Seeking God in Science

Rod Dreher, at The American Conservative, has a nice discussion of me here, focusing on some of my blog posts, and the First Things discussion. Dreher shows a good understanding of where I’m coming from.

Here’s one interesting part of his post. He points out that theists sometimes suffer from confirmation bias when it comes to endorsing intelligent design. He then writes:

I find myself more willing to pay attention to the arguments of someone like Monton, who is committed to atheism, because at least that filters out a lot of the confirmation bias. That is, if someone like Monton sees reason to take design seriously, then attention must be paid. (Similarly, when theistic scientists, like Simon Conway-Morris, endorse natural selection, I’m more inclined to take them seriously). The astonishing thing about the discussion of intelligent design is how unrestrained the personal attacks on serious people who take ID the least bit seriously can be.

… this is not disinterested scientific critique. This is personal invective. One sees this all the time. When preachers and religion apologists do it, you roll your eyes and move on. But when scientists do it, it’s far more disturbing, because they are, or ought to be, committed to dispassionate analysis.

I completely agree.


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”.

Sahotra Sarkar wrote a largely negative review of my book for NDPR. Since I’m so involved it’s hard for me to tell how fair-minded it is. Trent Dougherty has written an impressive defense of my book in response to Sarkar’s review.

Regarding Sarkar’s review,  there is just one point that I want to respond to. Sarkar writes:

These probabilities are not based on a specification of the reference class against which all probability estimates should be founded. Critics of ID have routinely argued this rather elementary point (Fitelson et al. 1999; Shallit and Ellsbury 2004; Sober 2004; Sarkar 2007) and it is intellectually irresponsible for Monton not to have addressed these criticisms.

The problem with Sarkar’s criticism of me here is that the points those critics make aren’t relevant for the main line of thought I was trying to develop, which was that the universe potentially being spatially infinite has an impact on these biology-based arguments. (In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the critics are right or not, for the point I was trying to make. (For more on the point I was trying to make, see my paper “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, which is published in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume I; a preprint is here.))

And that’s all I have to say about Sarkar’s review. I wish he had made more philosophically substantive points, because then I would have more to say. It’s worth contrasting Sarkar’s review with an NDPR review Rebecca Chan and I recently wrote of J. Alberto Corlett’s book The Errors of Atheism. Even though we weren’t particularly impressed with the book, we didn’t insult it or him; instead we presented a number of philosophical objections in response to his philosophical arguments.

A new review of my book is now available, in the journal Philosophia Reformata. Here’s my favorite part:

I wish that every scientist, philosopher, theologian, or public figure who wants to say something about ID would first pick up a copy of this book, study it carefully, and then reconsider whether she or he really wants to say it. I’m sure that would save us all a host of muddled arguments and unwarranted opinions.

A nicely thought-out, even if somewhat critical, review of my book has been posted online here. Here’s how it starts:

Bradley Monton’s new book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, is an exercise in the principle of charity. Rather than join the chorus of critics dismissing Intelligent Design (henceforth ID) as vacuous, a religious conspiracy or pseudoscience, Monton – himself the atheist of the subtitle – attempts to develop it into the strongest form possible and see if perhaps there is anything to it after all. Although doing so may win him few admirers, he sets to the task with enthusiasm.

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.

At the time that I’m writing this, there are 219 comments on Young’s review of my book. (See here for my reply to Young’s review.) I haven’t gone through the comments yet; I’m going to record my thoughts here as I go.

(1) Gary Hurd writes:

Very good review. Very sad that there are nitwits with tenure.

But has Hurd read my book? If not, then how can he fairly evaluate whether Young has accurately characterized my book? And even if Hurd has read my book, I still don’t think he would on that basis have enough evidence to deem me a “nitwit”. I assume that that implies a certain lack of intellectual ability, but to determine that, I’d think that Hurd would want to read at least a fair sample of my ~25 published articles in philosophy. Even if Young’s review is right, perhaps I’m just the sort of person with a mixed record — I’ve written a number of good articles and a bad book. I don’t see how that would justify the characterization of me as a “nitwit” (as opposed to, say, the characterization of my hypothetically bad book as “the sort of thing a nitwit would write”).

(2) Glen Davidson writes:

But it’s bizarre that Monton lumps biological ID and cosmological ID together, because cosmological ID deals with the real problem that the universe is not adequately explained, while biological ID deals with their real problem that life is adequately explained (there are gaps in knowledge, but the theoretical parameters we have appear to be adequate at our present level of knowledge).

Well, I don’t lump them together; I discuss the cosmological and biological arguments separately in Chapter 3. And I agree that the gaps in our understanding are quite different in the two realms. But with regard to the biological side, there’s one issue I didn’t talk about in the book, because I didn’t feel ready to talk about it, and I still don’t really, but I just wanted to flag it — we don’t have any good understanding of how consciousness can arise in a purely naturalistic, materialistic universe. So I’m not convinced that the theoretical parameters of biology we currently have are really adequate to explain all that we know about life.

