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Bradley Monton: Debating the Philosophy of Science

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Bradley Monton is a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specialises in the philosophy of science, particularly the philosophy of physics. He is the author of several papers looking at the intersection of the philosophy of science with public debates surrounding the issue of what should or should not be taught in science classrooms and has a keen interest in arguments for or against the existence of God that rely on science. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him some questions on these and other areas.

- Interviewed by Paul Newall (2007)

PN: In the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design was creationism and not science. This ruling greatly heartened scientists, but you were critical of it, in your paper Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision. Could you explain your objections?

BM: I was disturbed by the fact that so many people seemed heartened by this decision. In general in life, one will get into trouble if one doesn’t distinguish good arguments for a conclusion one likes from bad arguments for a conclusion one likes. In the Dover case, most science-minded folks wanted the judge to reach the decision that ID isn’t science, and hence shouldn’t be taught in public school science classes, so they were happy that he did. The problem is that the argument he gave was flawed.

It wasn’t completely the judge’s fault that he gave a flawed argument; he was relying on the testimony presented to him in the trial, and the anti-ID people had philosophers like Robert Pennock testifying, and Pennock has (in my opinion) confused ideas about demarcation issues. The law firm representing the Dover school board did a really bad job dealing with the philosophy of science issues – they should have had as one of their expert witnesses a reputable philosopher of science defending a view opposed to Pennock’s, but they didn’t. When they asked Pennock about the demarcation views of other philosophers of science (Larry Laudan in particular) Pennock gave what I think was a misleading answer, not adequately admitting that his view is a controversial one in the philosophy of science community.

Pennock endorses methodological naturalism, and (in part as a result) Judge Jones did too, but I think methodological naturalism is a bad principle to endorse. Methodological naturalism is the principle that holds that when doing science one should follow the methodology that one can only postulate natural causes and explanations; one can’t consider supernatural causes or explanations. There are two main versions of the doctrine of methodological naturalism, and many people who endorse it aren’t clear on which version they are endorsing. The weak version holds that, since we don’t have evidence for supernatural things, we shouldn’t be allowed to postulate them when doing science. The strong version holds that it’s part of the very nature of science that we can’t postulate supernatural things. The difference between the two is that those who endorse the weak version would allow that, if we started to get empirical evidence for the existence of supernatural things, we should change the methodology of science, so that we are allowed to consider supernatural hypotheses. Those who endorse the strong version would say that, even in the face of this sort of evidence, when one is doing science one can’t consider supernatural hypotheses.

While it wasn’t completely clear, I got the sense that Judge Jones was endorsing the strong version: he said that ID may be true, but it isn’t science. I think it’s unreasonable for these sorts of methodological considerations to have the consequence that science isn’t a pursuit of truth. That may well be the case – it’s controversial in the philosophy of science community as to whether the aim of science is truth – but I don’t think this methodology-based argument is the right way to get there. (Bas van Fraassen, in his The Scientific Image, gives what I think is a much better argument in favour of the doctrine that the aim of science isn’t truth.)

PN: What are the problems in general with attempting to demarcate science from non-science or pseudo-science? Even though there are philosophical difficulties involved, should scientists continue to make a distinction in practice so that the business of science can proceed?

BM: Before I offer my thoughts, I should point out that the best paper on this issue of how (and whether) we should demarcate science from non-science is Larry Laudan’s The Demise of the Demarcation Problem. It was originally published in what as far as I can tell is a rather obscure collection on Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis, back in 1983, but it’s still the most influential paper on the topic today. While I don’t agree with everything in the paper, I basically think that it’s on the right track.

Laudan points out that every attempt to give general criteria that we can use to say what counts as science and what doesn’t hasn’t been successful. This isn’t the sort of argument that can be given quickly; each purported demarcation criteria has to be carefully analyzed, and shown to be unsuccessful. Laudan’s paper isn’t long enough to really do this successfully, but I think he shows how the argument would go.

Now, just because extant demarcation criteria don’t work, that doesn’t mean that there are no demarcation criteria. Surely what goes on in a standard chemistry lab counts as science, and what goes on at a football game counts as non-science. So why can’t we give a successful demarcation criterion? To do so we’d have to do conceptual analysis – we’d have to give necessary and sufficient conditions for what it is for some practice to count as a scientific practice. The problem here is that conceptual analysis is notoriously difficult, even for seemingly simple concepts. An exercise I like to do with my students is to break them into groups and have them try to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for what it takes for some object to be a chair. I’ve never seen a successful analysis of the concept of a chair.

