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Intelligent Design and Methodological Naturalism — No Necessary Contradiction

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methodological naturalism

Another corespondent draws our attention to a comment from atheist and “poetic naturalist” Sean Carroll, in his recent book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

Science should be interested in determining the truth, whatever that truth may be – natural, supernatural, or otherwise. The stance known as methodological naturalism, while deployed with the best of intentions by supporters of science, amounts to assuming part of the answer ahead of time. If finding truth is our goal, that is just about the biggest mistake we can make.

Such a statement may or may not be surprising to you, considering the source. Well, what about it? Methodological naturalism (MN) in relationship to intelligent design has been a source of some discussion and confusion over the years.

A Reasonable Definition

A reasonable definition of MN is: “The belief that, whether or not the supernatural exists, we must pretend that it doesn’t when practicing science.” This idea was neatly expressed in a letter to the editor published in Nature:

Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.

(Scott C. Todd, “A view from Kansas on that evolution debate,” Nature, Vol. 401:423 (Sept. 30, 1999))

For a list of other sources similarly claiming MN is a requirement of science, please see, “Primer: Naturalism in Science.”

Now obviously, many critics of the theory of intelligent design (ID) maintain that ID isn’t science because they claim that MN is a “rule” that all science must conform to and obey. For a moment, leave aside whether MN makes a good “rule” for doing science. Let’s approach the question of whether ID is science pragmatically, and, for the sake of argument, let us assume MN. Even if we accept the rationale behind MN, ID is not excluded from being scientific.

ID Doesn’t Violate the Letter of MN

MN states that science cannot appeal to the supernatural. But ID does not appeal to the supernatural, and thus does not require non-natural causes.

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 complex and specified information, or 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.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell, pp. 428-429 (HarperOne, 2009))

Many other ID proponents have pointed out that ID only appeals to intelligent causes, not supernatural ones. Michael Behe writes:

[A]s regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo [“I frame no hypothesis”].

(Michael Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, 2 (3): 165 (2001))

William Dembski and Jonathan Wells explain:

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.

(William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, pp. 13-14 (FTE, 2008))

Likewise, an early ID textbook affirms MN, stating:

[I]ntelligence…can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural…cannot.

(Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, Of Pandas and People, p. 126 (FTE, 1993))

Now some might argue that ID violates MN by leaving open the possibility of a supernatural designer. It true that ID leaves open such a possibility. But ID does not claim to scientifically detect a supernatural creator. Again, the most ID claims to detect 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. In this respect, ID is 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. However, ID 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.

For details on how ID makes testable predictions, please see the following:

We’ve remarked on this before, but clarification is always in order.

Photo credit: U.S. Army RDECOM, via Flickr.