In response to “Behe’s bait and switch: on the falsifiability of intelligent design,” EnlightenmentLiberal comments:
I’ll take the stronger position that you can falsify intelligent design outright, and that is has been falsified, along with the rest of supernatural claims.
The following paper includes the simple and obvious argument that every supernatural explanation in the past has never born out, or it’s been falsified, and investigations into “natural” causes and mechanisms has worked out pretty well, and therefore, the only reasonable conclusion is that there are no supernatural forces.
> How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism
> (final draft – to appear in Foundations of Science)
> Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, Johan Braeckman
In the following blog post, PZ Myers makes much the same argument through metaphor.
Sean Carroll makes a particular and stronger form of this argument, which is that with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the standard model of physics is complete, and the fundamental physics of everyday life is entirely known, and there is no room in known physics for supernatural forces due to the math and rules of quantum field theory and the standard model. The only way to insert supernatural forces is to invoke special pleading, contrary to all accumulated evidence. Sean Carroll makes this argument in several places IIRC, including this public talk / lecture:
> Particles, Fields and The Future of Physics – A Lecture by Sean Carroll
As is often the case in these discussions, much depends on how we define the terms, in particular ‘falsify’ and ‘intelligent design’. I think EnlightenmentLiberal and I are on more or less the same page when it comes to defining intelligent design. Since I was responding to a specific argument by Michael Behe, I did my best to define it in a way that is consistent with his thinking:
By “intelligent design” I mean to imply design beyond the laws of nature. That is, taking the laws of nature as given, are there other reasons for concluding that life and its component systems have been intentionally arranged?
We know that Dr. Behe accepts the evidence for both common descent and natural selection. He’s said as much on many occasions, for example in The Edge of Evolution:
Common descent is true. [p. 72]
…there’s also great evidence that random mutation paired with natural selection can modify life in important ways. [p. 3]
So Dr. Behe’s view is that evolution (meaning just change over time in this case) results from a combination of natural and supernatural (“beyond the laws of nature”) factors. Not everyone in his camp agrees about common descent, for example Casey Luskin, Jonathan M., Stephen C. Meyer, Jonathon Wells, and John G. West spend much of their time arguing against it (and for this reason I think it’s fair to call them creationists). Yet my sense from reading what other cdesign proponentsists have to say is that most of them believe in a combination of natural and supernatural factors.
Perhaps the minimal statement of intelligent design is “supernatural factors have, on one or more occasions, played a role in biological evolution.” There are certainly stronger ways to formulate it, for example “supernatural factors play a large role in biological evolution” or “supernatural factors play the dominant role in biological evolution.” But the first definition is minimal in the sense that if it doesn’t fit that description, it’s not intelligent design. Furthermore (and this is relevant to Dr. Behe’s argument that evolution is not falsifiable), if that statement is true, if supernatural factors have ever played a role in evolution (or anything else), then the materialist worldview is false.
Now what about falsification? I think EnlightenmentLiberal and I mean different things by this. I agree that “the only reasonable conclusion is that there are no supernatural forces.” I agree that “The only way to insert supernatural forces is to invoke special pleading, contrary to all accumulated evidence.” But I mean something more formal by falsification, something more along the lines of Karl Popper: could any conceivable experiment ever, in principle, demonstrate that intelligent design is false?
As a sidenote, I’m aware that there are problems with Popper’s view. Falsification isn’t the be-all and end-all of science, and Popper didn’t definitively resolve the demarcation problem. But my post was responding to a specific claim by Dr. Behe: intelligent design is falsifiable, “…open to direct experimental rebuttal.”
Suppose my claim is this: in some human ancestor, some time between the origin of life and the Pliocene, an omniscient creator intervened to cause a mutation (my claim doesn’t specify which one). Through its omniscience, the creator foresaw that this particular mutation at this particular time in this particular individual would have a butterfly effect leading, through subsequent natural processes, to the evolution of humans.
Is it reasonable to think this? No. It’s an extraordinary claim, and I’ve provided no evidence, only my assertion that it happened. Is it special pleading? You bet, but here I am pleading it. Can you falsify it? Not a chance. I haven’t specified which mutation, so you’d have to show that every mutation in every human ancestor back to the origin of life occurred naturally. Some of those mutations have subsequently been lost, so you’d need a time machine. Let’s say you have one (this is “in principle”, remember), and that you have identified every mutation in every human ancestor. How will you distinguish random mutations from divinely caused ones?
Regarding Boudry et al., I read this differently. Their argument is that a lack of falsifiability is not an intrinsic problem with all supernatural explanations:
We conclude that the argument from ‘intrinsic unfalsifiability’ misconstrues typical immunization strategies and ad hoc manoeuvres of creationists as general and intrinsic problems with supernatural explanations. [emphasis in the original]
I agree. Some supernatural claims are falsifiable. But Boudry et al. don’t even argue that intelligent design as it is actually formulated is falsifiable:
If a hypothesis is designed to be immune to falsification, scientists are justified in dismissing it, and in that sense we completely agree with Scott and Pigliucci. Critics have also pointed out that proponents of supernatural claims, notably IDC theorists, often make use of evasive manoeuvres that render their theories immune to empirical falsification. For example, in response to the argument from imperfection and bad design, Michael Behe has simply replied that we cannot gather any scientific information about the character and intentions of the Designer, that His reasons are unfathomable and that any speculation about them is pure metaphysics.
So Boudry et al. are arguing that even though intelligent design could be formulated in such a way as to be falsifiable:
Thus, if only they chose to do so, IDC proponents could easily equip an alleged supernatural Designer with specific attributes and intentions in such a way that the design hypothesis would yield unexpected predictions and is not “compatible with any and all observations of the natural world,”
the way it generally is formulated is “…immune to empirical falsification.”
As for PZ Myers “Thor” example, I take this too as supporting my position. Just like intelligent design, his encounter with a hungry god of thunder is unfalsifiable. It’s certainly an extraordinary claim, and there’s no actual evidence that it happened, but I can’t prove that it didn’t. If I’ve badly misinterpreted the metaphor, maybe Dr. Myers can weigh in to set me straight.
So I think EnlightenmentLiberal and I are arguing different things. He is saying (and again, feel free to correct me) that supernatural explanations in general have such a miserable track record (“never born out”) that it’s reasonable to dismiss them, and I agree. Unless and until we’re presented with evidence more compelling than “it’s too complex to have evolved naturally,” the natural mechanisms that we know work remain the preferred explanation. But, at least the way I think about falsifiability, Dr. Behe’s arguments and intelligent design arguments in general are not falsifiable. They’re designed not to be. No pun intended.