Evolution Intelligent Design Science

What Counts as a Plausible Scientific Theory?

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[From a colleague:] The way a scientific theory gets empirically established is not by showing that the evidence requires that precise theory. That is an impossible task–there are always infinitely many theories that fit the data. Rather, it gets established through showing that the evidence discredits the main alternative theories but does not discredit this theory.

The same is true for evolution. (In fact, it was in the context of evolution that I first met this idea.) Darwin established his theory through arguing that there was evidence that discredited the main alternative theory, namely creationism, but that did not discredit his theory.

If this is correct, then in order to teach students that neo-Darwinian evolution is true (as you see, this is an ad hominem formulation) other than merely by an argument from authority, one needs to show them the evidence for evolution. But the evidence for a theory is not so much evidence for a theory as evidence that discredits the main alternate theories. (If the evidence doesn’t discredit alternate theories, then the theory that it “supports” is vacuous with respect to the evidence.) In Darwin’s time, creationism was the main alternate theory. In our time, in addition to creationism, there is ID.

Thus, to establish neo-Darwinian evolution, one must either teach creationism or ID, and show how it is (allegedly) discredited by the evidence. A failure to do that is a failure to present the evidence for neo-Darwinism. And to avoid strawmanning, the better of the two theories, creationism or ID, or else both, should be presented.

Now, if neither creationism nor ID is science, then evolution is unique among scientific theories. Other scientific theories are established by arguing against scientific alternatives. But if creationism and ID are not science, then evolution is established by arguing against non-scientific alternatives. If one has a bias against non-scientific theories, then one should see this as an unfortunate fact, one that impairs the epistemic justification of evolution, since evolution has not had the chance to fight it out against any well worked-out scientific theory. (Lamarckianism may be an exception, but the details have not been sufficiently worked out. The same objection can be levied against ID.)

The reason for this is that, as far as I know, evolution is the only theory in the canon of science which is established primarily through methodological naturalism, in the precise sense that the central arguments for it are of the form: “This is the only possible explanation consistent with MN.” This weakens the evidential force of evolution.

11 Replies to “What Counts as a Plausible Scientific Theory?

  1. 1
    neurode says:

    “This [RM&NS] is the only possible explanation consistent with MN” can be viewed as a “meta-justification” based on the fact that many well-confirmed theories can be expressed in the framework of methodological naturalism. It is thus an attempt to aggregate all successful scientific theories – the whole of science as we currently know it – in a single comprehensive framework, and then define as “unscientific” all theories that do not fit into that framework. This can be scientifically accomplished only if the framework or its absence is itself an empirical datum and thus empirically falsifiable. But if MN is falsifiable, then it may be false, and any justification based thereon is at best tentative. It follows directly that the given argument against the scientific status of ID is also merely tentative, and therefore potentially invalid. In fact, as long as MN remains falsifiable (and thus scientific), the associated argument against ID can never be validated. Hence, this argument against ID fails.

  2. 2
    DonaldM says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen the argument put quite this way before. It does seem to be the case though that evolution is dependent on MN being true. If that can not be established scientifically, then all attempts to prohibit ID from scientific consideration are not based on science either.

  3. 3
    harvey says:

    I’m a proponent of ID but I don’t agree with what the author says.

    “But if creationism and ID are not science, then evolution is established by arguing against non-scientific alternatives.”

    This is wrong as evolution has argued against other theories like Lamarkism, and it doesn’t matter if there was chance for the details to be worked out or not. If the main thrust was wrong there was no point with Lamarkism. Also, say evolution was the first non-supernatural explanation, logically this doesn’t mean it’s wrong just because there have been no other non-supernatural explanations.

    His argument gets worse :

    “evolution is the only theory in the canon of science which is established primarily through methodological naturalism”

    All of science currently works like this, singling out evolution is just plain wrong.

    This argument is ripe for attack from evolutionists. I would distance myself from it if I were you.

  4. 4
    mentok says:

    Harvey you wrote:
    “All of science currently works like this, singling out evolution is just plain wrong.”

    Which was in response to this:
    “evolution is the only theory in the canon of science which is established primarily through methodological naturalism.”

    I think you misunderstood what was meant in that statement. If we look at how other scientific theories have been established we can see that they get established not because they are trying to establish an anti god ontological world view, but because the people who proposed and promoted those theories were following their scientific instincts. With evolutionary theory we can see that science has never been kind to it, rather the main inspiration and goal of those promoting evolution has been the denial of a God. Any scientist worth his salt can find no real justification for evolution, therefore their sole inspiration which keeps them faithful to evolution despite the glaring scientific problems with it is their anti god ontological world view. They know that if evolution is bad science that they are left with only one other possibility. The establishment of evolution as the accepted theory on the origins and diversification of life has never been due to it’s scientific integrity, since it first arrived it’s always and still to this day been nothing more then the default argument against god.

