Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Is intelligent design scientific?

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4 minutes to read The question of whether intelligent design is a scientific or philosophical inference is a contentious and oft-debated one. Using a recent discussion on Ken Perrott’s blog as a kick-off point, I offer a brief commentary on this issue, giving reasons for why it is arbitrary to dismiss ID as unscientific.

In the comment stream of a recent post by Ken Perrott, ‘A new science-bashing campaign?’, some discussion has been taking place about whether intelligent design (ID) can be considered scientific. Typically, secular scientists are vocal in their assertion that ID is a philosophical idea, and not a scientific one. It’s inappropriate to treat ID as if it were a scientific theory, or as if there is real evidence to support it, they say. And there is the vocal minority of ID supporters who push back and say the opposite.

In the comments on Ken’s article, the editor of Christian News New Zealand cited an article on Opposing Views by Jay W Richards, titled ‘Is Intelligent Design Science?’. I encourage you to read this article; it argues simply, yet I think persuasively, that it is not unreasonable to consider ID science—and that wherever you stand on the issue, you’d be naive to dismiss ID as unscientific by trying to define science in such a way as to preclude it.

In response to this article, Christian blogger Dale Campbell, who is an evolutionist, said:

What Jay Richards and others need to realise is that ‘ID’ is a philosophical inference which attempts to be scientifically informed. It starts with an inference, and then tries to find/match it with science – or (re)interpret science to try and match it up with the inference. The inference is not scientific, but philosophical.

Now, I don’t think Dale is opposing ID per se; rather, he is expressing his view that it’s a philosophical, rather than scientific position. As a Christian, I’m sure he does believe in ID; and as a Christian, certainly ID is a philosophical position. But does this preclude it from being scientific as well?

I don’t believe it does. Firstly, ID does not necessarily start with the inference of design, and then look for data in support of it. In fact, I think manifestly the fact that ID is not a specifically religious view demonstrates that it is quite possible and reasonable for it to be an a postiori rather than an a priori inference. Certainly for the Christian it must be treated as a priori: we come to the study of science with the presupposition that the universe was designed and created by God. But ID is not confined to Christianity, nor to religion at all. ID is simply the thesis that the universe, or some part thereof, was designed. A non-religious scientist could come to this conclusion quite reasonably by studying empirical data, and deciding that the facts at his disposal are best explained by a designer.

Is this an unscientific conclusion? Is it merely philosophical? This question raises another in turn: What is the difference between a “philosophical” as opposed to a “scientific” inference? For my own part, I’m not sure I see a clear distinction between them. Scientific inferences have two defining characteristics that I can see: (i) they start from empirical data; (ii) they are by nature abductive (and/or inductive; but abduction really is what defines them). Abduction, however, is itself a philosophical process; so I don’t see how we can deny that scientific inference itself is intrinsically philosophical. It is simply a kind of philosophical inference. All inference is philosophical in one way or another; and abduction is arguably more influenced by philosophical concerns than straightforward deduction.

But if scientific inference is characterized by these two principal factors, then how is ID not a scientific inference? Empiricism and abduction seem to describe the inference of ID just as well as any uncontroversial scientific inference which comes to mind.

Typically, I’d expect a scientist to say that I’ve omitted a third factor: scientific inferences need to be falsifiable. But there are two obvious objections to this: (a) falsifiability is a relatively modern notion in the history of science, and as such can’t be used to define science qua science. But more importantly, (b) it’s transparently evident that not all scientific inferences—indeed, perhaps not even most scientific inferences—are falsifiable. It’s not inferences which scientists generally require to be falsifiable, but theories. But even then, a theory is just the conclusion of a number of inferences (ie, it is itself an inference), many of which might not be themselves falsifiable; so the demand of falsifiability seems rather arbitrary.

Whether or not ID is true, and whether or not anyone can or has come up with falsifiable hypotheses about it, it does seem to me that Jay Richards is correct in his evaluation that it is not intrinsically unscientific. As he explains, we can’t validly keyhole science to fit certain preconceived philosophical notions about the world. In fact, the attempt to define ID out of science is openly prejudiced and hypocritical, being the attempt to exclude philosophical views of the world from science, on the basis of a philosophical view of the world. The definition of science really is not as fixed, narrow, or agreed upon as anti-ID scientists and philosophers would like to say it is.


Dale Campbell

…and Dale is hoping that this won’t be posted on heaps of blogs, because he cant be bothered clarifying his thoughts 2-3 or more different conversations! ;)


Love the new toolbar (I think its new at least), very nice!

Hate to get off topic, but I couldn’t find a good article to post the comment so I’ll just use the latest one.

I’m going through your e-book and this is the first time I have been introduced to the Clark/Cheung style of presuppositional apologetics. I have read a little by John Frame and a few books by Bahnsen as well, so admittedly I am have more of a Van Tillian perspective at the moment.

My question is concerning this great controversy that supposedly existed between Van Til and Clark. In your book you mentioned the qualitative difference between man’s and God’s knowledge. Is that the main difference between the two methods or this there much more to it?

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hi David; thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like the new toolbar, although it isn’t really finished in my mind. I have some icons and functions I’d still like to add; but it’s good enough to use, so I probably won’t make any changes for a while, as my time is now being taken up by getting the various Thinking Matters websites up and running.

Regarding your question, I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty by now on the history of presuppositional thought, and the distinction between Van Till’s method’s and Clark’s. I’ve probably softened my view since writing The Wisdom of God; which will be reflected in the upcoming second edition. I’ve learned more about the TAG since then, and I’ve decided to just remove the references to it rather than confuse matters. I’m also a little more appreciative of language theory, and of how analogical most of our language really is; so I’m not as certain any more that the criticisms of Van Till as strong as I originally thought.

Essentially, Van Till proposed that all knowledge of God is analogical. Clark objected that an analogy of the truth is not the truth itself, and so Scripture would not actually contain any true propositions about God under Van Till’s view. I think Clark had a point; but since writing my study on the Trinity, I also think Van Till did too. Scripture tells us many things about God, in many ways. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize its analogies as “falsehoods” just because they don’t convey arbitrarily precise propositional statements. They still tell us something true about God; just as all good analogies tell us something true about their referents. I think it would be impossible to make a case against analogies in general from Scripture. Aren’t anthropopathisms analogical statements about God, for example? Did God not include these in Scripture for our benefit?

Whether or not human language itself can be thought of as analogical, so that when we say ‘God is one,’ we are making an analogy (perhaps a very close one) of the real truth, based on the most similar experience we know…that’s something I don’t know enough to comment on. But as I say, I’ve softened my views somewhat; and I’m inclined to argue at least that our understanding of being is “analogical” of God’s mode of being, in the sense that it’s too limited to accurately describe it. You might be interested to read my study on the Trinity which is linked in the sidebar. I wonder what Cheung would think of it, given how naively rigid he tends to be on logic. I think if Van Till’s view was too soft, then Clark’s view (and adherents to it) are characterized in the opposite extreme by naive rigidity—especially in some aspects of their hypercalvinism.