Science is Empowering But Hard to Define

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November 26, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Steven Benner. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science is Empowering But Hard to Define

Much of the current disconnect between science and faith is caused by misunderstandings of how science works. Here, Benner discusses the nature of scientific progress and the difficulty of defining what is and is not science. Discussion questions are included at the bottom of the post.

It is easy to be confused about what science is and what scientists do. In part, this is because scientists do so many different things in so many different ways. By way of illustration, I was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows in the 1980s. I shared this pleasure with many other young scientists who were also launching their careers within the Society.

One member of my cohort was Gary Belovsky, now a professor of biology at Notre Dame. He was interested in how animals search for food, how this search relates to competition between species, and how nutrients were recycled in the ecosystem. To a layperson, however, Gary traveled in Montana chasing moose and analyzing their droppings.

Another Junior Fellow was Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist interested in the birth and death of the universe. Lawrence, who later wrote The Physics of Star Trek, recently assumed leadership of the Origins program at Arizona State University. As he did his science, Lawrence mostly sat in his office working with equations.

I was a chemist. I was interested in how the phenomenon of life could be understood in terms of the interactions between its constituent molecules, and how this understanding might help diagnose and treat human disease. What I did all day was make molecules, doing something that looked much like what chefs do when they are cooking in a restaurant kitchen.

Each of us called ourselves "scientist". And yet there was scarcely more similarity in what we did in our daily lives than there is between (for example) an auto mechanic and a symphony conductor. Field work, equations, and cooking sample quite broadly all of human activity.

This notwithstanding, each of us belonged to a traditional field of science having a traditional name, biology, physics, and chemistry (in our cases). These sciences are well respected in modern culture. Further, the views of their practitioners are often accorded special standing in the public square, especially when compared with the views of lawyers, advertising executives and politicians, to mention practitioners of a few other noble professions.

This respect is not irrational. Nearly everyone recognizes that biology, physics, and chemistry have empowered society, in the material and manipulative senses of this term. Empowerment by physics is evident from nuclear power plants, spacecraft that land on the Moon, and television sets, inter alia. Empowerment by chemistry is illustrated by the colorful fabrics that we wear, the materials used in our hybrid cars, and the medicines that we take to cure our diseases. Biology has identified genes that cause cancer, viruses that cause AIDS, and vaccines that have all but eliminated small pox, polio, tetanus and diphtheria.

We may not agree that these fields of science have produced "knowledge". We may not know what "knowledge" is. Nevertheless, we must agree that science has produced something that behaves like knowledge should behave. Whatever knowledge is, it should confer manipulative control and predictive power upon those who possess it. Physics, chemistry, and biology have done just that.

In this sense, science seems to be special among other intellectual activities that have engaged the human mind over the millennia, including religion, philosophy and art. Many religions, philosophies, and artistic forms claim to confer "knowledge" of some kind. Yet they do not credibly claim the predictive and manipulative empowerment that the sciences claim, even though they might claim other things, such as aesthetic transformation and personal fulfillment.

It shows no disrespect of transformation and fulfillment as human goals to note that the product of the "knowledge" proffered by religious, philosophical, or artistic thinkers cannot be universally recognized, and therefore does not command universal assent, at least not in the same way that scientific knowledge does.

That seems to be largely because religious, philosophical, or artistic "knowledge" does not generate the manipulative empowerment that science does. You may believe that your faith in the virgin birth has empowered you to do good works. An observer might observe those works and choose not to dispute your claim that your faith has been motivating. But the details lie obscured within your psyche. This is not the case when a scientist tells you that water is H2O, even though you have never seen either an H or an O.

So what is special about science that allows it to create the empowerment that is expected from actual knowledge? Certainly, historians, philosophers, and religious thinkers have been no less interested in understanding reality than Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. We all try to state our propositions in language that makes semantic sense. We all use logic in our arguments. We all refer to the natural world. What we teach in middle school is that scientists apply something called "the scientific method".

No doubt.

But a century of effort has had difficulty defining what that "method" is. This difficulty is illustrated in the context of a suggestion made by Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi and others. These philosophers suggested that scientific propositions could be distinguished from nonscientific propositions by their being "falsifiable".

This "demarcation criterion", as philosophers call it, is widely accepted, even among scientists. Most scientists believe that it is a good idea to make their propositions falsifiable. Yet this cultural belief immediately creates a new debate around a new question: exactly when is a proposition falsifiable?

For example, a few years ago Karl Giberson, discussed Intelligent Design (ID) with Francis Collins, now Director of the National Institutes of Health. In that discussion, Collins wondered what an Institute of Intelligent Design might study, as "ID doesn’t actually propose any falsifiable hypotheses." A clear application of the demarcation criterion, it would seem.

The blogged retort from Casey Luskin from the Intelligent Design community was simple enough. Luskin went to Collins' recent book and found passages where the NIH director had contradicted ID by citing evidence from the structure of the human genome. Collins cannot have it both ways, said Luskin. ID must be falsifiable if observations from the human genome can falsify it. Therefore, ID must be scientific. And so the dispute was not resolved by the demarcation criterion; it simply moved to a new dispute.

In my next post, we’ll continue to examine why simple concepts, like falsifiability, do not adequately explain whether a given activity is scientific in nature.

This blog was first posted in April 2010.

Discussion:What new insights does Benner’s post provide to the discussion? Is Intelligent Design falsifiable? If so, is that enough to make it science?

Steven Benner is a Distinguished Fellow of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University. Benner and his group of researchers initiated synthetic biology as a field and invented dynamic combinatorial chemistry, which is currently being used in pharmaceutical development.

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Dunemeister - #66259

November 26th 2011

How utterly condescending to religion. Religion doesn’t confer “predictive and manipulative empowerment”. This ability to predict and manipulate is called “knowledge.” Rather, religion provides “aesthetic transformation and personal fulfillment.” This is called, what, wish fulfillment? Self-congratulatory navel-gazing?

Christianity, at least, does confer “manipulative empowerment.” That’s the whole point of receiving the Spirit and His indwelling His people both individually and corporately. The Spirit empowers Christians to live God’s way. Part of that “manipulative empowerment” is the fruit of the Spirit which, among other things, empowers people not to manipulate the world or each other. I grant it’s not all that predictive, but then we’re dealing with persons, not “stuff”.

Predictive or not, revelation counts as knowledge. The Spirit communicates with us about God, ourselves, each other. This kind of knowledge involves personal contact, person to person, and when done lovingly (as it is with the Spirit), does not manipulate anything (although as I said earlier, it empowers). But it does empower and transform, which in turn does affect (I won’t say manipulate) the world. Christ’s death and resurrection, and the subsequent giving of the Spirit, have shaped the world far more than science has or ever will.

Furthermore, knowledge is also not necessarily predictive. Think of it this way. I know my wife loves me (God help her). My knowledge of her love for me enables me to predict certain things about how she’ll respond to things that I do. But since both she and I are people, and complex ones at that—as we all are—we are still capable of surprising each other. But the fact that we can’t reliably predict what the other will do or think does not mean we don’t know of our mutual love.

Dr. Benner ignores the connection between love, the Spirit, and knowledge. Perhaps he’s not to be faulted for that as his whole life has been consumed with scientific sorts of knowledge. But I resent the implication that religion does not confer real, substantial knowledge.


sy - #66262

November 26th 2011

Dr. Bonner’s point about falsifiability is of course totally valid as a key criterion to allow science to have empowerment over a good deal of the world. And I like the fact that he specifically clarifies physics, chemistry and biology as the areas in which such empowerment have been effected. He rightly does not include psychology, social science, consciousness, morality, ethics, beauty, music (and specifically excludes art, philosophy and faith) in those areas that can be so empowered, since none of these are subject to the same method of falsifiability. This point reflects some of the arguments raised by Dunemeister. Is love falsifiable? Who knows?

This raises some questions. Can there be empowerment without falsifiablitiy?. Dr. Bonner seems to suggest the answer is yes, in his example of belief in the virgin birth and the consequent moral effects. I think the answer is clearly yes, since I am a Christian, and I see the empowerment of moral human society as a result of God’s intervention as quite as striking as television, fabric colors and vaccines. So, where is the difference? Is it that the enormous empowerment we feel on hearing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5 is harder to understand, than, say quantum entanglement, or abiogenesis?  That depends on how we define “understand”. I would submit that our understanding of both Bach and biology are quite mysterious, involve different parts of the even more mysterious thing we call human consciousness, but share much more in common with each other, than for example, the urge to eat, mate, and survive, that are the hallmarks of all non human creatures.

So, I guess I am yet to be convinced about there being anything particularly special about science when it comes to empowerment. I do think science is a wonderful thing (having made a decent living at it for a while) and a marvelous gift from God, and we need it and should cherish it, as much as we cherish Kandinsky, and the Beatles. It, like the others, makes us human, meaning created in the image of God.  


sy - #66263

November 26th 2011

Sorry for the typo, Dr. Benner.

