May 2009


The details regarding my forthcoming book are now available on Broadview’s website.

book cover

 

Here’s the description:

The doctrine of intelligent design is often the subject of acrimonious debate. Many people who oppose the teaching of intelligent design in school insist that it is not science and deserves to be dismissed. Bradley Monton, a philosopher of science and an atheist, carefully considers the arguments for intelligent design and suggests that they are stronger than often thought. Indeed, while he does not claim that the theory is correct, he does argue that intelligent design deserves serious consideration as a scientific theory.

Monton also gives a lucid account of the debate surrounding the inclusion of intelligent design in public school curricula and explains why students’ science education could benefit from a careful consideration of the arguments for and against it.

Bradley Monton is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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Here is a nice video of Timothy Williamson giving a basic yet interesting explanation of some of the problems with continental philosophy. The video was shot during his May 2009 visit to Lima, Peru.

With regard to the scientic realism/anti-realism debate (which I was talking about at the LSE recently), one of the positions in-between standard scientific realism and scientific anti-realism is the position called structural realism. I just came across an interesting quote from physicist Steven Weinberg that provides some support for structural realism:

So the mathematical structures that physicists develop in obedience to physical principles have an odd kind of portability. They can be carried over from one conceptual environment to another and serve many different purposes… . We are led to these beautiful structures by physical principles, but the beauty sometimes survives when the principles themselves do not. 

That’s from his 1992 book Dreams of a Final Theory, p. 152 in the Vintage paperback edition.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac, by Garrison Keillor:

It’s the birthday of philosopher Bertrand Russell, born in Trellech, Wales (1872), into one of Britain’s most prominent families. His parents were radical thinkers, and his father was an atheist, but both his parents died by the time he was four. They left their son under the care of radical friends, hoping he would be brought up as an agnostic, but his grandparents stepped in, discarded the will, and raised Bertrand and his brother in a strict Christian household. 

As a teenager, Bertrand kept a diary, in which he described his doubts about God and his ideas about free will. He kept his diary in Greek letters so that his conservative family couldn’t read it. Then he went to Cambridge and was amazed that there were other people who thought the way he did and who wanted to discuss philosophical ideas. He emerged as an important philosopher with The Principles of Mathematics (1903), which argued that the foundations of mathematics could be deduced from a few logical ideas. And he went on to become one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. His History of Western Philosophy (1946) was a big best seller, and he was able to live off its royalties for the rest of his life.

He said, “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

There’s a nice review of my edited collection Images of Empiricism: Essays on Science and Stances, With a Reply from Bas C. van Fraassen, in the latest issue of journal Mind. (Unfortunately the online version is only accessible by those whose institutions have an subscription.)

As an atheist who’s giving a partial defense of intelligent design, I’ve sometimes been accused of being intellectually dishonest. I want to assure you that I’m not — in academic contexts, at least, I try very hard to ensure that everything that I say I believe. Steve Fuller is another apparent non-theist who has tried to defend intelligent design (most notably when he testified on behalf of the school board at the Dover trial). Fuller, unlike me, is intellectually insincere. 

Given that I try to avoid the name-calling and emotional rhetoric that is disturbingly common in the intelligent design debates, how do I justify calling Steve Fuller insincere? Well, he admits it himself, in this article. For example, he writes:

I take seriously the idea that holding beliefs, understood as informed mental dispositions, is only one among several ways at our disposal to access, however fallibly, the truth. Another, occasionally more effective, way is to defend a position one does not believe. Needless to say, you will find it hard to accept my argument, if you regard a Romantic virtue like sincerity as part of the MO [modus operandi] of a truth-seeker.

And in case that’s not clear enough for you, he also writes:

for purposes of truth-seeking, what really matters is that we are willing to defend, or ideally justify, whatever we say – regardless of whether we believe it.

And, in case Fuller hasn’t made it completely clear, there’s this:

So, then, how do I determine what to say? Here is a handy step-by-step procedure:

  1. What has been already said – especially said well and recently?  Whatever you do, don’t say those things.
  2. What could you say of significance that hasn’t been said?
  3. Of those things, which ones could you get away with saying?
  4. Of those things, which ones are you willing to develop further in the face of various forms of resistance?
  5. Of those things, which ones come with a pretext likely to promote maximum exposure, participation and impact?
  6. That’s what you say – and Godspeed!

To be honest, I find this this sort of intellectual insincerity to be appalling. (I’m not sure how much more I can say without getting into what might be perceived as emotional rhetoric.)

