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Is Intelligent Design a Science Stopper?

Image: Sisyphus forever pushing the rock up the hill, by Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a debate with Michael Ruse at Oregon State University, a student in the audience asked me how one does science according to intelligent design. It is a common question. If the designer can autonomously create designs, how can one make predictions? If the natural world operates not according to a set of natural laws, but instead according to an autonomous entity, then how can science proceed? Indeed, more commonly evolutionists do not ask such questions, but rather boldly assert that under any such formulation, science becomes utterly impossible. Many such examples could be given but an op-ed article in the New York Times from evolutionist and then president of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, will suffice:

In evolution, as in all areas of science, our knowledge is incomplete. But the entire success of the scientific enterprise has depended on an insistence that these gaps be filled by natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence. Because “intelligent design” theories are based on supernatural explanations, they can have nothing to do with science.

Science Depends on It

In other words, there is an intellectual necessity of strictly naturalistic explanation — our science depends on it. And so, it would seem that intelligent design commits the intellectual sin of being a science stopper. But as we shall see, this intellectual necessity argument reveals something very different.

The intellectual necessity argument is a claim about what constitutes legitimate science. It states that science, properly understood, must be strictly limited to naturalistic processes. While this claim may confirm what you remember from seventh-grade science class, it badly fails in the real world. One need look no further than the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, project. SETI scans the cosmos for signals that are the result of an extra-terrestrial civilization. In other words, SETI scans the cosmos for signals that are not the result of naturalistic processes — the very opposite of Alberts’s requirement that science use only “natural explanations.”

In attempting to define what constitutes legitimate science, the intellectual necessity argument proposes an answer to what philosophers refer to as the demarcation problem. Where exactly is the line that demarcates science from non-science? This is a long-standing problem in the philosophy of science. And by “long-standing,” I mean robust answers have been elusive for centuries. Contrary to what you learned in that seventh-grade science class, science is not so easily categorized and pigeonholed.

But the failure of the intellectual necessity argument to solve the demarcation problem is only the beginning. An even more serious problem is that the intellectual necessity is, itself, not scientific. For what scientific experiment or finding has shown that the success and legitimacy of science hinges on strict naturalism? Or again, what experiment shows that accuracy and truth are to be found only in naturalism?

A Belief, Not a Finding

The early evolutionist Jean Baptiste Lamarck wrote that “The only knowledge that it is possible for us to acquire is and always will be confined to what we have derived from a continued study of nature’s laws.” But that was a belief, not a scientific finding.

Consider a box with an internal divider such that the box is divided into two separate compartments, A and B. The box represents the set of all possible scientific explanations. Compartment A contains explanations that are strictly naturalistic, while compartment B contains explanations that are not strictly naturalistic.

Evolutionists are saying that not only are they limited to Compartment A, but that as a matter of principle all of science must necessarily be so limited. Compartment B must be strictly off limits.

But what if there is something in Compartment B? If there is, then evolutionists can never know it. Like Sisyphus forever pushing the rock up the hill, evolutionists would forever be trying to describe Compartment B phenomena they observe as though they are Compartment A phenomena. The explanations never quite work, and so become increasingly complex. But that is all evolutionists can do.

Therefore, evolutionists face a serious problem: What if there is something in Compartment B? The common reply is: “if that’s the case, then we’ll change.” But that is not true, at least not according to the intellectual necessity. Remember it requires that “these gaps be filled by natural explanations.”

Evolutionists do not have the freedom to contemplate anything but strictly naturalistic explanations. Their self-imposed rules do not permit the conditional, “If that’s the case …” They cannot consider Compartment B.

The upshot of all this is that evolution does not follow the evidence, it follows a rule. The intellectual necessity does not allow for exceptions. Evolutionists must adhere to a strictly naturalistic origins story, regardless of the evidence. 

A Mandate, Not a Discovery

The science doesn’t matter. There is nothing, not even a code (for example), that can change this rule. Evolution has not discovered a naturalistic origin of the species; it has mandated a naturalistic origin of the species.

The intellectual necessity argument tells us not that there is a problem with intelligent design — it tells us that there is a problem with evolution. Consider, for example, evolutionist Nathan Lents who claimed “there are no working hypotheses about why the vertebrate retina is wired in backwards.”

I reminded Lents that our retina’s Mueller cells act as wavelength-dependent wave-guides. I further pointed out that this and other optical mechanisms in our retina not only demonstrate an intelligent rationale for our photoreceptor cell’s orientation but contradict the evolutionist’s characterization of it as “backwards.”

Lents disagreed and maintained the evolutionary claim that our photoreceptor cells are backwards, in spite of the scientific evidence. Lents doubled down and described our retina’s sophisticated optical mechanisms as “compensatory mechanisms.”

This example is typical. It shows how evolutionary science, with its intellectual necessity, follows dogma rather than the evidence. For Lents, even the mere possibility, the mere admission, that our retina might exhibit design, was unacceptable.

Evolution Corrupts Experimental Science

This example also shows how evolution, a theory about origins, corrupts what we might call experimental science. In stating “there are no working hypotheses about why the vertebrate retina is wired in backwards,” Lents was utterly disregarding important and profound breakthrough discoveries about our vision. Those findings simply did not matter and were quietly swept under the rug.

Ideas about origins have consequences. This also is true about intelligent design, and it brings me back to that student at Oregon State University and the question: How does intelligent design do science?

It should be obvious that ID does not do science as evolution does. It does not rule out possible explanations a priori based on a dogmatic belief. It does not rule out even miracles and the supernatural. But that does not mean that intelligent design is a search for miracles and the supernatural. This is the concern of evolutionists such as Alberts, who naïvely fear design thinking as a looming disaster for science. Consequently, they have painted themselves into a non-scientific corner. ID is not the problem they ignorantly fear, it is the solution to their untenable naturalism.

Stoics and Epicureans

In the long history of the debate between teleology and anti-teleology, first documented in Cicero’s dialog between the Stoics and the Epicureans, intelligent design falls squarely into the teleology camp. It allows for the idea that there is a rational basis for the world — a key idea in the rise of modern science. This profoundly impacts how one does science. One need look no further than at the history of modern science for example after example of discoveries made by scientists with precisely these teleological views.

Were they inserting miracles willy-nilly into their scientific accounts? Of course not. Design thinking is a more fundamental, profound influence.

Intelligent design operates at the deeper levels of hypothesis generation, design of experiments, and so forth. As Kepler put it, in investigating the natural world, we can think God’s thoughts after Him.

Those who demand a step-by-step recipe of ID’s “scientific method” will be disappointed. For they are requiring of intelligent design something that has eluded philosophers for centuries.

The teleological approach has undoubtedly been the most successful knowledge-generation paradigm in history. One must search hard and long for important discoveries born of the anti-teleological assumption that the world arose by blind chance. While evolutionary science has produced a long sequence of false predictions and just-so stories, design thinking has revolutionized our knowledge in ways unimaginable to those who came before.