Merv - #66268

November 26th 2011

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I appreciate Dr. Benner’s descriptions of just how nebulous and hard to define this thing or activity we call “science” can be. 

I wonder, though, if the ‘universality’ of science has not been overstated (& I’m thinking more broadly than just in this essay, but in the general public square where the heat gets turned up as debaters   exclusively promote a warfare model).  It’s easy to see and agree with the claims that usually go along with ‘universality’ to back it up.  E.g.  An experiment can be repeated in any lab in any culture, yielding the same agreed upon result.  But to equate some currently agreed upon body of facts with this larger nebulous activity we call “science” is simplistic, is it not?  If science also involves the organization and interpretation of this data as well as the pursuit of more data (which data to pursue) and new ways to interpret both new and old data, then universality becomes less and less obvious.  But even if such universality did exist in all areas of science, would that be a kind of magic bullet for discerning truth?  There have been varying times in history when evidence-based beliefs (now considered erroneous) were held [and quite apart from religion] as universally as anything we could point at today. 

All this said, I recognize and agree with Dr. Benner’s comparison that indeed more materially predictive power has been evident from various branches of science than from all the other vast array of human inquiry.  And I did not see in his writing an intent to be condescending to religion in pointing this out.  As a high school physical sciences teacher, I already appreciate the vast differences even just between physics, chemistry, and biology.  I am in constant admiration of biologists who, to my way of thinking, have a vastly more difficult task of comprehending entire organisms (let alone entire ecosystems) with the billions of molecules and species interacting.  Some think equations of physics look intimidating (they are, to be sure, beyond the high school level), but all we secondary physics teachers have to worry about are well defined systems with elastically (or inelastic) colliding balls or a couple of gravitationally interacting bodies, and in our textbook world of Newtonian mechanics these systems are astoundingly predictive (on paper).  Biologists can’t boast the same level of predictability, and understandably so.  Their real world systems are infinitely more complex.  And if our simple models begin to vaporize in the crucible of reality even just within the so-called hard sciences themselves, why shouldn’t this opacity multiply still infinitely more as the questions get yet more difficult about consciousness, ethics, beauty, culture, meaning, metaphysics, religion, and Love?  This isn’t a case of “diminishing gaps” so much as gaps revealing themselves to be chasms as we realize just how vast our ignorance is.  The ancients had no idea how much they didn’t know.  And for us to think we’ve peaked some final summit and now have some final horizon in sight would be to, historically speaking, violate our own well-honed scientific sense that disavows any notion of privileged position. 

But, if I may un-digress, any notion that all fields of inquiry should be measured on falsifiability or materially predictive power as if that is their only possible basis for value or discernment –how could any holder of such a notion possibly defend it?  Other than to just embrace it as their working faith platform (in denial of very notion so defended).  And I didn’t understand Dr. Benner to be suggesting that falsifiability or universality [as understood by us –there’s the rub; thanks, Dr. Benner]  are final determinants in any of this.  But rather, I think we can be provoked to further thought about the value these things do or do not have.



Dunemeister - #66269

November 26th 2011


Good point. Perhaps I was a bit reactive when I accused Dr. Benner of being condescending. My point was that revelation, through Spirit and Scripture, are just as much knowledge as anything science provides. Prediction and manipulation are NOT the sine qua non of knowledge writ large, but of a specific kind of knowledge. A valuable kind, no doubt, but certainly not the only kind.

Jon Garvey - #66294

November 29th 2011

Dr Benner has, however, chosen a definition of “knowledge” biased towards the natural philosophical project. One could just as cogently argue that “Whatever else knowledge is, it should show you how to live a worthwhile life.”

By that definition, religion wins hands down, philosophy follows along, social sciences have some marginal value and natural science trails along lobbing out ideas like eugenics, moral utilitarianism and so on.

One reason for being confused about what science is, and what scientists do, is that scientists themselves are seldom well-versed in the philosophy of science, in some case denying that it has any value.

jculv - #66273

November 27th 2011

I’m not sure how much prediction helps establish that science is achieving something like knowledge.  For instance, note the fallacy of affirming the consequent:
1. If P, then Q.     
2. Q.             
3. Therefore, P.     

That’s invalid. 

But isn’t that sort of what science does?
1.  If my theory/hypothesis is correct, then this experiment will produce ______ result.
2.  This experiment produced ________ result.
3.  Therefore, my theory/hypothesis is correct.

I’m curious what people think about this. 

Dunemeister - #66274

November 27th 2011

Science denies the consequent.

mjblyth - #66281

November 27th 2011

Table at Restaurant at the End of the Universe—

Ford Prefect: Wait ... something is going terribly wrong. The universe seems to be, er, ... Albert, you didn’t affirm the consequent did you? Again!?

: Did I? Hmm. I never could get those straight. Those pesky p’s and and queer q’s just make my head spin. Can you run over it once more?

Room quivers, spins and dissolves, the universe outside explodes as the entire foundation of modern physics turns out to be based on a logical fallacy.

Merv - #66278

November 27th 2011

The fallacy (of assuming the converse) that you bring up, jculv, is a fallacy in the world of proof and deductive logic.  I.e.  if the reasoning was valid and the premises true then it would be air-tight and incontrovertible.  But the world of science is messier than mathematics and does not deal as much in deductive logic.  Practitioners in science speak of “evidence” more than “proof” or “probability” more than “certainty”—though we certainly lapse back into the hyperbole of saying something is “proven” when we should really be saying “the evidence supports it.”  So you are correct to note that assuming the converse is a logical fallacy *if* it was being presented as airtight logic in the first place (which it often is).  But in the world of inductive logic and evidence—something consistently working as predicted does count as strong evidence for the method of prediction, and rightly so.  That’s my two cents.


HornSpiel - #66282

November 27th 2011

To comment on the “for discussion” question:  Is Intelligent Design falsifiable?  If so, is that enough to make it science?

I regard ID as a movement to reintroduce into science the Aristotilian concept of a formal/final cause. My understanding is that back in the 16th century final cause was discredited as useful to scientific explanation. Then, as today, teleological explanations posed practical and theological difficulties for science.

So like it or not, modern science is based on methodological Naturalism. That is, no explanations based on some universal purpose or intelligence allowed.

Therefore  it is impossible to “scientifically” show that ID is science since it is really a definition of science. ID is not modern science but rather a kind of pre-modern version of science.

To the question of falsifiability, the answer is “No” because there
is no agreed upon framework for what falsifiable means. This is illustrated by the Collin’s statements that ID has both been falsified (meaning by modern scientific standards) and is not falsifiable (because its proponents do not hold to the same standards).

However this should not be an issue for antagonism and needles debate. ID proponents only need to  start doing ID science and show that if it gives superior results, in terms of predictive theories and practical results. If it does, then I’m sure scientists will start adopting the new paradigm. However, that seems unlikely to many since there was already a considered shift away from ID science in the 16th century, and those reasons have not gone away.

Jon Garvey - #66293

November 29th 2011

Hi Hornspiel

Not sure I agree with your assessment of ID. In naturalistic biology, there is indeed a regression to a final cause - “physical law” - with the caveat that, for all we know, there must be pre-physical “laws” (or a personal agency) that prescribed what those physical laws would be. Be that as it may, “law” is a useful descriptive explanation.

If , however, law cannot be invoked to explain a phenomenon, then all that’s left (as far as I know), is chance - which is a final recourse, but not an actual cause of anything. “Stuff happens” is a non-explanation - until you can show how often it happens, and why.

One of ID’s main propositions is that it’s possible in principle to examine a process that has an element attributed to chance, and conclude mathematically whether that is a feasible attribution or not. That would seem to be incontrovertible in principle. Monkeys and Shakespeare, tornadoes and 707s come to mind - and are calculable if you have enough data. So what if a process were demonstrably not attributable to law, chance or a combination of the two? There would no explanation.

But ID also says that many such non-law, non-chance events have been observed through the agency of intelligence - eg your post. In other words, there is a third category of explanation which is known to exist. If it is possible to identify distinctive features of such events and apply them to natural events not fully explained by chance or law, then you have provided a cause where there was none - which may or may not be a final cause, but that’s not the point, any more than it is when using “law” as an explanation.

It would be pretty odd if such a widely-observed phenomenon as “design” did not have specific features to distinguish it from law or chance, or writing would be considered supernatural.

Since the kind of event in view involves information (both in the Shannon sense and in the less easily defined sense of loosely “useful” information) it is not surprising that statistics and information theory are at the heart of the issue. I argue elsewhere ( that the division in the end is about whether life contains information, or just the illusion (not analogy) of information. One can argue about the explanatory power of each alternative, but my opinion is that illusions ultimately have no explanation.

