November 2009

Word is spreading that acclaimed philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel has praised Stephen Meyer’s new book Signature in the Cell. Nagel writes:

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

Brian Leiter’s strong reaction is typical:

Nagel has become a disgrace. He was a philosopher who made some significant contributions, but in areas far afield of this one.

{In the original version of this blog post, I critized Leiter’s reaction; while I do disagree with Leiter, I now think that my particular criticism was unwarranted.}

For more by Leiter on this issue, go here. People in Leiter’s shoes should perhaps wonder if it’s not the case that Nagel, an incredibly smart and (at least until recently) well-respected philosopher, has “jumped the shark”, and instead it’s the case that Nagel’s position is more reasonable than they realize.

Thomas Lepeltier just emailed me, letting me know that his new book is out: Vive le créationnisme!: Point de vue d’un évolutionniste. Based on my limited French, it looks interesting.

UPDATE: Someone kindly emailed me a translation of the page I linked to above:

Creationism gets people scared. We accuse it of all wrongs. It threatens both science and democratic society. Hence the regular calls to combat it in the name of rationality and secularism. Isn’t it time to once and for all get done with this anachronistic religious doctrine that’s being spread under scientific pretences?

Not quite, affirms Thomas Lepeltier. In this iconoclastic text, where he discusses the possible scientificity of creationism, he advances [an argument] that those who want the disappearance of creationism under the pretext that [creationism] wouldn’t be a scientific theory, but rather only a religious doctrine, promote, without realising it, a society where all dissent from all dominant scientific theories will have disappeared.

If that’s what the opponents of creationism want, the spirit of criticism which they pretend to be defending is under risk. Under the domain of reflection – like in politics, if we are democratic – shouldn’t it always be necessary to congratulate ourselves over the existence of contradictors, even when we consider them to be wrong? In short, in light of the simplistic turn of the contemporary debates on creationism, this is a work of urgent pertinence.

William Lane Craig has written up his thoughts on his debate with Ayala, and he also made a positive mention of my book. (If you register for free at his web site, you can get his thoughts here; otherwise the most important parts have been quoted here.)

Here’s what he had to say about my book:

Another interesting feature of this debate was the moderator, a young philosopher from the University of Colorado, Boulder, named Bradley Monton. Though a self-confessed atheist, Monton is convinced that the typical refutations of ID that pass muster today are in fact fallacious, and so he has written a book defending not only the scientific status of ID but even its being taught as an option in public schools! Having read his remarkable book in preparation for the debate, I was able to quote “our esteemed moderator” to good effect during the debate itself to counter Ayala’s assertion that ID was not science.


I was the moderator of the debate that happened last night (Thursday, November 5, 2009) between philosopher William Lane Craig and biologist Francisco Ayala. Both are Christians, but Craig was arguing that intelligent design is viable, while Ayala was arguing that it is not viable.

The web site for the debate is here. An mp3 audio recording of the debate is here. I’ve been told that the video will eventually be available for download.

I figured that Craig would come across as the better debater, simply because Craig is masterful at that sort of thing, as has been discussed here. Advice for how to debate Craig is available here and here, but unfortunately it appears that Ayala did not read up on this. Ayala didn’t really engage with Craig, but instead presented his own information, ignoring the arguments that Craig was giving. This topic is a new topic for Craig — when we talked backstage, he confirmed that he hasn’t published or debated on the topic of biology-based intelligent design arguments, and had Craig gone up against a competent anti-ID philosopher of biology like Kitcher or Sober, Craig might have lost.

Here is an interesting assessment of the debate by the blogger Ranger:

It was a terrible performance by Ayala, who is considered by many to be the best public proponent of evolution in America. As I think I’ve stated here before, I generally side with the theistic evolutionists, and had my hopes up. In the end, I’m frustrated and getting so sick and tired of all of the hand-waving and lack of solid argumentation on the side of evolution.

