February 2009

I haven’t yet read Michael Murray’s new book on the problem of evil, entitled Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, but I did read the new NDPR review by Mylan Engel. The main conclusion of the review is as follows:

To Murray’s credit the book is clearly written and would make a useful addition to philosophy of religion courses, especially those focusing on the problem of evil. The book is instructive, not because it undermines the evidential problem of evil from animal suffering, but because it illustrates just how bleak the theist’s prospects are for handling this enduring challenge to the rationality of theistic belief.

That’s a rather harsh assessment, but I’m tempted to think that it’s on-target. However, I wonder if Engel has thought about (or if Murray talks about) multiverse theodicies?


On a different topic than usual: my fellow philosopher and friend Chad Mohler has created his first iPhone app, ABC Match, to help youngsters learn the alphabet. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download it for free at the App Store!

UPDATE: Chad has a new application for kids, 123 Match!

{I’ve added an update to the end of this post.}

There’s a nice write-up of the recent debate that Plantinga and Dennett had at the Central APA. While the whole write-up is worth reading, it’s the anonymous author’s preface that I think is the most interesting and disturbing part:

I prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons, in particular because I am inclined towards Plantinga’s position over Dennett’s and were this to become well-known it could damage or destroy my career in analytic philosophy. This is something I prefer not to put my family through. I almost didn’t publish these comments at all, but as far as I could tell, this would be the only public record of the discussion. 

Friends, if you can identify me, I request that you keep my identity secret. I am sharing my thoughts as a service to the philosophical community and all those who have an interest in such debates. But I prefer not to suffer at the hands of my ardently secular colleagues. This is not to say that all secular analytic philosophers are this way; they most certainly are not. But enough of them are that I cannot risk being known publicly.

This is a sign that something has gone deeply wrong in academic philosophy. Philosophers should not have to fear reprisal for believing in God. The atheism/theism debate is a core debate in the field of philosophy, and many of the most famous and well-respected philosophers throughout history have been theists. 

Now, perhaps the author is being overly cautious, but nevertheless, I at least see where the author is coming from, in a way that would make less sense if the author were an atheist fearing reprisal from theists. Of course, this latter situation could happen too, if for example one taught at a religiously oriented college. But for the most part, amongst academic philosophers, the bias I detect is an anti-theist bias. So I understand  why the anonymous author is concerned, and I just want to make clear that, as an atheist, I find this unacceptable. 

This brings me to a related point. I recently heard about a flagship public university with a solid philosophy department that did a survey of their undergraduates, and the biggest complaint the undergraduates had was that the faculty showed bias in the classroom against Christian and conservative perspectives. This sort of complaint should be taken seriously. For individual faculty, it might be hard for them not to show their biases (if, for example, they are well-known for arguing for atheism), but the solution is to have faculty representing other intellectual viewpoints who have countervailing biases. Currently in academic philosophy, there is more of a focus on achieving racial and ethnic diversity than on achieving intellectual diversity, and for the record I think that this is sorely misguided.


UPDATE: Keith DeRose has an interesting discussion of whether there is bias in academia against Christians here.

{bradleymonton.org redirects to this blog post of mine about Pennock’s attempt to explain why he sent me the threatening email telling me to pull my paper off the internet.}

Robert Pennock published an article in the online edition of US News & World Report where he says some critical things about me, culminating in the implication that I’m a “character assassin”. (Is calling someone a character assassin itself behaving like a character assassin? Just wondering.)

While my ultimate focus in the intelligent design debate is on the arguments for and against intelligent design, I do think what Pennock said is worth some reply. Here’s the relevant part from Pennock’s article:

So on what basis does Luskin accuse me of wielding the poison pen of name-calling and intimidation? …

I did indeed write to Bradley Monton about a paper in which he criticized the judge’s opinion in the Kitzmiller v . Dover case, but not for the reasons Luskin recounts. Posted barely a week after the decision came out, Monton’s manuscript contained basic factual errors. Most errors in philosophy are just ridiculous, but some can be harmful, if only to the philosopher’s own reputation or that of the profession. Monton would have been wiser to wait to correct his errors through the peer-review process or at least to include the standard disclaimer for unreviewed manuscripts that they should not be quoted, but that was his own business. The reason I asked Monton to take down the paper was that in one place he seemed to make a libelous insinuation about myself and others in the case. I took that apparent accusation very seriously. Monton wrote back to apologize and to say that he had not intended to suggest anything offensive to me or anyone in particular. He agreed that his sentence was written in a way that could have been misconstrued, however, and promised to remove it. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter and I made no further objection to his post.

