Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Is Intelligent Design science?

Well, it has been a while, hasn't it? I'll tell the story of why I've been away for so long in another post. For now...

Living in Southern California I am fortunate to be in range of one of the finest journalists of our time, Larry Mantle, who hosts a show on our local NPR station called AirTalk. Larry has an extraordinary ability to tackle controversial subjects without bias, and to keep probing sensitive issues without actually pissing off his guests.

Today's show (which is not up on the KPCC web site yet) was a debate between Michael Shermer and John Reynolds about Intelligent Design (ID) theory. I thought the debate missed a couple of important points, which I sent to Dr. Reynolds in an email. He wanted to respond in his blog, so to facilitate that I'm posting the email I sent to him (lightly edited for blogging):

I listened with interest to your appearance on Larry Mantle's Air Talk this morning.

You kept making the point that adhering to methodological naturalism (MN) was somehow holding science back from certain kinds of progress. You also made the point that there is debate about what science is, and that philosophers are the ones best equipped to make this determination. You are mistaken on both counts. This can be demonstrated (somewhat ironically) with an elementary philosophical argument, to wit:

What distinguishes science from other arenas of human intellectual endeavor like drama, religion, law, etc. is that it produces certain kinds of results that these other arenas do not, e.g. antibiotics, semiconductors, nuclear weapons, etc. (One might go out on a limb and say that science seems uniquely suited among all arenas of human intellectual endeavor to produce results that allow humans to manipulate the physical world according to their desires, and that indeed this is the reason that people care so much about science and that we are even having this discussion. But this is not necessary to make the argument. All that is necessary is to agree that science produces results of a particular character, that these results "matter" in some sense, and that they are not generally produced by non-scientific endeavors.)

The *reason* that science is able to do these things is its adherence to MN. MN does not hold science back; quite the contrary. MN is an *empowering* constraint. It is the reason that science produces the results that it does. Science without MN is like drama without conflict. It is eviscerated. It has been robbed of its essential character.

This is not a deduction; it is an empirical observation. When one adheres to MN one produces "science-like" results. When one rejects MN one fails to produce such results. This is why all scientists (including Feynman, to whom you appealed to support your position) agree: science is the proposition that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth (Feynman's words). Inherent in this definition is the MN assumption. That is what the word "experiment" means.

To suggest then that science would be well served by philosophers who wish to "free" it from the "constraint" of MN is rather like a non-lawyer suggesting that the law be freed from its dependence on legal texts. After all, textual law often offends our intuitive notion of "justice", just as MN often offends our intuitive notions of self or soul. Why not instead appeal to "intuitive justice" (as an analog to "intelligent design")? This is not a bad thing to wish for. Indeed, the law (and science) has many shortcomings when measured according to how well they fulfill all of mankind's needs. And indeed if you strip the text from the law you may actually end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be the law. Likewise, if you strip MN from science you may end up with something worthwhile, but it will no longer be science. It will be something else.

I would close by observing that if you (or one of your philosopher colleagues) succeeds in making an actual contribution to human intellectual endeavor by rejecting MN then your names will be remembered with the likes of the greatest philosophers that ever lived. Powerful ideas like MN (or textual law, or conflict in drama) do not come along every day. There have probably been less than half a dozen ideas of such power in all of human history. To embark on such an endeavor requires a certain hubris. I point this out not to discourage you (all human progress has been predicated on the hubris that such a thing as "progress" is even possible) but merely to point out the magnitude of what you claim to be doing, and why some scientists might take offense at the suggestion that philosophers wishing to discharge the MN assumption are contributing something to science.

A clarification: although I am very skeptical of the possibility of making fundamentally new contributions to the human condition by rejecting MN, clearly such contributions have been made in the past. (See e.g. my earlier post on logic envy.) There is no shame in this. After all, humans have been doing philosophy for a lot longer than they have been doing science, and so it's not altogether unexpected that the situation might have converged to a sort of steady state. Of course, it's entirely possible that philosophers are out there doing all sorts of cool new things that I'm not aware of. But I don't think anyone would argue that the products of science are much easier to discern in today's world. That is, after all, the reason I think we're having arguments over things like Intelligent Design in the first place.

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