Laudan, demarcation and the vacuity of Intelligent design

Larry Laudan, philosopher of science and Senior Investigator at the Instituto de las Investigaciones Filosóficas, National Autonomous University of Mexico, is often quoted by ID activists in support of their claims about the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem basically is a philosophical argument about how to define what is and is not science. Larry Laudan strongly criticized the ruling by Judge Overton in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Laudan argued that contrary to Overton’s decision creation science is in fact testable, tentative and falsifiable.

Laudan is also the author of “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”, printed in Michael Ruse’s “But Is It Science?”. The Discovery Institute and its various contributors have made extensive use of Laudan’s position on the demarcation problem. Ironically, it seems that Larry Laudan holds some very strong opinions in this area. In an article called On Methodological Naturalism and Intelligent Design (or Why Can’t Lawrence VanDyke Leave Well Enough Alone?) Brian Leiter simply went down the hallway to talk to his colleague Laudan.

Leiter: I’ve not only perused Beckwith’s book, I’ve read large parts of it, and it might be said on VanDyke’s behalf that the book is, in many respects, as misleading as VanDyke’s review (Beckwith is a bit more careful on certain crucial points than VanDyke, to be sure–but a competent book reviewer might have noted, rather than parotting, Beckwith’s misleading claims). My colleague Larry Laudan is, needless to say, well beyond being amazed anymore by the gross misrepresentations of his views–and of issues in the philosophy of science–in law reviews and by proponents of ID. (Didn’t it occur to VanDyke that I might walk down the hall and point out his nonsense to Laudan? He just rolled his eyes and chuckled.)

Leiter continues to explain:

Leiter wrote:

Beckwith invokes Laudan on two main points.

First, Beckwith notes that Laudan, like every other major philosopher of science now alive, thinks that the “demarcation problem” that exercised mid-20th-century philosophy of science—how do we demarcate science from non-science, or genuinely cognitive domains from nonsense—can not be solved. This now banal piece of philosophical wisdom goes no distance, obviously, towards showing that ID and creationism aren’t bad science, with nothing to commend them as research programs–which Laudan clearly believes, as Beckwith correctly notes. Has VanDyke read Beckwith’s book?

If so, he might have also noted that Beckwith quotes Laudan [at 25] noting that ID “is inconsistent with methodological naturalism and ontological materialism…[b]ut that fact has no bearing whatsoever on the plausbility of the arguments for ID.” Why does Laudan say that? Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN. The problem is purely a posteriori: ID has no research program and no empirical support, so it presents no challenge at all to the reliance on naturalistical explanatory mechanisms. Laudan thinks talk of “pseudo-science” is misleading in the absence of a solution to the demarcation problem; Laudan has no reservations about talk about “good” and “bad” science as measured by their results and the evidence on behalf of their claims.

Laudan, in other words, may not believe in the demarcation problem but he surely accepts the notion of good and bad science. So how is the determination of the quality of science made? Simply by looking at its contributions to our scientific knowledge, the presence of a research program, the level of empirical support and the challenges it makes to the reigning scientific explanations.

In this context it is helpful to remind our readers of the work by Ryan Nichols who observed that Intelligent Design is vacuous, dealing directly with Laudan’s objections to the demarcation principle by determining how relevant ID is in generating relevant scientific contributions which follow directly from its basic principles. Nichols shows how IDT is without any content either as a scientific theory or meta-theory.

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

When I raised the concept of scientific vacuity in an earlier posting, some ID activists were quick to argue that my argument would run afoul of the demarcation problem, unaware of the fact that I was not claiming that ID was or was not science but rather that ID was “bad” science in the sense that it lacks content.


Laudan’s work is quite extensive and I am merely touching on the top of the iceberg. Nevertheless, a picture emerges in which Laudan argues for the fertility of theories and not necessarily the truth level. In addition, Laudan seems to promote a form of naturalism called ‘epistemic naturalism’ in which science and the philosophy of science co-evolve.

