Michael Ruse talks with John Lennox

Michael Ruse talks with John Lennox

The Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program on Premier Christian Radio, recently launched The Big Conversation video series. The idea is to feature friendly conversations between world-class Christian and atheist thinkers.

The most recent session was filmed live in London in front of an audience, and featured philosopher of science Professor Michael Ruse, of Florida State University, talking with Oxford mathematician, Professor John Lennox. Michael Ruse is well-known to anyone with an interest in philosophy of science, but he has also written an introduction to atheism, called Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know. John Lennox, while a mathematician, is known for books such as God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?. So the scene was set for a great discussion on science and religion. The PA was there, and filed this report.

A central feature of these series is a friendly exchange of views, and this one started well with Lennox shaking Ruse’s hand and plenty of cordial banter. Both men are very capable and engaging speakers, and the tone was set for an enjoyable evening, especially with Justin Brierley moderating the discussion.

Quite early in the discussion, the speakers discussed their childhood upbringings. It was illuminating to hear how Lennox’s Christian parents were such a influence on him growing up in Northern Ireland. He explained how his father considered every person as made in the image of God, and was scrupulously fair in hiring employees from both sides of the sectarian divide. The cost was having his workplace bombed!

One of the most interesting things about the evening for me was finding out about Ruse’s Quaker background. He mentioned it numerous times, and it is clear that it has had a life-long influence on him. This came out strongly when Lennox spent some time discussing the important of evidence for his Christian faith. Ruse seems to have retained the Quaker love of the mystical, and numerous times he stated that for him when it came to faith, evidence was not important. Rather, revelation was, and since he had not experienced revelation, any evidence Lennox presented was not going to sway him. In fact, Ruse seemed to think evidence was almost a negative, in that it reduced the requirement for faith. Needless to say, this was a worry for Lennox, who emphasized the importance of evidence for his Christian faith. Not proofs, of course, because the only proofs available are in mathematics, as Lennox was careful to mention!

There was an informative discussion on the influence of Christianity on the development of science. Ruse and Lennox had quite similar views on this, with Ruse stating ‘modern science owes its being to Christianity’. Lennox explained how Christianity was the source of the idea that the universe is governed by uniform laws, which was crucial to being able to do science at all. Ruse noted that over time, as this uniformity became widely accepted, God gradually became ‘a retired engineer’: he had served his purpose and was no longer needed.

Towards the close of the discussion, there was some gentle sparring on the issue of suffering. Lennox properly acknowledged the deep difficulty of the issue for everyone, atheist, agnostic or Christian, and didn’t attempt to give pat answers. Ruse addressed the free will solution, using the rather extreme example of Himmler’s evil to demonstrate why the cost of free will was too high. In the question and answer session, I tried to point out that he was using a particular edge case as the entire foundation of his argument, but his response didn’t engage with this. Lennox, however, could see the point.

Ruse made some interesting comments about the Bible during the evening that I didn’t expect. He claimed he ‘loved the Bible’, he found it ‘deeply meaningful’, and he mentioned how he found the story of Ruth ‘deeply moving’. He made it clear he was an agnostic, not an atheist: he just didn’t know. I did get the impression that at 78, he had little expectation of ever knowing.

There were some excellent audience questions after the main discussion period. Two I recall in particular were about objective morality, asking Ruse to clarify his position. He seemed to obfuscate a little on this, conceding the importance of morality, but ultimately seemed to think that it was a product of evolution. Lennox pointed out the difficulty of deriving an ought from an is, citing Hume, but Ruse was unmoved. I think his view is that as long as enough people believe and act as if morality is objective, that’s good enough for a society to function.

To summarise, this was a brilliant evening. I didn’t learn a great deal in terms of apologetic content, having read quite widely in this area, but that’s not why I was there. I did learn far more about Michael Ruse’s worldview, and that was very interesting. Most of all, I enjoyed the experience of watching a civilised and honest discussion between two public intellectuals with two very different points of view on God.

The video of this conversation will be released on 7 September, 2018, at The Big Conversation. In the meantime, check out the earlier conversations, featuring speakers such as Steven Pinker, Jordan B Peterson, Susan Blackmore and more.






Robin Collins on ID

Robin Collins on ID

Robin Collins is a prominent defender of the fine tuning argument for the existence of God, which points to the extraordinary precision required for the initial conditions of the universe and the parameters of physics to support life.

