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Beyond Belief (or the Lack Thereof)
Science Philosopher Bradley Monton Looks Past His Atheism to Objectively Assess Intelligent Design
You don't have to believe in God to acknowledge the merits of intelligent design. University of Colorado philosophy professor Bradley Monton is a case in point. In his book Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, Monton explains why he thinks the hypothesis has value, despite his conviction that its conclusions are ultimately incorrect. Here, he does the same before discussing what sort of scientific discovery it would take to make him finally abandon his skepticism and embrace the existence of a creator—a breakthrough that he would actually welcome, if only to end the longstanding uncertainty surrounding the origins of life.
What makes you take intelligent design (ID) seriously?
ID investigations are part of a long tradition in philosophy called Natural Theology—of looking for evidence in the natural world for the existence of God. Intelligent design has prima facie merit in being part of this long philosophical and scientific tradition. That's one reason why I think it should be taken seriously. The other is that I find the arguments of the opponents of ID too emotionally driven and not as intellectually robust as one would hope. I get upset with my fellow atheists who present bad arguments against intelligent design and then expect everyone to believe that they have somehow resolved the debate with these bad arguments.
Why do you think some scientists refuse to take intelligent design seriously?
That's a hard question to answer because it's almost an issue of human psychology and sociology. But I would say that some atheists exhibit a fundamentalism that prevents them from even imagining that someone reasonable, rational, and intelligent could hold views different from their own. Others believe that science is the end-all and be-all—that it can answer all of the important questions about reality. There are even scientists out there, such as the theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, who proclaim that neither religion nor philosophy can tell us anything important about the world. I totally disagree. Philosophy is actually an important field of inquiry. It can figure out the nature of ethical truths and what specific truths might be. Philosophy can also be used to investigate the existence of God in a way that science cannot.
You write in your book that you don't fully endorse intelligent design. In your opinion, what are some of the weaknesses of ID?
At one time, I would have said that the greatest weakness was the failure of ID proponents to put a theory on the table that makes testable predictions, but that all changed with Jonathan Wells's book The Myth of Junk DNA. In it, Wells predicted that this purported junk DNA—these stretches of DNA in our genome that many scientists had claimed were useless—would be purposeful for the structure of human biology. Well, within the past year or so, empirical investigation has confirmed that there is in fact much less junk DNA than scientists had previously thought. It's just a great example of a testable prediction that was made by a proponent of intelligent design that turned out to be successful.
Then why can't you fully support intelligent design?
I still believe that ID scientists need to do a lot more in terms of testable predictions. I recognize that this is difficult to do. I'm not saying it's an easy project. However, it sure would be nice if they had more of a full-fledged research program that led to the development of theories in science. I think this is possible, though it's incredibly difficult to come up with new scientific theories that result in a paradigm shift. Thus far, it has only been people such as Newton, Einstein, and Copernicus who have been able to do that. But you never know; perhaps someday someone will develop a paradigm-changing theory that manages to promote intelligent design in the process.
So what are the strengths of intelligent design?
The main strength is that it is getting people to think very carefully about the extent to which there is scientific evidence for either God or some other creator. Plus, the specific arguments themselves are interesting and important to consider. For example, I find Michael Behe's investigation into irreducibly complex biological systems an extremely compelling line of inquiry, even if it turns out to be a flawed argument. It simply helps the progress of science to put arguments such as Behe's on the table.
The same goes for the more physics-based fields of intelligent design, such as the work being conducted by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards. They believe that our universe is ideally suited not just for the existence of life, but also for observability. Why is there a correlation between the regions of the universe that are habitable by creatures such as us and regions that are suitable for making observations and learning about the universe? That's an interesting question, but as far as I know, no atheist-minded physicist had ever thought about it before Gonzalez and Richards came on the scene. Advocates of intelligent design get people thinking in new ways about science and scientific investigation.
What do you think about the multiverse theory—this belief that there are actually an infinite number of universes out there, making the complexity of our own universe more likely and less special?
There are two ways of understanding the multiverse hypothesis. The first is that these other universes are spatiotemporally isolated, which means that each universe exists in its own part of reality with no connection to any of the other universes. The second way of looking at it is that these universes are actually connected. Perhaps there's some sort of branching structure that allows one universe to give rise to others. Physicists also talk about bubble universes that pop into existence out of a background universe structure.
Whether you're talking about the first option or the second, however, there are problems that make the multiverse hypothesis worrisome. In the case of the spatiotemporally isolated universes, it's unclear how we could have any evidence whatsoever for the existence of those universes apart from divine revelation. And as for connected universes, you have to ask yourself, "How did we get the whole physical reality that would allow one universe to produce another or a bubble universe to pop into existence? Would there not be improbable fine-tuning associated with the existence of these physical realities as well?" As you can see, the multiverse hypothesis really doesn't accomplish much. Infinite universes are insufficient when it comes to explaining away the apparent design of our own universe.
Do you think intelligent design should be taught in public schools?
