Friday, October 27, 2006

The errors of Intelligent Design – It is Poor Science (Guest Post)

In a recent conversation with the Head of Science about our planned Religion and Science conference we discussed the issue of Intelligent Design. This question arose: If ID were to become part of the national curriculum, where would it be taught? Within the science labs under the banner of a scientific theory, or with me in the Religious Studies department under the banner of metaphysical, philosophical theory?

The Claims of Intelligent Design

"ID is three things, a scientific research program that investigates the effect of intelligent causes, an intellectual movement that challenges Darwinism and its naturalistic legacy, and a way of understanding divine action—ID thus intersects science and theology." (Intelligent Design—The bridge between science and theology [Dembski 1999])
ID proponents claim organisms such as the bacteria flagellum are 'Irreducibly Complex’. Behe defines this as:

"...a single system which is composed of several well-matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning."
According to ID thinkers, Darwinian evolution, based on natural selection, fails to give an account of its origins, leaving only 'design inference'. If an organism displays design, then by implication an 'intelligent designer' gives an account for its origins.

ID is a reaction against a perceived threat from evolution on the existence of God. There are some Christians that argue evolution to be inherently materialistic and necessarily atheistic and therefore opposed to any science that supports it. I maintain however, science by its very nature, does not draw judgement on the question of God’s existence.

What does it mean to do science?

Karl Popper explained scientific progress is made when bold conjectures are attempted to be falsified rather than confirmed. A scientific conjecture is open to testing and possible refutation. Any theories which are immune to refutation are thereby NOT scientific.

Science deals with empirical observable data. All theories which claim to be scientific must be tested against observable data from the natural world. Any theory which exhibits metaphysical or supernatural premises falls out of the discipline of science. In the worldview of Dawkins any 'information' beyond the empirical is not ‘true’ whereas according to Küng, a broader multi-faceted approach to reality is held. Cf. here.

Is Intelligent Design science?

ID postulates a supernatural ‘intelligent designer’ (perhaps God) to explain 'irreducible complexity'. However, since science deals with empirical evidence it cannot falsify the existence of an ‘intelligent designer’ as the premise of intelligent design is supernatural and therefore beyond scientific enquiry. In the words of Michael Behe: “ …Hypotheses, careful testing, replicability—all these have served science well. How can an intelligent designer be tested? Can he be put in a test tube? No of course not?" (Behe, Darwins Black Box, 1996, p. 242). A true scientific theory cannot propose a supernatural element to the origins of life making ID non-scientific.

Denis Alexander takes this further, arguing that a foundational purpose of science is to explain the relationships between components comprising of living matter. He contends that ID adds nothing to our knowledge of these relationships. They are ‘designed’ and therefore closed to further scientific study. No experimental programs will be explored, no grants given for further exploration. In fact, the science ends. He cites this as the reason why there are so few scientific publications originating from ID thinkers.

Final Note - The scientific community

It has been ten years since Michael Behe published Darwin's Black Box where he first outlined the concept of 'Irreducibly Complex’ entities. In that time the scientific community have published a range of papers on evolutionary origins of the bacteria flagellum. In addition Nobel prize winners, school teachers and scientific organisations alike have raised serious concerns about ID and its growing popularity as an 'alternative scientific theory' amongst some evangelical Christian organisations.

Simon Hardwick of The Lost Message


At 10/28/2006 12:03 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

The Cardinal is furious, Si.

At 10/28/2006 3:22 AM, Anonymous byron smith said...

Simon - Thanks for this post, I'm looking forward to the rest. I suspect I'm going to agree with your basic position on ID (I do so far), though two thoughts:
• Popper's falsifiability thesis is itself unfalsifiable, and so, but its own standard, non- or extra-scientific.
• I say extra-scientific because this doesn't mean that it is useless. I'm broadly with Küng (as I suspect you are) in seeing science within and as one form of human knowledge, a form with particular privileges (though itself diversified), but not the only kid on the block, and dependant upon a whole range of extra-scientific premises. This doesn't destroy its character as knowledge, but it helps us avoid a (non-scientific) scientism, in which everything which falls outside the scope of science (which is most of life, actually - cf. Husserl or Heidegger) is rejected as irrelevant or wrong.

At 10/28/2006 11:25 PM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I would change falsifiability per se to speaking of research programs as either making progress or as not doing so. What makes evolution so compelling is that there is far more evidence now, especially DNA evidence, than was available to Darwin.

