Is intelligent design science?

What is science? Now the reason I am asking this is that you’ve regularly been saying this is a scientific argument but we have academic institutions and professional institutions around the world coming out saying intelligent design is not science.

I’ve heard that before so there’s something wrong here. 

We need some clarification. 

Well this is where I by the way have a colleague here. Douglas Axe is a protein chemist and molecular biologist and he directs our lab. My background is in the philosophy of science and it is the discipline of philosophy of science that addresses these questions of the definition of science. It turns out defining science is a notoriously

difficult thing to do. It is a semantic debate. It’s a debate about definitions and depending on how you define science you can either exclude or include within the designation of science all manner of different theories and competing ideas. Darwin faced it interestingly enough in the 19th century. Hershel and others called his theory of natural selection by random variation the law of higgledy-piggledy and they caricatured it as a non-scientific thing because it was not based on a law-like process. It was strictly law-like and that’s where he invoked inference to the best explanation to defend himself. 

My case, fundamentally I don’t care whether intelligent design is considered to be science or not, that is not the most important question. That is a semantic question. The most important question is whether it is true or whether it’s likely to be true or most likely to be true given the evidence we have. What people have done to avoid answering that more fundamental question is repair to these semantic arguments. Oh it’s not true because intelligent design is not science. Therefore we don’t have to consider the case for it. I don’t think that follows. Whatever you call it, there is a compelling evidential argument for it. But I also think that using very basic understandings, very credible definition of science, typically people want to demarcate science from non-science by reference to method. Science is different than non-science by reference to the methods it uses. Well the case for intelligent design and this is why I emphasize this in the lecture is based on the very same method of reasoning that Darwin employed. So if you want to argue that intelligent design is not science, then applying that same criterion, that same yardstick you will have to exclude Darwinism from consideration as a scientific theory. Now I happen to think both are scientific theories. I happen to think chemical evolutionary theory, the actual opposite number of my case for intelligent design, is a scientific theory. The definitional question should not be dispositive. That’s just a matter of how you categorize an idea. That’s not fundamentally interesting. What’s fundamentally interesting is whether it’s true or not. But the way people do this categorization is they’re called demarcation arguments and they are notorious in the philosophy of science because they always fail.

Let me illustrate. One of the simple demarcation criteria that’s been offered is the idea of observability. If something is going to be a scientific theory, if the theory is scientific, it must not invoke unobservable entities. Well ask professor Josephson in theoretical physics about whether there are unobservable entities. It ought to be part of science. Or consider Darwinism. Darwinism invokes unobservable past events, transitional intermediate forms that are not observable or past mutational events not observable. If you make observation, observability a strict criterion of being a theory, being scientific, we have to disqualify all kinds of theories that are considered scientific including intelligent design. And so what I found is as you examine these demarcation criteria, what I found is that if you apply them very strictly, then not only intelligent design but all competing evolutionary ideas are disqualified from consideration to science. If you apply them more realistically, taking into account the nature of the inquiry that it’s an historical scientific inquiry, then both intelligent design and competing evolutionary theories are properly considered to be scientific.

So in short I think the objection is a red herring but if you take it seriously and let people define what they think science is, invariably it does not do the work of settling the debate of discriminating between one approach and another. So the biggest example of this was the federal judge in in the United States in the Dover trial who wanted to disqualify intelligent design. He said it wasn’t science and I was asked in the media of my thoughts on this and I said well we actually don’t look to federal judges to settle deep and imponderable questions about the nature and definition of science. There‚Äôs a different discipline is in charge of that and so anyway that’s not so short answer.