March 2009


Over at Telic Thoughts, they’re discussing a paper of mine that I’m quite proud of, “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”. I’ve discussed this paper before on my blog, here and here

One line of critique at Telic Thoughts is that I haven’t established that the universe is spatially infinite. As I tried to make clear in my paper, that’s not my goal; I’m just taking up the conditional issue: if we came to believe that the universe is spatially infinite, what consequences would that have for our inferences to design? However, I do say:

While this isn’t strictly speaking necessary for my argument, it’s worth pointing out that the best current evidence from physics suggests that the universe is spatially infinite.

and then I briefly present some evidence (which, I’ll be the first to admit, isn’t conclusive). 

This has led someone to wonder how the universe being spatially infinite is compatible with there being a big bang. I address this point in my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, so I’m just going to copy-and-paste from my book. 

Because there is frequent ignorance of this point, it’s worth noting that the big bang hypothesis does not include the hypothesis that the universe started out very small, and has been expanding ever since. This is one possibility for how our universe has evolved, but another possibility is that the universe is spatially infinite, and has been spatially infinite ever since the big bang (assuming that the big bang hypothesis is true). In fact the latest empirical evidence suggests that the universe is spatially infinite.

And here’s the footnote:

 See C. L. Bennett, et al. (2003), “First-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Preliminary Maps and Basic Results,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 148: 1-27, and D. N. Spergel, et al. (2003), “First-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Determination of Cosmological Parameters,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 148: 175-94. See also “Is the Universe Infinite?” at http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_shape.html, archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5bnkjQefh.

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Christopher Hitchens has an interesting new article out, reacting to the “muddled” Texas School Board decision which held that “all sides” of scientific theories should be taught. Hitchens writes:

I find myself somewhat drawn in by the quixotic idea that we should “teach the argument.” 

But he goes on to say that doing so would

set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational.

Hitchens’ reasoning here has two key problems.

The first is that the teachers wouldn’t have to teach astrology as true; they could just talk about astrology, and explain why most all scientists reject it. That would be highly educational for the students — instead of just learning the content of current scientific theories, they would learn how scientists go about rejecting theories, and  would gain a better understanding of how theory change happens.

Second, the sophisticated proponents of the “teach the controversy” line of thought aren’t supporting “equal time” at all. They can happily admit that most of the time in the classroom should be spent on learning standard scientific theories; the question is whether any time at all should be devoted to astrology, or alchemy, or intelligent design.  The Dover trial, after all, was about a 60 second mention of intelligent design in a biology classroom. The debate isn’t about whether intelligent design should get equal time; the debate is about whether intelligent design should get 60 seconds.

There are (as of the time that I’m posting this) 193 comments at a blog post on Talking Points Memo where someone posted about my intelligent design work. While there is the occasional interesting point made, there’s a lot of noise too. It makes me wonder: what better ways are there to have intellectual discussions online than via the comments section of a blog post? Is there something about comment threads on blog posts that makes them especially unsuited for sophisticated intellectual discussion?

I have lots of thoughts on how I’d answer these questions, but I’ll just leave the questions for you to think about for now.

As I said in my previous post, there’s a lot wrong with Robert Pennock’s piece ”Can’t Philosophers Tell the Difference Between Science and Religion? Demarcation Revisited”, in the new edition of But is it Science?. Here is just one of the problems. 

Pennock is famous (or perhaps infamous) for holding that claims about supernatural beings are untestable; Pennock says that the supernatural is inherently mysterious to us. I have a lot to say about why that’s wrong in my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Elliott Sober also has a nice argument that some some claims about supernatural beings are testable. Sober gives the example:

the claim that an omnipotent supernatural being wanted above all that everything in nature be purple.

This is a claim that’s testable — we can observe the world, see that not everything is purple, and conclude that the claim is false. But Pennock takes issue with this. He writes:

Might not all of nature now indeed “be purple” in its noumenal substance, irrespective of its accidents, as wine purportedly becomes blood without observable change in the miracle of the Eucharist? (p. 552)

Pennock concludes that Sober’s claim is not testable.

But Pennock’s reasoning is misleading here. There are two ways to understand the thesis that a claim is testable. One way, the weak way, is to hold that one can get powerful evidence for or against the claim. The other way , the strong way, is to hold that one can get conclusive proof for or against the claim. Now, If one understands testability the strong way, then it turns out that virtually no scientific claim is testable — we don’t have conclusive proof  that we’re not brains in vats, and hence however the world appears to us via our scientific investigation could be false, because it could be the case that we’re brains in vats and the real world containing the vats is different from how the world appears to us. So the strong way is unreasonable. On the weaker way, then ordinary scientific claims are testable, even though we can’t get conclusive proof for or against them, just as the claim that everything in nature is purple is testable, even though we can’t get conclusive proof against that claim. Thus, on a reasonable understanding of what it is for a claim to be testable, Sober has provided a good example of a claim about the supernatural that’s testable.

