Seeking God in Science – An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design by Bradley Monton (Book Summary)

Book Summary by Jeff Stauffer

                Bradley Monton is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, where he focuses in areas such as philosophy of physics, time, and religion. A self-pronounced atheist, Monton has taken an interesting position regarding the intelligent design movement: “Even though I’m an atheist, I think that some arguments for intelligent design are worth taking seriously.” In this book, Monton sets out to help define was intelligent design (ID) is, and asks questions such as, it is science, and should it be taught in schools.

Chapter 1: What is Intelligent Design, and Why Might an Atheist Believe in it?

                Chapter one is a rather lengthy discussion surrounding the struggle to define exactly what ID is. He uses The Discovery Institute’s (a leading think tank promoting ID) definition as a starting point: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” Breaking down this definition into its various parts, Monton suggests alternative phrases and clarifications that he believes better describes the movement. As a philosopher, Monton is concerned about the use of language and making sure one says exactly what one means to say in order to properly bound the definition. Each word brings up its own series of questions:

–          Is this “intelligent cause” something wholly other than the types of causes we’re used to seeing on Earth?

–          Do features of the “universe” pertain to objects within it, or does the overall structure of the universe itself?

–          Are we talking about the origin of living things, or simply describing living things already here?

–          Does the “best explanation” imply that it is the correct one?

–          Does the designer necessarily have to be a supernatural designer?

These and other questions help the reader frame the issues surrounding the ID debate. [1]

Chapter 2: Why is it Legitimate to Treat Intelligent Design as Science

                In 2005, there was an important legal case (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) where the judge ruled it to be unconstitutional that the school district required a pro-intelligent design disclaimer to be read before teaching evolutionary theory. The Judge in his decision concluded that teaching ID was considered religion, not science, and therefore was not allowed. He further supported that claim by saying that ID failed on three separate points: ID proposed supernatural causation which was outside of the bounds of science, that one of ID’s central arguments (irreducible complexity)[2] was flawed, and finally, that ID’s critique of evolution had been adequately responded to by scientists. Monton takes issue with each of these points. With regards to the “flawed” argument of irreducible complexity, Monton points out that just because an argument is conceived as flawed, it doesn’t follow that it is unscientific. As for the Judge’s claim that ID’s critiques have been refuted, Monton also points out that this too does not prove one’s theory to be unscientific. He uses the illustration of Newtonian physics, which he points out has been refuted, yet is still considered a scientific theory and taught in schools.

                The first point is the most interesting to Monton, that science cannot allow supernatural causation. This is often referred to as “methodological naturalism,” and it carries a basic assumption that all scientific explanations must be materialistic ones. He says it is counterproductive to limit one’s search to the merely physical, for science then is no longer pursuing truth, but instead pursuing theories that best fit within a naturalistic mold. Naturalism may in fact be wrong, but science would never know it if they weren’t able to test it as a hypothesis.

                He finishes this chapter with listing some common criticisms against ID (such as it is not testable, predictable, or how it stops the pursuit of science by saying “God did it”) and provides examples of how these might be countered. For example, Monton proposes the following thought experiment: Suppose an astronomer discovers a pulsar that is emitting Morse code. The code describes that the message is from God and it begins to explain some very specific laws of physics or possibly Bible verses, etc. Although it sounds silly, Monton’s objective is to show how a design hypothesis  could be testable and predictable. (The Morse code signal may even make future predictions.) He also wants people to realize that without allowing a designer as a hypothesis, the astronomers would be unnecessarily constrained in coming up with explanations for this phenomenon.

                Monton concludes with a important distinction that points out how unnecessary the debate is over whether ID is science or not: “Ultimately, what we really want to know isn’t whether intelligent design is science – what we really want to know is whether intelligent design is true.” (Page 73).

Chapter 3: Some Somewhat Plausible Intelligent Design Arguments

                Monton describes four of the common arguments for the ID position and provides an evaluation of each one. They include: The fine-tuning argument, the Kalam cosmological argument, the argument from the origin of life, and the simulation argument.

                The Fine-Tuning Argument

                The basic notion behind this theory is that scientists have discovered that many laws of physics and chemistry appear to be balanced on a razor’s edge. For example, if the strength of gravity were slightly weaker, larger and heavier particles such as carbon would never form. If the strong nuclear force within an atom were slightly stronger, hydrogen would be unstable and quickly convert to heavier elements and stars would never form. (And by using the word “slightly,” we’re talking about an extremely small range of values, one that is amazingly improbable.) Design advocates conclude this to be too small to have just happened by chance. Monton makes three comments about this theory:

–          He makes a sweeping judgment that most people who use this argument are not qualified to make such claims as they require a high degree of proficiency in physics or chemistry to truly understand their nature

–          He questions our ability to know if life could have actually existed if these laws of nature were different. In one example, Monton argues that perhaps a universe made up of merely hydrogen atoms could produce life and minds. (As a materialist, Monton is making the assumption here that our minds/consciousness are merely a complex array of atoms in our brains as opposed to a spiritual/non-physical entity.)

