ID is Science, Sort Of

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Prosthesis has put into words what I've been trying unsuccessfully to say for quite a while now. Intelligent Design is technically philosophy and not science, but it's no as simple as that. It's the most recent form of the teleological argument for the existence of God, in the tradition that began at least as far back as Aristotle, something like 2500 years ago. For him, of course, it was natural philosophy, which has become the science of today, so it's not as if it's outside the realm of what we now call science, but that argument has remained in philosophy as most other subject matters of Aristotle's natural philosophy have become known as science.

Intelligent Design is certainly not religion. That's evidenced by the people who support it who do not believe in any religion. Antony Flew is just the latest and most famous proponent of ID not to accept any religion as a result of it (or even many of the traditional attributes of God). Michael Denton was saying similar things in the 1980s. He's an atheist, and he thinks some sort of argument along the lines ID people give is correct against the standard neo-Darwinian picture (though he accepts large parts of it, as do most IDers). It's true that most ID people are Christians, but that doesn't mean it's religion, either in principle or even for those Christians who accept it. It's a philosophical argument that many Christians accept, and they accept it because they think it's a good argument, not because it occurs in the Bible.

People like Brian Leiter and most of the people at Panda's Thumb show their philosophical ignorance in saying it's an imposition of religion, and that shows how radically ignorant they are, but even a more moderate ignorance is, to my mind, culpable, and many of my philosophical colleagues exhibit it. Their denial that ID is science seems to me not simply to be an agreement with my claim that ID is philosophy. It seems to me that it's often an unwillingness to recognize that philosophical arguments of the same caliber as the ID argument often play a role in good scientific reasoning. Anyone even remotely familiar with the contemporary literature on philosophy of science should think this obvious. Just about all scientific theories involve metaphysical assumptions, and they rely on philosophical arguments for those assumptions.

This is especially so for physics, and the ID argument that I think has the most going for it is the cosmological constant argument for a designer, which falls in the realm of physics in the same way most of what Stephen Hawking has popularized falls under the realm of physics, despite the fact that most of what he does in those books is philosophy (and not always very good philosophy, certainly not any better than the ID argument based on cosmological constants). I've looked at Stephen Hawking and the responses from the ID side by people like Hugh Ross. It all seems to me to be doing philosophy as a part of the scientific endeavor. To say that ID is not science is thus to limit science to a small portion of what scientifists in fact do.

I think Macht's post is especially helpful in pointing out that this is so for people like Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins. The kind of general theorizing that they do is basically philosophy of biology. The kind of general theorizing Stephen Meyer does falls in the same category. If his ID work isn't science, then neither is their work in evolutionary theory. Both are working with the philosophical elements of science, but I think it's right that they're equally science if those elements of evolutionary theory count as science at all.

As I've said before, I'm not going to do any evaluation of Intelligent Design (in the biological form) or of evolutionary theory on this blog. I don't know enough biology to engage in that enterprise. I don't consider someone qualified to judge these arguments without knowing a lot more biology than I and most philosophers do and without knowing a lot more philosophy than most biologists do. I might do a post this summer on the physics argument for a designer, since I'll be teaching that material again this summer for the first time since 2003. I know something about that and have some sort of opinion about its import. My point here is simply that the claims I hear over and over again from people who should know better, to the effect that ID is not science, almost always seem to me to be coming out of ignorance either of what ID is (and see the parts of Macht's post that clarify the six different senses of 'evolution' for some clarity on that) or ignorance of what science usually involves.

I hadn't quite thought to put it the way Macht did, but I think that final thesis is correct. ID arguments are the sort of thing that can find their place in science given what other sorts of argument commonly find their place in science. I've said all along that I think they should be taught in high school in philosophy classes, which I think should be mandatory for all seniors, but this explains why the argument should be taught in biology classes too. All most proponents of ID want is that the argument should be taught. Biology teachers, if they so choose, can teach about how they think it's a bad argument (as most of my colleagues do when they teach it in introductory philosophy classes in college), but that's teaching the argument. It amazes me that there's such resistance even to that. It makes me wonder why the opponents of ID wish to be so intellectually dishonest as to pretend something so ridiculous as that it's mere religion just to avoid something so limited as presenting the argument and then criticizing it.

