Re: ID and Scientific Utility

Don N Page (don@Phys.UAlberta.CA)
Thu, 25 Sep 97 11:03:55 -0600

George L. Murphy wrote:

(Craig Rusbult) wrote:

> 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 retrodictions that aren't ad hoc) about observable
> phenomena; these predictions make an ID-theory empirically testable.

<huge snip>

"Intelligent design" is a part of science in a limited sense:

If a paleontologist finds a piece of bone abraded in a certain way,

he/she may hypothesize that it was a product of such design, & then try

to predict things about the designer & test those predictions.
BUT - ID in the sense in which it is now being used, _theistic_

ID (whether the theistic element is explicitly admitted or not) is not

"scientific" in that sense, for a simple reason. God "can do anything".

Thus if unrestrained divine action is allowed as an explanatory

element, literally "anything goes". The theory can thus explain

anything. You found something your naturalistic theory can't explain?

Mine can - God (or The Intelligent Designer) did it.
This does not imply any incoherence between scientific

explanation & belief in divine action - IF God voluntarily limits his

action to that describable in terms of natural processes obeying

rational laws. But ID proponents will not allow God this type of


Qualifications: The idea that "God can do anything" is not

identical with the classical doctrine of omnipotence, which is that God

_does_ do everything. & divine omnipotence does not extend to

self-contradiction. I don't think these points affect the above

argument in any significant way.

George L. Murphy

I think I agree with most of what both Craig Rusbult and George Murphy
have said. I agree with the point of Craig Rusbult that (as I interpret it)
Intelligent Design (ID) and Methodological Naturalism (MN) (at least as both
are interpreted today) might well lead to different scientific hypotheses (or
at least different weightings for the plausibility of different scientific
theories) On the other hand, I agree with George Murphy that ID is not
scientific if it just says "anything goes," since God can do anything not
logically contradictory.

Presumably both ID and MN should be guided by the principle of
simplicity, trying to find the simplest hypotheses consistent with their
presuppositions that also fit the observational and experimental data. This is
certainly a very strong (if often merely implicitly recognized) guiding
principle in science, and I was delighted recently to read the 1997 Aquinas
Lecture at Marquette University, "Simplicity as Evidence of Truth," by Richard
Swinburne (Nolloth Professor of the Christian Religion at Oxford University)
which emphasizes this point from the perspective of a noted Christian
philosopher. If he or she is indeed guided by this principle, an atheistic
scientist would presumably view as most plausible hypotheses in which the
universe itself is described most simply and yet consistently with the data,
whereas a theistic scientist would presumably view as most plausible hypotheses
in which the universe plus God as Creator is described most simply and yet
consistently with the data.

Now, just as atheistic scientists differ in their criteria of
simplicity, so do theistic scientists, and so there is disagreement among
either set as to which hypotheses are the simplest. The fact that both
atheists and theists are able to agree on much of science seems to me to be due
to the fact that quite often both sets agree on certain hypotheses, such as the
nearly universal agreement among physicists that in the classical regime and
for weak fields, Maxwell's theory is the simplest hypothesis we know for the
observed electromagnetic phenomena, and Einstein's theory (which reduces to
Newton's law of gravitation for low velocities and nearly flat spacetimes) is
the simplest hypothesis we know for the observed gravitational phenomena.

But at other times scientists within each set disagree. Some theistic
scientists (such as myself) think that the simplest hypotheses for the universe
plus God would pretty well agree in their descriptions of most of the universe
itself with the simplest hypotheses for the universe itself, not considering
God. I think this view is MN, at least with my understanding and
interpretation. Nevertheless, I can understand that a theistic scientist might
well think that the simplest hypotheses for a universe created by God would
differ from the simplest hypotheses for a universe considered by itself.
Presumably the ID supporters are within this camp. However, for this viewpoint
to be scientific, it seems to me that it must have at least some criteria for
which hypotheses consistent with theism are simple (and hence plausible, by the
principle of simplicity, if they are consistent with the data), and which are
too complicated to be plausible. (The hypotheses should also have some
predictive content. As George Murphy, saying "anything goes" doesn't predict
or explain anything. Thus above I am really referring to the simplicity of
hypotheses only after they are given in sufficiently detailed form that they
make definite predictions.)

So if ID supporters are claiming that hypotheses of current natural
laws (e.g., biological evolution by natural selection within currently
understood physical laws) are not sufficient as simple explanations of the
observations (e.g., of similarities between current species and between current
species and extinct species in the fossil record), then to make their viewpoint
scientific it seems to me that they should come up with some criteria of
simplicity of how they they would expect that God most plausibly acts (or
acted) in creating and sustaining a universe consistent with our observations.
For example, if God "intervenes" in the natural law processes of evolution
(which processes MN theists would regard as also God's activity), under what
circumstances and in what way might He be expected to intervene? Can we
duplicate these circumstances today and see whether He does indeed intervene in
the way hypothesized?

Don Page