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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design – Part 1

Posted by jlwile on January 2, 2010

I usually love to read the works of atheists, because they tend to remind me how irrational the atheist faith is. For example, I love reading PZ Meyers, because not only is he an excellent writer, but his writing is so emotional that it displays the fact that his atheism comes not from rational thought, but from some deep-seated anger or resentment that he harbors. In the same way, while Richard Dawkins knows a lot about biology, he is very sloppy with data, and he seems to be virtually unaware of how logic works. His writing makes it very clear that his atheism is not the result of rational thought. I even love it when “Norwegian Shooter” comments on this blog, because his refusal to look at even the simplest data makes it clear how desperately he clings to his atheistic faith.

However, there are some atheists who make me uncomfortable, and Dr. Bradley Monton is one of them. In his newest book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, he demonstrates quite clearly that not all atheists are irrational. This, of course, makes me uncomfortable, because it is easier to dismiss the atheistic view when it is represented by buffoons like Myers, Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like. When it is represented by people like Dr. Bradley Monton, you have to at least sit up and take notice.

As the subtitle to this book indicates, Dr. Monton wants to defend intelligent design. He doesn’t do so because he believes in intelligent design. That is quite clear. He says:

I think that there is SOME evidence for an intelligent designer, and in fact, I think that there is some evidence that the intelligent designer is God. The arguments…make me less certain of my atheism than I would be had I never heard the arguments. The evidence isn’t enough to make me stop being an atheist, though. (p. 39 – emphasis his)

So…if he doesn’t believe in intelligent design, why is he defending it in this book? He gives the answer to that question better than anyone else. In discussing the famous “Dover Decision” in which judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design isn’t really science, Dr. Monton says:

The reason this matters is that it’s a dangerous practice to try to impose rigid boundaries on what counts as science. For example, as I will show, a consequence of Jones’s criteria [for science] is that the aim of science is not truth…My position is that scientists should be free to pursue hypotheses as they see fit, without being constrained by a particular philosophical account of what science is. (pp. 48-49)

In the end, then, Dr. Monton is saying much the same thing as Dr. Cornelius G. Hunter says in his book, Science’s Blind Spot. If the job of science is to find the actual explanation for why nature appears as it does, then all avenues must be addressed. To arbitrarily shut off some avenues because they contradict some philosophical notion of what science needs to be is to automatically say, “If that’s the way it really is, scientists have no business finding out about it.” That is nonsense, and Dr. Monton makes this point much more clearly than does Dr. Hunter.

In fact, while Dr. Hunter’s book is all about why the definition of science should not rely on adherence to a purely naturalistic outlook, I think Dr. Monton puts the nail in the coffin much better. He does so by quoting three very well-known scientists or philosophers, all of whom are anti-intelligent design, and all of whom think that naturalism is not an inherent part of science. He quotes Dr. Mark Perakh (a well-known physicist who has authored more than 300 scientific papers) as saying that excluding the supernatural in science serves no useful purpose. He then discusses Dr. Larry Laudan (a well-respected philosopher of science), who rejects methodological naturalism as a demarcation criterion for science. Finally, he ends with Dr. Niall Shanks, who is currently the Curtis D. Gridley Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Wichita State University. Shanks says that a true methodological naturalist cannot rule out supernatural causes, because if supernatural intervention does exist in nature, a naturalist is duty-bound to find it.

In the end, then, Dr. Monton makes the strong case that if you want science to be about discovering the actual nature of the universe, you cannot limit it to non-supernatural processes. In addition, he discusses other intellectual luminaries who disagree with intelligent design but still do not think that the supernatural can be ruled out in science.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Monton’s reasoned position doesn’t sit well with a lot of people. After all, it is so easy to “take sides” on this issue. In the end, if you end up “defending” intelligent design in any way, people will think you are in the intelligent design camp. Here is how Dr. Monton puts it:

To give an anecdotal example of how much anyone who talks about intelligent design issues is viewed as being in one of two opposing camps, one of my colleagues at the University of Colorado (where I was hired in Spring 2006) was at a conference shortly after I was hired, and she was told something like, “I can’t believe you hired that creationist Bradley Monton. (p. 59)

Since Dr. Monton is an atheist, it is patently absurd to think of him as a creationist. However, simply because he defends intelligent design as a legitimate scientific pursuit, he is thought of by some to be a creationist! That’s how polarizing this subject is.