Collins has recently published a paper on what he calls methodological theism, and in it makes some interesting comments on the status of Intelligent Design as science that bear repeating:

On the other hand, the major problem I see with ID’s claim that we should include the hypothesis of a transcendent or generic designer as part of science is that it is not what I have called scientifically tractable. Typically, when scientists propose an explanation of some set of phenomena, that explanation can be filled in using other branches of science. For example, consider the big bang theory. The postulated “fireball” that resulted in our current universe provides a detailed explanation of such things as the microwave background radiation and the abundance of elements because we can use current particle physics to elaborate this fireball’s internal dynamics. If its internal workings were forever beyond the realm of current science to investigate, it is doubtful such an hypothesis would be of much scientific interest. Ditto for the theory of evolution and other scientific theories.

Insofar as the hypothesis of ID invokes a transcendent or generic designer, it lacks this characteristic. One cannot use current science to elaborate the internal dynamics of a transcendent or generic designer (though one might for a specific sort of non-transcendent designer, such as an extraterrestrial intelligence). Yet, lacking this characteristic is no small matter, since it is what allows scientific hypotheses to provide detailed explanations and predictions, and it gives scientists something to work with. It is not sufficient for advocates of ID to reply that intelligent design is the best explanation of various features of the natural world: many theists argue that God is the best explanation of the big bang and the laws of nature and many platonists argue that the existence of an immaterial realm of mathematical truths is the best explanation of the success of mathematics in science, but clearly this is insufficient to make the God hypothesis or platonic hypothesis part of science. So, whether or not one wants to consider ID as part of science, this significant and relevant difference between it and regular scientific hypotheses should be acknowledged.

Collins’ conclusion is very similar to that of the Philosophical Apologist, which was covered in a series of essays here.  Essentially, ID’s conception of an intelligent designer lacks sufficient content to provide the detailed predictions necessary to qualify as science.


Does it matter if ID isn’t science?

Does it matter if ID isn’t science?

The Philosophical Apologist (PA) recently published a series of essays arguing that Intelligent Design (ID) is a pseudoscience. A pseudoscience is a non-scientific field whose proponents deliberately try to create the impression that it is scientific.

The conclusion stated that ‘based on ID’s clear failure to satisfy the necessary criteria of testability and empirical adequacy, ID as a discipline cannot be considered to fall within the realm of science’.

Fundamentally, ID is not testable in its current state, and testability is a key criteria for scientific status. ID is not science.

What does this mean for ID? Does it matter if ID isn’t science?

Yes and no.

Yes, it matters, because ID proponents repeatedly claim that ID is science. It seems very important to them that ID has this status. Science has a privileged position in modern society, and ID proponents obviously desire the associated privileges (prestige, funding, educational influence) for their field. And yet almost every philosopher of science disagrees with them about ID’s status. By insisting that it is science, ID becomes a pseudoscience.

On the other hand, consider the consequences if the ID world freely admits ID is not science, and that they are not seeking it to be. Scientists and philosophers of science would probably respect ID more, and there would be far less negative press about ID. Importantly, ID would no longer be considered a pseudoscience, because it would not be claiming to be science.

Of course, ID would no longer be a viable candidate for inclusion in science curricula, but since the Discovery Institute (the main organization behind ID) opposes the mandated teaching of ID in schools that should not be a major issue. There would be fewer damaging lawsuits like Kitzmiller vs Dover.

Presumably, ID proponents are more concerned about how this approach would change the general public’s perception of ID – perhaps it would lose the mantle of authority that the label of science provides, and consequently seem a less respectable position to hold.

That need not be the case. If ID isn’t science, what is it? Philosophy, of course – philosophical argument that is informed by science. So the desired mantle of authority can still be indirectly utilized to marshal evidence for ID. Modern ID arguments draw on the latest scientific research from a wide variety of scientific fields.

It’s also worth stating that ID’s scientific status has no bearing on whether ID arguments are good arguments or not.

Finally, it should be noted that design arguments have a long and distinguished history in philosophy. ID proponents would do well to embrace ID as philosophy rather than science, and not worry that they are somehow acknowledging ID as inferior.


Is Intelligent Design science?

Is Intelligent Design science?

Previous posts have proposed a demarcation criteria for science, and evaluated ID in considerable detail against these criteria.

Based on ID’s clear failure to satisfy the necessary criteria of testability and empirical adequacy, ID as a discipline can not be considered to fall within the realm of science. This is further confirmed by its lack of progressiveness and explanatory power.

This does not mean that ID researchers are not at times satisfying some of the criteria for doing science, but this is not sufficient to rescue ID from being classified as pseudoscience, particularly given their repeated claims of scientific status.