–          The third evaluation deals with the “multiple-universe theory.” This is the idea that perhaps there are millions of universes each with a different set of values for the laws of nature. And so, as the theory goes, the “right” set of values was due to happen at some point in time. Richard Dawkins is a proponent of this theory, and here Monton actually critiques Dawkins, asking if such a theory is any more probable or simpler than is a theistic answer.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

This argument has two basic points to it: First, since everything that begins to exist has a cause, and, since the universe had a beginning (The Big Bang Theory), then the universe was caused. The second point deals with the impossibility of something infinite existing in nature. The universe could not have always existed, because if it did it would contain an infinite series of points of time in the past. If that were the case, we’d never make it to where we are now in time because we would have to have previously traversed an infinite amount of time before now, which is logically impossible.

This section gets a bit technical both philosophically and scientifically. Monton’s basic rebuttal can be summed up though without too much detail. First, Monton points out that scientists don’t really know much about the instantaneous moment known as the Big Bang. All we can really describe is the very brief moment afterwards, as anything earlier contains too much energy and heat, and the known laws of physics absolutely break down. His point is that we don’t really know if the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe, or merely the first describable event of something unknown beforehand.  As  for the second-part to the Kalam, Monton points the reader to other discussions in literature that addresses its claims.

The Origin of Life Argument

                As the argument goes, due to the extreme improbability of the origin of life naturally occurring combined with a failure to reproduce such an event, supernatural causation seems to be a better explanation. Monton agrees this would be a logical conclusion if there were just one planet performing the experiment. But, Monton rebukes, if the universe is “spatially infinite,” then we should fully expect life to occur somewhere. He concludes that it actually becomes a mathematical certainty if one allows for an infinite pool to draw from[JS7] . [CS8] 

                The Simulation Argument

                If we make an assumption that the universe is spatially infinite, and because of this contains many alien species living in it on distant worlds, it also follows that many of them are far advanced technologically from where Earth is today. So it would not be too far-fetched to posit that maybe the universe as we know it is one giant computer simulation experiment run by aliens! Monton’s musings on this concept begins to get a bit technical philosophically, but he concludes that while it seems unlikely to him, it does provide an interesting argument for a non-supernatural designer of the universe. [CS9] [3][JS10] 

Chapter 4: Should Intelligent Design be Taught in School?

                Monton believes that the arguments against teaching ID in schools are not compelling, and that students would benefit from the discussion as long as it’s taught in an “intellectually responsible and non-proselytizing way.” His view is that expanding students’ awareness of defining science is a good topic to cover as it helps develop their critical thinking skills. He even suggests that a school district could perform an empirical, long-term study on the issue by teaching ID in one control group and avoiding it in another, and tracking their scientific skills over time as they progress through high school and college.

                Monton lists some common complaints about teaching ID in school and his opposing point: It would be teaching religion (Monton argues it is not inherently religious), we’d be ignoring consensus (Monton opposes teaching science as a “monolithic body of facts,” as there are some interesting controversies worthy of discussing), or that we’d be asking too much from students or teachers (We’re not asking them to resolve these controversies, but merely point them out, which is not asking too much).

                In conclusion, Monton reminds us that what he cares about is “getting at the truth,” and ignoring the culture-war surrounding this issue. If he thought that teaching ID in schools would lead to an “oppressive theocracy,” he would not support it, but instead believes it will broaden students understanding of science and lead to further discoveries.

                Personally, my own conclusion is that Monton is coming across much like a judge presiding over a court case. He’s pointing out valid arguments, weeding out the unnecessary fluff, and willing to let the two sides present their cases. And he does so in a respectable manner, fairly summarizing both points of views. And while his conclusions lean towards an atheist worldview, the majority of the book is concerned with letting the court case unfold, and not so much about his personal final sentencing.

[1] After 40 pages of Monton wrestling with better wording from the Discovery Institute’s original phrase, here is his modified definition that he settled upon: “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.”

[2] For more information see Michael Behe’s book, “Darwin’s Black Box.”

[3] As a side note, I have come across a few articles by physicists who theorize something close to this idea: that the universe appears to be a giant hologram. It’s far beyond my skills to evaluate but I found it to be an interesting idea!