Why scientists dismiss 'intelligent design'

With the recent Amicus Brief, it has become even more relevant to address claims that there is a scientific controversy or discussion about intelligent design. I argue that from a scientific perspective the discussion is already over. ID has shown itself to be scientifically vacuous, based on flawed premises.

I am not alone.

It would ‘become the death of science’. Ker Than reports on the ‘controversy’ surrounding intelligent design, pointing out that a new scientific theory must offer something compelling.

But in order to attract converts and win over critics, a new scientific theory must be enticing. It must offer something that its competitors lack. That something may be simplicity, which was one of the main reasons the Sun-centered model of the solar system was adopted over the Earth-centered one centuries. Or it could be sheer explanatory power, which was what allowed evolution to become a widely accepted theory with no serious detractors among reputable scientists.

So what does ID offer? What can it explain that evolution can’t?

To answer this, it is necessary to examine the two main arguments — irreducible complexity and specified complexity — that ID proponents use to support their claim that a Supreme Being is responsible for many or all aspects of life.

Based on an evaluation of the two main arguments, the author comes to a conclusion similar to that of various others who have asked very similar questions.

After examining ID’s two main arguments, the answers to the original questions — what does ID offer? And what can ID explain that evolution can’t? — is not much and nothing, leading scientists say.

Many others have come to this conclusion:

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 Frank 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.

Scientists, predictably consider ID to be ‘boring’, scientifically speaking

“The most basic problem [with ID] is that it’s utterly boring,” said William Provine, a science historian at Cornell University in New York. “Everything that’s complicated or interesting about biology has a very simple explanation: ID did it.”

Evolution was and still is the only scientific theory for life that can explain how we get complexity from simplicity and diversity from uniformity.

ID offers nothing comparable. It begins with complexity — a Supreme Being — and also ends there. The explanations offered by ID are not really explanations at all, scientists say. They’re more like last resorts. And, scientists argue, there is a danger in pretending that ID belongs next to evolution in textbooks.

“It doesn’t add anything to science to introduce the idea that God did it,” Provine told LiveScience. Intelligent design “would become the death of science if it became a part of science.”

Indeed, when Dembski was asked to present plausible pathways for intelligent design, he responded

Dembski wrote:

As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.

AndyG correctly observed that such a position seems untenable

AndyG wrote:

This seems to me to be a very odd position to take. Bill seems to be saying that the onus is on the biologists to describe in minute detail every step in the evolution of a biochemical system - ideally documenting every DNA mutation that led to such changes - despite the absence of a biochemical fossil record. ID proponents, on the other hand, can dispense with such grunt work, because if a supernatural designer is responsible for the biochemical system in question, then “it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots”. This seems a tad unfair and rather lazy on the part of the ID camp, since they see no need to work out how the thing was designed in the first place. It also serves to shut down research rather effectively - if one concludes something was designed, then Bill seems to be saying that nothing further needs to be done (other than to pass on the conclusions to eager young minds).

If ID is not a mechanistic theory, then how can scientists make use of it? Is Bill really proposing that an ID research program should be devoted exclusively to labeling an object as being intelligently designed and then moving on to the next one?

As far as I can tell, AndyG’s question has been met with an almost predictable level of silence.

But even ID proponents seem to admit that a theory of intelligent design may have a long road ahead of it. Already in 1995, Paul Nelson was looking for a theory of design with positive content

Paul Nelson wrote:

That’s how the problem looks if we presuppose naturalistic evolution. The tiles won’t go into place. From the perspective of design, however, this research problem would very likely never arise. Complex systems with interdependent components, exhibiting specification and small probability, are – according to the theory of design – the products of an intelligent cause.

It seems somewhat strange to me that Paul uses this example, of a gap in our knowledge, to argue that a theory of ID is more than a gap argument.

Paul Nelson wrote:

Once we see that “gaps” are theory-dependent, and that design does not propose to fill the gaps left unsolved by naturalistic evolution, but rather to project its own pattern of explanation and research problems, all that remains of the formidable God-of-the-gaps objection is the problem of induction.

And a formidable problem it really is. If Paul wants to argue that there is a positive theory of design then he has to address how ID resolves the problem of induction. Or, otherwise, ID should not lay claim to having positive content.

Paul ends his article with

Paul Nelson wrote:

And that’s an interesting question, well worth asking and trying to answer. The task is to find a good theory of design and to test it.

Almost a decade later, Paul Nelson is quoted as follows

Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.

Paul Nelson, Touchstone Magazine 7/8 (2004): pp 64 – 65.

Paul’s explanation can be found here. I find his ‘response’ far from enlightening. Especially, given the problems of the main concepts (notions) such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” which basically re-capture the gap argument.

The requirements for a positive theory of design seem to be well outside its present reach.

Paul Nelson wrote:

To do so, of course, we carpenters (or scientific mosaic-builders) must have a theory of design that projects its own patterns into the space established by the question, “How did living things come to be?” It would then not be evolutionary theory telling us what to expect observationally and theoretically, but design (see Figure 6). Some of the so-called “unsolved problems” of evolutionary theory might then become design-based predictions, perhaps framed as proscriptions, that is, as propositions of the form “event or phenomenon x will not occur.”

Unless one considers a gap to be a pattern…