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.