The Natural Science versus Intelligent Design debate has been filling our media of late. Some very prominent scientists, theologians, practicing Christians, and secular editorialists have been wading in on the issue trying to support one side or the other. Some people and groups, such as the Templeton Foundation, have been trying to bring together both perspectives in order to acheive some form of science/religion reconciliation over the issue.
This article argues that such reconciliation attemps are misguided and doomed to fail. This is not because either side is more right than the other. Rather it is because they are trying to reconcile irreconcilable philosophical and intellectual paradigms. These irreconcilable paradigms are articulated and analysed in this article to show why a reconciliation between the two cannot be achieved.
The location of Planet Earth in the overall cosmos, and in our Milky Way Galaxy, and in our own planetary Solar System, has been shown to be critically important in producing the necessary conditions for life to have developed on Planet Earth and in particular higher orders of intelligent life. Natural Science has shown that there are a number of important and fundamental criteria for life on Earth to have developed and all of these criteria are currently present in respect to our Planet. It is argued, therefore, by the proponents of Intelligent Design, that the current (“simultaneous”) presence of these fundamental criteria cannot be accidental, but instead must be the product of Intelligent Design.
The mainstream hard (natural) sciences of astronomy, cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology and evolutionary paleontology and anthropology consider Planet Earth, and the evolution of complex life on this planet, to be a “glorious accident” of the interplay of complex physical factors randomly following the impersonal laws and dictates of Newtonian mechanics, Darwinian evolution and Einstein’s equations. Astronomers consider Planet Earth to be a mediocre planet, lacking any special significance, among trillions of others in the cosmos.
Cosmologists, such as the late Carl Sagan, generally think that there should be millions of other planets in the cosmos like Planet Earth, and that thousands of those planets would have produced complex life, and that hundreds of those planets would have intelligent life similar to our own. In order to locate that life, the S.E.T.I. project was initiated thirty odd years ago, led by Sagan, to find cosmic evidence of that intelligent life.
At present, those searchers have been unsuccessful in their pursuit of this objective. This has led some scientists to consider the possibility that Planet Earth, and its intelligent life, are, in fact, unique and special. In order to examine that possibility, over the last twenty years to the year 2005, a number of scientists, some faith-based, and philosophers of science have looked at the characteristics that could make Planet Earth special and unique. The information that these questioners have compiled, all based upon hard scientific facts, leads to the suggestion that Planet Earth may after all be a “Privileged Planet” rather than a mediocre place in the cosmos, and that the complex life on this planet may well be the product of an “intelligent design”, implying a designer, rather than the product of a “glorious accident” of impersonal Nature. The majority of practitioners of the Natural Sciences do not agree.
The Intelligent Design Proposal
These simultaneous fundamental criteria that must be present for a habitable planet include the following, but are not necessarily restricted to only these criteria, nor are they listed by order of importance:
The Sun is the right type of G2 star to provide radiation that can give rise to and support life.
Planet is protected by gas giant planets.
Planet must be in the circum-stellar planetary Habitable Zone of our galaxy. 5% closer or 20% further away from the sun would make it too warm or too cold.
Moon stabilizes angle of axis to produce seasonal changes that give rise to weather and climate variations.
The right types of atomic masses and sub-atomic nuclear forces exist in our cosmos to support complex life.
Nearly circular orbit around Sun
Its mass is “correct”
Must have a molten iron centre to generate a magnetic field.
Must have dry-land masses.
Earth’s crusts are the correct “thickness” for plate tectonics. Any thicker and they would not move.
Distance from the Sun allows for water and oxygen rich atmosphere.
Must have Water for carbon based life to exist.
Earth has right mix of atmospheric gases – Oxygen/Nitrogen – to support complex life.
Earth has just the right thickness of atmosphere to provide “right” temperature, and protect from harmful solar radiation
Proponents of Intelligent Design also argue for a number of sub-divisions of the above criteria to further show that necessary fundamental criteria exists at all levels of analysis to promote the existence of complex life on this planet. Overall, the I.D. analysis of factors that support complex life on this planet are substantially correct, and are proven by mainstream science to exist and to be important for life to continue on Earth.
