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.

In my (by now somewhat infamous) discussion of the Dover trial (which occurs here, and in Chapter 2 of my book), I took issue with Judge Jones (and with Robert Pennock) for endorsing methodological naturalism, understood as the claim that science can’t in principle investigate supernatural phenomena. I was happy to come across an article by physicist Sean Carroll where he endorses the same anti-methodogical-naturalism point that I do:

There’s no obstacle in principle to imagining that the normal progress of science could one day conclude that the invocation of a supernatural component was the best way of understanding the universe. Indeed, this scenario is basically the hope of most proponents of Intelligent Design. The point is not that this couldn’t possibly happen — it’s that it hasn’t happened in our actual world.

I’ve been given a hard time for saying this, so I’m happy to see smart people agreeing with me.

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.

I just read the strange yet insightful NDPR review of Paul Sheldon Davies’s book Subjects of the World: Darwin’s Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature. I want to share a few passages that I liked.

(1) The review (by Paolo Costa) starts out as follows:

It is no news that naturalism is the dominant philosophical position in the English-speaking world. One of the clearest signs of this hegemony is the battle now raging around its purest and most consistent interpretation and the gradual spread of a “holier than thou” attitude that, at first sight, should be a distinctive feature of ideological battles rather than of intellectual discussions.

This strikes me as right, that there is battle regarding how to be a naturalist — from John Bickle’s “ruthless reductionism” to Andrew Melnyk’s “physicalist manifesto”. I think Bickle and Melnyk are doing good philosophy though, so I wonder if Costa have different works in mind.

(2) This part of the review is amusing:

Our conscious attributions of purpose are therefore a delusion, however deeply entrenched in our psychology. The end result is somewhat paradoxical, as the author himself points out in a side-remark concerning autism. As is well-known, “autistic children tend not to conceptualize objects in their environment in mental terms; they tend not to conceptualize persons as things with minds”. We nonautistics, on the contrary, are “naïve realists concerning the existence of other minds” (117). But naïve realism is the Ur-mistake for Davies. So it appears that autistics are right and normal people are wrong as far as our attitude towards the other beings is concerned (this seems to reveal something about people in the academy or in laboratories, but I cannot further investigate the matter now).

(3) I’m always on the lookout for people using rhetoric in place of solid argumentation, and the reviewer accuses Davies of doing just that:

Seen in this light, Davies’ book is a shining example of militant naturalistic rhetoric, rather than as providing a convincing case for a stricter and monopolistic (I would be tempted to say “imperialistic”) variety of naturalism. This may help explain the unexpected religious overtones of Davies’ prose and his continuous reference to the “weaknesses”, “frailties”, “biases”, “infirmities” of our (fallen?) nature and especially his relentless admonition not to be led “astray”…

Costa certainly makes it sound like Davies is one of those militant atheists who feels the need to latch on to a worldview in the same way that militant religious people do. I saw Davies give a talk recently at U. of Colorado, and he didn’t come across that way; I’ll have to take a look at the book.

I’ll be the moderator at the Is Intelligent Design Viable? debate that will take place at Indiana University on November 5. The debate will be between philosopher William Lane Craig and biologist Francisco J. Ayala. You can get more information about it here.

The third and final part of my latest podcast interview with Casey Luskin is now available here.

I’m planning on being an audience member at The Legacy of Darwin Intelligent Design Conference in Castle Rock, Colorado on October 30-31 (just an hour from Boulder, where I live). It should be interesting.

From the press release for secular media:

This conference is designed to help everyone understand the relevant evidence and the issues involved in this debate.

From the press release for religious organizations:

This conference is designed to equip ordinary Christians to have an extraordinary impact on our culture.

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.