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The Philosophy of Intelligent Design, part 2

Why it is Unreasonable to Exclude ID from Institutional Science

  • 22 December 2015
  • Author: Scott Cherry
  • Number of views: 3762

© by Scott Cherry, December 2015

Part 2

Let’s consider several examples from the literature that reveal some of the presuppositional (a priori) objections to ID and comment on them.  First, in their article on “Biological function, Adaptation and Natural Design”, Allen and Beckhoff give “four reasons to be suspicious of teleological notions” one being “incompatibility with mechanistic explanation”.  (p. 610)  I ask why assume suspicion?  And why must teleological inferences be compatible with mechanistic explanations? Why should mechanistic explanations be assumed in the first place?  Allen and Beckhoff go on to say that “the notion of design may be considered metaphorical and off-putting because it suggests a strong directional component in the evolution…of a behavioral phenotype.”  (p. 611) Yes, of course there’s a ‘directional component’!  Anything that’s designed has that, by definition. This is a bias that is clearly consistent with Nagel’s statement about purpose.  Next they say, “It is our view that successful naturalization of teleological notions in biology requires that one give an account of these notions that does not involve the goals or purposes of a psychological agent.” (p. 611).  And this: “Functional claims in biology are not derivative of psychological uses of notions such as design, intention and purpose.” (p. 612) To these statements I am incredulous and call a flag on the play.  To Nagel, Behe and me they are unjustifiable biases. 

Some may think it ironic that Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design have many things in common, scientifically and philosophically.  Both are systems of rational discovery that attempt to explain the question of origins, especially the origin of the species.  Both depend on inference and inductive reason, and both operate with assumptions in place, e.g. that there was a cause (because logic exists which governs the way we think, including a descriptive law that everything has to have a cause) and it is often possible to discover causes, or at least the best explanation for them via inferential interpretation of observable things.  Both schools of thought acknowledge that the causes producing all life forms necessarily occurred in the distant past so there can be no direct observation of them.  Both Evolution and ID are kinds of forensic science that study the evidence in the present to determine causes in the past.  Therefore there must be even greater dependence on inference, induction and analogy than in sciences of current things.  Like all sciences, they both engage in the same methods of observation of all the same data, and both look for patterns that provide the most compelling inferences which are then applied inductively.  In a sense, both systems are looking for patterns in nature that create a coherent picture of a kind of “tapestry of everything”, or at least one of past living things.  In most cases, or a great many, proponents of both sides start with a presupposition of either (certain or possible) theism or (certain or possible) non-theism.  Indeed, one has to have one of these starting points, by default: One either believes an Intelligent Designer is possible or is not possible, and both are “beliefs”; the agnostic position is essentially a weak version of the “possible” position.  If one’s starting belief is a strong one it is highly subject to confirmation bias, but this is almost inescapable and we must make allowances for it.  (Further, it is my personal observation that most people have a predisposition or preference for one or the other, but this is another topic.) 

The important point, again, is that Evolution and Intelligent Design are similar in some very significant ways philosophically.  Because of inherent beliefs and biases, neither is “pure science” in the positivistic or empirical sense because both have metaphysical qualities.  Both are rational constructs with overlapping goals, expectations and “worldviews”.  Both constructs acknowledge the same fundamental features of the natural world and many of the metaphysical world: minds, science itself, higher intelligence, and all kinds of order (as opposed to disorder) with their systems and functions; the appearance of design (including actual design, of course) and our innate ability to recognize it (itself a kind of order), and the intelligibility of order by humans.  Even the notion of common ancestry can be mutually understood because it hinges on shared assumptions of the forward progression of time and one universal gene pool.  Moreover, both systems employ all of the same tools and methods.  How is it that evolution qualifies as science but ID doesn’t?  It has everything to do with the philosophy of science.  One possibility is that evolution is superior science.  Another possibility is that ID isn’t real science at all, in the same sense that astrology is not science.  As an atheist, it seems that Nagel believes the former but not the latter.  Philosophically, he respects ID enough that he believes it deserves more credibility in the public arena.  Further, he believes that there is a philosophical prejudice against ID excluding it from serious institutional attention and consideration.  He is no critic of the science of evolution, but he is a critic of the hegemony of it when he says the following:

