Intelligent Design Philosophy Science

Confidence in the solvability of currently unsolved scientific problems

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[From a philosopher colleague:]

I am visiting Harvard, and I was reading the conservative student
paper here, and came across an interesting quote from from Richard
Wrangham, a biologist, on the gaps in science that Intelligent Design
theorists point to: “Given that everything we know about science
gives us confidence that these details either have already or will
shortly be provided, this is both an unhelpful and an improbable claim.”

Nevermind the Intelligent Design context specifically. What I am
interested in is whether there can be a good reason for a naturalist
(and this guy may not be one, though his being a biologist, alas, makes
it more likely than not given the stats) to believe of an unsolved
scientific problem that a solution will eventually be found
(“shortly” or not). The argument seems to be an induction: We have
solved so many prior scientific problems that we have a reasonable
confidence that we will solve this one.

Now, if one were a theist who believed with Descartes that God made
a world for us to get to know and understand, this would be an
eminently reasonable claim. But I wonder if a naturalist can have
reason to be confident about the solvability of currently unsolved
scientific problems. A naturalist has no _a priori_ reason to
suppose that nature is easily knowable. Wrangham, though, is making
an _a posteriori_ claim. However, even that seems unjustified. Yes,
we have solved many problems that seem insoluble, and the solutions
have tended to be relatively simple.

However that seems to be no grounds for an inductive conclusion that
all scientific problems have relatively simple solutions, as one’s
inductive sample is relevantly biased: All the problems in one’s
inductive sample are ones that we managed to solve. Moreover, we
cannot usefully say that (*) the solutions have tended to be
relatively simple. For the only sense of “relatively simple” that
makes (*) true is “simple enough to be solved by us” (after all, some
problems are very complicated–hours and hours of computer simulation
are needed, really messy equations appear, complex non-selective
“spandrel”-type evolutionary stories are given, etc.) But then all
we have as inductive data is that we have solved many problems and
these have turned out to be solvable by us. And that, of course, is
simply equivalent to the claim that we have solved many problems.
And this, in turn, at most justifies the conclusion that we will
solve many more.

Now if the data available to us said: (**) Of any set of scientific
problems humans would like answers to, most get solved eventually,
then an argument could get off the ground. But I am not sure (**) is
true or even makes sense. Counting and individuating scientific
problems is a dubious endeavor. Moreover, for many scientific
problems we only have outlines of solutions. We have a confidence
that the details can be filled in, e.g., in our knowledge of why
hurricanes happen (is that a good example?), but this confidence is
not grounded in us actually having filled in the details.

So, the question is this: Can one argue that if one is a naturalist,
one has no reason to expect currently open scientific problems to
ever get solved (maybe with the exception of some problems where our
present knowledge of the laws of nature assures us that a solution is
available in principle and it is just a matter of plugging ahead and
figuring out various parameters, and we are assured of a solution)?
And could one turn this into an argument against naturalism?

10 Replies to “Confidence in the solvability of currently unsolved scientific problems

  1. 1
    David Bergan says:

    One would think that simply reminding them that all major scientists used to think there was a chemical method of transforming lead into gold. They are both heavy metals, so intuitively that should be an easy thing to do. We know now that yes the transformation can be done, but it’s a nuclear process, not a chemical one.

    That doesn’t seem much different from the current scenario where all major scientists think there is a descent-oriented method of transforming, say, a three-chambered heart into a four-chambered heart. They are both blood-pumping organs, so intuitively that should be an easy thing to do…

    Science usually does answer the question, but historically, we should expect that the answer could be a complete counter-intuitive surprise… as was the case in the nature of how light behaves, the periodic table, the layout of the solar system, quantum mechanics, relativity, magnetism, etc.

  2. 2
    PjB says:

    Is this a similar line of argument that Kung made in “Does God Exist?” when he argued that the atheist has an unjustified fundamental trust in uncertain reality; whereas, the theist has a justified fundamental trust in uncertain reality?

  3. 3
    crandaddy says:

    Typical Darwinist mindset:

    “We know unintelligent evolution can explain everything in life from A to Z because we define science so that unintelligent causes are the only plausible explanations, based on a priori specul…er…knowledge. And, evolution is the paradigm incorporating those unintelligent causes which ostensibly makes the most sense. So, in other words, we know unintelligent evolution can explain everything in life from A to Z because we say so.”

  4. 4
    Barrett1 says:

    Mr. Dembski, I have been lurking on these boards for quite some time and your question, I believe, speaks to the essence of the ID/Naturalism controversy. I believe Phillip Johnson touches on this question in an essay (or perhaps a speech) that unfortunately escapes me now.

    Naturalists have faith in naturalism because of its success in solving the riddles of how things work. “It works!” Many exasperated proponents of naturalism have said when challenged on the merits of their philosophy. And they are right. Phenomena long attributed to spirits have systematically been proven to be the result of natural causes. Minimizing or even denying the role of spiritualism in science has resulted in an explosion of discoveries, including important discoveries in medicine that people are very much aware of. People go to the doctor wanting a naturalistic, materialistic, mechanistic explanation of their illness, not a discussion of how spirits inhabit the body and are causing your illness. You see, I don’t believe people have been conditioned to have faith in naturalism. I think people know naturalism works.

    Johnson so much as acknowledges the success of naturalism. But he laments how the science establishment has taken this success to its collective head. Like good boxing promoters, many popular scientists steeped in naturalism have made grandiose claims about how natural forces create this or cause that, when in fact, there is no proof of such power. Yet people believe in the power of naturalism to give us answers. Have people been duped by these charlatans to have such faith? I say no. The promoters of materialistic science have had only a minor impact on selling naturalism. What has really sold naturalism is its success.

