Is intelligent design a false hypothesis?

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Is intelligent design a false hypothesis?

Sean Walsh believes intelligent design may be a false hypothesis. Nevertheless, the key point is that it is not a creationist or even a theistic hypothesis at all.

Ken Crawford’s recent article here on AI was thoughtful and thought-provoking. It, therefore, got me thinking.

For the moment I will restrict myself to one claim he makes: that Darwinism is a sort of settled science. I want to suggest that whilst evolution is an established fact of the biological history of the natural world, Darwinism – construed as offering a specific story of the evolutionary mechanism has some plausible detractors. Including among Darwinians. Including, as it happens, Charles Darwin himself.

We are all evolutionists in one sense of the term in that we take it for granted that biological systems change over time. We are living systems, and we are born, we age and we die. Darwinism (or evolutionary biology) makes two stronger claims: that we are all evolved from a common ancestor (a single living cell) and that the mechanism of change is random cell variation acted upon by natural selection. Further, the appearance of design in nature is no more than the appearance of design in nature. The Darwinian mechanism explains (or purports to) how simplicity can over time build complexity without any need to invoke a designer – supernatural or otherwise.

Evolutionary biology is settled in the following sense: that it has been absorbed into the structures of the scientific academy in a way that makes it not only an orthodoxy but an hegemony. Any attempt to suggest an alternative explanatory framework will always incur the wrath of the establishment and will inevitably meet with the following strategy: dissenters are labelled as “creationists” who are in the business of smuggling theology into the sciences. Like Vito Andolini arriving at Ellis Island those who dare to express dissent are robbed of their identity and stamped with a new name, one more conducive to the convenience of the powers that be.

When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 it was assumed that a single living cell is also a simple cell, a mere building block in the architecture of life. We now know it to be no such thing. A living cell is information-rich and its internal structures are mind-blowingly complex. It goes without saying that if Darwinian biology cannot account for this richness then it cannot account for life. It is by no means a given that it can.

Time to give Vito his turn perhaps? The intelligent design hypothesis builds to a conclusion (that life is best explained in terms of a designer) by using premises such as the following: that information encoded within the DNA molecule is specific and complex and that it is this specified complexity that is a necessary condition of building the proteins that are themselves necessary to the development of living systems; that information of this sort is only known to be present when there is an intelligence available to supply it; that Darwinian attempts to explain the specified complexity invariably end up smuggling in a notion of directedness that is inconsistent with the settled assumptions of evolutionary biology.

There are more things to say here. It might well be that intelligent design is, in the end, a false hypothesis. But the point I wish to make is this: it is not a creationist or even a theistic hypothesis at all. None of the premises I just adverted to make any theistic claim, either implicitly or explicitly. It is true that the conclusion of the argument is consistent with God (or theism generally). But that doesn’t make it a religious argument as no religious claim is built into its premises. Indeed, most intelligent design theorists are more than happy to rest their confidence in the conclusion (that life is designed) and to accept that the character of the designer is a metaphysical mystery. It might be God but why should it?

So why the hostility? Simple. The only people who believe that science is in the business of promulgating objective truth in accordance with an agreed procedure are the people who don’t do science. If there is such a procedure then its statement will be not one of science but of metaphysics. The philosopher Karl Popper proposed that science progresses by a process of systematic falsification. And that you can tell when something purporting to be science is a pseudo-version if that “science” is not, in principle, amenable to verification. Evolutionary biology, incidentally, would fail that test as can be seen from its reactions to real discrepancies in the fossil record.

But science is not, really like that. And why should we expect there to be a principle of organisation that applies to mathematical physics and archaeology alike? Another philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, noted that scientific revolutions occur when what seems like a minority of dissent suddenly achieves a critical mass. Theories long-established are suddenly overthrown, as unexpected as a Kasparov mating attack. More exotically, the great philosopher of physics Paul Feyerabend suggested that we should encourage a situation of epistemological anarchy – arguing that in terms of following a “methodology” the church was actually in the right when it came to the Galileo issue. The lesson: let’s dump methodology. Feyerabend at one point even endorsed a “separation of science and state”. (Incidentally, if you have a couple of hours spare and want the company of an eccentric genius then I recommend reading his autobiography, Killing Time).

Many Darwinians have read their Kuhn. The lesson they have drawn is that minority dissent cannot be tolerated. So they don’t. We’ll see how that works out for them.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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