This article was originally published on Thinking Matters Talk, and is in the public domain »
I recently wrote on the question ‘Is intelligent design scientific?’ responding to some comments by Dale Campbell, attached to kiwi atheist Ken Perrott’s article ‘A new science bashing campaign?’ This generated a lot of feedback, and Ken has now posted a follow-up article titled, ‘Redefining science by inference’. I’d encourage you to read this before reading my response below. I’ll structure this response according to the headings Ken has used.
The arrogance of science-bashers
Firstly, I think it needs to be pointed out how Ken is framing this issue. He’s couching the question in terms of “science-bashing”, so that anyone who promotes ID is not only mistaken, but actually an anti-science zealot with an agenda to proselytize. Now, to a certain extent his defensive attitude is understandable. In my own opinion, many ID advocates have made a poor name for themselves in the public square precisely because of this sort of tactic. I tend to agree with Ken’s criticism that this is hypocritical, and with his concern that ID tends to be about tearing down evolution rather than building up any useful positive arguments of its own.
However, the push-back from the scientific community is no less prejudicial and no less ideologically-motivated. Since Ken is responding specifically to my own comments, I find his couching the matter in terms of “science-bashing” to be disappointing. I am not anti-science. True, my philosophical views about science hold it in a lower regard than most scientists would like. I hold the propositional revelation of God above the procedural revelation of his creation, and as the lens through which to interpret it. Science is not a means toward discovering ultimate truths. It is a tool for interacting with and manipulating the world. But by merit of this fact, I obviously do not deny its usefulness (on the contrary, I affirm it), and I am not shrilly paranoid about its ability to advance our understanding of the world in many ways. I am realistic about its shortcomings and limitations (such as its philosophical commitment to naturalism), and about how these will color and affect its conclusions and theories. But I am not anti-science.
It also needs to be said that Ken’s analogy is really poor. He likens ID advocates to people who criticize the methodology or philosophy of their plumbers and motor mechanics. But plumbers and motor mechanics fix relatively simple systems which have been designed. This is markedly different from scientists, who try to develop systematic explanations for highly complex systems which supposedly have not been designed. (Dentists, the third example, can at least be said to fix relatively simple systems, even if the origin of these is a matter of dispute.) The analogy might seem superficially persuasive, but in Ken’s own words there is an “abrupt discontinuity” between it and the reality it’s supposed to represent. It’s just not an equitable comparison.
Playing with words
Getting into the meat of the objections Ken raises, the accusation that proponents of ID “play with words” or try to “redefine science” is pretty common. In my view, the accusation says more about the ignorance or misunderstandings which scientists have of the philosophy behind their own discipline than about the intentions of those arguing for intelligent design. If ID proponents are arrogant, scientists have a certain superciliousness of their own as regards the relationship between science and philosophy. This is pretty well indicated in Ken’s post, when he talks about “the honest scientific process” as compared to the “word play” of ID supporters; one which has clear facts behind it, and one which clouds and confuses those facts.
The truth of the matter is that the process of science is not detached from the philosophy of science; yet the scientists themselves are detached from not only the philosophy of their field, but also its history. Perhaps this is understandable, but it’s still unfortunate, because it leads to a great deal of prejudice against any questions which can’t be tested in the lab (so to speak). ID is pretty much exclusively a philosophical issue—but it’s a philosophical issue regardless of which side you stand on. Scientists seem blind to this fact, however, because they hold to the side which asserts a naturalistic explanation. Since naturalistic explanations are scientific, they fail to notice that this one is still philosophically grounded. When you try to point this out, they treat it as “word play”.
Here’s what I mean. Consider the following inference which most scientists make:
- The commonly-recognized appearance of design in the universe is best explained by naturalistic, non-intelligent phenomena.
