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.
NOTE: There is a second part to this review.