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More on How We Can Know Intelligent Design Is Science

Casey Luskin


Earlier this week I offered a reading list on how we can know that intelligent design is science. It turns out that tonight, some co-workers and I will attend a meeting of the Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club on the topic, “Is Intelligent Design Science?: The Demarcation Problem.” Nice timing. For my presentation at the event, I put together a short handout. You can download it here, but for those short on time I’ll provide the gist.

Philosophers of science have long debated the precise definition of science. In fact, current trends in philosophy of science eschew the use of demarcation criteria to distinguish between science and non-science. Philosopher Larry Laudan comments on the consensus of this field:

[T]here is no demarcation line between science and nonscience, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers. 1

Despite these disagreements, it is possible to show that the theory of intelligent design qualifies as science. While the precise definition of science may be unclear, and the exact boundary between science and non-science blurry, most would agree there are certain qualities that clearly place some ideas on the side of science. One of those is the scientific method. If an idea uses the scientific method to make its claims, it’s very likely that the idea is scientific. Of course, a scientific idea may also be mistaken.

We can know ID is science because it uses the scientific method to make its claims. The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion.

  • Observations: ID begins with observations that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). (An event is complex if it is unlikely, and specified if it matches some independent pattern.)
  • Hypothesis: Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI.
  • Experiment: Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be tested and discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function. Mutational sensitivity tests can also be used to identify high CSI in proteins and other biological structures.
  • Conclusion: When experimental work uncovers irreducible complexity, or high CSI in biology, researchers conclude that such structures were designed. This is because, in our experience, intelligence is the only known cause of high CSI. As Stephen Meyer explains:

Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source–from a mind or personal agent.2

Of course like any scientific conclusion, this conclusion is held tentatively, subject to future discoveries and future investigations — investigations that ID encourages. But because ID is presently the best scientific explanation for structures with high CSI, it is entirely appropriate to infer design. In this way, ID uses the scientific method to make its claims.

Fallback Arguments
ID-critics often add two additional components to the scientific method in an effort to disqualify ID from being science: peer-review, and methodological naturalism. Neither criterion succeeds in disqualifying ID from being scientific.

Peer Review
ID-critics often charge that an idea can only count as science if it has been published in peer-reviewed journals. The argument goes on to say that ID hasn’t published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and therefore isn’t science. This criticism fails on both the theory and the facts.

Theory: Peer-review is irrelevant as a requirement of science. Stephen Jay Gould and other scientists eloquently affirmed this when they wrote:

The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among other scientists.3

Indeed, if a concept had to be peer-reviewed to be scientific, science could never progress, for every new idea began as an unpublished, minority opinion. For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that peer-review “does not necessarily correlate with reliability, and in some instances well-grounded but innovative theories will not have been published.”4

Indeed, the peer-review system has often rejected claims that are true. Historian of science Juan Miguel Campanario has documented numerous instances where top journals rejected significant scientific papers, including a case where Nature rejected research that later earned the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.5

Facts: This criticism of ID is false. There are many pro-ID scientific papers published by ID proponents in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Journal of Molecular Biology, Protein Science, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Journal of Advanced Computational Intelligence and Intelligent Informatics, Physics of Life Reviews, Cell Biology International, BIO-Complexity, Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, and Annual Review of Genetics.

In 2011, the ID movement published its 50th peer-reviewed scientific paper.

Methodological Naturalism
Critics often maintain ID isn’t science because science must conform to methodological naturalism (MN). MN requires that whether or not the supernatural exists, we must pretend that it doesn’t when practicing science. This idea was expressed in a letter to the editor in Nature: “Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”6 Philosophers would disagree on whether MN is a requirement of science, but even if it is, there are good reasons why ID offends neither the letter nor the spirit of this “rule.”

ID Doesn’t Violate the Letter of MN: ID does not appeal to the supernatural, and thus does not require non-natural causes. As we saw earlier, ID begins with observations of the types of information and complexity produced by intelligent agents. Intelligent agents are natural causes that we can understand by studying the world around us. This makes intelligent agency a proper subject of scientific study. When ID finds high levels of CSI in nature, the most it can infer is that intelligence was at work. Because ID respects the limits of scientific inquiry, it does not make claims beyond the data by trying to identify the designer.