Here’s another way to respond to Pennock. We could just change Sober’s example slightly, so that we’re talking about 

the claim that an omnipotent supernatural being wanted above all that everything in nature APPEARS TO US TO BE purple.

This claim is testable, even on the strong reading of testability. It follows that Pennock is wrong to hold that claims about the supernatural are not testable.

I’ve just finished reading Robert Pennock’s piece “Can’t Philosophers Tell the Difference Between Science and Religion? Demarcation Revisited”, in the new edition of But is it Science?. There is so much wrong in this piece, it’s hard to know where to start. If there’s a philosophy grad student out there who’s looking for a paper topic, let me know and I can give you advice on how to write a paper taking issue with Pennock. Perhaps I’ll talk about some of the philosophical problems with Pennock’s piece on this blog but that will have to be saved for another time. For now I just want to comment on Pennock’s offensive tone.

For example, Pennock writes:

Laudan’s and Quinn’s discussions of demarcation, which can only be described as histrionic and ill considered, and those of their careless imitators continue to muddy the waters to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science. (p. 540)

Laudan’s essay “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” is standardly considered one of the most important essays in philosophy of science in the 20th century. Pennock may disagree with it, but his level of rhetoric toward it is unwarranted.

Also, Pennock approvingly quotes Paul Gross, who writes:

Larry Laudan presents in his jeremiad on McLean v. Arkansas a perfect example of a philosopher richly deserving an exclusion from ‘the conversation of mankind’. (p. 542)

To be honest, I find this highly offensive. Do I even need to explain why?

I could give many more examples, but here’s a final one for now:

When squinting philosophers like Laudan, Quinn, and their imitators such as Monton and George purport that there is no way to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or religion they bring to mind Hume’s observation that “generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”. Unfortunately, in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous. (p. 569)

Pennock and I have major disagreements, but I’ll try my best to air these disagreements without calling Pennock things like a “squinting philosopher”, or saying that he’s “ridiculous” and “dangerous”. I think Pennock is mistaken about a lot of issues in philosophy, but I’ll try my best to explain Pennock’s confusions without resorting to this sort of offensive rhetoric. It’s disappointing to me that Pennock doesn’t feel the same way.

Nick Matzke, formerly of the anti-intelligent design National Center for Science Education, has sometimes given me a hard time via email for my views on intelligent design. So that is reason enough for me to highlight an important area of agreement between him and me, which shows up in this interesting post by Matzke. But also, I want to highlight this because I think Matzke makes some key points regarding what’s wrong with the Dawkins-style approach toward religion:

My opinion on Dawkins’ critiques of religion is that they are just not hugely convincing. It is not at all clear to me that monotheistic religion is really on exactly the same low level of credibility as Zeus and Thor. I agree that the Bible isn’t good evidence for the truth of one religion over another, any more than any other holy book; but the bare notion that Mind is behind the Universe doesn’t seem that much more implausible than the idea that everything just exists or that reality has always existed, or that there are multiple Universes or whatever. These are all pretty much incomprehensible and incredible ideas, and probably however far human science advances, there will always be the question of why or how the starting stuff – quantum vacuum foam or whatever – exists. What I think is really lacking in Dawkins’s view is humility on this point. It’s fine if he thinks that “stuff just exists” is better than “God just exists”, but at best this is a parsimony argument, and parsimony is just a rule of thumb in science, not some absolute logical principle allowing deduction with certainty. If that is accepted, I think that even those who disagree strongly with theism should allow that it is not simply a stupid and crazy thing to believe. And, once you concede that, once you’ve got God as an option, the idea that God might find it interesting to interact with humans is not such a stretch.

Matzke does put in a qualifier:

Please note that I am not arguing for these positions, I am just trying to explain to the Dawkinses of the world how it might be possible that people could disagree with them on the religion issue and yet still be sane. Pretty much any conclusion about these ultimate cosmic philosophical issues is pretty darn crazy when considered in everyday terms, and I think a little allowance for that, instead of just insulting everyone who disagrees, would be beneficial in several ways.

Kent Greenawalt is a law professor at Columbia University, and the author of the 2005 book Does God Belong in the Public Schools? He and I have similar ideas about the extent to which intelligent design should be taught (though we both have nuanced positions, and there are definitely some differences too). Anyway, here’s an interesting passage from pp. 124-5 of his book:

I have proposed a middle course somewhere between what evolutionists insist is the only sound scientific approach and what proponents of Genesis creation and intelligent design seek. This counsel of moderation may have little appeal for opposing camps who standardly accuse one another of dogmatism and dishonesty. The evolutionists suspect, with a good deal of justification, that intelligent design is supported by many as a device to sneak religious objections into the science curriculum. Proponents of intelligent design, with a good deal of justification, charge that their position is ruled out of court without a hearing. Each side often tries to make the arguments of the other look as ridiculous as possible, and neither seems much interested in a fair appraisal of, or even a candid debate about, how far teaching science should involve possible limits of science, and whether critics of evolutionary theory have any solid scientific basis to suppose that the history of life on earth may involve such limits.