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See below for my two previous posts on Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. In this post I want to talk about the “battle for America’s soul” part.

Miller makes the claim that the intelligent design movement doesn’t just want to “win the battle against Darwin”; the intelligent design movement wants to “win the greater war against science itself” (p. 183). This is quite a strong claim, that the intelligent design movement is anti-science. The way intelligent design proponents typically portray their activity, they are looking for scientific evidence for the existence of a designer. This may be confused science, but it’s not anti-science. Moreover, some intelligent design proponents, like Mike Behe, are tenured professors in science departments at legitimate academic institutions, who publish standard scientific articles in standard scientific journals. It would greatly surprise me if these people were anti-science.

Miller makes this strong claim, but unfortunately he provides minimal evidence for it. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only textual evidence he cites is a single passage by Bill Dembski:

The implications of intelligent design are radical in the true sense of this much overused word. The question posed by intelligent design is not how we should do science and theology in light of the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. The question is rather how we should do science and theology in light of the impending collapse of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism. These ideologies are on their way out … because they are bankrupt. (p. 190)

This passage is ambiguous. There is a way of reading it such that it is anti-science, and a way of reading it such that it’s not.

On the anti-science way of reading the passage, one would hold that science is key part of Enlightenment rationalism, and that naturalism is a key part of science, and since intelligent design is opposed to Enlightenment rationalism and scientific naturalism, intelligent design is opposed to science.

On the pro-science way of reading the passage, one would hold that naturalism is a key part of Enlightenment rationalism, and there is a style of science where one takes an assumption of naturalism to be part of the methodology of science. One would hold that intelligent design is opposed to the naturalism in Enlightenment rationalism, and naturalistic science, but one would not hold that intelligent design is opposed to science itself. 

It is pretty clear to me, judging from everything I’ve read by Dembski, that he intends the latter, pro-science, reading. I couldn’t defend this by giving an example or two; the only way to really defend this claim is to read a lot of Dembski’s work, and (in my opinion, at least) it becomes clear that Dembski is pro-science; he’s just not pro-naturalism, and hence he’s not pro-naturalism-as-a-scientific-methodology. Now, Miller apparently thinks that if one drops methodological naturalism, then science will stop, because one can simply appeal to God as an explanation of any scientific phenomenon. But as I’ve explained in a previous post, that is a bad line of reasoning. And given that that’s a bad line of reasoning, Miller’s claim that intelligent design is anti-science doesn’t hold up.


Here’s another frustrating aspect of Ken Miller’s book (see the previous post for my first post on this topic). Miller says that intelligent design

would reduce science to just another relativistic discipline. It would tell us that thinking the right spiritual thoughts is essential to the scientific process, and that there are no absolutes in nature. (p. 217)

Miller has a long argument for this, which I won’t try to do justice to here. I just want to register my opinion that I tentatively agree with the “right spiritual thoughts part”, but I disagree with the “relativistic/no absolutes” part.

If science is ultimately a quest for truths about the world, and if God exists, and sometimes intervenes in the world, then to have a completely accurate scientific account of the world, that account would have to include the fact that God sometimes intervenes in the world. If science tells us that God doesn’t intervene, but God does, then science is getting some things wrong. Science would have the wrong spiritual thoughts, and as a result the scientific theories developed wouldn’t be as good as they could be. One could still potentially do a lot of good science, even without including God hypotheses, so in that sense I wouldn’t say that having the right spiritual thoughts is _essential_ to the scientific process. Moreover, if God never intervenes in the world, then it probably wouldn’t matter whether one is an atheist or a theist, as long as one doesn’t (falsely) believe that God intervenes in the world. But if God does intervene, a full scientific theory would have to include that in its account of what goes on in the world.

As for the part about intelligent design leading to no absolutes in nature, I just don’t get it. One set of religious beliefs would be right, and all the competing sets would be wrong. That sounds to me like the opposite of relativism.

Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, has some frustrating aspects to it. For one, he gives the old argument that, if science allows for supernatural hypotheses, then science will stop:

A theistic science … will no longer be the science we have known. It will cease to explore, because it already knows the answers. (p. 198)

This argument has been given before (e.g. by Pennock) and the standard (and in my opinion correct) response has been given before (e.g. by Plantinga). I’m not faulting Miller for giving an argument that’s not new, but I am faulting him for seeming to show no awareness of the standard response. The standard response is that, while theistic scientists could choose to stop investigating the world, and be satisfied with the answer “God did it”, they need not. What theistic scientists can do is investigate the questions: “what did God do?” “What structure did God choose to give the world?” As long as scientists are willing to investigate those questions, then science can go on in pretty much the standard way. Allowing supernatural hypotheses won’t really change anything.

The worry, of course, is that scientists will be too willing to turn to the God answer when problems get tricky. But suppose some scientists do that — is it really so bad? Newton is undisputedly one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, but when he came to the belief that the planetary orbits are unstable, he postulated that God occasionally intervened to keep the planets in their intended orbits. Did exploration stop a a result of Newton’s appeal to the supernatural? No; later investigators determined that the planetary orbits are more stable than Newton had thought. 

In sum: even though I think that supernatural hypotheses in science will ultimately be proved wrong, I don’t see how allowing them will lead to the end of science. Those scientists who are willing to allow for supernatural hypotheses can still search for naturalistic explanations for phenomena.

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.

I’m travelling currently, so I’ll keep the sophisticated philosophy to a minimum, and do some sociology instead. I’ve been wondering — why is it that there’s a trend of theistic evolutionists (like Ken Miller and Francis Collins) vociferously arguing that there’s not scientific evidence for design in biology, and yet there is scientific evidence for design in physics, while there’s no corresponding trend of physicists arguing that there’s no scientific evidence for design in physics, and yet there is in biology? 

(In case you’re not familiar with the argumentative moves of the theistic evolutionists I’m talking about, Ken Miller, in his book Only a Theory, suggests that the fine-tuning argument is a good argument for the existence of God, while Francis Collins, in his book The Language of God, cites the big bang as support for theism.)

I should make clear that there’s a sense in which Miller and Collins presumably would find evidence for design in biology, it’s just not evidence of the sort that intelligent design proponents cite. Perhaps that is the difference, for Miller and Collins — they don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, and yet this seems to be the sort of designer that the intelligent design proponents are arguing for, at least with their evolution-based arguments. The physics-based arguments (like the fine-tuning argument and the cosmological argument) don’t necessarily argue for a designer that regularly intervenes in the universe. 

This does raise a more general issue — is it easier to find purported evidence for God in physics than in biology? Are physics-based intelligent design arguments stronger arguments? And from a sociological standpoint, since we’ve seen an incredible push by mainstream biologists against evolution-based intelligent design arguments, will we in the future see a corresponding push by mainstream physicists against physics-based intelligent design arguments? I have the sense that there’s something different about the physics community, that would lead them to be less opposed to arguments for a designer, but I’ll save my reasons for why I think that for another time.

My blog has now been mentioned at various other blogs (such as here and here and here). I appreciate the supportive words, and I appreciate the constructive criticisms. I don’t appreciate the unhelpful rhetoric, but such is the nature of the ID debate, it seems. (I guess there is a certain amusement value to lines like “Most definitely Monton is a wacko” — it’s a good thing U. of Colorado didn’t figure that out before they decided to give me tenure.)

I have mixed feelings about getting sucking into blog debates. I don’t want to get involved in a back-and-forth that only a few people will end up caring about, but I am tempted to reply to direct objections to me. My solution for now is to let some things slide, but to talk about select criticisms.

The one I’ll talk about for now is Wesley Elsberry’s. Elsberry is a leading critic of the evolution-based intelligent design arguments, and I have high regard for his criticisms. Elsberry expressed surprise that I hadn’t talked about him in my blog — perhaps he didn’t notice that my blog was started recently and only had about 15 posts on it. Anyway, it’s true that I haven’t talked about Elsberry much in my work, in part because I’m not trying to argue that the evolution-based intelligent design arguments are good ones.