The question of methodological naturalism is separate, and in my view one of those bogeymen from the nebulosphere. Newton (well after your 16th century watershed) saw God at work and said, “How did he do that, then?” He discovered, as it were, that God had written a physical law. Famously he invoked God’s personal intervention to explain the deviations from that law, but the real explanation didn’t remove God - it just added a codicil to the law he wrote. Depending on your viewpoint, you knew more about the Universe or you knew more about God - but the same science either way.

If true information were demonstrated in cells, it would lead the Newtons of the day to say “How was it put in the cell?” as well as “by whom?”. If information in life were finally found to be an illusion produced by “a fluke event” as CiS president Keith Fox suggested recently of the origin of life, then that‘s the science stopper: all you can say is “Stuff Happens.

HornSpiel - #66302

November 29th 2011

Thanks for your comment Jon.

I agree that “law” is a useful descriptive explanation. The interesting question is what are laws, where do they come from. One track is scientific, to look for more basic laws, eventually a super law, the Theory of Everything. Of course that begs the question, “Where did that law come from.” A second track is metaphysical. Some religions would say that laws are manifestations of the universal mind. The laws then are immutable forces, primary causes. I don’t know enough philosophy to say what a purely atheistic understanding of natural laws is. For the Christian, though, the best definition I ever heard is: Natural laws are descriptions of the way God normally works. God is not bound by laws, but neither is He offended when we try to find scientific, naturalistic, explanations for phenomenon.

I also agree that the origin of life is a huge mystery that science may never be able to adequately explain. However that is not a problem for science. Ultimately all scientific explanations beget more questions. That is the nature of the universe and of science.

I must say I have never understood claims by IDists that Information Theory somehow disproves evolution. When I experience a the results of chloroquine resistant malaria, I experience evolution at a gut level. Don’t tell me that no new information is involved—that all the information was already in the genome. The specific arrangement of the parts appropriate for that specific time and place is information I wish the parasite did not have.

But besides an intuitive sense that species-beneficial information can accumulate, such nay-saying does nothing to contradict the clear fossil evidence of gradual transitions in the development of species and in the way this correlates with evidence for gradual, stepwise transitions in their genomes.

So what is the use of ID science? I see none. (See my response below as well.)

Jon Garvey - #66305

November 29th 2011

Hornspiel - a few points in partial reply.

“I must say I have never understood claims by IDists that Information Theory somehow disproves evolution.” As far as I know that’s not the claim, which is more detailed and specific: that information theory places severe limits on evolution by random mutation and natural selection, and therefore calls into doubt its claims (and equally those of the neutral theory) to be a complete theory of evolution.

Whether by intent or accident your example seems to underline this since I believe Michael Behe’s book examines chloroquine resistance as an example of evolution by random mutation working at the limits, though I’ve not read it.

Given the specificity of the ID critique, then the issue of how much, and what kind, of information is changed becomes something to be examined in detail. In sickle cell disease, for instance, it’s clear that cell damage gives an advantage only in the specific environment of malaria risk. Losing the word “not” from “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in the so-called “wicked Bible” may give someone illicit fun, but is not new information in the same sense that composing the sentence is in the first place - still less the whole book of Exodus.

“But besides an intuitive sense that species-beneficial information can accumulate…” Darwin’s original appeal was just to such an intuitive sense rather than to good evidence. Intuition is not enough to ground a theory, as I’m sure you’ll agree. A number of lines of research suggest that the intuition may be wrong in real life (one example here

Regarding the fossil record, apart from the fact that by far the commonest pattern in the fossils is stasis and sudden change, the few examples of apparently gradual transitions are not, per se, evidence of the operation of RM & NS scaled up. If there are theoretical reasons, including information theory, why that would not work, then mere change over time is no longer adequate as evidence that it does.

Briefly commenting on your post to James below, you say: “... evidence for a stepwise evolutionary pathway for the development of the flagellum has been demonstrated.” The last I heard that would be somewhat of an exaggeration of the situation. Was not one possible precursor (or equally likely a possible derivative) of one component in the flagellum found? One stone isn’t evidence for a bridge, surely?

The fact that ID made someone look a bit harder is good enough evidence of its utility. If they look even harder, they may for the first time be able to present a genuinely evidenced pathway rather than an intuitive leap of the imagination.

HornSpiel - #66312

November 30th 2011

Again a good point. ID does have the merit of challenging the status quo and stimulating research.

As far as info theory limiting evolutionary explanations. If it really can do that, then that is a good thing. However  the leap from that to invoking a Designer to complete the theory is another matter. It is not simply making a theory more complete, it is changing the nature of what a theory is. Again that requires recasting science into some thing it has not been for some 400 years.

Jon Garvey - #66314

November 30th 2011

Actually, it’s not ID that insists on looking at the Designer, but its critics. “If you say there’s design, why don’t you tell us about who the Designer is?” “Because that’s not science.” “You cheating ID Creationists always pretend you’re not trying to teach the Bible as science…”

Design, per se, is something that science recognises in the human sciences, so it is already part of science, and has characteristics which are amenable to study. In reality, there’s no more or less mystery in saying “Wow! There seems no law to explain this and the probability is zilch - I guess we have to accept a mystery.” And “Wow! Only design seems to explain this - I guess we have to accept a mystery.” The only difference is that one chooses only to count as valid only certain types of mystery.

“What science has been for 400 years” is actually a sociological statement more than anything. I’m just reading Hannam’s excellent book on mediaeval science, which reminds one just how much science has changed before and since that time - and for reasons far more about prevailing ideology than knowledge per se.

Other fundamental principles that have had to change have been “no action at a distance” (“Gravity is not science, Mr Newton”) and “all reality determined by laws and initial conditions” (“Chaos theory is not science, M. Poincaré.”) Quantum theory has even modified basic cause and effect (Indeterminacy is not science, Herr Heisenberg.”).

HornSpiel - #66322

November 30th 2011

Design, per se, is something that science recognises in the human
sciences, so it is already part of science, and has characteristics
which are amenable to study.

Admittedly design, the result of intelligence, is part of the social sciences, where  intelligence is contingent on humans (and other higher animals). That is far  different from ID where the intelligence is not contigent but of an unspecified nature (could be God, gods, or an  unknown race of super aliens). However the kinds of design being attributed to it make it likely a fundamental preexistent intelligence like God.

So is social science broken because if it does not explain where intelligence come from? No, because we can study the intelligent beings. You can observe people, you can make predictions on what they will do in certain circumstances , and you can provide theoretical explanations for why they did certain things.

You can’t do that with God. You cannot observe God. You cannot make predictions about what God will do. You  cannot provide theoretical explanations for why He did certain things.

Wait a second.. maybe you can! That’s called theology!

James R - #66295

November 29th 2011


Your discussion of falsifiability seems confused.

ID is easily falsifiable by modern scientific standards.  Throw gobs of very simple molecules (ammonia, methane, water, etc.) into a vat which simulates primitive earth conditions.  If living cells as we know them, with all their complex organization, form spontaneously, either immediately or through some gradual stepwise process, without investigator intereference, then ID is falsified on the question of the origin of life.  And if life can be formed from scratch by unguided processes, modifying it later, via Darwinian means, should be even easier.

Darwinian mechanisms aren’t falsifiable by modern scientific standards.  A single proposed evolutionary pathway may be falsifiable, but since a Darwinian theorist can always imagine another pathway (the various possible sequences of mutations being effectively infinite, and the various possible factors in natural selection being effectively infinite), no matter how many proposed pathways are shot down by empirical evidence, the Darwinian can always say that evolution could have “got there” by a set of mutation and selection events that we just haven’t envisioned yet.  Darwinian explanation is infinitely elastic, and hence beyond falsification.

You misrepresent the history of science.  It was not that final causes were found useless to what was then called “science”; rather, “science” (though the term is anachronistic for the period you are talking about, which was the 17th century, not the 16th century by the way) was redefined by people like Bacon and Descartes to programmatically exclude such causes.  Bacon and Descartes were willing to sacrifice intelligibility in order to achieve prediction and control.  Their science was aimed at technological domination, not at a full and complete understanding of nature (for which final causation is necessary).  I suggest you read some of the standard works in the history and philosophy of science.  It would also help if you would read some primary sources, starting with Aristotle’s Physics and some writings of Bacon.

ID proponents are already doing quite good science.  I suggest you read some papers published by the Biologic Institute.  And the man’s name is Collins, not Collin’s.  And since Collins has, despite repeated offers, steadily refused to debate ID proponents in any forum, it would be interesting indeed to find out where he has falsified ID. 

I’m unaware of any theological difficulties posed by the use of teleological explanations in the study of nature.  Perhaps you could specify.  Calvin and Aquinas thought that teleological thinking about nature was fine, and they were two of the biggies, bigger by far than any living theologian.  Probably you are thinking of modern liberal theologians; it is usually they who have the objections to teleology.  But then, they usually have a big problem with miracles, the authority of the Bible, providence, omnipotence, etc.  Or perhaps you are thinking of orthodox but fideist theologians such as Barth.  But of course extreme fideism of that type is an outrider in the Christian tradition; it was discredited with Tertullian.  The mainstream Christian tradition has always allowed for a modest natural theology.  