PN: How have scientists - if they have at all - responded to your critique of the Dover decision? In your experience, do scientists appreciate philosophical critiques of their practices, methodologies and assumptions, or do they resist such philosophical inquiry?

BM: I actually haven’t talked with any scientists about my Dover paper. In general, I find that scientists don’t concern themselves too much with philosophical issues, which is fine by me. When they do, the results are often not good. For example, in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, he gives a philosophical argument against the existence of God which is pretty bad. Al Plantinga rightly criticizes it in his review.

On a more positive note, sometimes I think it’s good that scientists don’t concern themselves with philosophy because by avoiding philosophy they’ll do better science as a result. For example, I once had a physicist who was doing work on quantum gravity ask me: do philosophers have good arguments to show that space and time have to be aspects of fundamental reality? Researchers in quantum gravity were (and are) pursuing theories where space and time aren’t part of fundamental reality, and this physicist wanted to know if that was legitimate. My answer to him was “no”, and I would have given something like that answer even if I thought that there were good arguments for that view; I wouldn’t want philosophy to stifle scientific developments. I’ve tried a couple times to write a philosophy paper taking up this type of relationship between philosophy and physics in more detail, but so far I haven’t managed to produce anything solid.

Also, a lot of my research is in philosophy of physics, specifically on the issue of how best to understand quantum mechanics. Here I think there is lots of room for fruitful interaction between physicists and philosophers. But here we're not stepping back and analyzing the nature of science; we’re actually engaging in a particular mode of inquiry which is on the border between physics and philosophy. Because philosophers of physics and physicists who work on foundations of physics issues share the same practices, methodologies, and assumptions, fruitful collaborative work gets done.

PN: Given your argument that it is improper to demarcate evolution from ID on the ground of the difficulty (impossibility?) of demarcating science from non-science, and your argument that we cannot exclude supernatural explanations from scientific inquiry in advance, how should school districts respond to those who argue in favour of including intelligent design in school curricula?

BM: There are two ways I can answer this question. One is as a political philosophy question, about how the ideal society’s educational system should be structured. Here I have libertarian sentiments – I support a system where all schools are private, where the government would only get involved in setting minimal standards for what students need to be taught, and perhaps in having some sort of voucher system to ensure that all children get an adequate education. The minimal government standards I would set would allow ID arguments to be taught in science classes, as long as the science was taught as well. Basically I think parents should be allowed to decide what their children learn, subject only to the sort of guidance that the children aren’t taught horribly wrong things.

This is basically how our society works nowadays – parents can teach their children pretty much whatever they want. The main difference is that there is also a public school system, but for those parents who choose not to send their kids to public school there are (as in my ideal society) minimal government standards for what the kids should be taught.

So this leads to the question – what should be taught in public school? Well, it’s legitimate to teach ID in public school, as long as it gets taught in a comparative religion class, or a current events class, or something along those lines. The controversy is over what should be taught in public school science classes. Here my basic opinion is that it doesn’t matter that much whether ID gets taught or not. There are all sorts of problems with how science is taught in public school, and whether ID is added as a component of the curriculum isn’t going to affect things that much (as long as it’s not made the focus of the class – but that clearly wasn’t the case in the Dover trial; the issue there was whether a brief (and rather silly) disclaimer would be read).

We’d be much better off as a society if we focused on big-picture issues regarding how science is taught – right now there is too much focus on memorization of facts and mathematical problem-solving, and not enough on teaching methodologies for scientific research and conceptual understanding. I could see ID being incorporated really well into a discussion of the latter issues, regarding methodologies and conceptual issues in science. This might involve teaching the students a bit of philosophy of science, in addition to the science, but I don’t think this would be a bad thing.

Of course, the people who worry about ID being taught in public school are really worried about the proselytizing teacher. Well, I agree, teachers shouldn’t be allowed to proselytize, whether it be about religious matters, or politics, or sex, or what have you. There’s nothing special about the ID debate here, in my opinion. There are ways of teaching without proselytizing – one puts the issues on the table, fairly presents the arguments on both sides, and lets the students critically think about the issues. If ID were taught that way in public school science classes, I don’t think it would be a big deal.