    My wife is a teaching physician in a university psychiatric hospital. Believe me, the entire research arm of the university is in search of natural causes for mental illness (as well as just plain ol’ normal thoughts). Why? Because the track record that natural causes will be identified to explain mental illness is good. Moreover, families demand naturalistic, mechanistic, materialistic explanations to medical issues. They know naturalism works and they want their doctor on top of it.

    I have read some posters agonize over how people can possibly be atheists. Well, quite frankly, anybody aware of scientific discoveries over the past one hundred years has good reason to doubt the existence of God, or at least a God with a direct hand in our world. Again, Johnson acknowledges this and talks about how we have come to believe in a God that is “out there somewhere.” But can you blame people? I can’t.

    I have yet to see a proponent of ID address this issue of the success of naturalism in any satisfying way. Johnson compares Darwinists to alchemists in an attempt to illustrate how Darwinists are searching for natural causes that do not exist. But this smacks of a sophomore debating technique to me (an ID sympathizer). Save a few bizarre moments in recent science history, it is rare indeed that natural mechanisms aren’t found that will explain whatever mystery is before us.

    I believe the naturalism’s historic success is one of two issues that bedevil ID. The other is the legacy of poor scholarship that has branded “creation science” as some kind of goofball science, akin to cryptozoology or something. Johnson acknowledges this as well. Keep up the good work. Back to lurking.

  5. 5
    mentok says:

    Barret your claims about the success of naturalism in answering this and that is only true to a degree. The reality is if you talk to astro physicists, quantum physicists, biochemists, paleontologists, zoologists, geneticists, etc is that the amount of unknowns in trying to explain what we can perceive in the natural world is truly overwhelming. We can figure out some things about the natural world which can give us the ability to exploit the natural world to a small degree, but the overwhelming reality is that we are very limited in our knowledge of the amount of things that we can percieve and study, what to speak about things we can’t perceive.

    A common occurence in the scientific community is that theories are put forth without much to back them and then they somehow or other gain mainstream acceptance as being “knowledge” about something. Just an example: Dark Matter. Dark Matter has never been seen ergo it’s called Dark. There is some theory that 99% of the amount of matter in the universe is missing because some theory predicts that it should be visible to us. But it isn’t. So they came up with the theory that it has to exist but since we can’t find it they call it Dark Matter. So we end up with Dark Matter being accepted as a mainstream view. So then some other physicists say “hey wait a minute, the original theory which predicted the amount of matter in the universe is wrong, and in fact the amount we can see is exactly the amount predicted by our theory of how much matter there should be in the universe.” This has actually occured and the space plasma physicists have in fact (IMO) debunked the Dark Matter theory. Yet the Dark Matter theory is still accepted as the mainstream view. This kind of speculative theorizing gaining mainstream acceptance as “knowledge” is common place throughout the scientific community. Nobody gets published or funding if they say “We don’t know”. So the result is that we are deluged with speculative theories based on speculation built upon speculation taught as “knowledge”. Of course there are plenty of scientists ready to disprove other scientist’s theories in order to make a name for themselves. And it is mainly from them where we find out just how little our state of scientific knowledge truly is. Everytime some “discovery” is made you will find a bunch of other scientists in the same field picking the theory apart and telling us that there is just so much we don’t know about that subject yet.

  6. 6
    keiths says:


    I want to compliment you on your reasoned and thoughtful post. You’ve obviously tried to understand the position of the folks on the other side of the fence without vilifying us or impugning our motives and rationality. Many of the posters on this blog do not show similar restraint.

    Rather than going back to lurking, I hope you’ll remain in the open where your contributions can help improve the tenor of the debate.

    Keith S.

  7. 7
    Simus1 says:

    Barrett1, consider yourself warned: lurking is punishable under the full extent of the law.

    Plenty of ID authors have addressed this issue with scientific and philosophical depth. I encourage you to read these contributions with an open mind, or at least read them. Highly recommended are chapter 15 and Parts IV and V of The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design by the proprietor of this blog-forum.

    How many gaps does it take for one to abandon his atheism-of-the-gaps (AOTG)? Your comments seem to assume that the gaps are getting smaller and fewer (hence, your confidence in AOTG). But, in fact, they are getting larger and more numerous (which should, for the sake of consistency, somewhat diminish your confidence in AOTG). As mentok mentioned above, what you call the “success of naturalism” has been dealt serious and continuously growing dents in numerous fields such as astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, cognitive science, cognitive philosophy, etc.

    The comments from Dembski’s philosopher friend address a blind, absolutist AOTG still common in too many circles. Are you defending an absolutist naturalism/materialism or a prudential one? The latter may be defensible (in its conservative caution and modesty), but not the former (because of its decidedly immodest, indefensible totalitarianism).

  8. 8
    Barrett1 says:

    Simus1, thanks for the tip. I will do some reading. And thanks to all for the warm welcome.

  9. 9
    pmob1 says:

    Wrangham’s quote is for science’s tombstones, not it’s pioneers.

  10. 10
    Bullet says:

    What’s worse is that you have no grounds on which to justify the validity of your reasoning in the first place, once you assume it is the product of blind natural forces only. Just like you can’t rely on writings on the wall created by forces of nature, even if they are syntactically and grammatically correct and ‘meaningful’, you can’t trust your reasoning if no intelligent being guided its formation in any way. Since nature can’t have in ‘mind’ the validity of the reasoning powers in obtaining the truth while creating them, one’s believing that his reasoning powers were formed solely by naturalistic means deprives him of the grounds on which to validate his trust in his reasoning and thus, all of his beliefs, including his absolutist naturalism. I have yet to see an atheist giving a plausible answer to this simple, yet powerful argument, but I’ve seen them innumerable times reminding us that Descartes’ reasoning was circular, as if somebody has another option while trying to prove the validity of the mind.

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