Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can Intelligent Design be falsified?

In recent conversations, I have heard dismissive remarks about Intelligent Design because (allegedly) intelligent design "cannot be falsified." I agree that positions which cannot be proven false, not even in principle, are metaphysical assertions or presuppositions. The argument against intelligent design (ID) proceeds as follows: Falsifiability is essential to a scientific hypothesis, and ID lacks such falsifiability; therefore ID should not be given serious consideration by anyone claiming to support science.

I want to argue that Intelligent Design can be falsified, and indeed that it even begins and end with falsification. The ID claim is categorically different from certain religious movements in which no evidence imaginable could falsify their religion. (For example, for some Buddhists, it would make no difference at all if Gautama Buddha never existed, whereas for evangelical Christians, our faith would be falsified or disproved if someone could produce the body of Jesus Christ.)

My first encounter with ID came from reading The Design Inference (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), by William A. Dembski. In this book, Dembski explores the basic question of how humans detect the activity of deliberate events (or philosophically, "agent causation") as opposed to accidental or natural causation. Discerning "intent" runs through our lives since childhood. Did Tommy knock me down "on purpose"? How did the upraised tack on my chair get there from the bulletin board 20 feet away? Does this stream of binary data from a pulsar contain an encrypted or encoded message? Was this insurance claim filed to cover an accidental fire, or was the fire set intentionally?

Dembski presents an "explanatory filter" or sieve, a set of four questions which we put to an event or an object to determine whether the event occurred by intelligent design or by natural causes. If questions #1, #2, or #4 are deemed to be true, then "intelligent design" is falsified (that is, we can attribute the event to natural causes). If question #3 is deemed to be true, then "intelligent design" is validated (that is, we are justified in assuming intentionality). Let's look at these briefly. The illustrations are my own invention.

First, does the event occur through natural laws or law-like forces? Newton's apple falls to the ground because of gravity, not because of intelligent action. The needle on my compass points to the north because of Earth's magnetic poles, not because of angels pushing it with their invisible fingers.

Second, can the event be ascribed to the normal range of the laws of probability? If I toss a coin 10 times in a row and come up with "heads" seven or eight times, that's still within the realm of probability. Those heads should be ascribed to chance, rather than to being caused by supernatural intervention. If I get heads 10 times in a row, I might check to see if it's a weighted, trick coin, and if it is, then the law of gravity (test #1) would account for this row of 10 heads. If the coin is not weighted, a run of 10 heads is still within the realm of probability (specifically, 1/210, or 1 out of 1024 chances). Thus, "intelligent design" can be falsified, since random chance is sufficient to permit this occurrence, however striking it might appear to be.

Third, does the event fit the scenario of both small probability and specified complexity? The subtitle of Dembski's book is "Eliminating Chance Through Small Probability" and small probability is the subject of Dembski's Ph.D. thesis from the University of Chicago. Consider this illustration: Suppose I ask you to pick up a stone out of anywhere in California at random. So you spend a day hiking through a very remote mountain range with billions of rocks, out of a state which has hundreds of trillions of stones and rocks. You pick up one rock and bring it back to me. (At this point, you have met the criterion of small probability.)

Then I give you a hammer and ask you to break the stone apart. You do so, and inside is a small piece of rolled up paper with your name, my name, and today's date on it. At this stage we also have "specified complexity" and you would be fully justified in thinking that this stone did not get into your hand by accident, but was instead the product of "intelligent design." Maybe I palmed the stone when you weren't looking, maybe I hypnotized you to pick a stone I pre-selected, or maybe something else happened. But whatever the explanation (even if you cannot come up with one), the presence of both small probability and the complexity of the personal message on the hidden paper gives us sufficient grounds to say, "This was not an accident."

Fourth, is there small probability without specified complexity? Let's suppose that the next day, you are dumbfounded about what just happened the day before. You go hiking in the California mountains once more, return to that same colossal rock pile, and retrieve one single rock out of the billions or trillions of other rocks. (You now have small probability once again.) You get out your own hammer, crack the rock in half with it, and this time find nothing significant inside. Since there is no specified complexity, we cannot attribute this event or object to intelligent design (hence, intelligent design is falsified), and by default we must write off this unremarkable rock as an occurrence of small probability.

Personally, I think this explanatory filter make sense, and that it does represent a valid means to determine whether an event occurred by chance or by someone's deliberate act (that is, "by design"). The ID movement fills out the implications in greater or lesser detail, and the ballyhoo over applying this logic in the science classroom is really over whether this filter ought to be applied to biological organisms.

In fact, the same science teacher who squawks about applying this explanatory filter to micro-organisms will readily apply this explanatory filter in looking for plagiarism! When two student papers look suspiciously alike, the combination of both small probability and specified complexity alerts most of us to the fact that one student has copied from another (or maybe, both students copied from the encyclopedia). Ironically, the same logical system which works to inform the teacher of plagiarism is excluded by the teacher from being applied to other areas of investigation.

No one objects to the principle of seeking intelligent purpose in the racist exclusion of minorities in hiring, or seeking intelligent purpose in how my credit card number wound up paying for John Doe's trip to Paris (hmmm.... probably not an accident). Stratified social groups and and individual people are clearly biological entities. I see no reason why ID should not be applied to other areas of investigation as well.

Your feedback is welcome.

1 Comments:

Blogger Joe B. Whitchurch said...

From William Dembski's debate at Princeton this last year, viewable at as the sixth lecture from the bottom and streaming online at this link. He mentions use of ID type guidelines in a variety of fields like determining if one(s) are cheating on sophisticated exams, how SETA determines intelligent communication from mere outer space noise, and other areas. Like you, I find these intriguing because they are not only a good starting place for considering ID generally but also because going after the Creator out of the starting gate is tricky. The autonomy-clinging human will, can always find some reason for not believing in a Creator (Rom 1:18f).

I think Chesterton said something to the effect that if one does not *want* to believe in God, *anything* could be believed to keep oneself from such. Thanks for this article Eric. Hope the link is useful.

9:29 AM  

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