Making inference respectable
According to people like Ken, this is a perfectly acceptable scientific inference. Most scientists would probably take it for granted; they’d assume it implicitly—but an unstated inference is still an inference. Why is it so intrinsically acceptable that most scientists would take it for granted? Because science is concerned with natural causes, effects, and explanations. A natural explanation is a scientific explanation; and so the thesis that the appearance of design can be naturally explained seems, to the philosophically untrained, like a valid scientific conclusion. But then, consider its antithesis:
- The commonly-recognized appearance of design in the universe is best explained by the universe being designed by an intelligent agent.
Notice how this is exactly the same question—only with a different answer. Indeed, prima facie this is the better abductive inference, as opposed to (1). This doesn’t mean that it’s correct, necessarily, but it does seem intuitively better.
Is the question scientific at all?
Now, perhaps the question “What is the best explanation for the appearance of design in the universe?” is itself unscientific. Perhaps it’s something which scientists cannot answer, and so one for which any answer will be unscientific. I don’t think most scientists would agree with this, but if they did, then why are so many of them insisting on a naturalistic answer? Is it perhaps because they assume that naturalistic explanations should be accepted by default? Why? The fact that science, as a method of investigating reality, is naturalistic does not in any way imply that every explanation must be naturalistic. Scientists are conditioned to look for natural explanations—and that’s fair enough, because that is what science is all about. But that doesn’t mean that:
- when we’re presented with the appearance of design, we should automatically exclude non-naturalistic explanations;
- a naturalistic explanation is “scientific” by definition, while a non-naturalistic one isn’t. If the question itself is unscientific, then any answer to it will be unscientific as well;
- if a non-naturalistic explanation is not scientific, it is therefore false. Being unable to investigate something scientifically does not imply its falsehood.
However, if the question is scientific, then—
Poverty of inference
If answer (1) is scientific, then answer (2) is as well
Notice how (1) and (2) above are addressing the exact same question. Yet (1) is dismissed as unscientific and even anti-scientific; while (2) is not. Why? Is it harder to falsify the thesis that the universe was designed than its antithesis, that it was not? I don’t see that it is. How might a scientist go about testing the assumption that the universe wasn’t designed? Probably in a similar way that he’d go about testing the assumption that it was. Yet the very complaint which scientists level at ID advocates is that we have not provided any falsifiable predictions to test. Okay, maybe that’s so—but why is the onus purely on us to falsify ID? Why is it not equally on secular scientists to falsify the antithesis? Isn’t that how honest scientists work? Once a question is raised, like, “Is the universe designed?” honest scientists don’t try to enforce a particular answer. They try to find one.
Conversely, if answer (2) is unscientific, then so is (1)
Most importantly, if intelligent design, as an explanation, is disqualified as unscientific, then its antithesis is disqualified as well, because they would both be falsified in the same way. The same test which could falsify intelligent design could (one would expect) falsify its denial. If we can make some prediction about some phenomenon which would occur if the universe is designed, and if we then test for that phenomenon, finding it would suggest that ID is right, while not finding it would suggest that ID is wrong. Similarly, if we can make some prediction about what we’d find if the universe is not designed, finding it would tend to prove ID wrong, while not finding it would tend to prove ID right.
Scientists don’t have to regard the question of intelligent design as important. They may not care one way or the other. Or they might be agnostic about it because they think it can’t be falsified one way or the other. That would be appropriately scientific. But if secular scientists want to say that the question of whether the universe was designed or not is nonsense; if they want to say that intelligent design, as a thesis for explaining the appearance of design, is unscientific; if they want to say that we should reject non-naturalistic explanations by default, then I must ask them to explain themselves:
Do they think that the thesis that the universe was not designed is falsifiable? If so, how so? But if not, then why are they championing it as scientific, over and against the thesis of intelligent design?
Is it on the basis of philosophical naturalism—the view that the natural world is all that exists? If so, can philosophical naturalism be falsified? No? But then it is unscientific—so why do they use it as a basis for decrying ID so loudly? Are they hypocrites?
Or is it on the basis of some other evidence? If so, what is it, and why should we find it compelling?