Update: David Heddle presents some further evidence of the intellectual dishonesty of those opposing the teaching of biological ID. It's completely irrational, and the sad irony is that these are the people accusing IDers of intellectual dishonesty. There aren't too many examples of outright, undeniable hypocrisy nowadays given the ease of doublespeak and redefining of terms to avoid such criticisms, but this one is pretty hard to get around.

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Some links from A Physicist's Perspective on May 6, 2005 1:30 PM

Tim Challies has yet another nice post. I realize I link to him almost every day, but it's because he's writing a lot of good stuff. This time he's pointing out some more problems with the Purpose Driven Church... Read More


I read your post with great interest, respecting your expertise in philosophy as well as your careful, scrutinizing perspective on things. My conclusion: very good, very fair post.

Lacking formal training in either biology or philosophy - it seems evident to me that this debate is more philosophical than scientific (as opposed to scientism) - this confirmed some of my suspicions while raising issues I had not considered.

Thanks for the education and edification.

I've pointed out elsewhere that the Discovery Institute's position is that ID shouldn't be taught in biology classes (yet). So eventually they do want it taught, but they just don't think that ID has been around long enough to be taught in the classroom right now. They do, however, think that some of the problems with evolution should be taught right now (and that's what the Kansas hearings going on right now are about).


You've been snookered by Stephen Meyer.

1. Stephen Meyer tries to hide this fact, but he and most IDers disagree with the idea that humans and apes share a common ancestor. Most of the 23 IDists that just testified at the pro-ID hearings in Kansas just admitted this, including Meyer. Plus, several of the IDers admitted to being Young-Earthers, and several more claimed "they didn't know" how old the earth was. For some of the massive amount of evidence for the common ancestry of humans and apes, see here:

2. Meyer is wrong that "messages" in the DNA are only explainable by ID. Go read this paper:

Long, M., E. Betr�n, K. Thornton, and W. Wang. 2003. The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and old. Nature Reviews Genetics 4: 865-875. gives 22 examples of the origin of new genetic information (new genes with new functions), and reviews the many known mechanisms that produce new genetic information. Meyer has never dealt with this paper, or any of the literature on the origin of new genes, at all.

Regarding Meyer's "scientific" article, search Panda's Thumb on "Meyer's Hopeless Monster" for a detailed scientific critique, an analysis of the origin of paper (much of it was copied from previous articles published by Meyer), coverage of the aftermath, etc.

Nick, it's impossible to be snookered by someone one has never read. You obviously didn't read my post, or you would realize that you haven't said anything about the main substance of what I've said. I see that you've listed Panda's Thumb as your site, so why should I be surprised? Not responding to real arguments is the standard debating tactic on that site, and pretending biological ID is the only kind of ID is also a standard tactic of intellectually dishonesty that Panda's Thumb people exhibit that your comment also seems to reflect. It was clear in my post that I wasn't talking about biological ID arguments. I was talking about ID in general, and it's the physics arguments that I was primarily talking about, though I do think what I said includes some of the biological versions.

As to your first point, it conflicts with nothing I said, and it conflicts with nothing Macht said. This is the fifth of the six different theses people could mean by 'evolution', and it was the first four that Macht said most IDers agree with. Meyer has offered an argument. That argument assumes nothing about common descent one way or the other. Responding to the argument by pointing out that Meyer doesn't believe in common descent is thus fallacious.

As I said, I'm not in the business of evaluating the biological ID arguments. I don't know enough biology. You, though, obviously don't know enough philosophy to do so because you think the argument is bad on the grounds that the person who holds it believes something independently that you happen to disagree with. An introductory philosophy course should teach why that's a dumb reason to dismiss an argument. On those grounds I should disagree with the entire modern scientific picture just because Chomsky agrees with it on the grounds that I think his political views are abhorrent. What someone happens to believe independent of the argument in question is simply irrelevant. I'm talking about arguments here. You didn't deal with any of the arguments I made or referred to.

ID is silent on how old the earth is. It's an argument that there is a designer. That doesn't require a view on how old the earth is. So it's not surprising that some young-earthers would agree with it. Most of the leading figures supporting ID under that name are not young-earthers. Even if it were relevant that they think this, which it isn't, it's simply false that most of them do, and it's false that Meyer does. You're also picking out one particular set of ID people, the ones who testified in Kansas, as if that is representative of most of them percentagewise. I doubt it is. It certainly isn't representative of the major figures I've heard of, all of whom are old-earthers.

