Friday, September 29, 2006

Is Intelligent Design Science?

I posted this over at the Right Reason blog in the comments section of a post on Francis Beckwith's grant of tenure from Baylor University. Beckwith is the go to man on the issue of whether intelligent design should be taught in schools. In the Comments section, Ed Darrell argued against Beckwith's position on ID, which is that it should be allowed to be taught in schools:

I’m glad Perseus brought up the superstring point because I think this point is fatal to anti-ID position. The point is this: if the teaching of ID is to be banned in schools because it does not make falsifiable claims, then the teaching of superstring theory must be banned from schools on the same grounds. But it would obviously be ridiculous to ban teaching of string theory on such grounds. Therefore it should be considered ridiculous to ban the teaching of ID on such grounds.

It’s a classic modus tollens argument.

How does Ed try to escape the force of the argument? By presenting a weaker case argument: instead of saying ID is impermissible in schools on the grounds that it isn’t science, now the argument shifts to whether ID is “scientifically developed”. Notice the abandonment of the original position: that ID was impermissible because it wasn’t “science”. The criterion now has shifted from whether ID is “science” to whether it is “scientifically developed.” He is forced to abandon the first position because it obviously would disallow the teaching of string theory.

Martin Gardner pointed out in an article a few years ago that the problem with string theory was that strings were “irreducible mathematical abstractions.” He also pointed out that atoms and molecules were once considered to have a similar status, but eventually became “observables.” ““Whether this will ever happen to strings,” said Gardner, “is something no one can say. As of now there is no conceivable way to ‘observe’ them. It is possible there never will be.” [emphasis mine].

Now Gardner’s article was some years ago, and there may have been some progress in the status of strings as observables, but I don’t think so. But even if there was, that is irrelevant to the question of whether string theory is science. It was obviously considered science even when it was undeveloped. If it wasn’t, Gardner wouldn’t have been talking about it in an article on science. It was obviously assumed.

Ed says, “String theory is at least scientifically developed.” What does that mean? Has it been developed to the point that strings are observables? I’m not up on the most recent scientific literature, but even if it has not achieved this scientific benchmark, was it not considered a scientific theory even before this, albeit an “undeveloped” scientific theory?

It the criterion among the anti-ID crowd has now been abandoned in favor of the “scientifically developed” criterion (if, in other words, the criterion is no longer verifiability, but a certain state of development), at what point of development do we say that something is a scientific theory? And are we saying that if it is short of that benchmark, are we willing to say it isn’t science at all? And if we’re willing to say it isn’t science at all, then are we willing to say that at the point in time that all those other theories had fallen short of that mark (not only superstring theory, but atomic molecular theory), that they shouldn’t have been considered scientific theories? And if so, then why were they, in fact, considered scientific at the time?

Was atomic and molecular theory—when atoms and molecules were only irreducible mathematical abstractions—not scientific theory? These theories were quite obviously considered scientific at the time by “massive support in mathematics and physics,” the other criterion to which Ed appealed.

In a 1958 article by Freeman Dyson in Scientific American, Dyson mentions Wolfgang Pauli’s lecture in New York on his and Werner Hiesenberg’s unorthodox theory of particles. Niels Bohr was there. “We are all agreed,” said Bohr, “that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance to be correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.”

“When the great innovation appears,” remarked Dyson, “it will most certainly be in a muddled, incomplete and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will be only half-understood; to everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.”

The question is: why is this standard applied to everything but Intelligent Design?


Anonymous said...

First of all, let me state that I am a science teacher in a high school in Michigan.

The beginning of your post, you frame the argument of ID in school in an unfair way. I don't know of any teacher who opposes teaching ID in school. There are only teachers who oppose teaching ID in science class.

Comparing string theory to ID is only a good match at face value.
However, I think it's a moot arguement since we DON'T teach string theory in high school. It's not in the state standards and I don't know of any state that has adopted it. It's an interesting theory but still tentative.
ID states that an intelligent designer (presumably god) guided evolution, or in a purest sense that complex organs and "macro" evolution isn't possible under the evolutionary theory and the designer is what bridged the gap.
Is there any theory on what this designer is? How this designer operated? What this designer is currently doing to create new species? Any information or theories at all about any aspect of the designer?
Seems to me that ID bridges the "holes" in evolution (there will never be a complete record of every organism and how it evolved and there is certianly enough evidence from various different fields of science to pose a more than plausable reason to believe evolution occured from one celled organisms to humans) by stating an unknown is responsible.
Giving responsiblity to a boogie man for a phenomenon is definately not science.
So, what information do we have about this designer?