So what is my intelligent design work about? I’m giving a partial defense of intelligent design — I’m arguing that intelligent design shouldn’t be understood as inherently supernatural, that it’s legitimate to construe intelligent design as science, that some of the arguments for intelligent design are stronger than many critics recognize, and that it could be pedagogically helpful to teach intelligent design in school. I do think there’s some scientific evidence for the existence of a designer, but there’s not enough evidence to make me sway from my atheism. The evidence that I find strongest doesn’t have to do with evolution; it has to do with for example the origin of life from non-life and the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of physics. I recognize that intelligent design proponents mostly focus on evolution-based arguments, but there are other arguments out there. 

(Now, perhaps you think that the other arguments I’m talking about don’t count as intelligent design arguments, because they’re not about evolution. As I show in my forthcoming book, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly the doctrine of intelligent design amounts to — sometimes people treat it as being just about evolution, but sometimes people (the very same people) treat it as being about scientific evidence for the existence of a designer more generally. Anyway I prefer to think of the doctrine of intelligent design as more general (in the same way that “creationism” was about more than biology — it was also about geology, the age of the Earth, etc), but it’s really just a terminological issue.)

Back to Elsberry. What I was doing in my post that Elsberry focusses on is critiquing this claim by Ken Miller:

A theistic science … will no longer be the science we have known. It will cease to explore, because it already knows the answers. (p. 198)

Elsberry admits that this claim is “somewhat too strongly worded”, but I want to make clear that it’s not just this particular quote from Miller that is somewhat too strong; that claim is a key part of Miller’s book, and he spends a fair amount of space trying to argue for it. But anyway, I’m happy to report that Elsberry and I are in agreement about the truth value of Miller’s claim. It’s false, and that’s all I was trying to argue. 

But Elsberry isn’t so happy. Here is the full passage:

By focusing on the somewhat too strongly worded claim, Monton entirely overlooks the weaker claim that is not susceptible to the sort of dismissal he makes: supernatural hypotheses do nothing to advance science (other than perhaps to mark where further work is needed in proposing and testing non-supernatural hypotheses), do not themselves represent knowledge, and are known to delay the progress of science.

With some nuances, I agree with at least two-thirds of this weaker claim. So far, at least, I haven’t seen supernatural hypothesis doing much to advance science — we don’t have that much scientific evidence for the supernatural (though I think we should keep looking). I’m an atheist, so I think supernatural hypotheses are false, and since knowing a proposition entails that that proposition is true, I agree that supernatural hypotheses don’t “represent knowledge”.

The one I’m not sure about is the claim that supernatural hypotheses are known to delay the progress of science. There are multiple ways of understanding this claim. The strongest claim would be: in every possible situation, introducing a supernatural hypothesis delays the progress of science. A moderate claim would be: in every situation we’ve seen so far, introducing a supernatural hypothesis delays the progress of science. A weaker claim would be: there are some situations where introducing a supernatural hypothesis delayed the progress of science. 

The weak claim is most probably true, though I’ll leave it to the historians to come up with a nice example. The strong claim is surely false: I can imagine a situation where some scientist comes up with a great scientific insight, but she only comes up with that insight as a result of the peculiar religious training she’s had — had she not had that religious training, she wouldn’t have come up with the insight. Perhaps she frames the insight in supernatural terms, but other scientists see that the supernatural aspect is inessential, and embrace the non-supernatural aspect, thus leading to a major scientific advance. 

The moderate claim is doubtful to me, though I’m not willing to definitively pronounce on it one way or another. The problem with such claims is that they involve counterfactuals, which are hard to evaluate (and, perhaps, don’t have objective truth values, a point I discuss in this paper). Consider this counterfactual claim: had Newton not considered supernatural hypotheses, he would have been a better scientist. Is that true or false (or neither)? It’s really not obvious to me what the answer is. I can see someone arguing that the claim is true, since (as we atheists agree) supernatural hypotheses are false, and hence considering them automatically delays scientific progress. But I can see someone arguing that the claim is false, since Newton was in part motivated to investigate the world because of his theistic beliefs, and if it were the case that Newton wasn’t willing to consider the hypothesis that God actively acted in the world, then he wouldn’t have been as motivated to do his scientific investigations in the first place. It’s not clear whether there’s a definitively right answer here. 

