An Atheist Defends Intelligent-Design Creationism

Bradley Monton thinks he understands intelligent-design creationism better than either its opponents proponents or its critics. He’s about half right.

Monton, a philosopher at the University of Colorado, has recently been making a bit of a name for himself by publicly debating ID creationism and also moderating a debate between Francisco Ayala and William Lane Craig. So I decided it was time I read his book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design from cover to cover. I am working from a proof copy that the author kindly sent me last spring, so I will not comment on minor errors. I thought the book was well and clearly written, if not always well argued, but I thought that if I saw one more instance of an awkward and wholly superfluous phrase such as “it is the case that,” I was going to scream or throw my shoe through the monitor.

Monton begins by accusing the opponents of ID creationism of employing the genetic fallacy, though he does not use that term. He is familiar with the Wedge Document but consciously discusses neither the Wedge Document nor the evidence connecting intelligent design to more-traditional creationisms. Instead, he treats us to a few endnotes and says he is just going to evaluate the arguments, as if the context of the arguments were wholly irrelevant. He admits that your beliefs or preconceptions can influence your reasoning, but seems to think that he is immune.

Ignoring the Wedge Document gives him permission to accept the disingenuous claim that the designer need not be supernatural; indeed, he says that ID creationists need that claim to achieve scientific legitimacy. He devotes what seems like an interminable chapter trying to tell the ID creationists exactly what they are saying (though he ignores role of ID creationism as a supposed link between science and theology). Ultimately, he defines ID creationism to include not just biology but also arguments such as the fine-tuning argument. Here he has a point: “Intelligent design” usually means anti-evolution, but it certainly could apply to the origin of the universe or even the origin of what are alleged to be human souls. Indeed, my coeditor Taner Edis and I included a chapter on the fine-tuning argument in our book, Why Intelligent Design Fails—but the book was overwhelmingly about biology, and when people talk about introducing intelligent-design creationism into the schools, they generally mean biology.

More than once, Monton seems to say that the lack of a compelling argument against a given premise is equivalent to evidence in its favor, or at least that the argument is “plausible.” Thus, later in the book, he discusses the hypothesis that we are actually living in a computer simulation or that we are disembodied brains in a vat. I think he must have read Donovan’s Brain once too often. At any rate, he claims to see some evidence in favor of an intelligent designer and further that the designer is God; though he remains an atheist, he is now less certain of his atheism than he had been. Monton thinks there is, in fact, no explanation for, say, the existence of the universe. But if you insist that there must be an explanation, then he asserts that intelligent design is the best explanation we have. Thus, he devotes an entire book to defending a bad argument because there is none better.

In Chapter 2, Monton takes on Judge John Jones’s demarcation criteria and debates methodological naturalism with Rob Pennock. He argues, correctly, that we need to focus on evidence for and against ID creationism, rather than try to label it as science or pseudoscience. In particular, he says that a false theory should not necessarily be ruled out of science class—Newtonian theory is technically false. This argument could give sophistry a bad name; even if you think that all theories are technically false, good theories are useful within their ranges of validity. ID creationism is not useful anywhere. Says Monton: “I conclude that even if intelligent design’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community, it doesn’t follow that intelligent design is not science.” You could say the same for phlogiston or caloric; at best, then, intelligent-design creationism is obsolete or indeed useless science, just like phlogiston or caloric. We do not require teaching phlogiston or caloric in science class; they barely deserve mention. Why then should we mandate teaching ID creationism? The answer is political, not scientific.

Monton argues first that science is not committed to methodological naturalism. Then he sets up a straw man, that science could not investigate evidence in favor of the supernatural if it is committed to methodological naturalism; therefore, science is not committed to truth. I argue that there is a difference between saying God did it and investigating a claim of supernaturalism. The demarcation between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism is not sharp. I can surely apply the methodology of science to a claim of the supernatural without betraying that methodology. That is what we do every time we try to debunk a claim of a miracle. If we found enough miracles for which we could not develop a naturalistic explanation, we might, by a diagnosis of exclusion, tentatively accept the supernatural hypothesis (but we need to be very sure that we have considered and rejected all the possibilities). Indeed, Monton argues, correctly, I think, that science has not postulated the supernatural only because it has had no need to do so.

Under the rubric, Other Arguments, Monton quotes Edis and me to the effect that the proponents of ID creationism do not practice science. He then takes us to task for saying that ID creationism is not science, a contention which I could defend, but which we did not say. Practicing nonscience is only one way to not practice science; you could also practice science improperly, and Edis and I note several failures of ID creationists in this regard. At any rate, if one ID creationist comes along and practices it as science, our conclusion is falsified. I won’t hold my breath. Similarly, Monton attacks our claim that ID creationists make no substantive predictions: He says that in fact they predict that if we look for it, we will find evidence of a designer. That is at best a very tenuous prediction, since it does not include a testable hypothesis, but Monton compares it to the “prediction” that there is matter in the universe. That is not, however, a prediction; it is an observed fact.

The third chapter details four arguments in favor of his generalized version of ID creationism, which he considers “somewhat—but only somewhat—plausible”: the fine-tuning argument, the kalam cosmological argument, the argument from the variety of life, and the simulation argument. The fine-tuning argument is well-known, and I will not discuss it, but I thought that Monton should have discussed counter-arguments such as his colleague Victor Stenger’s Monte Carlo calculation, wherein Stenger changes more than one fundamental constant at a time. I will also not discuss the kalam cosmological argument, which seems to me not substantively different from Thomas Aquinas’s argument from first cause.

What Monton calls the argument from the variety of life leads him to discuss the possibility of disembodied souls in an all-hydrogen universe. I suppose that possibility is theoretically possible, but I would like to have seen some speculation as to how such life might have arisen by natural selection or any other mechanism.

Twenty or more years ago, I asked at a skeptics’ conference, “I’d like to know what we are afraid of. Why don’t we simply teach creationism as the bunk that it is, etc., etc.?” I was rudely awakened to the idea that more is involved than just logic, that too many teachers would not teach it as bunk, that many parents would object, and in short that matters were not so simple. Indeed they are not; what we teach in school is a social and political matter, as well as an educational matter. It is naïve to think otherwise.

Monton, in his final chapter, finds uncompelling the arguments that ID creationism should not be taught in public school science classes. He argues that it could reasonably be “taught in an intellectually responsible, non-proselytizing way.” In principle, he is right, but in practice he is dead wrong, if he means to include it in the science curriculum, as opposed to simply responding to honest questions by students. Intelligent-design creationism in its usual incarnation as pseudobiology is religion, pure and simple, and has no place in the public-school science classroom. If Monton had read the Wedge Document carefully and if he were not so credulous in believing Discovery Institute propaganda, he would know that. Indeed, he worries that he may be playing into the hands of people who think that the true goal of ID creationism is just to get religion into the schools. And well he might.

Acknowledgments. Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education discussed the book with me and reviewed a draft of this article. Bradley Monton also reviewed a corrected draft and commented on it.