Martin Cothran said...


Thanks for your post. Let me address your points one by one.

First, you say that the way that I framed the argument about ID in schools is "unfair," since you do not know of any teachers who oppose the teaching of ID in schools altogether. The teachers who oppose ID in schools, you say, only oppose teaching it in science class.

The fact this argument ignores is that my post was in response to a teacher who, in fact, opposes the teaching if ID in schools altogether. And this is not, by any means, an unusual position. The argument is that ID is a religious position; religious positions should not be taught in schools; therefore ID should not be taught in schools.

Second, I do not think that the string theory example is "moot" because we do not, in fact, teach string theory in schools. The questions is not whether string theory is taught in schools, but whether it should be allowed to be taught. The argument from those who oppose ID in the science classroom is that it is not science and therefore should not be taught in science class. But the criteria they say ID fails to meet not only damns ID, but theories such as string theory. The point is that we would never say that string theory should be disallowed from discussion because it is not testable; so why are we saying that ID should be disallowed for the same reason?

Third, I think your characterization of ID is extremely oversimplified. If you read Dembski's statement of the arguments for ID in, for example, his book "Intelligent Design," it is quite clear that his position is not just "filling the gaps." His main argument is that we make judgments all the time about whether something is the product of design. We are scanning the universe for radio signals that are the product of some intelligent mind (the SETI project is an example). There are criteria we employ for determining whether something is the product of design or not. If these criteria can be employed on radio signals, why can't they be employed to other phenomena in the universe?

It seems to me you were criticizing my argument for setting up a straw man, when I was in fact responding to an argument as it was stated (you might look at the Right Reason blog to see this). I guess I am asking if you have unwittingly committed that same error in mischaracterizing the ID position?

In any case, I appreciate your post.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for not reading up on the post you were responding to.
While there surely must be SOME people who oppose ID in schools all together, this is not the approach that is being taken in the school boards and communities that are trying to institute it.
There's not particular reason to implement the teaching of ID without pitting it against the theory of evolution as an "alternative" theory in the science class.
Schools aren't supposed to promote or support a religion, they can teach about religious positions as they do in many of the social science courses to explain events thoughout history and modern day.
Which school board is arguing about teaching ID in a class other than science? I've not read about one yet.
For the second part, string theory has a proposed way that the universe works on a fundemental level based on a lot of abstract mathematical calculations. It's true that string theory may be a bunch of baloney, but so far no one has proven it is. On the other hand, you might argue, no one has proven that string theory has any validity outside of it's mathematical formulas. Fair point. However, string theory DOES have a model that can be (hopefully one day) confirmed by testing, or denied by new information that conflicts with it.
ID, while meeting some of the same criteria, is missing a particular formula, statement, or proposition that could be falsified or proved postitive. Ever. That's the problem. There is nothing about "god did it" that can ever be verified through scientific discovery. It's asking a question that's out of the scientific realm. Because of this, I would argue string theory and ID are on seperate grounds. Besides, if there were a theory that competed with string theory that had even close to the same amount of supporting evidence that evolution has, string theory wouldn't be taught because it would be considered false. The competing theory would win based on the preponderence of the evidence.
Of course, this digression leads me away from the fundemental point. Unfortunately, most of the discussion surrounding idea does the same thing. It validates ID as a science by agruing the merits of other theories that are scientific and holding them side by side with ID. Unlike most pseudoscientific stuff, ID can't be dismissed through regular experimentation like acupucture can. Double blind tests just don't cut it.
I'm sure I oversimplified all of the arguments for ID. Let me take the one you wrote for an example.
After clicking on some of your links, I found out that you've written some educational material on logic. Surely you're familier with the watchmaker scenerio. (Paley, was it?) Anyway, if you're asking if a watch had a watchmaker, you're begging the question. Similarly, if you're scanning the heavens for intelligent communications in radio waves, you are assuming that there are intelligent beings out there that are making them. That's the point of SETI. It assumes there are intelligent beings out there. It also assumes that EM waves would be something that these beings would employ, as we have, to communicate with each other and possibly even to other beings in the cosmos.
ID assumes there is a god who created life on earth, and then tries to prove it's assumption. Would you dispute that statement?
Evolution doesn't even attempt to touch the question of whether or not there is a creator.
The rub is how you would ever be able to show through empirical evidence that a god created species or guided thier creation. It's impossible to show that and only possible to say that there is "blank" we don't know so god must be the answer.
If ID proponents were agnostic in their beliefs and scientific in their apporaches, they would realize that they are searching for meaning when all science will give them is information.