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Don’t Bash it ‘Til You’ve Tried It: A response to Krauthammer and Kriegel

Casey Luskin

In the last week, two anti-ID editorials have been posted on various major media sites. This includes an article by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post entitled, Phony Theory, False Conflict and an article at Tech Central Station by Uriah Kriegel entitled, Is Intelligent Design a Bad Scientific Theory or a Non-Scientific Theory?.

Both articles critique intelligent design, but Krauthammer’s misrepresents the theory quite badly. Kriegel makes some interesting arguments about ID and falsification–if only he would understand that ID theory is structured to disallow explanation by natural selection because natural selection is a fundamentally non-intelligent cause, and then apply his Popperian demarcation criteria to evolution as well.

Citing to Unfriendly Authorities
Krauthammer’s line of attack is to imply that ID is nothing more than faith-based opposition to Darwinism. He thus tries to convince the religious reader that religious folk need not oppose evolution. He thus provides examples of famous scientists who were religious. Presumably, these great scientists are supposed to convince us to support Darwinism.

Incredibly, Krauthammer first cites to Isaac Newton, noting that he was a scientist and deeply religious. I suppose Krauthammer was not aware that Newton was a strong adherent of a viewpoint similar to intelligent design. Indeed, a popular internet evolutionist website by Ed Babinski is critical of Newton’s position that God sometimes intervened in nature. (Babinski rightly notes that “astronomers no longer invoke ‘God’ to restore orbital perturbation.”) But Newton was indeed a supporter of intelligent design. Newton is reported to have said:

“This thing [a scale model of our solar system] is but a puny imitation of a much grander system whose laws you know, and I am not able to convince you that this mere toy is without a designer and maker; yet you, as an atheist, profess to believe that the great original from which the design is taken has come into being without either designer or maker! Now tell me by what sort of reasoning do you reach such an incongruous conclusion?”

(as described in “The Truth: God or evolution?” Marshall and Sandra Hall)

So I’m pretty sure that Krauthammer was citing the wrong scientist to argue against ID.

Krauthammer also cited Einstein as a scientist we should follow down the eternal path away from ID. I’ve never heard anything about Einstein’s specific views on Darwin’s theory, so it isn’t clear that he’s a good option to cite as a scientist who favored Darwin.

A Straw Definition of ID
Krauthammer then puts forth a very imaginative definition of ID:

“[Intelligent design] is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge — in this case, evolution — they are to be filled by God.”

What’s the reference from an ID proponent for that ID-definition again? Didn’t think so.

Apparently Krauthammer could not refute the actual definition of ID so he had to invent one. But how do ID proponents define ID?

“Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence. Note that a sign is not the thing signified. … As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence, not intelligence as such.” (William Dembski, The Design Revolution, pg. 33)

“Design is simply a purposeful arrangement of parts. … Intelligent design does not require a candidate for the role of the designer.” (Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, pg. 193)

“intelligent design: the theory that certain features of the physical universe and/or biological systems can be best explained by reference to an intelligent cause (that is, the conscious action of an intelligent agent), rather than an undirected natural process or a material mechanism.” (Definition of intelligent design in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, pg. 33, edited by Stephen C. Meyer and John Angus Campbell)

In these actual definitions from ID proponents, 2 things are very different from Krauthammer’s straw definition:

  • (1) ID is based upon positive evidence where we are seeking “signs” that an intelligent agent was at work (i.e. a “purposeful arrangement of parts”) and
  • (2) intelligent design merely refers to an intelligent cause and does not attempt to name the designer as God or anything else.

Thus, Krauthammer has to invent his own false definition in order to tear down ID. Working under his straw-definition, Krauthammer then poses a straw-question:

“How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur…?”

That’s a good question, because to my knowledge the scientific theory of ID isn’t making the broad theological claim that “God made the Lemur.” ID simply says that when we find specified and complex information in the Lemur, we have a valid rationale for inferring that an intelligence was at work. We infer design of that information because intelligent agents produce complex and specified information. Here’s how ID works:

ID is based upon positive evidence for design. Intelligent design claims that we can detect in nature biological structures which have the same informational properties we commonly find in objects we know were designed. It’s not just an argument based upon “gaps” in evolution but rather is based upon our positive understanding of the types of systems we have observed that intelligent agents typically make when they design structures. It also doesn’t appeal to non-scientific explanations like God (which we cannot observe) but rather appeals merely to “intelligent causes” (a causal power which we can observe and have much experience with). When we find complex and specified information in nature, we have a valid rationale for inferring that an intelligence was at work. If the Lemur has such information, then we’d infer design for that information.

Kansas: Corrupting Science by Joining 40 other States?
Krauthammer then writes that “Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase “natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” thus unmistakably implying — by fiat of definition, no less — that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.”

