Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Intelligent Design

I watched the Nova special on PBS last night. It was very interesting and helped me understand the Dover School Board case better than I had understood it from the news coverage of the time. It does seem fairly clear that some members of the school board were looking to balance the teaching of evolution with mention of some more faith-friendly alternative. As explained in the show, judicial precedent has determined such an intention to be unconstitutional. I don’t agree with that interpretation of the Constitution, but I’m not on the Supreme Court, am I? (Many of you are breathing a huge sigh of relief, no doubt.) That’s a topic for another post, perhaps. What I would like to do today is return to the issue of how we define science and look at where Intelligent Design might fit into that picture.

In an earlier post I wrote that science has not always been defined to exclude God as it generally is today. Modern science is about 500 years old. It was not until about 200 years ago, around the beginning of the 19th century, that a number of practitioners began to see it as a purely and essentially secular pursuit. That point of view did not completely prevail until near the end of the 19th century. Earlier scientists such as Newton saw themselves as explicating the wonders of God’s Creation. They saw the regularities in nature as reflecting the logical mind of God. In this view there is still plenty of room for the possibility that God might sometimes perform miracles that are outside the normal flow of natural events.

As I explained in a later post, the new idea that invaded science a couple of centuries ago is materialism, the philosophical belief that the supernatural does not exist. Nature is all there is, so all natural phenomena have a purely natural explanation. There are no miracles because there are no supernatural agents to cause them. It is sometimes granted that this idea is provisional: we proceed as if there were no miracles in order to avoid stopping too soon in our search for natural explanations. In this form the idea is termed methodological materialism and is even accepted by many Christians in the field of science. Judge Jones incorporated this principle explicitly in his Dover decision, citing testimony from Dr. Kenneth Miller (a Christian and an evolutionist).

My concern is with the possibility that we have erred in the other direction. We surely would like to avoid stopping too soon in our search for natural explanations, but how will we determine if we have gone too far? The problem is that philosophical materialism is not science any more than Christianity is. From the perspective of science it is simply a presupposition which informs how we conduct our science. If our presuppositions are wrong our conclusions may be, as well.

Let us consider what would happen if a modern scientist were seeking a scientific explanation for a phenomenon that was actually a miraculous act of God. There may be a number of potential explanations for the phenomenon, both natural and supernatural, but in this case the correct explanation is supernatural. The scientist who rigorously follows the dictates of methodological materialism will select the best explanation from among the potential natural explanations. It may be a poor fit to the data but it is better than the other natural explanations. There is no mechanism for science conducted in this way to recognize when it has made such a mistake. In practice, then, there is no important difference between the supposedly provisional assumption of methodological materialism and true philosophical materialism, i.e., the extra-scientific precommitment to the nonexistence of the supernatural.

I want to suggest that Intelligent Design theory might be at least a partial answer to this problem. I’m not talking about ID as a stalking horse for Biblical creation. I’m talking about the appealing idea that there may be some characteristics of the actions of intelligent agents which allow us to distinguish them from purely natural phenomena. From the criticisms I have read it seems that ID theory may not yet be formulated with sufficient rigor to be useful in practice for this purpose. I would like to suggest that instead of shouting the ID folks out of the room with cries of “That’s not science!” we let them attempt to work through the details and see if it can yield useful insights.

I see the bottom line as the need for a measure of humility in our scientific pursuit of knowledge. Are we willing to acknowledge there might be some limits to the knowledge that can be gained from science? We want to avoid stopping too soon in our search for natural explanations of the world around us, but this desire does not in itself justify the assertion that everything in fact has a natural explanation. If it is possible that God exists and that he is a worker of miracles, then it is possible that some events have no scientific explanation in the normal sense of the word. An open minded person must admit no less.