Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review of Monton's "Seeking God in Science"

Bradley Monton is a philosophy professor at UC Boulder and a self-proclaimed atheist. He's written a little book (147 pages for the main text, not counting the preface, endnotes, index, etc.) entitled Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, which I finally had a chance to read. It consists of four chapters:

  1. What is intelligent design, and why might an atheist believe in it?
  2. Why it is legitimate to treat intelligent design as science
  3. Some somewhat plausible intelligent design arguments
  4. Should intelligent design be taught in school?

I'm afraid this book is not very good. Monton comes off as rather naive (displaying little understanding of the abundant and documented dishonesty in the ID movement) and ignorant of science, the history of intelligent design creationism, and its role in the creationism-evolution wars.

The first chapter of the book is devoted to one of my least favorite philosophical games: trying to create a definition for a concept that covers all possible cases, by starting with a definition and iteratively refining it. He spends 25 pages (pages 16-40) playing this game with the concept of "intelligent design" itself, in a tedious and unenlightening way (for example, he even addresses the possibility that God is biologically related to humans!) and here is what he comes up with (italics in original):

"The theory of intelligent design holds that certain global features of the universe provide evidence for the existence of an intelligent cause, or that certain biologically innate features of living things provide evidence for the doctrine that the features are the result of the intentional actions of an intelligent cause which is not biologically related to the living things, and provide evidence against the doctrine that the features are the result of an undirected process such as natural selection."

Now I don't particularly like this game (although it has a long history -- philosophers have enjoyed applying it to "chair", for example), because for almost any definition proposed it is easy to come up with some outlandish counterexample. Still, as a mathematician, I enjoy and admire precision, so perhaps it's not a game completely without value. But after reading his definition I could only mutter, All that work! - and he still has an imprecise and unusable mess.

Unusable, since key terms like "intelligent cause" and "undirected process" are not defined or made rigorous. Could it be, as other commentators have already observed, that when we try to define "intelligent cause" we discover that natural selection itself could be considered intelligent by our criteria? Could it be that intelligence is a continuous measure, not a discrete quality, so that speaking of an "intelligent cause" is essentially meaningless unless the amount of intelligence is quantified?

Mess, because by calling intelligent design a "theory", Monton begs the question.

Imprecise, because this definition doesn't cover much of what the intelligent design advocates themselves discuss. For example, in Dembski's book No Free Lunch, he spends a good 10 pages discussing the case of Nicholas Caputo, an election official accused of rigging elections. Dembski implies that his intelligent design methodology can help resolve the case of whether Caputo cheated. But this case has nothing to do with a "global feature" of the universe or a "biologically innate" feature of living things.

Monton seems rather naive about the intelligent design movement. For example, on page 12, he claims, "As a matter of public policy, the Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education." But this claim could only be made by someone who doesn't understand (a) that the Discovery Institute has a long history of dissembling and (b) that intelligent design, as practiced by its leading proponents (Behe, Dembski, Meyer) is largely a negative program of casting doubt on the theory of evolution, or examining its supposed deficiencies. Therefore, Discovery Institute programs like "Teach the Controversy" and "Critical Analysis of Evolution" are, in fact, just covers for getting intelligent design into the classroom. This is abundantly clear to most people who have studied the intelligent design movement in any depth.

Part of the book is devoted to analyzing the views of pro-science philosophers, such as Taner Edis, Massimo Pigliucci, and Robert Pennock. Needless to say, Monton thinks they have it wrong in many ways; they are "sloppy" and "confused". But much of his criticism seems misplaced. For example, he gives the following advice to Barbara Forrest: she "focuses too much on attacking the proponents of intelligent design for the supposed cultural beliefs they have, instead of attacking the arguments for intelligent design that the proponents of intelligent design give". But Forrest has never said that intelligent design advocates are wrong because of their cultural beliefs; rather, she has fearlessly and tirelessly explored the goals and strategies of intelligent designers, as well as the sociological and political connections between intelligent design creationism and the religious right. Monton is apparently unconcerned with these details, and that's his right. But then his criticism amounts to "I don't share your interests", and that's rather pathetic.

Monton is a fan of Laudan, citing the following passage approvingly: "If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like "pseudo-science" and "unscientific" from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us." I strongly disagree. As I mentioned already, almost any definition or classification is subject to exceptions, but it's still useful to be able to say something is a chair or not a chair, even if we cannot always agree about the boundaries. Science, as a social process, has a number of characteristics, and it is perfectly legitimate and useful to point out that creationism and its modern variant, intelligent design, fail to share many of these characteristics.

There are signs that although he thinks intelligent design merits a book-length treatment, Monton hasn't really grappled with the issues. For example, on page 17, he cites a beehive as an example of a feature of the universe that "indisputably exist[s] as a result of an intelligent cause" and then, in a footnote, says that "It was surprising to me that some readers objected to this line of thought, saying that ... bees ... aren't intelligent." Well, I'd guess that this surprise comes largely from the fact that Monton hasn't really thought deeply about what intelligence is. We now know a lot about algorithms and naturally-occurring tools to perform computational processes, but Monton doesn't seem to know anything about it. But then he has some real misconceptions about mathematics and computing, claiming that computers can't represent irrational numbers. (I've addressed this misconception here.)

