Date: Wed Sep 04 2002 - 10:11:16 EDT
Seven More Views on Intelligent Design
Mano Singham makes several valid points about the role of philosophy
in demolishing the intelligent design position (Physics Today, June
2002, page 48). However, his final and most provocative point
concerning the irrelevance of truth to science is not well-taken. In
a human-based philosophy devoid of deity, "truth" simply means
conformance of human mental contents, specifically concepts and
propositions, to reality. Truth that requires omniscience and
infinite accuracy with no contextual delimiters is a pseudoconcept
that has no referent in the real world. By using "truth" only in that
way, the author implicitly grants the creationists' premise that such
a pseudoconcept has meaning. Singham's final point is only
provocative or meaningful if the reader falls into the trap of
thinking that that usage of "truth" does have meaning.
Humans constantly are discovering truths about the world, some of
them comprehensive enough to constitute a scientific theory. A truth
is contextual: It refers to a specific domain, a specific level of
measurement accuracy, and the like. Newtonian physics was true when
created and is true today. It was constructed and tested within a
context of objects having a certain range of speeds and of
measurements having a certain degree of accuracy; within that domain,
it continues to be a true theory. Special relativity is true within a
more extended context, and has led to new and broader conceptual
understanding. However, special relativity in no way invalidates
Newtonian physics within the latter's contextual domain.
"Science" has two meanings. It is a valid methodology that can
generate both false and true theories; that some theories are found
to be false and are ultimately rejected is a vindication, not a
criticism, of the method. Science also refers to an accumulating body
of contextually true statements and theories about aspects of the
world; the "truth" and the "validity" of these theories are
synonymous. The value of science as a methodology lies strictly in
the fact that it is an extremely successful means of arriving at, and
expanding, true theories about the world.
Millwood, New York
Both essays on intelligent design make good points. But I take
exception to Mano Singham's reduction of the scientific quest to the
mere process of answering "the immediate questions of interest to
scientists," as opposed to seeking some truth. That reduction is as
misguided as it is dangerous; it devalues science by placing it at
the same level as social criticism and is essentially a repetition of
the muddle-headed postmodernist arguments.
Granted, to a certain extent, the point is obviously true for some of
the minor scientific theories that are in debate at any one time. But
it completely fails to account for the major theories and advances.
Were Johannes Kepler and Galileo simply engaged in some kind of
inconsequential quest to answer the fashionable questions of their
time? Did they discover some truth about planetary motions, or did
they simply answer those questions to please the sensibilities of
their contemporaries? Was Charles Darwin similarly engaged in a quest
for some truth or for some fashionable theory? And where would
Singham place the present search for extraterrestrial life? Is that
also merely a question of present interest to scientists, or is it a
quest after some momentous truth that can change us forever?
Pronouncements such as "to be valid, science does not have to be
true" merely serve to demonstrate how far common sense can be
confused by words.
Revolutions in science are ultimately revolutions in how we see
ourselves as humans, so the progress of science is, to a large
extent, the progress of humanity. That is the core fact that
creationists and postmodernists find so difficult to accept. Although
they start from different premises, both groups have a need to reduce
science to an enterprise that has only some relative value within its
own limited circle of practitioners. When they have accomplished
that, they can promulgate their own views--free of evidentiary
support--as if those views were equivalent to what science has to
So, although Singham's essay appears to be supportive of science, I
submit that science would be better off without such support.
Mano Singham's Opinion article "Philosophy Is Essential to the
Intelligent Design Debate" emphasizes both the importance of "the
demarcation problem"--that is, the unambiguous distinction of science
from nonscience--and the nature of "origins science."
Science deals with the physical aspect of reality; its subject matter
is data that, in principle, can be collected solely by physical
devices. If physical devices cannot measure something, then that
something is not the subject matter of science. Of course, the whole
of reality encompasses more than the physical.
Physics is the prototype of experimental science, which yields laws
of nature based on data collected from repeatable experiments. In
contrast, origins science is more akin to forensic science, because
it deals with unique, nonrepeatable events. Nonetheless, for origins
science to qualify as science, extant evidentiary data must also be
collectible by physical devices.
Human consciousness and reasoning summarize all physical data into
laws and create the mathematical theories that lead to predictions.
However, the human element that creates the theories is totally
absent from the laws and theories themselves. Accordingly, human
consciousness and rationality are outside the bounds of science since
they cannot be detected by purely physical devices and can only be
"detected" by the self in humans.
Unraveling the mysteries of nature requires conscious, intelligent
beings. But no humanly conceived theory of nature, however complete,
can ever encompass all that exists or the creation process that
brought everything into being. This ontological problem is best
answered by supposing the existence of a Creator, which must be
conscious and intelligent to an infinitely higher degree. I believe
this idea is the underlying rationale for advocates of intelligent
design to infer an Intelligent Designer.