1. In his conclusion, after literally offering no argumentation in response to Craig’s points, he says something to the effect of “Let me tell you something, there is lots of evidence for the mechanisms of evolution in thousands of articles and books by people who know the scientific method.” Great! Then it should be really easy to present a good argument against Craig based on those thousands of articles, right?

2. Craig brought up Behe, and Ayala responded in two ways…one he simply asserted that Behe has been refuted. I’m assuming he means by Ken Miller, as the those arguing in favor of evolution have almost made a cliche out of saying “Miller obliterated Behe at Dover and in “Only a Theory.” I’ve got OAT, read it, enjoyed it, but also know that Behe has responded and I agree with Behe that Miller didn’t satisfactorily give an answer…so the cliche (usually offered by those who have actually read neither Behe or Miller) gets old. If it’s been so clearly refuted and if you are one of America’s best spokesmen for evolution, then simply explain why Behe’s arguments fail. If you feel that you need to educate America in this regard, then do it! Don’t fall back on the “priesthood” of science with assertions about the thousands of articles written by people who understand the scientific method.

3. Nobody was talking about Paley, so why did Ayala keep arguing in reference to Paley and the eye? Craig brings up Behe’s arguments, and Ayala responds to Behe’s arguments by arguing against an argument from 250 years ago that neither Craig nor Behe makes? That was odd to say the least…and didn’t do his side any favors.

Let me be very honest and say that I’m actually coming around to a position of thinking ID might be viable (in a Christian universe, which I believe to be our universe) partially because I’m sick and tired of the hand-waving and lack of good response from scientists who claim to be experts.

The debate was sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ, so a cynical person might say that they were hoping Ayala would do so poorly. I don’t think that’s the case though; I think their hope was to have a fair, reasoned, engaging debate. And despite Ayala’s less-than-stellar performance, I think that overall the debate was a good experience for the audience. I’d like to publicly thank the organizer Matt Bazemore, as well as his assistants, for all the work they did to put this event together.

My review of Gregory Dawes’ Theism and Explanation is out in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. You can read it here.

Here’s the last paragraph of the review:

One interesting aspect to this book is that Dawes never tells us whether he is a theist or an atheist. I take it that he is a theist, but I did wonder whether that was really the case when I saw how high he was setting the bar: theistic explanations must fulfill the optimality condition to even be in the running, and they don’t fare well when measured up against some of the six explanatory virtues under consideration. It’s unfair of me to think this way though — I shouldn’t just assume that a theistic philosopher will assess the virtues of theistic explanations in a different way than an atheistic philosopher would. Instead, my default presumption should be that a good philosopher like Dawes will make fair-minded, intelligent assessments of how theistic explanations fare, regardless of his personal beliefs about whether or not there is a God. The intellectual climate around theistic explanations, especially as relating to theistic explanations for scientific phenomena, has been somewhat poisoned by all the rhetoric regarding intelligent design. While Dawes talks about intelligent design here and there in his book, he never does so in an emotive, unfair way. It’s a virtue of this book that one comes away thinking that Dawes is fair-minded and intelligent — and that this assessment will hold regardless of whether one thinks that Dawes believes in God.

So I attended the Castle Rock Intelligent Design conference over the past couple days — it was, in a word, fascinating. The summary of the conference by John West (of the Discovery Institute) is here and here, and Doug Groothuis’s summary is here. I’ll just add a few further thoughts.

In the days leading up to the conference, people had trouble getting access to the web site for the conference — apparently someone was executing a Denial of Service attack on the site. This is a bad strategy for intelligent design opponents to follow because (A) it’s petty, (B) it looks like a suppression of free speech, and (C) to put it bluntly, it furthers the Christians’ persecution complex. There were rumors that some atheists were going to show up to protest, but fortunately that didn’t materialize, as far as I saw. I was surprised though that there weren’t many critical questions from the audience — the two questions that West identified as critical didn’t strike me as especially so. Here’s West:

During the question period that followed, two people offered long-winded “questions” to Behe that seemed to come straight from the talking points of the National Center for Science Education.