Fuller has recently been blogging at Uncommon Descent, the main blog for intelligent design proponents. I wonder if they’re really aware of who they’re bringing on board?

Is it problematic that biologists will reject ideas in biology because they “might open too broad an avenue to the supporters of intelligent design”? I think it is. The worry is that “sociological pressures can impose a form of self-censorship in Academia”, as Mike Gene argues in this fascinating post.

Gene starts out by talking about me, but the post gets really interesting once he starts talking about Eric Bapteste’s critical review of Eugene Koonin’s model for the origin of life by chance. Both Koonin’s piece and Bapteste’s review are available on Biology Direct. Here is an example of what Bapteste says:

Koonin bravely tries to tackle such a deep conceptual issue, using metaphysics where, according to him, science does not seem to work, but I am afraid his present (and arguable) solution, although fairly underlining one of the limits of traditional evolutionary thinking, could open a huge door to the tenants of intelligent design.

Bapteste goes on to call Koonin “very naive”, and says that Koonin should make his own views on intelligent design “clearer in a revised version of this manuscript”. 

Koonin, in his response to Bapteste, writes this:

The possibility that the ID crowd interprets this paper as support for their cause is one of Bapteste’s main concerns. Will they, actually? No doubt they will! However, the only way to prevent them from doing so is to stop publishing research on any hard problem in evolutionary biology and somehow declare these problems solved. 

Koonin, to his credit, stands up to Bapteste’s pressure not to open the door to supporters of intelligent design; what’s interesting is that Bapteste was putting that pressure on Koonin in the first place.

PS — I have written a paper that’s related to Koonin’s, called “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”.

I discussed Tom Nagel’s interestingly nuanced piece on intelligent design previously here. In this post, I want to point out a key passage from the paper, the passage where Nagel suggests how intelligent design should be taught in public high school. He writes:

What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life’s development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause.

In my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, I argue that it could be helpful for many students to have intelligent design discussed in biology classes. I don’t go as far as Nagel does in specifying how it should be taught, but Nagel’s line of thought is compatible with what I do say. Telling the students that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious beliefs one starts with seems to me like a perfectly reasonable approach to take. What I emphasize in my book, though, is that it’s important to also explain to the students why most all scientists reject intelligent design.

I’m not sure what to think of this ruling, but it’s certainly interesting. From the May 5 edition of the New York Times:

A federal judge has ruled that a history teacher at a Southern California public high school violated the First Amendment when he called creationism “superstitious nonsense” in a classroom lecture. The judge, James Selna, issued the ruling after a 16-month legal battle between a student, Chad Farnan, and his former teacher, James Corbett. Mr. Farnan’s lawsuit said Mr. Corbett had made more than 20 statements that were disparaging to Christians and their beliefs. The judge found that Mr. Corbett’s reference to creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense” violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Courts have interpreted the clause as prohibiting government employees from displaying religious hostility.

David Velleman, a well-known philosophy professor at NYU, has an interesting blog post about intelligent design. Velleman is not at all an ID proponent, but his post takes an interestingly nuanced view.

He wrote the post in 2005, and strangely, if one tries to access the post via the original URL, one reaches a blank page. But I was able to access the post using archive.org; here it is

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the short post, but I want to focus on this part: 

The theory of evolution is, not a complete explanation, but what philosophers of science call an explanation-schema — a general template for developing explanations of many different phenomena. 

Given a successful explanation schema, the scientific approach (I won’t call it a “method”) is to continue applying it to new cases, adjusting it as the need arises. Those who have devoted their lives to such an enterprise tend to be optimistic that it will ultimately yield explanations for all of the phenomena. Their optimism about the enterprise is encouraged by its successes to date; and in any case, pessimists would probably look for a different line of work. But optimism about the ultimate reach of science is not itself a scientific thesis. Whether science carried to its ideal limit would leave a remainder of unexplained phenomena is a question that science does not attempt to answer. It’s a question for metaphysicians and epistemologists. 

Some poeple completely reject any God-of-the-gaps argument — they hold that science will fill in any gap in our understanding. But I think Velleman is making a good point here, when he says that “optimism about the ultimate reach of science is not itself a scientific thesis”. It’s fine to be optimistic, but it’s not fine to pretend that those who aren’t optimistic are ipso facto violating the canons of scientific methodology. 

Velleman also says that ID should be discussed in school, but 

Unfortunately, the curriculum in which ID belongs doesn’t exist in high schools.

Velleman holds that ID belongs not in the science classroom, but in the philosophy classroom.