Human reasoning cannot avoid the fundamental question of origins,
which is outside the purview of science. John Wheeler (Physics Today,
May 2002, page 28) said it best: "Philosophy is too important to
leave to the philosophers, and I had better get busy on the most
important question: How come existence?"
University of North Carolina
Singham replies: Scientific knowledge is the most powerful and
reliable source of knowledge that we have. Naturally, we ask why that
is so. The response that it provides us with true information about
the world is strongly entrenched in the scientific community as an
obvious truth. Predictably, then, challenging this assertion
generates objections similar to those raised by Ralph Linsker and
Is there anything intrinsic in the subject matter or methods of
science that justifies the belief that science is progressing toward
the truth? Historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science have
investigated this question; they have looked at how science is
practiced and how scientific communities form, operate, arrive at
consensus views, and make judgments about theories. What emerges is
that the case for "truth" is hard to sustain (see references 2-6 and
9 in my original article). This is not some recent postmodern idea,
as Mouroulis implies. The earliest substantive critique originated in
1906 with Pierre Duhem;1 his thesis has since withstood spirited
The idea that advances in scientific knowledge are not inexorably
leading to the truth may strike many as weakening the case for
science against its critics in ID. I believe that the converse is
true and that the admittedly limited view of scientific knowledge
that I have advocated--as being useful, predictive, and naturalistic,
but not necessarily true--completely undermines the case for the
inclusion of ID in the scientific framework. But I don't espouse this
view in order to oppose ID; it is a mistake to define science just to
use that definition as a weapon in ideological wars. I arrived at my
views regarding the nature of science long before ID came onto the
scene, because I found the research of historians and philosophers of
science to be very persuasive.
Those who hold the more expansive view that science is revealing the
truth about nature must be prepared to defend their position with
more robust examples and arguments than those usually offered.
Linsker wants to restore the concept of truth by limiting the domain
of applicability of theories and cites the relationship between
Einsteinian and Newtonian dynamics. The weaknesses of that oft-quoted
argument were highlighted a long time ago.3
The personal motivations of individual scientists are also not at
issue. I have no doubt that most scientists, not just the ones
Mouroulis names, see themselves as seeking some fundamental truth
about the universe. But believing does not make it so. The search for
truth may be a mirage, an illusion. A mirage can serve a very useful
purpose by encouraging people to move forward and make real progress;
the search for truth may play this role in science and may have led
to some of its spectacular successes. (Incidentally, I applaud
Mouroulis for decrying views that are "free of evidentiary support."
But where is the evidentiary support for his own assertions?)
Moorad Alexanian puts forth another popular view: that a reality
exists, apart from the physical one, "which cannot be detected purely
by physical devices," and states as examples that "human
consciousness and rationality are outside the bounds of science."
This view may or may not be true, but what is the evidence for it?
How would we know what is and is not part of physical reality?
Neuroscientists and other brain researchers explore the very
questions that, according to Alexanian, lie beyond physical reality.
Are they operating outside science?
We cannot arbitrarily prescribe what science is. We can only infer
its characteristics by examining how, in actual practice, its
knowledge is created. The work of historians, philosophers, and
sociologists of science, although not necessary for the practice of
science, become important when dealing with claims such as ID.
1. P. Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, P. Wiener,
trans., Princeton U. Press, Princeton, N.J. (1954).
2. S. G. Harding, ed., Can Theories Be Refuted? Essays on the
Duhem-Quine Thesis, D. Reidel, Boston (1976).
3. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, U. Chicago
Press, Chicago (1970), chap. 9.
(firstname.lastname@example.org)[PARA]Case Western Reserve University[PARA]Cleveland, Ohio
As I scanned through the June 2002 issue of Physics Today, the
Opinion articles on intelligent design caught my eye. I had read a
couple of books on the subject and had thought the material
interesting. Because the title said "two views," I guessed that there
would be two opposing views like I typically see in newspaper
editorials. Instead, when I read the articles, I found that both
oppose the idea of intelligent design.
Here is my complaint: It's great to have opinion articles on a
subject, especially if there is controversy or unresolved issues, but
give both sides airtime. I typically disagree with one side or the
other when two opposing opinions are expressed. But let's have both.
As a scientist and engineer, I was expecting this. Usually, plenty of
people on either side of an issue are willing to write a short
article defending their side. Did you try to get one from both sides?
Claud E. Lacy
Painted Post, New York
[We did not. Physics Today's goal is to inform our readers about
science and its place in the world, not about alternatives to
science. The Editors]
I was disappointed to see that your Opinion articles on intelligent
design were, in fact, two negative views of the controversial theory.
