December 2008

I’m not sure what to think of this, but I figured I’d pass along the information that I made Access Research Network’s list of the top ten “Darwin and Design” news stories for 2008. (Check out #2.) Also see a somewhat more detailed version of the list here.

UPDATE: An audio discussion by the ARN folks of the top ten list,  led by ID the Future podcaster Casey Luskin, is available here. The discussion of #2 starts at the 24:45 minute mark.


I was happy to see this positive press (well, a positive blog mention) of my article “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”. The author of the blog summarizes my paper as follows:

So what has Monton done? He’s shown how the IDers’ main arguments fall flat while still allowing for the possibility of God.

At first, I thought that this summary oversold what I accomplish in my paper, but upon further reflection, I think the author has it right. I don’t show that all the IDers’ arguments fall flat (I think some are somewhat plausible), and I don’t show that arguments for ID can’t be successful (it’s possible that they could be), but I do show that the main arguments that IDers have actually given are flawed. 

“Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, by the way, is forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume II.

UPDATE: Another positive blog mention of my paper is available here.

So I attended Michael Klymkowsky’s talk about my public lecture on intelligent design. The room was packed, but it was a small room — I’d say there were about 40 people there. In sum, the talk was really appalling.

Let me start with the worst part — the ad hominem arguments against me. Instead of talking about the content of my talk, he accused me of lack of scholarship, and lack of intellectual rigor. (Though, he apparently wasn’t willing to accuse me by name — on his powerpoint slide, for example, he said that my talk showed that “scholarship and intellectual rigor are not being taken seriously by faculty”.) He also accused me of “academic malpractice”.

In fact, his talk was an amazing display of lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. He didn’t quote from my talk at all, but still criticized me, and most of the criticisms were of the ad hominem variety. One of my philosophy colleagues, Bob Pasnau, suggested to him during the Q&A session that he didn’t understand my talk very well, and said: “if you really thought the talk was academically shoddy I would have expected you to blast the thing”, by actually making reference to specific false claims I made in my talk, but Pasnau pointed out that Klymkoswky didn’t do that at all. Klymkowsky didn’t have much of a reply to Pasnau at this point, but later Klymkowsky said of the way he was treating my talk: “I’m telling you how I heard it, not what was actually said”. As I pointed out to him, this approach evinces an incredible display of lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. 

Here’s another ad hominem charge against me: he accused me of “self-serving career advancement”. I asked him how my taking a stand that leads to having to deal with criticisms like the ones he’s giving furthers my career, and he replied with something about increasing book sales. Well, it’s true that I want my ideas to be widely read, but there’s a difference between advancing one’s career and selling more books. One of my colleagues asked me just a couple days ago how I think my reputation will be affected once my book comes out, and I said that I’m pretty sure that my reputation will be negatively affected, becuase there’s so much animosity toward intelligent design, and yet I’m being more sympathetic to it than most atheists are. I’m not writing about intelligent design to further my career; I’m writing about intelligent design because I’ve seen a number of bad arugments on both sides, and I want to elevate the debate — that’s what will most further the cause of reason. I’m especially concerned, though, when I see bad arguments being given on the atheist side, because better arguments can and should be given. If the arguments that Klymkoswky gave represent the best arguments atheists can give against intelligent design, then the atheist position is in trouble.

In addition to the ad hominem charges, Klymkowsky spent a lot of time going through the basics of evolution, which really had nothing to do with my talk, because my talk was not about evolution-based intelligent design arguments. The next key claim Klymkowsky made was that “intelligent design creationism” (that’s what he called it) is a religious movement. In my talk, I clearly set aside the motivations promulgators of intelligent design have for their view, in favor of focussing on the doctrine itself. Klymkoswsky ignored that, and in fact he ignored it to such an extent that he made a category mistake, conflating the doctrine of intelligent design with the intelligent design movement. This is just one of many ways that his talk displayed a lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. 

The final key claim that Klymkowsky made was that intelligent design creationism is a theocratic movement to abolish separation of church and state. Here the same problem arises about not distinguishing the issue of whether the doctrine is true or false from the issue of what agenda promulgators of the doctrine have. But anyway, Klymkowsky made his claim in a sufficiently strong way that Jim Cook was able to refute it simply by pointing out that he (Cook) is a proponent of intelligent design, and yet also endorses separation of church and state. (Thanks Jim!)

There were many other claims that Klymkowsky made without adequate support that were in my opinion false. In making these claims while barely giving arguments for them, Klymkowsky again displayed his lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. For example, at the end of his account of evolution, after talking about differences between genomes of different species, he said “the data here is the designer is an idiot or there’s no design”. Another biology professor in the room actually interrupted at this point, saying that Klymkowsky didn’t give much of a defense for that strong claim. In fact, there are all sorts of prima facie legitimate reasons that one could give for why a designer might want to have created a world where life turned out the way it did. But just dismissing those hypotheses, and only considering the theistic hypothesis that “the designer is an idiot”, Klymkowsky is again showing a lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor. 

Here’s another claim that Klymkowsky made without adequate support that is in my opinion false. Klymkowsky talked about God-of-the-gaps-style arguments, where one claims evidence for a designer because we don’t know what the naturalistic explanation is for some phenomenon. Klymkowsky said that he could “guarantee” that the lack in our knowledge would be naturalistically filled in by future research. While I would say that there are many phenomena of this sort that probably will be naturalistically explained by future research, I don’t see how Klymkowsky can “guarantee” that the gap in our knowledge will be filled in naturalistically. 