The ID movement is going to run into trouble is they keep trying to get ID in the schools at the school board level, as they did at Dover. They’d be better off just trying to get it to be the case that individual teachers are allowed to teach ID as a topic if the teacher chooses to, as long as the teacher also covers all that’s required by the curriculum. I’d love to see a test case where a teacher was brought to court for doing that, when the teacher taught ID in a non-proselytizing way.

PN: What is your opinion of how online media such as blogs and discussion forums have contribute to this debate, particularly arguments that involve the philosophy of science?

BM: I like how they can easily bring people together who are interested in a topic to have a discussion. After the Dover trial, there was a lot of online debate, which was fun to read about. I posted my paper about Dover online just a week or so after the judge’s decision was issued, and my paper quickly got a lot of discussion. That couldn’t have happened in pre-internet days.

I also like how search engines make it easy to find a discussion on some particular topic that one might not have ever found otherwise. Sometimes the quality of the discussion isn’t that good, but then again the quality of discussions one has in person sometimes isn’t that good either.

PN: Why do you think this debate has been so acrimonious? Could it have been otherwise?

BM: It’s clear that the debate need not be acrimonious – there are people like Del Ratzsch, Robin Collins, Neil Manson, and I who are engaging in the debate in a respectful, objection fashion.

Some people think that the acrimony – the involvement of emotive rhetoric – is how minds are changed and decisions won. I don’t know whether that’s true or not – that’s a psychological question that would need to be addressed with empirical research. I do know that I don’t much care whether I change minds or win decisions in the public forum. What I care about is getting at the truth. I wouldn’t want to change minds with bad argumentation, and whether I give good arguments for the views I think are right is much more important to me than whether, say, ID gets taught in public school.

Now, if the teaching of ID in public school will somehow cause our society to become an oppressive theocracy, I would be concerned, and might even be willing to sacrifice my quest for truth in favour of political expediency. But I really don’t think that’s going to happen, and absent such extreme possibilities, I’m going to pursue good arguments, without worrying about whether they are effective arguments.

One thing to keep in mind here is that the focus on changing minds and winning decisions tends to be a short-term focus, while philosophy arguments are (hopefully, at least) around for the long term. This may be hopelessly Pollyannaish of me, but I envision my writings being read 200 or 300 years from now, in a political climate without the sort of heated rhetoric that we have now, and I picture those readers saying: “yes, Monton had it right”. Those people are my real audience, not the people who are just looking for the latest salvo to defend their side in a culture war.

PN: In your paper Life is Evidence for an Infinite Universe, you wrote: "Richard Dawkins has said that one could not be an intellectually fulfilled atheist before Darwin; in my opinion one cannot be an intellectually fulfilled atheist until one recognizes that the universe is infinite." Could you explain what you mean by this, and why life is evidence for a spatially infinite universe?

BM: Regarding the first question, here perhaps I let my desire for rhetorical flourish get the better of me. But here’s what I had in mind, which I still think is basically right. Dawkins’ point, I take it, is that before Darwin one could be a rational atheist, but there would be a gap in our understanding of the world – we wouldn’t understand how complex life came to be. Because of this gap, we can’t be intellectually fulfilled. My point was that, even understanding how complex life came to be, there is a further gap in our understanding, that of understanding how life came to exist in the first place. An appeal to the infinite universe helps account for how life came to exist in the first place, and hence fills that further gap in our understanding.

Even now there are gaps in our understanding of the world. For example, I don’t think we understand the phenomenon of consciousness very well. So in that sense, I would say that, even now, we can’t be intellectually fulfilled atheists. Some theists might take the phenomenon of consciousness to provide some evidence for the existence of God, and I think they would be reasonable to do so. We atheists have to say: we don’t understand this, and in that sense we’re not intellectually fulfilled, but nevertheless we hold out hope that there is a naturalistic explanation of this phenomenon.

