Thursday, November 24, 2005


Back in Time: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Doctor Who

Just published with Damaris Books, Back in Time explores the recurring themes and ideas that underpin this most intelligent of popular science fiction shows, which made a triumphant return to British television this year. I co-authored this book with Steve Couch (editor of Damaris Books) and Tony Watkins (author of Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Phillip Pullman).

Of particular interest to readers of this blogg may be sections of the book dealing with Doctor Who's generally scientistic treatment of the relationship between science and religion, and the discussion about the implausibility of the real-life existence of aliens - which is also a discussion of intelligent design theory!

'Fascinating and intelligent - a must for anyone who's ever considered the why of Who.' - Rob Shearman, Scriptwriter on the 2005 series of Doctor Who

'This is a fun book for fans of the Doctor who want to go further into the programme's history, its trivia and its big questions of God, the universe and what it means to be human.' - Dr. David Wilkinson, author and lecturer in science and theology at the university of Durham

Back in Time is available to order from @

Back in Time is also available from the damaris web shop @

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Is Secular Humanism better than Intelligent Design?

November’s New Scientist carries an article by E.O. Wilson (Professor of entomology at Harvard University) with the intriguing title: ‘Can biology do better than faith?’ Than which faith, and at what, one wonders? The answers to these questions are: better at providing a unifying worldview than the faiths of Abrahamic monotheism and of the political behaviourism adopted by ‘the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states’. In short, Wilson seems to be rather firmly on the Nature side of the Nature/Nurture debate and to reject monotheism, in both cases on account of the theory of evolution. However, the very fact that Wilson slips from talking about biology to talking about ‘humanism based on science’ shows that his philosophy does not come gift wrapped in his biology, but is a philosophical interpretation of his biology. Wilson’s title obscures this fact.

According to Wilson:

‘Many who accept the fact of evolution cannot, however, on religious grounds, accept the operation of blind chance and the absence of divine purpose implicit in natural selection. They support the alternative explanation of intelligent design. The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it.’

There are a number of points here that merit comment. First, although it is true to say that many who accept the theory of evolution reject Wilson’s interpretation of evolution as lacking divine purpose on religious grounds, it does not follow that their religious grounds are any less rational than Wilson’s secular humanism. Wilson appears to be assuming that religious belief is always and only a matter of blind faith. Anyone familiar with the work of theistic evolutionists such as Denis Alexander, John Polkinghorne or Russell Stannard will know that this is not always the case. Wilson’s belief that evolution lacks divine purpose is ‘implicit’ in the philosophical assumptions he brings to the theory, not something ‘implicit’ within the theory itself. People who approach the theory of evolution with different philosophical assumptions to Wilson are within their epistemic rights to adopt a different philosophical interpretation of that theory.

Secondly, it should be noted that there are people who reject the theory of evolution without doing so on religious grounds. On the one hand, there are people like secular Jew and mathematician David Berlinski who reject the theory but have no religious beliefs. On the other hand there are people like Catholic biologist Michael Behe who have religious beliefs but reject evolution on wholly evidential grounds since they see no conflict between their religious beliefs and the theory of evolution.

Third, Wilson conflates Intelligent Design theory with all forms of dissent from evolution (which he incorrectly thinks of as always being religiously motivated). A theistic evolutionist like Denis Alexander would be surprised to find himself called an Intelligent Design theorist by Wilson; as would the members of Answers in Genesis!

Finally, Wilson drags up the old objection that ID is an argument from ignorance and not, as it is in fact, a standard scientific argument to the best explanation of the known facts. I’d like to see Wilson accusing the forensic scientist who pronounces a certain death murder rather than an event due to natural causes, or a cryptographer who says that a certain series of numbers is a code, of arguing on the basis of a lack of evidence. And yet scientific inferences such as these, no less than when applied to the natural world itself, fall under the purview of design inferences of the type defended by ID theorists like William A. Dembski.

