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Pennock to the Court: “Methodological Naturalism is all there is, or was, or ever will be”

As I noted in a previous post, this week philosopher of science Dr. Robert Pennock testified at the Dover trial that scientists must assume that there are no influences other than those which exist in the material world then they practice science. Pennock called this methodological naturalism (MN), and emphatically told the Court that this is the way science has worked, does work, and ever will work, at least since we became enlightened during the enlightenment.

The reality is that the consensus among philosophers of science is that there is no consensus among philosophers of science on the definition of science. The one exception seems to be Darwinist philosophers of science recommending MN as a definition for science when they are engaged in legal battles to stifle the teaching of intelligent design.

For a moment, for the sake of argument, let’s make the questionable assumption that MN is the necessary guiding light behind scientific inquiry. So, let’s engage in a brief thought experiment assuming that MN is the one fixed star in the controversial constellation of philosophical definitions of science. If we adopt MN, would that exclude ID from science?

Proponents of ID clearly state that the scientific theory of ID cannot determine if the designer was natural or supernatural. This statement alone would seem not to violate MN’s public enemy #1: invoking supernatural causes. But of course the possibility still remains under ID that the designer was indeed supernatural (even if the scientific theory itself is incapable of telling you if the designer was supernatural). Is MN still chasing ID out of science? Let’s look at the rationale behind MN.

Biologist John A. Moore echoes the argument that science must only invoke natural claims:

“Science is a way of knowing by accumulating data from observations and experiments, seeking relationships of the data with other natural phenomena, and excluding supernatural explanations and personal wishes.” (John A. Moore, Science as a Way of Knowing, Harvard University Press, 1993, pg. 503)

Moore also provides a well-reasoned rationale for why science must exclude supernatural explanations:

“[T]he relationship of the natural and the supernatural are unpredictable … [if] the cause of a natural event is the whim of a deity, the event is neither predictable nor fully understandable.” (John A. Moore, Science as a Way of Knowing, pg. 502)

This reasoning seems valid, for science requires a reliable understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, and anything without a predictable, comprehendible mechanism would thus defy scientific investigation. The if ID is invoking an predictable and understandable mechanism, then it should not violate the reasoning behind the MN rule.

ID is grounded in an empirical understanding of the predictable effects of intelligent agency generally. ID begins with observations about how intelligent agents operate. It then proceeds to convert those observations into predictions of what we should find if intelligent design was involved in the origin of a given natural object.

An underlying assumption of ID is that intelligence is a property which we can generally understand through our observations of intelligent agents in the natural world. An agent with the property of intelligence could have at least some predictable modes of designing because it has the property of intelligence, regardless of whether or not it was “natural” or “supernatural.” Thus, intelligent design operates under the assumption that there are certain fixed properties of intelligence which will be constant regardless of whether or not that intelligent agent is acting in the natural world, or from some other “supernatural” realm.

For this very reason, Moore’s “supernatural/natural” distinction is irrelevant to ID theory because an underlying assumption of ID is that we understand how intelligent agency works regardless of whether or not the intelligent agent is natural or “supernatural.”

This whole discussion doesn’t mean that the scientific theory of ID requires a supernatural creator. It just means that ID, as it is currently formulated, it is based upon our assumption that intelligent agents in all possible cases would work in ways similar to how we observe them regularly designing things in the natural world.

If ID were trying to claim the designer is supernatural then perhaps Moore’s arguments would count against ID. But ID isn’t trying to detect whether the designer is supernatural. In fact, pro-ID textbooks make it clear that if the designer is supernatural, it couldn’t be detected by the scientific theory of ID:

“[T]he intelligent design explanation has unanswered questions of its own. But unanswered questions, which exist on both sides, are an essential part of healthy science; they define the areas of needed research. Questions often expose hidden errors that have impeded the progress of science. For example, the place of intelligent design in science has been troubling for more than a century. That is because on the whole, scientists from within Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science.” (Of Pandas and People, page 126-127)

The main point of this section is that fundamental to ID theory is the observation that any agent with intelligence will solve problems in similar ways in all cases when designing physical objects. Be they natural or supernatural, intelligent agents are capable of thinking with the end in mind to select a complex arrangement of parts that conforms to a specific pattern to fulfill some function.

This kind of reasoning does not violate Moore’s reason for why we should adhere to MN. Pennock can draw lines however he wants. But it isn’t clear that the reasoning behind the line drawn by MN excludes ID from science.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School DistrictRobert Pennock