Is Intelligent Design (ID) scientific? This post explores this issue by considering whether ID fits the traditional definition of science.
Caution is needed when discussing whether something is a science because definitions of science vary as do the criteria by which we judge the scientific status of a discipline. Yet I believe that by applying general principles it is possible to reach a coherent decision, a decision that most people familiar with the fundamental tenets of science can agree on.
Definition of Science
Most people agree that science is the study of the natural world. By “natural” we mean phenomena that are empirical, rational, and explicable. Empirical refers to phenomena that are directly or indirectly observable, rational refers to phenomena that can be understood in a logical and coherent fashion, and explicable refers to phenomena that can be explained through some natural, law-governed process.
Let’s see how these criteria apply to religion. Religion cannot be scientific because it involves phenomena that are not directly or indirectly observable, like spirits. It also involves phenomena that exceed our capacity of human reason such as the Atonement. And it involves phenomena that cannot be explained through natural law-governed processes, like miracles. Now this does not mean that miracles, spirits, and God do not exist – it means that they are not scientific. They are faith-based concepts which is exactly how God intended them to be.
Clearly religion is not scientific and modern science was never intended to investigate religious phenomena, but what about ID?
The basic tenet of ID is that there is physical evidence of intelligence, information, wisdom, and purpose in nature. That is all there is to it, but it is somewhat disingenuous to leave it at that. Clearly an underlying assumption is that the source of this intelligence and wisdom is God. However, in order for ID to qualify as scientific, deity must be left out of the picture when engaging in scientific investigations because deity is supernatural, not natural. Moreover, the results of ID investigations cannot be presented as evidence ‘proving’ the existence of a supernatural being because the supernatural is outside the domain of science.
If ID can avoid these traps, it can be scientific because it offers empirical, rational, and explicable ways to investigate natural phenomena that reveal intelligence and wisdom. Put differently, the physical evidence for intelligent design is empirical, rational, and explicable in terms of natural laws, notwithstanding those laws being decreed by a supreme being.
Is it possible to carry out rigorous scientific work while believing that God is manifested in the things you are studying? Yes. Some of the greatest scientific minds did just this. Galileo's, Boyle's, Copernicus', and Newton’s theism in no way diminished their scientific rigor. These pioneers of modern science spoke of deity, thanked deity, and occasionally mentioned deity in their writings, but they did not let their belief in God get in the way of their rigorous scientific work, nor did they use their science to ‘prove’ the existence of God.
IDers have to walk a thin line here. In order to stay on the side of science they need some ground rules, including the rule: "Thou shalt not make deity the center focus of ID". To make deity the center focus of research is to make science subservient to religious beliefs. If this were to happen we would digress to the religion-science relationship that existed in the Dark Ages. In the centuries following the death of the apostles, the Catholic church embraced Neo-Platonism to make the church more appealing to its critics and persecutors, and during the 13th century the Catholic Church hijacked Aristotelian teachings and incorporated them into its doctrines to prevent dissention. Both of these events had long term negative consequences for both science and Christianity. I can say with absolute confidence that we do not want to go there.
I think that the scientific community has the right to be skeptical of ID. The scientific community has already had to defend science from religious creationist intrusions. The ID community needs to prevent its more spirited members from pushing the envelope – any more “goofs ups” like the 2004 Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial and I dare say that ID will lose all credibility before being given a fair chance to prove itself. I hope this does not happen. In any event, ID must proceed with caution.
Sum: ID satisfies the traditional definition of science as long as it focuses on the natural manifestations of intelligence and wisdom inherent in nature. Any attempt to make deity the center focus of ID investigations will render ID non-scientific by traditional standards. Indeed, the scientific status of ID is tenuous because the logical source of this intelligence and wisdom is God. But if the pioneers of 16th century Scientific Revolution could keep their beliefs in God separate from their science, even though they claimed to be studying the handiwork of the Creator, then so can ID. IDers just need to remember that science considers the natural world, not the supernatural.
In the next post we will look at whether ID satisfies the standards of rigorous scientific activity. We will look to the philosophy of science (e.g., falsification, testability, etc.) and contributions from men like Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos for answers.
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