Seeking God in Science


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.

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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.

A nice online review of my book has been posted by  Dick Cleary. Here is Part I of the review, and here is Part II.

Here’s a preview:

The book is a delight to read, as much for Monton’s relentless devotion to the truth and the clarity of his argumentation as it is for the interesting perspectives brought to the topic by an atheist defending intelligent design. I recommend it to anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the debate between IDers and those who oppose them.

The second part of the recent podcast interview I did with Casey Luskin is now available here.

The first part of a three-part podcast interview I did with Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute is now available here.

An interesting interview with Michael Behe was recently posted on bloggingheads.tv, by atheist John McWhorter, who expressed some sympathies with Behe’s positions. A summary of the interview is available in comment 9 here, and the interview can be watched here. If bloggingheads.tv had their way though, we wouldn’t be able to watch the interview, because it was pulled a few hours after it was posted. One obviously wonders what sort of pressure was put on bloggingheads.tv and/or McWhorter. Here is the bloggingheads.tv explanation of why the video was pulled:

John McWhorter feels, with regret, that this interview represents neither himself, Professor Behe, nor Bloggingheads usefully, takes full responsibility for same, and has asked that it be taken down from the site. He apologizes to all who found its airing objectionable.

Behe’s take on all this is here.

Sadly, this seems to be another example of open intellectual debate and discussion being suppressed because of the worry that such open debate and discussion could end up supporting intelligent design. As I argue in my book, it’s a mistake for intelligent design opponents to behave this way. What they should do instead is engage in the debate openly and honestly. Engaging in suppression tactics is just going to make it look like they have something to hide, and that they’re trying to win the battle for public opinion in ways that don’t depend on the merits of their arguments.

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