Actually, Krauthammer has misconstrued what happened in Kansas. When Kansas passed its new definition, it actually joined the way 40 other states define science, akin to “investigating the natural world through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical argument.” Kansas was simply returning its definition to the way the vast majority of educators have defined science.

Only one state has hard-coded methodological naturalism into its state standards: that was Kansas when the pro-evolution board took over a few years ago. Taking out the word “natural” doesn’t open the door for supernatural explanations. After all, the standards do not call for the teaching of “supernatural explanations”: (a) the standards do not call for the teaching of intelligent design and (b) intelligent design is not a supernatural explanation.

Thus Krauthammer simply appears to be misconstruing the facts to heap ridicule and insult upon the brave people of Kansas.

Preaching Evolution to the Masses
Krauthammer ends with a short sermon about why we should accept evolution:

“What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule…”

Nevermind that Krauthammer’s religion-friendly description of evolution contrasts starkly with how some biology textbooks have described Darwinism:

“[E]volutionary change occurs without any ‘goals.’ The idea that evolution is not directed towards a final goal state has been more difficult for many people to accept than the process of evolution itself.” (William K. Purves, David Sadava, Gordon H. Orians, H. Craig Keller, Life: The Science of Biology (2001, 6th Ed., Sinauer; W.H. Freeman and Co.), pg. 3)

“By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.”
(Douglas Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology (1998, 3rd Ed., Sinauer Associates), pg. 5 (this is the evolutionary biology text I used in college!))

“Evolution works without either plan or purpose” … “Evolution is random and undirected” (Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine’s Biology (4th ed. 1998), pg. 658)

“Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products.” (emphasis in original; Joseph S. Levine and Kenneth R. Miller, Biology: Discovering Life (D.C. Heath and Co., 1st ed. 1992 pg. 152; this language was not removed for the 2nd ed. in 1994, p. 161)

Nonetheless, Krauthammer is entitled to his theological views of Darwin’s theory. Thus I find it interesting that he is preaching about the emotional appeal and glorious wonders of evolution so that we will bow our theology before Darwin. Krauthammer’s statement is clearly religiously motivated evolutionary activism. It’s funny how this debate often finds the Darwinists preaching more about religion than the ID proponents.

Let’s turn the tables for a moment. Imagine if some ID theorist had said:

“What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet and biosphere designed by an intelligent agent”

(this is a satire of Krauthammer, not an actual statement)

You would hear screams (or at least increased volume of screams) from Darwinists across the internet about how design proponents are simply religiously motivated zealots who care nothing for science.

But I’m not asking you to accept ID because of its theological qualities. In contrast to Krauthammer’s mode of publicly promoting evolution, I promote ID as a scientific theory which should be accepted because of the data. Like the way science is supposed to work, intelligent design is about following the evidence where it leads.

One Point of Agreement
I will agree with Krauthammer on one point: Pat Robertson was WAY OUT-OF-LINE to proclaim doom upon Dover simply because of how they voted in their school board election. After being sued by the ACLU and ridiculed by Darwinists around the country, the good people of Dover have had enough trouble. Perhaps now we can agree that schools should follow the evidence where it leads, not one person’s version of the theology.

Kriegel’s Informed Attack on ID:
I will say from the outset that I liked Kriegel’s article. His definition of ID, although imperfect, wasn’t nearly as bad as Krauthammer’s. Moreover, Kriegel at least appears to be slightly informed about the issues and he puts up some arguments which take the issues seriously. I thus respect him for his viewpoint and respectfully disagree with him that ID is not falsifiable.

In fact, Kriegel makes a point I wish the plaintiff’s in the Dover case would listen to:

Opponents dismiss ID’s scientific credentials, claiming that the theory is too implausible to qualify as scientific. But this reasoning is fallacious: a bad scientific theory is still a scientific theory, just as a bad car is still a car. There may be pedagogical reasons to avoid teaching bad scientific theories in our public schools, but there are no legal ones.

The plaintiffs’ experts in the Dover case have been testifying extensively that ID is wrong. All this time and court resources could have been saved if they would just take Kriegel’s advice: whether or not ID is a valid scientific theory is not a decision for the courts to decide–this is not a matter of constitutional law. Thus, one Appeals Court observed:

“[T]he wisdom of an educational policy or its efficiency from an educational point of view is not germane to the constitutional issue of whether that policy violates the establishment clause.” (Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, 827 F.2d 684, 694 (11th Cir. 1987))

The point of that holding is that apart from constitutional questions, education is supposed to be in the hands of local control. If a school board believes intelligent design is a valid scientific theory, and if teaching intelligent design doesn’t offend the First Amendment, then offended Darwinists who would otherwise waste judicial resources on debates over the scientific merits ID have no recourse.

