Intelligent Design: Philosophical Bogosity

Over at Telic Thoughts, they are pumped that a self-described atheist, Bradley Monton, is shopping around for a publisher for a manuscript of his that says, hey, those “intelligent design” creationists have some good arguments! They quote Monton as saying,

By rejecting the fallacious arguments against intelligent design, I am helping everyone to understand the issues and arguments more clearly.

They kindly put up a link to Monton’s weblog.

Since I’ve authored several of the critiques of IDC arguments, I figured that Monton must have some response to some of the things I’ve written. Using the search function on his blog, though, collects no hits for “elsberry”, nor any for “shallit”, my even more high-profile co-author. Searching Google doesn’t show any web-accessible responses, either.

Now, something a philosopher like Monton should know is that rejecting an argument does not say anything about the validity or soundness of the argument; one should be able to rebut an argument by showing that it is actually invalid or unsound in some fashion. So it is unclear whether Monton does the heavy lifting of addressing critiques of IDC or whether he simply labels them as fallacious and passes on.

Looking at entries on Monton’s blog for what he does take up, I’m not at all impressed. Let’s have a look at an entry Monton makes concerning Ken Miller. Miller, according to Monton, argued that “theistic science”, as in science with hypotheses depending on supernatural entities or mechanisms, was a science stopper, that once such a hypothesis was in place, inquiry ceases. Monton is having none of that.

Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, has some frustrating aspects to it. For one, he gives the old argument that, if science allows for supernatural hypotheses, then science will stop:

A theistic science … will no longer be the science we have known. It will cease to explore, because it already knows the answers. (p. 198)

This argument has been given before (e.g. by Pennock) and the standard (and in my opinion correct) response has been given before (e.g. by Plantinga). I’m not faulting Miller for giving an argument that’s not new, but I am faulting him for seeming to show no awareness of the standard response. The standard response is that, while theistic scientists could choose to stop investigating the world, and be satisfied with the answer “God did it”, they need not. What theistic scientists can do is investigate the questions: “what did God do?” “What structure did God choose to give the world?” As long as scientists are willing to investigate those questions, then science can go on in pretty much the standard way. Allowing supernatural hypotheses won’t really change anything.

The worry, of course, is that scientists will be too willing to turn to the God answer when problems get tricky. But suppose some scientists do that — is it really so bad? Newton is undisputedly one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, but when he came to the belief that the planetary orbits are unstable, he postulated that God occasionally intervened to keep the planets in their intended orbits. Did exploration stop a a result of Newton’s appeal to the supernatural? No; later investigators determined that the planetary orbits are more stable than Newton had thought.

In sum: even though I think that supernatural hypotheses in science will ultimately be proved wrong, I don’t see how allowing them will lead to the end of science. Those scientists who do are willing to allow for supernatural hypotheses can still search for naturalistic explanations for phenomena.

As for the Newton example, one can argue precisely counter to Monton’s deployment. If Newton had eschewed a supernatural conjecture as a place-holder and instead clearly marked out the phenomena that did not fit well with his framework as it was then constituted, one has the clear expectation that this would generate immediate attention and work upon a recognized open problem. Instead, the solution had to await Laplace over 100 years later, who chose to seek those natural explanations that would provide a testable basis for how the phenomenon worked.

The quoted response is demonstrative of why I’m not much of a fan of Plantinga, nor of Plantinga’s legion of fans. The essential point is conceded by Plantinga and Monton in this summary: the supernatural explanation fails to explain, and explanation must await someone willing to seek a naturalistic secondary cause that will itself actually explain the phenomena of interest. The mere possibility that someone working in a theistic science could choose to do so does not validate “theistic science” as something good and to be desired. In fact, what one has in that case is the state of scientific inquiry up until the late 18th century and part of the 19th. While the scientists and philosophers of the time where science was reconceptualized as a process of seeking natural explanations of natural phenomena would certainly not go so far as to state it quite so baldly as that the then-current form of science prevented any advance, they certainly would — and did — argue that then-current form of science was inefficient and prone to seeing a supernatural explanation as knowledge when it had no actual claim to that state. And that is the proper form that the objection should take today as well: supernatural hypotheses are not explanations, as they provide no means of testing their veracity or falsity in the light of the evidence. While they may not completely block the progress of science, they represent an unnecessary hindrance to that progress, masquerading as a suitable explanation to phenomena not yet studied in detail. By focusing on the somewhat too strongly worded claim, Monton entirely overlooks the weaker claim that is not susceptible to the sort of dismissal he makes: supernatural hypotheses do nothing to advance science (other than perhaps to mark where further work is needed in proposing and testing non-supernatural hypotheses), do not themselves represent knowledge, and are known to delay the progress of science.