Wilson is prepared to concede that ID theorists might have a point when they argue that ‘scientists [that should read some scientists] resist the supernatural theory because it is counter to their own personal secular beliefs.’ ‘This may have a kernel of truth;’ says Wilson, ‘everybody suffers from some amount of bias.’ (It should be noted that ID does not, strictly speaking, require a supernatural explanation, since it agrees with David Hume about the limited knowledge about the metaphysical nature of the designer/s one can abstract from a design inferences. What ID requires is an intelligent explanation. Whether or not that intelligence is supernatural is another discussion.) However, Wilson immediately starts back-tracking with an appeal to how ‘the reward system in science works.’ According to Wilson, ‘Any researcher who can prove the existence of intelligent design within the accepted framework of science will make history an achieve eternal fame.’ In fact, I suspect that this is impossible – not because there is no way to present such a ‘proof’ or no evidence to support it, but because ‘the accepted framework in science’ excludes these possibilities a priori. To see why, consider the fact that Wilson considers ID to be a necessarily supernatural explanation, and then ask yourself whether Wilson is prepared to admit supernatural explanations into scientific theories? I doubt he would allow this, and I suspect that, like many ID critics, he might appeal to the supposed necessity of methodological naturalism in the sciences. For a thorough critique of methodological naturalism I would point readers to the work on this subject by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. However, it can be pointed out here that a) only a hard-line methodological naturalism that wants to exclude intelligence as an explanation in the sciences actually conflicts with ID (since ID requires intelligent design and not supernatural design), and b) several philosophers of science would argue that, given the general failure of ‘demarcation arguments’, there is in fact no sufficient reason for excluding supernatural explanations from science in the first place.

Wilson goes on to assert that ‘there is no evidence, no theory and no criteria for proof that even marginally might pass for science.’ This may be true given a sufficiently strict definition of science; but any definition of science strict enough to exclude ID will also exclude all scientific fields that appeal to intelligence as an explanation of empirical evidence. That includes archaeology, cryptography, forensic science, animal psychology, and SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). Rather than taking such a radical definitional chain-saw to the tree of science Wilson would be well advised to stick to arguing that while there clearly are scientific criteria for making design inferences, and while these inferences can be supported in a number of scientific fields, they cannot be supported when it comes to the suggestion than anything in the fabric of nature is the result of intelligent design. Of course, nothing in the field of SETI has passed the test yet, so Wilson couldn’t use this as an argument against the scientific status of ID without questioning the scientific status of SETI.

In short, it seems hard to argue that ID isn’t scientific, and so the real question becomes whether there is sufficient evidence for making a design inference from nature. ID theorists will think so, non ID theorists will think not; but this is a scientific dispute about empirical evidence, of science verses science, not the issue of blind faith verses science that Wilson portrays.

Wilson’s assertion that ‘biologists are unanimous in concluding that evolution is a fact’ is either untrue (if taken in a substantive sense) or beside the point (if taken in the senses in which Intelligent Design theorists, or biblical creationists of ‘old’ or even ‘young’ earth varieties would accept). There are most certainly a number of qualified biologists and other academics who would dissent from Wilson’s claim that there is ‘overwhelming accumulated evidence favouring [the theory of evolution].’ Wilson’s statement that strict creationists insist that no evolution ever occurred is, to the best of my knowledge, either incorrect or applicable to no one (but at least it introduces a distinction between ID theorists and creationists).

Wilson is committed to the view that humans acquired their ‘unprecedented intelligence’ through an unintended and unguided process of evolution ‘during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence…’ Many philosophers have questioned whether this belief is at all coherent. If our brains evolved to cope with such simple conditions, is it reasonable to expect them to cope with figuring out such complicated matters as that they evolved in such conditions (cf. Alvin Plantinga, Warrant & Proper Function, Oxford, 1993)?