Anyway, I appreciate Elsberry paying attention to my blog. It took a while to give a reasoned reply and that partly explains why I don’t want to get sucked into lots of blog debates. (That, by the way, is why comments are disabled on this blog.) But I admire Elsberry’s work, and just because he and I disagree on some issues, I don’t want him to think that we disagree across the board.

My book gets talked about at First Things here; I like the approach, focusing on my key point that science shouldn’t be limited to naturalist methodologies.

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for thetruth, wherever it leads.

Monton’s starting point is the recent trial, Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, which ended with a decision against a school board in Pennsylvania. The school board wanted to require a disclaimer read to 9th grade biology students, informing students of the existence of ID as an alternative theory regarding evolution. Judge John Jones in 2005, however, ruled against the school board. After hearing expert witnesses on both sides, he concluded that ID is a religious view and not science, and thus cannot be taught in public schools.

The reason given for the “non-scientific” nature of ID was that science had to be restricted to a naturalist methodology, prohibiting any approach or evidence which could bring in the supernatural. Monton considers such a restriction as completely arbitrary, and even offers some thought experiments showing how a supernatural agent could be detected through scientific methods. He mentions with approval some examples of two conversions of atheists to theism, on the basis of scientific evidence: The physicist, Fred Hoyle, whose atheism was “shaken” when he came to the conclusion in 1982 that some “superintellect” had “monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology”; and the famous philosopher, Anthony Flew, who in 2004 announced that he could no longer remain an atheist, largely because of his study of “fine-tuning” arguments in physics and the resistance of DNA evidence to any naturalistic explanation.

Also, Evolution News & Views points out that this First Things story generated an interesting controversy amongst the members of the advisory board of this “important ecumenical journal”.

Here is my followup to Part I of my reply to the comments on Matt Young’s review of my book. (My reply to Young’s review itself is here.)

(1) eric writes:

In contrast IDers want significant classroom time spent on it (far more than 10 minutes), with no mention of why its wrong, or why 150 years ago this idea was rejected.

While I’m sure some IDers are like that, it’s worth noting that the whole Dover trial was about whether a statement should be read to the students before they learned about evolution in 9th grade biology class; reading that statement would take about 30 seconds.

(2) John Kwok writes:

I think Monton has bought into the Wedge ever since his graduate school days at Princeton, where, incidentally, he apparently overlapped with a Princeton Theological Seminary student named William A. Dembski.

For the record, I never met Dembski when I was at Princeton; the first time I met him was years later, when he came to University of Kentucky to debate Michael Shermer. And also for the record, I don’t buy into the Wedge strategy, nor am I a proponent of the Wedge strategy.

(3) Wheels writes:

his selection of reviews for Seeking God in Science consists half of Discovery Institute fellows and the other half philosophers friendly to ID’s framing of the issue, and hostile to real science. Of the latter, Groothuis has also decided that ID isn’t traditional Creationism and argues that it’s not religious, that “Darwinism” has problems ID addresses, etc. etc. (Roberts doesn’t seem to have much out there to be cited, but his page at Chapel Hill has papers where he re-jiggers and defends the Fine-Tuning argument for Design, as well as a lot of other things which are lost on me but might be interesting to those more familiar with contemporary philosophy.)

I assume Wheels is talking about the people who contributed blurbs for the back cover. These are by Groothuis (theist), Dembski, (theist), Berlinski (agnostic), and Roberts (atheist). Only Dembksi and Berlinski are affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Roberts is a pre-eminent philosopher of science at one of the top philosophy departments in the country, UNC-Chapel Hill.

(4) Glen Davidson writes:

Pennock doesn’t leave Monton’s nonsense alone in US New & World Report. That was before Monton’s book was published, which apparently was sometime last summer.

And Pennock does a bad job addressing my arguments, as I point out here (well worth reading for anyone who has read the Pennock piece, in my opinion).

(5) raven writes:

It is up to Monson, if he is an IDist, to explain who the Designer(s) are and what evidence there is for design.

We shouldn’t have to guess or wonder. He is a college professor and should be capable of simple communication.

I’m not an IDist. I do talk about what evidence there is for design in my book. You don’t have to guess or wonder; it’s out there for you to read.