I get the sense that you are using unreliable (popular and internet) sources for your knowledge of theology and history.  There is no substitute for a good university library.  There are no shortcuts to understanding complex historical and theological movements.

HornSpiel - #66300

November 29th 2011

James R,

Thank you for your comments. I agree with you, my comments on fallibility are indeed confused. As you rightly observe, I am not a scholar on the subject hand have not read the primary sources. I am not at all convinced though that we disagree on the history of science. We both agree that Bacon and Decartes redefined science. So I am wondering if you agree with my main point: that ID is a program to redefine science back to what it was before the 17th c. revision.

To respond to your first point—When I blithely credited Collins as having asserted that ID has been falsified, I probably misrepresented Collins and certainly contradicted myself. Forgive me for my error. Having reflected on this, let me clarify what I think.

First, it is impossible for modern science to falsify ID science, and visa-verse, since both are definitions of science, not the results of science. Second, what Collins was referring to, I believe, is likely specific ID claims such as: The flagellum could not have evolved in a stepwise fashion.  These claims have been shown to be false in the framework of modern science.

This second point requires a bit more explanation because by definition the proposition of irreducible complexity is a non-explanation in the paradigm of methodological naturalism. What Behe and other ID proponents are suggesting is that there are phenomenon that cannot be explained except by recourse to a designer. What modern science says about unexplained phenomenon is that they are mysteries that may or may not finally succumb to scientific description. You may not like that conclusion. It may not be falsifiable, but it is not cheating. It is simply the result of the definition of (modern) science.

So what does it mean to say Behe’s specific claims about flagellum have been falsified? Simply, there is no mystery, evidence for a stepwise evolutionary pathway for the development of the flagellum has been demonstrated.

I believe these two understanding are not contradictory. I hope this clears up the confusion.

James R - #66304

November 29th 2011


Thanks for your clarification.  I’ll respond here to the main issue.

I cannot speak for the ID leaders about their private intentions.  I can only tell you what I have gleaned from their works.  I haven’t seen any of them try to reintroduce “final cause” in its medieval form into the sciences.  However, they have argued that design inferences are possible. 

This gets very complicated because “final cause” as understood in Aristotle and Aquinas, and the sort of teleological reasoning offered by William Paley around 1800, are not exactly the same thing.  The Thomist critics of ID have argued that ID is incompatible with the notions of final cause and teleology that one finds in Aquinas, and rests more on Paley-like thinking.  If these critics are right, then ID would be a return, not to pre-17th century science, but to the physico-theology of Paley, which was an Enlightenment/19th century conception.

Now note that by Paley’s time, modern science was well under way—Newton etc.—and the ID people have not quarrelled with the science of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc.  So it is not as if ID wants science overall to return to the medieval conception.  Rather, the suggestion is that in biology, Paley-like thinking is still appropriate.  

This is not to say that ID people want modern biology to be only teleological (oriented to notions of purpose), and to ignore efficient causes.  Rather, they see biological systems as requiring both kinds of explanation—efficient cause explanations (typical of modern science) and explanations in terms of ends or designs.  And they see this as inherent in the nature of biological systems, which are quite different from merely chemical or physical systems.  In modern, reductionist biology, however, it is affirmed that living systems require only the one type of explanation —mechanical efficient cause explanation—of the type offered in chemistry and physics.  

I think it is a big mistake to miscast this debate in terms of modern versus pre-modern science.  The issue is whether biological systems have properties such that design explanations are necessary.  That should be settled by the study of the systems themselves, not by any a priori declaration about what “modern science” must do.  Science, being the study of nature, should fit the phenomena it is trying to explain; it is wrong to batter the phenomena into shape so that they can fit the kind of science we happen to be good at today.

This, as I see it, is the ID position.

Does the ID position have some touch-point with pre-modern science?  Yes, insofar as it makes science responsible for a fuller causal explanation than post-Baconian science has offered.  But is it simply a regress to pre-modern science?  Not at all.  ID researchers make use of things unheard of in pre-modern science—probability theory, information theory, computer programming, engineering systems design, etc.—all very modern developments in science—more modern than the conceptual apparatus of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, which is 19th to mid-20th century.  So ID is an original combination of the very newest and some of the old.  I have no problem with such a combination, if that is what is required to explain the phenomena.    

HornSpiel - #66311

November 30th 2011

The issue is whether biological systems have properties such that design explanations are necessary.

You leave out necessary for what. The crux of the problem of deciding between the two systems is that there needs to be some outside criterion that is not part of the system. So what indeed is science supposed to do that necessitates design explanations? Fuller explanations? I prefer deeper mysteries over “explanations” that say “The designer did it” and cover the well.

Science, being the study of nature, should fit the phenomena it is trying to explain;

Who is to judge if science fits? Certainly it can’t be changing all the time or be  an matter of personal preference. Natural explanations for natural phenomena, and no supernatural explanations or explanations of the supernatural, seems like a good fit to me. Again, if the appearance or development of life on earth have supernatural aspects, then science must be silent on those.

it is wrong to batter the phenomena into shape so that they can fit the kind of science we happen to be good at today.

I agree with this, in the sense that Science has been used to say things are just materialistic. This is where ID has it right. For example: It is wrong to say my feelings of love are just biochemical reactions to external stimuli. They may be biochemical reactions, but to say they are just that is, like you say, battering the phenomena to fit the naturalistic paradigm. 

However the solution is not to change science, but to educate people  about the limits of scientific explanation. Those limits are very useful. They help scientists from all over the world to work together. They also force scientists to keep looking for natural explanations rather than throwing in the ID towel.

However from what you say I gather that you do admit that ID is trying to change scientific explanation. And I suppose you would also expect it would also change the way science is practiced.

James R - #66321

November 30th 2011


“Natural explanations for natural phenomena” —who could disagree with that?  But how do you know—in advance of all investigation—that the origin of the solar system, of life, of species, or of man were entirely natural phenomena?  Are you just going to assume this?  On what grounds?

In any case, ID is not about detecting supernatural causes, but about detecting design.  And there is no way telling the difference between the product of a natural and a supernatural designer.  The design is the same in either case.  That’s why ID doesn’t ever have to invoke the supernatural, and therefore doesn’t violate the naturalistic ground rule of science.

Thus, an ID investigation might conclude that the first living cell on earth had to be designed; but whether it was designed by God or by aliens from Antares, ID would be entirely powerless to say.  You seem to think that ID would slip God in as an unproved premise for its inference about design; in fact, the opposite is the case; the design inference would be made without any reference to God or any particular designer; it would be based on the empirical data (the facts about the structure and function of the cell).  God would only come into the discussion after all the science was over and done with, as a possible philosophical or theological implication of the scientific results.  But such ruminations would not be published in scientific journals, only the demonstration of design.

Your view that design detection is somehow inherently unscientific is puzzling.  Design detection is a legitimate part of numerous well-established scientific activities —anthropology, forensic science, search for extraterrestrial life, etc.

ID would only “change” science in the sense of broadening its powers of explanation, not in the sense of subtracting from, or contradicting, anything that scientists already do.  If ID perspectives were treated as legitimate in science, no scientist would have to stop doing anything that he is already doing, or make any use of ID perspectives if he did not find them helpful.  So ID is no threat to anyone.   

I hope you will not find it impolite if I ask you which books by ID authors you have read from cover to cover, and what articles by ID authors you have read thoroughly.   This would help me to determine whether the gap between our understandings of ID’s goals comes from a different interpretation of the same readings, or from a different level of familiarity with ID literature. 

HornSpiel - #66360

December 1st 2011

I have appreciated the conversation but do need to close it here. Just since you asked, I read Johnson’s Darwin on Trial and Behe’s Darwins Black Box, both over ten yeas ago before I came to the difficult conclusion that ID was not compatible with science, at least regular science.

It is only relatively recently I have seen that ID is actually a different kind of science. This has helped me to understand, in part, why the confusion. People are using the same words with different meanings. It has also shown me it is impossible for one to falsify the other. That is one reason I have not bothered to read much recent ID literature.

I am wondering if you could tell me what complete books and articles that critique ID science you have read?


James R - #66364

December 2nd 2011


Thanks for answering my question.  This will be my final note on this thread, too.

You haven’t read enough of ID to get the full depth and rationale of the position.  Most of the major ID works have been written since the two works you mention.  At a minimum you should read Dembski’s No Free Lunch, Dembski and Wells’s Design of Life, Behe’s Edge of Evolution, and Meyer’s Signature in the Cell.  You should also read Behe’s refutation of Ken Miller in Debating Design.  Familiarity with this material would help get you past confusing ID with creationism, and would also help you realize how deeply familiar ID proponents are with the history, philosophy, and methodology of science, and that they have anticipated and dealt with all the arguments you have voiced.