However, as Dr. Monton points out, there is no reason for this subject to be polarizing. It is all about science, and science is supposed to be about data and what reasonable conclusions can be drawn from the data. If intelligent design advocates can produce data and reasonable conclusions from those data, then it is only rational to accept it as a legitimate scientific pursuit. As the first quote I gave from Dr. Monton clearly indicates, he thinks that some data have been produced and some rational inferences have been drawn from those data. They are not enough to convince him of the truth of intelligent design, but they are enough to convince him that intelligent design is, indeed, science.

But wait a minute. Isn’t intelligent design really just promoted by a lot of people who want to get religion into the schools? As Dr. Monton says, that is irrelevant:

Bad people are capable of good arguments. I know some atheists with whom, to put it mildly, I wouldn’t want to be friends. These atheists are bad people. Nevertheless, I endorse many of the arguments that they give for atheism. (p. 13)

In other words, Dr. Monton says the motivation behind an argument and even the people behind the argument are irrelevant. Only the argument itself is important. If the argument is reasonable, it should be taken seriously, even if every proponent of that argument is a blithering idiot or an immoral sop.

In fact, Dr. Monton goes even further than that. He says that the inspiration of an argument is also irrelevant. It doesn’t even matter if intelligent design was “dreamed up” in order to defend theism. He says that a lot of good ideas have been the result of odd inspiration. For example, the chemist who came up with the structure for benzene, Friedrich Kekule’, got his inspiration from a dream he had of a snake biting its tail. We believe Kekule’s model of benzene not because of the source of its inspiration, but because of the data that support it. In the same way, intelligent design should be examined based not on its source of inspiration, but on the data.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t intelligent design lead to the idea that God “fiddles” with nature? If any scientific view allows for a supernatural entity to interfere, doesn’t that make science useless? Won’t scientists just give up and say, “That’s how God did it”? Dr. Monton makes a powerful case that the answer is “no.” After all, if science is about the actual way nature works, and if the actions of a supernatural being are a part of how it works, we scientists ought to find out about it. And, even more importantly, the history of science is filled with scientists who thought God actively intervened in nature, and science doesn’t seem to be hurt by that.

For example, Dr. Monton quotes Isaac Newton to show that Newton believed that God regularly intervened in nature by adjusting the motion of the planets. Nevertheless, Newton came up with the universal law of gravity that we now understand describes how the planets move in the solar system. Newton’s belief in God intervening when it came to the orbits of the planets didn’t hamper him from coming up with the equation physicists still use to determine those very orbits! Dr. Monton even goes on to quote Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who ridiculed Newton for his view that God regularly “winds up the watch” of the solar system. Then, of course, he quotes Leibniz himself:

I hold that when God works miracles, he does not do it in order to supply the wants of nature, but those of grace.

Here, then, are two luminaries in the history of science, and their science was not at all hampered by the fact that they thought God regularly intervened in the world. Why, then, should we assume that such an idea would inhibit science today?

In fact, Dr. Monton points out that there is actually a very similar view in today’s quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics says there are many events that are indeterminate. In other words, there is no specific cause. For example, we know what causes radioative isotopes to decay, but quantum mechanics specifically says there is no way to say when a specific radioactive isotope will decay. So if I am observing a single radioactive isotope and suddenly see it decay, the quantum mechanicist will say there is no way to say WHY it decayed specifically at that time. The cause is indeterminate. As Monton says, there is no inherent difference between saying “God did it” and “indeterminism did it.” Why are some scientists comfortable saying the latter but not the former? Dr. Monton sees no rational explanation.

But hasn’t science done a wonderful job so far without referring to the supernatural? Actually, Dr. Monton says the answer to that is not very clear. He discusses Dr. Denis Alexander’s objections to intelligent design. Alexander says that science has already discovered the explanations for so many things by not assuming a Designer, why should it do so now? Dr. Monton says:

While this is true, Alexander doesn’t point out that it’s also the case that the history of science is full of seemingly insoluble gaps in our understanding…For example, we don’t know what the nature of consciousness is, or how conscious mental activity arises out of physical brain activity…The list could go on…One can’t just say: all gaps in the past have been filled in naturalistically, so future gaps will be naturalistically filled in as well. (p. 116)

In the end, Dr. Monton makes a strong case that intelligent design is science. This is particularly powerful, since he is not a proponent of intelligent design. Instead, he is part of a rare breed: a rational atheist who is actually interested in promoting real science.

