In my last post on Intelligent Design, I argued that ID arguments are consistent with the standard evolutionary picture that most scientists accept, even if a number of its supporters disagree with that picture in terms of common descent. I wondered at the end why opponents of ID consistently misrepresent the ID argument, saying that I would leave that for a further post. I want to take that issue up now. There are two general possibilities. They understand what ID says and deliberately misrepresent it, or they simply don't understand that it's not saying what they present it as saying.
The principle of charity requires me to presume the second option. But why would smart scientists fail to see what seems to me to be so obvious? I have to think the main reason is that scientists aren't well-schooled in the metaphysical distinctions they assume regularly for their scientific work. I wonder how much of this is just ignorance of the metaphysical assumptions of science and the possible metaphysical positions consistent with our best science. I've certainly run across people who are profoundly ignorant on such matters, including some scientists whose work is widely respected. Some even assert that ID can't be science because it's philosophy, which is far closer to the truth than the ridiculous assertion that it's religion. But it's still at best misleading to make such a claim, because so much of science simply is philosophy, particularly metaphysics and epistemology. I think that's exactly the point that scientists don't seem to see.
I don't agree with all of Thomas Kuhn's conclusions, but one thing he demonstrated fairly clearly is that our metaphysical assumptions are part of our scientific theories, and the same is true of evolutionary theory. We arrived at much of our best science via philosophy, and much of our best science simply assumes metaphysical views that scientists tend to share. Some research that takes place in physics departments is almost pure philosophy, even though it usually takes its starting point from some empirical data, and many of these claims simply cannot be empirically verified or falsified. Consider:
1. There are multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics. Accepting one rather than another seems to me to go beyond the equations themselves. The current reasons for holding any such interpretation, then, is philosophical and not something falsifiable or verifiable.
2. There's a strong demand in theoretical physics to reduce the forces to one simple and all-encompassing force. We have evidence that some of these forces can be so united, but it took inventions of a few whole branches of mathematics to do it. It gives us a simpler picture if we're willing to accept higher dimensions that we have no other evidence for. But there's no evidence that gravity will be unified with the other forces. Why do we think that this project even has a hope, given how difficult it was to unify the other ones? We have a philosophical presupposition that such a view is nicer. We want it to be the case. Is that science? Not if we rule out anything that's "just" philosophy.
3. Cosmologists speculate about what, if anything, was before the Big Bang or what happened in the first few moments of the Big Bang. As far as I can tell, most of the arguments in this area, while constrained by equations, amount to philosophical preferences among the options.
4. The standard view in science is that the light reaching us in the night skies actually came from stars millions of years ago. Consider the idea that such light was created 10,000 years ago as if it had come from those stars. Six-day creationists believe such a thing. Why do we rule that out in science? We use a philosophical argument.
5. Then there's the issue of whether spacetime is a container that things are in or whether it is just the spatiotemporal relations between the things we normally think of as "in" spacetime. The standard view is that it's a container, but there are various sub-views within that view about the nature of this container. Some physicists are my university are working on that very issue. A philosopher in my department is working on the first issue. In both cases, their work is very technical. In both cases they're constrained by empirically discoverable data. In both cases their arguments are primarily philosophical. So why is one in a philosophy department and the others in a physics department? The answer is that some science is philosophy.
Now I ask how ID is any different from those things. None of that sort of science should be taught in science classes if philosophy is off limits. The ultra-high standard for excluding ID from the science classroom would remove a lot more of science than ID opponents would want. Ironically, it would have the anti-ID crowd advocating that our best science not be taught in schools. It would be a different argument if people were claiming that ID is not a good philosophical argument, but that's a separate question. First of all, that wouldn't be a reason not to teach the argument. It would be a reason to teach what's wrong with it in a way that represents it fairly. Second, it's simply not the claim people are making. What I keep hearing is that it's simply not science at all, usually because of some positivist principle like the claim that it's not science unless you can do experiments related to it in a laboratory. That's such a small-minded view of what science is all about that I have little patience with it. Science is encompasses much more than what you can do in a laboratory. So it seems to me that the problem with scientists who oppose ID on these grounds is that they have a jaundiced view of what science is to begin with. They're out of step with the diversity of opinion within philosophy of science regarding what science even is. If those who are saying what can and can't be taught in high school science aren't really clear on what science is, then I think we need to rethink whether we should be listening to them on these issues.
Concluding footnote: I wrote this post well over a week ago, and I put off posting it for reasons that I don't remember. Maybe I wasn't sure if it was done, or perhaps it was just so I had a meatier post to use during my light-posting time during grading season. It's definitely serving that purpose well. I've barely been able to keep up with the glut of comments my ESV posts have been getting, never mind trying to post some actual content.
Anyway, I do want to add something that goes back to the question I started with. There's one partial explanation for why so many people misunderstand ID. It's because at the popular level its supporters are constantly misrepresenting it, as with the case decided yesterday in Pennsylvania. What the judge said is, to my mind, thoroughly unconscionable. It reveals that his ignorane of ID is as great as the ignorance he claims ID itself is guilty of. Yet none of the actual people involved in the case seem to me to understand ID. Its supporters claim it as an alternative to evolution. It could be an alternative to evolution, but nothing in the ID arguments themselves requires that, and presenting them in a high school science classroom would not require presenting them as alternatives to evolution. On the other hand, it's not merely religion discguised as science, as I've tried to explain in this post. It's no more disguised as science as anything else I've listed above, and it's no more religion than any other philosophical argument with theism as a component is religion (which for some might supplement or support religious beliefs but in no case amounts to religion).
Both sides, on the popular level, are simply misrepresenting what ID is. What I'm objecting to is that academics on the opposition side are much more grossly misrepresenting it than its supporters on the academic side are doing. If they're merely taking it to be what some of its popular supporters take it to be, then they're not doing their homework. If they're thinking what they're saying is true of the actual arguments, then they either haven't read them very carefully or simply don't understand them very well. Either is pretty bad for specialists who are using their professional credentials to discredit something while misrepresenting it pretty drastically.