Neonatal consultant Erik Strandness explores scientific method and the intelligent design movement in light of an Unbelievable? conversation on the topic

Is Intelligent Design (ID) advancing or retreating? Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute and editor of The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith sat down with science historian Adam Shapiro, co-author of Science and Religion: A very short introduction to discuss this question. Luskin argued that the Intelligent Design movement is gaining new converts and has never been stronger, especially in academia. Shapiro brought his expertise to the table to assess whether that optimism is warranted by evaluating the history of the movement.

 
 

Scientific method

One of the major critiques of ID is that it isn’t science. Is this true? Is ID guilty of bypassing the scientific method in order to give God the best seat at the science table? Is ID a fringe movement or the very foundation of science itself? 

Merriam Webster defines the scientific method as principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Sadly, we are led to believe that this method is restricted to scientists armed with test tubes, spectrometers and electron microscopes and forget that this “method” is just a fancy name for what every human being does on a daily basis. 

A little child sees a glowing element on a stove and explores it with her senses to determine its nature. She discovers it’s warm and reaches out to touch it and finds that not only is it painful but also leaves a blister. She concludes that warm glowing objects should be approached with caution. 

Just because a heating element, the pain sensation and a blister can be more completely explained by a scientist doesn’t mean that the child hasn’t engaged in science. The scientific method is just a description of the process the mind goes through as it navigates the world. 

Let us reason together

Science can be conducted whether or not one believes in a higher power, therefore, the conflict between faith and science is not at the practical level. The real bone of contention is the metaphysical missing link between the motivation to do science and its actual practice. 

Why, if nature is the product of random genetic mistakes filtered through the cruel colander of natural selection, do we investigate the world when we know the answer is always fitness and fecundity? Isn’t science more compelling if we view it as a hidden corpus of algorithms, mechanisms, and nano-technology rather than pages out of a survival manual? 

If you believe that nature exists because it won a cosmic lottery then science is reduced to finding a needle in a haystack but if you believe that it was designed, you expect to find something of interest in every piece of straw. 

Science assumes that every time it asks nature a question it will receive a coherent, elegant and mechanically sound answer. Assuming a designing intelligence behind the world not only makes this possible but transforms every science experiment into a conversation with God. 

Babbling brooks are elevated to streams of divine thought and galactic redshifts become the joyous ruminations of the heavens declaring. Belief in God, contrary to the opinion of many atheists, doesn’t stop scientific inquiry but rather gives it a green light to make its way down the scientific road less travelled. 

ID doesn’t fear data but sees it as more opportunities for God and man to sit down and reason together. The problem is that when a scientist reduces the world to matter in motion his or her lab coat becomes a spiritual straight jacket.

 

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History of ID

I find it interesting that ancient humans attributed natural phenomena to deities, such that every aspect of the world was assigned a divine patron. While polytheists may have divided up the intelligent designing work amongst multiple deities, they nonetheless attributed them to mindful divine beings. 

Why would purely material creatures who had seen evolution at work for millions of years all of a sudden invoke deities with minds? Wouldn’t it be odd if chemicals concocted entities that were not only achemical but had thoughts on the matter? 

Early man didn’t just experience vague feelings of awe but had questions about who laid the foundations of the Earth, caused the dawn to know its place, prescribed the limits to the sea, bound the chains of the Pleiades, and set forth lightning. It was humans detecting design who were inspired to not only ask who was behind it all but how the heck they did it. Humans have listened to the heavens declare for thousands of years and concluded that something divine has something profound to say.

One could argue that animals engage in a crude cause and effect search similar to humans but what is remarkable is that beyond this practical application humans are interested in investigating mechanisms. While an antelope hearing a rustling in the bushes may infer a predator, it doesn’t seem to care much about the physics of sound propagation and reception, or the physiology of the fight or flight response. Animals focus on what matters while humans ask what is on his mind.  

Critics would likely point out that the world was a scary place and early man needed to assuage his or her fears by inventing deities who could be manipulated or appeased in order to make the world a safer place. Perhaps…but is it also possible that instead of alleviating existential angst they were actually working out their salvation with fear and trembling with a God they had no excuse for not acknowledging?  

If I am correct in assuming that the scientific method is merely the human process of navigating the world then science has been in operation since humans first appeared on the scene. We have been scientists since we discovered that a square wheel was less efficient than a round one and that sparks from lightning could be replicated by rubbing two sticks together. 

While it is interesting to plot the academic trajectory of intelligent design theory, we need to remember that lay people have been engaged in it from the beginning. As it turns out, the history of science is merely the diary of Intelligent Design.

ID as scientific discipline 

I think we need to be careful when we treat ID as a unique scientific discipline in contradistinction to methodological naturalism because ID is not an investigative tool but the foundational assumption that undergirds all scientific inquiry. ID is foundational because it assures us that all scientific inquiry is valid and fruitful, while methodological naturalism merely guides the acquisition of physical data before one jumps to divine conclusions. Methodological naturalism is operative when the Intelligent Design rubber meets the experimental road. 

Metaphysical naturalism, on the other hand, is at odds with ID because it denies a foundational designing intelligence thereby reducing the scientific enterprise to a search for a series of fortunate mistakes. ID assumes that scientific inquiry will always result in profound discoveries of order, complexity, and interconnectedness. ID approaches nature enthusiastically because it knows it is fearfully and wonderfully made while materialism is less sanguine because random mutations and natural selection create just as much waste as wonder. 

