The intelligent design movement (ID) is not a school of scientific research – more a political, social and religious movement. IDs initiator and main theological guru, Phillip Johnson, admitted this in 1996 when he said: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science . . . It’s about religion and philosophy.”
However, ID does aspire to change the whole way we do modern science. It has a declared a Wedge Strategy which includes the aim of replacing the modern scientific method with a “theistic science” (see, for example, The Wedge Document). Alvin Platinga (a major ID supporter) also used the terms “unnatural science”, “creation science”, or science “from a Christian perspective” to describe this (see Why Faith and Reason Clash). Phillip Johnson also used the term “Theistic realism.”
Despite this lofty plan, ID proponents reveal little of what they mean by “theistic science” and characteristically will not clearly respond to requests to do so. You have to sift through their documents for evidence and be aware of the context of their statements. Doing this you start to realise that ID people are attacking the heart of modern science, the empirical, evidence-based, methodology which makes it so powerful. They, in reality, wish to return science to the stagnant days of the pre-enlightenment.
This hostility to science is not isolated to the ID movement. As Paul Bloom points out “the battle between evolution and creationism …. is where science takes a stand against superstition” (in What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable). The hostility is common to those who prefer superstitious, spiritualist and supernatural explanations. It’s worth, therefore, considering the ID attack on science as a specific example of a more widespread problem.
Modern scientific method.
This flow diagram gives a simple representation of the scientific method. A key part is the continual retesting, refinement of theory using experimental and/or observational evidence. Sometimes this means improvement of a specific theory. Sometimes it means complete failure and replacement by a new theory. Science does not produce a complete description of objective reality but it produces a dynamic reflection of reality which improves with time – becomes closer to objective reality.
The dynamic, empirical nature of this methodology is what gives it its power, and ability to so rapidly increase our understanding of reality. It also underlies today’s rapid growth in technology.
The ID approach to scientific method
There are several features of ID pronouncements showing their approach, what they mean by “theistic science.”
- Arena of activity and debate is the public, social, educational, religious, sphere – not within the scientific community. They often slander scientists and the scientific community in this debate.
- Concentration on a limited range of subjects – “evolution”, consciousness, which are of most concern to religions. They claim such issues are too complex to understand scientifically and resort to supernatural explanations.
- Active attempts to replace scientific explanations with supernatural ones (Recently one of the Wedge fellows, Joe Campana, revealed that “all ID scholars are obligatory participants in reinterpretation research, . . . . much of their day, day out work is in reinterpretation research.” He define reinterpretation research as interpreting past and current published science according to the “design paradigm” – to provide alternative supernatural explanations).
- They “validate” ID theory by”logical inference” rather than experiential testing. They also see validation in public support rather than reality and consider Christians their “natural constituency” in this.
These characteristics show “theistic science” differs from the modern scientific method by:
- Omitting the requirement for evidence-based testing or validation and constant updating of theories;
- Preferring supernatural explanations, even actively filtering out natural explanations or declaring them impossible;
- Willingness to import theistic ideas into science, placing more importance on revelation than empirical evidence.
I believe the flow diagram on the right represents “theistic science” methodology.
ID in practice
In the discussion around the Ohio Department of Education’s Science Standards in 2002 US Wedge activists attempted to amend the standards by inclusion of a definition of science based on a resolution of the Ohio Academy of Science. However, they deleted the vital statement: “explanations that are open to further testing, revision, and falsification, and while not “believed in” through faith may be accepted or rejected on the basis of evidence.” The ID activists preferred science “which leads to a more adequate explanation of natural phenomena.” Their omission of “testing, revision, and falsification” is significant. So is their “more adequate explanation.” They see supernatural biblical “explanations” as “more adequate” than scientific ones.They apply the “Christian perspective” filter.
In the Kitzmiller v Dover trial Michael Behe, a major Wedge scholar, defined ID as “a scientific theory which relies exclusively on the observable, physical, empirical evidence of nature plus logical inferences“ (my emphasis). He admitted that according to this definition astrology also qualifies as a scientific theory and that “my definition of the word ‘theory’ . . . does not include the theory being true.” As Barbara Forrest points out this definition encapsulate ID “science.” “ID creationists mine from the scientific literature data produced by other scientists and draw the ‘logical inference’ that natural processes cannot explain it; therefore a ‘designer’ is the only logical explanation.” This is “reinterpretation research” in action!
It’s easy to see the appeal of “theistic science” (and its ID manifestation) to Christians and other theists. It can be used to give a scientific credibility to their cherished, and strongly held, beliefs. A similar approach with a different, not necessarily Christian, filter is also attractive to superstitious people and those who wish to argue for a credible supernatural. But, of course it’s not science – and has no standing amongst working scientists.
Is science naturalist?
In their work scientists do no ask themselves “is this phenomena natural?” or “”is my hypothesis or theory and natural one?” They don’t refer to a set of rules to check if their explanation is “permissible.” They just get on and do the work. Supernatural claims may be investigated (by assuming the universe is logical and capable of being understood which, in effect, is saying that your claim probably has a natural explanation). But an hypothesis or theory needs to be testable to have any legitimacy. No scientist worth her salt would seriously propose a theory which by its very nature rules out evidence-based testability or verification.
Science is naturalist – not due to any rules or conspiracy – but because of its inbuilt insistence on experiential verification of theory.
The Wedge Document
Theistic Science by Leon James
Barbara Forrest – The Wedge of Intelligent Design
Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design
Understanding the Intelligent Design Creationist Movement: Its True Nature and Goals
The Wedge of Intelligent Design: Retrograde Science, Schooling, and Society
Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse – video
Bringing the supernatural into science
Does science involve faith?
Intelligent design – a war on science
New Zealand supports evolution
Intelligent design at the shopping mall
Most ideas in science are wrong!
Intelligent design attacks on Christianity
Isaac Newton and intelligent design
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict
Intelligent design/creationism: Postscript
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Should we teach creationism?