Based on the available evidence (Nick's copy and paste job, his missing the point of both our posts, etc.) I've come to the conclusion that the best (Nick, not the only) explanation for his behavior is that he didn't read either of our posts.

Um, Prosthesis cited Meyer's DNA=messages in information=ID argument, and you cited Prosthesis. That's what I was rebutting. The argument is flat-out-wrong, and proven wrong in the scientific literature, but you guys are taking it seriously. I happen to think that facts like this are somewhat important in evaluating ID -- you have to deal with what the actually modern ID movement actually says and does, not allow them to mislead you into thinking it is just the old cosmological Design argument. They are arguing for direct special creation in biology -- miraculous violation of the First Law of Thermodynamics, the whole nine yards.

As for the age of the earth, at least two prominent Discovery Institute fellows, Paul Nelson and Nancy Pearcey, are indeed young-earthers. Two others, Phillip Johnson and Stephen Meyer, refuse to say how old they think the earth is. Many other ID supporters testifying in Kansas (23 of them -- practically the whole movement!) also obfuscated or claimed ignorance on the question.

If they can't deal forthrightly and accurately with the simple question of how old the earth is, why should scientists take them seriously as anything but a pseudoscience?

I didn't mean to jump on you guys off the bat, but having a huge crowd of these folks invade Kansas in an attempt to change the definition of science by political manuvering tends to put us science fans on a bit of a hair trigger. All I ask is that you exercise a bit of skepticism and find out what these ID folks are really after.

He in passing refers to a couple individual arguments that I don't even obliquely refer to, and that's a justification for going off on it as if it had anything to do with my post?

It's not the cosmological argument. It's the teleological argument. There's a big difference.

Some of the biological arguments I've seen require special creation at various moments in the evolutionary process. Some of them simply require a designer. I don't see how it's anything but question-begging to presuppose your naturalistic framework. Hume was right to say that we can't know our putative scientific laws are the real laws. The problem is that we have overwhelming confirmation of this law, but now that someone proposes evidence against it you beg the question by presuming the law as a refutation of that evidence. That's poor philosophy, and thus it's poor science because good scientific thought requires good philosophical reasoning. If there's reason to question the evidence, that's different, but that's not what you just did.

There are plenty of ways to work what Meyer and co. are saying into the first law as standardly conceived anyway, since all that says is the amount of matter and energy will remain constant. Special interventions by God that "break" some generalizations that with our sample we might think lawlike do not necessarily break the first law, since they could just be rearrangements of matter and energy. As long as the total is constant, the law isn't broken.

You're also presupposing a philosophical view that I consider controversial. According to a Malebranchean view of divine intervention (at least on one prominent scholar's interpretation) God intervenes by having set up laws at the beginning that will guarantee a certain outcome. We see it as intervention because those laws aren't manifest most of the time, but it's all law-governed, and we simply have come up with some thinks that look lawlike but aren't fully laws. It's possible the first law isn't really a law but just gets at what happens most of the time, and other laws explain that. It would look to us like a breaking of a law, but that's not necessarily what it would be. Those other laws would also explain why these events you're calling special creation would have come about, and a designer's having made these more general laws would explain that while still thinking in terms of laws that govern everything and thinking of it as a designer's intervention of a sort. This is in fact how I think of miracles, and it fits fully with that to think of what Behe and co. think of as events not governed by our current scientific explanations. That's why I think this sort of objection is philosophically naive.

I can understand full well why some of the leaders of the ID movement won't answer that question. They want young-earthers and old-earthers alike to realize that these arguments are independent of that question. Young-earthers tend to dismiss old-earthers as giving in too much and won't even listen to them. Old-earthers of all stripes tend to give ad hominem pseudo-arguments (as you did) against anything a young-earther might say no matter how much merit it might have. Therefore, it's not a bad idea for someone with something to say that's independent of that issue to refuse to say anything about that issue. It's just plain good sense and shows a fair understanding of human psychology. It's not misleading or deceptive, because they flat-out say that those issues are irrelevant to what they're really concerned with, and they're right. If any form of the teleological argument is successful, then it says nothing about how old the earth is.


I don't care if you "jump at me." I actually appreciate it when people do challenge my ideas. The problem I had with you was that you didn't actually address what I wrote. Nothing in your comment dealt with what I had written in my blog entry.

