By Paul Newall (2010)
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 and the result is a superb work of philosophy, engaging for specialists and lay readers alike.
The main complaint at this endeavour is plainly that ID is not a scientific theory of greater or lesser repute but actually an intellectually-upgraded creationism, part of a wider programme that seeks to denigrate science and advance religion. Monton states at the outset that one of the ideas motivating his work is that "for the purposes of evaluating the doctrine of intelligent design, the cultural agenda of intelligent design proponents doesn't matter" (p12). The general principle – "bad people are capable of giving good arguments" (p13) – is obviously sound: it is ad hominem to argue otherwise and the truth or falsity of intelligent design is not logically related to its use in cultural or political debate. The religious persuasions, if any, of its proponents are also irrelevant: it should stand or fall on its own merits.
However, the principle objection to Monton's work and the complaint of ID opponents is that debates do not work in this way. Monton closes his book by saying that he cares only about "getting at the truth" (p156) but so, presumably, do both ID advocates and opponents. Monton does not wish to "change minds with bad argumentation" (p156) but perhaps what needs to be questioned is not his conviction – hopefully the truth and good arguments will ultimately trump poor arguments, employed in support of some short-term goal – but the assumption that matters are actually (or ever) decided by better arguments and approximation to truth?
Ideally, the resources and funding available to research would plentiful and easy to allocate, such that ID advocates and opponents alike would accept Monton's arguments and allow or get involved in some degree of work on ID, alongside evolutionary biology and other areas of science; in reality, programmes and departments already use whatever rhetoric they can muster to try to compete with one another and to convince governments and the public that their work deserves support over and above other possibilities. Such circumstances lead to exactly the situation we see: ID advocates seizing on Monton's work as aiding their own justifications for the validity of ID while ID opponents accuse him (wrongly but understandably) of supporting ID and having a detrimental impact on "real" science, even if both perspectives overstate the influence of a work of philosophy. In fairness to Monton, he explicitly disavows any interest in such issues and wants his book to be read on its own terms, and he is to be admired for doing so and for insisting that some people can and must be allowed to remain outside cultural debates and focus on philosophical arguments.
Although Monton spends several pages looking at arguments against evolution, he quickly concludes that they are "among the weaker arguments that proponents of intelligent design give" (p28). Responding to the charge that he gives too much credit to ID in "counting non-evolution-based arguments for a designer as intelligent design arguments", he simply concedes that readers may think this if they wish; he bounds his investigation by saying that what he is really interested in are "the non-evolution-based arguments" (p29). He reviews some of the objections to ID on the grounds that it is simply a dressed-up version of creationism or else that the posited designer has to be the Christian God, showing (rather too easily, it should be said) that these do not follow from either what the ID proponents say or from the arguments ID opponents provide. For those skeptical of ID supporting anything other than God as the designer, Monton provides directed panspermia as an option, along with the possibility that we are living in a computer simulation (p41). As with many of his arguments involving possibilities, these do not need to be true; he simply requires alternatives that might be true in order to refute the insistence that some other circumstances must obtain. Ultimately, though, none of this matters: it should be possible to consider ID as an atheist, without the accompanying belief in God and without a desire to destroy evolution or science as a whole. Since Monton is an atheist, he can certainly try.
The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, concerns the Dover court case. Monton has been severely critical of the decision of Judge John E. Jones III in his paper Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision. Referencing Larry Laudan's earlier criticisms of attempts to oppose creationism via demarcation criteria, Monton addresses the specific criteria that Jones employed against ID. (Later in the book (p73), Monton agrees with Laudan that demarcation criteria do emotive work for us but little else, meaning that the correct response to "is ID science?" is to reject the demarcation problem altogether.)
The first of Jones's claims is that the arguments against evolution made by ID proponents have been "refuted by the scientific community". Monton responds by noting that even if this is so, it has no impact on the "positive doctrines" (p50) of ID; in other words, the “non-evolution-based arguments” Monton is concerned with. More importantly, even if these arguments were also refuted, it simply does not follow that a refuted doctrine is no longer science (Monton gives the example of Newtonian physics, still taught in schools long after being refuted).
Monton's reply to Jones's second assertion, that Michael Behe's argument for irreducible complexity is flawed, follows largely from the first. That a theory may have errors or have been refuted altogether is no argument that it is unscientific or that the same non-evolution-based arguments for ID are hopelessly flawed. Monton spends little time on these two points because the decision does not warrant anything further.