I expected a more balanced approach from your magazine. If, as Adrian
Melott asserts, "adherents are engineers, doctors--and even
physicists," then it would have been appropriate to have a
counterpoint from a scientist or doctor presenting a positive view
Furthermore, I thought the negative views, particularly those of
Melott, to be more personal opinion than scientific refutation. Even
the title of Melott's article--"Intelligent Design Is Creationism in
a Cheap Tuxedo"--is, frankly, a cheap shot, and Melott distorted the
views of people espousing ID. I have read Michael Behe's book
Darwin's Black Box (Free Press, 1996) and Michael Denton's book
Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler, 1986). Both authors
make some strong, some weak, and some erroneous arguments. However,
nowhere in either book did I find any indication that "geology and
physics are within [ID's] blast zone." Denton, for example, clearly
recognizes geologic time and the antiquity of fossils. For Melott to
suggest that geology and geologic time are targets of ID indicates
either that he has not read these books or that he is intentionally
James C. Adamski
Melott replies: I agree with James Adamski that the title of my piece
is a cheap shot. A cheap shot is exactly appropriate with respect to
ID. I agree that I wrote an opinion piece, not a scientific
refutation: See the references. It is also true that Michael Behe,
Michael Denton, and others are careful to restrict their attacks to
evolution. This is part of the "Big Tent" strategy to unify
old-Earth, young-Earth, and other kinds of creationists while
splitting the scientific community. Phillip Johnson, another IDist,
is careful in his presentations not to offend young-Earthers: He
maintains that the issue of Earth's age isn't important. What is most
revealing, letters to the editor seen here and in Ohio have shown
considerable blending of ID rhetoric with issues that impact geology
In his book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be
Purchased without Intelligence (Row-man & Littlefield, 2002), William
Dembski has invented a "conservation of information" law. This is
unsupported new physics that is not treated as a hypothesis. He
reports that the theory of inflation is explanatory but does not
possess "independent evidence for its existence." The past several
years have seen well-publicized experimental data confirming the
extreme flatness of cosmological space and a nearly scale-invariant
spectrum of density perturbations, both key predictions of inflation.
There are also data that suggest the universe may be entering a new
inflationary expansion. Dembski is either ignorant or has selectively
deleted parts of existing physics. The preceding are but two examples
of the "blast zone," drawn from ID's leading "design theorist."
Adamski and Claud Lacy both fall prey to the fairness fallacy; Lacy
even mentions newspapers as a positive counterexample. One of the
reasons the formulation of public policy encounters such terrible
problems is that newspapers present "both sides" on matters of
evidence as if they were matters of opinion, even when the evidence
is strongly one-sided. This practice gives the public the impression
of a serious scientific controversy. A fair representation of the
views of working biological researchers should contain 2 or 3 ID
advocates for about 10 000 presentations opposing it. Thus, having
two essays opposed to ID creationism, with none supporting it, as
seen in the June issue of Physics Today, is entirely appropriate.
Adrian L. Melott
University of Kansas
After I read the Opinions by Adrian Melott and Mano Singham, it
occurred to me that ID is not only bad science but it's bad religion
too. Such a "god of the gaps" as postulated by ID only becomes
smaller with time as science moves on and solves mysteries that were
formerly "explained" as miracles. Unfortunately, the proponents of ID
blur the distinction between logos and mythos,1 between asking how we
came to be and why we came to be. Arguably, humans need both logos
and mythos to make sense of the world; both questions deserve our
1. K. Armstrong, The Battle for God, Ballantine, New York (2001)
Space Telescope Science Institute
The Opinion pieces by Adrian Melott and Mano Singham make clear the
scientific and philosophical problems with the intelligent design
movement and with attempts to insert ID into public-school science
curricula. Moreover, the ideas of ID proponents are also in conflict
with the views of many theologians who are engaged in dialogue
between science and religion.
The notion that science should invoke supernatural causes to explain
currently puzzling phenomena such as the origin of life is popular
but theologically na‘ve. Discussions of divine action by participants
in today's science-theology dialogue1 are generally in accord with
the dictum of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian hanged by
the Nazis in 1945: "We are to find God in what we know, not in what
we don't know."2 God is active in the world through the natural
processes that science studies. This is not an entirely modern idea.
In Genesis 1, God is pictured as commanding the earth and the waters
to bring forth living things. Many teachers of the early church
understood that to mean that God had given the materials of the world
the ability produce life when God willed it.3
The contents of science curricula must, of course, be argued for on
scientific grounds. But those engaged in public debates about science
education would do well to realize that ID proponents are out of
touch with mainstream work at the science-theology interface.
1. See, for example, I. G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical
and Contemporary Issues, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, Calif.
(1997); N. Murphy, G. F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the
Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics, Fortress Press,
Minneapolis, Minn. (1996); J. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence:
God's Interaction with the World, New Science Library, Boston, (1989)
2. 2. D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed.,
Eberhard Bethge, ed., Macmillan, New York (1972), p. 311.
3. 3. E. Messenger, Evolution and Theology, Macmillan, New York (1932).
George L. Murphy
Trinity Lutheran Seminary
(c) 2002 American Institute of Physics
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