By the way, it has been my impression in reading various Pearcey articles and books that she isn't a YEC. Can you provide me with a link/book/article to back up your claim?

ID isn't much of a science at all. ID is unable to be reproduced, unable to predict outcomes, unable to provide framework for what it explains. I've posted a simple chart that details some of the basic facts on evolution, ID and "Jehovah Design".

Christians that think supporting ID will get them the God of the Bible are being sold a bill of goods. If we care about the future generations of Americans, we cannot allow this psuedo-science/philosophy in the classroom. It does them a disservice and will handicap our economic effectiveness in the world.

Expat, address the argument. Asserting your position wins you no points. I explained why what ID is doing is the same sort of philosophical argument that happens all the time in science. If you think that's wrong, show me why. Don't just assert otherwise with no argument. Every scientific theory at the foundations of physics deals heavily with metaphysical theses. You can't do spacetime physics, relativity, or quantum theory without doing some serious metaphysics. There are metaphysical assumptions behind all these things, and there are philosophical arguments for and against scientific theories, including most of the reasoning within evolutionary theory. ID arguments are the same kinds of arguments. You might think they're bad arguments, but that doesn't mean they're not the kind of thing science deals with. They are.

As for your closing claim, it's just irrelevant. ID arguments support the conclusion that there's a designer. Different ID arguments support different conclusions about that designer. If the biological arguments are good, then they support a designer who created life with certain purposes along or one who helped evolution along. If the physics ones are any good, then they support a designer behind the entire universe. The conclusion of either argument will not be everything true of God. I'm not sure why anyone would think it would show that, though. The people who present these arguments certainly don't think they show any such thing.

The argument in your post is a little more straightforward, but that just makes its fallacy more clear. Your second column is a list of things that Christians should believe, just not the whole picture Christians believe. No argument can support the whole picture. You present a list of things many people deny. If ID arguments show those things, then they're not useless. They show something that atheists, for example, deny, which means atheism can be shown false (if the arguments are good ones). You claim that it's useless simply because it doesn't show the whole Christian picture, but if that's a good argument then we can never reason with anyone on any basis.


I'll leave aside the Meyer stuff. You seemed to be saying you agreed with Prosthesis, and he seemed to be saying he agreed with Meyer, but if this is actually not the case, great.

You write,

"Special interventions by God that "break" some generalizations that with our sample we might think lawlike do not necessarily break the first law, since they could just be rearrangements of matter and energy. As long as the total is constant, the law isn't broken."

Even just rearranging matter in a nonrandom manner -- i.e., imparting information -- takes energy. See Maxwell's Demon. The only way the demon can actually work is by expenditure of energy, at which point it is no longer a demon, or by magic.

What bugs me is how ID proponents are all-too-happy to chuck extremely reliable and well-tested generalizations (commonly known as physical laws) based on some bad, superficial, and highly uninformed biological arguments.

As for Nancy Pearcey, she wrote monthly columns for the Bible-Science Newsletter, a forum for crazed young-earth fundamentalists (Noah's Ark expeditions and sightings, the whole bit), for over a decade. Many of her articles endorse the Young-Earth view. E.g., this article:

Nancy Pearcey (1993). "Teaching Creationism." Bible-Science News [formerly Bible-Science Newsletter]. 31(1), pp. 1-2.

She also goes after the Big Bang and those nasty evolutionist cosmologists in several articles.

A quote, from a passage ironically discussing how creationists need to be critical thinkers:

"It is not enough to teach children to memorize individual proofs for creationism. It is good to know, for example, about the implications of the contemporaneity of man and dinosaurs. However, it is all too easy to be satisfied when our pupils have merely learned to repeat such proofs, to give the 'right answers.'" (p. 2)

More recently, she may not mention her scandalously ludicrous position for political reasons, but if you can find someplace where she has changed her mind and endorsed an old earth view, let me know.

The reason people focus on the young-earth issue as a test of credibility and objectivity is because it is a clear and simple question with a clear and short answer. The young-earth view is as clearly wrong as anything has ever been in the whole history of science. Believing in a young-earth is like believing in bigfoot or a flat-earth, and any further discussion of origins is totally pointless until it is agreed that the earth is mind-bogglingly old (even if you do not have an exact date). Anyone who thinks the earth is young, or even who thinks that the idea of a young-earth has any remaining merit given current data, is clearly either wildly clueless, or favoring a literalist interpretation of Genesis far more than the empirical evidence.

