Paul Nelson has actually responded to a challenge in a timely fashion. I am shocked. Of course, his response is ineffectual and wrong, so ultimately I’m not too surprised at all.
Nelson complains that the question of whether ID should be taught in the schools was actually not the formal issue of the debate, and hammering him on that topic is inappropriate; OK, fair enough, but he has to appreciate that that is our immediate concern. ID itself is boring and uninteresting and various versions of it have been held by individuals for a long time…the only difference now is that we have this well-funded institute pushing to have ID enshrined in public policy. Any debate on this matter is going to have to address it, otherwise it is a purely evasive exercise designed to put up a pretense of scientific legitimacy—a subterfuge to support the credibility of the Discovery Institute’s policy and education aims.
He wants to focus the argument on the sufficiency of methodological naturalism to explain the history of life on earth. In part, he basically wants to make a god of the gaps argument, highlighting any inadequacies in modern understanding of evolution as an indictment of the principle that methodological naturalism works, or can work. He tries to claim, most unconvincingly, that naturalism is a “stultifying” principle, and raises what he thinks is a show-stopper of a question.
Ask oneself a simple question. Suppose life actually were designed by a nonhuman intelligence — would methodological naturalism allow us to discover that? If the answer is no, then methodological naturalism hinders scientific discovery and dictates the shape of reality as thoroughly as philosophical naturalism. If the answer is yes, then methodological naturalism is superfluous and says nothing more than that science should be empirical and testable.
If it stops anyone, though, it’s because it is such a wooly-headed mess of a question.
First of all, his premise is loaded and misleading; “designed by a nonhuman intelligence” does not imply an unnatural cause. There is nothing in the basic idea of an alien intervention that is outside the bounds of possible natural events, and so of course the appropriate answer is “yes”, in principle, and we can say that without defying methodological naturalism in any way. If he is postulating in his usual underhanded way something more—a miracle from a divine being outside our universe—then we would still have to say “yes”, and the gang at the Discovery Institute would have to agree. Isn’t that the whole ID/Scientific Creationism research program, to find explanations for and correlates of a mysterious intervention, using the tools (or at least the trappings) of science? If Cthulhu poofed a swarm of flying squid into existence above the city of Morris, I’d have to say that their origin might well be unnatural, but the evidence of their existence would still be at hand.
The conclusion that saying “yes” means science is “nothing more” than empirical and testable is fine with me, although implying that that is something trivial is bothersome. Saying that science is a process grounded in well-established techniques that are known to work, that continue to drive progress, and are universally accessible seems like a powerful statement to me.
The really damning thing to me, though, is that while Nelson is whimpering that we cruel dogmatic scientists exclude his alternative, more inclusive methods from the domain of science, he never tells us what ID adds to our toolbox. He says that what he wants is that “All that any ID theorist could ask is to have his or her case evaluated on its merits, in light of the evidence.” In light of the evidence? That just sounds like methodological naturalism to me. So what is he doing complaining about methodological materialism in the first place?
If there is something else, some other way of learning about the world that doesn’t involve observation and experiment and the empirical accumulation of data, he should spell it out. As it is, Nelson is confusing the process with the outcome; his real complaint is not with methodological naturalism, but that scientists haven’t concluded that a nonhuman intelligence created life on earth…a conclusion which he has not supported with evidence.