Saturday, January 14, 2006

Intelligent-Design and the Nature of Science

In the wake of a recent Pennsylvania court case there has been a lot of discussion about the scientific status (or lack thereof) of "Intelligent Design" (ID), an intellectual movement initially spearheaded by the works of Phillip Johnson and then picked up by Michael Behe, William Dembski, and a growing chorus of scientists, philosophers, and scholars. The basic tenets of ID are these:

(1) There are rigorous empirical tests (Behe's 'irreducible complexity'; Dembski's 'specified complexity') for detecting that something has been designed (i.e., is the product of mind).
(2) When applied to biological systems (esp. their biochemistry) and to the fine-tuning of the universe, these tests yield the result that, probably, many aspects of such systems have in fact been designed.

Now, while the major ID proponents (Behe, Dembski, Meyer, etc.) have been careful to draw only modest conclusions from these points that fall far short of claiming a proof for theism, many have been much more forthright in pointing out the theistic implications. And this has scared the mainstream scientific establishment, which has quite literally been thrown into a panic about this new "stealth creationism". Many scientists and some philosophers believe that ID is inherently "unscientific" or even "anti-scientific". Accordingly, they believe that any serious discussion of ID in a scientific setting constitutes a deleterious undermining of science itself. But is this so? Is ID inherently opposed to genuine science?

The first thing we must recognize is that the question of the nature of science is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. And one thing that most philosophers of science have recognized for some time now is that it is very hard to define "science" in such a way that it is going to rule out ID without at the same time ruling out many other things that uncontroversially qualify as scientific, e.g., SETI, crytography, anthropology, etc.--all of which presuppose that design can be empirically detected.

There is one demarcation criterion that seems to do the trick, however. Accordingly, it has been repeated over and over, mantra-like, by the scientific establishment in their protests over ID. That criterion is ... (drum role) ... methodological naturalism, the claim that science can only appeal to natural causes as explanations. This criterion would rule out any theistic applications of the "design inference" without jeopardizing the status of SETI, etc.

But there are some big problems with this appeal to methodological naturalism as an essential characteristic of science. Indeed, I think it is likely to backfire on the scientific establishment, as I'll explain tomorrow in a follow-up post.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home