Last week’s post turned into a typical argument over whether Intelligent Design (ID) is a “scientific” theory. Let me say upfront that part of this argument is pure posturing (on both sides); the people who are pro-ID want to be able to say it’s scientific, while its opponents want to be able to say it isn’t. The unspoken premise, of course, is that “scientific” means “true,” which isn’t actually true.
Now the commenters on Free Advice are actually above such pettiness, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. In particular, Daniel Kuehn and Gene Callahan were (at various points) challenging whether ID can be properly called scientific, not because that would render it a false notion, but simply in the interest of explaining why so many mainstream scientists object to it.
In the present blog post, I want to challenge this interpretation (particularly the strong version that Callahan laid out). In other words, I am going to argue that ID is “scientific” or at least, it can be. The standard arguments from biologists and others against ID–by which they try to rule it out of court as not even the type of thing that scientists could do, let alone that it is true–are simply wrong.
To set the context, here is what the Union of Concerned Scientists had to say about Intelligent Design theory:
The intelligent design movement is exceptionally good at creating false controversies and misconceptions. Yet their basic claims are easily debunked.
*There is scientific controversy over evolution: There is no debate about evolution among the vast majority of scientists, and no credible alternative scientific theory exists. Debates within the community are about specific mechanisms within evolution, not whether evolution occurred.
*Intelligent design is a scientific theory: A scientific theory is supported by extensive research and repeated experimentation and observation in the natural world. Unlike a true scientific theory, the existence of an “intelligent” agent can not be tested, nor is it falsifiable.
*Intelligent design is based on the scientific method: Intelligent design might base its ideas on observations in the natural world, but it does not test them in the natural world, or attempt to develop mechanisms (such as natural selection) to explain their observations…
It is the last two points above, that I claim are totally bogus. I actually got Kuehn to agree that the Union of Concerned Scientists used sloppy wording, but then Callahan rushed in to defend them:
[T]he postulates of their discipline prevent them for searching for such evidence [of design], i.e., a presupposition of all of the physical sciences, including biology, is that the proper sort of causes to search for are mechanical causes that operate without intelligence or design. So of course they see no evidence of intelligent design — they deliberately don’t look for it!
Now, I think this is the RIGHT way for them to do research. Their job is to see how far they can take the principle of mechanical causation. They are mistaken only if and when they base silly pronouncements like “Evolution shows [there] is no place for God in the world” on that research!
Gene is toeing the standard biologist line, but I think he is wrong. I will make my point with two examples, one fanciful, the second less so:
FIRST EXAMPLE: Suppose for the sake of argument that all life on Earth was designed by intelligent aliens from a distant galaxy. Now those aliens come from a planet where life did evolve spontaneously from the primordial soup, the way most scientists currently hypothesize happened on Earth. And in fact, if people like Michael Behe looked at the cells taken from the alien planet, they would agree that there was no “irreducible complexity.” It would be entirely plausible that the intelligent aliens could have evolved through “mindless” processes over billions of years, because the structures in all life forms on their planet would not have any “jumps” or features that didn’t confer an immediate reproductive advantage.
Anyway, these intelligent aliens come along, see Earth 4 billion years ago, and realize it is a great place for them to seed life. The aliens design a supercell with all sorts of information packaged into it, taking into account the environment in which its descendants will evolve. The aliens program in all sorts of “irreducible complexity” in this initial supercell.
This scenario is admittedly fanciful, but it is theoretically possible. That could be just how it happened. Now if that were the case, how would humans ever learn the truth? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, it would have be up to lawyers, philosophers, and car mechanics to realize that the current hypotheses about the origins of life are wrong, and to posit a rival explanation that better explained the facts which we can observe today. If a biologist or chemist or astronomer ever chimed in on the issue, he or she would be leaving the realm of science. Even if the aliens left us a message (in an abandoned spaceship, say), or even if the aliens showed up and told us what really happened, none of the biology textbooks could incorporate such unscientific things into their chapters on the origin and evolution of life.
SECOND EXAMPLE: Key military and government officials start dropping like flies. Autopsies reveal they have succumbed to some previously unknown virus. The strange thing is, the virus’ genetic material is such that it is harmless for just about any human it could come in contact with. It’s almost as if it has been “designed” to take out the key officials. On a lark, the government scientists take a sample of blood from the President, Vice President, and people in Congress. It turns out that the virus attacks their cells too. But the scientists let the virus interact with thousands of blood samples from ordinary Americans, and nothing happens.
The President calls in the leading researchers on bioweapons and counterterrorism. He says, “Our intelligence networks have been warning for years that the government of X has been working on just such a virus. However, we have no real proof, just some intercepted emails talking of intent. Can you look at the virus and tell me if it could be the result of natural evolution? Or can we be absolutely sure that this was deliberately designed to take out our people?”
The assembled scientists are horrified at the Commander in Chief’s ignorance. “Mr. President,” they protest, “don’t you know that we are scientists? How in the world can we even entertain the notion that something under our microscopes was designed? Your hypothesis of ‘intelligent foreign scientists’ is non-testable and nonfalsifiable. If you want, we will come up with a story about what the chemical composition of the atmosphere must have been like, 2 billion years ago, to explain why this virus is the way it is. But that’s the most you can ask of us in our capacity as scientists.”
So does everyone still like the Union of Concerned Scientists’ definition of the boundaries of a scientific theory?