a particular value. (Ratzsch doesn’t have a good name for this latter sort of factor; let’s call it “value-affinity”.) 

By “mind-affinity”, Ratzsch is getting at patterns that match patterns that a mind would be expected to create. For example, if we saw “John 3:16” spelled out using rocks on the side of a mountain, we would think that that distribution of rocks was the pattern of design, not chance. With value-affinity, Ratzsch is talking about effects that an agent would want to realize in the course of realizing some value. For example, there is evidence that in the distant past there was a nuclear reaction that happened in a river, not as a product of human agency. If that reaction didn’t have any substantive effects, we would probably conclude that the reaction happened as a result of chance processes. But if that reaction was causally efficacious in producing intelligence in human ancestors, and intelligence couldn’t have been produced any other way, we would think it more probable that the reaction happened as a result of design. 

In my opinion, Ratzsch is giving a more promising answer than Dembski. Ratzsch’s discussion of mind-affinity and value-affinity on pages 61-69 of his book Nature, Design, and Science is quite brilliant. It’s disappointing that the intelligent design literature focusses on Dembski’s answer and not Ratzsch’s.

My high school friend Jeff Miller and I recorded a video chat we had on vegetarianism. I think we talked about some interesting issues that don’t generally get talked about on this topic. FYI the recording cuts off unexpectedly at the end.

I’ll be participating in “The Great Debate” in Fort Worth on November 7th and 8th, talking about intelligent design and the existence of God. The other debaters will be David Berlinski, Denis Alexander, and Lawrence Krauss. You can see the promotional flyer here.

Chad Mohler and I wrote an entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on constructive empiricism, and it’s finally out! You can see it here.