The issue is not whether science could make progress in spite of re-adoption of 17th century theistic science, but whether theistic science could provide any benefit to the methods of science today. Monton, Plantinga, and the neo-Luddites have not convincingly made that case. Mostly, they haven’t even badly made that case. They seem to assume that science would be better off reverting to 17th century theistic science and become perplexed when scientists disagree with them. We had that debate, we call it “the 19th century”. Nobody has shown that the mostly-theistic body of scientists who decided to eschew supernatural conjectures as part of science were wrong to do so. Mostly, I think, because they were right to do so, and their reasoning still applies today.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

13 thoughts on “Intelligent Design: Philosophical Bogosity

  • 2008/07/20 at 9:01 am

    Good grief, his appeal to Newton’s invocation of divine tweaking is merely an admission that “Maybe God fixes it” is just a place-holder for our ignorance. The fact that someone else later came along and “found no need of that hypothesis” merely drives home the point: there’s no “there” there in ID.

    Which side is Monton arguing on, again?

  • 2008/07/20 at 11:44 am

    Which side is Monton arguing on, again?

    When push comes to shove, I suspect it will be on the side of post-modernism, ala Steve Fuller.

  • 2008/07/21 at 8:21 am

    ‘Maybe God did it’ is vastly inferior as a placeholder than the much better ‘we don’t know’. You cannot use the former to do any science, and to insist on holding to it means to stop whatever science you might want to do, since sceince is a method relying on testability and not just a way of thinking. No testability, no method, no science. Of course you could always ignore it and carry on as if you never put forward that placeholder, but then what’s the point of applying it in the first place?

  • 2008/07/21 at 8:56 am

    Exactly. That’s what the body of preponderantly theistic scientists in the 19th century concluded, too. We don’t see much from neo-paleyists taking up their arguments and showing the arguments to be wrong, and I think that there’s a reason for that.

  • 2008/07/21 at 3:35 pm

    A person can be a theist and a scientist … just not both at the same time.

    Not because science is atheistic, but because science does not admit models which are not empirically testable. And that’s not because scientists like the philosophy, but because it works.

  • 2008/07/21 at 4:43 pm


    I do appreciate the mild tone of your reply, one which I hardly deserve. However, the arguments at issue are important, and deserve being clearly laid out. Thus, I’m not inclined to pussyfoot around.

    If you want to play “Now I’ve Got You, You S-O-B” with Ken Miller, I’m sure that’s a game that provides some amusement.

    But you have apparently chosen to provide intellectual cover for an illegitimate political scam using nitpicky disagreements over the exact wording of claims. Perhaps Ken Miller was not justified in using exactly the words he wrote, but the following from your response:

    But anyway, I’m happy to report that Elsberry and I are in agreement about the truth value of Miller’s claim. It’s false, and that’s all I was trying to argue.

    says to me that my allusion to straining at gnats and swallowing camels was spot-on. Ken Miller is far closer to the truth in this matter than you are.

    The weak claim is most probably true, though I’ll leave it to the historians to come up with a nice example.

    I’d submit that your own example of Newton and the over-a-hundred-year wait for Laplace fits the bill admirably.

    But the irony of following that with this bit is extreme:

    The strong claim is surely false: I can imagine a situation where some scientist comes up with a great scientific insight, but she only comes up with that insight as a result of the peculiar religious training she’s had — had she not had that religious training, she wouldn’t have come up with the insight. Perhaps she frames the insight in supernatural terms, but other scientists see that the supernatural aspect is inessential, and embrace the non-supernatural aspect, thus leading to a major scientific advance.

    This is not even an existence proof; it’s a whimsical fantasy. Even if one were to instantiate it with a real example (as you hold out for when it isn’t your conjecture on the line), it relegates the role of religious experience to making the synapses trigger in odd ways. Further, human minds are known to be adept at post-hoc rationalization, and one cannot guarantee that testimony of where a particular idea came from delivers the actual ontology of the idea.

    The response about a moderate claim concerning the value of supernatural hypotheses confuses and conflates hypothesis and motivation.