Monton's third criticism relates to Jones's stipulation that science employs methodological naturalism. Monton provides a story – an implausible scenario, by his own admission, but a possible one nonetheless – according to which God is apparently using Morse code to contact scientists, telling them that if they perform their experiments in a specific way then He will cause a miracle. In this story, the scientists do as they are instructed and the miracles happen. The results do not prove that God exists but, according to Monton, they provide evidence for the hypothesis that He does. Since the hypothesis is clearly testable (the miracles could fail to materialise), it follows that the claim that "Supernaturalism is not allowed" in science (p52, due to Robert Pennock at the trial) is false. (As an aside, Monton says in the notes (n44, p162) that his arguments here are "mostly original with [him]". That this site was independently discussing similar things – for example, here – is therefore nice to know.)
Monton goes on to object to the defense in the trial having not pushed Pennock to clarify his claim that Laudan endorses methodological naturalism (notwithstanding how clearly Laudan has stated his opposition to demarcation criteria like this). Monton says that the defense team "dropped the ball" (p56), an amusing analogy given that Michael Ruse has called Laudan a "Monday morning quarterback" (see here). Although Monton is correct about this, Del Ratzsch's argument about the inherent incompleteness of methodological naturalism might have been better employed here. Ratzsch has argued (see here) – and I have expanded (here) – that adopting naturalism methodologically either means our understanding of the world is inevitably skewed (if it turns out that there are non-natural elements to it, whatever they might be) or else reduces to philosophical naturalism if we assume (or declare) that science can only deal with the natural. Pennock seems to have had something similar in mind (pp64-65) – a "two truths" approach that I referred to in the linked discussion – in which we accept the skew. Monton registers his unease with this resolution of the difficulty and it is interesting that he does not interpret Pennock’s remarks as implying something akin to empirical adequacy or a form of instrumentalism, even though he references Bas van Fraassen on several occasions. Monton might also have used another argument: there simply is no "scientific method" employed in science, as opposed to methods, so invoking methodological naturalism when no one really knows what the methodology is supposed to be (or, for that matter, a coherent definition of what naturalism is) does not seem a very scientific approach.
Another issue with Jones's proclamation is that it is not clear a priori what will come of adopting an hypothesis, even one involving the supernatural. Discussing Pennock's book Tower of Babel, Monton notes that if there is a supernatural cause or influence present, this does not imply stopping at "God did it". He also quotes Ken Miller in chapter 3 (p112), who argues that a theistic science would "cease to explore, because it already knows the answers". The problem is that this assumes that theists consider God a complete answer. Historically, scientists – or natural philosophers, more accurately – who believed in God, His creation and that God's existence could be inferred from the natural world did not cease investigating anything; instead, they sought to discover how God might have constructed the world, believing that in so doing they were granting greater glory to Him. Monton looks in particular at Newton because Pennock tries to suggest that Newton adopted methodological naturalism (p63); Monton provides a quote from Newton’s Opticks in support but really the matter is straightforward for Newton scholars (see my interview with Stephen Snobelen here): "it is now clear that some of Newton’s pre-existing theological and alchemical ideas actually helped inform some aspects of his natural philosophy or science". These kinds of motivations and influences are skimmed over in debate because the history of science fails to support anachronistic claims about the methodological ideas of early scientists and indeed actively undermines them – quite an irony given the criticism of ID advocates that they do not know enough about the subjects they get involved in.
It is in the section entitled "some somewhat plausible intelligent design arguments" that Monton begins offering reasons why ID might be more credible than the evolution-based arguments suggest. The "somewhat plausible" category includes the fine-tuning argument, the kalam cosmological argument, an argument from the very existence of life at all and the simulation argument. Each of these is explained and worked through in detail, setting out what they appear to suggest regarding design but also noting possible shortfalls or areas of concern. Monton's objective here is not to provide a definitive argument for design but to show that these arguments are "somewhat plausible" or at least not easily dismissed.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this treatment occurs with the third argument, looking at how it could be that life came about at all. Monton invokes his own discussion of the probability that life could come about in an infinite universe (see his Life is evidence for an infinite universe and his interview here) and concludes (p104) that "one shouldn't use the development of life from non-life to argue for the existence of a God-like designer". This is because his infinite universe argument suggests that any event with a non-zero probability is (almost) certain to come about, including the jump from non-life to life, however unlikely it might be. For Monton, the matter turns on an assessment of conditional probability: if we assume God exists, how likely is it that life would come about? Alternatively, given that God does not exist, how likely is life? Monton offers his own opinion that life is slightly more likely to happen given that God exists – hence a "somewhat plausible" argument – but that this likelihood is insufficient to stop him being an atheist.
The final chapter ("an extra free bonus", Monton calls it (p133)) looks at whether ID should be taught in schools. Monton considers the shortcomings of school education as it stands; after all, the presupposition behind most criticisms of teaching ID is that science education otherwise functions as it should. Monton quotes Carl Weiman at the University of Colorado, who has argued (along with plenty of other educational reformists) that improving science education "requires abandoning the longstanding and widespread assumption that understanding science means simply learning a requisite body of facts and problem-solving recipes". Monton advocates "non-proselytizing teaching", by which he means not promoting orthodoxy or an unorthodox alternative but instead seeking to develop critical reasoning via "presenting them with the issues that we as a society debate now" (p149).