Where can ID go from here? It is possible that ID is a proto-science, and that in time a comprehensive theory of ID will be developed that proposes certain capabilities and motives of an intelligent designer, and possibly a mechanism for the instantiation of design in living organisms. Certainly, for ID to progress and become testable, a radical change in approach from denying any knowledge of the designer is required. Given that most ID proponents are theists, this may be a difficult step for ID to take.

There is an alternative, which is to forsake ID’s quest for scientific legitimacy, and concede that its positive arguments for design are more suitably classified as philosophy of religion, being primarily scientifically sophisticated versions of the teleological argument for design. Of course, this casts aside the mantle of scientific authority that many ID proponents see as important for swaying opinion, and is probably unacceptable for most in the ID community.


Behe, Michael J. 1996: Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free.

Boudry, M., Blancke, S. and Braeckman, J. 2010: How Not to Attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical Misconceptions About Methodological Naturalism. Foundations of Science, 15(3), 227-244.

Boudry, M., Blancke, S. and Braeckman, J. 2012: Grist to the Mill of Anti-evolutionism: The Failed Strategy of Ruling the Supernatural Out of Science by Philosophical Fiat. Sci & Educ, 21(8), 1151-1165.

Cleland, C. 2011: Prediction and Explanation in Historical Natural Science. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 62(3), 551-582.

Cleland, C. 2013: Common cause explanation and the search for a smoking gun. In Baker, V. (ed.) 125th Anniversary Volume of the Geological Society of America: Rethinking the Fabric of Geology, Special Paper 502 (2013), 1-9.

Creation Ministries International, 2015: What we believe. Creation Ministries International, accessed 2 December 2015. http://creation.com/about-us#what_we_believe

Darwin, Charles. 1859: The Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition. Harvard University Press, 1964.

Dembski, William A. 1998: The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dembski, William A. 2005: Specification: the pattern that signifies intelligence. Philosophia Christi 7 (2):299-343.

Discovery Institute, 2016 (a): Frequently Asked Questions. [online] Available at: http://www.discovery.org/id/faqs/ [Accessed 19 Jan. 2016].

Discovery Institute, 2016 (b): Peer-Reviewed Articles Supporting Intelligent Design. [online] Available at: http://www.discovery.org/id/peer-review/ [Accessed 14 Jan. 2016].

Discovery Institute, 2016 (c): What Is the Science Behind Intelligent Design?. [online] Available at: http://www.discovery.org/a/9761 [Accessed 21 Jan. 2016].

Dupré, J.,1993: The disorder of things. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Fitelson, B., Stephens, C. and Sober, E., 1999: How Not to Detect Design:The Design Inference. William A. Dembski. Philosophy of Science, 66(3), 472.

Forber, P. and Griffith, E., 2011: Historical Reconstruction: Gaining Epistemic Access to the Deep Past. Philosophy and Theory in Biology, 3(20150929).

Forrest, B. 2000: Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism. Philo, 3(2), 7-29.

Geisler, N. and Anderson, J. (1987). Origin science. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

Gould, S. 2000: Wonderful life. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hansson, S. O., 1996: Defining Pseudoscience, Philosophia Naturalis, 33: 169–176.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. 2005: Memorandum Opinion (United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania.).

Kurtz, Paul, 1998: Darwin Re-Crucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?. Free Inquiry (Spring 1998), 17.

Laudan, L. 1982: Commentary: Science at the Bar – Causes for Concern. Science, Technology and Human Values 7(41), 16–19.

Luskin, C. 2011: How Do We Know Intelligent Design Is a Scientific “Theory”? [online] Evolution News & Views. Available at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/10/how_do_we_know_intelligent_des051841.html [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

Luskin, C. 2013: Straw Men Aside, What Is the Theory of Intelligent Design, Really? [online] Evolution News & Views. Available at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/08/what_is_the_the075281.html [Accessed 12 Jan. 2016].

Mahner, Martin. 2013: Science and Pseudoscience. In Pigliucci, Massimo, and Boudry (eds). Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press.

Matzke, N. 2009: But isn’t it creationism? In Pennock, R.T. and Ruse, R (eds). But is it science? The philosophical question in the creation/evolution controversy, pp377-405

Meyer, Stephen C. 2008: A Scientific History – and Philosophical Defense – of the Theory of Intelligent Design. Religion – Staat – Gesellschaft, vol. 7.

Meyer, Stephen C. 2009: Signature in the cell. New York: HarperOne.

Meyer, Stephen C. 2014: Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. New York: HarperOne.

Orr, H.A. 1996: Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again). Boston Review, December 1996/January 1997, 28–31.

Pigliucci, Massimo, 2013: The Demarcation Problem. In Pigliucci, Massimo, and Boudry (eds). Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. University of Chicago Press.

Pennock, R., 2011: Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited. Synthese, 178(2), pp.177-206.

Prothero, Donald, 2010: Science and Creationism. In Rosenberg, A. and Arp, R. (eds). Philosophy of biology. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Shermer, M. 2002: In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace : a Biographical Study on the Psychology of History. Oxford University Press.

Thagard, P., 1978: Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1978(1), pp.223-234.

Evaluating Intelligent Design 2

Evaluating Intelligent Design 2

Empirical adequacy

Empirical adequacy is determined by the results of testing, and in the historical sciences, by the acceptance of a hypothesis over its competitors because of its superior causal explanation of empirical observations. Given that ID has been assessed as untestable, it cannot even be properly evaluated for empirical adequacy.

It is worth noting here that ID’s paragon example of IC (and CSI), the bacterial flagellum, is strongly disputed to be IC by evolutionary biologists, again suggesting empirical inadequacy.


PMN requires that an assumption of methodological naturalism be adopted unless there is ‘extraordinary empirical evidence’ that indicates otherwise. This includes hypotheses advanced in the historical sciences.

As discussed earlier, ID is not inherently supernatural, and so satisfies the PMN requirement. However the now familiar lack of detail about the designer’s capabilities, motives and mechanism certainly casts a pall of suspicion on ID, and seems to be a strategy to avoid violating PMN.


Does ID demonstrate the progressiveness expected of scientific endeavours? Does it develop theories, solve problems, and discard or modify them as require?

During the almost thirty years since its inception, ID has produced ideas such as Behe’s IC and Dembski’s specified complexity – flawed concepts as discussed above, but which have generated considerable debate. ID has also produced more sophisticated criticisms of evolutionary theory than its creation science predecessor, such as those by Stephen Meyer.

The primary issue, however, is the failure to develop a comprehensive theory, a situation already highlighted, and also acknowledged by Paul Nelson, a current Fellow of the Discovery Institute, at a meeting at Biola College in 2004: ‘Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus’ (Nelson, 2004).

Donald Prothero agreed, stating that ‘they don’t offer any new scientific ideas or a true alternative theory competing with evolution. All they argue is that some parts of nature seem too complex for them to imagine an evolutionary explanation’ (Prothero, 2010, 418).

In the decade or more since Paul Nelson made the statement above, little seems to have changed. Dembski’s ideas have not been further developed, and he has recently announced that he is abandoning further research in ID. There is no evidence that a detailed theory of design has

been developed (Luskin, 2013), and so there seems little empirical content to progress with. As a result, the conclusion is that ID does not satisfy the progressiveness indicator.

Explanatory power

Meyer claims that ‘[ID] provides a better explanation than any competing chemical evolutionary model for the origin of biological information’ (Meyer, 2009, 347). Similarly, Luskin states that ‘[ID] is an explanation of many aspects of the natural world, especially many aspects of biological complexity’ (Luskin, 2011).

However we have already noted the lack of any detail regarding the designer’s capabilities, motives and mechanisms. Essentially, the designer is undefined, and provides no more explanation than positing a deity does. This indicator is also not satisfied.

Peer review

The Discovery Institute maintains a list of ID-related peer-reviewed articles (Discovery Institute, 2016b). Many are not genuine peer-reviewed journal articles, but are book chapters, conference papers, and peer-edited and editor-reviewed articles. Most peer-reviewed articles deal with evolutionary science, highlighting particular issues, but do not mention ID. Articles directly supportive of ID are published in the Discovery Institute-funded open access journal BIO-Complexity.

It seems clear that ID practitioners are engaging in the peer-review process, and are contributing to evolutionary science, even if in a critical way. ID has also succeeded in provoking widespread discussion amongst evolutionary scientists, and although most of this is negative, it is also a form of peer-review.

It is concluded that ID satisfies the peer-review indicator.

Borrows knowledge

Unlike the creation science movement, which borrows knowledge from science only when supportive of its views (e.g. ‘young earth’ creationism’s rejection of radiometric dating), the ID community demonstrates willingness to draw on research from a broad range of scientific fields, including areas within biology, physics and chemistry.

Of course, ID does dispute many of the contentions of evolutionary theory, but this is expected as ID represents an alternative hypothesis. Certainly no basic science is disputed.

Claims to be science

The practitioners of a pseudoscience ‘deliberately attempt to create the impression that it is scientific’ (Hansson, 1996), and this is certainly the case for ID. The Discovery Institute has published numerous articles defending this position, and Stephen Meyer advances a detailed case (Meyer, 2009).

 Part 6: Is Intelligent Design science?

Evaluating Intelligent Design 1

Evaluating Intelligent Design 1

Having allowed that ID is not necessarily religious in nature and is capable of transcending its creationist origins, the task is to evaluate ID according to the proposed strategy outlined earlier. The three necessary criteria will be examined in detail, followed by the four indicators.


ID’s historical claims will need to be evaluated for testability by examining their causal explanations. Its hypotheses about design detection must also be examined for testability.

Historical testability

The basic hypothesis of ID states that ‘certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause’. However this is a very general hypothesis too vague to generate meaningful causal explanations. According to Elliott Sober, ‘testing the design hypothesis requires that we have information about the goals and abilities the designer would have’ (Sober, 1999).

Yet ID proponents explicitly deny any knowledge of the designer. Michael Behe states that ‘the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are’ (Behe, 1996). Similarly, Stephen Meyer says ID ‘does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence’ (Meyer, 2009, 428). A corollary is that the designer’s mechanism for creation is also unknown.

This lack of knowledge is used as a defence by ID proponents against the existence of apparently sub-optimal designs in nature – how can we know that a designer would not create them when we know nothing about their intentions? This, however, highlights the difficulty of testing such a minimalist version of intelligent design – what empirical observations would we expect from a designer whose attributes are unknown?

According to Behe and Meyer, ‘the conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer’ (Behe, 1996, 197), as ‘we know from experience only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information’ (Meyer, 2009, 429).

In terms of historical testing, their basic claim is that intelligent design can be reliably detected, and this is empirical evidence of a design event some time in the past. No auxiliary assumptions about the designer are necessary, and this evidence of design is Cleland’s ‘smoking gun’ that selects the design hypothesis over evolution.

This is a dubious claim, as it is dependent on an unstated assumption that human intelligence acts in a way analogous to designer intelligence, despite the very significant differences in capabilities and the denial of any knowledge about the designer. It is also vague enough to deny that sub-optimal designs could not be the product of this intelligence, as well accommodating any other empirical evidence that might be available. There is no indication as to how or why the intelligent designer does what it is claimed to do, and so very little is explained – in fact it provides no more explanation than the claim ‘God did it’ does. It has to be concluded that without a more developed theory, ID is untestable as a historical science.

Testability of design detection using CSI

William Dembski’s complex specified information (CSI) is at the heart of ID’s design detection claims. In terms of testability, the claim is that a biological feature that exhibits CSI has been designed by an intelligent agent.

This use of CSI is undermined by a theoretical flaw that makes this claim difficult to substantiate. Both the explanatory filter and Dembski’s more recent simplified approach of ruling out chance hypotheses (which now include regularities) require that currently unknown natural laws are rejected to conclude design. According to Fitelson, rejecting all possible chance and regularity hypotheses requires ‘ kind of omniscience’ (Fitelson et al, 1999) – both in the estimation of probabilities that are poorly defined, and because of these unknown laws. Given PMN’s presumption of naturalistic explanations, it is hard to see how a conclusion of design could be arrived at unless extraordinary empirical evidence confirms it. ID is not necessarily supernatural as has been discussed, but it is potentially supernatural and so still requires such evidence.

Is the design claim testable, despite this flaw? In principle, a series of tests could be devised that calculate CSI for human-designed and natural artefacts to validate the Dembski formula for human intelligence. However the auxiliary assumption that a designer would act in a way analogous to human intelligence would be required, as with historical testing. It also does not solve Fitelson’s issue, and so it is difficult to see how any tests can validate CSI’s applicability to design in biological organisms.

Testability of irreducible complexity

The first issue regarding testability is that IC is primarily a test of evolution rather than ID. If a truly IC feature was found, evolution would be falsified – but this would not necessarily rule out an alternative natural mechanism.

A further problem is that without any details of the designer and the mechanism, we can’t know an intelligent designer would build IC structures. Similarly, IC cannot falsify ID. If an evolutionary explanation is later found for a feature claimed to be IC, ID proponents can claim that they were mistaken about this feature being IC.

In terms of historical testing, an IC feature would certainly favour the ID hypothesis instead of evolution, but again the PMN requirement means that an extraordinary level of evidence is required for a feature to be considered IC.

How is IC determined? Luskin states that IC ‘can be tested for by reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function’ (Luskin, 2011). But does this mean a structure is IC? To be definitive would surely involve examining all conceivable evolutionary scenarios for constructing the feature rather than just determining if all parts are required. This would need to include the possibility of exaptation, where the function of a biological trait can change during its evolutionary history. H. Allen Orr complicates things further by suggesting ‘an irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become— because of later changes—essential’ (Orr, 1996).

Behe himself notes ‘an exhaustive consideration of all possible roles for a particular component can’t be done’ (Behe, 1996, 111). Behe rather is claiming that it is extremely unlikely that certain features he has identified as irreducibly complex could have evolved gradually, i.e. his is a probabilistic argument: ‘one can not definitively rule out the possibility of an indirect, circuitous route. As the complexity of an interacting system increases, though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously’ (Behe, 1996, 40).

However Behe’s discussions of supposedly IC features such as blood clotting, the bacterial flagellum and the immune system do not perform any probabilistic calculations (Behe, 1996). They describe the systems in some detail and highlight their complexity, as well as the current lack of knowledge concerning their evolution. How the relevant probabilities could be calculated for an unknown process is not discussed, and it is difficult to see how a conclusive decision could be made. They primarily seem to be arguments from incredulity, and so IC’s testability is problematic.

Testability of evolution criticisms

ID’s various criticisms of evolutionary theory listed above also offer no direct positive evidence for ID, and are again tests of evolution rather than ID.

But when comparing historical hypotheses, criticisms of one hypothesis are indirect support for the other. According to Stephen Meyer, ‘since design hypotheses are often formulated as strong claims about intelligence as the best causal explanation of some particular phenomenon, these hypotheses entail counter-claims about the insufficiency of competing materialistic mechanisms’ (Meyer, 2009, 482). This seems reasonable – provided that ID is providing a causal explanation. But we have already concluded that ID provides little explanation at all, and so this claim seems very weak.

ID’s predictions

Stephen Meyer lists ‘a dozen ID-inspired predictions’ (Meyer, 2009, 482-483). Representative examples are briefly examined below.

One prediction is that instances of ‘bad design’ will eventually show evidence of degenerated original designs, or functional reasons for the supposedly bad design – for example, the backward wiring of the retina.

Another is that the fossil record should show evidence of sudden appearances of major forms of life, and limits to the amount of change organisms undergo discovered.

A final example is that ‘no undirected process will demonstrate the capacity to generate 500 bits of new information starting from a non-biological source’, which draws on Dembski’s CSI.

These predictions are not testable. Some predictions (e.g. ‘bad design’) are not falsifiable in that they predict an event vindicating ID at an unspecified future point. Other predictions of future events that would falsify ID (e.g. generating bits of information) cannot easily be tested. And finally some predictions (e.g. concerning the fossil record) are vague enough that in practice they are not falsifiable.


So is ID testable? Without any knowledge of the designer, there are no specific empirical predictions that can genuinely test the theory. Both CSI and IC have significant theoretical flaws that cast doubt on the veracity of design detection, which is the key claim in ID’s quiver. There is also little evidence to suggest that these concepts can be used in practice. Criticisms of evolution are tests of evolutionary theory, not ID. So ID’s key tenets are currently not testable, and we have also concluded that ID is not testable as a historical science. ID fails the stated criteria for science at the first hurdle.

 Part 5: Evaluating Intelligent Design – part 2

A demarcation strategy proposal

A demarcation strategy proposal


To make an impartial judgement on the status of ID as a science or pseudoscience, a demarcation strategy must be adopted. It must allow fields widely accepted as science to be classified as such, and must exclude the most obvious cases of pseudoscience.

The proposal presented here acknowledges the difficulties Laudan pointed out with a necessary and sufficient set of demarcation criteria. However it rejects his conclusion that demarcation is a pseudo-problem, and instead takes the view that while there are no clear-cut demarcation boundaries, demarcation is still possible in many instances.

The proposal suggests three minimal necessary criteria for demarcation, coupled with a variable group of indicators. The necessary criteria are not regarded as sufficient, but serve to draw a relatively uncontroversial boundary around science. The more additional indicators that are satisfied by a field, the more firmly it is placed within the realm of science. It may be that some fields satisfy the necessary criteria, but few if any of the indicators, and it may not be possible to come to a firm conclusion in these cases. But this is not a fatal objection: rather it might be that a field is in the early stages of development as a science and its status may become clearer in the future.


The first and most important proposed criterion is testability. Science is an empirical investigation about the real world, and so scientific theories must be checked against the real world – they must be testable. Testability is closely related to falsifiability – a field can only be falsified if it can be tested. Additionally, the Duhem–Quine thesis tells us that a theory cannot be tested in isolation – theories require a number of auxiliary assumptions, and these are also tested when a theory is tested. Crucially, there should be independent evidence for auxiliary assumptions, to prevent their ad hoc invention to ensure a theory produces the expected results.

Historical or operational science?

Many creationists and ID supporters have distinguished between ‘historical science’ and ‘operational science’. A detailed case was presented by Geisler and Anderson (Geisler et al, 1987). They claimed historical sciences investigate phenomena that have occurred in the past (such as a creation event) and are not subject to repeatable experiment, unlike operational (or experimental) science.

This distinction has been used to argue that creationism and ID should not be subject to a testability criterion, and that they have equivalent scientific status to evolutionary theory, another historical science.

There is a valid basis to claims of methodological differences between historical and operational sciences. Stephen Jay Gould made the distinction, as have philosophers of science such as Carol Cleland. Of course, it should be noted that evolutionary theory uses both historical and operational methodologies – experimental evolution is an increasingly important field.

Do these differences grant an exemption from testability? The answer must be no. A science’s theories must be confirmed against the real world, and that can only be performed via some form of testing. As Gould stated: ‘We cannot see a past event directly, but science is usually based on inference, not unvarnished observation. The firm requirement for all science – whether stereotypical or historical – lies in secure testability, not direct observation. History’s richness drives us to different methods of testing, but testability is our criterion as well’ (Gould, 2000, 282).

Similarly, Michael Shermer wrote that ‘we cannot rerun the past, alter a variable here or there, and then observe the effects. This does not mean, however, that we cannot make causal inferences from what has already transpired’ (Shermer, 2002, 317).

As Gould and Shermer note, testing in the historical sciences must be performed differently to testing in operational science. Both Forber et al and Cleland argue that multiple competing hypotheses must be considered, and the hypothesis providing the best causal explanation selected. Forber et al argue for multiple independent lines of evidence that converge on a hypothesis’ estimates (Forber et al, 2011).

According to Cleland, predictions made by historical hypotheses are usually too vague to fail, and function more as educated guesses. Instead, ‘hypotheses are accepted and rejected by virtue of their power to explain as opposed to predict the evidence that supports them’. The assumption is that ‘seemingly improbable associations among present-day traces of the past are best explained in terms of a common cause’ (Cleland, 2013). So the process is to compare between common cause hypotheses for their ability to explain all the available evidence, hoping for ‘smoking gun’ evidence that discriminates between them.

In the historical sciences, then, testing proceeds by comparing multiple hypotheses to see which provides the best common cause explanation for the available empirical evidence. Is ID a historical science? Certainly, many of ID’s claims concern historical events, particularly those pertaining to criticisms of evolutionary theory. Examples include claims about the lack of intermediate fossils, and Stephen Meyers’ argument about the Cambrian explosion (Meyer, 2013), which attempts to provide a competing explanation to evolutionary theory. However ID also makes claims about being able to detect design in living organisms. While the initial design event may be regarded as a historical claim based far in the past, it is very much a matter of operational science to demonstrate the veracity of design detection techniques.

This means investigating testability will need to consider testing from both a historical and operational point of view, depending on the claims being made.

Empirical adequacy

The second necessary criterion is empirical adequacy. A theory is empirically adequate if its predictions approximate relevant observable aspects of the world. Empirical adequacy is strongly related to testability. If theories are not testable, they will automatically fail to be empirically adequate. Testability is not sufficient, though – theories must be confirmed by successful testing to be empirically adequate.

Of course, testing will not always be successful. Test failures cannot be ignored – they must be acknowledged and eventually resolved. By contrast, pseudosciences are ‘selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations’ (Thagard, 1978).

Methodological naturalism

The final necessary criterion is the presumption of methodological naturalism (MN) – the principle that ‘all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events’ (Kurz, 1998). MN is widely considered to be a working assumption of science, and science’s successes based on MN are a strong inductive justification for requiring it as a necessary feature of doing science.

An important question is whether MN should permit the investigation of supernatural phenomena. In the context of creation science and ID, this is a pertinent question, as creation science explicitly appeals to the supernatural (Creation Ministries International, 2015). MN was a key demarcation criterion used in numerous court cases to reject creation science and subsequently ID because of their apparent reliance upon the supernatural.

Restricting science to natural phenomena is problematic in several ways. Firstly, the concept of the supernatural is ill-defined. Secondly, there seems to be no a priori reason why supernatural events could not exert a causal influence on the physical, and if we suspected that they did, we would surely want to investigate. Finally, there have been numerous attempts to investigate a variety of supernatural phenomena by scientific means, e.g. Benson et al’s study on the effects of intercessory prayer (Benson et al., 2006), and this implies that the supernatural is amenable to scientific investigation.

Boudry et al argue that rather than considering MN as an intrinsic limitation of science, it should be a ‘provisory and empirically grounded commitment to naturalistic causes and explanations, which in principle is revocable by extraordinary empirical evidence’ (Boudry et al, 2010). They justify this inductively, based on ‘the pattern of consistent success of naturalistic explanations’ (Boudry et al, 2010), and label this Provisory (or Pragmatic) Methodological Naturalism (PMN). PMN does not exclude the supernatural by definition, accepting that supernatural forces ‘would have empirically detectable consequences, and these are in principle open to scientific investigation’ (Boudry et al, 2012).

This proposal suggests adopting PMN as a necessary feature of science. It means that supernatural explanations cannot be excluded from science by philosophical decree, but naturalistic explanations are to be preferred unless ‘extraordinary empirical evidence’ is brought to light.

This has implications for testing in the historical sciences, implying that extraordinary ‘smoking gun’ evidence would be required to prefer a supernatural hypothesis over a naturalistic hypothesis.

Additional indicators

Four optional indicators have been chosen that are characteristic of fields that have undisputed scientific status, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Note that some of the indicators are not uniquely associated with scientific fields, but are also characteristic of other academic fields.


The first indicator is progressiveness. Thagard states that for a theory or discipline to be pseudoscience it ‘has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time, and faces many unsolved problems … the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems’ (Thagard, 1978). He defines progressiveness as ‘a matter of the success of the theory in adding to its set of facts explained and problems solved’ (Thagard, 1978).

A progressive field continually identifies anomalies and shortcomings of its theories and actively works to resolve them. It develops, modifies and discards theories as necessary – this is sometimes known as revisability, and also implies that theories are tentative.

If an alternative theory exists, comparative progressiveness becomes important. A pseudoscience’s practitioners may be doggedly persisting over many years when an alternative theory is solving problems that they continue to struggle with.

Progressiveness is an indicator rather than a necessary criterion because many theories we regard as scientific have been superseded and are no longer progressive. For example, Newtonian gravity was superseded by general relativity, while steady-state cosmology was superseded by big bang cosmology.

Explanatory power

Theories should explain why things are as they are. Typically, this should be by reference to natural laws, although adopting PMM means this is not absolute.

Peer review

Scientists generally share the results of their research – informally, at conferences, and by publication in peer-reviewed journals. This allows their claims to be scrutinised by the broader scientific community.

Borrowing knowledge

Scientists borrow relevant knowledge from adjacent disciplines relevant to their research. They do not repudiate or ignore knowledge that tends to disconfirm their theories.

Summary of proposal

The proposed demarcation strategy thus consists of evaluating a field against the three necessary criteria of testability, empirical adequacy and PMN, and the optional indicators of progressiveness, explanatory power, peer review, and knowledge borrowing.

Finally, to be considered pseudoscience, a field must both fail the above demarcation test and meet Hansson’s criterion of deliberately masquerading as science.

Evaluating the proposal

The strategy will be briefly evaluated against a field widely thought to be a pseudoscience – astrology. As a comparison, quantum field theory, an undisputed scientific field, is also evaluated.


Astrology is somewhat testable, as evidenced by the work of statistician Michel Gauquelin, and more recently Carlson (Carlson, 1985). However it is not empirically adequate, having failed any rigorous tests it has been subjected to. Given that no mechanism is suggested, the PMN criterion is difficult to assess.

Astrology fails to meet most of the proposed indicators. It is not progressive or explanatory – according to Thagard astrology ‘has changed little and has added nothing to its explanatory power since the time of Ptolemy’ (Thagard, 1978). There is no active research community or peer-reviewed publication record. Astrology does borrow some knowledge from astronomy, and this criterion is satisfied in a weak sense.

Based on the necessary criteria and the indicators, astrology fails the demarcation test, which firmly places it outside the realm of science.

Quantum field theory

Quantum field theory (QFT) is a framework for elementary particle physics. The Standard Model is an extremely successful QFT which has been tested extensively and confirmed to an extraordinary degree of accuracy, thus satisfying the necessary criteria. The Standard Model has progressed significantly over the last 60 years or more, it has broad explanatory power, there is a vast research community generating thousands of peer-reviewed articles, and it draws on many different areas of physics. It is science.


In each of the examples, the proposed demarcation strategy performs as expected. Astrology is decisively classified as non-science, and QFT is clearly shown to be science.

Part 3: What is Intelligent Design?