Kriegel does, however, believe that ID is actually not a scientific theory, and thus sees the merits of this case turning on whether or not ID fits his definition of the nature of science. Kriegel draws his line in the sand using Popper’s demarcation criterion of falsification.

Strike 1: Problematic Popper
But Kriegel’s proscription for the legal criteria of defining science are problematic. Courts can only construct constitutional rules when they have the ability to do so. But it isn’t clear that there are articulable standards by which a legal rule defining science, particularly using Popperian falsification, could be constructed:

“From Plato to Popper, philosophers have sought to identify those epistemic features which mark off science from other sorts of beliefs and activity. Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that philosophy has largely failed to deliver the relevant goods. Whatever the specific strengths and deficiencies of the numerous well-known efforts at demarcation . . . it is probably fair to say that there is no demarcation line between science and non-science, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers.” (Larry Laudan, Beyond Positivism and Relativism (Westview Press, 1996), pg 210)

Kriegel’s first strike is thus to offer Popperian falsification as a legal standard which courts should use to define science. His second strike is to forget that Popper claimed (at one point) that Darwinism failed the falsification standard. His third strike is to conclude that intelligent design fails Popper’s standard.

Strike 2: Does Popper Disqualify Darwin?
Here is how Kriegel lays out a theory which fails Popper’s standard:

“What Popper noticed was that, in both cases, there was no way to prove to proponents of the [Freudian or Marxist] theory that they were wrong. Suppose Jim’s parents moved around a lot when Jim was a child. If Jim also moves around a lot as an adult, the Freudian explains that this was predictable given the patterns of behavior Jim grew up with. If Jim never moves, the Freudian explains — with equal confidence — that this was predictable as a reaction to Jim’s unpleasant experiences of a rootless childhood. Either way the Freudian has a ready-made answer and cannot be refuted. Likewise, however much history seemed to diverge from Marx’s model, Marxists would always introduce new modifications and roundabout excuses for their theory, never allowing it to be proven false.”

I can think of another scientific claim just like those of Freud and Marx–common descent! “Family Trees” (called “phylogenetic trees”) based off of DNA sequences in genes should make conforming trees if common ancestry is true. However, it is well recognized in systematics that very often a phylogenetic tree based upon one gene or protein will lead to one tree, while a tree based upon some other gene or protein will look quite different. (See references 1-7; 9-22 of this link for details.)

One would think this would falsify or at least challenge Neo-Darwinism, but then we are told that if the pattern isn’t explained neatly by descent, then we have all kinds of ad hoc explanations like horizontal gene transfer, differing rates of evolution, or even convergent evolution to preserve the theory. (Statistical methods of making trees based upon multiple genes can average out the discrepancies among individual gene-trees, but this makes the overall claim of common descent much less robust and eminently unfalsifiable.) These epicycles are the epitome of “new modifications and roundabout excuses for their theory, never allowing it to be proven false.”

In fact, come to think of it, Popper himself once stated that evolution fails his falsifiability criterion (note: Popper later recanted this view):

“I now wish to give some reasons why I regard Darwinism as metaphysical, and as a research programme. It is metaphysical because it is not testable. One might think that it is. It seems to assert that, if ever on some planet we find life which satisfies conditions (a) and (b), then (c) will come into play and bring about in time a rich variety of distinct forms. Darwinism, however, does not assert as much as this. For assume that we find life on Mars consisting of exactly three species of bacteria with a genetic outfit similar to that of three terrestrial species. Is Darwinism refuted? By no means. We shall say that these three species were the only forms among the many mutants which were sufficiently well adjusted to survive. And we shall say the same if there is only one species (or none). Thus Darwinism does not really predict the evolution of variety. It therefore cannot really explain it. At best, it can predict the evolution of variety under “favourable conditions”. But it is hardly possible to describe in general terms what favourable conditions are except that, in their presence, a variety of forms will emerge.” (Popper, Karl R., [Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London], “Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography,” Open Court: La Salle Ill., Revised Edition, 1982, p.171)

“However, Darwin’s own most important contribution to the theory of evolution, his theory of natural selection, is difficult to test. There are some tests, even some experimental tests; and in some cases, such as the famous phenomenon known as “industrial melanism,” we can observe natural selection happening under our very eyes, as it were. Nevertheless, really severe tests of the theory of natural selection are hard to come by, much more so than tests of otherwise comparable theories in physics or chemistry.” (Popper, Karl R., [Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London], “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind,” Dialectica, Vol. 32, Nos. 3-4, 1978, pp.339-355, p.344)

Now I realize that later on Popper changed his view in favor of the testability of evolution, but Popper nonetheless makes some interesting points here: precisely what does natural selection predict? It can explain anything as the result of “selection.” And if not selection, then it might be the result of common ancestry, horizontal gene transfer, chance convergence, or genetic drift. Using this grab-bag of explanations, one wonders if there is any set of biological characteristics by which your average Darwinist-on-the-street would stand refuted?

