The vacuity of ID: Falsification

Jonathan Witt reports at evolution news on a letter in Newsweek.

George Will says the theory of intelligent design isn’t falsifiable–isn’t “a testable hypothesis.” Actually, particular design arguments are falsifiable. Design theorist Michael Behe, for instance, argues that we can detect design in the bacterial flagellum because the tiny motor needs all of its parts to function at all. That’s a problem for Darwinian evolution, which builds novel form one tiny functional mutation at a time. How to falsify Behe’s argument? Provide a detailed evolutionary pathway from simple ancestor to present motor. The flagellum might still be designed, but Behe’s argument that such design is detectable would have been falsified.

Desperately trying to shed its veil of scientific vacuity, intelligent design and its supporters are trying to give ID some scientific credibility but at what cost? We see the argue move from the realization that Intelligent Design is not falsifiable to ‘particular design arguments [about the flagellum] are falsifiable’ although the flagellum may still be intelligently designed… Wow. Is Witt serious here?….

In this case Jonathan Witt argues that ID is falsifiable and that when science provides a sufficiently specific pathway for the evolution of the flagellum that, although the flagellum may still be designed, a particular claim has been falsified. Note that first of all Intelligent Design is not falsified but a particular claim that because science cannot yet explain the evolution of the flagellum, it is thus designed and this design can be ‘detected’ through our ignorance.

As others before me have pointed out, much of ID’s claims are scientifically vacuous. This response by Jonathan Witt is in my opinion not much different.

Ryan Nichols wrote:

In my argument against Intelligent Design Theory I will not contend that it is not falsifiable or that it implies contradictions. I’ll argue that Intelligent Design Theory doesn’t imply anything at all, i.e. it has no content. By ‘content’ I refer to a body of determinate principles and propositions entailed by those principles. By ‘principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue. By ‘determinate principle’ I refer to a proposition of central importance to the theory at issue in which the extensions of its terms are clearly defined. I’ll evaluate the work of William Dembski because he specifies his methodology in detail, thinks Intelligent Design Theory is contentful and thinks Intelligent Design Theory (hereafter ‘IDT’) grounds an empirical research program.1 Later in the paper I assess a recent trend in which IDT is allegedly found a better home as a metascientific hypothesis, which serves as a paradigm that catalyzes research. I’ll conclude that, whether IDT is construed as a scientific or metascientific hypothesis, IDT lacks content.

Source: Ryan Nichols, Scientific content, testability, and the vacuity of Intelligent Design theory The American Catholic philosophical quarterly, 2003 ,vol. 77 ,no 4 ,pp. 591 - 611


Patrick Fran in On the Assumption of Design concludes that

Abstract The assumption of design of the universe is examined from a scientific perspective. The claims of William Dembski and of Michael Behe are unscientific because they are a-theoretic. The argument from order or from utility are shown to be indeterminate, circular, to rest on psychological as opposed to factual certainty, or to be insupportable as regards humans but possibly not bacteria, respectively. The argument from the special intelligibility of the universe specifically to human science does not survive comparison with the capacities of other organisms. Finally, the argument from the unlikelihood of physical constants is vitiated by modern cosmogonic theory and recrudesces the God-of-the-gaps.


That is, neither claim is grounded in a scientifically valid theoretical matrix. Only a rigorously deductive theory permits a closed prediction, thus risking falsification, and scientific data derive their meaning only in the context of such theory. Absent a deductive, unambiguous, and falsifiable theory of design, there simply cannot be a scientifically valid context for data to be evidence of a design. Data cannot signify design without a scientific theory of design to grant them that significance. This point is implicit in at least one critique. Given this lack of theory, a judgment for design can follow itemization and elimination of all possible sources of spontaneous physical order and complexity. In this light, claiming to have a “design filter” is identical to claiming an ability to exclude every relevant cause and instance of spontaneous order in the universe. This means being able to deploy infinite theoretical and factual knowledge, respectively, about sources of such order. The claim of irreducible complexity is more modest. It alleges an infinitely complete list of all possible channels of organizmal evolution by stating unambiguously that some given biological system could not have arisen through evolutionary process. The claim is not only that there is no evolutionary explanation for the origin of irreducibly complex biological mechanisms, but further that there never will be an evolutionary explanation, in principle. This is an impossible claim, purporting knowledge about the content of future knowledge. In general, then, without a scientifically deductive theory of design, design order can be asserted only when all possible instances of spontaneous physical (or biological) order are factually eliminated. In the absence of either deductive theory or of infinite factual surety one is left with no means to make a judgment. Consequently, an assertion stemming from the a-theoretic position of either Dr Dembski or Professor Behe devolves to one made from ignorance because knowledge infinities are not now available to us, nor are they ever likely to be. Indeed, this refutation of asserted design is already of long-standing.

Jonathan Witt also seems to reject Dembski’s claim that a design inference cannot suffer from false positives. This is very relevant since the possibility of false positives makes a design inference ‘useless’.

By arguing, although incorrectly, that Intelligent Design is falsifiable, Jonathan Witt has undermined the relevancy of the explanatory filter to Intelligent Design.