I have a LOT more to say about this wonderful book (including what makes me uncomfortable), because is it both intellectually challenging and incredibly well-reasoned. For now, however, I would say that if you are interested in the debate regarding intelligent design, regardless of where you stand on the issue, you should definitely read this book.
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NOTE: There is a second part to this review.

Comments

20 Responses to “Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design – Part 1”
  1. bobxxxx says:

    Dr. Jay L. Wile, the [censored] who mentally abuses innocent children. Go [censored] yourself retard.

  2. jlwile says:

    bobxxx’s comment (censored to make it appropriate) is a typical example of how most people who can’t face the facts choose to confront ideas that contradict their own.

    Nice illustration, bobxxx!

  3. Ranger says:

    Let me start off by saying I’m a Christian who comes from a theistic evolution background. Therefore, reading about intelligent design (and especially YEC) naturally rubs me the wrong way simply because it’s so different from how I’ve understood theology (in terms of special creation) and the opening chapters of Genesis.

    With that said, I’m someone who got tired of the handwaving and rants against intelligent design over at PZ’s blog and elsewhere online without actually showing (or really even referring to) critiques of what they were saying. Because of that I picked up Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell.” It blew my mind at how well he actually understood the naturalist argument, clearly showed that he respected it, but also showed how it has not provided sufficient answers in every area, as well as how it has incorrectly made other presumptuous claims based solely on faulty presuppositions.

    I’ve gone on to read a few of Dembski’s work (as well as all of the rebuttals at Talk Origins), and also Brad Monton’s book reviewed here. Both Meyer and Monton make a point that doesn’t come up often on the anti-ID blogs…they all keep claiming that ID isn’t science but nobody ever defines what science is…is it simply the scientific method, or is there a metaphysical standard that all interpretations of the data must fall under? I’m not just talking about methodological naturalism, but the question, “What is science?”

    If science is simply defined as interpretations that agree with the consensus, then I guess calling anything science has little value (and falls prey to devastating postmodern critiques). Thus, saying ID is not science is no different than saying “most scientists don’t agree with the claims of ID.” Furthermore, this attitude sort of stifles scientific investigation doesn’t it?

    Anyways, I’m still best described as a theistic evolutionist, but I definitely see the value of ID, think it makes some good arguments and will continue to read ID works with an open mind.

  4. jlwile says:

    Thanks for the post, Ranger. If you peruse my site, you will see that the theology of YECs rubs me the wrong way as well. So I guess we have that in common. I agree that Meyer’s book is a particularly good one, specifically for the points you brought up. Unlike many ID-ers, OECs, and YECs, he shows he understands the naturalist argument quite well.

    From a theological point of view, I have no problem with theistic evolution. My problem with it is scientific. If God created by macroevolution, I must say He hid His tracks REALLY well…

  5. Josiah says:

    “He hid His tracks REALLY well…”

    Now that’s naughty. I don’t believe you believe that God is capable of hiding his tracks or in any way making a supernatural work appear natural, as evidenced by a long and boring debate in post #144.

  6. jlwile says:

    Hehe – You are right, Josiah. Just trying to be clever. I should have known better!

    I didn’t find the debate boring at all…

  7. Ranger says:

    If theistic evolution is true, then I guess you could say that God did hide his tracks well from a certain perspective…but I find plenty of evidence elsewhere to be convinced (miracles, history, resurrection, experience, fine-tuning, regularity of the universe and on and on and on). But ultimately, to be honest, I’m Reformed so evidence only confirms my God-given beliefs…the universe is fine-tuned for life because it was created by God…not God must have created things because it appears fine-tuned for life.

    Anyways, I’ll continue to read the articles on your site. Blessings.

  8. Richard Wein says:

    Hello. I came here via a link at Bradley Monton’s blog.

    I agree with Bradley Monton and others that ID should not be rejected a priori on the basis of an unjustifiable demarcation criterion like methodological naturalism. I’ve been making that same point myself for some years.

    However, it’s important to note that critics of ID don’t just reject ID on such a priori grounds. They also reject it because it’s not a rational inference. They’ve spent a lot of time addressing the arguments of ID proponents, showing that they’re not valid, and frequently that they’re nonsense. These critics include the same Mark Perakh who was cited with approval above, author of “Unintelligent Design”.