Several times in the book, Monton refers to the Newtonian account of physics and argues it has been "refuted". On page 50, he uses it to argue that false scientific theories can still count as science (so if intelligent design has been refuted, it could still be considered science). On page 152, he uses it to argue that false scientific theories are routinely taught in high school science (so intelligent design, even if false, could still be caught). But this black-white classification of theories as either "false" or "not false" doesn't even come close to capturing the status of Newtonian physics. Yes, it doesn't give the right answers for particles moving at high velocity, for example. But I can't think of a single scientific theory that unfailingly predicts the outcome of every single experiment. It is more correct, I think, to view theories and equations as our models of reality and to have a good idea of their shortcomings and applicability. No one uses special relativity to solve simple problems in kinematics; they use Newton and they don't apologize for it. If we classify theories purely as "true" or "false" then we lose the nuance that some "false" theories are pretty damn good and others are worthless.

Chapter 3 summarizes some of the arguments of intelligent design advocates, such as alleged "fine-tuning", the origin of the universe, the origin of life, irreducible complexity, and the simulation argument. There is not really much analysis that is new here, but I found his discussion of the simulation argument the most interesting part of the book.

Chapter 4 addresses the question of whether intelligent design should be taught in school. By "taught in school", Monton means "taught in public high-school science classes" (although he takes two whole pages to explain this - an example of how clunky the writing is). One of the objections Monton addresses is "we wouldn't be teaching a real controversy", and he answers this by citing Michael Behe as an example of a real scientist who disagrees with the scientific consensus. Ergo, there is a real controversy. But if Monton's definition of "real controversy" is "one scientist disagrees" or even "a handful of scientists disagree", then there is a "real controversy" about relativity, heliocentrism, and the germ theory of disease. Indeed, it would be hard to come up with a scientific theory for which there is no controversy in Monton's sense. Monton's position is absurd. There are controversies, and then there are controversies; it's not a black-and-white term. The "controversy" over evolution is exactly like that over relativity: a very small number of experts in the field, and a larger number of cranks, disagree with current consensus. That doesn't mean their objections merit coverage in science class. I'm not opposed to teaching controversies, but let's teach some real ones.

Finally, I'd say that the book, and Monton himself, seems curiously disengaged from the extensive mainstream criticism of intelligent design. To give one illustration, he doesn't cite much of the literature arguing against the claims of intelligent design advocates. Nowhere will you find any mention of, for example, the fine article of Pallen and Matzke (published in 2006 in Nature Reviews Microbiology) -- although other articles of Matzke are cited -- or the article of Wilkins and Elsberry (published in 2001 in Biology and Philosophy). He lists two conferences where he's presented his work, and both of them were hosted by the "Society of Christian Philosophers". Four people are listed as endorsers on the back of his book, and three of them are non-biologist critics of evolution (Berlinski, Dembski, Groothuis). And Monton has a blog, but he doesn't allow any comments on it. I can't help but think Monton's book would have been much better if he had made more attempts to be engaged with those who disagree with him.


Tom said...

Half-way through, you had me riled up and ready to enter into a diatribe that would have amounted, in this forum, to preaching to the choir.

Instead, I'll just observe that Monton has engaged in a handy bit of navel-gazing, a trap that I find many philosophers have fallen into over the centuries (and I say this as someone who enjoys philosophical debate and nearly majored in philosophy).

Wallace Paulista said...

Once upon the time a theory without any proof, logical, evidence or coerence came to be... Its name is evolution!

Sad that people turned that bogus into "science", in order to defend and impose their atheistic views haha

The only arguments in its defense is the TIME, a long, long TIME, and its tautology! Evolution can be used to "explain" whether a living fossil specie remains unchanged along many hundreds of millions of years or a man, with language, powerful brain, intellect, conciousness, feelings, dreams, faith and so, arose in a blink!
This is a bit sick, arrogant, anti-scientific, religious!

Cheers to Pasteur, who proved that life only comes from life :)

Thank you Newton, for proving that matter can do nothing by itself!

Heil second law of thermodynamics, for proving that nothing can become more complex, orderly and functional alone!

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Just when you think creationists couldn't get any stupider, Wallace comes along with:

- the usual confusion about whether science provides "proof". It doesn't.

- the usual lie that evolutionary biologists were/are atheists. Some are, but many (including Darwin) were not. One of the most famous believers is Theodosius Dobzhansky. You can read about him.

- you do realize, if something is a tautology, then it is true, don't you? Therefore you have just admitted evolution is true.

- the moronic belief that the singular of "species" is "specie".

- the common delusion that Pasteur disproved abiogenesis. He didn't. He disproved spontaneous generation, which is something else entirely.

- the usual bogus citation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Congrats, Mr. Paulista. You're the dumbest creationist this year.

Eohippus said...

Hey Wally, if evolution is wrong, please tell us what's the alternative.

darwin upheaval said...

Hallo Jefferey,

I fully agree with you. I'm afraid Monton made a bull. He doesn't seem to have regognized that the ontological naturalism is a necessary condition for evidence. Theories like "intelligent design" that refers to unknown and unexplorable or unspecified entities, cannot be recognized as "true" or "false" or explain anything. Therefore, it's nonsense to say, that we shouldn't classify theories as "scientific" or "unscientific". Very strange book...

Greetings, Martin