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9.4.04

ID And The Limits To Science

Defenders of evolution frequently express frustration that Intelligent Design advocates won't offer a research program. They won't specify how design can be detected, much less how it can be used to advance our understanding of how species came to be the way they are. Instead they just recycle the same creationist arguments tearing down evolution, sans the overtly religious ones.

I can understand the frustration, especially given that in the political arena ID claims to be a theory of origins parallel to evolution. But thinking about the claim of "methodological naturalism" advanced by ID proponents, it seems to me that it might make more sense to see ID as a theory of the limits of science.

ID proponents claim that the theory of evolution is based on a commitment to methodological naturalism -- to considering only natural, not supernatural, factors in their explanations. This is true (as well as being true for physics, chemistry, economics, inegrated land-change science, etc.). But what does it mean for something to be "natural" or "supernatural"? We could simply define the categories by listing their members -- matter and waves and so forth are natural, gods and demons and magic are supernatural. If this is the case -- if there's no criterion on which we can differentiate the natural from the supernatural -- then charging "methodological naturalism" is a run-of-the-mill accusation of baseless prejudice against some class of phenomena.

But I think that we can see some rule for making the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. The natural is that which exhibits regularity (either deterministic or statistical). Think about what we imply when we say something is a miracle (literally or figuratively) -- we're suggesting that it was unpredictable, unreplicable, unexplainable. No wonder science is methodologically naturalistic -- it seeks to explain things, and supernatural causes are inexplicable.

Imagine the theory that some object was designed. If we want to probe farther -- to explore the why and how of the design -- we have to have some understanding of how the designer's mind works. We have to make hypotheses about the contextual conditions, logical processes, and desires of the designer. This is how archaeology works*. But in probing the designer's mind like this, we take the designer as being a natural phenomenon. The designer is presumed to follow some regularized -- and hence reconstructable -- principles. These principles can be tested by using them to predict what we'd find in another as-yet-unexamined case, and falsified if the additional evidence is inconsistent with the proposed model of the designer's thought process. But in this case, the argument about ignoring supernatural phenomena falls through, and we're left with an argument that evolutionary biology improperly regards god as supernatural.

Stephen Jay Gould's argument about the Panda's Thumb was an attempt to naturalize and refute one type of designer. Seeing that many opponents of evolution believed the designer to be an all-knowing and all-powerful god, Gould inferred that such a designer would be able to make optimal designs. But in cases such as the "thumb" of a panda, organisms' designs seemed to be jury-rigged in a way inconsistent with the hypothesized type of designer.

ID tends to avoid statements about the nature of the designer (i.e., they wouldn't rule out the idea of an incompetent designer to explain the panda's thumb). We're told it could be God, or it could be aliens, or it could be something else -- we don't know. In part, this can be seen as a shrewd political move, in order to keep God out of the picture. But it's also a necessary step to maintaining the claim that ID considers supernatural causes. When talking about a supernatural cause, you can't go much further than "there was one."

The inscrutability of the designer means that ID can't claim to be a scientific theory about the origins of species. Instead, it becomes a theory about the limits of science. In saying "the bacterial flagellum was designed," ID proponents are saying "science cannot (in the strong sense of "will never", rather than the weak sense of "hasn't yet") explain the origin of the flagellum." The idea of ID as a theory of the limits of science accords well with the fact that ID proponents focus on tearing down evolution rather than building up ID.

Religious creationism, it seems, can avoid both of the potential pitfalls of an ID that aspires to scientific status. On the one hand, because religion claims belief in a particular god(s) as well as knowledge about them, it can treat god as a natural phenomenon, and use various of god's attributes -- such as the aforementioned omniscience -- to generate hypotheses about how that god would have designed organisms. On the other hand, religion is willing, in a way science is not, to say that some things are inscrutable mysteries. It's this very loss of mystery that turns some people off to science -- here including psychology, ecology, and sustainability science as well -- in the first place.

*Well, some of archaeology, like the study of pottery and house plans. Archaeologists also try to explain non-designed patterns like the arrangement of settlements, though these may arise from lower-level design decisions (in this case, individual residential decisions).

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