Laudan’s approach is meant to resolve not only the concept of consensus finding but also the existence of disagreement. Since the typical hierarchical model relies on three successive stages, the following problem can arise:

Howard Sankey wrote:

For where scientists disagree about the aims of their enterprise, no appeal can be made to common goals to resolve lower-level disputes about methodological or factual matters. Given that scientific disputes are to be resolved at a higher level, the hierarchical model does not possess the resources to explain resolution of disputes arising at the top of the hierarchy.

Laudan proposed a method to avoid these complications:

Howard Sankey wrote:

To remedy this situation, Laudan proposes an alternative model on which cognitive aims are also brought within the range of rational appraisal (ibid., pp. 62-64). Laudan sketches a reticulated model of scientific rationality, on which aims, methods and factual beliefs form a network of shifting and interdependent justificatory relations. On this model, justification runs up and down the hierarchy, rather than being restricted to descent from top to bottom. Thus, not only may aims justify methods and theories, but factual information may be relevant to the appraisal of methods, and theories provide constraints on appropriate cognitive goals. Furthermore, considerations about available methods may shape scientists’ views about the attainability of specific cognitive goals. Given the reticulated nature of justificatory relations, changes that take place at one or more levels of the hierarchy may be warranted on the basis of factors obtaining at any other level of the hierarchy

Howard Sankey Normative Naturalism and the Challenge of Relativism: Laudan versus Worrall on the Justification of Methodological Principles

Similarly Freedman in Laudan’s Naturalistic Axiology describes the evolving nature of epistemic naturalism

Freedman wrote:

Laudan’s reticulated model of scientific rationality is supposed to reveal an aspect of science that the traditional model fails to account for:4 rational aim change. The reticulated model is represented by Laudan as a triad consisting of theory, methodology, and axiology. On this model, each of these elements influence one another: justification flows both upward and downward in the hierarchy.5 The reticulated model, in Laudan’s opinion, better captures the “complex process of mutual adjustment and mutual justification going on among all three levels of scientific commitment”(1984, p.62). Significantly, with the reticulated model, no one level is more privileged than another. Aims are no longer construed as inflexible, nor are they the final court of appeal. Aims are informed by theories and methods, just as theories and methods are informed by aims. Furthermore, change within any triad, according to Laudan, is not wholesale (e.g. as Kuhn would have it), but rather piecemeal (1984, p.65).

Larry Laudan How about Bust? Factoring Explanatory Power Back into Theory Evaluation Philosophy of science, Vol. 64, No. 2. (Jun., 1997), pp. 306-316.

For the last two decades, I have been arguing that, in the appraisal of theories and hypotheses, what does (and what should) principally matter to scientists is not so much whether those hypotheses are true or probable. What matters, rather, is the ability of theories to solve empirical problems-a feature that others might call a theory’s explanatory or predictive power.

Larry Laudan Normative Naturalism Philosophy of science, Vol. 57, No. 1. (Mar., 1990), pp. 44-59.

My own favorite flavor of naturalism is the epistemic variety. Epistemic naturalism is not so much an epistemology per se as it is a theory about philosophic knowledge: in very brief compass, it holds that the claims of philosophy are to be adjudicated in the same ways that we adjudicate claims in other walks of life, such as science, common sense and the law. More specifically, epistemic naturalism is a meta-epistemological thesis: it holds that the theory of knowledge is continuous with other sorts of theories about how the natural world is constituted. It claims that philosophy is neither logically prior to these other forms of inquiry nor superior to them as a mode of knowing. Naturalism thereby denies that the theory of knowledge is synthetic a priori (as Chisholm would have it), a set of “useful conventions” (as Popper insisted), a proto-scientific investigations” (in the Lorenzen sense) or the lackluster alternative to “edifying conversation” (in Rorty’s phrase).

In other words, Laudan’s position is that one cannot reject something as being science or non-science a-priori but that such distinctions follow a-posteriori when good science is separated from bad science.

Crudely put, the normative naturalist holds that the best methods for inquiry are those which produce the most impressive results. He thus uses an ampliative yardstick for judging ampliative rules.

