Science and Philosophy

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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.

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There is an interesting post over at Parableman about the relationship between science and philosophy, in the context of the Intelligent Design debate. Jeremy claims that (1) ID is clearly not religious in nature, and (2) its philosophical nature is no... Read More


I don't think High Energy Physics (Theory) is as purely philosophical as you make out. And it's getting less so recently. Read "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall, it's a really good lay introduction to what's going on in modern Physics these days.

The interpretation of quantum mechanics is being looked at by very few physicists as far as I know, it's generally realized that that's in the realm of philosophy and as such is being left for them (and probably not being picked up either).

High-energy physics involves plenty of math and some real empirical investigation, but what I'm saying is that philosophical arguments and distinctions have played a large role in how we ended up where we are with that, and philosophical conclusions that base themselves on scientific study are often presented as scientific discoveries.

The search for new scientific paradigms is surely guided by philosophical considerations, as you say. But the daily work within these paradigms is all about empirical testability, repeatability, etc. It seems reasonable that most focus on this as a practical definition of science. For string theory and the like, this gets stretched to being testable 'in principle', rather than testable using present technology. ID needs experiments as well as philosophy to be accepted as science.

I'm glad you added your footnote. You can't claim critics misrepresent ID without noting that by your interpretation the vast majority of supporters do as well.

Can you at least then agree with me that the nuances of this philosophical debate are surely inappropriate for high school classrooms given the paucity of adults who get it right?

I wouldn't say it's the vast majority, just the most vocal activists. I don't think most people understand this at the level I've been describing, but I don't think most supporters are anywhere near as bad as the activists.

I can't agree with you that it shouldn't be taught in high schools. I can agree that it shouldn't be forced upon teachers to teach it, though ideally they would teach a more balanced perspective on evolutionary theory. As it's commonly presented, kids get the sense that every detail is fully worked out with everything explained. What I don't want to see is any prohibition against teaching intelligent design arguments. I think it's just silly to claim that it violates the Constitution. What the judge in the Pennsylvania decision this week said was completely ridiculous.

"I wouldn't say it's the vast majority, just the most vocal activists. I don't think most people understand this at the level I've been describing, but I don't think most supporters are anywhere near as bad as the activists.

I can't agree with you that it shouldn't be taught in high schools. I can agree that it shouldn't be forced upon teachers to teach it, though ideally they would teach a more balanced perspective on evolutionary theory. As it's commonly presented, kids get the sense that every detail is fully worked out with everything explained. What I don't want to see is any prohibition against teaching intelligent design arguments. I think it's just silly to claim that it violates the Constitution. What the judge in the Pennsylvania decision this week said was completely ridiculous."

So Michael Behe doesn't understand ID? And you expect a high school student to? This to me makes it seem as if the judge in Penn said is MILD in comparison to your claim. Please explain ID to us so that we may all understand. And remeber to address any objections you may encounter. (good luck)

So Michael Behe doesn't understand ID?

It's his view that I'm considering here that I'm saying some people don't understand. How would that imply that he doesn't understand his own view?

In case you didn't read the post you're commented on, this is the second post on the matter, a followup to an earlier post that I linked to at the very top of this post. In that post, I took great case to explain what ID says and what it doesn't, considering Behe, Dembski, and Meyer as my primary exemplars. You obviously haven't been following along. Once you've caught up, please try again.

I think a high school student could very easily understand ID when presented properly. I don't think it's difficult. I just think the simplistic version being presented in the public light is not what its best supporters are saying. That's why I think it's important that it be taught properly rather than avoided so that the only source of information on it for the ordinary person is not the straw man being discussed by those who are misrepresenting it.

Expert testimony in the federal trial over the Dover, Pennsylvania school board's actions indicated that Behe doesn't speak for what ID is. Nor does Dembski. In fact, no one does. There is no hypothesis for intelligent design in science literature.

So, just how do you claim to speak for what all advocates of ID on payroll can't?

You claim to do what all of science can't. If you do, why don't you publish it?

Ed, I have no idea what you're going on about with Behe. Since he's obviously one of the leaders in ID, I would think that his arguments are among the ones we should be talking about and not whatever popularized form the opponents and supporters are the popular level think the arguments amount to. I'm a philosopher. I want to talk about what the arguments amount to. That's what philosophers do. More than anything else (and I admit that it is a lot of things), this is a philosophical blog. So that's what I'm doing. You keep trying to change the subject without showing me anything wrong with my arguments.

I'm not sure what you think I'm claiming to do, but it's obviously illegitimate to expect a Ph.D. student struggling to get a dissertation together to start writing papers in a field outside his immediate dissertation work, even if the subject matter in question falls under some of his areas of specialization. That's assuming that you mean publishing it in an academic journal. If you don't mean that, then I have published it, right here. When I'm established enough with work unrelated to this area, I'll probably work something up along the lines of what I've been writing, but I'm not in a position right now to do detailed work in this area when my dissertation is in the area of race, which doesn't overlap all that much even though both relate to philosophy of biology.

For what I'm doing on this blog, though, I'm simply interested in what the arguments say and how people on both sides have misrepresented the arguments. That's a fairly simply and straightforward point, and you keep coming on here and responding to claims I haven't made and don't endore, and you keep telling me things that are irrelevant to my point.

Great, Jeremy. What is the hypothesis of intelligent design Dr. Behe offers? When I have asked him that directly, he says he does not have one.

How, exactly, did you determine what his hypothesis is, and can you restate it for the world?

I'm interested in the arguments for ID, too. I'm not much interested in the arguments IDists pose against evolution, though, since most of them were put to bed well over a century ago.

You don't know what I'm talking about? I don't know what you're talking about. Please clarify.

What is the hypothesis of intelligent design? Where are the arguments so that we can determine what they amount to? Do tell.

Behe's argument is the same in every other version of the classic teleological argument. Some set of phenomena seem very hard to explain without some purpose or final cause. No purpose or final cause seems plausible without a designer. Therefore, it's reasonable to believe in a designer on the basis of that set of phenomena.

Not a word of what I just said is new. I've been pointing this out over and over again on posts I know you've commented on.

Sorry, but I just got around to reading your post on "Science and Philosophy." Thanks!

You have probably read Stephen C. Meyer's amazing (to me) piece in the Dallas Morning News, and
, wherein he accepts common descent and says that ID teaching in the public schools should not be mandated. If he speaks for ID (as if any one person could) then, as you say, it's been mis-represented by its friends.

Martin, that should do as a perfect example. Meyer is at the heart of the ID movement, one of the top three or four figures arguing for ID. If he doesn't just leave it open that humans descended from lower animals but actually endorses that claim, then my point is pretty much made for me even without Howard Van Till (who I wrongly thought endorsed ID and common descent, but he turns out just to endorse ID in the sense that there is an intelligent designer, not in the sense that the ID arguments are convincing) and Walter Bradley (who I'm convinced I've seen endorse common descent rather than just old-earth stuff, but now I can't find anything on that).

I haven't read that piece. I'll have to check it out later when I have some time.

I took a look at the piece. I don't see how it counts as endorsing common descent. He says quite specifically that ID does not challenge common descent, which is what I was saying. I don't see the stronger claim that common descent is true.

I like one thing he says at the end. I don't consider ID a scientific theory (at least not clearly, though it's doing things that scientists regularly do, as I argued in the post above). I disagree with that formulation that he uses at the outset. What he says at the end is much more accurate. He says that intelligent design is based on scientific evidence. That's probably the best way to think of it. It's a philosophical argument based on scientific evidence, and it's the sort of philosophy that scientists have regularly used in the past without being told that they're not doing science.

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