The Influence of Climate

Bradley Monton is a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has a new book coming out entitled, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design and recently blogged about an interesting private exchange with another atheist philosopher:

Also, the atheist-minded philosophers are unhappy with how some intelligent design opponents seem more focused on emotion and rhetoric than argument — they expect better of people (especially philosophers) who are engaging in this debate. For example, I recently got an email from a philosopher of science at a top philosophy program, which read in part:

“I’m also an atheist who thinks that the arguments for ID are far more interesting than philosophers tend to appreciate. I think it’s lamentable that the climate now is such that you can’t seriously discuss such things without attracting ill will from well-meaning opponents of the religious right. … Writing a book like yours is a brave thing to do and it might make the world a better place.”

What is interesting to me is how sociological pressures can impose a form of self-censorship in Academia, which is supposed to represent the heart and soul of free thinking and inquiry.

I’m reminded of a quote from Paul Davies (in his book, The Fifth Miracle): “Many investigators feel uneasy stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they admit they are baffled.”

So why do such investigators only admit this behind closed doors? Consider the follow-up sentences offered by Davies:

There seem to be two reasons for their unease. First, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations. Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding, especially for the search for life in space.

It’s easy to skip by these statements, but in reality, Davies is making a truly radical claim. He is saying that there is a community of scientists who are not being totally sincere in public about the state of their research for sociological reasons. Can it be that the general public is kept in the dark about things that might open the door to “religious fundamentalists” or undermine the ability to obtain money? I don’t know the answer to that question, but thanks to the internet, there is some recent support for the notion that some researchers are very concerned about opening the door to “god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations.”

Eugene Koonin’s model for the origin of life by chance was negatively reviewed by Eric Bapteste from Université Pierre et Marie Curie. Bapteste’s lengthy critical review seems focused around one primary complaint – that Koonin is opening the door to ID (thus, making Davies sound like a prophet). Consider Bapteste’s complaints:

In this review, I will simply try to rephrase what serious problem Koonin has identified according to me, and I will argue that I am afraid his answer to this problem might open too broad an avenue to the supporters of intelligent design.


I am afraid his present (and arguable) solution, although fairly underlining one of the limits of traditional evolutionary thinking, could open a huge door to the tenants of intelligent design.


Unfortunately, such a position does not distinguish itself from the conception of the supporters of intelligent design either. ID people could always claim that life evolves for a reason (they could also enrole Darwinian selection as a mean to achieve this higher goal/reason).


Unfortunately, as long as he does not carefully introduce and clarify his anthropic selection principle, I think that he might be unwillingly opening a huge door to ID supporters to enter into the very heart of the evolutionary theory.


Worse: what guarantee do we have that there won’t be ID people to claim that, as the very important evolutionary biologist E. Koonin showed, Darwinian selection is a secondary player in cosmology, and is itself a force evolved for a reason, a chosen by product of anthropic selection, in which case everything evolving under Darwinian selection evolves in fact under the eternal drive of the anthropic principle?


For all these questions could be exploited very meanly by ID people, Koonin is in my view very naïve to think that he can call in teleology to start the process of evolution and call it off subsequently: if teleology is called in (a view which I doubt is worth supporting in science and that I feel is dangerous), unless teleology achieves the goal it is needed for, there is no reason why teleology should suddenly stop being relevant in the middle of the way… In fact, a teleological process deemed to be non successful is no more a force, as by definition it will fail to achieve its goal, and then why to invoke it as a force in the first place?)


If what I described is what Koonin had in mind rather than the anthropic selection, the good news then is that since such necessity is strictly supported by statistics, he can propose that things are the way they are because they had to be so, without needing to invoke observers of the universe and to open the door of evolutionary biology to ID people.


I am thus interested -and amused- that, in this paper, Koonin ends up multiplying the universes to solve a biological issue, when I remember how much, on other occasions, he enjoys to invoke parsimony (the assumption that one should not multiply beings without necessity). I would be more satisfied however when he would have made his own views on ID and the anthropic principle clearer in a revised version of this manuscript.

Hmmm. He should make his own views on ID more clear? Could it be anymore clear? According to this peer reviewer, the major problem with Koonin’s model is that it is too friendly to ID. Koonin responds by assuring us that his model is not, NOT, NOT teleology, as that would not be science:

There is no teleology at all involved in my approach in this paper. No teleology. It is the opposite of teleology.


Again, there is absolutely no teleology involved, I could not insist more strongly on this point.

Yes, we can’t have any teleology involved. In fact, Koonin then goes on to defend his model by advertising it as something that refutes ID.

The main text of this paper contains a clear statement on Intelligent Deisgn (ID) but, since this is a serious concern for Bapteste (and I agree that ID is an important, even if meta-scientific, issue), I will reiterate and further reinforce my position that directly follows from the reasoning explicated in this paper. The above discussion of the anthropic principle implies an unequivocal sentence for Intelligent Design; let us spell it out. As indicated above, in an infinite multiverse, anthropic selection guarantees the emergence of systems of whatever complexity that are required for the biological evolution to take off (see Fig. 3). This scenario is watertight: first, chance/anthropic selection, then biological evolution. There is no gap here where the ID wedge could fit. Properly interpreted, the anthropic principle is a death knell to ID.

Since Koonin equates ID with proving the existence of unbridgeable gaps, ID is falsified with proper interpretation. So there’s no problem with the paper!

Koonin ends with a quote from The God Delusion:

Obviously, anthropic principle is often misinterpreted as providing support to religious (and otherwise teleological) believes (regrettably, this includes Bapteste’s review). On this issue, I cannot resist quoting the recent book by Richard Dawkins: “It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin, Boston-NewYork, p.136).Just like Dawkins, I find it difficult to identify the exact reasons behind the confusion (though see further discussion in my response to Krakauer’s review). The possibility that the ID crowd interprets this paper as support for their cause is one of Bapteste’s main concerns. Will they, actually? No doubt they will! However, the only way to prevent them from doing so is to stop publishing research on any hard problem in evolutionary biology and somehow declare these problems solved. The ID folks do no research themselves, so they apply all their considerable intellectual resources to turn published scientific work upside down and claim support for ID (it happened to several seemingly innocuous papers of mine, to my considerable amusement). I believe evolutionary biologists should not and actually can not worry about this, only about their own papers being correct and coherent.

I suppose many people will get caught up in the specifics of these arguments. While we can get to that shortly, don’t lose sight of the larger picture: teleology is not treated as “just another possible explanation.” Thanks to the internet, we got to read an exchange between two scientists that nicely illustrates what Davies was saying – “There seem to be two reasons for their unease. First, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations.” The perceived problem with the model was that it was too friendly to ID and might open the door to ID, thus the model was defended by insisting there is no teleology involved and, in fact, the model is deeply anti-ID. Koonin felt comfortable admitting the dismal state of abiogenesis research, but that is because he had a non-teleological model in hand that is supposed to help maintain the taboo against teleology.


3 responses to “The Influence of Climate

  1. Pingback: Sociological pressure on biologists to avoid intelligent design « Bradley Monton’s Blog

  2. Looking forward to reading your book, Prof. Monton, even though it will probably suffer from the flaw of opening too broad an avenue to the supporters of intelligent design. I hope you included a disclaimer of some sort against that. 😉

  3. Pingback: Sociological Pressure - Telic Thoughts

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