Stephen Meyer explains:

Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. 7

Other ID proponents have pointed out that ID only appeals to intelligent causes, not supernatural ones. Michael Behe writes, “as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo.”8 William Dembski explains: “Supernatural explanations invoke miracles and therefore are not properly part of science. Explanations that call on intelligent causes require no miracles but cannot be reduced to materialistic explanations.”9 Likewise, an early ID textbook affirms MN, stating: “intelligence . . . can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural . . . cannot.”10

Some claim ID violates MN by leaving open the possibility of a supernatural designer. But ID does not claim to scientifically detect a supernatural creator. Again, the most ID infers is intelligent causation. Many (though not all) ID proponents may believe the designer is God, but they do not claim this is a scientific conclusion of ID. This makes ID no different from Darwinian evolution, which claims that if there is a supernatural creator, that would be beyond science’s power to detect.

ID Doesn’t Offend the Spirit of MN: Proponents of MN often justify this rule by arguing that it ensures that science uses only testable, predictable, and reliable explanations.11 However, as we have seen, intelligent design generates testable hypotheses based upon our knowledge of how the world works, and can be reliably inferred through the scientific method. In this way, intelligent design does not violate any mandates of predictability, testability, or reliability laid down for science by MN. In fact, ID and neo-Darwinian evolution are methodologically equivalent.

Methodological Equivalence
Historical sciences like Darwinian evolution and intelligent design rely on the principle of uniformitarianism, which holds that “the present is the key to the past.” Under this methodology, scientists study causes at work in the present-day world in order, as geologist Charles Lyell put it, to “explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation.”

Darwinian evolution applies this method by studying causes like mutation and selection in order to recognize their causal abilities and effects in the world at present. Darwinian scientists then try to explain the historical record in terms of those causes, seeking to recognize the known effects of mutation and selection in the historical record.

Intelligent design applies this same method by studying causes like intelligence in order to recognize its causal abilities and effects in the present-day world. ID theorists are interested in understanding the information-generative powers of intelligent agents. ID theorists then try to explain the historical record by including appeals to that cause, seeking to recognize the known effects of intelligent design in the historical record.

So whether we appeal to materialistic causes like mutation and selection, or non-material causes like intelligent design, we are using the same basic uniformitarian reasoning that is well-accepted in historical sciences.

ID and neo-Darwinism are thus methodologically equivalent. There is no non-arbitrary definition of science that can exclude ID, and not also exclude neo-Darwinism from being scientific. In the same way, any non-arbitrary definition of science that includes neo-Darwinism will also qualify ID as science. Critics may disagree with the conclusions of ID, but they cannot reasonably claim that it uses faith, divine revelation, or other non-scientific methods to make its claims. ID uses the scientific method to make its claims, and as such is science.

References Cited:
[1.] Larry Laudan, Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence, p. 210 (Westview Press 1996).
[2.] Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).
[3.] Brief Amici Curiae of Physicians, Scientists, and Historians of Science in Support of Petitioners, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. , 509 U.S. 579 (1993).
[4.] Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. , 509 U.S. 579, 593-94 (1993).
[5.] See Juan Miguel Campanario, “On Influential Books and Journal Articles Initially Rejected Because of Negative Referees’ Evaluations,” Science Communication, 16(3):304-325 (March, 1995); Juan Miguel Campanario, “Not in our Nature,” Nature, 361:488 (Feb. 11, 1993).
[6.] Scott C. Todd, “A view from Kansas on that evolution debate,” Nature, Vol. 401:423 (Sept. 30, 1999).
[7.] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell,. pp. 428-429 (HarperOne, 2009).
[8.] Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, 2 (3): 165 (2001).
[9.] William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, pp. 13-14 (FTE, 2008).
[10.] Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People, p. 126 (FTE, 1993).
[11.] For example, see John A. Moore, Science as a Way of Knowing (Harvard University Press, 1993); Eugenie C. Scott, “Monkey Business,” The Sciences, New York Academy of Sciences, 36(1):20-25 (Jan. / Feb. 1996).


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.



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