You asked what I have read of anti-ID material.  I have read thousands of pages of anti-ID material, including all the testimony and expert witness reports at the Dover Trial, the books of Collins and Miller, numerous essays by Ayala, Murphy, Haarsma, Isaac and others found in various collections, a large number of book reviews by biologists criticizing ID authors, and scores of (often ad hominem) blogs by biologists and others.  I think that is a sufficient basis for me to claim that I have listened to both sides.

The big question you have to answer is:  what is the purpose of natural science?  Is the purpose of natural science to rationally account for the empirical phenomena?  If so, then all relevant lines of explanation, including design explanations (notice I said design explanations, not miraculous explanations), must be allowed.  Or is the purpose of natural science to attempt to reduce all phenomena to explanations of a narrow kind, even if that means that sometimes natural science will given an incorrect account of the phenomena?  Which is more important, playing by the rules of some artificial set of methods, or finding out how nature works?  What are we after, process or substance?

Traditional philosophy and science, prior to the 17th century, and biology up to the time of Darwin, thought that we should be trying to get the right answer, and should use whatever methods were required to do so; modern natural science says that it is better to sometimes believe in wrong answers for our whole life (for example, believing that life arose accidentally from non-life, even if it in fact didn’t) than to stray outside of a set of prescribed methods.

The equivalent in legal terms would be not allowing a home video showing a mass murder as courtroom evidence, because it was illegally obtained.  The film of course would prove beyond a doubt, to all reasonable and honest people, that the accused was guilty.  But in the courtroom we adopt the legal fiction that the film, in effect, does not exist, and we do not allow the jury to see it.  You seem to be suggesting that science should proceed in the same way, i.e., that human beings should sometimes knowingly refuse to acknowledge causes (design) that the evidence screams out for, just for the sake of preserving some textbook idea of method.  I think that view is entirely irrational, because it reverses the order of priority between ends and means which has been a hallmark of Western rationality since the time of Aristotle.

Jon Garvey - #66365

December 2nd 2011

Not sure if you’re addressing me or James, but to answer your question personally, most of the articles here by people like Dennis are a good primer. Then I’ve chased up where available online the scholarly articles in response to people like Behe, Axe and Dembski. Even there you have to wade through a lot of ad hominems, “elementary errors”, “doesn’t understand evolutions”, etc to get to actual arguments. The Nature of Nature is a weighty tome containing many of the criticisms from top people in various fields.

And of course one has tried to keep up with non-ID approaches from people like Carroll, Koonin, Shapiro and so on. There are only so many hours in the day and pounds in the book budget.

And lastly I ploughed through the entire transcript of the Dover Trial, which was less than useful because all the anti-ID boys boycotted it. The input from their counsel was instructive, though.

Jon Garvey - #66373

December 2nd 2011

Erratum: my last para refers to the Kansas Evolution Hearings. I’ve not yet had the tenacity to do the Dover trial.

James R - #66379

December 2nd 2011

Hi, Jon (66365):

No, I was not addressing you.  The indentations here are very tiny, and it is sometimes hard to see who is replying to whom.

I had asked Hornspiel if he had read much ID literature, and he in turn asked me if I had read much anti-ID literature.  Sorry if you got caught in the middle and confused by the back and forth.

I’ve read your material on your web site and I appreciate the fact that you try to read material from all the camps.  It gives your judgments a balance and a weight which most blog judgments don’t have.

James R - #66306

November 29th 2011


For the main issue you raise, see the long reply next to this one.  Here I will touch on a lesser question.

You appear to believe that “a stepwise evolutionary pathway for the development of the flagellum has been demonstrated.”  There is no doubt that this claim has appeared many times on the internet, and possibly in print as well.  However, there is no peer-reviewed scientific book or article where this claim has been substantiated.  It is simply an urban myth concocted by the Darwinists, in fact, a bluff.  Only one hypothetical in-between step—the TTSS—has been proposed, and dozens more would be necessary.  And the TTSS is an embarrassing step for Darwinists to have to use, because according to their own dating of the relevant genes, the TTSS arose later, not earlier, than the flagellum.  Moral of the story: don’t believe everything you hear.  Demand articles which actually show the full set of genetic and morphological steps.  You’ll be surprised how quickly the conversation goes silent.

Jon Garvey - #66315

November 30th 2011

One response to the “refutation” of Behe here:

To say that Behe’s case, put at a detailed molecular level, has “been explained” by what is, by any description, a broad brush speculation of the order in which some things might, in undefined ways, have happened, is imaginative. But it’s not science. Neither does it suggest much of a place for humble mystery, but for making up what you can’t actually explain.

HornSpiel - #66318

November 30th 2011

OK I admit, B he’s claims have not been falsified. I am in no position to evaluate the back and forth biochemical arguments, however I can clearly see that any naturalistic explanation of a system as complex and archaic as the flagellum  will likely be incomplete for some time to come, if not forever.

However ID does not provide any alternative explanation. Behe’s original book and subsequent arguments are all about saying these things cannot be explained—-well of course that depends on what you mean by explained.

That is my point. An intelligent designer is not a scientific explanation unless you define it to be one. I have never been convinced that science or mankind would benefit by doing so. What would be the pros and cons?


  • science would be God-friendly
  • science would be a more comprehensive explanation for the phenomena of life and intelligence we fin on earth today
  • science would fits the facts
  • scientists would stop looking for answers to hard questions
  • scientific theories would become less explanatory
  • science would be come a cudgel to force belief in God
  • science  would be come theologically bound
  • The mysteries of science, which spur creative responses would become the dogmas of science, which would suppress creative responses

Again the issue here is not whether or not there are gaps in our knowledge,we all admit there are, but whether those gaps warrant changing the foundations of science that have served us so well for centuries.

James R - #66323

November 30th 2011


ID certainly does provide an alternate explanation.  Darwinism says that all species got here by random mutations and natural selection, period.  Behe says that all species got here by random mutations plus natural selection plus design.  Those are two quite different explanations, and in principle they are testable.  If one can demonstrate that a whale can be formed from a land mammal without design, one has falsified ID.  If one can demonstrate that a camera eye can emerge from chemical spot on a one-celled creature without design, one has falsified ID.  Unfortunately for the Darwinians, no demonstrations of this kind have ever been produced, or seem to be forthcoming in the near future.

As for your “cons,” it was Darwinians, not ID people, who preached junk DNA and have now had to admit that they were too hasty; “junk DNA” was a science-stopper.  No one with a design perspective would have assumed that most DNA was junk.  The assumption would be that if it is there, it must serve some purpose, and we should experiment to find out what that purpose is.  ID in that case was a science-promoter.  So your “science stopper” argument is unconvincing.

ID would not make theories less explanatory, but more explanatory.  If you don’t see that, you haven’t followed my previous posts.  Again, read Aristotle on the four causes.  Neither Aristotle nor ID denies the propriety of investigating efficient causes, as modern science does.  But both in Aristotle and in ID you have a more extended causal explanation, which gives a fuller accounting for why nature is the way it is.  

Science would be used to force belief in God?  No, because ID cannot prove God; it can only establish design.  The designer of any given thing might not be God.  And even if it is God, that God is not the God of revealed religion, but only some sort of cosmic intellect.  Revealed religion would still require voluntary assent, as it does now.

Science would become theologically bound?  No.  Nothing in ID is based on any theological teaching.

Mysteries of science would become dogmas of science, suppressing creativity?  Nonsense.  It is the Darwinians who have fought to suppress new ideas by insisting that random mutations and natural selection can create anything, even in the face of mounting empirical evidence that they cannot.  Indeed, the Darwinians have not been above using the courts of the land to make sure that only Darwinian theory is taught, and to prevent any criticism of Darwinian theory from being taught to high school students.  This rivals the most dogmatic moves of medieval universities.  ID has fought alongside non-ID biologists to lift this tyranny from the universities and schools. 

Your remarks suggest that you have in large part confused ID with creationism.  This is not surprising, as the Darwinist propaganda machine has been working overtime for 15 years now to foster exactly this confusion.  But again, don’t believe everything you hear, especially when it comes from materialists with an axe to grind.

You speak of “science” having served us well for centuries, as if modern science has been a seamless unity since Bacon.  But it has not.  Newton and Boyle, two of the greatest scientists who ever lived, thought that the solar system was created directly by God.  The first to suggest that it wasn’t was not a scientist, but a philosopher, Kant.  Your grossly oversimplified portrait of the history of science shows that you have been greatly influenced by the self-presentation of recent scientists and the writing of science popularizers.  As a cure for this, I strongly recommend that you read the writings of professor Steve Fuller, who exposes the propagandistic nature of these self-serving and ideological histories.

A final word:  you won’t find out anything about ID from reading most of the columnists and commenters here.  Few of them have read much ID literature, and almost without exception they have an animus against ID and distort or caricature ID in one way or another.  You have to go to the horse’s mouth.  Read ID literature.  You’ll be surprised at how different it is from the image of it that is presented by its enemies.

