It's been a while since I stirred the pot on the issue of intelligent design theory.
And yes, I know that it's 9/11, but at the moment, I have nothing new or special to say about 9/11, so I won't. I sure wish our leaders would get wise about Islam, but I'm not looking for flying pigs anytime soon, and in the absence of learning concrete lessons about jihad and our enemies, talking movingly about 9/11 just begins to sound more and more like a yearly self-indulgence of pointless sentiment.
So I'm going to write about demarcationism instead.
Demarcationism is the idea in the philosophy of science that there are clearcut and interesting criteria that distinguish those activities and theories that constitute science (or learning about science) from those that don't. It sounds like demarcationism should be true until one sets out actually to try to set up such criteria. We might agree, for example, that to be science, some activity should involve statements about the physical world. But nobody thinks that that constitutes a sufficient condition. If I say that rain is caused by fairies, that intuitively doesn't seem to be a scientific theory, but it is a theory about the physical world. Similarly, it doesn't do to say that some theory is not scientific if it's a stupid theory. That's not very clear-cut, for one thing. And for another thing, what looks stupid in hindsight might not have been stupid when it was proposed. Or the other way around. What sounds stupid at first may come to look reasonable later when the world is better understood.
Karl Popper suggested that it is a necessary condition for true scientific endeavor that one's theory be falsifiable and that unfalsifiable theories are not science but pseudo-science. This is attractive. We all have known people who insist that some bromide cures many ills and who are always willing to explain away contrary evidence. The combination of cherry-picked anecdotes of the wonders of the bromide with refusal to acknowledge counter-evidence certainly seems like what one would call an unscientific attitude.
But at that point the problem arises that it is not the theory that Bromide X cures all ills that is unscientific but rather the advocates of Bromide X who are being unscientific in their approach to investigating the theory. In this context, it seems that words like "scientific" and "unscientific" are rough stand-ins for "rational" and "irrational" in the realm of investigating theories about the physical world. But that wasn't what we were originally looking for. Rather, the original search was for a demarcation criterion that would apply to theories and to the investigation of those theories, not primarily to people. In fact, it would be perfectly possible to investigate the alleged healing properties of Bromide X in a rigorous fashion and to draw a conclusion from it--probably a negative conclusion--and no one would contest that that was not a scientific endeavor.
Some cousin of the notion of falsifiability--suitably upgraded with more nuanced probabilistic interpretation--might well be a useful way of giving the honorific "scientific" to people who are approaching physical theories rationally, with a willingness to examine evidence on both sides and admit disconfirmation. And it could provide a reason for criticizing those who are doing otherwise. In that way we might dismiss Freudian psychology or horoscope reading as "unscientific" not only or even chiefly because the theories behind them appear, on consideration, to be egregiously false but also because their practitioners appear unwilling to admit contrary evidence concerning the accuracy and effectiveness of the methods and theories involved. That's progress in some kind of demarcation, but it isn't what the demarcationists actually wanted. For one thing, an unscientific attitude could bedevil people engaging in the areas of investigation that we generally think of as science. It would be possible to be dogmatic and closed to contrary evidence if one were a credentialed geologist or epidemiologist, for example.
This has been a big debate in the philosophy of science for a long time, and the truth is that demarcation criteria to distinguish science from non-science have proven surprisingly elusive.
Nevertheless, there was a time when I was a demarcationist. This was probably partly because of a Popperian influence. But it was also because I was not thinking clearly. In particular, I wasn't thinking clearly enough about the contentious issue of evolution. The demarcationist controversy has been especially important in the creation/evolution debate, with expert witnesses using a pretense that the issue is settled in the philosophy of science in order to get the teaching of intelligent design ruled "religion" and hence "unconstitutional." (By what logic it was supposed to follow that intelligent design theories are automatically religious, much less an "establishment of religion" if taught in public schools, even if they are not scientific, I never understood. But logic is not the hallmark of the anti-ID crowd, including the judges.)
Some twenty-odd-ish years ago, I wasn't at all opposed to the teaching of intelligent design in schools, but largely because I'm a constitutional originalist and knew that the entire imposition of "no creation in public schools" as a matter of constitutional interpretation was baloney. In fact, though, I did tend to think that, even if a conclusion of intelligent design is sometimes justified in the biological realm, it definitely wasn't a scientific conclusion. So whatever else we should say, we should say that this isn't science. And I thought that mattered somehow. To something. Clarity of thought, perhaps?
But it was exactly the opposite. As a dualist about the human person, I should have known this. After all, I myself am (in part) immaterial, yet the investigation of my actions can't be designated clearly as non-science. So let's even suppose that someone draws a conclusion that God himself was the designer of some biological entity. How does it follow that investigation in that vicinity is "not science"? It doesn't follow from the fact that God is immaterial.
Well, but I'm an embodied being. Maybe it follows from the fact that God, in the creation of biological entities, was not incarnate. But that isn't right, either. Consider: If you were present on the day of Pentecost with the right equipment, you could have decided whether the sound waves coming from the apostles' mouths formed words in other languages or whether they were just one language, while the hearers reported hearing different languages. In one sense, this would count as scientific investigation of an act of God! Similarly, if you'd been in the right place at the right time with the right tools, it would have been possible in principle to discover something of the mechanism behind the fall of the wall of Jericho. Did the lower levels of the wall disintegrate, disappear, crack, or what? Was the sound of the trumpet sufficiently sharp to be causal, or did the fall just happen on the occasion thereof?
