Monday, September 14, 2009

Seeking God in Science (Pt. II)

In chapter two of Seeking God in Science (See here for the first part of our discussion of the book) Brad Monton considers the question of whether ID is legitimate science and here, as in chapter one, he slays a number of hostile polemical dragons. He argues that attempts to define science have a dismal history and that, Judge Jones' decree in Kitzmiller vs. Dover School District notwithstanding, there's no good reason to think that intelligent design is not science. Monton takes on one contender after another and tosses each in turn out of the ring. His analysis of his opponents' arguments is incisive, sometimes brilliant, and the upshot is that, though he thinks ID wrong, there's no good reason for excluding it from the community of scientific theories.

The next chapter was perhaps the most interesting. He begins by saying that the important question is not whether ID is science but whether it's true, and he's exactly right about this. He thinks the arguments in its favor have some plausibility but not enough to persuade him to abandon his atheism or to accept that there is a non-theistic designer.

The problem, I think, with Monton's argument in this chapter is that he seems to make the term "somewhat plausible" synonomous with "not very likely." I don't know if this is intentional, but I do think it's misleading. For example, in considering the argument for a designer based on the fine-tuning of the universe he notes that most people simply lack the expertise to evaluate the claims that the relevant parameters must be set at precisely the values they are for life to exist and thus shouldn't make too much of the extraordinary coincidence that so many values are indeed calibrated to such fine tolerances.

That's true enough, but it's an objection one could make to any theory in science. Most philosophers and even many scientists know very little about relativity theory or quantum mechanics or string theory or even evolution. They rely on people who do know about these things, and they assume that the people who do have expertise are largely correct in their conclusions.

The fine-tuning argument has as an implied premise that the physicists who argue that the dozen or more values must be almost exactly what they are or else the universe wouldn't exist and/or life wouldn't exist, are most likely correct. If they are then an intelligent designer is the best explanation for the cosmic structure.

The argument isn't a proof in the deductive sense, but it's much more than "somewhat plausible" since the claim that the cosmos is fine-tuned for life seems to be admitted by even opponents of ID and is much more likely to be true than false.

Similarly, Monton asserts that we are not warranted in believing that the universe had a beginning because we can't know what happened prior to about 10 ^ -12 seconds after the initial event. Because we can't penetrate that time horizon we're not warranted in believing that the universe began to exist. I think this is not quite correct. We may well be warranted in believing that the universe began to exist in a big bang but we're not warranted in saying that it certainly did. And if we are warranted in believing that the universe began to exist then we may well be justified in believing that it had a cause of its existence.

His most problematic objection to ID has to do with the ID argument that life itself is astronomically improbable as a product of blind, impersonal forces. He doesn't dispute this, but he does argue that the universe is spatially infinite and rather homogenous throughout. Therefore there would be an infinite number of planets like our own and no matter how small the chances of life arising naturalistically, if the probability is at all greater than zero it must have happened. Indeed, it must have happened infinite times.

I find this argument implausible. It's based on the assumption that given infinite opportunities anything that is possible to be the case will be the case. Given an infinite number of planets there would be an infinity of planets like earth and in an infinite number of planets anything which is at all possible will be actual. One problem with this argument is that its based on the assumption that the universe is infinite and that it has a fairly uniform composition throughout, but we have no more reason to think this second assumption true than we did to think that the universe had a beginning. If Monton is not warranted in believing that the universe had a beginning then I don't see how he's warranted in believing that the universe is both infinite and uniform.

But even if we grant Monton these assumptions it seems to me that they actually confirm the existence of a designer. Let's stipulate that there is a non-zero probability that some part of our spatially infinite universe was designed. In other words, we're stipulating that it's possible that a designer exists. If so, then given an infinite number of parts to the universe, at least one of them (actually an infinity of them) must be designed. Thus a designer exists. This doesn't prove that the designer has designed every part of the universe but its a very short psychological step from the existence of a designer of an infinite number of parts of the universe to the existence of the entire universe.

At any rate, an argument that demonstrates the existence of a designer of even just a part of the universe seems to be a defeater of Monton's belief that no such designer exists.

The fourth chapter addresses the question whether ID should be taught in public school science classrooms. Here again Monton relentlessly punctures many of the arguments raised by those who oppose doing so.

The book is a delight to read, as much for Monton's relentless devotion to the truth and the clarity of his argumentation as it is for the interesting perspectives brought to the topic by an atheist defending intelligent design. I recommend it to anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the debate between IDers and those who oppose them.


The ACORN Saga Continues

Perhaps you've heard that ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), President Obama's former associates, are once again in the news and the news isn't good. A pair of intrepid young indy filmmakers surreptitiously filmed the proceedings as they visited two ACORN offices, one in Baltimore and one in Washington, posing as a pimp and a prostitute. The pair claimed that they wished to run a prostitution business using teenage El Salvadoran girls and they needed advice on housing options. They were counseled by ACORN representatives as to how they could get away with running their business in Baltimore and how they could mislead the IRS and avoid paying taxes.

The conselors were fired when the video broke, but there's a much deeper, more systemic problem with ACORN than just a few ethically challenged housing advisors. ACORN representatives have over the years been convicted in numerous states of voter registration fraud and a host of other legal violations. The odor of corruption and/or mismanagement has clung to them for at least a decade.

Yet ACORN has been given access to millions of dollars in stimulus money and were contracted to help carry out the 2010 census (although in the wake of this latest scandal the census bureau has severed its connection with ACORN).

If you'd like to be brought up to speed on this latest episode in the ACORN saga go here and scroll down. There's plenty of information and video shot by the young undercover investigators in the ACORN offices.

By the way, the young man who did the filming, who did the kind of investigating reporting the traditional media seem loath to do, James O'Keefe, may be prosecuted by Baltimore City for secretly taping the exchange with the ACORN people. Law enforcement authorities had been questioned as to whether the city was going to do anything about what some thought to be ACORN's obvious breach of the law so the State's Attorney's office looked at the tape and decided, astonishingly, that the malefactor was the filmmaker.

Meanwhile, the traditional media slumbers while this travesty plays out.

Margaret Williams, an ACORN board member, predictably blames the whole contretemps on .... racism. Sigh.