Regarding the question of why life is evidence for a spatially infinite universe, here’s the basic idea. My argument appeals to what’s sometimes called “the likelihood principle”. This principle holds that, if some bit of evidence is more probable under the assumption that Hypothesis A is true than it is under the assumption that Hypothesis B is true, then that bit of evidence provides evidence for Hypothesis A over Hypothesis B. This principle is pretty uncontroversial – it follows from basic probability theory. Now, take the evidence that life exists, and consider two hypotheses: the hypothesis that life is infinite, and the hypothesis that life is finite. The existence of life is more probable under the assumption that the universe is infinite than it is under the assumption that the universe is finite, and hence the existence of life provides evidence for the hypothesis that the universe is infinite. It may not provide a lot of evidence, but my argument is that it provides at least some, and I think that’s interesting enough.

PN: In several of your papers you have discussed William Dembski's design inference based on the concept of specified complexity, which roughly holds that certain patterns (such as life arising from non-life) are so unlikely in a naturalistic context that we should instead infer that a designer is responsible for life. In your analysis of a spatially infinite universe, you show why Dembski's reasoning is flawed; but if instead it turns out (against current evidence) that the universe really is finite and restricted to the observable universe, do you think that Dembski's specified complexity claim has force? Or should we instead think that life arising is not just a result of chance, but of other organizing factors?

BM: This is a good question, and it’s not one I’ve addressed in my published writings. I think there are a number of good critiques of Dembski; the reason I’ve focussed on my particular critique is that (i) I think it’s a strong one, and (ii) no one had given it yet. So even if my critique is wrong, the other ones may well be right.

One problem with Dembski’s model for design inferences is that he views the design inference as an all-or-nothing choice: either you infer design or you don’t. I’d like to view it instead as a probabilistic argument: the question is whether some bit of evidence provides evidence for design. If we learned that the whole universe is the observable universe, I would think that the existence of complex life would provide some evidence for design. It might not be a lot of evidence though, in the sense that one’s probability for design might go up very much. And in general when evaluating probabilities one has to take into account all the evidence one has. So the existence of life might provide evidence for the existence of God, but the existence of something else (like the plague) might provide evidence against.

I don’t really have an opinion on how likely it is for life to arise from non-life, given the appropriate conditions, and I certainly don’t have an opinion on how often those conditions obtain in the universe. I’m generally sceptical of those people who talk of the universe being self-organizing, or having an built-in drive to produce intelligence, or what have you, but the claims would have to be made more precise than they generally are in order to be seriously evaluated.

PN: Although an infinite universe would presumably have an infinite amount of resources, making us expect that any possible outcome, no matter how remote, should arise an infinite number of times, it also seems to be the case that regions of space will forever be disconnected by the speed-of-light limit, hence foreclosing them for any causal contact. Does this idea at all influence the probability calculations we should make about spatial infinity?

BM: People sometimes try to say that there’s an important philosophical issue here, but I don’t think there is. I think that all that’s being pointed out is that there’s an epistemic limitation on what we can directly observe. I don’t think this influences any of the metaphysical lessons one should draw from the existence of these other regions. There are all sorts of things that we can’t directly observe, from the interior of the sun to the quarks in an atom, and yet we think we have good evidence for their existence, and we don’t treat them any differently in our reasoning about the world than we do the things that we can directly observe. Of course, we might be sceptical that quarks actually exist, just as we might be sceptical that these distant regions of the universe exist, but those questions have to be adjudicated by appealing to a combination of empirical evidence and theoretical considerations. We can’t be certain that quarks exist, just as we can’t be certain that the distant regions of the universe exist, just as – for that matter – we can’t be certain that other minds exist. (Perhaps you have consciousness, but everyone else is just a mindless hulk. Can you prove otherwise?)

PN: You have said that in a spatially infinite universe, we should expect that there exists an infinite number of inhabited worlds, and even an infinite number of worlds with intelligent entities. This would be so no matter how unlikely life/intelligence is, because in a spatially infinite universe anything with a non-zero probability of happening would be expected to happen not just once but an infinite number of times. Could we go further and say, along with the physicist Max Tegmark, that in a spatially infinite universe, we should expect that there are an infinite number of exact duplicates of planet earth, and hence that we all have an infinite number of doppelgaengers?

BM: I don’t think you can get the exact duplicates result, but this has to do with some technical issues associated with ergodic theory – Tegmark would know more about this that I do. The result I think you can get is arbitrarily close duplicates. So for any measure of closeness you pick (as long as it isn’t absolute match) we should expect that there are an infinite number of systems that at least that closely match planet earth.

This is certainly surprising but I don’t think the fact that it’s surprising constitutes an argument against it.