HornSpiel - #66326

November 30th 2011

Thank you for your fine response. I will have to consider it more at length. A few quick thoughts.

  • ID does not provide scientific explanations unless you change the definition of science, as I try to explain above. Design is a scientific explanation only after you observe that the designer or (theorize their existence) and make them the subject of scientific inquiry. That’s the way it works in the social sciences, which is often used as an apologetic for this viewpoint.
  • Why doesn’t ID make hypothesize about who the designer is? Because if it did it would be doing theology.
  • The junk DNA issue is a fine example if ID challenging the staus quo with positive results, but it did not change anyone’s position. Each side is able to fit the results just fine into their own paradigms.
  • Establishing design is paramount to establishing the existence of God because of the types of designs. We are talking about bioengineering and the creation of life and intelligence, not making artifacts like contingent intelligences would make
  •  If ID proponents, such as the Discovery Institute, do not want to be confused with Creationism/Creationists, why don’t they come straight out and disavow all the bad creationist science that claims the earth is 6000 years old for instance, or that the fossil record is not evidence for common descent?

James R - #66328

November 30th 2011


Thanks for your polite response.

I look forward to anything further you might send on either of my two replies.

Just quickly, on your points above:

You appear to believe that one needs to know something in advance about the designer before one can infer design.  This is not true, as can be seen with only a moment’s reflection.  If you found a machine on Pluto, you would know it was designed (not the product of chance and natural laws alone), even though you would not have the slightest clue who the designer was.

ID is about nature, not God.  That is why it doesn’t hypothesize about God.  It is theologians who hypothesize about God, not scientists.

The point about junk DNA is that Darwinism made a false prediction, a prediction that was inherent in its basic premises, and ID did not make this false prediction, because its basic premises were otherwise.  One of the essential criteria for good science (a criterion pushed very much by the Darwinians, by the way) is that a theory should lead to good predictions, not bad ones.  

One doesn’t need design arguments to argue for the existence of God.  One can argue from moral experience, aesthetic experience, religious experience, revelation, etc.

Living things resemble artifacts in that there are elaborate adjustments of means to functions.  In fact, the adjustments are massively more complicated and intricate in living things than in even the most complicated human artifact.  If I can infer design from a few well-placed gears and springs, why can I not infer it from a tremendously more complex array of interacting parts, complete with feedback and repair mechanisms, etc.?  

All creationists accept design, but not all design proponents accept creationism.  There should be no more problem in understanding that than there is in understanding that all libertarians are conservatives, but not all conservatives are libertarians.  The deliberate attempt by Darwinists to represent ID as a species of creationism, rather than creationism as a particular type of ID position, is dishonest, and is done for political purposes.  The difference between ID and creationism— that ID in no way relies upon the Bible or revealed religion, whereas creationism, while accepting design, makes science conform to the Bible or revealed religion— is easily understood by all impartial observers, and has been explained by Discovery many times before.  There shouldn’t be any need to belabor it.  ID is simply uninterested in arguing about Biblical interpretation or debating the age of the earth.  Such questions have nothing whatsoever to do with data-based design inferences, which is what ID is about. 

Terrance - #66330

November 30th 2011

Terrance - #66331

November 30th 2011

HornSpiel - #66333

November 30th 2011

Ok  another quick response James,

I expressly did not say “that one needs to know something in advance about the designer before one can infer design.” I said you needed to “theorize [I should have said hypothesize] their existence and make them the subject of scientific inquiry.” If you found a machine on Pluto you would need to hypothesize what kind of intelligent being made it and then start looking for more evidence of their existence with the goal of finding who or whatever made it and put it there.

If “ID is about nature, not God” then it should include a hypothesis of  designer. ID scientists would thus hypothesize about the nature and existence of the
designer(s) with the goal of determining who or what did these designs
rather than saying ID is not about that. Despite what you might say, by not looking for the designer, ID is implicitly (to outside observers) all about God. This conclusion is also supported by the origin and membership of the ID movement.

As far as evidences of design, I think its there, but not in the details of flagellum but in the evolutionary process itself. It uses random recombinations of elements mediated through the amazing DNA molecule to create continually adaptive living creatures. This system allows creativity and complexity to be expressed in a way a mechaically designed system never could.

I agree there are lots of reasons to believe in God, evolution being one of them.

By the way I appreciate the conversation too.

James R - #66335

November 30th 2011


Sorry for misunderstanding the wording of your first bulleted point.  But it doesn’t affect my overall argument.  If the only question I am trying to answer is— Was this machine designed, or was it the result of metallic molecules that accidentally got refined from ore, and then accidentally got attached together into a complex, working device, purely by random processes?—I don’t need to do any hypothesizing about the nature of the designer at all.  I can tell the thing is designed even if I know literally zero about the nature and motives of the people who designed it.

This provides the answer to your second paragraph above:  ID doesn’t need to know anything about the nature and motives of possible designers in order to conduct its investigations and draw its conclusions.  Is the designer of nature God?  Probably.  But that’s irrelevant to the soundness of the inference.  If it turns out that the whole universe is an experiment in a ninth-grade alien Physics class, so that the designer is aliens rather than God, the inference proceeds in the same way.  It literally doesn’t matter who the designer is.  ID proponent keep making this simple point over and over again, but their critics seem astoundingly deaf to it.

If you think there is evidence of design in the evolutionary process itself, then you are in effect a design theorist.  But note that if you made that argument in a modern university, your biology colleagues would jump all over you and shout that design inferences are not scientific.  If it is unscientific to infer that a beaver’s tail or a bat’s wing is designed, it is equally unscientific to infer that the evolutionary process itself is designed.  You yourself have already ruled design inferences out of science.  Yet here you are, saying there is “evidence” for design in the evolutionary process.  It is precisely such evidence that ID people employ in their inferences.  

I don’t know what you mean by “mechanically designed.”  If DNA is designed, it is designed.  There is no distinction between “mechanically designed” and “some other kind of designed.”  A thing is either designed or not designed.  You appear to believe that there is evidence that DNA is designed, in part for the purpose of generating evolutionary novelty.  If you believe that, you are thinking in the spirit of ID.  But that is not what most origin-of-life theorists believe.  Most of them believe that DNA arose out of the chance tossings and turnings of billions of simpler molecules over billions of years of sloshing around in the hot primeval oceans of billions of earthlike planets, with no design whatsoever.  That’s the premise of origin-of-life research.  That’s the assumption that you say “science” requires.  And it’s in flat contradiction to your very sensible perception that DNA must be designed.  You are letting a certain narrow, ideological construction of “science” overrule your sound intellectual instincts.  Think about it.

HornSpiel - #66338

November 30th 2011

Your first two paragraphs above serves to underline the difference between ID science and MN science (MN=ModerN or Methodological Naturalistic). MN  science would require, I believe, a hypothesis on who the designer is before declaring something designed. So to MN science the identity and nature of the designer is not irrelevant to the soundness of the inference. I am not deaf to the ID argument, I just do not agree.

Again ID science is not the same thing as MN science. They cannot falsify each other. Outside criterion are needed to judge or decide between the two approaches.

The evidence for the design of evolution is not scientific evidence but evidence for something greater than science. It may inspire people to worship, or to become scientists. It is not something that should be included in a scientific theory.  But just because the limited scope of MN science does not allow design without a designer does not mean science is atheistic.

By mechanically designed I mean a fixed design, however complex, of interrelated parts/machines—a watch or the space shuttle.
Life, on the other hand is, in a sense self-designing, constantly changing. I disagree than something is either designed or not designed. A Jackson Pollack painting is both designed and random. At first you might think it was not designed, but the more you look at it you see a designers hand. Evolution can be seen to be more like that.

The origin of DNA from a scientific point of view is a mystery for me. But I support scientific attempts to try and figure out a naturalistic, you might say “random” way by which it arose. To do so does not contradict my belief it was designed, because God was in and behind that process too.

James R - #66340

November 30th 2011

Hi, HornSpiel:

1.  I know of no book, article, or treatise on scientific methodology in any field of science or in the philosophy of science which requires “a hypothesis on who the designer is before declaring something designed.”  This is not surprising, because, first of all, there has never been any such principle in the entire history of science from Thales to Hawking, and second of all, the sort of person who objects to design inferences in science would never be trying to set forth legitimate principles of design detection in the first place.  However, if you think about it for a minute, counterexamples to your assertion should spring immediately to mind.  A coroner might well render a verdict of “bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument by persons unknown.”  In such a case, the coroner has no idea who did the bludgeoning, but he is certain that the death was not due to natural causes.  Personal agency is detectable even in cases where the agent cannot be identified.

It is the same with the machine on Pluto.  I could ask 50 TEs and atheist Darwinists, all of whom would be opposed to ID, whether or not they thought the machine on Pluto was designed.  Every one of them—Ken Miller, Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins, Jerry Coyne—would say it was designed.  Not one would say it arose by accidental smelting, welding, and arranging.  And they would not make it a requirement for the inference that one had to know who the designer was. 

