ID and Scientific Utility

Murphy (
Wed, 24 Sep 1997 21:23:30 -0400 (EDT)

Should Intelligent Design be considered a legitimate type of scientific
theory? If so, then according to commonly accepted criteria, ID (if it is
to be scientifically useful) should be able to serve as a basis for making
predictions (or retroductions that aren't ad hoc) about observable
phenomena; these predictions make an ID-theory empirically testable. These
criteria, for example, are described by Robert Koons (an organizer of NTSE)
in terms of a research program:

"In the course of the conference [NTSE] we moved together toward several
shared conclusions:
1. ...<snip>...
2. Good science consists in working within research programs that are
progressive in the following sense: (a) they generate empirically
testable, novel predictions; (b) they generate explanations of a wide
range of phenomena on the basis of a simple, spare system of postulated
entities and relationships; (c) they deal with anomalies and predictive
failures without resorting to ad hoc repairs or epicycles. The inspiration
for a scientific research program can come from anywhere, including
religious conviction, but the evaluation of an existing program must be
rigorously empirical.
3. If theistic science or intelligent design theory is to become a
progressive research program, it must do more than pole holes in the
evidence for Darwinism: it must acquire auxiliary hypotheses about the
intentions and preferences of the designer from which we can generate
specific, testable predictions and informative explanations.
4. ...<snip>...
(quoted from the "NTSE Final Report" on the NTSE-website; some [or all]
of this also appears in PSCF and the ASA Newsletter)


SOME DOUBTS (about my original doubts).
Like many others, I wonder whether these criteria can be satisfied by
any ID-theory that involves theistic action. But my preliminary skepticism
has been weakened somewhat by recent studies of "ID as science" arguments
(such as those in "The Creation Hypothesis") that present logically
coherent counter-arguments, or that point out the practical difficulties in
making a distinction between Methodological Naturalism (MN) and
Philosophical Naturalism (PN). Although this distinction is favored by
many (including myself for now, but I'm still debating it), the arguments
for "ID as science" are certainly worth serious study. In particular, we
should consider the practical difficulties in saying that "ID has no place
in science."
For example, science educators often just say that "if it isn't science,
it should not be discussed in science courses." (this shuts ID out of all
discussions, unless ID is defined as scientific)
And if ID (or any other concept that suggests the possibility of
theistic action in the universe) is labeled "not scientific" -- or worse,
"unscientific" -- the "prestige of science" can be used to promote atheism.

Usually, efforts to exclude theistic action from science (and from
nature) depend on a "shell-game shift" from utility to plausibility.
First, the criterion of scientific UTILITY (defined in terms of the ability
to make predictions) is used to ban theistic action (including ID,...) from
science. Second, there is a strong implication that this truncated science
is the only way (or at least the best way) to search for the truth about
nature, that "only what is scientific is PLAUSIBLE," and that the answers
offered by science (such as theories about prebiotic chemical evolution)
are true.
A summary: first, theistic action is excluded from science based on
UTILITY; then this a-theistic science is used to define PLAUSIBILITY. In
this way, banning theistic action from science implies that God does not
participate in nature.

Of course, the second phase of this "utility --> plausibility" shift can
be challenged by discussing the distinctions between MN and PN.
And the first phase can be challenged by claiming that ID can be the
basis for legitimate scientific theories -- especially by carefully
analyzing (as does Steve Meyer) the criteria used to define science. But
there is another option.

However strong (or weak) one considers the justification for "ID as a
SCIENTIFIC THEORY," a much stronger case can be made for "ID as a theory

To illustrate the difference, consider the "scientific usefulness" of a
theory that provides a plausible (but not scientifically testable)
alternative to current theories. In two areas of science, the current
scientific theories (re: anthropic principles, and prebiotic evolution) can
be vigorously challenged by ID theories that, in my opinion, are very
plausible alternative explanations, even if most of the scientific
community does not accept these ID-theories as scientific. But if "a
serious consideration of ID-theory by scientists" promotes CRITICAL
THINKING and thus leads to a more accurate evaluation of these two types of
scientific theories (anthropic & prebiotic), then ID is performing A USEFUL
SCIENTIFIC FUNCTION, even if ID is not serving as a scientific core-theory
in a research program that involves empirically testable predictions.
In talking with other scholars (scientists, philosophers, educators,...)
or with non-scholars, I find it much easier to defend the scientific
utility of ID as "a contributor to realistic evaluation" than as "a
scientific theory." {especially because making empirically testable
predictions is not a strong point for ID} It is also easier to discuss
(and defend) the status of ID as "a plausible theory" rather than "a
scientific theory."
It may be possible to defend ID as a SCIENTIFIC THEORY (I'm still
agnostic about this, and remain unconvinced yet willing to listen to the
excellent arguments being proposed by others) -- but this should be the
third step, after discussing ID's status as a PLAUSIBLE THEORY and a

