Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Response to O'Conner

Robin Collins

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Messiah College, Grantham PA 17027

From: PSCF 49 (December 1997): 286-287.

As with most articles I've read defending methodological naturalism (MN) against an intelligent design alternative, I thought Robert O'Conner's article "Science on Trial: Exploring the Rationality of Methodological Naturalism" (March 1997: 15˝30) largely missed the point. As is clear from Steve Meyer's article that O'Conner cites, the real issue with which advocates of intelligent design are concerned is not whether an intelligent design research program should be labeled as "science," which in and of itself is an uninteresting verbal dispute, but whether it should be treated in certain important respects in the same way as we treat science. Should, for instance, intelligent design research receive the same sort of government funding and prestige as origins research based on Darwinian evolution? To simply label intelligent design research as "unscientific" does not answer these sorts of questions, and neither does O'Conner's assertion that the aim of science in the last 100 years has been to find explanations in terms of natural causes.

Of course, seriously addressing these questions opens up a Pandora's box of hard issues connected with how we treat science, issues such as the prestige of science relative to the humanities and the rationale for public funding of those theoretical branches of science that offer little promise of direct practical benefits. I'm sure that to many scientists, especially those who worry about their research dollars drying up, these are unwelcome questions since they inevitably will call into question the status quo. Indeed, perhaps this is the real fear underlying much of the vehement dismissal of intelligent design research as unscientific. But these questions nonetheless need to be addressed.

The insufficiency of arguments that ignore these deeper questions and simply claim that MN is somehow part of the aim or essence of science, I believe, can be brought home with particular force by the following thought experiment. Suppose that, ten years from now, the intelligent design research program mined out to be extraordinarily empirically fruitful, producing all sorts of correct novel predictions and new technology, and opening up significant new domains of research. Could we honestly say that despite its success, intelligent design research would not deserve the same sort of prestige and funding as what we presently call science simply because it violates the strictures of MN, and thus cannot be considered "scientific"?

Of course, advocates of MN could argue, as O'Conner does later in his article, that intelligent design research is unlikely to be empirically fruitful. The first thing to note about such a response, however, is that it ends up conceding that what makes a research program worthy of being treated in the same way we treat (good) science is not its adherence to MN, but its potential empirical fruitfulness. Moreover, I find the typical arguments against the potential empirical fruitfulness of intelligent design particularly weak. O'Conner, for instance, claims that the empirical success of science has largely been the result of scientists' adherence to MN, and hence that it is very likely that following MN in the future will be successful. Not only does he offer no evidence for his claim that MN played such a role in the past success of science, but even if it did, it does not follow that adherence to MN will continue to be the path to success. Indeed, unless we believe in an infinite regress of naturalistic explanations for phenomenaˇas no Christian theist shouldˇwe know that the project of seeking naturalistic explanations will eventually reach a dead-end. This might have already happened with regard to the origin of the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the Cosmos, and the origin of life. Clearly, however, whether or not MN has reached a dead-end in these areas cannot simply be decided by citing the past success of MN, but must be evaluated on all the available evidence.

If we judge that, on the available evidence, these are very likely to be places where naturalistic explanations end, I can see little merit in continuing to beat our heads against the wall in the hope of finding a naturalistic explanation simply because this is what science is supposed to do. And I think the taxpayers would agree with me! But does this mean we should pursue intelligent design explanations instead? Part of the answer depends on whether we have good reason to think that intelligent design research in these areas will be fruitful, a question that can only be fully addressed by looking at individual design programs in the relevant sciences. Apart from doing this, however, we can say that treating the world as if it were designed by an intelligent creator has been tremendously successful, and is probably largely responsible for the rise of science in the West, as many historians have argued. In fact, this way of treating the world is still very successful today, such as in the continual search for elegant and simple theories in physics, and the pervasive use of teleological and mind-laden concepts in biology, such as that of the function of a biological system or the information content of DNA. The question remains, however, Is the intelligent design program the natural extension, to those domains in which MN seems to fail, of this pervasive operative principle of treating the world as if it were designed? If the answer is yes, then the past success of this operative principle gives us good reason for thinking that the intelligent design program will be successful.

Finally, in response to O'Conner, I would like to address several other worries scientists might have with intelligent design research. First, O'Conner raises the concern that if we allow non-naturalistic explanations into science, scientists will too easily abandon a search for naturalistic explanations of phenomena. Unless O'Conner is concerned that scientists will undergo mass conversions to belief in an intelligent designerˇsomething I would consider an extraordinarily good thingˇI'm sure there will be plenty of scientists around who will continue the search for naturalist explanations. Second, one might worry that treating the intelligent design program as we do in science will prove impossible, since once one gives up MN, one opens the door to judging theories and methods of research on the basis of contentious theological issues, thereby mining any hope of reaching consensus, something that has been special hallmark and merit of science. Finally, Christians might worry that an intelligent design research program will threaten the transcendence of God, making God and God's intentions something that can be scrutinized by science. One way of addressing these latter two concerns is to note that one can pursue an intelligent design research program without actually committing one's self to an account of the designer's intentions, character, or even existence. Instead, one can treat the world as if it were designed by a designer with certain intentions based on the fruitfulness of such an approach, while considering the actual character and existence of a designer as a philosophical and theological concern. After all, this is the sort of approach many Christians have already adopted with regard to the theory of evolution: for purposes of doing biology, they treat life as if it evolved by merely chance events, while at the same time maintaining as a matter of religious belief that God designed and guided the whole process. And, it is an approach that atheistic biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, already use when using mind-laden concepts in biology, such as that of the purpose or function of a biological system. The intelligent design approach would just require those who deny the existence of an intelligent designer to adopt an as if approach on a much broader scale.