I think it could be pedagogically useful to do so, certainly. What I know from being a teacher these past thirteen years is that it's wrong to ignore matters that students may have heard about or are certainly going to hear about in the future. For example, did you know that the California teacher guidelines for K–12 students state that if a student asks about intelligent design, he should be told that it doesn't belong in the science classroom—that he should talk to his family or pastor about it instead? Shutting down discussion and debate in this fashion is bad pedagogy. Teachers should be forthright about all of the evidence and tell students that issues regarding the origin of life are still open for debate.
Do you teach your own students about intelligent design?
As a tenured university professor, I'm allowed to talk about pretty much whatever I want in the classroom. So, yes, I do talk about intelligent design in my philosophy of science course, and the students are very interested in it. In high school, science was taught to them as just a monolithic body of facts with no understanding of theory development or of how the theories we have now were built by scientists rejecting past theories and in ways that were often controversial and involved scientific revolutions and complicated factors of human psychology. As a result, they don't understand how science works. I have found intelligent design to be a fruitful way of teaching students how science actually functions and that it is a human endeavor filled with controversy.
Do you think academic freedom is limited for non-tenured proponents of intelligent design?
There certainly are documented cases of professors getting in trouble for putting forth intelligent-design ideas, and I think that's really unfortunate. The academy should be about respecting ideas, however controversial they might be. Once you screen people on their ability to be intellectually sophisticated, they should be allowed to pursue the issues they want to pursue, even issues that go against the current orthodoxy—that violate the standard canons of how thinking should be done. Intelligent design should be allowed in the academy because most of the proponents of intelligent design are intellectually sophisticated. There's no doubt about it. People such as Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells should be allowed to pursue -empirical and philosophical investigations in whatever way they think best leads to truth.
How have other academics responded to your writings and statements on intelligent design?
The degree to which I have been attacked is actually pretty ludicrous. I gave a public lecture on intelligent design here at the University of Colorado, and a number of the school's biology professors demanded that I be fired. One such professor, Michael Klymkowsky, went so far as to organize his own public lecture in response to mine. Unfortunately for him, his lecture ended up being a mess, misrepresenting my views and then failing to make arguments of its own. At the beginning, the audience was mostly on his side, but by the end they didn't know what to think because his arguments were so weak.
So I've received preposterous critiques such as that one, but I've also had a lot of support, especially from philosophers who don't have a dog in the intelligent-design fight. They haven't gone to great pains to investigate ID, but they appreciate my open-minded perspective. They have also told me that they are disturbed by the narrow-minded and emotionally driven attacks on the part of the philosophical and scientific critics of intelligent design. It has been quite heartening to receive that kind of support.
You've written that intelligent-design arguments have made you less certain of your atheism. What would it take to make you abandon it altogether?
Some people have come to believe in God on the basis of divine revelation, which is intellectually legitimate, as far as I'm concerned. I wish that I could have that sort of profound revelatory experience because then I could stop struggling with philosophical arguments and the extent to which the fine-tuning of the universe points to a creator. But the fact is that I haven't. A lot of other people haven't either, which leaves us searching for alternative forms of proof. I don't find the historical evidence for Christianity—or any other religion, for that matter—especially compelling. It's not that this sort of evidence is definitely flawed; it's just that it isn't compelling enough for me. Absent revelation and historical evidence, the best place to find God, in my opinion, is in science, and that's one of the reasons I'm so motivated to think about intelligent design.
So what sort of scientific evidence would be compelling enough to change your mind?
It would be evidence for mind as a fundamental feature of the universe. As far as I'm concerned, God would have to be a purely mental entity, not connected to physical reality in the way that we are through our bodies. So if we could discover some kind of evidence that mind is fundamental, then that would go a long way toward making me a believer. And if we could find evidence that the physical world isn't causally closed—that not only is mind a fundamental entity, but it likewise plays a causal role in the structure of the world—then that would also be compelling evidence for the existence of God. Now, if it is found that mind plays a role in our brain processes alone, that by itself wouldn't make me believe in God, though it would certainly make me more open to the idea. But if we were to discover that mind is intervening in other places in the world besides our brain processes, then that would pretty much be the smoking gun.
Are there other atheist scientists out there who believe that intelligent-design arguments hold some merit?
Thomas Nagel comes to mind as someone who feels that intelligent-design arguments have value, even though he's an atheist and not inclined at all to believe in God. In his new book Mind and Cosmos, he pushes for a teleological theory of reality, which is different from the standard naturalistic science view, but also different from the intelligent-design hypothesis. Nagel's view is that the universe is fundamentally goal-oriented. It has this teleological structure to it that we will someday discover through scientific investigation. Part of how Nagel argues for his theory is by positively citing the arguments of intelligent-design proponents, which he believes support the existence of his teleological structure rather than a designer.
Besides Nagel, there are also a number of atheist physicists out there who are open to ID arguments. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that physicists are involved in studying the fundamental structure of reality, which leads to all sorts of deep questions. And when you start asking questions like that—Why do we have the laws of physics that we do? Why do we have three spatial dimensions? Why is there a universe at all?—the designer hypothesis is a salient one. Even though I personally reject it, it should be pretty obvious from our conversation today that I think it needs to be taken seriously. •
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