In another paper titled “Methodology’s Prospects”, PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1986, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers. (1986), pp. 347-354, Laudan looks at methodology and outlines a general theory of inquiry

Laudan wrote:

Let us begin with basics. Science is a form of inquiry, not the only form to be sure, but probably its most impressive. Methodology is the study of how to conduct inquiry effectively. Methodology is thus both a form of inquiry and the study of inquiry. There is an obvious self-reflexivity there, but not of the vicious sort. The methodology of science is the study of how to conduct scientific inquiry. Inquiry–whether scientific or otherwise-begins, to but it in the simplest possible way, by raising questions or posing problems. It carries on by proposing answers to those questions, or solutions to those problems. Inquiry terminates, at least pro temporem, by the provision of satisfactory answers or problem solutions.

So far so good. We have methodology and inquiry but how about methodology, and Laudan’s claim that methodology is contingent?

Laudan wrote:

This claim of mine about the contingency of methodology appears to trouble many philosophers. They would like to believe that methodological rules are derivable purely a priori and that they enjoy the status of logical necessities. As I have already said, however, the view that methodological rules can be derived a priori or that they would be true in all possible worlds is wholly implausible. Inquirers with sensory capacities different from ours, inquirers with neurophysiologies different from ours, and inquirers just like us but in a world constituted differently from the way this one is would all be well advised to use means for realizing the aims of inquiry other than those which we find efficacious.

But if the contingency of methodology makes our task more complex, in that we need more than our apriori intuitions to do it (see Laudan 1986), that very contingency points the direction to solving the problem of the warrant for methodological rules. Specifically, I hold that the correctness of a methodological rule (of the form “if one’s goal is x, one ought to do y”) presupposes* the truth of the claim that “doing y can realize x, or bring one closer to the realization of x”. More than that, the acceptability of a methodological rule rests on our having grounds for believing that “doing y is more likely to realize x than doing any alternative course of action open to us”. And that means that the acceptability of a methodological rule depends on our having in hand relevant empirical evidence or theoretical arguments concerning the relative frequency with which doings of y (and its known alternatives) lead to the realization of x.

It should be clear by now that Laudan’s position is of little relevance to Intelligent Design and in fact is an indictment of Intelligent Design because ID lacks in empirical relevancy.

An incomplete list of ID activists (Google Search) who refer to Laudan in their defense of “Intelligent Design”

  • Stephen C Meyer in The Methodological Equivalence of Design & Descent: Can There Be a Scientific “Theory of Creation”? Reprinted from The Creation Hypothesis, ed. by J.P. Moreland (InterVarsity Press, 1994) Meyer wrote:

    The “demise of the demarcation problem,” as Laudan calls it, implies that the use of positivistic demarcationist arguments by evolutionists is, at least prima facie, on very slippery ground. Laudan’s analysis suggests that such arguments are not likely to succeed in distinguishing the scientific status of descent vis-a#2-vis design or anything else for that matter. As Laudan puts it, “If we could stand up on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like ‘pseudo-science.’. . . They do only emotive work for us.”

    If philosophers of science such as Laudan are correct, a stalemate exists in our analysis of design and descent. Neither can automatically qualify as science; neither can be necessarily disqualified either. The a priori methodological merit of design and descent are indistinguishable if no agreed criteria exist by which to judge their merits. PvM: In fact Laudan considers Methodological Naturalism an a-posterio concept and there is where Intelligent Design fails to be fruitful

  • David De Wolf, Stephen Meyer, Mark DeForrest in Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula A Legal Guidebook

    As noted earlier, Laudan’s critique suggests that when the specific demarcation criteria promulgated in McLean are applied rigidly, they disqualify both Darwinism and various non-materialistic alternatives. Yet, as his discussion of falsification suggests, if certain criteria are applied more liberally, then both theories may qualify as scientific.