The first person offered a laundry list of the ways Judge Jones and the Darwinist witnesses in the Kitzmiller case supposedly refuted intelligent design (including the shibboleth about the Type-Three Secretory System). The second person read off a list of scientific organizations such as the AAAS that have denounced ID and then demanded to know how ID claims could be scientifically tested.

Perhaps the people were trying to be critical, but they weren’t especially eloquent at doing so. Pretty much every question was long-winded, so that didn’t distinguish these two. I wouldn’t have described the questions in quite the way that West did; I got the sense, for the second question, at least, that the questioner could well have been an intelligent design sympathizer who had heard some anti-ID talking points and were looking to Behe for advice on how to respond. Anyways, those were the only two semi-critical things that happened during the whole conference, and they weren’t especially critical.

The conference started Friday night with Steve Meyer’s talk. I think that was my favorite part of the conference — there was a lot of good biology in the talk, before Meyer got to anything about intelligent design. The audience seemed to be full of non-academics, families, etc, and I could picture a conference like this 20 years ago where unwary Christians showed up to hear people lecture about young-earth creationism. We’ve come a long way from there, and it’s to the credit of intelligent design proponents like Meyer that they’re helping to move the biology-based design arguments in a more science-friendly direction. Indeed, at the end of the conference I was chatting with Meyer at the book-signing table, and a teenage boy came up to get Meyer to sign his book; the boy talked about how interested he was in science, and Meyer encouraged him to study further. I contrast that with some students I had when I was a professor at University of Kentucky, who told me that their families encouraged them not to study science in college, because they would learn non-Christian beliefs.

Behe’s talk the next morning was fine — it was an overview of material from his two books. Berlinski’s conversation with Meyer came next — that was entertaining, though it jumped from topic to topic rather quickly. I must admit that I’m one of the many people who gets a bit mesmerized listening to Berlinski speak, so I didn’t mind. (It’s easier to be critical of Berlinski when he writes, which I’m certainly willing to do.) I hadn’t thought of this before, but Berlinski reminds me of William F. Buckley — slouching in his chair, not enunciating as well as one could, but being amazingly eloquent regardless.

I was less happy with John West’s talk — he basically argued that Darwinism leads to social evils like eugenics. Throughout the talk I think he was making a huge error, ignoring the is/ought gap. It may be evolutionarily advantageous for creatures like us to behave a certain way, but it doesn’t follow that that’s how we ought to behave. Standard evolutionary theory doesn’t have anything to say about how one ought to behave, and those people who claim that it does are just mistaken. West talked about those people, but instead of pointing out the mistake, he tried to take it as evidence against standard evolutionary theory. West said that “Eugenics was the consensus view of science”, and used that to criticize science, where what he should have said is that eugenics is a moral theory, not a scientific theory, and the people who try to read moral theories off of scientific theories are mistaken.

The original version of the program that I saw listed prayer sessions between the talks. That seemed rather unfortunate, given that they were encouraging non-Christians to attend. I started to plan strategies for how I could come and leave in such a way that I could avoid the prayer sessions, but fortunately, the final version of the program didn’t include that. Instead we had Christian music from Danny Oertli, which was fine. At the beginning of the program, Craig Smith, the executive director of Shepherd Project Ministries, the group that put on the conference, wrote:

While the Shepherd Project is a Christian initiative — and the conference will naturally reflect this commitment — we also recognize that there are a variety of faith positions present at the conference this weekend and we will be sensitive to this fact. We ask everyone in attendance to be similarly respectful.

At the end of the conference, there was one prayer, but Craig didn’t start it by saying “let us pray”; he said “would you let me pray for you?” A fine line was clearly being toed at this conference, but I think they did a good job finding the right balance.