Monton has since become known as an ID apologist (from an odd atheist perspective), and I periodically get unsolicited E-mail from scientists and philosophers about his participation in their activities. Sadly, he is harming more than his own reputation. Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject. I sympathize with the department, but can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student. So far as I know, he hasn’t [as Pennock previously in his article accuses Luskin of having done] stooped to publishing out-of-context quotes from private E-mail without permission (no reputable publisher would allow that, in any case), but I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts. I have turned the other cheek to this calumny as well. Again, who is the character assassin?

There’s a lot I could say here, but I’ll just reply to some select claims of Pennock.

(1) “Monton’s manuscript contained basic factual errors.”

I disagree with that claim. I think what Pennock has in mind is his accusation that I misrepresented his philosophical view. It’s true that, in discussing the decision of Judge Jones in my paper, I also discuss some of what Pennock said in the trial. Pennock was upset that I didn’t talk about what Pennock says in his 1999 book The Tower of Babel. The reason I didn’t, though, is that Judge Jones didn’t base his decision on what Pennock says in his book; Judge Jones relied on Pennock’s testimony in the trial. Now, you might think that it wouldn’t matter, but I am of the opinion that Pennock endorsed a view in the trial that’s different than the view he endorsed in the book. And for the record, I’m not the only one who thinks that; Sahotra Sarkar writes (in his paper “The Science Question in Intelligent Design”, forthcoming in Synthese) that ““Pennock’s testimony … goes against the more nuanced discussion of Pennock (1999).”

I go into all this in more detail in my book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. (For the record, I’m just providing a partial defense.)

(2) “Most errors in philosophy are just ridiculous, but some can be harmful, if only to the philosopher’s own reputation or that of the profession.”

Let me address this implication that my paper did harm to the profession of philosophy. In fact, I think the judge’s decision did harm to philosophy, and to the extent that the judge’s decision was based on Pennock’s participation in the trial, Pennock’s participation did harm too. That’s a key reason I wanted to get my paper out – I wanted to mitigate the harm that the judge’s decision did.

There are two main ways that harm was done to the reputation of philosophy (to stick with Pennock’s terminology). First, a false view about philosophy of science was promulgated by Judge Jones. Jones made it sound as if philosophers of science agree that methodological naturalism is a constraint on science, whereas in fact I think this is highly contentious in the philosophy of science community – or, if it’s not highly contentious, that’s because most all philosophers of science are on my side.

Second, Jones – whether he intended to or not – was doing philosophy of science. The issue of what counts as science vs. non-science is a paradigmatic issue in philosophy of science, and Jones’s argument that intelligent design is not science is a philosophical argument. The problem is that it’s not good philosophy of science, and that’s why I wanted people to know that not all philosophers of science are on board with his reasoning.

(3) “Monton would have been wiser to wait to correct his errors through the peer-review process”

Actually, it’s standard practice for philosophers to post their papers online before their papers are accepted by a journal, and it’s standard practice for philosophers to post their papers online before their papers are even submitted to a journal. In fact, that’s the main point of the PhilSci Archive, where I posted my paper. The Archive calls what they’re running a “preprint server”, and they explain the goals of it well:

A preprint server is used by scholars to circulate new work. A preprint is an early version of new work often in preliminary form. The archive is intended to supplement or replace an older mechanism for circulation of new work. An author used to prepare multiple copies of a new manuscript and mail it to scholars for their information and for response. Greater circulation can be achieved by posting on the archive at no cost to the author.

That’s exactly what my paper was: new work, being disseminated for information and response.

(4) “Monton would have been wiser to … at least to include the standard disclaimer for unreviewed manuscripts that they should not be quoted”

I’ve posted lots of preprints online, and I don’t think I’ve ever put in a disclaimer that my paper should not be quoted. While I would imagine some authors put in such a disclaimer, I don’t recall seeing this on other papers posted on the PhilSci Archive.