(3) RDK writes:

Unfortunately Monton is just another example of why philosophers are useless creatures. Add him to the list of people outside of science who think they can tell scientists how to go about their business.

How am I telling scientists how to go about their business? I’m disagreeing with what some scientists say about intelligent design, but just because someone doesn’t have a PhD in a science, it doesn’t follow that they’re not allowed to disagree with someone who does have a PhD in a science.

(4) Wheels writes:

I don’t really agree with the philosopher-bashing going on. On another note, I just found out that Monton is associated with ARN, the Discovery Institute’s mouthpiece in the philosophy community.

Yes, the philosopher-bashing was a little much, wasn’t it? And for the record, I’m not associated with ARN — they asked if they could put me on their “featured authors” page, and I said “yes”. Charles Darwin is also on their “featured authors” page, so I figured it wasn’t a problem.

(5) raven writes:

I wonder if Monton is trying to finagle some Templeton foundation money. They seem desperate to find people who aren’t the usual creationist lunatics.

No, I’m doing just fine financially, thanks. But anyways, my understanding was that the Templeton Foundation didn’t like intelligent design. If I decided I wanted to get Templeton money, I would write like Paul Davies does — with vague suggestions that physics provides evidence of a more fundamental spiritual reality. Anyone who’s read my book will see that that’s not at all what I’m doing.

(6) Robinson writes:

Personally, I ascribe to “Lastthursdayism”. Everything and everyone was created instantly with complete memories. Bradley Monton only thinks he remembers writing “Seeking God in Science” and you only think you remember receiving a proof copy of the book last Spring. See? It explains everything completely.

I would say “I like it!” but that would just lead to more philosophy-bashing. :)  More seriously, there is a whole philosophical literature on skepticism, and on how best to reply to it. This book is a good place to start.

(7) Paul Burnett writes:

But I cannot understand how Monton, purportedly an atheist, could determine that the “Intelligent Designer” is Jehovah, the Creator God of Genesis.

(Monton is working with the same information dataset used by another eminent philosopher, Harun Yahya, who has come to a slightly different conclusion.)

Of course Monton is a closet intelligent design creationist. And as a cultivated tool of the Dishonesty Institute, his authentication certificate as an atheist seems to have expired.

This doesn’t make much sense to me. I’m not a Christian, and even if it turns out that intelligent design is true, that is compatible with the designer being non-Christian, or even non-supernatural.

Also, for the record, Yahya is not an eminent philosopher, and as far as I can tell he and I have very different beliefs about the nature of reality.

Also, I’m not an intelligent design proponent, I’m not a cultivated tool of the Discovery Institute (they’ve never given me money or advice), and I am an atheist. If there were authentication certificates, I’d show you mine.

(8) Frank J writes:

Has anyone asked him simple questions about “what happened when”? Michael Behe, Hugh Ross and Ken Ham take 3 mutually contradictory positions. Surely Monton should be able to take a “best guess” as to which, if any of those 3 are correct.

Anyone who has read my book would have no doubt as to what I’d say here, but for the record, I’d agree with Behe.

(9) TomS writes:

Is there any defense of ID in the book? A defense of ID would presuppose a description of it, and that would be something new.

I do give a well-thought-out description of ID, and it is something new! This is what Young is talking about when he writes “[Monton] devotes what seems like an interminable chapter trying to tell the ID creationists exactly what they are saying”. I do go on for a bit on the topic, but that’s because I’m motivated by TomS-style thinking — one needs to say more precisely what the content of intelligent design theory is, and intelligent design proponents haven’t done a good job saying that.

(10) Matt Young weighs in, thankfully:

I don’t want this to sound like damning with faint praise, but Professor Monton is not a nitwit, and he is not a creationist. I apologize if I made him appear to be either. …

I still think it is not a good book, but that is at least in part because its author is too credulous and studiously avoids the clear fact that ID creationism is a political movement, not a scientific or philosophical movement, and not because he is a creationist, closet or otherwise.

Thanks Matt! Blog comments can get out of hand sometimes. Where I disagree with Matt is that I think intelligent design is a scientific or philosophical theory (it doesn’t matter to the truth of intelligent design which category you put it in), and as such I think the theory should be evaluated on its merits.

OK, this has been fun, but I need to go. I’ll respond to more comments later.

Matt Young has posted a review of my book at Panda’s Thumb. The review is pretty critical, so I thought I’d weigh in.

First, I want to point out that Matt and I have talked in person, and he’s a nice, fair-minded guy — unlike some professors I’ve dealt with, he’s able to handle disagreement in an intellectually respectable manner. Second, I want to thank Matt for taking the time to read my book, and to write up the review.

But all that said, I think he’s wrong or unfair with regard to various things he says about my book.

