I’ve been thinking about what kind of paper topic to pursue next semester in my intermediate philosophy of science class. I have been tempted to do something controversial, like pursuing issues raised by the debate over the legitimacy of the intelligent design proposal advanced by people like Stephen Meyer and William Dembski (I have also thought of audaciously arguing that if we were to reject certain Einsteinian assumptions about the special and general theories of relativity, then the empirical evidence today ironically greatly supports the thesis of Geocentrism). I think such a paper would ultimately come down to providing clear empirical tests for which the ID thesis would make one prediction, standard evolutionary theory another prediction, and where the ID thesis’ prediction is not merely ‘anything but’ the prediction of evolutionary theory. On these grounds alone ID would very likely be vindicated, as tests like this have already been done and the numbers are already in. This is why, evidence aside, those who argue that ID is not a legitimate alternative to evolutionary theory raise the issue of the legitimacy of proposing an ID thesis ‘as‘ science at all. How far should we carry the principle of methodological naturalism? Should we always constrain science this way, or can we loosen our grip of it under certain circumstances? What circumstances? These are all issues not of science proper, but of the philosophy of science (hence the license for pursuing the topic in a paper written for a philosophy of science class). Alvin Plantinga has proposed that if we really do want to constrain science by methodological naturalism under all circumstances then perhaps Christians can simply do something other than ‘Science’ but instead do Schmience, which will allow them to pursue the empirical evidence wherever it leads.
Here are some tentative proposals, and my reflections on them.
1) Methodological Naturalism ought always to constrain science because the invocation of anything beyond nature is simply no longer empirically verifiable.
This proposal seems to me to be completely wrong-headed. I don’t see any reason in principle to think that invoking God, or rather God’s activity in the world (immediately rather than mediately), is not empirically verifiable. After all, some things can be verifiable without being falsifiable (for instance, we can verify that the past is real by citing all the evidence we have of the appearance of age, but we cannot falsify the thesis that the past is unreal and the world was created with the appearance of age). What’s really at issue here is that the scientist wants a naturalistic explanation instead of an explanation tout simplement. That makes science out to be a Naturalistic enterprise, which it isn’t. One would practically have to presume Naturalism in order to lend this any credence.
2) Science ought to be constrained by Methodological Naturalism Ceteris Paribus, and science can lift this constraint just in case there are no plausible naturalistic explanations left on the table, and the evidence supports some non-naturalistic alternative thesis.
This is precisely what Christian scholars do when it comes to the empirical evidence in history (eg. the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth). Why not do the same with science? This seems reasonable on certain assumptions, such as scientific realism, realism about mind-independent reality, and such like. Assumptions, it is well to note, which are much easier to maintain on a Theistic view of the world than a Naturalistic view of the world. I think this principle fits well with a Christian view of science, and plausibly sits equally well with a nominal theism. One would, again, have to presume something like naturalism, and import assumptions inherited thereby into science in order to argue against holding to this ceteris paribus clause in science for methodologically excluding non-naturalistic explanations. Why, though, should we not be able to say of Naturalism, parodying Laplace, that science has no need of that hypothesis? As a theist, I’m not even sure we can make good sense of science as an enterprise at all without adopting peculiarly theistic (and perhaps even particularly Christian) assumptions. Moreover, to import theism is not to import religion, since theism simpliciter is a secular assumption.
3) Intelligent Design cannot be a scientific hypothesis since it is verifiable and not falsifiable.
Let us say it is falsifiable just in case a competing Naturalistic (or non-naturalistic) explanation becomes more empirically adequate than it.
4) Intelligent Design is a form of postulating a God of the gaps explanation, such that where there is no plausible naturalistic explanation the best explanation automatically becomes God.
First, this is clearly not true, as the evolution-thesis could be wrong without ID having been verified by the evidence. Moreover, postulating a default God of the gaps as an epistemic rule is not necessarily a bad idea – it’s at least no worse an idea than always postulating a naturalism of the gaps.
5) Even if Intelligent Design theory were correct (which is logically possible) it wouldn’t be part of science, it would just represent some truth to which science has no access given the rules of the game – science is the game of finding the most empirically adequate naturalistic explanations for the world, and so acceptance of a scientific hypothesis like evolution doesn’t preclude one from believing in the ID thesis about reality, it just commits one to saying that the best explanation qua science is evolutionary theory.
This is far too constraining a philosophy of science – why would we want to handicap science from discovering something like Intelligent Design in principle? If science is about observing the natural world and coming up with accurate models of reality, rather than merely empirically adequate models which may or may not tell us anything trustworthy about reality, then why not allow for the principle of methodological naturalism to be lifted under some conditions?
These reflections may be useful as it may help to make clear what kinds of assumptions one would have to adopt in the philosophy of science to justify the project of intelligent design. One would have to accept the ceteris paribus clause stipulated for methodological naturalism, and perhaps one would also have to see science as being something more than merely the project of looking for empirically adequate natural explanations and instead be the project of finding empirically adequate explanations for observations of the natural world. However, there is also the problem that if science’s umbrella is wide enough to include intelligent design, it might blur the line between science and metaphysics. I don’t think this is a serious concern, however, if we simply accept that intelligent design can be an empirically adequate explanation, commitment to which implies only the commitment to it’s empirical adequacy (as per van Fraassen). That way, interestingly, one could accept intelligent design as a scientific hypothesis while rejecting it as a metaphysical hypothesis.
Well, those are my thoughts for the day.