Is intelligent design a scientific theory after all?

Jim Farrar writes:

I have read your response to your correspondent on the subject of ID. I am generally in agreement with your position.

In the book, Intelligent Design 101 (a collection edited by H. Wayne House), J. P Moreland sets forth several points from his perspective as a philosopher concerned with the history of science (The book is well worth the read, although Behe’s contribution was a rehash.).

Moreland claims the following:

1. There is no such thing as a definition of science. That no line of demarcation exists to separate things that are science from things that are not science. However, there are, of course, rules of thumb to say that something is science, or not.

2. ID is science because: 1) it generates positive and negative test results; 2) it actually explains facts in scientifically standard ways; (3) it can be confirmed by facts; and 4) it solves internal conceptual problems that evolution does not solve. “These are the four things that a scientific theory ought to do, and Intelligent Design does all four.”

I believe that there is a definitional problem here. The key questions seem to be, “What is science?” and, “What is theory?” I will leave the science question to Moreland while recognizing that the demark is hazy. The use of the word theory within science may be defined as: “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena” (Webster’s). ID is not scientifically acceptable in the larger community of scientists. Thus, the question hinges on plausibility, and ID is, to many, plausible as a narrow theory, since it does what science does, while leaving quite open the huge questions of who is the designer, and how did it all begin?

To some people, ID is simply an attack on Darwinism, and it must be defeated quickly and the proponents vilified in order to preserve Darwinism. This, to me, is not scientific practice at its best. There is validity in the use of scientific methods in ID to show the probability of design. I have seem no successful rebuttals of conclusions by Behe, for instance, on the irreducible complexity of the flagellum. So, why not keep an open mind about this?

LA replies:

You left out the main question that a theory of evolution must address: not, how did it (life) all begin, but, how did the individual things that exist (organs and species) come into existence? ID has no theory addressing that. If there is anything to ID other than the general statement, “Organ X must be a result of design,” please tell me what it is.

However, now I see that must modify my previous criticism of ID. I’ve said that ID is not a real theory of evolution, because it provides no “how.” This is true—its provides no “how.” But, if it is possible, as you’ve suggested, to show by scientific method that design must be the case (even though we have no idea of how the design made the things that exist, exist), then I guess that that passes the test of a scientific theory, but just barely.

Or does it? Let’s look again at Webster’s definition of scientific theory: “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.” A theory must explain or attempt to explain phenomena. So, let’s say that scientific and mathematical tests have proved to everyone’s satisfaction that various organic systems must be the result of intelligent design. Would that discovery explain the phenomena by which new organs and species came into existence? No, it would not. To say that neurons, cells, and the bombardier beetle must have been the result of design, does not explain HOW neurons, cells, and the bombardier beetle came into existence. Therefore, even if ID were proved to be true, it would not, as I understand it, be a scientific theory. It would be a scientific statement of a general, abstract fact about life. It would not be a scientific theory of how living things came to be.

Jim Farrar writes:

My take on this is that ID is not now, and may never be, anything like a comprehensive theory of origins. Once you reach the irreducible complexity state [in one instance], and decide to call it an instance of design, it is game over.

Then you move on to yet another structure and its functions and attempt the same thing. What is the end point? A huge collection of irreducible structures, all called designed. After that, what? Declare that everything must probably be designed, because we have discovered that the large set of things we have tested has been designed at some micro level, so far? Michael Behe has been mapping the boundaries of evolution (The Edge of Evolution), and concludes that it is a shared process between design and evolution. [LA replies: that sounds like my theory, with its combination of “archetypes” on the large scale and “experimentation” on the small scale; I’ll have to read it.]

It is not clear to me that at this point we have much more than an inference of design with no designer and no methodology of how. The probability of acceptance of this huge set of design inferences in the scientific community is not very high, in my opinion. But, this set would be fascinating to study and to look for common elements, common procedures, and common structures.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 27, 2009 06:07 PM | Send

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