The first half of the film “The Privileged Planet” (distributed by the Discovery Institute of Seattle) is both interesting in cosmological terms of “location” and generally scientifically accurate in the criteria for life that it shows. However, the inference for Intelligent Design that I.D. proponents, in this film and elsewhere, derive from these criteria is faulty, and it is faulty for the following reasons.
Proponents of I.D presume the “simultaneous” (at once) advent of all of these fundamental criteria instead of them having occurred sequentially in the history of the cosmos and the planet. It assumes that I.D. can be “proven” by the scientific method and also that this “simultaneous” existence of the fundamental criteria is so improbable as to be unacceptable as a natural event. The proponents of I.D. are incorrect in all these three assumptions. The fundamental criteria did not occur simultaneously, an Intelligent Designer cannot be proven by the scientific method, and the wrong method of probability testing is used to demonstrate the “improbability” factor.
The Sequential Advent of the Fundamental Criteria.
Cosmology and Earth Science has clearly demonstrated the sequential nature of the development of both the planetary systems and the Earth’s development. Science also can show, where necessary, how each of these “fundamental criterion” has been dependent upon the prior establishment of earlier criteria in order to have been able to develop. For the criteria to have come into existence simultaneously would have required a spontaneous act of “creation” to have occurred. It is this spontaneous requirement of the I.D. proponents that forces science to place them in the “Creationist” camp of Biblical theorists. In fact, although most I.D. proponents claim no religious motivations for their idea, most of the individuals involved in the I.D. movement are practicing Christians.
Proving intelligent design by scienctific method
(This critical information is drawn from a larger comprehensive article on Intelligent Design that can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_design#Defining_intelligent_design_as_science)
Intelligent design proponents often claim that their position is not only scientific, but that it is even more scientific than evolution. This presents a demarcation problem
, which in the philosophy of science
, is about how and where to draw the lines around science. For a theory to qualify as scientific it must be:
Consistent (internally and externally)
(sparing in proposed entities or explanations, see Occam's Razor
Useful (describes and explains observed phenomena)
Empirically testable & falsifiable
) Based upon controlled, repeated experiments
Correctable & dynamic (changes are made as new data is discovered)
Progressive (achieves all that previous theories have and more)
Tentative (admits that it might not be correct rather than asserting certainty)
For any theory, hypothesis or conjecture to be considered scientific, it must meet at least most, but ideally all, of the above criteria. The fewer which are matched, the less scientific it is; and if it meets only a couple or none at all, then it cannot be treated as scientific in any meaningful sense of the word.
Typical scientific objections to defining intelligent design as science are:
Intelligent design lacks consistency.
Intelligent design is not falsifiable.
Intelligent design violates the principle of parsimony.
Intelligent design is not empirically testable.
Intelligent design is not correctable, dynamic, tentative or progressive.
Probability problems with I.D.
Proponents of I.D. often use the “probability” argument to bolster their case. In this arguement they hold that, for the many neccessary conditions for human life to exist on Planet Earth, the probability is so infinitesimably small as to render it’s likelihood of occuring accidently almost non-existent. Their probability argument goes along the lines of there being hundreds or even thousands of individual necessary conditions are required to support intelligent human life on Planet Earth, but no one of these conditions are in itself sufiicient for life. Therefore, the probability of all of these conditions combining to create the required permutation of sufficient conditions is a probability combination of 1/10 + 1/10 + 1/10 ........... (N)1/10 = 1/000,000,000,000,000 or one thousand of a trillionth probability. This probability is so small that it is “miraculous” to have occured by chance alone and there it must have occured through intention, planning and design by an intelligent designer.
The problem with this line of probability thinking is that it is incorrect use of the concept of probability. The I.D. reasoning would only be correct if all of these conditions occured at the same moment in time [the Creationists Argument]. If , these conditions occured sequentially, as I.D. proponents do not dispute with natural scientists, then the probability of these conditions emerging on Planet Earth is much larger than is shown above. If the sequential nature of these conditions is accepted, then these conditions are “contingent” conditions; condition ‘C’ can only arise if conditions ‘A’ and’B’ have occured first and are both still present. If we use the I.D. figure of 1 in 10 chances of a condition occuring, then the probability of condition ‘C’, if condition ‘A’ and’B’ are present, is still 1/10. Therefore, each of these sequential necessary conditions having arisen on Planet Earth has had a 1 in 10 probability. Therefore, the last sequential condition to arise before the presence of human life was possible had a 1 in 10 probability, no more or less than the first condition. Given this, and using the I.D. proponents own probability percentage, the probability of human life arising accidently on Planet Earth is 1 in 10. Therefore it is hardly a surprize that human life arose and gives credibility to the natural science position of human existence being a “glorious accident”.