{ a comment about recent history: Certainly the "theistically oriented"
work of some Christians (Bradley, Behe, Dembski,...) is sophisticated and
scientifically useful, but I think its main usefulness lies in providing a
careful analysis and a "good criticism" rather than in making specific
testable predictions. While it may be possible to make specific
predictions with theistic theories (later in his NTSE summary, Koons
discusses this), I remain unconvinced, and think the main value has (and
will) come from contributing to critical thinking during the evaluation of
other theories. }


In evaluating scientific theories -- and especially in the areas where
ID can be useful in the evaluation process -- it can be useful to think
about two distinct types of "status" for a theory. This is described in my
model for "Integrated Scientific Method" (ISM):

Intrinsic Status and Relative Status.
A theory has its own intrinsic status that is an estimate of the
theory's plausibility and/or usefulness. And if science is viewed as a
search for the best theory -- whether "the best" is defined as the most
plausible or the most useful -- there is implied competition, so each
theory also has a relative status.
A change in the intrinsic status of one theory will affect the relative
status of competitive theories. In the ISM-diagram this feedback is
indicated by a small arrow pointing from "alternative theories" to "status
of theory relative to competitors."
A theory can have low intrinsic status even if it is judged to be
better than its competitors and therefore has high relative status, if
evaluation indicates that none of the current theories is likely to be true
or useful. For example, before publication of the famous double helix
paper, in April 1953, an honest scientist would admit that "we don't know
the structure of DNA." After the paper, however, among knowledgeable
scientists this skepticism quickly changed to a confident claim that "the
correct structure is a double helix." In 1953 the double helix theory
attained high intrinsic status and relative status, but before 1953 all
theories about DNA structure had low intrinsic status, even though the best
of these would, by default, have high relative status as "the best of the
bad theories."

This quotation is part of Section 4 (of 9) from the "ISM-page" in my
website (entitled "Science and Design: Methods for Using Creativity and
Critical Thinking in Problem Solving") which is at the following URL,


No, nothing in this message is really original.

re: two types of status.
As far as I know, my suggestion for making an explicit distinction
between "intrinsic status" and "relative status" is original, but the idea
of "competition between theories" is common in philosophy. This
competition has logical limitations, and calling attention to these
limitations was my main motivation for suggesting a split between relative
and intrinsic. { The limitations are especially important when some
theories (such as ID) are excluded from the competition, with the best
scientific theory being declared "the winner" and therefore (due to the
prestige of science) "the most likely to be true." But the distinction is
generally useful, as illustrated by the example of DNA before and after
1953. }
Many others agree. For example, Phil Johnson describes the logical
limitations of considering only relative status: "That life evolved by a
combination of chance and necessity is axiomatic for naturalistic science
and requires no proof. ... The battle has been won in the definitions,
before the empirical testing even gets started. (p. 107, Reason in the
Balance)" Similarly, Steve Meyer states that "if competing hypotheses
[such as ID] are eliminated before they are evaluated, remaining theories
may acquire an undeserved dominance. (p. 100, The Creation Hypothesis)" {
Translating this claim by Meyer into the language of ISM, I would say that
theories of prebiotic evolution have attained a HIGH RELATIVE STATUS
because they are "the best of the bad theories" (that remain after ID is
eliminated from competition) even though they are "bad theories" that have
earned an extremely LOW INTRINSIC STATUS. }

re: evaluative utility.
After discussing the advantages of re-defining "scientific utility" in
several conversations at the recent ASA meeting, I discovered that Alvin
Plantinga had independently come to a similar conclusion, as a recurring
theme in his article in the Sep-97 PSCF:
"Does it [MN] pertain only to scientific *explanations*, but not to
other scientific assertions and claims? Does it also preclude using claims
about God's creative action, or other religious claims as part of the
background information with respect to which one tries to assess the
probability of a proposed scientific explanation or account?" (p. 145;
this is one of several similar statements [about the useful role of
theistic concepts during evaluation] by Alvin)
Or consider the following excerpt from Loren Haarsma:
"Scientists with strong religious or philosophical reasons for believing
that certain events are supernatural can marshal scientific arguments to
show that those events are "non-mechanistic" rather than merely
"non-empirical." This effort might lead them to uncover flaws in proposed
naturalistic scenarios sooner than scientists who don't share their
religious beliefs." (from a April-96 post to the evolution-list, which
Loren re-posted on the ASA-list in February-97)

While skimming the ASA-list beginning in Nov-96, I discovered Haarsma's
message (Feb 20, 97) which is a relatively brief summary of some important
ideas, organized in terms of five categories for conclusions about events
(natural, non-empirical, non-mechanistic, coincidental, intelligently
designed) along with a description of how these five can be studied and
interpreted -- by science and by philosophy.
Loren provides this summary,
"ABSTRACT: Science cannot prove that some past event was "supernatural";
however, it can in principle establish that no known natural mechanisms
could account for that event. In that limited sense, science can address
the supernatural."

Since I've missed most of the earlier conversations on the ASA-list,
it's probable that many of the ideas in this post have already been
discussed. If so, please point me to the appropriate threads. Or it might
be interesting to renew the discussion, anyway.

Craig R