The claim that ID is not a scientific theory implies that even if there were scientific evidence against evolutionary theory…that would not constitute any scientific evidence for ID. We might have to give up evolutionary theory, but then we would be constrained by the canons of definition of science to look for a different scientific, i.e. non-purposive, explanation of the development of life, because science prohibits us from even considering ID as a possible alternative explanation.  …What would it take to justify the claim that there are propositions such that the discovery of evidence against them can qualify as science, but evidence in favor of them cannot? …I submit that this way of drawing the boundaries around science depends not on a definition but on the unspoken assumption that all such propositions are obviously false. …Without this assumption the exclusion of ID from consideration cannot be defended.  (p. 193, underlines mine)

These are strong statements that no doubt subjected Nagel to much criticism from the academic community. What he has obviously done here is exposed the core assumption that unfairly divides institutional science from non-science.  This brings to mind a related section of material in the textbook for this course, Theory and Reality by Godfrey-Smith.  Chapter 4 presents a discussion of the views of the philosopher of science, Karl Popper who emphasized the principle of falsifiability in science.  His assertion was that unless a theory can be falsified it is not true science, a view which Anthony Flew and other thinkers have also propounded.  In this discussion the author raised the topic of evolution as an example of a discipline on which Popper changed his view based on the principle of falsifiability.  At first he was of the opinion that evolution was not science because it was not falsifiable, but later changed his mind on account of the notion of the “pre-Cambrian rabbit” by which Popper concluded that, in fact, the theory of evolution is falsifiable and therefore qualifies as true science.  The point is related to the Cambrian layer in the geological table which is believed to represent a period of time when mammals first emerged and before which there are no fossils of mammals, nor should there be according to evolutionary theory. 

At some point Popper considered the question of what would happen if a rabbit fossil were discovered in a pre-Cambrian layer.  The answer he arrived at was that evolution would be falsified by such a discovery.  He thus concluded that since it was falsifiable it qualified as true science afterall.  A lot can be said about this idea, i.e. is the falsifiability of something as clear-cut as it would seem?  No, not always.  I raise this example because I think Nagel would question the power of the pre-Cambrian rabbit to falsify people’s belief in evolution.  Judging by everything he’s said so far it would not be that easy to falsify evolution.  Perhaps it should be, but it most likely would not for the reasons that Nagel has articulated.  In short, evolution is the only option allowed.  Period. Not only are many scientists and other scholars personally committed to a non-theistic worldview with respect to the question of origins, but professionally they must be because evolution is the only option that qualifies as science within the current paradigm.  If Thomas Kuhn is correct it will take a crisis and a science revolution to achieve a paradigm shift. (Godfrey-Davis, pp. 75-101)  In effect, Popper’s criterion merely qualified evolution as science for him and for others for whom this criterion was important. 

All of this creates a dilemma with two possible justifications.  Allow me to offer two final quotes from Nagel before moving on to other strands of this discussion. 

The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma.  Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not.  If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. …Either there is strong evidence against the existence of God; or there is a scientific default presumption that the prior probability of a designer is low… Is either of those things true, however?  (p. 195)


Continued in part 3




1. Nagel, Thomas (2008). “Public Education and Intelligent Design.”  Philosophy & Public Affairs, 36, No. 2 (Spring): 187-205

2. Behe, Michael (1996). Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: The Free Press (Simon and Schuster)    


3. Swinburne, R.G. (1968). “The Argument from Design.”  Philosophy, 43, No. 165 (July): 199-212

4. Godfrey-Smith, Peter (2012). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

4. Shanks, Niall; Joplin, Karl H. (1999) “Redundant Complexity: A Critical Analysis of Intelligent Design in Biochemistry.” Philosophy of Science, 66, No. 2 (June): 268-282

5. Boudry, Maarten; Leuridan, Bert (2011). “Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and Unification.”  Philosophy of Science, 78, No. 4 (October): 558-578

6. Weisberg, Jonathan (2005). “Firing Squads and Fine-Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument.”  The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 56, No. 4 (December): 809-821

7. Allen, Colin; Bekoff, Marc (1995). “Biological Function, Adaptation, and Natural Design.” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 62, No. 4  (December): 609-622

8. Stanley, H.M. (1885). “Is the Design Argument Scientific?”  Mind, 10, No. 39 (July), 420-425.   

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