    A huge number of articles refuting the ID arguments can be found on the web, at sites including these:
    http://www.talkreason.org
    http://www.talkdesign.org
    http://www.talkorigins.org

    I myself have written two articles refuting Dembski’s arguments:
    http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Designer.cfm
    http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/

    Although I don’t employ any a priori demarcation criterion, I nevertheless agree with those who say that ID is pseudoscience and not real science. I say that because ID is not a valid rational inference and because the arguments made for it are egregiously bad. After all, if someone argued “the sky is blue, therefore the moon is made of cheese”, that would take the form of a scientific inference, in that it claims to infer a fact about the world from empirical data. But I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that we call it a scientific inference, because the conclusion is nowhere near being rationally justified by the data. So merely claiming to infer a fact about the world from empirical data is not sufficent to say one is doing science. ID is of course not so extreme in its irrationality as that example, but it’s far enough away from rationality to justify regarding it as pseudoscience and not science.

    I haven’t read Bradley Monton’s book, only his web site and some reviews of his book. The problem with his charitable view of ID is that he seems to be basing it on some less-flawed arguments that he thinks ID proponents could be making, rather than on the egregious arguments that overwhelmingly they are making.

  9. Richard Wein says:

    P.S. Harder-line atheists like Richard Dawkins and (I think) PZ Myers don’t invoke MN as a demarcation criterion, so don’t make the argument that Bradley Monton is primarily criticising. Dawkins even writes that the existence of God is a scientific question, so he presumably accepts that ID is a scientific question too.

    The ID critics who insist on a priori methodological naturalism tend to be those who are theistic evolutionists and atheists relatively sympathetic towards religion. They like the NOMA-style separation between religion and science that MN provides, not so much for keeping religion out of science as for keeping science out of religion.

  10. jlwile says:

    Thanks for posting, Richard. First, the VAST majority of ID opponents do, indeed, reject ID specifically by trying to say it isn’t science. Mostly that’s because the case for ID is so strong that its opponents cannot argue based on data. Indeed, “ID isn’t science” was the focus of the famous Dover Trial, and it is the common thread of most anti-ID writing. Perhaps you should read Monton’s book, as you seem rather uninformed about how ID is treated by most people.

    You are also quite wrong about ID not making logical inferences. In fact, there has been no serious refutation of ID, which is why it continues as a real debate in science.

    You can find rebuttals to sites like the ones you cited in so many places. Here are just a few:

    http://www.arn.org/
    http://www.discovery.org/
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/

    Your own discussions on talkreason and the incredibly deceptive talkorigins sites indicate that you really do need to read Monton’s book. Monton destroys the myth that intelligent design is a “god of the gaps” or “argument from ignorance” approach, as you claim in your discussion.

    In addition, contrary to what you have written, there is plenty of POSITIVE evidence given by ID advocates. Monton goes through several examples in his book. In Signature in the Cell, Meyer has an entire Appendix of predictions based on intelligent design. Fulfillment of those predictions (which has already happened in some cases) constitute strong positive evidence.

  11. crito says:

    Dr. Jay L. Wile,

    Would you please give one example of a prediction made by ID that was borne out? Thank you.

  12. jlwile says:

    I am happy to. Behe in his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box, predicted that there is very little “junk DNA” in the human genome, contrary to the dogmatic statements by evolutionists at the time. Because he thought the genome was designed, too much “junk DNA” would destroy the information content of the genome. In Denton’s 1998 book, Nature’s Destiny, he made the case even stronger, saying that ID would FALL if “junk DNA” were shown to truly be junk.

    Project ENCODE has found convincing evidence that the human genome “is pervasively transcribed,” indicating that the vast majority of the genome is functional and therefore not composed of “junk DNA.”

    More predictions that have been at least partially confirmed can be found here

  13. crito says:

    Thank you, Dr. Wile. That is very helpful. I’d like to follow up on that point, if I may.

    I’m not quite sure as to why these predictions are unique to ID, i.e., why we should not expect these statements to be true unless ID is correct.

    To take the examples from the document you linked above:

    (1) Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a
    specific function (e.g. complex and specified information).