Criticism of the Natural Science practitioners.
Despite the foregoing criticisms against the proponents of I.D., there is also a general critism that can be made against a large number of Natural Science practioners and teachers. That criticism centres on how they articulate their Natural Science ideological position against any challenges to the Natural development of the cosmos and life.
Natural Science, practicing the scientific method, cannot make any claims equally for or against the concept of an Intelligent Designer. It can neither prove nor dis-prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer, for reasons that the scientific method is not equiped with the methodologies necessary to assert such proof or disproof. The most Science can say about the development of the Cosmos and of Planet Earth and life upon it, is that Science can offer explanations that do not require that an Intelligent Designer be a part of the explanations. Many scientists are ethical enough to make this statement. However, many others are not. Rather than teachers saying to young students that their Science can make no statements for or against the existence of an Intelligent Designer, merely stating that current Naturalistic explanations in science do not require the presence of a designer, they assert that there is NO designer. The natural sciences cannot support the making of that assertion.
Philosophy of Science problems in the Nature versus Intelligent Design debate. The Intelligent Design argument cannot be said to be able to follow the scientific method to “prove” its validity. There is no way to scientifically test its conjectures, and the underlying assumptions of an Intelligent Designer are not open to refutation or, scientifically speaking, the null-hypothesis. In addition to the straightforward problem for I.D. in adapting to the requirements of the scientific method, there are also some philosophical problems for the proponents of ID in respect to the ontolgy and metaphysics of their quest for scientific acknowledgement, if not approval.
These problems arise out of the un-examined ontology (underlying assumptions) behind the idea of Intelligent Design. To examine these ontological assumptions, it is necessary to examine the definitions of the words “intellegence” and “design”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as follows:
1. The faculty of understanding
2. Understanding as a quality admitting of degree
3. The action or fact of mentally apprehending something.
4. An impersonation of intelligence.
- A plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent execution.
- Purpose, aim or intention
- The thing aimed at, the final purpose, the end view
The OED definitions of both the words “intelligent” and “design” contain the underlying ontological assumption of the concept of “mind” and of “being”. Therefore, the concept of Intelligent Design implies the underlying existence of a mind and a being as being an independent provider of causation. Therefore the critics of ID are correct in saying that ID can be seen, in part, as being metaphysical as the presence of mind and being implied are said to be not “hard-sciences” testable.
Besides the Natural Sciences and outside of the narrow fields of physiology and psychology, no Social Science tests would be acceptable because they only show correlation of results between variables. Any mentalist tests of mind alone acting on matter are also refutable. The results of any physical tests of the “presence” of being on matter are usually described as “miraculous” and therefore, by definition, non-repeatable. This is the “water into wine” problem. With naturally occurring changes there is a process taking place that is measurable and observable and therefore accessible to hard science confirmation and replication. With a “miraculous” event there is said to be no measurable or observable process from the old state to the new state. First there is water, then immediately there is wine. Without the measurable and observable process, science is unable to replicate the event and therefore such an event is said to be unscientific and/or “super”-natural.
In conclusion, the debate between Natural Science and Intelligent Design cannot be “won” or “drawn” or reconciled by either proponents. There are no agreeable fundamental (ontological) assumptions on the nature of the reality to which either side adhere that are in agreement. Therefore, to mangle Shakespeare, the Science versus I.D. issue is like the great wind blowing nowhere. There cannot be a resolution based upon empirical scientific and statistical evidence. The ID proponents, and by extension, the Creationist proponents, have to ultimately make their arguments based upon philosophy, metaphysics and theology. However, if they wished to use science to analyze the “miraculous” events, such as those in the Christian Bible, like the “water into wine” and/or the “resurrection”, present advances in quantum physics – entanglement, phase-shifts, and the “matrix” concept (super symmetry) – may well bring them a more intellectually satisfying reward. In those areas, reading the “science” books of Frank J. Tipler, Brian Clegg, Bernard Haisch and Mark Ronan may be of help.