(6) Gary Hurd writes:

I am thinking that writing for a creationist audience, touted and flouted by the Discotutes, will pay more than real work. And I would not be surprised that the DI sent a little “love” to Monty.

I have not received any money from the Discovery Institute.

(7) raven writes:

chances are Monton is getting paid somehow by the DI. They have a budget of 4 million USD/year and it all goes to PR and propaganda. We don’t really know though, just a guess.

I would ask him point blank but it is useless. My experience is that when you corner these people, they refuse to answer or lie or simply run.

raven should have actually tried asking me point blank.

(8) Matt Young helpfully writes:

The following is not whining and is completely off task, but it may explain why I do not think Professor Monton wrote his book for the money:

I published my first book, an optics book, in 1977. At that time royalties were typically 10% of list price. Between that book and a book on technical writing, I probably had a couple of years in which my royalties amounted to the low five figures, counting to the left of the decimal point.

Typical royalties today, I think, are 7.5% of sales, or about half what they were in the 1980’s. On subsequent books, I have received royalties each year in the middle or even upper five figures, but now I have to count on both sides of the decimal point.

I haven’t received any royalty money from my book yet; I think I will in February. I also don’t know what the sales figures are. I’ll be happy to make the information public when I do get the royalty money and sales figures. But Matt is right, I didn’t write the book for the money; academic books just don’t sell that well. I wrote the book because I thought many of the criticisms of intelligent design were unfair, and that the best way to further the cause of reason was to give state the case for intelligent design the best way one can, and then to give the best criticisms one can of intelligent design. To give unfair or misguided or emotionally driven or culturally biased criticisms of intelligent design is really just helping out the intelligent design proponents, by making it look to the neutral observer like their critics are intellectually unsophisticated people.

(9) Frank J writes:

I’d bet that Monton agrees with the 4.5 BY that mainstream science and most DI Fellows claim, and accepts common descent.

Yes, that’s right.

(10) John Kwok writes:

Am not sure Matt Young realizes how much of an apologist Monton has been for the Dishonesty Institute, but anyone reading Monton’s CV would realize how much he’s been one, and especially one quite dedicated to the DI’s conception of Intelligent Design even before the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial.

For those who are interested, here’s his CV:[…]ton%20cv.pdf

I encourage people to look at my CV, because I really don’t know what Kwok is talking about here; I have not been an apologist for the Discovery Institute, as far as I can tell. Also, in Chapter 1 of my book, I take issue with the Discovery Institute’s conception of intelligent design.

(11) Brenda writes:

I believe Monton was driven to his position by his companions’ obnoxious attitude towards Creationism. Not with the arguments themselves, but the attitude. When Monton tried to give a Creationist the benefit of the doubt /here and there/, he was verbally attacked, as if he were “one of them”. He just wanted to distance himself from that s#!t, and look where he wound up. Everyone here at PandasThumb, keep up the good work and you’ll see scores of Bradley Montons.

In part Brenda is right, but it’s not just the obnoxious attitude toward intelligent design that bothered me; it was the bad arguments. The second half of Chapter 2 of my book, where I criticize Pennock’s take on intelligent design, gives evidence of what motivated me to write the book. But Brenda is absolutely right that I’m being unfairly attacked as if I am one of the creationists, when in fact I’m not.

(12) Brenda also writes:

Mike Elzinga charges: “Your loyalties are misplaced. And you should learn some real science so that you can tell the difference between what is real and what is fake.”

Your jumping to conclusions about me (and in both cases they’re wrong) is irritating. It’s that kind of thing that irritated, and pushed away, Monton, too.

I will agree that the jumping to conclusions by the various commenters in this thread is irritating. It’s an example of really bad reasoning, and it’s concerning that people who think of themselves as scientifically-minded people are engaging in such bad reasoning.

(13) phantomreader42 writes, addressing Brenda:

The reason you’re ineffectual is that you don’t have the slightest fucking idea what the hell you’re talking about, and you can’t be bothered to live up to your own bullshit standards for five seconds.

That provides an answer to this request by Wheels, regarding my blog:

Would be nice of you to turn on comments.

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.

{ 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.