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May 20 2005

The comparison with Darwin and ID

I am a bit of a veteran of the battles that have been waged by so-called intelligent design (ID) advocates to challenge science in general and the theory of evolution in particular. Although not a biologist, I have always had an interest in both physics and the underlying philosophy of science. In the mid-to-late 1990′s I was in the process of writing my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (which was published in 2000), and it was towards the end of that period that the ID advocates started getting more vocal, at least in Ohio. I was initially drawn to the discussion because of their claim that ID was a scientific theory, which naturally raises the question of what makes a theory, any theory, scientific. As this was a central topic of my book, I looked into ID ideas, although not in any great depth at that time.

But after the book was written, I started looking more closely into what the ID advocates were saying. Initially, I knew little about ID and so was open to the suggestion that there might be something of interest there, and wrote some articles that suggested that the so-called ‘science wars’ (which was a broader intellectual struggle around the knowledge claims of science that involved, amongst other groups, post-modern critics of scientific knowledge as well as the ID people) were being waged with too much animosity on all sides, and I called for a more amicable dialogue. This resulted in my being approached by ID advocates to speak at some of their functions, although they knew that I was still skeptical of ID claims that it was a scientific theory.

I attended a program organized by the ID people in Kansas in the summer of 2002 and also spoke at Hillsdale College in the fall of 2002. At these events I encountered some of the key ID proponents such as Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, and listened to their arguments and talked to many of their ID supporters. I also met with Phillip Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at UC Berkeley who has been one of the most vocal ID proponents, when he visited Case at the invitation of a student group.

The discussions were cordial and thoughtful, but the more I got to know about ID, the less merit there seemed to be in the claims that ID belonged in science. Usually, when one looks more closely at something, one realizes that there are inherent complexities and subtleties that make it hard to make unequivocal judgments about it. The Copernican Revolution, that was the substance of a series of recent postings, illustrates this point.

In the case of ID, however, the opposite occurred, at least for me. The more closely I looked at it, the clearer it became to me that it did not belong in science. Scientifically speaking, there was nothing there.

If ID is not scientific, does that it mean it must be a religion? That conclusion does not automatically follow although it is true that in my encounters with ID supporters at these various forums, they seemed to be all Christians, with many of them being young Earth creationists, i.e. people who believe that the age is less than 10,000 years old, advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible, and are convinced that all the events described in it are historically true. Even the more sophisticated ID proponents seemed to be overtly Christian of a particular kind. Maybe there are non-religious ID advocates somewhere out there but I have not encountered them. And the wedge document makes it clear that the goal of ID supporters is to bring back their particular interpretation of Christianity into all aspects of life, and make it the basis of public policy. Attacking evolutionary theory is just the first step in this strategy.

But if ID is not scientific (as I assert) then what is it? Whether there exists a strict demarcation criterion that enables one to look at any given theory and decide whether it falls into a box labeled ‘science’ or another box labeled ‘non-science’ (or another box labeled ‘religion’), has been called the ‘demarcation problem’ by philosophers and historians of science. There seems to be a consensus among this community of scholars that the demarcation problem has not been solved yet, and some (such as Larry Laudan) argue that it may be futile to try and find such criteria. (See Laudan’s article The Demise of the Demarcation Problem published in the book But is it science? edited by Michael Ruse.)

But the fact that a strict demarcation criterion has yet to be found does not mean that we cannot say anything specific at all about whether ID belongs in science. But it does mean that we have to look closely at the role that necessary and sufficient conditions play in making such judgments. This will be the subject of a future posting.

POST SCRIPT
I received yesterday the first print copies of my latest book The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine. It goes on general sale on May 30th. While I take pride in having written it, for some reason, it feels anti-climactic. I always feel this way after I publish something. Maybe it is because there is such a long period between the completion of the writing and the actual appearance of the book or article, but seeing it is like seeing something from a past life, sort of disconnected. Weird.

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