July 2009

I had an interesting lunch meeting with Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian yesterday. He wrote up a description of our lunch here.

The first review of my book is now out. It’s a nice review by Tom Gilson, of Thinking Christian. This is my favorite part:

The other important question is what this book will contribute to the ID controversy. Is an atheist’s defense an unconditional blessing for intelligent design? Not necessarily. Ironically, it could end up being the most dangerous force ID has ever encountered. And that’s a good thing.

That last paragraph was confusing, I’ll wager. (It’s probably no worse than finding out about an atheist who supports intelligent design.) I’ll try to clarify what I mean.

More than once in my blogging I have offered ID antagonists a bit of tongue-in-cheek “strategy advice.” I tell them, “I’m going against my own best interests with this, but if you want to attack intelligent design, you really ought to quit aiming at the wrong targets. You attack it as creationism, but it isn’t that. You attack it as being an anti-science campaign, but it isn’t that, either. You attack it as a theocratic political ploy, and that’s not what it is, either. Here’s my advice: If you want to defeat ID for what it really is, maybe you should to attack it for what it really is: a scientific and philosophical approach to exploring origins.”

Bradley Monton is not attacking intelligent design. He does ID proponents an obvious service by defining from a neutral perspective what ID really is, or at least what really matters about ID in the long run: not the cultural baggage that has been attached to it from various sources, but its genuine scientific and philosophical approach to exploring origins.

If ID’s opponents pay attention to his book, he might do them even more of a service than what he is providing for proponents. He might actually help them to get on the right topic, to aim at the right target. The real question is not whether ID is a pseudo-science, whether it is a cultural subterfuge, or whether it is “The New Stealth Creationism,” as it has been called. Monton shows that none of these are what matters. They may have some passing rhetorical or political interest, but the real question, the one that counts, is this: Is intelligent design true?


Robert Park’s new book Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton University Press, 2008) is unfortunately disappointing. I read Park’s book Voodoo Science years ago, and I remember liking it, but this new one does way too much jumping from topic to topic, which makes the whole discussion rather superficial. Some of the topics are admittedly interesting. But when it comes to important controversial issues, Park just asserts his views; there’s almost nothing by way of argument.


I’m happy to announce that I’ve just been appointed to be a member of the editorial board for the journal Philosophy of Science. I look forward to helping to ensure that the journal continues to be one of the preeminent journals of philosophy of science.

My book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, is now out! You can purchase it here.

book cover

{I’ll keep this post at the top; see below for new blog entries.}

{I’ve added two updates to the end of this post.}

William Hasker has a new paper out in Philosophy Compass on intelligent design. He’s mostly critical, but I think that some of his criticisms are unfair.

He claims that most intelligent design proponents believe in Special Creation — that the Designer has created many forms of life from time to time, and that these forms of live undergo only micro-evolution. He doesn’t say what his evidence is for attributing this view to most intelligent design proponents; he just writes:

Pretty clearly, the majority view among prominent ID supporters is progressive creationism. Michael Behe, the most highly regarded scientist associated with the movement, is an intelligent design evolutionist, but on this point he is somewhat isolated; it is my understanding that he is the only one of the Senior Fellows of the Discovery Institute who affirms universal common ancestry.

I don’t have definitive evidence the other way, but I was surprised to hear him say that Behe’s the only one who doesn’t endorse Special Creation. (If anyone does have definitive evidence one way or the other, please email me.)

Anyway, if someone like Hasker is going to criticize intelligent design, I think that, to be charitable, one should focus on the most plausible formulation of intelligent design, and that’s Behe’s position. (Behe, as I understand it, says that he has no problem with common descent, but he doesn’t say that he definitely believes in common descent; I take it his position is that he just doesn’t know.)

So what does Hasker have to say about Behe’s position? Hasker writes:

Accepting [Behe’s position]   … would require a major change of viewpoint on the part of most ID supporters; in particular, it would require them to swallow what many find to be the indigestible fact of human evolution. There is also a particular problem [Behe’s position]. He proposes that the origin of life and many other crucial developments in the history of life are the result, not of intervention by a designer, but of ‘fine tuning’ that carefully adjusted the initial conditions of the universe with a view to producing just those results. He writes,

“Those who worry about ‘interference’ should relax. The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of the natural laws.” (Behe, Edge of Evolution 232)

One difficulty with this proposal is that it seems very doubtful that information present in the initial configuration of the universe would be conserved sufficiently to guarantee the occurrence of highly specific events billions of years later. (This difficulty is especially acute if, as is generally believed, the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is a real feature of nature.)

Hasker then moves on to a different criticism of Behe.

But the above quoted criticism strikes me as quite unfair — or at least, it needs a lot more defense. Let’s assume with Hasker that the universe hasn’t been in existence forever, and hence there is an initial configuration. If the laws of nature are deterministic, and there’s no outside intervention, then there’s a unique future the the universe compatible with the laws of nature and the initial conditions. If the laws are deterministic, then there’s just no basis for saying that it’s doubtful that the information present in the initial configuration would be conserved.

But what if the laws of nature are indeterministic? Note that that doesn’t have to be the case, even given quantum mechanics — there are deterministic versions of quantum mechanics, such as Bohm’s theory. But what if the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is a real feature of nature?

Well, it would be surprising if quantum mechanics turned out to be true, given that it conflicts with general relativity, and that physicists are working on coming up with theories (such as string theory) that will supplant both quantum mechanics and general relativity. Given that we don’t have such fully-worked-out theories yet, we’d be hard-pressed to say how exactly indeterminism would work in such a theory. So let’s just assume, contrary to fact, that the theory of quantum mechanics is true. Could God set up the initial conditions of the universe such that God can guarantee that some outcome in the future will obtain (without intervention)?

I think this is an interesting question, and I haven’t seen it addressed in the philosophy of quantum mechanics literature. My tentative answer is “yes, God could do that — at least, God could make it arbitrarily highly probable that a future outcome will obtain, as long as the desired future outcome is an outcome that he wants to take place in some arbitrary region of spacetime in the universe, not the universe as a whole”. If God desires a particular future for the universe as a whole, he might not get that, given quantum indeterminism and God’s choice not to intervene — the chancy events could go a different way than how God wants them to. But if God just wants something to happen in an arbitrary region of the universe — for example, if he just desires for there to be a planet with intelligent life, without caring much where in spacetime that planet occurs — then God can achieve that, even given quantum indeterminism. The way God can achieve that is by having a large number of trials (perhaps an infinite number). As long as the probability for God’s desired result is non-zero, then with a large enough number of trials the result is likely to happen.

Because Hasker seemingly ignores this sort of response to his argument, I maintain that Hasker’s criticism is unfair — or at least, it needs a lot more defense.

An aside: Al Plantinga has a paper coming out on the possibility of God intervening in the universe without violating the indeterministic laws of quantum mechanics. I looked for the paper to link to, but I don’t think it’s available yet. Anyways, I get quoted in that paper, as do other philosophers of physics — it turns out that there’s a debate amongst philosophers of physics on some of these technical issues. This provides a bit more evidence that Hasker is moving way too quickly here.

See more for an update: