The philosophy of science and Intelligent Design

Science as a field of study does not exist separate from other human pursuits. Philosophers from the time of Aristotle have contemplated what it is we can really conclude about our observations of the world around us. In other words, what do we really know?

There is a certain ambiguity within the scientific enterprise. Scientists recognize that theories and models are only approximations of the Real Thing. Since any theory can be demolished by a single contrary discovery, each theory is a just a tentative explanation. As I discuss elsewhere here (The Deaths of Theories), scientific theories come and go. It’s the whole nature of science.

There are at least two philosophies of science available to us. One is Scientific Realism — what we discover about the universe using science is in fact real. Another is Scientific Instrumentalism — what we discover about the universe using science is not strictly speaking real but it is still highly useful. Opponents of the theory of evolution (and even some proponents) have a naive idea about what science is, which just mires the whole evolution/ID debate in fruitless debates on the truthfulness of one concept over another.

A blog called “Hot Abercrombie Chick” takes on the philosophical ambiguities of science in this post. The comments are interesting, too. It’s a fresh perspective on the evolution/ID debate from someone with a good grasp of scientific thought. [Note: There is some question whether the blogger Amanda Doerty is real or just an alter ego of one Daniel Zeigenbeim, a philosophy major at Washington University in St. Louis. The ideas are still good, though.]
There are many people who are just not comfortable with the ambiguities of science. They want Science to provide Answers. They want Truth. Since our current scientific constructs cannot provide that Truth or those Answers, the “disambiguists” look elsewhere, inevitably toward religion, which in many cases provides both Truth and Answers, at least to its believers.

Proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design are constantly trying to poke holes in the theories of evolution and the Big Bang, fabricating contradictions, misusing physical principles, trying to show that neither scientific theory is in fact True and therefore cannot be the sole explanation offered to students of science. They argue that their preferred theories offer another scientific explanation.

But they cannot be, if science by its nature is ambiguous. To invoke an external Cause, either by proposing a deity created heaven and earth as outlined in Genesis or by proposing a nameless Designer, removes ambiguity from the equation. Since conventional science cannot yet, if ever, answer every question, the “disambiguists” offer a final, incontrovertible explanation. God did it. See? No ambiguity in that statement. Sure, they avoid mentioning God in their arguments, lest they tip their hand, but their intent is clear.

No matter how they couch their arguments, creationists and IDists will forever fight a fruitless battle in convincing thoughtful people that their theories are scientific. The theories lack the tentative nature (and the predictive power, but that’s another essay) of science. If they are taught at all in schools, creationism and ID belong in the social studies classrooms, not in the science classroom.

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