Intelligent Design Revisited

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Intelligent Design Revisited


Published in the Maryland Daily Record October 29, 2007


          I wrote about Intelligent Design theory here in May of 2004.  In that column, I said, in essence, that Intelligent Design (“ID”) seemed good enough science to receive some consideration in the curriculum, and that critics who insisted on equating it with Creationism (obviously not science at all) were missing the point.  In December 2005, Judge John Jones of the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a encyclopedic ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F.Supp.2d 707, which addressed almost every conceivable issue about ID, including the ones I had raised.  The case arose from the efforts of a school district to require biology teachers to read a statement expressing skepticism towards pure natural selection and encouraging consideration of ID.  Jones struck that effort on First Amendment grounds.


          I’ve been wanting to revisit the subject in light of Kitzmiller ever since, though as my readers know, I’ve been kind of busy with other questions.  But my desk is now cleared. 


          Turns out some of the things I thought were open issues really weren’t, most notably the extent to which ID was passable science.  ID, in case you’ve tuned in late, is the theory that we can best account for “irreducible complexities” that appear in the course of evolution by inferring the activity of an intelligent designer, most likely God.  Irreducible complexity would exist when an organism manifested a combination of features which seemed too complicated to have arisen simultaneously as mere products of random mutation. 


          As the Kitzmiller trial revealed, however, there were only three “exhibits” in this theory, the flagellum (a feature of cell biology), a “clotting sequence” in certain animals, and the immune system.  And for each of them, the evidence at trial showed that science does after all have plausible explanations of how they arose from ordinary random mutation.  Their complexity was not irreducible after all.  Moreover, there is no peer-reviewed scientific literature supporting the ID theory.   So at least for now, ID is bad science.  There simply isn’t enough substance there yet for it to be recommended for serious consideration by any science teacher.


          Where Kitzmiller left me unconvinced was the finding that ID isn’t science at all – as opposed to merely being bad science, which I now think it must be. 


          Let me make clear at once that the motives of the Dover school board in pushing ID had nothing to do with the desire to further genuine science.  Under the searching analysis of Judge Jones, the school district’s decision stands revealed as nothing more than proselytizing (an attack on Darwin for purely religious motives) attempting to disguise itself as science education.  Hence Judge Jones was right about the First Amendment question.  But as I said in 2004 and say now, you need to distinguish between the message and the messenger.  The doctrine the Dover Fundamentalists pushed could still have been good science.  Kitzmiller shows it wasn’t good.  But was it science?


          Not according to Judge Jones.  Assume a God who a) exists in a supernatural sphere and b) intervenes in the natural world by influencing the course of evolution.  If that intervention left physical traces, apparently, per Judge Jones, a scientist investigating those traces would be barred from pursuing the true explanation for them.  For, according to Judge Jones, science seeks explanations of phenomena only from the natural sphere. 


          He paraphrases a scientist witness: “[O]nce you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer.”  Though not literally phrased as a non sequitur, the remark actually is one; what the scientist and the judge really mean, as the context makes clear, is that somehow the very hypothesis of a supernatural cause would exclude the possibility of any natural causes.  And that is nonsense. 


          People of faith, no doubt including many scientists, can and do entertain alternative natural and supernatural explanations all the time.  Undoubtedly the most common is speculation whether a “miraculous” cure was due to medical treatment or providentially answered prayers.  Surely it trenches too deeply on the scientist’s prerogative to say that he or she must not even inquire, or apply scientific tools to eliminating one or the other alternative.  Yes, of course, in the end, the scientist has no tools to probe directly any supernatural world which may exist.  But apparently in Judge Jones’ book the scientist is forbidden even to consider the possibility that natural phenomena may be supernaturally caused.


          This goes beyond agnosticism to become a positive rejection of the hypothesis of divine intervention in the natural world.  And yet, if one is forbidden to inquire – and to do so with an open mind – how can one objectively rule out such intervention in the first place?  Most religions teach that such intervention sometimes occurs, and many of them teach further that such intervention may leave lasting natural manifestations (cures for instance).  Apparently scientists addressing claims of such manifestations may only hypothesize natural causes, and must approach questions of supernatural agency only in the role of debunker – never taking seriously the possibility that religious explanations might be accurate.


          Judge Jones’ response to this protest, and that of many scientists, no doubt, would be that science might possibly lead an investigator to conclude that there was no scientific explanation available for some phenomenon, but that then the office of science would be at an end.  That sounds reasonable; but it isn’t.


          Given the extensive scope of our knowledge of the natural world, the absence of any ready natural explanation for something we see certainly begs at least the question of supernatural agency.  And if there were phenomena on the boundary of the natural and supernatural, they might have unique natural characteristics, hallmarks if you will, deriving from their location on that boundary, and hence be worthy of study for that very reason.


          Admittedly, the category of observable phenomena plausibly straddling such a boundary looks small today.  In light of the apparent failure of ID, for instance, it now seems unlikely that the evolutions of  flagella, of unusual clotting sequences, or of the immune system are phenomena suggesting direct supernatural intervention.  But there could be others.  And science should approach them – every aspect of them, including causation – with an open mind.


          I do not say this out of anxiety that the absence of scientifically reviewable evidence of providential intervention would threaten  religious belief.  As Judge Jones said more than once, discrediting those whose skepticism of natural selection arises from “missing links,” absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But that principle equally confronts skeptics of divine agency, which remains possible without observable supernatural intervention.  A Creator’s providential spin on Creation could have been as completely imparted at the moment of the Big Bang as is the trajectory of a baseball when it leaves the pitcher’s hand.  Prayers today could have been answered then.  My anxiety is for science, not for faith.  The methodology of science should be open to all possibilities.


          That said, though, I agree now that Intelligent Design is not a controversy that need be taught, or ought to be.  But I say so on the grounds that it’s bad science, not that it’s no science at all.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn


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