Richard Feynman on Intelligent Design

Richard Feynman, as far as I know, never commented on intelligent design. But I happened to be rereading his chapter, “Seeking New Laws,” taken from a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1964 (Feynman 1965), when I chanced upon “ID and Falsifiability,” by Francis Beckwith (2004).

Mr. Beckwith is seriously confused, as has been noted in the comments to his essay, if he thinks that the truth or falsity of design theory has any bearing on the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory. Consistently with other creationists, Mr. Beckwith presents a false dichotomy, pretending that the choices are between evolutionary theory and creationism, in this case, intelligent-design creationism. Mr. Beckwith’s thinking is surprisingly black and white. He will do well to heed a warning by Michael Friedlander (1995), a physics professor at Washington University: “There are many more wrong answers than right ones, and they are easier to find.” Science is not a contest between two competing ideologies, with one winning by default if the other is discredited.

The problems with intelligent-design creationism, at any rate, are not limited to falsifiability. A good scientific theory has to be fruitful in the sense that it can solve a wide range of problems or suggest new areas of research. It has to have depth and predictive or explanatory power.

In “Seeking New Laws,” Feynman outlines, in a very simplified form, how a new scientific theory is developed and corroborated.

In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is - if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it. It is true that one has to check a little to make sure that it is wrong, because whoever did the experiment may have reported incorrectly, or there may have been some feature in the experiment that was not noticed, some dirt or something; or the man who computed the consequences, even though it may have been the one who made the guesses, could have made some mistakes in the analysis. These are obvious remarks, so when I say if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong, I mean after the experiment has been checked, the calculations have been checked, and the thing has been rubbed back and forth a few times to make sure that the consequences are logical consequences from the guess, and that in fact it disagrees with a very carefully checked experiment.

This [analysis] will give you a somewhat wrong impression of science. It suggests that we keep on guessing possibilities and comparing them with experiment, and this is to put experiment into a rather weak position. In fact experimenters have a certain individual character. They like to do experiments even if nobody has guessed yet, and they very often do their experiments in a region in which people know the theorist has not made any guesses. . . .

Feynman shows here the critical interplay between theory and experiment. Experimenters and theorists both try to push the limits of what is known. Theorists suggest new experiments, or experimenters challenge theorists with unexplained observations. What experiments has intelligent-design theory suggested? What unexpected observations have challenged intelligent-design theorists? Intelligent design has, in fact, no empirical consequences whatsoever. Scientists will do nothing differently if it is right than if it is wrong. Until intelligent design theory comes up with a testable or falsifiable conclusion, we do not need that hypothesis.

Feynman goes on to discuss how an unexpected experimental result can “start us guessing again,” or lead to new theory. He continues,

You can see, of course, that with this method we can attempt to disprove any definite theory. If we have a definite theory, a real guess, from which we can conveniently compute consequences which can be compared with experiment, then in principle we can get rid of any theory. There is always the possibility of proving any definite theory wrong; but notice that we can never prove it right. Suppose that you invent a good guess, calculate the consequences, and discover every time that the consequences you have calculated agree with experiment. The theory is then right? No, it is simply not proved wrong. . . .

The philosopher of science Philip Kitcher (1982) would call Feynman’s position, as stated here, “naive falsificationism.” But Feynman obviously recognizes that a “wrong” result can lead to an ad hoc hypothesis that itself must be fruitful - would “start us guessing again.” For further discussion and examples, see (Young 2001).

Feynman then notes,

One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law. But experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. . . .

Indeed. And intelligent-design theory would bring to a dead standstill further study of, say, the origin of the bacterial flagellum, because it presumes in advance that the flagellum was designed, did not evolve. Intelligent-design creationism is at its core antiscientific.

Feynman continues,

Another thing I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and rather vague, and the method that you use for figuring out the consequences is a little vague - you are not sure, and you say, ‘I think everything’s right because it’s all due to so and so, and such and such[,] do this and that more or less, and I can sort of explain how this works . . .’, then you see that this theory is good, because it cannot be proved wrong! Also if the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental results can be made to look like the expected consequences. . . .

He gives a hypothetical example of a psychological diagnosis that comes out the same whether the mother was over- or underindulgent (see [Young 2001] for concrete examples) and concludes

It is usually said when this [that the diagnosis does not depend on the quantity of indulgence] is pointed out, ‘When you are dealing with psychological matters things can’t be defined so precisely’. Yes, but then you cannot claim to know anything about it.

The same is true of the intelligent designer. If we cannot define any of its properties, cannot draw any fruitful inferences from the theory of intelligent design, then we cannot claim to know anything about either intelligent design theory or the intelligent designer.

Notes and references.

John Wilkins, Mark Perakh, Timothy Sandefur, Andrea Bottaro, and Steve Reuland offered suggestions and constructive criticisms.

Asking whether intellligent-design theory is falsifiable is like asking whether psychology is falsifiable. All we can do is test some of its claims. We can fairly say, for example, that William Dembski’s explanatory filter has been falsified by the existence of false positives. See Perakh, Mark, 2004, Unintelligent Design, Prometheus, Amherst, New York, Chap. 1, “A Consistent Inconsistency”; and Young, Matt, 2004, “Dembski’s Explanatory Filter Delivers a False Positive,”

Beckwith, Francis, 2004, “ID and Falsifiability,”

Feynman, Richard, 1965, The Character of Physical Law, MIT Press, Cambridge, Chap. 7, “Seeking New Laws.”

Friedlander, Michael W., 1995, At the Fringes of Science, Westview, Boulder, Colorado.

Kitcher, Philip, Abusing Science: The Case against Creationism, MIT Press, Cambridge, Chap. 2, “Believing where We Cannot Prove.”

Young, Matt, 2001, No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, 1st Books Library, Bloomington, Indiana,