On a different topic, Klymkowsky criticized me for only presenting my own views in my talk. He said that when giving a talk, one should dispassionately present both sides of an issue. I pointed out that this is how I teach, but this is not how I give public lectures, and indeed it’s standard in the philosophy community to give lectures in the way I did. In making this criticism, Klymkowsky showed an amazing lack of self-awareness, because of course in his talk he wasn’t dispassionately presenting both sides of an issue; he was promulgating his own view. 

Klymkowsky wasn’t the only one who was unhappy with my talk. Physicist Allan Franklin said during the Q&A session that, in my talking about intelligent design while ignoring the cultural context, I was being “glib, superficial, and disingenuous”. To be honest, I just don’t understand the motivation for the “glib” and “superficial” claims. If anything, I would think that those who focus on the cultural issues are being superficial, because they are ignoring the prima facie legitimate arguments that intelligent design proponents give. As for the “disingenuous” part, I never claimed that there aren’t cultural issues associated with intelligent design; I just said that I was going to set them aside for the purposes of addressing the actual arguments. (And in fact, I didn’t set aside the cultural issues completely, because at the end of my talk I claimed that it would be appropriate for intelligent design to be briefly taught in science classes — not taught as true, but discussed, with arguments for and against intelligent design being presented. One of my motivations for wanting it discussed is that so many students will have been influenced by their family and their church to believe intelligent design doctrines; I think it would be helpful for the students to see the doctrines critically addressed in an academic context.)

I could tell that the philosophers in the room were generally on my side (though, obviously, they disagree with me on various specific details regarding the points I make about intelligent design). All of them I talked with afterwards agreed that the ad hominem attacks were unwarranted and appalling. I wasn’t sure about the scientists in the room though — at first, they seemed pretty clearly on Klymkowsky’s side, but then as more people (including me) took issue with Klymkowsky’s approach, the mood seemed to shift. And indeed, I got an email from someone who wouldn’t antecedently be expected to be on my side, which said:

For what it’s worth, I’d say you pretty much won that round.  I think that the problems with his approach were made clear to most of the people in the room, including many of the scientists.

I was glad to hear that. 

On the topic of emails, one of my freshman students who was there emailed me afterwards with the following thoughts:

You did a pretty good job defending yourself against the guy’s claims, even though he should have been going against your argument and not you.  It was cool to see Tooley and the other Philosophers come to your defense about his “missing your point”.  But it was a good thing for me to see people try to roast you.  haha

I agree that it’s probably good for my students to occasionally see people try to roast me. But the part that really makes me happy is that my student understands that attacking a person displays a lack of scholarship and intellectual rigor, while attacking a person’s argument doesn’t. My student gets it; it’s too bad Professor Klymkowsky doesn’t.

Apparently a biology professor at U. of Colorado at Boulder was sufficiently unhappy with my THINK! public lecture that he’s giving a talk in reply to mine. Below are the details. I don’t know much more about it than that — in fact, I first found out about it when I saw the announcement of the talk. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Please Join
The Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science
at the University of Colorado, Boulder

in a Coffee Talk with

Michael Klymkowsky
Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
University of Colorado, Boulder


“Why the ‘Atheist/ID’ THINK! Public Lecture matters scientifically, historically, politically, and academically”

Tuesday, December 9th
at 3:30 pm
in Hellems 269

Stop by early for coffee, tea, and cookies, and join the inter-department discussion.

I think that the problem of evil provides a pretty good argument against the hypothesis that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists. But I’ve been thinking off and on for a while now about various replies to the argument from evil, and more and more I’ve been thinking that the best reply is the many-universes reply. Since that reply isn’t discussed much in the literature on the problem of evil, I thought I’d present it here. 

This isn’t the most formal way to present it, but I’ll present it with a parable. Suppose that God exists, and God is omnipotent and omniscient, and has the desire to be omnibenevolent. So God creates a very nice universe, a universe with no evil. We might at first think that God has fulfilled the criterion of omnibenevolence, but then we recognize that God could do more — God could create another universe that’s also very nice. Agents could exist in that universe that didn’t exist in the first universe, and so there’s an intuitive sense (which is admittedly tricky to make precise mathematically) in which there would be more goodness to reality than there would be were God just to create one universe.

But of course there’s no reason to stop at two — God should create an infinite number of universes. Now, he could just create an infinite number of universes, where in each universe no evil things happen. But in doing so, there would be certain creatures that wouldn’t exist — creatures like us, who exist in a universe with evil, and are essential products of that universe. So God has to decide whether to create our universe as well. What criterion should he use in making this decision? My thought is that he should create all the universes that have more good than evil, and not create the universes that have more evil than good. 

So that’s why an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent God would create our universe, even though it has evil — our universe adds (in an intuitive sense, setting aside mathematical technicalities) to the sum total of goodness in the universe, and hence it’s worth creating. 

I’m not saying this argument is perfect, and I’m not saying that I’ve worked out all the kinks in this short blog post, and I’m not saying that all the kinks even can be worked out. But I do think that an argument like this provides the most promising reply to the argument from evil. So if I could write a paper showing that this argument doesn’t work as a reply to the problem of evil, I’d be happy. Perhaps I will work on that…

For more on the many-universe solution to the problem of evil, see for example Donald Turner’s “The Many-Universes Solution to the Problem of Evil” in The Existence of God edited by Gale and Pruss (which I haven’t yet read, but I’m going to) and the discussion by Hud Hudson in his book The Metaphysics of Hyperspace. Also see this paper by Klaas J. Kraay. Also see Section 6 of this paper by physicist Don Page.