Intelligent design and scientific method

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.

Modern science methodThis 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.

Theistic science

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.

theistic method

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.

See Also:
The Wedge Document
Theistic Science
Theistic Science by Leon James
Theistic realism
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

Related Articles:
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?

15 responses to “Intelligent design and scientific method

  1. Excellent piece of work, Ken.
    Please consider contacting http://www.pandasthumb.org and getting them to post this up as an article.
    I’m sure they’d be honoured to do so.

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  2. Sorry, wrong ID!
    The previous posting belongs to Cedric Katesby.

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  3. Ken—

    Your “ID in practice” diagram is just as easily applied to secular science as it is to ID. Secular scientists also formulate hypotheses, and then decide which one is more likely based on their own “filter” of presuppositions. It fascinates me that scientists will dogmatically assume, for example, that consciousness is fully explicable in terms of brain function, and reject supernatural explanations, even though in principle consciousness cannot be explicable in terms of physical events. Yet they will then turn around and say that ID is not real science. If science were really how you say it is, then once a belief like “consciousness is naturalistically explicable” was falsified, science would accept that a supernaturalistic explanation exists instead. Yet it does not. Perhaps it is because science deliberately so limits itself that such falsification is considered invalid because it is not empirical.

    The truth is, secular scientists are as dogmatically married to their presuppositions as religious ones are. The fact that you think your presuppositions are right, and religious ones are wrong, is not actually justification for denying that ID is still science. Consider, hypothetically, that the universe, or even just mankind, is designed. Hypothetically, would you not then be completely wrong to call ID bad science, or even to say that it isn’t science at all? If the end result of science is to more accurately understand reality, and ID is right, then secular science is the bad science. If you refuse to entertain such a hypothetical, you indicate that you have already dogmatically assumed that the universe is not designed, which is not an assumption inherent to science itself. It is an assumption imposed upon science by certain scientists—and, indeed, against good arguments that ID is actually the best interpretation of many data.

    Essentially, you want to have your cake, and to eat it. You want to say that science is not based on, or influenced by, philosophy (ID is, after all, philosophically-derived). But then you want to say that science is fully naturalistic and cannot entertain non-naturalistic hypotheses, and that’s why ID is bad science. But of course, saying that science cannot entertain non-naturalistic hypotheses is a philosophical position; not a scientific one. You can’t have it both ways.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  4. I suspect a religious motivation on your part Bnonn. You are effectively slandering science. Whatever the personal beliefs of the individual scientist, or her love for her particular theory, scientific research is a social phenomenon. There is always someone willing to show where your theory is wrong and to do that by mapping it against reality. This also happens during peer review. It is the important element in my first diagram.

    Science doesn’t reject supernatural explanations – they reject themselves. Any claim that doesn’t allow itself, in principle, to be verified can hardly be considered as scientific. The fact is that in their day-to-day work scientists don’t ask “is this hypothesis naturalistic?”, “is this suggestion supernatural?” They just get on and do the work.

    How can one ever evaluate a claim or “hypothesis” which is defined beforehand as incapable of investigation?

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  5. Ken—

    By giving my blog address I am certainly not attempting to hide my “religious motivation”. But perhaps you could explain how I am “slandering science” when I point out that science also has philosophical presuppositions. It seems to me that you are just poisoning the well, rather than making any argument.

    You say that “There is always someone willing to show where your theory is wrong and to do that by mapping it against reality” as if this process is somehow philosophically neutral; or even devoid of philosophical presuppositions whatsoever. But as I have already stated, it is not. Your idea that science does not reject supernaturalistic explanations because “they reject themselves” is a philosophical presupposition. Supernaturalistic explanations need not, in principle, “reject themselves”. For example, if it is philosophically impossible to explain the mind purely in terms of the physical, then science would be stupid to attempt such an explanation, and to reject that a supernaturalistic explanation may exist, even if it cannot be investigated empirically.

    What you seem to really be saying is that supernaturalistic explanations are by definition excluded from science when coupled with a naturalistic theory of reality (metaphysic). Science, when coupled with some other metaphysic which does not exclude supernatural explanations, recognizes no such exclusion. It simply recognizes that its explanatory power is limited to the empirical. It does not go further and suppose that this means there is nothing supernatural, or that supernatural explanations are worthless. What philosophical justification would it have for doing so? Yet you assume that science is the only method for discovering real explanations about the world, and that real explanations are always naturalistic. Why? Why should every scientist work according to your own philosophical/religious ideas about the world? Why should you impose these philosophical/religious ideas on other scientists, and then say that if they don’t believe, as you do, that only naturalistic explanations are possible or valuable, then they are bad scientists and are not doing “real” science?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  6. Bnonn, I in no way suggested you were hiding your motives – purely that they were religious.