    If we look at other scientific theories we don’t find that the driving force and reason for their acceptance as viable theories is based upon rejection of god. The promoters of other theories may reject god, but the theories themselves are not based upon rejection of god. They are theories which don’t really address the truth or fallacy of God as their raison d’ etre.

  5. 5
    mentok says:

    To be more succint:

    Evolution is the only theory which is based on this premise:

    God doesn’t exist therefore evolution has to be true.

    No other theory is based on that premise. That is why it is very rare for an ardent atheist who believes in evolution to accept the argument that evolution is wrong because there is no credible proof for it. What they always say is that even though there is no good proof for evolution it is only due to the current limitations of our research. No matter how easy it is to disprove any evolutionary theory or any variable of them, and show them to be impossible based on the known laws of nature, the ardent atheist will almost always reject the concept that evolution is impossible or that it didn’t happen. They have a philosophical bias against god and therefore they do not approach the subject of origins and diversity in a rational manner. Other theories in other fields of science are not clung to in the same irrational manner. For instance the Big Bang theory. People who promote the BB theory will not fight to their dying breath insisting it’s viability no matter how much evidence contradicts it. They basic premise they start from in accepting the BB theory is not that it has to be true because god doesn’t exist. Whereas the dogmatic stubborn belief in evolution is based on the premise that evolution has to be true because the only logical alternative is impossible, which of course is an irrational ideology. Since they cannot proove that god doesn’t exist, for them to claim it is impossible for god to exist demonstrates that we are dealing with people afflicted by psychological blocks or impairments.

  6. 6
    DaveScot says:

    “All of science currently works like this, singling out evolution is just plain wrong.”

    No it isn’t wrong. Evolution in the distant past is the only theoretical science (I’m being really generous calling it science when it’s really a historical narrative based on circumstantial evidence) trying to claim it’s as well proven as experimental sciences like physics and chemistry. Physics can predict with extreme accuracy where the earth will be in its orbit 1 million years from now or 1 million years in the past. Evolutionary biology can’t predict jack diddly squat. It can’t predict when the next new human species will arrive, when the prior ones emerged, what any new features of any new species will be… it’s freaking useless. What counts is relationships between LIVING organisms and that’s established through experimental biology.

  7. 7
    harvey says:

    Again I disagree with you and think you are opening yourselves up to attack from the Darwinists. Evolution was not initially thought up to disprove God, it just turned out to be a good tool/excuse to use. Evolution says nothing about God, only the people who use it make such claims. You’ve also got to remember that quite a few people believe in evolution and God at the same time, though they are mistaken.

    I just think it’s a bad argument to use against evolution. It should be attacked for its lack of evidence rather than on philosophy.

  8. 8
    DonaldM says:

    Evolution is the only theory which is based on this premise:

    God doesn’t exist therefore evolution has to be true.

    This is not right. There is no reason to tie evolution to atheism. Sure it can be, but that doesn’t mean it has to be. Another possible premise is “God as we understand him would not have created things we way we see them to be, therefore, evolution is true.” Read Cornelius G. Hunter’s book “Darwin’s God” to better understand the historical context of the theological position staked out by Darwin and others in support of this basic position. I’m not here arguing that the premise is true or correct, but only that there is no reason to tie the claim that evolution depends on atheism to it.

  9. 9
    DaveScot says:

    “There is no reason to tie evolution to atheism.”

    Agreed. Just as there is no reason to tie ID to theism.

    However, the converse isn’t true. Atheists certainly tend to tie themselves to undirected evolution and theists tend to tie themselves to ID (or some form of directed evolution).

  10. 10
    avocationist says:

    I think Mentok is 90% right. Even if evolution theory is not absolutely dependent upon atheism, nonetheless, he was talking about actual evolutionists and their irrational attitudes, and the motivation behind their clinging to the theory despite its flaws.

  11. 11
    mentok says:

    avocationist you are correct. I was writing about how evolutionists think and approach the topic of evolution. To say that Darwin did not base his theory on there being no god is incorrect. If you are a student of history then you would know that the course of the “enlightenment” was generally moving in the direction of the philosophy called naturalism. Naturalism then moved in the direction of materialism. Materialism is a philosophical outlook which starts from the premise that there exists no God and that everything in nature should be attempted to be explained from that assumption. Darwin’s theory is based on that assumption or a variation on it(e.g god may exist but doesn’t involve himself with earthly concerns).

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