That’s the implication of an essay by philosopher Howard Kainz in First Things. Kainz discusses the work of several atheist academics whose work endorses, or at least respectfully entertains, arguments in favor of an intelligent designer of the universe. I had heard about Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (authors of “What Darwin Got Wrong”), but not Bradley Monton. Kainz:

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for thetruth, wherever it leads.

Monton’s starting point is the recent trial, Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, which ended with a decision against a school board in Pennsylvania. The school board wanted to require a disclaimer read to 9th grade biology students, informing students of the existence of ID as an alternative theory regarding evolution. Judge John Jones in 2005, however, ruled against the school board. After hearing expert witnesses on both sides, he concluded that ID is a religious view and not science, and thus cannot be taught in public schools.

The reason given for the “non-scientific” nature of ID was that science had to be restricted to a naturalist methodology, prohibiting any approach or evidence which could bring in the supernatural. Monton considers such a restriction as completely arbitrary, and even offers some thought experiments showing how a supernatural agent could be detected through scientific methods. He mentions with approval some examples of two conversions of atheists to theism, on the basis of scientific evidence: The physicist, Fred Hoyle, whose atheism was “shaken” when he came to the conclusion in 1982 that some “superintellect” had “monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology”; and the famous philosopher, Anthony Flew, who in 2004 announced that he could no longer remain an atheist, largely because of his study of “fine-tuning” arguments in physics and the resistance of DNA evidence to any naturalistic explanation.

The Monton book has been out for a couple of years, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. I’m intrigued. I confess that I hesitate to dive into any of this because, like 99 percent of the public, I lack the scientific expertise to fairly evaluate the arguments of either side. I am a theist who believes God created the universe. I don’t have a theological problem believing that He did so through natural selection, though if it were to be shown conclusively that there had to have been an element of design, I would simply say, “Of course,” and get on with it. I don’t see a bright line between the natural world and the supernatural world. Because I’m not committed to a fundamentalist, literal reading of Genesis, I don’t feel obliged, as a matter of logic and intellectual integrity, to say that either religion is correct or science is. Science and religion are not the same things, but I can see how, in this particular case, science helps me understand my religious beliefs better. I believe that Truth is One, and that science and religion are two different ways of knowing, but not necessarily contradictory ways of knowing. If you ask me which one is more trustworthy as a guide to answering a particular question, I would say that depends on the question — though it’s entirely possible that one way of knowing, while being less suitable as a guide to an answer, may still shed important light on the answer.

Now, on the ID controversy, I wish I had more confidence in my ability to parse through the arguments on either side, but I find that I’m reduced to the same condition that most of us are: having to take it on authority that this or that position is correct. It is very, very difficult as well to filter out confirmation bias, especially on such an emotionally charged topic. As neuroscience has shown, we are far more likely to credit authorities who confirm what we already believe, or wish to believe. To be clear, this doesn’t make the authority incorrect! I may wish to believe that chewing bubble gum cures cancer, but I would be a fool to believe the doctor who tells me that this is true over a doctor who says it’s nonsense. Still, we seem to be hard-wired for confirmation bias. Mercier & Sperber hypothesize (scientific paper here) that when we think we’re reasoning, we may actually be simply marshaling arguments to confirm our own biases — and that this is actually an evolutionary strategy for survival. As Jonathan Haidt put it in his discussion of the Mercier & Sperber paper:

Why is the confirmation bias, in particular— this is the most damaging one of all—why is the confirmation bias so ineradicable?  That is, why do people automatically search for evidence to support whatever they start off believing, and why is it impossible to train them to undo that?  It’s almost impossible. Nobody’s found a way to teach critical thinking that gets people to automatically reflect on, well, what’s wrong with my position?

And finally, why is reasoning so biased and motivated whenever self-interest or self-presentation are at stake?  Wouldn’t it be adaptive to know the truth in social situations, before you then try to manipulate?

The answer, according to Mercier and Sperber, is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, and it’s here on your handout, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We’re sitting here at a conference. We’re reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there, it shows the marks of its heritage. Even there, our thought processes tend towards confirmation of our own ideas. Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.

But the private reasoning of any one scientist is often deeply flawed, because reasoning can be counted on to seek justification and not truth.

Anyway, my point is that the emotions are so strong around the issue of natural selection and intelligent design that it’s hard to know who, exactly, to trust. My default position is to go with the scientific consensus, which is against ID, but I have deep misgivings about that, because of the overwhelming hostility the scientific establishment has toward questioning the premises and conclusions of natural selection. The anger — the rage, really — of so many biologists at the thought of design in nature is so disproportionate that I cannot help but be skeptical about their conclusions. It doesn’t make them wrong, of course, but understanding how confirmation bias works, in part from understanding in retrospect how it has misshaped my own thinking, makes me doubtful that biologists are nearly as disinterested in the outcome of this discussion as they think they are. Remember what Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin said in the New York Review of Books:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

See? For Lewontin, the non-existence of God is assumed, and assumed absolutely. No evidence that points to an insufficiency of purely material explanations for physical reality can possibly be entertained. How is this any more honest than a theist who refuses to accept any evidence that would undermine the argument for God? I believe that many scientists, especially biologists, are so “religious” about the intelligent design issue because they want to believe God does not exist as much as a theist wants to believe the opposite. Mind you, the truth is the truth is the truth, and it doesn’t cease to be the truth because the “wrong” people believe it, or the truth challenges what we desperately want to believe. But the subjectivity of the investigator cannot be easily disentangled, if it can be disentangled at all, from the object of the investigation.

