Intelligent Design and the Philosophy of Make-Believe

The ongoing controversy over the teaching of creationism in public schools is portrayed by some as a battle between superstitious ignorance and scientific enlightenment. So far, from this perspective, the race has gone to the swift and the battle to the strong: in the ’80s, defenders of evolution succeeded in outlawing the teaching of “creation science,” and in recent months they prevailed again in defeating “intelligent design” in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover decision.

While defenders of science may have won the latest battle, they have not yet won the war. In fact, the conflict between the theory of evolution and creationism is not fundamentally a scientific one. It is not ignorance that breeds creationism, but a basic outlook about what science is and why it matters.

Defending evolution requires defending the validity of science. Yet over the last hundred years, secular scientists and philosophers have fought a battle within their own ranks over the proper outlook, and too often, philosophical defenses of science have proved impotent. If this continues, science’s glory will prove fleeting.

At the root of this impotent philosophy of science is a view about the source of scientific hypotheses. Following the arguments of David Hume and Karl Popper, most philosophers assume that it is impossible for scientists to conclusively demonstrate inductive generalizations like “All swans are white” by observing particular swans. Popper thought scientists could only “falsify” generalizations, say by finding a black swan. He thought that induction, long thought to be the source of scientific validity, needed a replacement.

Popper replaced induction with imagination. With no rational basis, hypotheses would become mere creative inventions of the scientist. In Popper’s view, scientific hypotheses differ from pseudo-science in that they admit of the possibility of falsification. Unlike Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which ventured a risky prediction (later confirmed), a pseudo-scientific hypothesis like “creation science” can dismiss any evidence (like fossils) by arguing, for example, that God planted the fossils to test us. To this day Popper’s falsification criterion is widely accepted by scientists, who invoke it against hypotheses like intelligent design.

Perhaps intelligent design really is unfalsifiable, but philosophers now generally hold that falsifiability does not demarcate science from pseudo-science. Thomas Kuhn and W.V. Quine reminded us that scientific hypotheses do not make predictions on their own: they are more “holistic,” requiring the assistance of “auxiliary” hypotheses (assumptions about initial conditions, the reliability of measurements, etc.). Failed predictions do not necessarily falsify new hypotheses, since these supporting hypotheses can be altered.

But Kuhn and Quine go further and urge that hypotheses may be retained or abandoned come what may, simply by adjusting auxiliary hypotheses in an ad hoc manner–an easy case to make if imagination is the only source of hypotheses. On their view, since hypotheses are chosen subjectively, only the stamp of peer approval can render them “scientific.”

It is revealing that the falsificationist and social views presuppose that hypotheses are chosen subjectively, rather than inductively, from observations. But even if intelligent design is unfalsifiable and unacceptable to the current consensus, isn’t there an enormous elephant in the room these philosophers are blithely ignoring? Isn’t the real problem with a theory like design precisely the fact that it is wholly a product of imagination? If these philosophies of science can’t rule out design on these grounds alone, aren’t they defective?

Intelligent design is a product of imagination, on numerous counts. Consider the argument from “irreducible complexity.” Design theorists say that some biological mechanisms like the bacterial flagellum are so complex that they could not have evolved from smaller functional mechanisms. Defenders of evolution rightly object that this argument confuses a limitation of Darwinian explanatory power with evidence for intelligent design. But even if these examples really were irreducibly complex, and really were positive evidence for anything, why would they be evidence of intelligent design?

To wit: why should we expect that an intelligent designer would create irreducible complexities? We know nothing about any designer’s purposes on the molecular level. Why assume it would design certain elements in an irreducibly complex manner, but others in a Darwinian manner? Why assume a designer wants to give us some special adaptations, but not others? Why assume it even wants to give us any adaptations at all? All of these assumptions are the product of wanton imagination.

Indeed the very idea of a supernatural creator is a product of imagination. No observations of the natural world could ever give rise to the hypothesis of a supernatural designer (by their standards, a natural space alien designer would himself have irreducible complexities in need of explanation by a higher intelligence). In logic, this hypothesis should be inadmissible from the start: there is nothing outside nature, no causal connection between nature and nothingness, no inferences to be drawn from something to nothing, no possibility of a super-consciousness dependent on and (prior to creation) aware of nothing.

The chief problem with intelligent design is its imaginative invocation of supernatural explanation. Interestingly, the Kitzmiller vs. Dover decision against design echoes this complaint, but does so on the grounds that, traditionally, scientists have invoked only natural explanations. But science is not just “what scientists do.” Kuhn and Quine are wrong: there is more to science than socially acceptable imagination. If there weren’t, design theorists would need only wait for the scientific community’s opinions to change to transform design into science: religionists need only shift the “paradigm” back to medieval superstition.

Scientists do not invent hypotheses out of whole cloth. They formulate hypotheses which are already judged as possible by reference to specific, independent evidence. Darwin, for example, argued for his theory on the basis of evidence from geology, the fossil record, and skeletal homologies; he hypothesized that natural selection was the cause of evolution by drawing on his knowledge of Malthusian population studies and an analogy to artificial selection.

The problem with pseudo-scientific theories like creation science or intelligent design is not that they are unfalsifiable (though they may be), but that their hypotheses are arbitrary products of the imagination, with no independent evidence to ground them. The best contrast with such theories is not Einstein, who claimed his equations were “free creations of the human intellect,” but Newton, who claimed to “feign no hypothesis” that he could not derive from his own observations.

To offer a complete alternative to current philosophies of science, it is not enough to say that hypotheses must be supported by specific evidence; philosophers must also show that this is possible, that particular observations can furnish us with universal generalizations. Recognizing the inductive criterion for science is now especially pressing. Today’s dominant philosophy of science will stop neither intelligent design nor some further reincarnation of creationism.

Valery Publius is a teacher living in the American South. 

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.