(5) “The reason I asked Monton to take down the paper was that in one place he seemed to make a libelous insinuation about myself and others in the case.”

Note that Pennock didn’t ask me just to remove that one sentence, he wanted the whole paper removed. And “asked” sounds a little too nice; “commanded” is more like it, with a veiled legalistic  threat.

For the record, the part of my paper that Pennock thought was libelous is here:

If our goal is to believe truth and avoid falsehood, and if we are rational people who take into account evidence in deciding what to believe, then we need to focus on the question of what evidence there is for and against ID. The issue of whether ID counts as “science” according to some contentious answer to the demarcation question is unimportant. Of course, on this approach it would be much harder to get a federal judge to rule that ID can’t be taught in public school. But sometimes it is more important to be intellectually honest than to do what it takes to stop people from doing something you don’t like.

Now really, is that libelous? In fact, I’m not even talking about Pennock at all. So what am I talking about? Two things:

(a) I anticipated that I would be attacked for not supporting the standard secular line on the Dover trial — that the judge made the right decision. People would point out that I was opening the door to having intelligent design be taught in schools. I was trying to forestall that sort of criticism by making clear what was important to me — what was important to me was endorsing the view that I thought was right, not saying what it would take to stop intelligent design from being inappropriately taught.
(b) In the aftermath of the last big trial about science/religion issues when philosophers got involved (McLean v. Arkansas), people like Quinn suggested that perhaps it is more important to say what it takes to get the right decision than to be intellectually honest. Here’s Quinn:
But frequently these good arguments fail to persuade or carry the day, and gradually one’s credibility and effectiveness wane. … Maybe this is a way in which we could manage to have our cake and eat it too. For a short period one might engage in giving bad effective arguments without being thoroughly corrupted. Then one could retreat back to the academy to wash one’s moderately soiled hands. After having one’s intellectual integrity restored and reinforced, one might then be ready to repeat the cycle. … So there may well be circumstances in which only the bad effective argument will work against them [the creationists] in the political or legal arenas. If there are, then I think, though I come to this conclusion reluctantly, it is morally permissible for us to use the bad effective argument…
(Quinn P.L., “Creationism, Methodology, and Politics,” in Ruse M., ed., But is it Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Prometheus Books: Amherst NY, 1996, pp.397-398)
In my mind, at least, that Quinn made suggestions along these lines is rather disturbing, and I wanted to publicly declare that I wasn’t on board with this sort of reasoning.
Moreover, Quinn isn’t the only one with this sort of opinion. Barry R. Gross is apparently on board as well — see his essay “Commentary: Philosophers at the Bar — Some Reasons for Restraint”, reprinted in the new edition of But is it Science?, edited by Pennock and Ruse. For example, Gross writes:
As a consultant, I objected strongly to the use of phrases like “natural law” to describe scientific laws, but with no success. Ultimately, and correctly, the counsels shaped the case, using the strategy and argumentation that they thought would win. Was this wrong? No. Given the boundary conditions and given the dynamics of impatient professional fighters aiming to win, what else could have been the outcome? And they did win. (p. 362)

I think that that counts as favoring getting the right decision over being intellectually honest, and I find that choice to be highly disturbing.

(6) “Just a few months ago I received a call from a member of Monton’s department at Colorado asking for my assistance in repairing damage to the department’s relationship with science colleagues caused by a talk he gave on the subject.”

The issue Pennock is talking about is when my biology professor colleague Michael Klymkowsky was unhappy with a public lecture I gave on intelligent design, and gave a talk in reply to mine. A grand total of about 40 people were at Klymkowsky’s talk, and I wrote a critical reply, and everything has blown over (without Pennock’s help). Klymkowsky is currently working with other philosophy professors on a grant proposal, and my philosophy department colleagues continue to like and respect me (as far as I can tell).

So who made this ostensible phone call? It turns out that a colleague of mine contacted Pennock in a benign way, and Pennock is misrepresenting the conversation in a way that makes my department look bad. The basic story is that because the intelligent design talk I gave in on my campus recently was (a) well-attended, and (b) generated some controversy, some people thought it might be a good idea to have another philosopher give a talk on intelligent design, from a more standard anti-intelligent design perspective, and Pennock was contacted about doing this. My colleague who contacted him says:

I certainly never said that Brad’s talk had done any damage. … I’m sorry that [Pennock] saw fit to use a private conversation in his blog post, and to misrepresent the content of that conversation.

One of the many ironies associated with Pennock’s piece is that he criticizes Casey Luskin for making public a private email from Pennock in a way that makes Pennock look bad, and yet by making public a private conversation with my colleague (and misrepresenting it in the process, no less), Pennock is doing the same sort of thing to me and my department.

(7) “can no longer give Monton the benefit of the doubt in the way I did when he posted his draft while still a graduate student”

Pennock’s email to me did not give me the benefit of the doubt, and I had been a professor at U. of Kentucky for years when I wrote that article (and I’m now a tenured professor at U. of Colorado at Boulder).

(8) “I was told recently that, like Luskin, he has been making personal attacks on me in talks and a series of Discovery Institute podcasts”

I don’t think I’ve been making personal attacks against Pennock, but I have cited his email to me as an example of the sorry level of discourse the intelligent design debate has reached. For the record, the times I’ve talked about Pennock in public have been recorded, so if you really care, you can listen to them here and here, and judge for yourself. But I hope that you have better things to think about, like the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments for and against intelligent design.

Finally, it’s worth reporting that I found out (on March 6, 2009) that Pennock is conveying concerns about me to the chair of my department. If that’s not an attempt at intimidation, I don’t know what is. Fortunately I have a fair-minded and supportive chair.

I’ve seen this statistic cited various places, as evidence that most all Americans reject the standard Darwinian theory of evolution (but that things are improving):

In 2008 14% of people polled by Gallup agreed that “man evolved over millions of years”, up from 9% in 1982.

The problem with this statistic is that, if I were asked about the claim “man evolved over millions of years”, I would (after wondering what exactly they meant) be inclined to say that claim is false. Homo sapiens has only been around for a few hundred thousand years; it hasn’t been evolving for millions of years. I wonder how many people polled by Gallup are thinking along my lines when they disagree with the statement?

I read Niall Shanks’s book God, the Devil, and Darwin when it first came out in 2004, and I was disappointed. While there was the occasional interesting argument in the book, overall it was weak on new ideas and strong on rhetorical attacks. Frankly, I expected better from something published by Oxford University Press. 

I recently came across a couple reviews of the book which are worth reading. Del Ratzsch has a well-thought-out and detailed review, where he argues for the following take:

In his straining eagerness to denigrate anything associated with ID, Shanks inflates the rhetoric, misconstrues history, blurs important distinctions, and seriously skews the views of various ID advocates.

Also, Neil Manson makes similar points:

IDT certainly merits severe criticism, on social and political grounds as well as philosophical ones. But do we really need to be told page after page that IDT proponents are “extremist” and “fundamentalist”? 

In his discussion of Christian morality (pp. 232-3) did he really need to drop references to “pedophile priests,” “twisted televangelists,” white supremacists, and Adolf Hitler? If you want to read this sort of thing, buy a copy of Hillary’s Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton’s Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House. I expect better from a philosophy book.

I’m glad that people whose work I respect, like Ratzsch and Manson, were also bothered by the tone of Shanks’s book. 

And setting aside tone, there are philosophical problems too. For example, as Ratzsch trenchantly points out:

it seems ironic that after belaboring ID advocates for providing no mechanism for the allegedly designed cosmic fine tuning, Shanks reveals that he thinks that the (apparent) fine tuning was a result of ‘blind chance or luck’ — a view which would itself seem to be a bit short on specific mechanism. 

Here’s how Ratzsch concludes his review:

As indicated at the outset, I do think that ID has some worrisome and signicant shortcomings, and I think that as discussion both professional and lay continues to heat up both in the U.S. and elsewhere, that a rigorous, accurate, penetrating, careful and balanced critique of ID would be enormously valuable. Unfortunately, this book isn’t it.

I hope that my forthcoming book (Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design) goes some way toward living up to Ratzsch’s desiderata. My book provides some critique of intelligent design, as well as some critique of the unfair attacks on intelligent design that emanate from people like Shanks.