the edge of science

“Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”{Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1996, p. 1}

I recently listened to a debate on the question of whether Intelligent Design should be taught as science.  For those of you who don’t know, Intelligent Design theory holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.  They point to specified complexity (functionality of parts) and irreducible complexity (complexity that all had to be present simultaneously for functionality).  The basic thought is that being able to detect the work of a mind is a basic function of rationality.  We see faces in clouds and are delighted with the resemblance but do not imagine any conspiracy.  When we see faces on Mt. Rushmore we attribute that to design.

This, as you might well imagine, does not please those who want to say that all living systems that we see are the result of blind purposeless forces acting randomly upon mutating organisms (Neo-Darwinism).  As in the opening quote, those who hold to this view think the appearance of design can be explained by the forces of evolution.  And so the two sides square off and argue, debate, insult, and impune each other.  This may go on forever because there are problems.

One problem is that the ID guys can’t catch the (D)designer designing and the Neo-Darwinists have huge gaps in evidence for their process.  The bigger problem at hand, though, is – what is science?  There is a doctrine in science called Methodological Naturalism that basically says that science ONLY deals in natural explanations.  In its most agreeable form, this doctrine would allow that a non-material explanation might be true, but that it would not be the jurisdiction of science.  So – science is not primarily a broad search for truth but a game with rules.  Rule #1 is: no non-material explanations of objects or phenomena.  Scientists therefore pronounce on the “what” and the “how” of things but say little about the “why.”  The “why” is where the problems start.

We can answer a “why” question in different ways depending upon what is meant.  If you ask my wife why the water on the stove is boiling, she can tell you a story about how the water is absorbing the heat from the stove and the water molecules becoming agitated and escaping into steam OR she can simply say “so we can have tea.”  One is the instrumental cause and one is the purpose.  Purpose is always the result of intelligent action.  In the transcript of a debate I read, one of the participants made the rather interesting statement that it might not be clear that the purpose of a majestic mountain is to glorify God but there is not much doubt as to the purpose of a bird’s wing.  Intelligent design rests upon such inferences.

ID proponents might be more agreeable to the doctrine of Methodological Naturalism if the secular scientific world would actually stick to it.  Professional scientists are not speaking as professionals (although some may have the background to do so) when they are on the subject of philosophy and they are definitely hip-deep in philosophy when they assert atheistic conclusions from scientific data.  I suspect that this is inevitable due to the apparent need of humans to have a conclusion to stand on and the strong temptation to assert it.  The advances of science provide a bully pulpit for such preaching.  The advocates for ID do the same when they take the complexity of life and the universe and extend the evidence by philosophy to a designer (God, by implication).

So, is the “horse out of the barn,” so to speak, with science trying to answer questions of ultimate meaning?  Can we ever go back to “just the facts, ma’am?”  My thought is that the mind of man likes solving riddles of all kinds whether they are chemical or philosophical.  Science is a very clear but narrow window on reality and we should attend to its statements.  The question remains – can it mind its own business?

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2 Responses to the edge of science

  1. Jonathan Wood says:

    It is suspicious when experts in one field, say biology, make authoritative assertions concerning other fields, such as philosophy, and expect to be credited with the same level of expertise.

    As for ID and science, there is only a possible conflict if you define science as methodological naturalism (as above in your blog). If you define science (more correctly, IMHO) as something like the pursuit of knowledge of the causes of observable natural effects, then ID fits right in as another useful tool in the workbench, and can help in the inference to the best explanation.

    • Jonathan – good point. Some scientists think that ID is a “science-stopper.” They’re afraid if we admit the possibility of design, the next step is to sit down and quit doing science because the answer to all questions becomes “Goddidit.” I can’t see how Newton, Kepler, Pascal or Boyle would have agreed.

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