Scientific Dissent from Darwinism

Pete Chadwell
Bend Bulletin
March 13, 2006
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As we watch the ongoing debate between intelligent design and Darwinism, we are learning why over 500 doctoral scientists have signed The Discovery Institute's "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" statement. Slowly but surely, scientists are beginning to face the inadequacy of a long-held philosophy of science upon which Darwinism was founded.

Stephen Hawking once told a story about a scientist who was giving a public lecture on astronomy. As the scientist described what we know about the structure of the solar system, a woman at the back of the room spoke up and said, "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist asked the woman what the tortoise was standing on, and the woman's reply was, "It's turtles all the way down!"

Of course, we all know that from a scientific standpoint, the idea that Earth is perched atop a stack of large turtles is laughable for two rather obvious reasons. First, we've seen the Earth from space and indeed it is a sphere, and oddly enough, we can't see any turtles. Secondly, we recognize that this myth fails to explain where the turtles came from. We chuckle internally at the idea that someone could believe something so silly. The circular reasoning is so obvious that we wonder how any sane person could overlook it.

And yet many sane people (scientists, in fact) have accepted a contemporary version of the same myth; a philosophy of science called "methodological naturalism," which demands that if we are to discover an explanation for a given natural phenomenon, we must only consider those explanations that invoke natural processes. (It's worth noting that any natural process qualifies as a natural phenomenon.) In most disciplines of science, methodological naturalism works quite well. If, for example, you're curious about how a bird's wing permits flight, you can discover the answer within the confines of methodological naturalism quite effectively but notice you are still forced to accept the laws of physics, themselves a natural phenomenon, as a "given."

Methodological naturalism makes two gigantic assumptions before any evidence is examined. The first assumption is that there is no existence beyond what is natural or "material." The naturalist believes there is no supernatural realm. Or, to the extent that they believe there is, they believe that for the sake of science, we should pretend there is not. (Nevermind that pretense makes a lousy foundation for scientific pursuits.) The second assumption is that we know precisely how large the envelope of nature is and that we can know when we've escaped that envelope. Although we have no empirical knowledge of either, the naturalist must interpret every piece of evidence in the light of these presuppositions. From the naturalist's viewpoint, it appears that assumptions carry more scientific weight than actual evidence.

In Hawking's story, the woman who challenged the presenter believed that beneath each turtle is yet another turtle. Similarly, the naturalist believes that beneath every natural phenomenon there exists yet another natural phenomenon. If explanation by reference to an endless stack of large turtles is silly, then an explanation by reference to an endless stack of natural phenomena would be equally so. The naturalist's answer for the origin of life, therefore, is some natural phenomenon. (Which one is not particularly relevant.) When you ask them how that natural phenomenon came to be, their response boils down to: "It's natural phenomena all the way down!"

By adhering strictly to methodological naturalism, origin-of-life scientists have sentenced themselves to an infinitely long search for an answer that's not there. It's as though they've embarked on a sort of cosmic snipe hunt. Today, these brilliant scientists can be seen running around in the dark with their gunny sacks, making strange noises and banging sticks against tree trunks like some giddy scout troop on a camping trip, blissfully unaware that their snipe hunt is nothing but a cruel hoax. A growing number of scientists, however, are getting tired of hunting for snipes. These scientists would actually like to find an answer to the question of origins, and signing The Discovery Institute's "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" statement is a step in that direction.

Pete Chadwell, of Bend, is a commercial artist.