Thus, the methodological principle you are invoking is entirely non-existent, except among Darwinist apologists who inhabit the internet.

2.  The ID critique of “normal science” not that normal science necessarily generates atheism; it is that “normal science” will sometimes fail, even as science, because it does not ever allow design as a factor, even when the evidence cries out for it.

3.  I now understand what you mean by mechanically designed.  I think the problem—and it’s a common problem with ID critics—is that you are not distinguishing between “design” and “manufacture.”  Design is a mental activity; manufacture a physical one.  ID theory does not require that the designer also be the manufacturer.  ID theory does not forbid the designer from designing nature so that nature itself can be the manufacturer.

For example, suppose that the DNA contains a superprogram within which lie the unexpressed, but ready-to-roll modules for bat’s wings, etc.  The designer might have set up the first DNA so that all the later forms of life would emerge under the right circumstances, but all those circumstances would be entirely natural.  No interventions would be necessary, just the action of foreseen biochemical and environmental triggers.  In such a scenario, bats and beavers and roses would be just as much “designed” as if God had built them out of parts by hand; but the manufacturer would not be God, but nature. 

I think you are envisioning God literally putting together each species, as if from a Lego kit; but that sort of crude direct mode of creation is not required by ID.  ID insists only on the existence of design, not on any particular mode of execution.

4.  I’ve already said that attempts to find a naturalistic origin of DNA are not objectionable.  Of course, given that not just DNA but the whole DNA-protein system has to be explained, my attitude to that is “Good luck, Charley!”  And if you read Steve Meyer’s book, you will discover how little progress all naturalistic explanations have so far made.  (By the way, you never answered my question about which ID books you have read straight through.)

But the bigger question is why anyone has the right to assume that naturalistic explanation will eventually be successful.  It may be that life just didn’t arise in that way; it may be that it couldn’t have arisen in that way.  Origin of life researchers and textbook writers need to be candid about this—and usually they aren’t.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they will say “science has not yet discovered how life arose out of non-life.”  But of course the word “yet” violates the allegedly respected boundary between methodological and metaphysical naturalism.  “Yet” could only be justified by one who insisted on metaphysical naturalism.  But such Freudian slips reveal the true nature of the modern science of origins.  Beneath the veneer of methodological naturalism lies metaphysical naturalism.  It’s no accident that the vast majority of origin-of-life scientists are atheists/agnostics; hardly any are religious believers of any kind.  Caveat emptor.

Terrance - #66329

November 30th 2011

Terrance - #66337

November 30th 2011

Jon Garvey - #66324

November 30th 2011

Hornspiel, it would be good to see a reasoned justification for your “cons”. I would deny them all as follows (and based on the fact that for a thousand years before 1859 nearly all scientists believed in design).

So, if you were to allow the discussion of design into scienc, I reply:

  • Scientists would investigate hard questions as they always have, and did when design was an assumption in science.
  • Theories would be at least equally explanatory - and indeed more so if it happens to be shown that there really is design in nature: explanatory means “corresponding to reality”, I think.
  • If design were discussed in science, why should it be any more a cudgel to belief in God than excluding it is a cudgel not to believe in God (after all, there aren’t any textbooks teaching kids that evolution is an unguided, unpurposeful process, are there?). And if the evidence for ID were shown to be lacking, people could reshape their theology or atheology appropiately. If there’s no designer, it will show.
  • “Theologically bound.” What does this actually mean? That David Berlinski would have to give up agnosticism? Or Bradley Monton his atheism? Or Jonathan Wells his Mooneyism? That the Pope would decide research grants? Or maybe that Richard Dawkins and a host of others could no longer get away with equating science with atheism?
  • Again, remove this point from the nebulosphere, and what does it mean? Actually, those mysteries solved by design would become accepted science, like any theory until overturned. They in turn would raise further mysteries to research. Those mysteries not solved by ID would keep us all busy till Domesday.

Your “cons” are actually not relevant at all to “allowing the concept of design back into science” (after 150 years of unjustified exclusion), but to “decreeing that science declare itself a theocracy and making asking questions heresy.” I know that most reviews of ID make the latter assumption, and include the downfall of civilisation as well, but it’s as laughable as ... as  ... well, suggesting that science nowadays would make asking scientific questions about a possible designer heresy.

BTW, do I take it from your plus points for ID that science now is  actually God-unfriendly, fails to allow a comprehensive explanation for life and intelligence and doesn’t fit the facts? Or do I misunderstand you?

HornSpiel - #66339

November 30th 2011

Scientists would investigate hard questions as they always have, and did when design was an assumption in science.

True, but I am afraid they would tend to go down rabbit trails more often, like working on the epicycle theory, because God would only create planets to move in perfect circles.

explanatory means “corresponding to reality”

To me explanatory means useful for making accurate predictions. This is really the crux of the difference between the motives of main-stream  scientists and ID scientists. I appreciate where ID scientists are coming from. They want science to encompass and reflect a the greater reality of Creation. Naturalistic science is more limited and more pragmatic in its objectives.

if the evidence for ID were shown to be lacking, people could reshape their theology or atheology appropriately.

This is exactly what I mean by theologically bound. It reflects my suspicion that ID ultimately promotes God-of-the-gaps explanations.

why should it be any more a cudgel to belief in God than excluding it is a cudgel not to believe in God

If ID science says something like a DNA molecule 4 billion years ago was designed, one immediately thinks of God.  God is the 800 pound gorilla in the room even if you deny he is not there.
whether that is the intent or whether it is a good or bad thing that is another question. I am just saying ID is is inherently pro-God whereas naturalistic science is God-neutral when rightly understood.

And no, I do not consider naturalistic science God-unfriendly, I actually consider it quite friendly,  though some scientists are not. I consider the other pros of dubious value.

Jon Garvey - #66343

December 1st 2011

Hi Hornspiel

Just a quick shot of factual reality re epicycles, because it’s the inaccurate ideological assumptions that often make this issue so intractable.

The philosophical necessity for circular orbits came from pagan Aristotle, not theology, and epicycles were simply a necessity for any geocentric system wanting to put things on a mathematical basis. Those keen on maths were the believers and the magicians (most astronomical work served astrology) - those few of a more naturalistic bent were content to accept wobbly planets because, hey, stuff happens in an unpurposeful universe.

Copernicus’ system made things very little simpler - lots of epicycles still - and was thought by nearly all scientists to be unlikely as one would observe stellar parallax unless the Universe were unparsimoniously more vast than the 90 million miles commonly estimated. Note the sound reasoning and lack of significant theological pressure - though since most scientists were also trained in theology and philosophy, you’d find examples of all opinions in the Church. Better hope your bishop didn’t have a fundie Aristotelian philosophy lecturer.

So the logjam continued until (unorthodox) Lutheran Kepler, whose firm theological conviction that God would not create an inelegant system kept him ploughing through Tycho Brahae’s data until the numbers  finally crunched in his notes (with lots of devotional comments along the way). Lo! Theological conviction of God’s perfection and rationality led directly to a viable heliocentric cosmology based on elliptical orbits.

Kepler’s laws arose in their entirety from his intelligent design convictions. Theology formed his predictions, motivated his work and inspired his labour.

“This is exactly what I mean by theologically bound. It
reflects my suspicion that ID ultimately promotes God-of-the-gaps
explanations.” Non sequitur. If closer study of design hypotheses shows design is actually absent from nature, Gap is closed, God is excluded. Only truth is promoted. The opposite result might occur, of course - and if design, like cosmic fine-tuning, pointed to a Creator what of it? Is God cheating if he leaves a fingerprints on the product? That’s an aesthetic argument, not a scientific one - he’s not obligated to wipe them off.

“One immediately thinks of God.” That’s a terrible thing to do of course ... for some reason. But I’m told some BioLogos types quite like thinking of God. It’s not entirely true, of course - in some places one immediately thinks of the world-soul, or maya, or Plato’s realm of forms. The only thing it really excludes is ateleology, the new kid on the block from 1859. But many false ideas have lasted much longer than that and then sunk without trace, and science was stronger for it.

But supposing - just supposing - there actually were an 800lb gorilla in the room? Can one construct a valid argument for excluding it from consideration because it’s interfering with the process of calculating why the furniture keeps breaking?

penman - #66344

December 1st 2011

Jon Garvey #66343
” ‘One immediately thinks of God.’ That’s a terrible thing to do of  course ... for some reason. But I’m told some BioLogos types quite like thinking of God. It’s not entirely true, of course - in some places one immediately thinks of the world-soul, or maya, or Plato’s realm of forms. The only thing it really excludes is ateleology, the new kid on the block from 1859.”

A hugely important caveat to intelligent design. If established, it would not prove the existence of God, let alone the Christian God. I recollect reading a piece by a best-selling popular science writer who argued that our fine-tuned universe may have been created/designed by hyper-intelligent beings from a different universe in the infinite multiverse. How those beings originated I don’t remember him tackling, but I suppose if the multiverse is infinite, infinite regressions don’t matter, & one could always invoke a temporal paradox.