    To present real science as that advanced by the Wedge people (my second figure) is the slanderous part because it misses the essential part of modern science – mapping against reality – as outlined in my first figure. This is the key point behind the two approaches to science. The Wedge model of the second figure is abhorred in modern science for very good reasons. Scientific method would no longer have the power we are all aware of, we would loose all modern technology and really end up returning to pre-enlightenment times. And, after all, isn’t that what the Wedge activists want?

    Modern science doesn’t accept the imposition of religious/philosophical ideas – we have seen the results of that sort of behavior (eg. Lysenkoism in the USSR). Instinctively, that is why the vast majority of scientists, theist and non-theist alike, reject the Wedge attempts to distort the teaching of science and the description of scientific method.

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  7. Ken, you don’t seem to be engaging with my argument. I have said that modern science has its philosophical presuppositions by which it evaluates hypotheses just as much as the Wedge science does. Your second figure is equally applicable to modern science as it is to Wedge science, provided you replace “Christian” with “naturalistic” in the ‘Apply Christian perspective filter’. People simply do not conduct science in a philosophical vacuum.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  8. No, Bnonn. By refusing to consider Fig. 1 you are refusing to engage!

    The point is that the methodology of Fig. 2 is not science – or is extremely bad science. No reputable journal (in the natural sciences anyway) would accept work done in this manner. The very process of publishing actually invokes the extra steps outlined in Fig. 1. I agree with you that use of the Fig. 2 method by non-ID people (i.e. replace Christian with Stalinist, Lysenkoist, etc. or any other filter you like) would be just as bad as when used by ID people. It is always bad science. (Or not science really).

    It is precisely because we don’t operate in a ideological vacuum, and because we didn’t evolve as a species with an inherent ability to discover truth, that the method of Fig. 1 is so essential to the scientific enterprise, to discovering how reality really works and how it really is.

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  9. Ken—

    Figure 1 is equally applicable to ID. Figure 2 is equally applicable to secular science. I am quite confused as to what precisely you think you are proving? You admit that science is not conducted in an ideological vacuum, yet you deny that other kinds of ideologies may be used instead of the current one. Why? You seem to be advocating not only methodological naturalism, but philosophical naturalism. But there is nothing intrinsic to science which favors this, let alone requires it. I seem to just be repeating my first post, and you seem to be trying to avoid it. Speaking of which, you never answered the question I posed:

    Consider, hypothetically, that the universe, or even just mankind, is designed. Hypothetically, would you not then be completely wrong to call ID bad science, or even to say that it isn’t science at all? If the end result of science is to more accurately understand reality, and ID is right, then secular science is the bad science. If you refuse to entertain such a hypothetical, you indicate that you have already dogmatically assumed that the universe is not designed, which is not an assumption inherent to science itself. It is an assumption imposed upon science by certain scientists—and, indeed, against good arguments that ID is actually the best interpretation of many data.

    Ken, are you advocating philosophical naturalism as a requirement of all science? If so, how do you justify this, given that it is not entailed necessarily in what science is—the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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  10. Bnoon said:
    “Ken, are you advocating philosophical naturalism as a requirement of all science? If so, how do you justify this, given that it is not entailed necessarily in what science is—the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena?”

    Bnonn, I hear what you’re trying to say, but science (as we know it) is about natural things. Your cited definition states that it is about the theoretical explanation of natural phenomena. This would exclude ‘supernatural’ explanations for ‘natural’ phenomena. See what I mean?

    I personally reject the nature/super-nature divide, and find it incredibly unhelpful… If something happens in reality, it is just as ‘natural’ as anything else (or just as ‘supernatural’ as everything else)…

    The whole evo/ID thing is a complex conversation, which is often had in unhelpful ways. A rather robust and involved discussion of philosophical notions underlies the whole thing, as well as yet another robust discussion of where the line is between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’…

    Cheers,

    -d-

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  11. Bnonn, you say “Figure 1 is equally applicable to ID. “ If this is so then why are the Wedge activists in the US specifically trying to remove that important aspect of Fig 1 from education science standards in several States. And why don’t those Wedge activists, like Behe, specifically do the research and submit for publication as is implied by Fig 1 – the testing of hypothesis and continual refinement and verification of theory? Why is it that it is others who are doing that work – not Behe and his mates?

    Fig 1 is extremely important to understanding science method. If you find it confusing then perhaps you need to look deeper into how scientific research is actually carried out in practice, instead of trying to impose an ideologically motivated model.

    Yes, Bnonn it is wrong to start scientific investigation with such a huge assumption that you are suggesting. An hypothesis needs to be expressed in a testable way and not treated as an assumption.