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Themelios review of 'I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning'

The new edition of theology journal Themelios carries a glowing review of my book I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response To Nihilism (Damaris, 2004). Here are the edited highlights:

'...easy to read, fantastically informative... highly entertaining and jam-packed with quotable quotes and references to films, TV and most other aspects of the world with which anyone below 30 will be familiar. But don't be deceived, this is a serious book! Williams engages with mainstream philosophy, science and theology in order to make a cogent argument for believing in God and thereby in meaning. He very effectively takes on Richard Dawkins... With considerable style, Williams demonstrates the extent to which naturalism is fatally flawed... Buy this book to give to any thinking non-Christian who has been awakened to the indestructible questions of meaning and purpose... It is a model of contemporary apologetics...' - Dominic Smart (p. 135-136.)

Saturday, November 05, 2005


The Times - inaccurate report on intelligent design

Today's edition of The Times (Saturday, November 5, 2005) carries an article by Martin Penner in Rome, under the heading 'Vatican's view evolves on the origin of the species' (page 55).

Penner reports some comments by Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, as 'a stout defence of Charles Darwin' and a 'strong criticism of Christian fundamentalists who reject his theory of evolution and interpret the biblical account of creation literally.' (There is no 'evolution' of the Vatican's view here, as the header implies.) This amounts to the perpetuation of a false dilemma, since many people 'reject the theory of evolution' in part without interpreting the biblical account of creation literally. It is, after all, not only Christians who reject the totalizing claims of Neo-Darwinism (one need only consider the views of secular Jew, mathematician David Berlinski to see that, cf.

I am an advocate of ID, and yet I agree with the Cardinal's remarks that Darwin's theory of evolution is 'perfectly compatible' with belief in creation, and that 'To say that the principle of evolution goes against the principle of creation makes no sense.' My reasons for endorsing ID are not theological. I also agree with the Cardinal that 'the Universe didn't make itself and had a creator' and that it is important for Christians to know how science sees things so as to 'understand things better.' Indeed, I think that understanding the scientific theory of ID helps us to better understand the fact that the Universe didn't make itself and had a creator!

Unfortunately, Penner's report includes false, inaccurate, or at least misleading statements:

Penner says that the Cardinal's statements were interpreted in Italy as a rejection of:

'the "intelligent design" view, which asserts that the Universe is so complex, some higher being must have designed every detail.'

This statement is at best so oversimplified as to be inaccurate. First, ID does not infer design on the basis of mere complexity, but of specified and/or irriducible complexity (cf. William A. Dembski, No Free Lunch). Second, ID does not assert that some higher being must have 'designed every detail' of the universe. It only asserts that intelligent design is the best explanation for those particular aspects of the universe which exhibit specified and/or irreducible complexity.

Penner reports: 'Vatican analysts said that Cardinal Poupard's remerks were partly designed to distance the Church from American concervatives campaigning against the teaching of evolution in state schools.' Now, I may be wrong about this, but as far as I know, there aren't any American concervatives campaigning against the teaching of evolution is state schools. At least, there are to my knowledge no high profile cases of such campaigning at the present time to which one might relate the Cardinal's comments. Indeed, Penner moves on to assert that:

'A court in Pennsylvania is hearing a lawsuit brought by parents against a school district that teaches intelligent design as well as evolution. It is a test case, the result of which is expected to affect the curriculum in thousands of schools.'

But note that, according to Penner himself, this lawsuit does not concern an attempt to eliminate the teaching of evolution, but rather concerns the teaching of ID in addition to evolution.

In point of fact, I think Penner's statement is somewhat misleading. The lawsuit in question involves a school district that requires teachers to read a single, short (not especially well worded) statement about evolution and intelligent design to students, a statement which points students to the secondary text book, Of Panda's and People, in their school library if they want to learn more. Penner's report would surely be taken by the uninformed to imply rather more than that (i.e. that ID was actually part of the science lessons taught in class).

(To read more about the Dover school trial cf.

Penner ends his report by noting that in 1987 the US Supreme Court abolished a law banning the teaching of evolution unless creationism was also taught, before claiming that:

'President Bush has said that he believes schools should teach both.'

