Monday, February 20, 2006


Making Your Mind Up: Philip Van der Elst on Scientific Methodology

In his book C.S. Lewis: A Short Introduction (Continuum, 2005), political philosopher and C.S. Lewis expert Philip Van der Elst (whom I met in person last year at a conference in Hungry) has a couple of paragraphs on the relationship between philosophy, religion and science when it comes to questions about origins which I consider to be clear, interesting and provocative:

'Darwinian evolutuion is actually only a theory about human origins which may be true but is also questioned by a number of biologists and scientists - not all of whom are Christians... The only observation it is appropriate to make here is a methodological one: scientific knowledge is derived from the formulation and testing of theoretical hypotheses through observation and experiment, activities which can only be carried out by living human beings. Since modern scientists were not around at the time to witness the birth either of the Universe or of our solar system, or the beginnings of organic life, or the creation, appearance or development of animal species and the human race, their views about the remote past can at best only be intelligent guesses based on observations and inferences related to current physical, chemical, and biological processes. Whether, however, the structures and processes of Nature as we observe them today were once different, or were created and designed by God, are ultimately philosophical rather than scientific questions - though scientific observation may furnish useful hints or clues which may help to answer these questions (assuming they can be answered). For these reasons, it is dangerously misleading to pretend that science has either proved or disproved the theory of evolution or the alternative religious hypothesis of 'special creation'. Whilst there may or may not be apparently compelling scientific evidence for either view, interpretation of the relevant physical and chemical data is inevitably influenced (or distorted) by prior (if often unstated) philosophical or religious assumptions, and we need to be aware of this fact. Hence, for instance, if we are already convinced on philosophical grounds that there is no God, or that His existence is extremely improbable, we are more likely to believe in the truthfulness of Darwinism since it is difficult to imagine any alternative naturalistic explanation of the development of life and the appearance of complexity and apparent 'design' in Nature. On the other hand, if we believe in God and the truthfulness of the Bible, and adopt a literal rather than a metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of Genesis, we will look at the relevant scientific data through 'creationist' spectacles and seek confirmation of a truth in which we already believe on religious grounds. What this means, therefore, is that if we want to restrict ourselves to a genuinely open-minded scientific approach, great care must be taken to distinguish between what the 'raw' field data actually and in itself reveals about the origins and development of life, and the conclusions that follow from fitting this data into a particular interpretive framework (whether Darwinisn or 'creationist').' p. 52-53.

A quibble: there are other naturalistic alternatives to evolution (e.g. aliens, time travellers), but I would argue against anyone who adopted such an explanation (e.g. Ralieans) that such a view was philosophically implausible (for example, it invites an infinite regress of explanations).

This said, Philip is surely right:

Naturalists generally assume that whatever the correct explanation of origins is it cannot possibly be an explanation that involves intelligence (let alone a supernatural intelligence - and most especially not God). On the basis of this assumption such naturalists clear the expanatory field in advance of empirical investigation, allowing 'evolution' to win by default as the best available naturalistic explanation. Having defined biology so that it excludes explanation with reference to intelligence, they proclaim 'evolution' as being the only 'scientific' explanation, as if this were a highly significant fact rather than an example of trying to win an argument by fiat.

Creationists, on the other hand, assume that the correct explanation of origins is provided in substance by the Bible (interpreted their way) and that since God's word and God's world cannot contradict each other, true science will always cohere with or even support their reading of scripture. Given a sufficiently strong commitment to a creationist reading of scripture it is in practice very difficult (if not impossible) for a creationist to be convinced by scientific evidence that their reading of scripture must be wrong. Hence, in effect, creationists clear the explanatory field in advance of empirical investigation, allowing 'creationism' to win by default as the only (or the best) theologically permissable explanation. Some creationists even try to define science so that evolution doesn't count as a scientific theory...

It seems to me that Intelligent Design Theory constitutes what Philip Van der Elst calls an attempt to 'restrict ourselves to a genuinely open-minded scientific approach', an approach which takes care not to settle the question of origins one way or the other in advance of empirical investigation.

ID is not 'naturalistic' or 'Darwinian', in the sense that it does not exclude the conclusion that intelligence plays a role in the correct explanation of origins a priori. But ID is not 'Creationism' either, because it does not assume that intelligence (let alone a particular and supernatural intelligence called 'God') must play a role (let alone the highly specific role envisioned by creationists) in the correct explanation of origins a priori.

All that ID assumes a priori is that there are reliable scientific tests for ruling in intelligence as the best explanation for certain carefully defined types of empirical fact, and that it is legitimate to apply these tests to nature to see if anything therein passes them. ID doesn't make its mind up before looking at the scientific evidence, except that it makes its mind up to be open minded about the conclusion the evidence may support.

(After all, every worldview recognizes the existence of 'intelligence' and that 'intelligence' can cause things at some level of reality. This is surely as true for the naturalist as the theist or the pantheist. There is therefore no philosophical reason why 'intelligence' could not possibly be a cause of anything within what we call 'nature'.)

The 'Darwinist' makes their mind up in advance and therefore all too quickly takes evidence of micro-evolution as evidence for macro-evolution. The 'Creationist' makes their mind up in advance and therefore all too quickly takes problems with macro-evolution as scientifc evidence for the Biblical creation story literally interpreted. From an ID perspective, both extremes in the origins debate can seem too eager to reach their pre-ordained conclusion without putting in the necessary argumentative work.

The ID theorist does not make their mind up in advance. On the basis of scientific tests and empirical evidence the ID theorist notes that micro-evolution explains much, but that the grander claims of macro-evolution are problematic. On the basis of scientific tests and empricial evidence the ID theorist notes that there is evidence for intelligent design within nature, but that this does not automatically mean the vindication of theism, let alone the specific version of theism embraced by creationists.

In point of fact, ID as a scientific theory leaves the field wide open to a very wide variety of philosophical and religious interpretations. ID is not for those who want a 'quick fix' solution to the question of origins that swiftly vindicates their own metaphysical and/or religious assumptions.

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