    More recent studies in the philosophy of science have confirmed and amplified Laudan’s analysis.46 They suggest that philosophically neutral criteria do not exist that can define science narrowly enough to disqualify theories of creation or design without also disqualifying Darwinism and other materialistic evolutionary theories on identical grounds PvM: Of course the simple observation that ID is scientifically vacuous should be evidence enough. As Laudan and others have argued, the status and merit of competing origins theories must be decided on the basis of empirical evidence and argument, not on abstract philosophical or methodological litmus tests. Yet as we have seen, design theorists in particular make extensive appeals to such empirical evidence and argument. Moreover, their arguments are now informed by an empirically based and mathematically sophisticated theory for detecting design. If design theory has both theoretical and evidential support, and if it meets abstract definitional criteria of scientific status equally well as its main theoretical rivals, then it is natural to ask, On what grounds can design theory be excluded from the public school science curriculum? PvM: ID activists appeal to empirical evidence ONLY to argue against evolutionary theories. On what grounds can ID be excluded from the public school curriculum ? Because it is scientifically vacuous and thus lacks a clear secular motive which combined with its entanglement with religious motivations and foundations makes it unconstitutional. But I am not a lawyer so perhaps we should listen to a judge.

  • Stephen C Meyer in Expert Report Part 3: The Failure of Demarcation Arguments
  • Will Robert Pennock Become the Next Michael Ruse? Evolution News & Views Center for the renewal of science and culture.

    In the Dover trial, Robert Pennock is the Plaintiffs’ expert on the philosophy of science, and Pennock pushed hard for a definition of science which is essentially “methodological naturalism.” PvM: What is wrong in showing how Methodologial Naturalism leads to good science a-posteriori? Laudan would have been proud of Pennock. Pennock wrote: Q. How do philosophers of science distinguish between science and non-science?

    A. Philosophers of science focus on what scientists do. If one does philosophy of art, then one looks at what artists do. So our primary starting point is the practices, the concepts of science. So we’ll look at the nature of evidence for example, the basic characteristics that we expect to find that we will start with is that science is a practice that deals with examining questions about the natural world, giving explanations about the natural world in terms of natural law, and offering hypotheses that can be tested against the natural world. Pennock’s testimony during Kitzmiller During Cross Mr Gillen asked the following question Q. Are you familiar with the work of Larry Laudan, L-A-U-D-A-N?

    A. Yes, Larry Laudan was a philosopher of science who actually has been a previous professor at the university where I did my work.

    Q. And Larry Laudan said he believes that creationism is science, it’s just bad science, correct?

    A. You’re referring to a particular article that Laudan wrote that Michael Ruse included in his anthology on creation science movement in the early 80’s, and in that case Laudan is making arguments that creation science should be allowed to be science in that he says it’s offering a claim that could be proved, but that is found to be false such as the age of the earth, because we know that that’s not true. So in that sense he says this is something that is bad science.

    If one were to put that forward as though it were science, that would be wrong, it’s bad science. But he said we can allow that as science. Now, he does that under the assumption that we’re judging this under the kinds of rules that I’m mentioning, to say that we’re judging that the young earth hypothesis, let’s say that the earth is ten thousand years old is false, and that we have disconfirmed that. That disconfirmation is done by assuming that we can judge it under the rule of methodological naturalism.

    That’s to say that we’re taking our ordinary notion and not allowing supernatural intervention. If we were to allow it, then we would not be able to say that this is something that has been disconfirmed. That’s to say if you take seriously the content that departs from scientific method and at that part, point, you’d be wrong to say that it’s just bad science. At that point you’d just say it’s not science.

    So this is always the sort of a subtle point that’s important to try to get across, and let me try to put it this way, right? It’s often complained by creationists that they say oh, you know, you’re saying that we can’t be falsified, and yet at the same time you’re saying that we are falsified. Gosh, isn’t that a contradiction? And that’s just a misunderstanding, right?

    The claim that it can’t be falsified is the claim that it can’t be falsified if one is departing from methodological naturalism. That is to say if you treat this as just an ordinary scientific hypothesis, then you’d say well, we projected that the earth is ten thousand years old. But if you depart from it and take seriously the supernatural content, then you can’t say that anymore, because at that point who knows?

    Young earth creationists, some of them have said well, the world looks old, but it looks old because God made it old, that really it is six thousand years old but he made it so that it appears to be much longer, did much, much earlier. Well, that’s sort of a deceptive view about the way things were created. But if you take that view that it’s possible to say that the supernatural being is deceiving us in this way, then there’s no way to say that we’ve disconfirmed that.

