The question of whether intelligent design is a scientific or philosophical inference is a contentious and oft-debated one. Using a recent discussion on Ken Perrott’s blog as a kick-off point, I offer a brief commentary on this issue, giving reasons for why it is arbitrary to dismiss ID as unscientific.
In the comment stream of a recent post by Ken Perrott, ‘A new science-bashing campaign?’, some discussion has been taking place about whether intelligent design (ID) can be considered scientific. Typically, secular scientists are vocal in their assertion that ID is a philosophical idea, and not a scientific one. It’s inappropriate to treat ID as if it were a scientific theory, or as if there is real evidence to support it, they say. And there is the vocal minority of ID supporters who push back and say the opposite.
In the comments on Ken’s article, the editor of Christian News New Zealand cited an article on Opposing Views by Jay W Richards, titled ‘Is Intelligent Design Science?’. I encourage you to read this article; it argues simply, yet I think persuasively, that it is not unreasonable to consider ID science—and that wherever you stand on the issue, you’d be naive to dismiss ID as unscientific by trying to define science in such a way as to preclude it.
In response to this article, Christian blogger Dale Campbell, who is an evolutionist, said:
What Jay Richards and others need to realise is that ‘ID’ is a philosophical inference which attempts to be scientifically informed. It starts with an inference, and then tries to find/match it with science – or (re)interpret science to try and match it up with the inference. The inference is not scientific, but philosophical.
Now, I don’t think Dale is opposing ID per se; rather, he is expressing his view that it’s a philosophical, rather than scientific position. As a Christian, I’m sure he does believe in ID; and as a Christian, certainly ID is a philosophical position. But does this preclude it from being scientific as well?
I don’t believe it does. Firstly, ID does not necessarily start with the inference of design, and then look for data in support of it. In fact, I think manifestly the fact that ID is not a specifically religious view demonstrates that it is quite possible and reasonable for it to be an a postiori rather than an a priori inference. Certainly for the Christian it must be treated as a priori: we come to the study of science with the presupposition that the universe was designed and created by God. But ID is not confined to Christianity, nor to religion at all. ID is simply the thesis that the universe, or some part thereof, was designed. A non-religious scientist could come to this conclusion quite reasonably by studying empirical data, and deciding that the facts at his disposal are best explained by a designer.
Is this an unscientific conclusion? Is it merely philosophical? This question raises another in turn: What is the difference between a “philosophical” as opposed to a “scientific” inference? For my own part, I’m not sure I see a clear distinction between them. Scientific inferences have two defining characteristics that I can see: (i) they start from empirical data; (ii) they are by nature abductive (and/or inductive; but abduction really is what defines them). Abduction, however, is itself a philosophical process; so I don’t see how we can deny that scientific inference itself is intrinsically philosophical. It is simply a kind of philosophical inference. All inference is philosophical in one way or another; and abduction is arguably more influenced by philosophical concerns than straightforward deduction.
But if scientific inference is characterized by these two principal factors, then how is ID not a scientific inference? Empiricism and abduction seem to describe the inference of ID just as well as any uncontroversial scientific inference which comes to mind.
Typically, I’d expect a scientist to say that I’ve omitted a third factor: scientific inferences need to be falsifiable. But there are two obvious objections to this: (a) falsifiability is a relatively modern notion in the history of science, and as such can’t be used to define science qua science. But more importantly, (b) it’s transparently evident that not all scientific inferences—indeed, perhaps not even most scientific inferences—are falsifiable. It’s not inferences which scientists generally require to be falsifiable, but theories. But even then, a theory is just the conclusion of a number of inferences (ie, it is itself an inference), many of which might not be themselves falsifiable; so the demand of falsifiability seems rather arbitrary.
Whether or not ID is true, and whether or not anyone can or has come up with falsifiable hypotheses about it, it does seem to me that Jay Richards is correct in his evaluation that it is not intrinsically unscientific. As he explains, we can’t validly keyhole science to fit certain preconceived philosophical notions about the world. In fact, the attempt to define ID out of science is openly prejudiced and hypocritical, being the attempt to exclude philosophical views of the world from science, on the basis of a philosophical view of the world. The definition of science really is not as fixed, narrow, or agreed upon as anti-ID scientists and philosophers would like to say it is.