This statement is incorrect because it fails to distinguish between 'creationism' and intelligent design theory. Penner implies that Bush has said that schools should teach both evolution and creationism. Not so. During a round-table interview with reporters from five Texas newspapers on Monday August 2, 2005, President Bush said he believes schools should discuss 'intelligent design' alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life: 'I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,' Bush said, 'You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.' Unfortunately, Penner's article propogates the false idea that creationism and ID are one and the same thing. They are not (cf. William A. Dembski, 'Why President Bush Got It Right About Intelligent Design' @ & John G. West, 'Intelligent Design & Creationism Are Just Not The Same' @

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


'Think' about Intelligent Design - but not too much

The latest edition of Think: philosophy for everyone, the Royal Institute of Philosophy's periodical of philosophy (issue eleven, autumn 2005) turns its intellectual spot-light onto intelligent design theory.

There are a couple of pro-ID articles from Phillip E. Johnson (a new article, which deals robustly with the censorship tactics of the Darwinist establishment) and Michael J. Behe (a reprint of his 1996 paper 'Evidence for Intelligent Design from Biochemistry', cf.

There is an article from the periodical's editor, Stephen Law, which neatly deals with the objection that the fine tuning argument commits the 'gambler's fallacy'.

Antony Flew contributes a rather confusing new article, entitled "My 'conversion'", which sets out to set the record straight over his reported intellectual conversion to some form of theism (I'm one of the people who reported this conversion, cf. 'A Change of Mind for Antony Flew' @ on account of new forms of the design argument. Unfortunately, the article seems to muddy the waters. I am now not clear as to whether Flew has become a philosophical theist with similarities to Aristotle, or a deist, or even some sort of pantheist. Flew seems to mention ID arguments as arguments which legitimately carry weight with anyone who already has some reason for believing in a Creator and which non-believers need to take seriously, but he does not clearly nail his own colours to the mast.

Weighed in the balance against these generally pro-ID pieces are new pieces from Michael Ruse, Hugh Mellor (whom I think implies that the universe is necessary), Sharon Kaye and Robert Prisco (an amusing attack upon Aquinas' fith way) and Dene Bebbington (a simplistic critique of William Dembski's work on specified complexity), together with a re-print of H. Allen Orr's 1996 review of Darwin's Black Box from the Boston Review ( to which Behe long ago responded (cf. &

While I find it encouraging, as an ID proponent, to see discussion of ID in a British philosophical periodical, I find it particularly disapointing that Think should present papers critical of William Dembski's work on specified complexity in a volume that contains nothing on that subject from a pro ID position (whether from the horse's mouth, or even from one of his compatriots).

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Choice Quotes from Steve Fuller

A selection of choice quotes from the 'Rebuttal of Dover Expert Reports' by Steve William Fuller, who is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, and who has both an MPhil and PhD in the history & philosophy of science:

'anyone familiar with how this principle [common descent] is treated within the relevant branches of biology knows that 'common descent' names more an article of faith than an established fact... there is considerable dispute in the science of organic taxonomy, or cladistics, about how exactly to establish common descent - with some mainstream (at least when compared to ID's proponents) biologists openly suggesting that the principle of common descent may need to be rejected if it cannot be supported in a consitently empirical fashion. At the moment, Neo-Darwinism relies on a rather liberal standard of evidence for establishing common descent...'

'There is no evidence that belief in a supernatural deity inhibits one's ability to study the natural world systematically. If anything, history provides evidence for the contrary thesis - that there is a synergy between the two. Of course, this is not to say that science and religion are identical. They are simply not mutually exclusive...'

'ID proponents argue primarily by appeal to empirical evidence gathered in the laboritory and the field, employing methods of reasoning, both qualitative and quantitative - familiar from other branches of science. the only difference here from Neo-Darwinists is that ID proponents tend to draw different conclusions.'

'naturalism remains a controversial position within academic philosophy. In fact, it is probably still a minority position in philosophy as a whole...'

'I conclude that ID is a legitimate scientific inquiry that does not constitute "religion" in a sense that undermines the pursuit of science more generally, or, for that matter, undermines the separation of State and Church in the US Constitution...'


It is salient to note that Fuller describes himself as a naturalist.

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