(1) [Monton] says he is just going to evaluate the arguments, as if the context of the arguments were wholly irrelevant

Well, yes, when it comes to philosophical or scientific arguments for a conclusion, it doesn’t matter who is giving the argument, or what their agenda is; what matters is whether the argument is good or bad (valid or invalid, sound or unsound, etc.) I spend a couple pages defending this line of reasoning at the beginning of my book. Young doesn’t give an argument that I’m wrong about this, though he seems to be suggesting that I am.

(2) He admits that your beliefs or preconceptions can influence your reasoning, but seems to think that he is immune.

I’m not immune from having my preconceptions influence my reasoning, but I think that a difference between some people and me is that I try hard to overcome any misleading preconceptions I might have. Early in my philosophical career, Philip Kitcher’s book Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism was one of my favorites; I considered myself a staunch creationist-opposing atheist. But intelligent design is different — even though I think intelligent design is ultimately false, it’s more intellectually respectable than creationism was, and it deserves to be treated with more intellectual respect. (I’m not arguing for that thesis here, but it’s part of the point of my book to defend that thesis.)

(3) Ignoring the Wedge Document gives him permission to accept the disingenuous claim that the designer need not be supernatural

The thesis of intelligent design can clearly be formulated in such a way that the designer need not be supernatural. It’s unfair, in 2010, to attribute to intelligent design proponents some thesis that they say they’re not arguing for, on the basis of some document that was written in 1998.

Intelligent design opponent Elliott Sober recognizes this, but (in his paper “Intelligent Design Theory and the Supernatural — the ‘God or Extraterrestrials’ Reply”) he tries to argue that, when the intelligent design doctrine is coupled with certain other ostensibly reasonable doctrines, then it entails that the designer is supernatural. Sober’s argument fails for multiple reasons, as I show on pages 42-46 of my book. My refutation of Sober is pretty definitive, in my opinion, so I encourage people to look at it.

(4) More than once, Monton seems to say that the lack of a compelling argument against a given premise is equivalent to evidence in its favor, or at least that the argument is “plausible.”

I don’t think I ever quite say that, though actually I’m not sure whether or not that is correct. It raises an interesting issue in philosophy of science regarding what counts as evidence. Suppose that some reasoner, Emma, thinks that thesis P is implausible, because she finds compelling an argument against thesis P. What happens if Emma comes to realize that the ostensibly compelling argument against thesis P is actually a bad argument? Does that now provide evidence in favor of thesis P? For Emma, at least, it might.

(5) In particular, he says that a false theory should not necessarily be ruled out of science class—Newtonian theory is technically false. This argument could give sophistry a bad name; even if you think that all theories are technically false, good theories are useful within their ranges of validity. ID creationism is not useful anywhere.

Judge Jones claimed that, since intelligent design theory has been shown to be false by the scientific community, it follows that intelligent design theory is not a scientific theory. By pointing out that Newtonian physics is false but scientific, I’m just showing that there’s a flaw in Jones’ reasoning. I’m not being sophistical; I recognize that some false theories are useful, and that whether one should teach a theory in science class depends in part on how useful the theory is.

(6) Monton argues first that science is not committed to methodological naturalism. Then he sets up a straw man, that science could not investigate evidence in favor of the supernatural if it is committed to methodological naturalism; therefore, science is not committed to truth.

I don’t think I’m setting up a straw man here; I think the problem is that the proponents of methodological naturalism aren’t always completely clear on what exactly they’re endorsing. In my book, I distinguish between strong methodological naturalism, which holds that, no matter what, science can’t consider supernatural hypotheses, and weak methodological naturalism, which holds that, given the current evidence we have, science shouldn’t take supernatural hypotheses seriously, but if the evidence changes, then it should. Young makes clear that he’s endorsing weak methodological naturalism when he writes:

If we found enough miracles for which we could not develop a naturalistic explanation, we might, by a diagnosis of exclusion, tentatively accept the supernatural hypothesis (but we need to be very sure that we have considered and rejected all the possibilities).

But Judge Jones seems to be endorsing strong methodological naturalism, when he writes “while ID arguments may be true … ID is not science”. Jones was influenced by Pennock’s testimony on this issue; I talk a lot about what’s wrong with Pennock’s reasoning with regard to methodological naturalism in Chapter 2 of my book, but for a taste, see here.

There’s lots more I could say, but let me close with a couple final points. I have some critical things to say about the biology-based intelligent design arguments in my book, which Young did not discuss. A version of these criticisms appears in my paper “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, which has just come out in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, Volume II. If you don’t have a copy of my book, then I encourage you to take a look at this paper.

I am not a knee-jerk defender of intelligent design, but nor am I a knee-jerk critic. I’ve seen a number of bad arguments for intelligent design, but unfortunately I’ve also seen a number of bad arguments against intelligent design. The point of all my discussion of intelligent design is to look at the best arguments that can be given on both sides of the debate, because that’s what will most elevate the cause of reason.

Part II of Jay Wile’s review of my book has been posted here.

A nice review of my book has been posted by Jay Wile here.

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