Make that "failed scientific hypothesis."
A Kalamazoo (MI) resident defends evolutionary theory and makes the point that has been made many times before, that intelligent design is not a scientific theory.
Disclaimer: I do not think there is any merit to intelligent design. I believe that there is no system/structure/pathway/organ/organ that's irreducibly complex, and I believe that life originated and evolved by natural processes without the aid of any designer of any kind, whether scientists will be able to verify how all such systems, etc., originated or not.
From Kalamazoo the word is this.
Intelligent design is a philosophy. There is no test we can run to check intelligent [design], so it can never be considered a scientific theory. Therefore Intelligent Design should never be taught in a science classroom. It should be taught in philosophy class instead. That's still true.Why is it that intelligent design is not a scientific theory? Is it really not?
The problem is that to verify (i.e. prove beyond any doubt) that a system is not designed by an intelligence, we have to show that there is no way it could have evolved (here meaning appeared by natural processes only). If one scientists have given up finding an explanation for, say, the origin of life (abiogenesis), he may conclude that there is just no way it could have happened by natural means, and that it must have come about by design. However, another scientist might have a go at an explanation, and when she gives up, a third may come along keeping up our hopes (if, like me, that's what we hope for). There is no way to completely dismiss the idea that a system has evolved by natural means, and many people, like our hero from Kalamazoo, thus concludes that the theory of intelligent design is thus not a scientific theory (since to qualify as 'scientific', a theory must be falsifiable).
While I, and I repeat, do not think that there is any need to invoke a designer to explain anything observed in nature, I also do not think that there is a strong enough reason that intelligent design should not have status as a scientific theory. Please let me explain before you run away and accuse me of heresy...
The notion of falsifiability comes from Karl Popper, and is largely agreed upon by anyone who knows the first thing about science. It means that to be scientific, a theory must be falsifiable.
However, nothing in science can be verified with complete certainty. There are no P-values that equal zero. That then means that we can never be sure that we have the right explanation for anything. Ever. We can be pretty god damn sure, if we keep testing our hypothesis and the evidence always confirms it. But that's how things are, and we are content enough that that's all we can do. People who believe science works another way are mistaken. Grrr!
Let's return now to intelligent design, and the specific hypothesis that the origin of life is irreducibly complex. Can I falsify this? Why, yes I can. If I find a way that it could work by natural means, then that would do the job. That hypothesis in turn would then have to survive all attacks of falsification, but if it does, then it's one up for nature, and zero for the intelligent designer. The problem with intelligent design is then that it can just move on to another system, and say "well, okay, origin of life could have happened by natural processes, but how about the flagellum, eh?" And then real scientists would go to work on that system, and when they, after years and years of toiling, have satisfied most everyone in the scientific community who cares enough to comment, then we can also rules out flagellum as having been under the knife of our hypothesized designer. Two-nil for nature. But... then a third structure is posited as irreducibly complex, and the scientific process starts all over again (hopefully funding doesn't run out in the meantime).
Repeat this ad infinitum, and someone might still suppose that some other system is irreducibly complex, right? Well, no. For two reasons. First, at least in principle, there is actually a finite number of systems (or of anything, for that matter, in a finite Universe - or at least on our very finite Earth). So, at least in principle, it is actually possible to falsify the claim that there is at least one such intelligently designed system among organismal life forms on Earth. If you object that that will never happen, you'd be quite right. In that case, recall that in science we don't actually need to be so certain to accept a claim as scientific fact. We just have to falsify a thing a good and solid number of times, and I don't see any reason why this should not apply to the hypotheses of intelligent design theory. On second thought, let me rephrase that. There is no good reason why it would not be enough to falsify specific claims of irreducibly complexity a finite (and manageable) number of times in order to falsify the larger claim that there are any such irreducibly complex systems at all.
The state of things is that many of the systems that Michael J. Behe in Darwins Black Box claimed were irreducibly complex have been shown beyond scientific doubt to not be irreducibly complex. That includes the blood clotting cascade, the flagellum, eyes, and most recently there is now a lot of buzz about a soon-to-be famous experiment by Lincoln and Joyce, who in an experiment with RNA have shown one possible way that non-living enzymes could use monomers to make copies of themselves for as long as they shall live. That's admittedly only a few out of the many systems that could be posited to be designed. But it's a very good start. We are on our way to falsify the claim that there are any systems that are irreducibly complex, and thus we tentatively conclude that there is no system that is designed.
Thus (and thank you for reading this far) I don't see any problem calling intelligent design a scientific theory. It's a failed scientific theory, though. None of it's claim have so far held up. I predict that some years hence it will have no serious adherents anymore, by which I mean scientists who are not hellbent on a God Proof. There are those around, I am aware. Those who will not face the facts, and who dismiss evidence when it flies in their faces. Science - this wonderful endeavor for knowledge - has no need for people like that.
Lastly, I would like to caution those who too readily dismiss scientific claims because those who claim them are religious people out to prove their foregone conclusions. While such a predisposition toward a religious agenda certainly does not shine a fair light in search for knowledge, it also does not devastate it. In fact, recall that many famous and revered scientists were not just religious, but also out to prove the existence of God through examining his wonderful creation. In other words, the origin of intelligent design may be one of creationism (okay, it is), but Tycho Brahe did not observe the heavens, laying the foundation of Kepler's laws, leading to Newton's laws, et cetera, et cetera, because he was interested in nature. He did it because the Danish King at the time commissioned him to make precise observations of the planets so accurate horoscopes could be constructed. No one in their right mind would dismiss that famous Dane's contribution to science because his motives were astrological.
Update 6/15/2009: I realize now hat I have been conflating Intelligent Design and irredicible complexity. Apologies. I no longer stand by the previous statements that ID is scientific, but only that IC is a scientific hypothesis.
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