My point is that I don’t see why anyone should fear the possibility of detecting intelligent design. You can remain a non-theist after it is (hypothetically) detected. Strictly all it does is provide a new strand of evidence for the =compatibility= of theism with observed phenomena.

Note, I have no ID axe to grind. My belief that the universe is intelligently designed flows from my theism, rather than vice versa. “I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design” (Newman). But I don’t see why the case for detectable intelligent design shouldn’t be calmly & rationally discussed. And I can’t see why, if we are theists, design shouldn’t be detectable (I’ve never grasped the argument that it would somehow exclude faith).

Jon Garvey - #66345

December 1st 2011


Knowing of your Reformed credentials I realise you understand God as being behind all events to actualise his will - and that’s why it’s no threat to either of our theology should God use nothing but secondary causes in nature. I take that to be the position of many TEs, even outside that strict tradition.

How he does it could said to be in the realm of science - by decreeing laws, initial conditions, overseeing chance etc.

But I want to run with the concept that he does do it for a bit. If he wills an event, like the betrayal of Christ, or the arrival of mankind, then he has by definition designed  it whether he used quantum events, Boyle’s Law or legions of angels.

If being “behind events” does not include designing them, then he did not will them. In other words, he can’t logically be behind them if he doesn’t do them.

For a theist, then, methodological naturalism means believing in design, but working on the assumption that the design is only an illusion of design. Maybe there’s some argument to show you get better results from that assumption, but it sounds to me a bit like those schizophrenic mediaeval scholastics who said that something could be true in the physical world, whereas the contrary was true in theology.

When it comes to the ID question, surely one has ask if it’s possible to will something, even through secondary causes, without any evidence emerging of your being behind it. If it were possible, you have to ask why any agent would want to cover their tracks so well, if not to deceive.

penman - #66370

December 2nd 2011

Hi Jon

Given my “Reformed credentials”, yes, I have a fairly robust view of divine sovereignty. Every entity & event are within the jurisdiction of God’s decree, right down to the fall of a worthless sparrow & the result of the dice-throw. I dare to flatter myself that this is even biblical, not merely Reformed….

I was trying to suggest two different approaches to the detection of intelligent design in the structure of the universe.

1 - I am a Christian theist. Ergo I already believe the universe was intelligently designed. Ergo if I detect specific instances within the structure of the universe that bear empirically verifiable signs of intelligent design, it chimes with & confirms my Christian theism (which I believe on other grounds).

2 - I am not a Christian theist (different starting point). If I detect specific instances within the structure of the universe that
bear empirically verifiable signs of intelligent design, this will not by itself lead me to theism, Christian or otherwise. It could lead me to a number of other beliefs, eg alien super-designers, polytheism, deism, or something else.

However, on the general issue of whether we can detect marks of intelligent design in cosmic structures, I don’t see why not. If someone here thinks such detection would conflict with faith, I’d certainly like to hear their reasoning.

Jon Garvey - #66387

December 2nd 2011

Me too.

ZeroG - #66394

December 2nd 2011

When we find this great intelligent designer we won’t need faith. I can understand how the thought processes inspired by Intelligent Design can get us to look deeper into the mysteries of the universe, but this is a weak argument since we discovered quite a lot in the last 500 years without ID.

There is a lot of problems with ID. How do you define intelligence? Can we even understand intelligence beyond our own? Could we recognize it as such? And design is questionable too. What is design? Design for the end result? Or design of a system that takes on it’s own design over time? Who designed the designer?

What I don’t understand is the goal of ID. The search for ID gets us no closer to the moral God of the Hebrews, which is what Christianity is based. It does nothing to get me to Heaven. It does nothing to get me closer to Jesus. It does nothing to grow my spirituality. In fact, it detracts from it by reducing the greatness of His world down to some logic and reason we mere humans can understand.

This is where ID and faith conflict. It takes us away from Him, not too Him like it is being sold as.

Richard Dawkins said ID is just creationism in a cheap tuxedo. I agree.  

Jon Garvey - #66398

December 3rd 2011


Design was an axiom in science until Darwin, which (a) shows it does not destroy the need for faith and (b) calls for a closer examination of your “500 years” claim. I’ve already cited Kepler’s motivation: could have cited Copernicus, Newton and a host of others. Facts are better than rhetoric.

Can intelligence and design not be defined? Why not, since they undoubtedly exist? Why would it be impossible to distinguish design from illusory design? Would not research show a difference of process? And if not, by what logic would a Christian scientist opt for self-design over real design? Who designed the designer? Why should science stop asking smaller questions if it can’t answer that question? We haven’t sorted who designed the Universe and we still study it.

But wouldn’t you agree it’s odd, though, that someone who accuses ID of destroying faith would raise the atheist “Who designed the designer” argument? Who designed the  Jesus of faith and the moral Hebrew God?

I’m slightly confused by your last point - looking for design in nature takes us away from Jesus, so it doesn’t belong in science: Richard Dawkins somehow agrees (actually your quote is from Leonard Krishtalka).

“It detracts from [spirituality] by reducing the greatness of His world down to some logic and reason we mere humans can understand.” So are you saying that the purpose of real science is to increase spirituality by showing the world is not accessible to human logic and reason? I’m not sure that Richard Dawkins would agree, though he might say it anyway if he thought his audience was more likely to be swayed by sloganeering than careful thought.

“ID is creationsim in a cheap tuxedo.”
“Neodarwinism is design with the jacket on backwards.”

ZeroG - #66399

December 3rd 2011

Hi Jon. Thanks for the well thought out response. I didn’t bring up the questions about design and intelligence because I am trying to separate ID from science. I think they are both on the same side of the coin, along with creationism, Darwinism, neo-Darwinism, and theist evolution. The other side is spirituality, and that is where my faith lies.

I don’t believe in God the physical creator, but I do believe God exists and I do believe Jesus is my savior. I believe God gave me all I have, but I don’t believe he created it physically. For me the creation story is a primitive story of how we became conscious of the universe and where we fit in it.

I don’t know what the label is for this belief, and I would be curious to find out if you know. God gave me the sense of awe when I look at the expanse of the universe. God gave me the emotions felt when reading a poem. God gave me the sense of beauty in art.

Regarding Dawkins (thanks for the correction on the quote), though I am in no way an atheist, he does make some good points, and that is only because Christians are playing in the physical realm where we really don’t have a chance. Christ didn’t come here to give us a glimpse of the ‘designer’, but to show that we are worthy of His love (plus a lot more).

Colossians 2:8 (NKJV) Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

Jon Garvey - #66402

December 3rd 2011

Thanks for your clarification. I’m not sure what the view that makes God the giver and not the Creator is called (maybe a variety of Gnosticism or Catharism).

I guess I’d have to just disagree on three counts:
(a) Theological - the Creatorship of God through Christ is integral to the very chapter before the one you cite as authoritative. But I guess this isn’t the right forum to follow that up too far.
(b) Personal - the urge to worship the Lord for his work in creation is just too basic to me to be switched off. That seems to be widespread - and Scripture itself in several places makes it a starting point for spirituality.
(c) Intellectual - everything I learn about the physical realm points to God. I don’t think that demonstrating that would directly bring many to salvation in Christ, but the pretence that it points to his absence may well (and historically has) led people away from him.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66413

December 6th 2011


If you look at John 1 carefully, you will see that it claims that the Source of the rational order of the universe is in fact the Word/ Logos, Jesus Christ. 

If you take ID mean that the universe has rational order, that is not a uniquely Biblical claim, because much of science and philosophy makes this claim.  However Christianity does make the unique claim that the Person of Jesus Christ is the basis for our understanding of the spiritual, the physical, and the intellectual aspects of the universe. 

This is what I am trying to explore and invite others to join if interested. 

HornSpiel - #66319

November 30th 2011

A fine sounding argument either pro or con does not prove anything unless you really have the background to evaluate the arguments. I admit I do not have the backgound to really evaluate the details. However I believe such an understanding is not necessary to evaluate the real issue, which is not technical but philosophical, or as I have stated above, a matter of definition.

There are a lot of downsides to ID science and few benefits—all of which, I feel, are questionable (see my response below).

penman - #66285

November 28th 2011

jculv #66273

As I understand it, the scientific reasoning would be:

1.  If my theory/hypothesis is correct, then this experiment will produce ______ result.
2.  This experiment produced ________ result.
3.  Therefore, my theory/hypothesis is consistent with the evidence.

If a whole mass of experiments were done, & the hypothesis were consistent with the evidence of all the results, & no other hypothesis (thus far) had that level of consistency, then the hypothesis would acquire a huge plausibility. Scientists would I think accept the hypothesis, & grant it the status of a Theory (capital T). They would probably continue to accept it until some alternative hypothesis became more convincing as an explanation for the observed phenomena.

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