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How science works : evolution : a student primer

by R J Ellis

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A tendentious and misleading introduction to philosophy of science   (2013-06-28)


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by Immunophilosopher

If the goal of an introductory text for students is to introduce a topic in an evenhanded and unbiased manner, then this book is an abject failure.  It is presented as a primer on the scientific method, but in reality it is an anti-religious polemic trying to pass itself off as an impartial discussion.  At every turn, this work is riddled with omissions, inaccuracies and straw men that will leave readers with a highly misleading impression of contemporary philosophy of science.  This is a book written not to help students form their own ideas, but to convert them to the author's point of view.


The author, John Ellis, denies any such intent in the Introduction, piously claiming that his only goal is to help people "come to their own conclusions" (page xxiii).  The blatant dishonesty of this disclaimer is evident throughout the remainder of the book, in which he is consistently and continuously demonstrates a heavy (and unacknowledged) bias against and antipathy towards religious belief, to the point of seriously undermining the book's claims to objectivity.


A few examples of this should suffice (if you read this book, you will discover many more).  In the very first chapter, Ellis sets the pattern by insinuating that there is no serious debate in contemporary philosophy between naturalistic and non-naturalistic philosophies.  He does this by asserting that the sole argument in favour of non-naturalism is "accepting the authority of tradition, personal revelations and ancient texts" (page 2).  Apparently Ellis has never heard of Aquinas, Anselm, Plantinga, Swinburne, or any of the hundreds of other theist philosophers who have formulated extensive anti-naturalist arguments that neither rely on religious texts nor on deference to authority! 


Even a few minutes' searching on the internet for recent articles on philosophy of religion is enough to demonstrate that Ellis' statement is not only false but misleading.  Hundreds of peer-reviewed papers are still published each year, in which attempts to prove and disprove the existence of God using reason and logic are vigorously debated.  Either the author is unaware that all this literature exists (in which case he is ignorant) or he is aware of it but deliberately chose not to mention it because it would have weakened his argument (in which case he is writing propaganda, not philosophy).


All that said, Ellis also seems to have little familiarity with contemporary arguments in favour of his own position, making the absurd claim that metaphysical naturalism is untestable because "it is not logically possible to disprove a negative proposition" (page 4).  This is an especially bizarre variant of the hoary old misconception that nobody can prove a negative, which has been severely criticised by contemporary naturalist philosophers, including John Wilkins and Steven Hales.  But even without looking up their work, it is possible to refute Ellis' claim simply by stating "there are no objects in my pocket" and then finding a coin inside it.  Congratulations, you've just disproven a negative proposition!


A later example comes in Ellis' discussion of whether or not an omnipotent, benevolent god "can permit horrible things to befall innocent people" (page 22).  From the outset Ellis begs the question by declaring such attempts to be inherently "irrational", before (by way of example) setting up a straw-man presentation of the philosophical argument known as the Free Will Defense to be knocked down by his objections.  Curiously, he doesn't actually present the argument in any of the philosophically rigorous forms in which it has recently been defended (for example Plantinga's modal version).  Is Ellis afraid that if they were presented with a balanced exposition, students might come to their own conclusions on this question, and that these conclusions might differ from his?


Ellis also demonstrates extraordinary bias in the sources that he suggests for further reading, omitting some of the most important recent literature on the questions he addresses, presumably because they do not support his prejudices.  One particularly glaring example is that of Michael Ruse and Elliot Sober, two renowned (and incidentally, atheist) philosophers who have both written extensively against the author's thesis that science and religion are necessarily incompatible.  Ellis does not even mention either of them, let alone address their objections to his thesis.  Even the suggested topics for further discussion use loaded questions!  For example, when suggesting students discuss their opinions of scientists who are also religious, Ellis derisively asks “Does consistency of behaviour matter?” (page 99), once again blatantly begging the question against those who see no inconsistency in this behaviour!


All of this is a great disappointment, because it wastes what is an interesting concept (contrasting scientific and religious knowledge claims using the example of biological evolution). Instead the author seems to have discarded this opportunity in order to take every possible chance to indulge in religion-bashing and promoting his own points of view.  Of course there's nothing wrong with arguing for atheism, but what is dubious here is the underhanded way in which Ellis inserts such an agenda into what is supposedly (according to the author himself!) a neutral book about the scientific method.



I would not recommend this book to anyone as an introduction on evolution, let alone as a textbook of philosophy of science.  Far better examples of both of these can be found elsewhere.  Ellis claims that his aim is not to teach people "what to think", but to teach "how to think" (page xv).  However, by presenting a one-sided view of the philosophical debate over science and religion, Ellis does a disservice to readers by leaving them ignorant of not only the strongest arguments against atheistic naturalism but also, by extension, the strongest arguments in favour of naturalism that were designed to refute them.  Reading this book, I am reminded of J.S. Mill's admonition:


"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.... Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess." (On Liberty, 1869).

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