Lunch With Bradley Monton, “Intelligent Design’s Unlikely Defender”
I just had lunch with Bradley Monton, the University of Colorado philosopher who has stepped up as “Intelligent Design’s Unlikely Defender.” He and his friend/colleague Robert Pasnau were on their way to the Poudre River in northern Colorado for a kayaking trip, I’m in Fort Collins for a conference, and the three of us met for lunch at an excellent Japanese restaurant in Old Town Fort Collins. The first thing I want to say is how gracious they both were as professional philosophers conversing with a much less learned amateur such as myself. The second thing to say is that it was just enjoyable to be with them: it would be easy to be friends with men like them.
We talked about Brad’s new book, Seeking God In Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, and the cultural controversies surrounding the ID debate. He argues that ID is a question worth pursuing. By doing so he has placed himself in the center of a storm. Though he doesn’t say he believes ID is true, he has been subjected to considerable pressure just for suggesting it’s worth working on—called “anti-intellectual” by other professors, for example, and repeatedly criticized by people who had not even read or heard what he actually says. I had one “burning question” for him related to this: what would he have done if I had worn my Michigan State University shirt to lunch? He laughed. (It’s not entirely an inside joke.) As far as I can tell he’s taking the pressure with a good sense of humor. Amazingly enough, he’s even willing to have his name associated with a “Thinking Christian” blogger!
I was curious how he came to choose atheism as his position, something he doesn’t explain in his book. I’ll leave it to him to make his reasons public if he ever wants to do that. Though our discussion was on the record in the sense that he was happy to have me write it up here, still some things we talked about are not really mine to pass along. Robert in turn asked me whether I thought the existence of God is provable. I said no, I don’t think it’s provable. Rather I believe (as I’ve written here before) that God provides strong internal assurance of his reality to believers, and that this assurance lines up strongly with external (philosophical, historical, and existential) evidences for God. Those things together give me very high confidence that God is real. I appreciated that they listened, and I hope I was giving them the same courtesy.
We didn’t get as much into the ID-related arguments he makes in the book as I would like to have done; that would have taken another hour or two. One point of discussion, though, was that in the book he discusses four “somewhat plausible arguments for Intelligent Design,” as he puts it: the fine-tuned universe, the Kalam cosmological argument (briefly defined here, though not in quite the same terms as in the book) the origin of life, and post-origin biological arguments for ID. He considers all of these to have probabilities at least somewhat greater than zero. I asked if he had ever put a probability number on their likelihood or plausibility. If they were all, say, 50% likely, and if their probabilities were all independent (which is an interesting question we did not try to resolve) then the probability that none of them is true is equal to 1/2 raised to the fourth power, or one in sixteen. Or, to say the same thing conversely, the probability that at least one of the design arguments is true, on those assumptions, is about 94%. But those were just numbers I used to illustrate the point I was making, and he did not commit to any estimate of the probabilities.
I won’t try to replay the whole lunch conversation. Brad and I certainly disagree on one extremely fundamental aspect of reality: the existence of God. (Robert did not explicitly state his position on that. nor what he believes about ID, except to say that his interest in ID comes mostly by way of his friendship with Brad.) Nevertheless I very strongly respect and appreciate Brad for taking a courageous stand in the current academic environment, for handling it as a search for truth rather than pushing ideologies, and for being a decent human being in the way he goes about doing it. I hope the three of us can get together again sometime for another good talk together.
I hope their kayaking trip works out, too, but it’s not looking good for them. It’s raining out, and I’m hearing thunder and seeing lightning out toward the mountains as I write this. Bradley Monton is already taking enough risks in his life by publishing on ID. I have a feeling he and Robert are smart enough to stay off a river during a thunderstorm.
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