It may be objected that these are all investigations of the physical events in the world but not of the mind of God. True enough, but that much is true of us as well, despite our embodied nature. You can trace neural firings up to the brain, but there comes a point at which mechanism fails. The human mind itself is measurable, detectable, and investigable only indirectly. Yet, once again, we don't therefore make heavy weather out of saying that it is "impossible to investigate human action scientifically." Of course it's possible to investigate human action scientifically, in at least one straightforward sense. You can see the bridges we build, read the books we write, and hear the words we speak. And you can also see God's causal acts in the world.
For the most part, the barriers to investigating God's miraculous and creative acts in a manner that would normally be called "scientific" are sheerly practical. The events happened long ago. Nobody happened to be hanging around with precise instruments. We'll probably never know many details, and so forth. Some details would be practically impossible to gather. (Did God create a sperm cell for the virgin conception or did he just create such DNA as could have come from a sperm cell? There's a fact of the matter, and it's a scientific fact, but there would have been no practical way to know, even if you were there.)
There is, moreover, an extremely good reason not to make dogmatic pronouncements that a design theory of biological origins "shouldn't be taught in science class." Let's just entertain for a moment the hypothesis that the whole neo-Darwinian shebang, and the abiogenesis origin of life theory, are utterly false. Suppose that, in fact, all of these things were kicked off via various interventions (the bogyman word) by an intelligent being whom Christians and Jews call God. In that case, everybody who is putzing around with speculative theories of how the first cell came into being by purely natural processes or how sexual reproduction evolved or any of these other things is engaging in a pure waste of time with theories that are all totally false. And not just a little bit false but wildly false. Completely off-base. Yet those theories are being taught as "the best theories scientists have today" or even just "the truth, according to science" about where these things came from. They are being taught that way in science class, with the prestige of Science (capital S) behind them, even though they are ludicrously false. While, if this scenario is correct, the true theory of where these things came from is relegated to the speculative, allegedly subjective realms of religion. And that would be pretty silly.
Look at it this way: If the question, "Where did the first cell on earth come from?" is to be regarded as properly a scientific question, and if one hypothesis that purports to answer it is to be regarded as a scientific answer, then a different hypothesis that purports to answer it isn't just automatically "non-science" and hence to be taught in a completely different venue, simply because it mentions a designer or even (gasp!) God. That's totally artificial. If they are both theories that purport to answer the same allegedly scientific question, then why not teach about them both in the same class, that being a science class?
Now, of course one answer from the anti-ID people will be, "Because it's stupid" or "Because it's crazy" or "Because it has no good evidence for it." That may or may not be true (I happen to think it's not true), but that isn't the same thing as, "Because qua theory it cannot, by definition, be science."
Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't be thrilled to have some rabidly anti-ID high school science teacher teaching a caricatured version of ID theory, ridiculing it to the students, and then saying to the parents, "There, are you satisfied? I discussed design theory." That isn't desirable at all, from my perspective. But suppose there were a well-read high school science teacher who didn't think that and who was willing to give an even-handed presentation of the evidence on both sides. Why should he be fired or hounded, like Roger DeHart, for doing so?
See, at that point it's a lot easier for the anti-ID crowd to say, not, "Because Roger DeHart is an idiot and knows nothing about biology" (though I'm sure many of the more loudmouthed among them would say that) but rather, "Because ID isn't science, so we don't need to discuss whether Roger DeHart is an idiot and doesn't know his biology." It's a dodge. It's a ruse. (Pun intended.)
And that's why I'm sorry that I was a teenage (actually, older than teenage) demarcationist. Because I fell for it. For a while, I thought there was something to be gained by stating that a design conclusion in biology is, by definition, not science. Maybe (I strained and stretched) ID could just say that no natural explanation can be found for some phenomenon. Maybe that would be okay. But the positive conclusion couldn't be science. Because it's God, and because reasons.
I changed my mind long ago on that. For over a decade I've subscribed to Michael Behe's broad and non-demarcationist definition of science as "a vigorous attempt to make true statements about the world." Even if we beef it up slightly to "a vigorous and intellectually rigorous attempt to make true and significant statements about the physical world," ID can certainly be in there, since origins statements are statements about the physical world, and ID research can be carried out vigorously and rigorously. In fact, if anybody nowadays is acting like Popper's unscientific theorist who refuses to let his theory be responsive to negative data, it's the neo-Darwinian.
We haven't seen the last of the politicized demarcationists. In recent years they have even tried to ban the discussion of design theories in physics, where they are usually considered less of a threat than in biology, and at the university level, where a widespread notion of academic freedom for professors has previously permitted greater latitude in discussing a variety of theories.
Christians of a philosophical bent, in particular, should refuse to be put into a demarcationist strait-jacket. We can think more clearly than that about science, design, and God, and we should.