ID not only confuses ultimate and penultimate explanations, but proposes no research programs. It doesn't attempt to write in peer reviewed science journals and so become a rival scientific theory. Instead, it attempts to get politicians to force it into science classrooms--which a scientific theory wouldn't need to do or want to do.

At 10/29/2006 3:06 AM, Anonymous Scott Roberts said...

Why is 'evolution' used as the name for the opponent of ID? Biological evolution just means that species have, over very long periods of time, come into and gone out of existence. That is not questioned (except by creationists). ID is a theory that says formal and final causes are required to explain evolution, while neo-Darwinism says that chance alone (random genetic mutation) is enough (and I would think both allow for natural selection).

The debate between the two is over what the probabilies are for that change to happen by chance. Since nobody can say, or test, or show by experiment, just what those probabilies actually are, both theories are nonscientific.

At 10/29/2006 3:55 AM, Anonymous Arni Zachariassen said...

I agree with the article and am not really a big fan of ID, but does it matter if it's good science or not? Doesn't ID go a step beyond (or behind) science in talking about the nature of things, not the things themselves, anyway? While you can criticize the science of ID (which the article does in the last paragraph), saying that it doesn't fall in to the falsification category really says nothing. Just like "scientism" (Dawkinsesque fanatism) isn't science, ID isn't science. And I think most people already knew that.

At 10/29/2006 4:33 AM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

arni, if ID were just a religious or philosophical claim about the Ultimate Cause of "life, the universe, and everything," then it would be fine--a kind of generic theist version of the doctrine of creation, not much different than theistic evolutionism (which is what I hold). But because it makes claims to BE scientific and be taught as a rival scientific view to evolutionary theory, then it's non-scientific nature DOES matter.

At 10/29/2006 6:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your comments and discussion so far.

Byron, I have written a brief response to you on my blog!

Hi Michael,
You raise an important point about falsifiability which Byron also alludes to (it's self defeating). It is problematic and Popper has been critiqued in this area and modified his view (especially in regard to the status of evolution).

I agree Research programs is a positive suggestion.

Instead, it attempts to get politicians to force it into science classrooms--which a scientific theory wouldn't need to do or want to do.

Totally agree. That is my bug bear too.

At 10/29/2006 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

I like your evolution definition and I agree evolution isn't an opponent of ID, but rather a description of the biological evidence, etc.

ID is a theory theory that says formal and final causes are required to explain evolution, while neo-Darwinism says that chance alone (random genetic mutation) is enough (and I would think both allow for natural selection).

I believe ID offers a dualistic origin story on the basis of its intepretation of the evidence. Some organisms, ID argues, show evidence of design, whereas the origins of other organisms can be explained in naturalistic terms. This I believe is problematic, especially in terms of a coherent Christian theology (see my coming post!).

both theories are nonscientific.

An interesting view. I think Poppers original thoughts had evolution as non-scientific, but he wrote later:

"I here wish to affirm that these and other historical sciences have in my opinion scientific character; their hypotheses can in many cases be tested. It appears as if some people would think that the historical sciences are untestable because they describe unique events. However, the description of unique events can very often be tested by deriving from them testable predictions or retrodictions."-*Karl Popper, Letter to New Scientist, August 20, 1980, p. 611.

As I mentioned to Michael, the route of research programs maybe more benefical in talking of what constitutes science however I still maintain falsification is important.

At 10/29/2006 7:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments arni.

And I think most people already knew that.

You would like to think! But judging by the debates this isn't the case.

I agree with the comments Michael made here in reply

At 10/30/2006 1:24 AM, Anonymous Scott Roberts said...


Just to clarify, I agree with your Popper quote that 'evolution' can be reasonably considered to be scientific. It is 'evolution through efficient and material causes alone' (i.e., by chance and natural selection) that I am claiming is not scientific.

At 10/30/2006 8:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for your clarification.

It is 'evolution through efficient and material causes alone'

Can I ask, in your view, what else can give account for life alongside evolution and is it open to objective scruntiny?

Blessings, Simon

At 11/01/2006 1:14 AM, Anonymous Scott Roberts said...


My view is that life does not need an account, that purposefulness, growth, etc. are the terms in which everything else needs explaining. But that's a metaphysical view. On the other hand, it is also a metaphysical view that life and its evolving requires an explanation solely in terms of efficient and material causes.


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