Nick, he didn't say he agrees with Meyer. He said he thinks Meyer is better than the others. He says quite clearly that he doesn't think ID arguments are good arguments. He says it more than once. I said quite clearly that I don't know if I think they're good arguments. I said it more than once. What Macht and I agree on, and where we agree with Meyer, is that the kind of philosophy that ID arguments do is the kind of philosophy that is often part of science, whether it's good philosophy or not.

My sense is that the designer hypothesis doesn't chuck the laws as we know them. Some, maybe many, IDers may do so, but I'm not convinced that the conclusion of their argument requires it. It suggests a hypothesis that may or may not require that, and further investigation, mostly of the philosophical sort, would be required to know whether that needs to be done. That was my point. One designer hypothesis that's entirely naturalistic, for instance, is that aliens oversaw human evolution and stepped in at various times to ensure that it would happen. They must have evolved without the irreducible complexity somehow if this is so, but some ID people actually think that's more likely than a being like God designing anything.

If the Malebranchean view of miracles is right, then miracles don't require violation of the laws at all, even of what we think are the laws. Whatever intervention the designer may have done may be explainable by natural causes that a naturalist would simply call random chance. It's important to distinguish between reasons and causes, though. It seems to me that we can say a cause is natural and random within the natural world while insisting that God is behind it by setting up the laws and initial conditions so that it would happen for a purpose. The ID argument simply says that we should be surprised that random chance brought these cells together this way. A physical mechanism might explain it, if the causes had nothing to do with each other, but we should be surprised. So postulating a designer explains the teleological element, not the causal element. At least it doesn't have to explain the causal element in a way naturalists would disagree with. If the designer is the sort of being people who support the physics ID arguments would conclude exists, this kind of intervention is certainly plausible, since theists believe God to be the author of the initial conditions and the laws.

What's interesting about this approach is that retaining something of naturalism's closed system within the natural world (after its beginning, which is not naturalistic) requires postulating something with a more fleshed-out theism, whereas the standard approach is compatible with aliens overseeing the design process.

I don't know anything about Nancy Pearcey except from bloggers' reviews of her books, so I can't comment on that. I don't think it's worth insisting that she couldn't have changed her view or that she simply thinks it's irrelevant to the stuff she's been doing lately. Either one of those is just as likely (perhaps more) as the suggestion that she's hiding her view.

The young-earth view has nothing to do with literal or non-literal, by the way. That way of describing the kind of interpretation that's going on is linguistically inaccurate. This isn't a major point, and you probably don't care, but one of the many things I argue in this post is that a literal interpretation of the account can yield an old-earth view. It's not denying that the words literally mean what they mean within the account to say that creation took longer than seven years. It's denying that the account should be taken as a historical and chronological description of what happened, in a more than poetic and theological way. The word 'day' still means 24-hour period in the poetic structure of the seven creation days, but that's still poetic imagery. Not being a metaphor doesn't mean it's not poetic in the sense required for an old-earth interpretation.

In How Now Shall We Live she (she was co-author with Chuck Colson, but she wrote the science parts) uses the big bang as an argument against naturalism. She talks about the big bang in her "The Soul of Science" too.

I admit it's possible that she is a YEC but that is never the impression I've gotten from reading her stuff.

I enjoyed reading both Jeremy and Macht's ideas because they appear to be careful thinkers, as evidenced by the relatively simple--but unusual in these discussions--principle of evaluating a person's argument based on, well, the argument.

Nick, on the other hand, has done what so many ideologues on the NeoDarwinist side of the aisle do:
1. Pick one person affiliated in some way with ID (Nancy Pearcey in this case, about whom I know nothing other than the fact that her name didn't appear in either of the initial posts under discussion),
2. highlight one or two quotations from this person
3. offer some inflammatory commentary (Nick, among other things identifies her as having written for "a forum for crazed young-earth fundamentalists")
4. Draw the withering and inescapeable conclusion: all of ID is bad.

For all of this bluster, and your repeated attempts to bring him back to the topic at hand, he still continues to beat away at the young earth horse. Nick, by all means respond again, but respond to the topic.


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