PN: Some philosophers have argued that if in fact the universe is infinite, and we all have an infinite number of doppelgangers playing out every possible variation of "our" lives, this implies ethical nihilism, because there is no way to add "good" to the total amount of good in the universe, since the total amount of "good" is already infinite (as is the total amount of "bad"; so we cannot add to or subtract from the total amount of "bad" either.) Should this sort of reasoning about ethics concern us?

BM: I think this is an interesting line of reasoning and it’s important to consider, but ultimately I don’t think that it’s a good argument. By far the best paper on this is by Peter Vallentyne and Shelly Kagan, called Infinite Value and Finitely Additive Value Theory, published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1997. (A draft copy is available here.) Vallentyne and Kagan point out that we all clearly think that a universe with an infinite number of agents is better if each agent has two units of utility than if each agent has one, even though the total amount of utility in each scenario is the same. They then extend this line of reasoning in interesting ways, to try to establish principles that enable us to determine whether one scenario is better than another, even when both scenarios have an infinite amount of utility.

Of course, it would be possible for someone to deny the initial intuition; they could say that a universe where each agent has one unit of utility is no better than if each agent has two units of utility. If someone is willing to say that, I would simply say that they are ethically confused, but there’s not much more I could say beyond that. (I guess if I had to I would start by asking them what universe they would prefer to live in.)

PN: Presentism is the idea that only the present exits. The past used to exist but no longer does; the future does not yet exist, but will come into being. Eternalism is the idea that past, present and future events, people, objects and ideas are all ontologically "on par" with one another. Eternalism seems to be supported by special and general relativity, which relativises the concept of "Now" to reference frames and seems to suggest that in some important sense, past, present and future all "exist" in a kind of ontological block. Yet you reject this, describing yourself as a presentist and a Heraclitean (believing that change is a real aspect of reality) as opposed to an eternalist and a Parmenidean (believing that change is an illusion). Why are you a Heraclitean presentist?

BM: The best way for me to answer this question is to just report a philosophical intuition I have. I can’t back up this intuition with any sort of solid argument, and that’s why I haven’t published a paper on this topic, but here’s the intuition. I think that consciousness couldn’t exist in a world without an objective flow of time. I think that if there’s just a static block universe, consciousness wouldn’t exist at all. I wish I had a good argument for that, and while I do have various ideas in my head for why this is the case, they aren’t the sort of ideas that I could express in words in a few pages and have them be convincing to other people.

With regard to the question of presentism being in conflict with relativity theory, I think that there probably is such a conflict, but it doesn’t follow that presentism is false. It could be that relativity theory is false, and in fact we have good evidence that relativity theory is false – it conflicts with quantum theory. This is why physicists are trying to come up with a new theory, a theory of quantum gravity, that will supplant both relativity theory and quantum theory. This leads to the question: is presentism in conflict with quantum gravity? I have a paper addressing that question, Presentism and Quantum Gravity. In short, my answer to that question is a nuanced “no”.

PN: If eternalism really is right, doesn't this imply fatalism? No matter what we do, would it not already be essentially foreordained?

BM: Well, there may be a truth of that matter about what will happen, but it wouldn’t have to be essentially foreordained. Imagine that someone had a reliable crystal ball, so that they could see what would happen in the future. They can know what choices you’re going to make, but it’s still you making those choices.

PN: What is wrong with the fine-tuning argument for the existence of a universal designer?

BM: I have a paper, God, Fine-Tuning, and the Problem of Old Evidence, where I try to address this issue. (A draft copy is available here.) I think that the fine-tuning argument is a tricky argument, and I don’t think there are any knock-down objections to it. I also don’t think that the argument is completely flawed – I think that reasonable people can have starting opinions such that, when they hear the argument, it leads them to shift their probabilities in favour of the hypothesis that God exists. I also think that it’s reasonable to have opinions such that the argument doesn’t lead to that shift.

PN: What are you working on now, and what are your future plans?

BM: I’m finishing up a book, Godless Physics: A Defence, where I argue that physics does not provide evidence for the existence of God. The idea is to take up physics-based design arguments, and to explain why they don’t work, but also to explain why many of the extant objections to these arguments are flawed.

As for future research, I’m really not sure. I’ve been thinking of working on some applied probability theory issues, such as how formal probabilistic reasoning should be used in the court of law. We’ll have to see!

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