If we go back to the definition of the scientific method, we see that the first step is the recognition and formulation of a problem or stated another way, the discernment of a possible pattern or its disruption. Science then evaluates whether or not that intuition is correct. 

In medicine, we begin with a physiological norm or pattern and use that as the template to identify the presence of a disrupting disease. While metaphysical naturalism may tell us that antibiotics are better than prayer it doesn’t explain why the body looks like it was intentionally knit together in a mother’s womb. 

Dumpster diving

A prime example of the clash between ID and metaphysical naturalism was the junk DNA debacle. If you believe the world isn’t designed, then everything you don’t understand will be tossed onto the rubbish tip. However, if you assume a designer then you know that God doesn’t make junk. 

The materialist conclusion that the genome was full of useless genetic waste, the flotsam and jetsam of millions of years of trying out new genes, eliminated the incentive to investigate it. Thankfully, a brave bunch of dumpster diving scientists who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty jumped in and rescued it from the genetic garbage dump. 

If you assume the biological world is nothing but mutations and selection, then you approach the physical world as if it is mostly broken and throw out that which you don’t understand. ID, on the other hand, leaves no stone unturned.  

Einstein argued that “the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible”, thereby opening the floodgates to every mode of scientific investigation. 

The Neo-Darwinian metaphysic, however, only offers a yellow light warning scientists not to trust their intuition and “constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved”. 

Science is not trial and error but intuition and correction. Materialist scientists may not like a mind behind the Universe, but the good news is that they rethink his thoughts with every new experiment they perform.

 

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ID thesaurus 

During my years of basic science research, I was amazed how each newly discovered scientific truth opened up another layer of complexity. Rarely did laboratory discoveries become immovable weight-bearing walls of scientific truth, but rather became doors into rooms of ever-increasing complexity. It was as if scientists were looking deeper into a complex mind rather than uncovering a fortuitous series of genetic mistakes. 

When I taught high school biology, I was struck by the inability of the textbook authors to express biological ideas without using terms that directly implied a mind. Words such as design, engineer, blueprint, mechanism, fine-tune, architecture and master plan litter the pages and yet astonishingly their conclusion is mindless materialism. The writers of these textbooks hypocritically use words that are not found in their evolutionary lexicons, confronted by a mind they are forced to pull out an intelligent design thesaurus.

Interestingly, in the medical sciences, we are acutely aware of the power of the mind to alter physical results and must account for it in the placebo effect. It is a tacit admission that the immaterial mind can manipulate the material world and that mind must always be a part of the scientific calculation. 

A formula for disaster

Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory invokes random mutations (mistakes in genetic replication) as the fuel that drives the evolutionary machine. While it claims that natural selection is what makes us winners in this cosmic game of dice, it still all begins with a crapshoot. 

Basic scientists are a brilliant bunch bound to the scientific method. They perform their work in a methodical, logical and meticulous way. They ask questions, gather data, form hypotheses and then test them in carefully controlled experiments. The data they acquire is then plugged into statistical formulas to determine whether or not the results are significant. These formulas are designed to determine whether the data obtained is suggestive of a distinct phenomenon or just the result of random chance. 

If the data is statistically significant, then their work may offer real answers to scientific questions and be deemed worthy of publication. If, however, the data acquired is determined to be random, then it is irrelevant and scientifically unfit for publication. 

How is it then possible for a Neo-Darwinian evolutionary scientist to attribute the appearance of complex beings to random genetic mutations? Randomness is a science killer. It is anathema to the scientific pursuit of truth. 

Can a scientist in good conscience reject the work of a colleague because their work doesn’t reach statistical significance and then declare that the mechanism for the development of complex life is a series of random mistakes? It makes no sense. Science is based on statistically verifiable theories, so once you offer randomness as a valid mechanism, you gut science of its gold standard and pull the rug out from under the scientific enterprise. Sadly, for the materialist, statistical testing turns out to be a formula for disaster. 

 

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Stay of execution

Even if you invoke natural selection as the great orderer you have to acknowledge that its ability to innovate remains quite limited because garbage in is still garbage out. Even if you posit that it picks out the best that random has to offer it doesn’t explain why the leftover “junk” always seems be another scientist’s treasure. 

Does science measure survival or sophistication? Does science study mistakes or mechanisms? If you are testing a theory, then you are not measuring disorder but design. 

One of the dictums of science is that a theory, in order to be valid, must be disprovable. If, however, the conclusion to all scientific investigation is survival of the fittest, then one can always conjure up an explanation as to why something is advantageous. 

The beauty of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is that every explanation, no matter how absurd, never makes it to the gallows for a statistical execution because the materialist powers-that-be always step in and give it an official pardon. Better to put a foot in one’s mouth than allow a divine toe in the scientific door. 

We need each other

Shapiro noted that there seems to be less public discussion about ID while Luskin sees a tremendous increased interest in it in academia. I would suggest that in the public sphere the average person has an intuition that somebody is behind it all, and since the modernist spiritual muzzle has been removed by postmodernism, ID is quickly becoming the air we breathe and not the substance we smoke in our houses of worship. 

Cultural interest in panpsychism, quantum theory and life as an alien computer simulation, all implicate a mind behind the Universe. Allowing for a designer allows us to feel at home with our thoughts while materialism lacks a certain mental curb appeal 

I believe that ID has been the default understanding of humans from the beginning and that the history of science is merely a reflection of the waxing and waning of a foundational belief that just won’t go away. 

We need to accept the fact that ID and science are not at odds but need each other because a world without design is a waste of scientific time and a divine mind without physical manifestations is a fantasy.

 

Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.