Strike 3: ID can be falsified
Kriegel says therefore that science must make predictions which can be tested. He believes that ID cannot be used to make such predictions:

It is impossible to refute ID, because if an animal shows one characteristic, IDers can explain that the intelligent designer made it this way, and if the animal shows the opposite characteristic, IDers can explain with equal confidence that the designer made it that way. … For that matter, it is fully consistent with ID that the supreme intelligence designed the world to evolve according to Darwin’s laws of natural selection. Given this, there is no conceivable experiment that can prove ID false.

But design theorists have claimed that design theory detects not the apparent design from natural selection, but ACTUAL design by intelligence. So we have actually staked our claim out clearly: intelligent design means origin by intelligent selection–NOT natural selection! Thus Kriegel apparently misunderstands ID theory. If natural selection and intelligent selection are competing explanations for the origin of biological complexity, then we can indeed test between the two hypotheses:

“Closely matched, irreducibly complex systems not only are tall problem for Darwinism but also are hallmarks of intelligent design.” (Michael Behe, “Intelligent Design Theory as a Tool,” in Mere Creation, pg. 179)

“What natural selection lacks, intelligent selection–purposive or goal-directed design–provides. Rational agents can arrange both matter and symbols with distant goals in mind. In using language, the human mind routinely “finds” or generates highly improbable linguistic sequences to convey an intended or preconceived idea. In the process of thought, functional objectives precede and constrain the selection of words, sounds and symbols to generate functional (and indeed meaningful) sequences from among a vast ensemble of meaningless alternative combinations of sound or symbol (Denton 1986:309-311). Similarly, the construction of complex technological objects and products, such as bridges, circuit boards, engines and software, result from the application of goal-directed constraints (Polanyi 1967, 1968). Indeed, in all functionally integrated complex systems where the cause is known by experience or observation, design engineers or other intelligent agents applied boundary constraints to limit possibilities in order to produce improbable forms, sequences or structures. Rational agents have repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to constrain the possible to actualize improbable but initially unrealized future functions. Repeated experience affirms that intelligent agents (minds) uniquely possess such causal powers.

Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information, therefore, exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks–almost by definition–are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality–with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.” (“Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” Stephen C. Meyer, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):21239. 2004)

By explaining that ID is not natural selection, we can see that a valid argument for natural selection can serve as a mode of falsifying ID. Thus, it is precisely what Darwinism and natural selection lacks that intelligent design provides — the ability to engage in “intelligent selection” or “purposive or goal-directed design” to produce “[c]losely matched, irreducibly complex systems”. Intelligent design is thus eminently falsifiable, for if we fail to find such closely matched, irreducibly complex systems in the cell, then a prediction of design fails, and design can be falsified for that speciific case.

In the end, this issue is debatable, but it is summed up in a compelling way by Stephen Meyer:

“Falsification, for example, in addition to the problems mentioned in part one, seems an especially problematic standard to apply to origins theories. So does prediction. Origins theories must necessarily offer ex post facto reconstructions. They therefore do not make predictions in any strong sense. The somewhat artificial “predictions” that origins theories do make about, for example, what evidence one ought to find if a given theory is true are singularly difficult to falsify since, as evolutionary paleontologists often explain, “the absence of evidence is no evidence of absence.”

(The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design: The Methodological Equivalence of Naturalistic and Non-Naturalistic Origins Theories)

Is Kriegel out of arguments?
Thus, Kriegel can cite Popper against ID all he wants, but he’ll have to overcome 3 problems:

  • 1) Popper isn’t widely accepted by philosophers of science, and his falsifiability criterion makes a dubious legal standard
  • 2) Popper also claimed at times that evolution fails his falsifiability criterion; though Popper later recanted, some good arguments can still be made.
  • 3) It isn’t clear that ID fails as a science given that it provides an observation and experience-based causally adequate explanation for the origin of biological complexity

If only Kriegel would see that design theory has positive value for explaining the origin of biological complexity based upon our present-day cause-and-effect understandings of how intelligent agents operate and the types of information they produce. Kriegel shouldn’t bash ID until he’s tried to explain the origin of biological information. At that point, he will find natural selection deficient, and will find that the encoded, highly specified and complex information in the cell is a remnant of its actual intelligent design.

[this post was edited a couple times just after being posted]

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.



__k-reviewCharles KrauthammerTech Central StationUriah KriegelWashington Post