The critical response to Judge Jones’s decision in the Kitzmiller case continues to build. Renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga has recently written a short article analyzing part of Judge Jones’s reasoning. Having Plantinga’s analytic expertise and philosophic understanding come down against the Kitzmiller decision does not bode well for the intellectual vitality Judge Jones may have hoped his opinion would achieve.
For those who may not know, Alvin Plantinga is a highly respected philosopher who has written extensively on such topics as epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. As one of the worlds leading thinkers about the ‘science of knowledge,’ epistemology, Plantinga has published a seminal trilogy centering on warrant. He is highly respected in the philosophy community and has served as the president of the American Philosophical Association. All this makes Plantinga’s analysis of the reasoning employed in Kitzmiller highly relevant.
Though Kitzmiller has been the subject of extensive commentary and news, one section of the case in particular, where Judge Jones claims to resolve for the entire country that “Intelligent Design is not science,” has been subjected to relentless criticism. The far-reaching claims of the “ID is Not Science” section (p.64-89) have been criticized for legal reasoning (here), understanding of science (here), factual and other concerns (here, here and here), and now Plantinga has provided a more formal philosophic criticism of the argument.
Plantinga has concerns about a judge attempting to settle disputes by “judicial declaration” or “judicial fiat.” Plantinga then goes on to analyze some of the reasoning Judge Jones used to support his overly-bold claims. I’ll highlight just a few of the more interesting parts of Plantinga’s article. Keying off page 64 of the opinion, Plantinga identifies two claims: “First, he [Judge Jones] said that ID is not science by virtue of its “invoking and permitting supernatural causation.” Second, and connected with the first, he said that ID isn’t science because the claims IDers make are not testable — that is verifiable or falsifiable.” Plantinga finds major problems with both these arguments.
Plantinga first recalls how difficult it has been for philosophers to come up with a decent definition and analysis of falsification or verification (concepts that Judge Jones assumes to be true for his argument). Plantinga brackets this problem and argues that “propositions about supernatural beings not being verifiable or falsifiable isn’t true at all.” He explains:
For example, the statement “God has designed 800-pound rabbits that live in Cleveland” is clearly testable, clearly falsifiable and indeed clearly false. Testability can’t be taken as a criterion for distinguishing scientific from nonscientific statements. That is because in the typical case individual statements are not verifiable or falsifiable.
As another example, the statement “There is at least one electron” is surely scientific, but it isn’t by itself verifiable or falsifiable. What is verifiable or falsifiable are whole theories involving electrons. These theories make verifiable or falsifiable predictions, but the sole statement “There is at least one electron” does not. In the same way, whole theories involving intelligent designers also make verifiable or falsifiable predictions, even if the bare statement that life has been intelligently designed does not.
These examples show how absurd it was for Judge Jones to categorically assert that ID is not falsifiable. Not only does ID make testable claims, the standard of falsification does not apply universally for theories that Judge Jones would consider scientific. (See this link or this link for more on the positive predictions of ID theory.)
Plantinga also points out that Judge Jones not only relied on concepts of falsification, which intelligent design can “pass” as well as other scientific theories, but he relied on methodological naturalism to define ID out of science. “But what is the reason — if any — for accepting methodological naturalism? Apparently, the judge thinks it is just a matter of definition — of the word “science,” presumably.” Along this same line of analysis, Plantinga points out the problem of Judge Jones’s attempt to define ID out of science while demonstrating his trademark analytic skill lightened with a touch of humor:
Suppose I claim all Democrats belong in jail. One might ask: Could I advance the discussion by just defining the word “Democrat” to mean “convicted felon”? If you defined “Republican” to mean “unmitigated scoundrel,” should Republicans everywhere hang their heads in shame?
So this definition of “science” the judge appeals to is incorrect as a matter of fact because that is not how the word is ordinarily used. But even if the word “science” were ordinarily used in such a way that its definition included methodological naturalism, that still wouldn’t come close to settling the issue. The question is whether ID is science. That is not a merely verbal question about how a certain word is ordinarily used.
While ID does not even conclude or mandate the action of the supernatural, Plantinga nicely addresses the problems with Judge Jones’s sweeping assertions about the nature of science and the status of ID. The decision relies on semantically defining ID out of the picture rather than a reasoned defense. Plantinga’s article catalogues a number of other proposed constraints on the definition of science; all of which make the point that science being constrained by methodological naturalism (as Jones did in Kitzmiller) is anything but a self-evident truth.
In the end, Plantinga points out just a few of the problems with the proposed limitation on science from methodological naturalists. Plantinga’s article does not purport to be a comprehensive review of Kitzmiller, nor of all the claims made in the “ID is Not Science” section. It does, however, neatly respond to several of the essential propositions relied upon for that section.
As someone with a lot more experience in the debate about the philosophy of science, and methodological naturalism specifically, Plantinga easily runs circles around the astoundingly weak reasoning from Judge Jones’s Kitzmiller decision.