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  12. Dale—

    Thanks for your comment. Just because science is about the theoretical explanation of natural phenomena does not require that it must insist on natural theoretical explanations for those phenomena. Natural phenomena do not intrinsically forbid supernatural explanations. For example, science may recognize that there is no adequate natural explanation for the complex-specified information in the universe, and defer to a supernatural explanation which is beyond its scope. It could then stop wasting time coming up with incredible scientific explanations to an obviously philosophical question, and get on with what it’s good at.

    Or, even better, as you say science could stop defining “natural” so strictly, and scientists could start learning a bit of philosophy. That would do everyone a great deal of good. The extreme separation between science and philosophy, and the resulting extreme ignorance scientists have of philosophy, is certainly not conducive to better understanding the universe. It leads to the sorts of excruciating, high-school level rhetoric that is so popular nowadays in books like The God Delusion. Letting modern-day scientists write books about philosophical topics is about as embarrassing to everyone as letting pre-schoolers write critiques of great art.

    Ken—

    I cannot speak for the Wedge activists. I am only defending the point that ID is not in principle any less or more unscientific than methodological naturalism, and that it is vastly more scientific than philosophical naturalism. I’m not confused by Figure 1—I’m trying rather to demonstrate that it presupposes some kind of philosophical position, whether it be naturalism or ID or something else. That was the point of my question, which you still have not answered:

    Consider, hypothetically, that the universe, or even just mankind, is designed. Hypothetically, would you not then be completely wrong to call ID bad science, or even to say that it isn’t science at all? If the end result of science is to more accurately understand reality, and ID is right, then secular science is the bad science. If you refuse to entertain such a hypothetical, you indicate that you have already dogmatically assumed that the universe is not designed, which is not an assumption inherent to science itself. It is an assumption imposed upon science by certain scientists—and, indeed, against good arguments that ID is actually the best interpretation of many data.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

    Like

  13. I did answer your question Bnonn – I repeat “Yes, Bnonn it is wrong to start scientific investigation with such a huge assumption that you are suggesting. An hypothesis needs to be expressed in a testable way and not treated as an assumption.”

    I think you repeat the same mistake in your reply to Dale.

    Scientists don’t start with philosophical categories as you suggest. In my career (and I worked with scientists of all sorts of religious and philosophical belief) no-one ever introduced such categories into our investigations, hypotheses and theories.

    What we did, however, is recognise always the need to start and end with reality. That is what Fig 1 means and I think this is what you object to.

    Bnonn, you should look below philosophical categories and try to understand what they mean in reality. Otherwise the discussion just goes in circles.

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  14. DBT: To me, the term ‘supernatural’ itself is a misnomer. (I’d also note some of your argument appears self-contradictory, but we can deal with that later.)

    Let’s first get rid of ‘supernatural’ as being things that can’t be observed at all. If something can’t be observed at all or its existence cannot be formally deduced (including by indirect means), then obviously any statements about it are “empty”, in the sense of “empty argument”. In this case ‘supernatural’ would be synomymous with “mythical” in both observation and explanation.

    A more common definition of ‘supernatural’ would be something that could be observed or deduced, but could not be explained by current science. One problem with this is that there are many, many things that can’t be explained by current science, but only some are chosen to be considered “supernatural” but other are not.

    Why should some things that don’t have formal explanations be considered “supernatural” and not others? The obvious answer is that some people have chosen that the explanation should lie outside “natural” explanation, without any evidence to suggest this should be the case. By definition they cannot have an explanation to justify this either! Thus, this doesn’t make them “beyond current explanation” (i.e. “supernatural”), it makes the explanation that they are “beyond current explanation” imposed and imaginary.

    Ascribing an explanation for events (etc.) without observations to support the explanation, however vague the explanation, is “filling in the blanks”, the same filling in the blanks employed by religions of all kinds down the ages.

    Volcanoes are in some places still worshipped. Locals can observe the volcano erupt, but without an education they not explain why. The local religion “fills in the blank”–without evidence to back their claim–by ascribing the eruption to some kind of god or mythical beast, etc. Of course, to educated people there is a natural geological explanation.

    Note that the merely ascribing “not explanable by natural means” to something is imposing an explanation, just one that hasn’t been narrowly defined: its insisting that the “solution” be “extra” or “super” to current natural explanation, without evidence that is the case (nor attempting to deduce if it might be, or not).

    With that in mind, to me the word ‘mythical’, or something like it, is better used in place of ‘supernatural’ as, in choosing something to have supernatural explanation, you are imposing that the explanation lie outside natural causes without evidence or justification to do so and, by definition, being unable to have evidence or justification to do so.

    In the first case its mythical both in observation and explantion and in the latter only in explanation.

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