I find myself more willing to pay attention to the arguments of someone like Monton, who is committed to atheism, because at least that filters out a lot of the confirmation bias. That is, if someone like Monton sees reason to take design seriously, then attention must be paid. (Similarly, when theistic scientists, like Simon Conway-Morris, endorse natural selection, I’m more inclined to take them seriously). The astonishing thing about the discussion of intelligent design is how unrestrained the personal attacks on serious people who take ID the least bit seriously can be. On his blog, Monton discusses how raising questions, even from an atheistic standpoint, about the case against ID gets him personally savaged. For example, here. Excerpt:

Here’s another ad hominem charge against me: he accused me of ”self-serving career advancement”. I asked him how my taking a stand that leads to having to deal with criticisms like the ones he’s giving furthers my career, and he replied with something about increasing book sales. Well, it’s true that I want my ideas to be widely read, but there’s a difference between advancing one’s career and selling more books. One of my colleagues asked me just a couple days ago how I think my reputation will be affected once my book comes out, and I said that I’m pretty sure that my reputation will be negatively affected, because there’s so much animosity toward intelligent design, and yet I’m being more sympathetic to it than most atheists are. I’m not writing about intelligent design to further my career; I’m writing about intelligent design because I’ve seen a number of bad arguments on both sides, and I want to elevate the debate — that’s what will most further the cause of reason. I’m especially concerned, though, when I see bad arguments being given on the atheist side, because better arguments can and should be given. If the arguments that Klymkoswky gave represent the best arguments atheists can give against intelligent design, then the atheist position is in trouble.

Assuming Monton’s account of the Klymkoswky speech is accurate, then this is not disinterested scientific critique. This is personal invective. One sees this all the time. When preachers and religion apologists do it, you roll your eyes and move on. But when scientists do it, it’s far more disturbing, because they are, or ought to be, committed to dispassionate analysis. Here’s more of that kind of thing.

To be sure, Monton does not embrace intelligent design; how could he, as an atheist? Nor does he fully reject it. He only contends that the arguments against ID are not as strong as the anti-ID side thinks they are, and says in this lecture — if you listen, go past the garbled introduction, which lasts 4 minutes or so — that analyzing the arguments made him less committed to atheism than he was previously. Ah ha! He is less than a True Believer. Therefore, a threat.

Anyway, in the lecture, Monton says he is an atheist because he doesn’t believe the evidence for the existence of God is there. But ID argues that there is evidence in the natural world for the divine. That, Monton says, interests him, so he’s looking into it. He says if he could be shown plausible scientific evidence for the existence of God, he would cease to be an atheist. Because this is what ID claims — that the existence of God can be inferred from scientific evidence — he’s interested in examining the evidence.

What’s wrong with that? Seriously, what’s wrong with it? If this puts him in the camp of the impure, big deal. Says Monton: “Bad people can still give good arguments. … I don’t care if they’re bad people or not. I don’t care about whether they’re trying to promote theocracy, or not. I care if their arguments are good, or not.”

Which is as it should be. And by the way, Monton seems a lot more persuaded by the arguments from physics for the fine-tuned universe than from anything in biology. This blurb from UNC-Chapel Hill philosopher John Roberts is another reason I’m interested in Monton’s book, and will probably order it:

“This is a brave and important book. Monton does not defend ‘intelligent design’ as true — he thinks it is most likely false. Instead, he defends it as a hypothesis worth taking seriously. He argues convincingly that it can be formulated as a scientifically testable hypothesis, and that there is some important empirical evidence for it — not as much evidence as its supporters claim there is, but some evidence. Virtually all voices in this debate insist either that ID is not even worth taking seriously or else that it is manifestly the truth. It is refreshing to see a talented philosopher give the thesis its due and make a serious attempt to weigh the evidence for and against it, without the weight of the ‘culture wars’ hanging over every sentence.”

One more thing: another scientific area where science matters far less than emotion is the whole global warming debate. As with evolution, my default position is toward the scientific consensus, but the personal vehemence with which the mainstream treats dissenters — less as dissenters than as heretics — makes me more sympathetic to the doubters than I otherwise would be. Whenever people are so ferociously eager to extirpate dissent, I can’t help wondering if maybe the dissenters are trying to tell us something we need to hear. Noting that the post-Katrina predictions that global warming was going to give us a world of mega-hurricanes has not come true, Walter Russell Mead writes sarcastically:


For those of you who are confused, let me remind you: the only meteorological phenomena that count are the ones that confirm the climate alarmist case.  It doesn’t matter what it is — drought, flood, blizzard, heat wave — if it can be made to support fear about the climate, it matters and it needs to be thoroughly analyzed and widely publicized.

Meteorological phenomena that, to the unsophisticated, might appear to undermine the case that WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE if we don’t immediately pass a stringent carbon treaty, are meaningless and should be ignored.