    (1) is simply the explanandum, i.e., the phenomenon to be explained. No one denies that organisms *appear* to be designed. The question is what is the cause or what is responsible for that design. In other words, is the design real or apparent?

    (2) Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and
    without similar precursors.

    I’m not sure whether (2) is true, so I won’t comment on it.

    (3) Convergence will occur routinely. That is, genes and other functional parts will be re-used in
    different and unrelated organisms.

    (4) Much so-called “junk DNA” will turn out to perform valuable functions.

    It’s not clear to me that (3) and (4) are predictions unique to ID. Since early modern times, natural philosophers and scientists assumed that “nature does nothing in vain.” Now, this may turn out to be an incorrect assumption, but the point is that it’s reasonable to assume that nature is economical in this way, and so there’s no need to invoke an intelligent agency.

    Maybe I’m missing something here.

  14. jlwile says:

    At least in reference to “junk DNA,” you are missing the fact that the mechanism currently favored to explain biological systems without design depends on random mutation that is then acted on by natural selection. That kind of “trial and error” problem-solving is expected to produce a lot of junk. Indeed, the evolutionary literature is rife with statements that one expects “junk DNA” in the evolutionary framework.

    Thus, while the fact that “junk DNA” might not be EXCLUSIVELY an ID prediction, it is an ID prediction that is quite the opposite of the prediction given by the main paradigm against which ID is competing. In addition, it is a prediction that naturally follows from the ID premise. While there might be some other hypothesis that would predict that there is little “junk DNA,” I don’t know if it, and I am not sure it would follow naturally from any premise that doesn’t include design.

    In terms of whether or not apparent design is real, that is one of the main focuses if ID. The materialist evolutionist is FORCED to assume that apparent design is not real. In ID, the attempt is made to QUANTIFY whether or not the design is real. That is a much more scientific approach, in my opinion.

    Convergence has always been a problem for evolution. Essentially, you have to assume that the same “lucky coincidences” that occurred in one evolutionary line also occurred in another. The more examples of convergence you see, the more improbable that argument becomes. Convergence is not only easy to understand in an ID framework, it is actually something ID predicts will happen quite frequently. Thus, once again, while some other hypothesis might be able to concoct some explanation for it, ID actually predicts it.

  15. Richard Wein says:

    Dr Wile. Thanks for your reply. We’re not going to agree on whose arguments are the valid ones, but will you at least acknowledge that ID critics have responded at length to the ID arguments, whether those responses are valid or not?

  16. jlwile says:

    Not only do I acknowledge that ID critics have responded at length to the ID arguments, I acknowledge that SOME of those responses are actually valid. For example, Ken Miller’s excellent essay, “The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of Irreducible Complexity” is a great attempt at trying to understand how the bacterial flagellum might have been cobbled together from existing genes in the bacterium. Clearly it is not the “collapse” of irreducible complexity, as Miller has found only 10 homologues of the approximately 30 genes necessary for the flagellum. In addition, at least some evolutionists think that the structure for which those 10 genes exist (the type III secretory system) actually EVOLVED FROM the flagellum [Nguyen L., Paulsen I. T., Tchieu J., Hueck C. J., Saier M. H. Jr. 2000. Phylogenetic analyses of the constituents of Type III protein secretion systems. J. Mol. Microbiol. Biotechnl. 2(2):125-44]. That idea is much more reasonable, because it is easy to understand how 10 genes could be co-opted from a 30-gene structure.

    Even though he did not succeed, Miller did an excellent job of at least TRYING to refute the flagellum argument. However, rather than admitting that the attempted refutation is incomplete (perhaps awaiting further discoveries) he and many other ID critics claimed they had destroyed the bacterial flagellum argument. This is clearly not true, but they think if they yell it loudly enough, people will end up believing them.

    Thus, as I said in my previous reply, no ID critic has REFUTED ID. There have been many valid criticisms raised (just as there were many valid criticisms raised against quantum mechanics in the early and middle parts of the 20th century), and like all GOOD SCIENTISTS, the ID proponents have answered those criticisms using data and reasoning. To claim that those criticisms have “refuted” ID, however, is as intellectually dishonest as claiming that ID is not science.

  17. Bilbo says:

    Excellent review, Dr.Wile. I’ll post it over at our blog, telicthoughts.com, if you don’t mind.

  18. jlwile says:

    Thank you. Please feel free to do so, as long as you link back to here.

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