[In July, George Will, a columnist I enjoy and find insightful on so many topics, weighed in on ID — go here. I’ve been meaning to respond to his remarks on ID for some time now.]
Dear Mr. Will:
In the July 4th, 2005 issue of Newsweek, you offered the following criticism of intelligent design (ID):
>Today’s proponents of “intelligent design” theory are
>doing nothing novel when they say the complexity of
>nature is more plausibly explained by postulating a
>designing mindÃ¢â‚¬â€a.k.a. GodÃ¢â‚¬â€than by natural adapta-
>tion and selection…. The problem with intelligent-
>design theory is not that it is false but that it is not
>falsifiable: Not being susceptible to contradicting
>evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis. Hence it is
>not a scientific but a creedal tenetÃ¢â‚¬â€a matter of faith,
>unsuited to a public school’s science curriculum.
As for intelligent design bringing nothing new to the discussion of complexity in nature, this claim is difficult to sustain. Darwin, in his Origin of Species, wrote, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” ID, in arguing for design on the basis of complexity, takes up Darwin’s gauntlet. But it does so by looking to novel results from molecular biology and novel methods for assessing the complexity and design characteristics of such systems.
My own book with Cambridge University Press (1998) titled The Design Inference is a case in point. Ask yourself why Cambridge would publish this book if indeed there was nothing new in it. Or consider, why would scholars such as William Wimsatt or Jon Jarrett, neither of whom are ID advocates, offer the following duskjacket endorsements (endorsements for which they have endured considerable heat from Darwinists):
>Dembski has written a sparklingly original book.
>Not since David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning
>Natural Religion has someone taken such a close
>look at the design argument, but it is done now in
>a much broader post-Darwinian context. Now we
>proceed with modern characterizations of proba-
>bility and complexity, and the results bear funda-
>mentally on notions of randomness and on
>strategies for dealing with the explanation of radically
>improbable events. We almost forget that design
>arguments are implicit in criminal arguments
>”beyond a reasonable doubt,” plagiarism, phylogenetic
>inference, cryptography, and a host of other modern
>contexts. Dembski’s analysis of randomness is the most
>sophisticated to be found in the literature, and his
>discussions are an important contribution to the theory
>of explanation, and a timely discussion of a neglected
>and unanticipatedly important topic.
>–William Wimsatt, University of Chicago
>In my view, Dembski has given us a brilliant study of
>the precise connections linking chance, probability,
>and design. A lucidly written work of striking insight
>and originality, The Design Inference provides significant
>progress concerning notoriously difficult questions. I
>expect this to be one of those rare books that genuinely
>transforms its subject.
>–Jon P. Jarrett, University of Illinois at Chicago
Your deeper concern is that intelligent design is not science because it is not testable. If ID were not testable, you would have a point. But the fact is that ID is eminently testable, a fact that is easy to see.
To test ID, it is enough to show how systems that ID claims lie beyond the reach of Darwinian and other evolutionary mechanisms are in fact attainable via such mechanisms. For instance, ID proponents have offered arguments for why non-teleological evolutionary mechanisms should be unable to produce systems like the bacterial flagellum (see chapter 5 of my book No Free Lunch [Rowman & Littlefield, 2002] and Michael Behe’s essay in my co-edited collection titled Debating Design [Cambridge, 2004]). Moreover, critics of ID have tacitly assumed this burden of proof — see Ken Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God (Harper, 1999) or Ian Musgrave’s failed attempt to provide a plausible evolutionary story for the bacterial flagellum in Why Intelligent Design Fails (Rutgers, 2004).
Intelligent design and evolutionary theory are either both testable or both untestable. Parity of reasoning requires that the testability of one entails the testability of the other. Evolutionary theory claims that certain material mechanisms are able to propel the evolutionary process, gradually transforming organisms with one set of characteristics into another (for instance, transforming bacteria without a flagellum into bacteria with one). Intelligent design, by contrast, claims that intelligence needs to supplement material mechanisms if they are to bring about organisms with certain complex features. Accordingly, testing the adequacy or inadequacy of evolutionary mechanisms constitutes a joint test of both evolutionary theory and intelligent design.
Unhappy with thus allowing ID on the playing field of science, evolutionary theorist now typically try the following gambit: Intelligent design, they say, constitutes an argument from ignorance or god-of-the-gaps, in which gaps in the evolutionary story are plugged by invoking intelligence. But if intelligent design by definition constitutes such a god-of-the-gaps, then evolutionary theory in turn becomes untestable, for in that case no failures in evolutionary explanation or positive evidence for ID could ever overturn evolutionary theory.
I cited earlier Darwin’s well-known statement, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Immediately after this statement Darwin added, “But I can find out no such case.” Darwin so much as admits here that his theory is immune to disconfirmation. Indeed, how could any contravening evidence ever be found if the burden of proof on the evolution critic is to rule out all conceivable evolutionary pathways — pathways that are left completely unspecified.
In consequence, Darwin’s own criterion for defeating his theory is impossible to meet and effectively shields his theory from disconfirmation. Unless ID is admitted onto the scientific playing field, mechanistic theories of evolution win the day in the absence of evidence, making them a priori, untestable principles rather than inferences from scientific evidence.
Bottom line: For a claim to ascertainably true it must be possible for it to be ascertainably false. The fate of ID and evolutionary theory, whether as science or non-science, are thus inextricably bound. No surprise therefore that Darwin’s Origin of Species requires ID as a foil throughout.