Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Sympathetic View of Intelligent Design

People really hate intelligent design. It's bad science, bad religion and bad people all rolled up into one despicable thing. It is untestable and wrong. It is unfalsifiable and false. It is religious and it is false religion. Its promoters are naive and ignorant, and they devise clever arguments and ingenuously manipulate the data. Take your pick, according to evolutionists intelligent design is wrong in just about every way imaginable.

But before we dispatch such folly, let's take one final look. Is there anything good about intelligent design? Upon sober reflection, is there any way to make use of this insidious movement?

Most scientists are uncomfortable using science for anything but completely naturalistic explanations. We should not, they say, try to use science to describe the supernatural. As Barbara Forrest put it:

The sciences are unified by their naturalistic methodology and empiricist epistemology, a unity ... that can take us to the outer reaches of natural phenomena, but never beyond them.

Given this philosophy of science, it is understandable that intelligent design, which is not uptight about the possibility that some phenomena might be supernatural, would make these scientists uncomfortable. But rejecting intelligent design in particular, and safeguarding science from supernatural phenomena in general, does not solve all our problems.

For if we are to mandate, with Forrest and the evolutionists, that science must never dabble in the supernatural, then we must be able to discern in the first place what is, and is not, supernatural. We must be able to evaluate whether the phenomenon in question is caused by natural laws and processes, or by supernatural causes.

In my earlier post, A Question for Barbara Forrest, I asked her this question: How can science know when it is investigating a supernatural phenomena rather than a natural one?

This is not a completely new or foreign concept. In the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, radiation from distant stars is analyzed for signals such as radio transmissions. If we tune in and hear a baseball game then we know there is life. But it may not be so easy. In some cases it is difficult to determine whether a radio signal is just background noise, caused by some natural process, or if it is an intelligent transmission. SETI researchers have developed sophisticated algorithms to cull the messages from the noise.

We can view intelligent design as a generalization of such solutions. As with the radio signals, nature in general is full of "signals" which can be so analyzed. And as with the radio signals, the problem of design detection can be difficult. Natural laws and processes may seem rudimentary, but they have been found to be capable of generating some fascinating patterns and structures in nature. What are their limits? Can such limits be understood and analyzed? These questions are relevant to the problem of design detection, and they are relevant to science in general if we are to avoid using science to explain supernatural phenomena.

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