Monton sets out the specifics of his ideas by considering some objections. The first is that allowing ID to be taught would be teaching religion, to which Monton replies that there is nothing explicitly or inherently religious about ID, even if it turns out that the designer really is God and no matter many ID advocates believe this. He also touches on the complaint that critical thinking – not religion – is what we should be teaching children, responding that if we want to achieve this then comparing and contrasting ID with orthodox theories would help facilitate it. Indeed, if we do not have a "bad" theory to teach in such classes, and if this "bad" theory is not expounded in sufficient detail to at least give students an idea of why it initially appears credible, then it is difficult to see how such critical thinking lessons could come about.
The second complaint is that teaching ID misrepresents the status of ID in science, granting it false credibility. Monton says that some legitimate scientists – legitimate in the sense of their accreditation, at least – support ID, but no doubt ID opponents would retort that an endorsement of ID is enough to undermine their legitimacy. Ultimately, Monton does not need to tackle this complaint: he states that he would not wish to see ID taught if the lessons "pretend that it is widely scientifically respected" or else if it receives "equal time with mainstream scientific theories". The chief requirement remains the "intellectual development of the students" (p151).
Skipping a step, the rejoinder that this would not be teaching genuine critical thinking is the fourth objection Monton looks at; that is, the claim that advocates of ID are opposed to critical thinking because it leads to the questioning of their religion, so they seek to restrict it to evolution and to creating a false impression that biologists actually believe there is something worth debating. Monton's reply here is a little weak: he wants all students – theists and atheists alike – to be challenged in school, even if it means their own beliefs are subjected to uncomfortable scrutiny, but it is unclear how this ideal translates into classroom practice. After all, ID opponents do not deny the value of critical thinking in the science classroom, but they do worry that ID-supporting teachers will skew their presentations or suggest a controversy or debate in biology where neither exist. That said, it is not at all obvious why ID-opposing teachers would not also be unsuitable and if we try to achieve control over the classroom to preclude inaccurate teaching then perhaps no one will want to teach any more?
Returning to the third concern, Monton looks at the insistence that only the current consensus should be taught as science, to which he offers two responses. The first is simple: we already fail to teach the consensus because students learn about Newtonian physics, which was shown to be false and replaced by relativity. We might protest that Newtonian physics is still truthlike in most situations a student would encounter in a science class but the point is clear enough: deciding what is taught involves more than a straightforward invoking of consensus opinion. Monton also returns to Weiman's conception of education and wants to avoid "treating science as a monolithic body of facts" (p152): teaching the consensus view most of the time need not mean doing so always. ID opponents would doubtless reply that there is already insufficient time in the curriculum, which only goes to show that tinkering around the edges of education – and even discussing the inclusion of ID in these terms – is not really enough.
The final objections are that the question of ID's validity is not really a controversy and that teaching it as such is asking too much of both students and teachers. Monton's counterarguments here are unconvincing: it may well be that some ID advocates are presenting science-based arguments for it and that more can be achieved in the classroom than we give credit for, but Monton wants students to know that "science is a dynamic enterprise" and holds that learning about scientific controversies "can give them a better understanding of how science actually happens" (p155). The problem is that ID needs more than a handful of scientists and "somewhat plausible" arguments for it if it is to replace some other potential controversy as a teaching tool. This, after all, is what ID opponents will argue: if we are going to teach how science "actually happens" and show students scientific controversies then there are more than enough options within mainstream science; we do not need to bring in ID. These controversies – such as progress within evolution or the debate over adaptation – exist precisely because science is not monolithic, even if its public rhetoric (usually to combat ID, sadly) may often suggest otherwise. ID would only be preferable (at the moment, anyway) if it has other merits that the other possibilities lack, such as it being a "socio-culturo-political" dispute (p154).
Overall, the book is an easy read and a great success. Even if the reader objects to Monton’s claims, he gives a variety of engaging arguments – involving dartboards and the likes of Dr Evil – and his work is exactly the kind of applied philosophy that might help people appreciate why we study the subject in the first place. Moreover, it is hard not to admire his candour in envisaging an audience of interested observers (the "remnant" of Albert Jay Nock, perhaps?), rather than those "just looking for the latest salvo to defend their side in an ostensible culture war" (p157). It may not work out this way and some ID advocates may be critical of the false legitimacy Monton supposedly provides ID, but if philosophers of science are not both willing and able to engage in this kind of study then who will?