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The Discovery Institute and ID

Until about two months ago, I hadn’t read much material put out by the Discovery Institute. Their Center for Science and Culture is one of the main forces behind Intelligent Design. What little knowledge I had of them was based on what I would occasionally read in news articles and perhaps Panda’s Thumb. Then after reading one of my posts where I said that I don’t think ID is currently science, Jonathan Witt sent me a link to a Stephen C. Meyer article called “The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design: The Methodological Equivalence of Naturalistic and Non-Naturalistic Origins Theories.” To tell you the truth, when he sent it to me, I didn’t really plan on reading it because my brief skim of the article made me think that it was arguing for something that I already believed – that there isn’t anything inherently unscientific about the idea of an intelligent designer (supernatural or not). What ended up happening was that I read a different article by Meyer and Michael Newton Keas called The Meanings of Evolution. From there I went on to read most of the articles by Meyer on the CSC website, including the one that Witt had originally sent me. What I came to realize was that the ID position is deeply misunderstood by a lot of people. I still disagree with the truth of ID (for philosophical/theological reasons), but I don’t think it is any less of a science than what many IDer’s call “neo-Darwinism” (that is, that all life has descended from one living using natural selection plus random variation/mutation as the main process of biological change). What follows is a rough overview of Meyer’s case for ID. While most people look to Dembski or Behe for what ID is, I think Meyer does a much better job at articulating the actual theory of ID. I still stand by my assertion that Behe and Dembski haven’t really told us how to detect design. But I think Meyer’s arguments avoid that problem.
The first thing that needs to be understood is what people mean by the word “evolution.” In “The Meanings of Evolution” Meyer and Keas argue that when people use the term “evolution” they can mean many different things. They’ve identified 6 different ways in which it has been used:

1.Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.
4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through an unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.

Meyer and Keas, rightly so, point out that the first 4 meanings of evolution are well accepted by almost everyone,

“Scientifically literate people know that nature has a history, that gene frequencies change, that at least limited common descent among organisms has occurred, and that natural selection has played a significant role in speciation and species modification. These first four meanings of evolution might aptly wear the label “mere evolution.” Unsurprisingly, few object to teaching mere evolution.”

I think it is important to notice that there is a lot of common ground here. Where Meyer disagrees with neo-Darwinians is whether universal common descent is true.

Meyer, in the first paper I mentioned in this post, “The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design,” talks about different types of explanations. There are at least two kinds of explanations in science. The first type deals with general laws about the nature of reality. For example, if I am trying to explain how a baseball went through a window, I could appeal to the law of gravity and laws of motion. If I combine these general laws with some of the initial conditions of the baseball, I have a good explanation for why the baseball went through the window.

The second type of explanation deals with causal histories. For example, I could give a different explanation for how the baseball went through the window. The baseball diamond was being used by some other people, so we decided to use our backyard instead. Our normal pitcher was sick so we had to use our backup pitcher. Unfortunately, all he can throw is meatballs. When the other team’s clean-up hitter, Biff, came to bat he knocked the ball so far that it went straight through the window.

Now, that second explanation probably wouldn’t be considered scientific explanation, but science does in fact use these types of explanations. For example, if I’m trying to explain why Mt. Everest is so high or why a giraffe’s neck is so long, I might appeal to a causal history – an explanation of how it came to be.

Both ID and universal common descent are causal history explanations. Furthermore, they are both use abduction – an inference to the best explanation. They both look at biological features that we see today and attempt to give the best explanation for what we see. Meyer argues that because of this, they are methodologically equivalent theories. What this means is that while specific descent or design theories may be better or worse than the other, in general, design and descent are scientific equals. That is, if you hold one to be science, then the other one must also be science (whether either of them are good or bad science cannot be known until the specific theories are looked at, however).

From here, Meyer doesn’t try to find some method of detecting design. If this were his goal, he would be in some trouble since that has proven very difficult to do without having false positives and false negatives. Instead, he uses the method I talked about earlier – abduction. One of his (very simplified) arguments is that not only does genetic material have an alphabet, but it is actually arranged into messages. Now, in all our experience, languages and messages are always the product of an intelligent agent. And so, from this, Meyer argues that not only is it reasonable to think that an intelligent agent is responsible for these genetic messages, but that this is the best explanation. It’s important to note that he isn’t saying that this is the only explanation, but rather that based on what science has told us and based on our experience of where messages come from, this is the best explanation. (I’ll point out that if this was his only argument, then he would be running the risk of creating a false dichotomy between design and descent. He does, however, have other arguments for why universal descent isn’t true. I’ll leave the correctness of these arguments for another time, since that isn’t my goal here.)

Technically, Meyer’s argument is a philosophical argument. But technically, a lot of scientific arguments are philosophical arguments. I don’t think this should be counted against it and I don’t think this should be the reason it should stay out of science classrooms. If one were forced to choose between design or descent as explanations, I don’t think the decision can be settled by science. Philosophical beliefs about laws of nature or about how God acts in the world or whether God acts in the world or numerous others are needed to make a decision between the two. Although, I’m probably not giving science enough credit since the demarcation between science and philosophy is probably just as nebulous as the one between science and “pseudoscience.” In other words, I guess I now have no problem calling ID “science.” Ultimately, I do have problems with both ID and neo-Darwinian evolution, though, but that will have to wait for another post.