Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

To Practice Science, We Must Philosophize

Sarah Chaffee


I’d never thought of things this way, but I just came across this New Republic article from a couple of years back. In “Science Is Not About Certainty,” theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli discusses the nature of scientific advancement. At the end of his article, he notes that philosophy leads to scientific discoveries. His point is particularly relevant in origins science, where sound reasoning is crucial.

Rovelli notes that historically, great scientists have also practiced philosophy:

Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and having a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he did without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher and started by discussing this with Descartes and had strong philosophical ideas.

… When Heisenberg does quantum mechanics, he is in a completely philosophical frame of mind. He says that in classical mechanics there’s something philosophically wrong, there’s not enough emphasis on empiricism. It is exactly this philosophical reading that allows him to construct that fantastically new physical theory, quantum mechanics.

Furthermore, he thinks that, due to a lack of philosophical engagement, physics hasn’t advanced much in terms of ideas in the past 65 years or so — rather “The physics of the second half of the century has been, in a sense, a physics of application of the great ideas of the people of the ’30s.” Science and philosophy need each other, according to Rovelli.

There is narrow-mindedness, if I may say so, in many of my colleagues who don’t want to learn what’s being said in the philosophy of science. There is also a narrow-mindedness in a lot of areas of philosophy and the humanities, whose proponents don’t want to learn about science — which is even more narrow-minded. Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view. The two points of view can teach each other and, I believe, enlarge each other.

So, how does philosophy inform origins science in general and intelligent design in particular?

Historical sciences use the abductive method of reasoning — inference to the best available explanation. David Hume wrote, “From causes which appear similar we expect similar effects” and “the same rule holds, whether the cause assigned be brute unconscious matter, or a rational intelligent being.” The best available explanation is determined by our knowledge of what causes lead to what results — the present is the key to the past. Stephen Meyer explains in “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington:

Moreover, contemporary studies on the method of “inference to the best explanation” have shown that determining which among a set of competing possible explanations constitutes the best depends upon judgments about the causal adequacy, or “causal powers,” of competing explanatory entities (Lipton 1991:32-88). In the historical sciences, uniformitarian and/or actualistic (Gould 1965, Simpson 1970, Rutten 1971, Hooykaas 1975) canons of method suggest that judgments about causal adequacy should derive from our present knowledge of cause and effect relationships. For historical scientists, “the present is the key to the past” means that present experience-based knowledge of cause and effect relationships typically guides the assessment of the plausibility of proposed causes of past events.

Intelligent design employs this method of reasoning by observing what humans produce in the present — namely, complex (unlikely) and specified (matching a pattern) information — or CSI. This type of information is found, among other places, in computer code and machines. When we find the same properties of complexity and specification in nature, such as in DNA code and molecular machines like the bacterial flagellum, we make an inference to the best explanation: design by intelligence.

For instance, philosopher Jay Richards and astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez argue in The Privileged Planet that the same conditions on earth that make scientific discovery possible also make habitability possible, and this points to design. They note, “Our situation is complex, certainly, but it is also exhibits a specification, a telling pattern, in which the rare conditions for habitability and measurability correlate.” In other words, they are reasoning on the basis of CSI.

Evolutionary scientists sometimes try to account for CSI by arguing backwards. For example, Meyer responds to one critical reviewer of Darwin’s Doubt, UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall, who tries to account for the Cambrian explosion by pointing to “rewiring of the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) of already existing genes.” Meyer answers that no alterations of developmental gene regulatory networks have been known to produce this kind of change:

By ignoring this evidence, Marshall and other defenders of evolutionary theory reverse the epistemological priority of the historical scientific method as pioneered by Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and others. Rather than treating our present experimentally based knowledge as the key to evaluating the plausibility of theories about the past, Marshall uses an evolutionary assumption about what must have happened in the past (transmutation) to justify disregarding experimental observations of what does, and does not, occur in biological systems. The requirements of evolutionary doctrine thus trump our observations about how nature and living organisms actually behave. What we know best from observation takes a back seat to prior beliefs about how life must have arisen.

Informed by such philosophical reasoning, intelligent design opens the door to new scientific inquiries. As an article here at Evolution News notes:

One wonders how much further along science would be today if ID scientists had the power to direct research about “vestigial organs” and “junk DNA” instead of letting the Darwin power structure tell everyone, “There’s nothing to see here.”

Good science results from both facts and sound philosophy.

Photo: Werner Heisenberg, 1924, via Wikicommons.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.