    For all we know the world may have been created five minutes ago and we’ve just been implanted with memories to make us think it that it’s much longer, right? There’s no way to disprove that. If you seriously take the supernatural possibility, then you can’t disconfirm it. So that’s the sense in which it’s important to say under the assumption of methodological naturalism, we have disconfirmed it, it’s bad science, that’s what Laudan is talking about, but if you were to take seriously the non-natural part, that’s to say rejecting scientific method, then it’s just not science, and we can’t say that we have rejected it. So there’s always these two different hypotheses. You’ve got to keep them distinct. There’s no contradiction.

    MR. GILLEN: Thank you, Your Honor. I have no further questions. At this point I would like to point to a paper by Bradley Monton titled Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision. Monton argues that Laudan rejects methodological naturalism as a demarcation criterion for science, ignoring that Laudan accepts methodological naturalism a-posteriori as a “good” science. I believe that is also what Pennock is trying to say here. Pennock wrote: If you seriously take the supernatural possibility, then you can’t disconfirm it. So that’s the sense in which it’s important to say under the assumption of methodological naturalism, we have disconfirmed it, it’s bad science, that’s what Laudan is talking about, but if you were to take seriously the non-natural part, that’s to say rejecting scientific method, then it’s just not science… (Pennock 2005b, 104-5) Monton concludes that “ Of course, Laudan is not the only philosopher of science who rejects methodological naturalism.” but Laudan does not reject methodological naturalism, he rejects it as a useful a-priori demarcation principle. Leiter wrote: Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN. The problem is purely a posteriori: ID has no research program and no empirical support, so it presents no challenge at all to the reliance on naturalistical explanatory mechanisms. Laudan thinks talk of “pseudo-science” is misleading in the absence of a solution to the demarcation problem; Laudan has no reservations about talk about “good” and “bad” science as measured by their results and the evidence on behalf of their claims.

Kitzmiller Ruling

Judge Jones’ ruling may be of interest since it actually looked at the scientific nature of Intelligent Design

Judge Jones wrote:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.

I will explore the ruling by Judge Jones in a later posting to determine if indeed Jones relied on demarcation principles or “good” versus “bad” science to determine the status of Intelligent Design. Needless to say I will argue that Jones reached the conclusion based on Intelligent Design’s lack of scientific relevance.

Laudan and the demarcation principle

  • Keith Abney in Naturalism and Nonteleological Science: A Way to Resolve the Demarcation Problem Between Science and Nonscience PSCF 49 (September 1997): 162.
  • Victor Stenger in Supernatural Science Darwin Day (February 12, 2006)

    My university of Hawaii colleague at the time, the eminent philosopher Larry Laudan, had been one of the strong voices disputing Popperian falsifiability as a workable demarcation criterion for science. When the Arkansas decision was announced, Laudan objected strenuously. He pointed out that creation science is in fact testable, tentative, and falsifiable. For example, it predicts a young Earth and other geological facts that have, in fact, been falsified. Falsified science can still be science, just wrong science. Laudan warned that the Arkansas decision would come back to haunt science by “perpetuating and canonizing a false stereotype on what science is and how it works.”

    Coming up-to-date, we similarly find that ID is testable, tentative, and falsifiable. For example, William Dembski asserts a “law of conservation of information” which implies that information cannot be generated by natural processes. This is provably wrong. Information is negative entropy and the second law of thermodynamics allows for the entropy of systems interacting with their environments to decrease and thus information to increase naturally. Michael Behe’s examples of “irreducible complexity” have similarly been refuted.

    I am not quibbling with the ruling that creation science and ID represent unconstitutional attempts to promote a sectarian view of creation under the guise of science. And, I also agree that ID is pseudoscience rather than science. But my reasons are not based on plugging in some algorithm written by a lawyer that clearly does not serve as an accurate definition of science. Pseudoscience is like pornography. You know it when you see it. See also Stenger’s PDF Presentation for his perspective of science versus pseudo-science