    Consider this counterfactual claim: had Newton not considered supernatural hypotheses, he would have been a better scientist. Is that true or false (or neither)? It’s really not obvious to me what the answer is. I can see someone arguing that the claim is true, since (as we atheists agree) supernatural hypotheses are false, and hence considering them automatically delays scientific progress. But I can see someone arguing that the claim is false, since Newton was in part motivated to investigate the world because of his theistic beliefs, and if it were the case that Newton wasn’t willing to consider the hypothesis that God actively acted in the world, then he wouldn’t have been as motivated to do his scientific investigations in the first place.

    Your own original argument depended upon being able to separate those two concepts, but here you are relying upon not being able to separate them.

    Finally, I have to note an omission on your part. I finished up my critique saying that it wasn’t enough to claim minimal or no harm to the practice of science by reverting to the 17th century version thereof, but rather one needed to justify a benefit to modern science of doing so. And that you do not address at all.

  • 2008/07/21 at 7:03 pm

    Sounds like somebody better dust off the tux, because I think we have the next front-runner for the Philip Johnson Award for Truth, Justice and The American Way….or something to that effect.

    Wes writes:

    This is not even an existence proof; it’s a whimsical fantasy. Even if one were to instantiate it with a real example …

    Real example…real example. Oh, Jonathan Wells praying and being told by Father Moon to get a degree to destroy Darwinism (I’m sure he really meant ‘exlore the powerful scientific theory of intelligent design’). There you go. I’m sure he was involved in some sort of discovery, however tiny, while doing his thesis. There you go, cause and effect.

  • 2008/07/22 at 8:06 am

    Hah! You beat me to it! I’ll still probably have some more to say later today.

    Nice skewering, BTW.

  • 2008/07/23 at 2:17 am

    Regardless of its problems, I still like the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. What Monton has to do is establish (and not via fictional anecdote) that science is net ahead because religious scientists somehow did better at the former, since their religiosity did nothing whatsoever for the latter and in fact probably impeded it. So does having religious beliefs in general, or belief in monotheistic religion, or belief in western Christianity of the evangelical sort (which covers most ID proponents), produce enough good ideas to outweigh the impediments religion has historically placed in the path of the testing and justification of the knowledge claims of science? That seems to be what he’s arguing, but by fictional anecdote only, at least so far.

    To be more specific, to the best of my knowledge the modern intelligent design movement has so far not come up with one single new idea. Lately I’ve been reading a whole lot of the history of the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution, and in 19th century writers I have found every single claim now argued by modern ID proponents. There is not one new idea. (And yes, I’ve read Dembski and Behe and Meyer and Johnson and Wells and their colleagues.) Hence, I see no support for Monton’s argument there.

    Finally, I commend the decline of Islamic science in the couple of centuries prior to the Western Renaissance to Monton’s attention. While there’s some dispute, there seems to be a fair consensus that changing religious views were a non-trivial contributor to that decline.

    (That last paragraph was a free association to the security word “turban” for this post.)

  • 2008/07/23 at 7:16 am

    One problem Monton has is that he appears to be stuck in propositional-logic-land, where one can say, “all” or “one” and negations thereof but can’t get any firmer grasp of those gray areas in empirical studies that get covered by inferential statistics. Other philosophers, including Plantinga, seem to have taken up probability talk readily enough. (Not, of course, that Plantinga has had great innings there, either; my first encounter in 1997 was when I was an observer watching him essentially wiping his slate clean in the face of justified criticism of a particular probability argument he had confidently offered.)

    I heard someone talking about a study of religious belief and career choices that I need to look up, for what was said to me was that fundamentalist Christians are way underrepresented in the natural sciences.

  • 2008/07/28 at 10:50 am

    The “goddidit” theoscientists may yet contribute in a positive way to the advancement of science. Although they may stop short of forming hypotheses about processes and origins, there are an awful lot of things in this universe that need to be described, even if not understood. Real scientists can come by later and explain those meticulously described things in the theoscientist’s Victorian cabinet.

  • 2008/08/07 at 10:23 am

    Nice article. Another point worth mentioning is that Monton’s argument is irrelevant to public policy. Forget the 17th century – nothing in the *current* system prevents religious scientists from proposing grants, publishing, developing patents, etc… Not even the ‘scientific repression’ argument holds water, as biotechnology funding is now mostly private (I’ve heard over 2/3 in pharmaceutical R&D). Thus ID scientists are in the same boat as the rest of us – they have only to convince venture capitalists that the payoff of their proposed research is worth the risk.
    If they can’t do that, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the nature of science. It has to do with not being able to convince a buyer that what you have is worth buying.

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