Does science unfairly rule out supernatural hypotheses?

By Lenny Flank

Posted April 30, 2006

One of the most oft-heard complaints from ID/creationists is that science has embraced a "religion of naturalism" and that it unfairly rules out, a priori, any potential supernatural or non-materialistic hypotheses, solely to prop up science's atheistic philosophy. Phillip Johnson, for instance, says, "Science also has become identified with a philosophy known as materialism or scientific naturalism. This philosophy insists that nature is all there is, or at least the only thing about which we can have any knowledge. It follows that nature had to do its own creating, and that the means of creation must not have included any role for God. . . . The reason the theory of evolution is so controversial is that it is the main scientific prop for scientific naturalism." (Johnson, "The Church of Darwin", Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1999). Dembski echoes, "From our vantage, materialism is not a neutral, value-free, minimalist position from which to pursue inquiry. Rather, it is itself an ideology with an agenda." (Dembski, "Dealing with the backlash against intelligent design", 2004)

It can be readily seen, however, that science does not in fact rule out supernatural explanations a priori. Furthermore, even if we allowed the IDers to introduce all the supernatural hypotheses that they wanted to, they still would not be able to follow the scientific method.

The scientific method is very simple, and consists of five basic steps. They are:

  1. Observe some aspect of the universe
  2. Form a hypothesis that potentially explains what you have observed
  3. Make testible predictions from that hypothesis
  4. Make observations or experiments that can test those predictions
  5. Modify your hypothesis until it is in accord with all observations and predictions

Nothing in any of those five steps excludes on principle, a priori, any "supernatural cause". Using this method, one is entirely free to invoke as many non-material pixies, ghosts, goddesses, demons, devils, djinis, and/or the Great Pumpkin, as many times as you like, in any or all of your hypotheses. And science won't (and doesn't) object to that in the slightest. Indeed, scientific experiments have been proposed (and carried out and published) on such "supernatural causes" as the effects of prayer on healing. Other scientific studies have focused on such "non-materialistic" or "non-natural" phenomena as ESP, telekinesis, precognition and "remote viewing". So ID's claim that science unfairly rejects supernatural or non-material causes out of hand on principle, is demonstrably quite wrong.

However, what science does require is that any supernatural or non-material hypothesis, whatever it might be, then be subjected to steps 3, 4 and 5. And here is where ID fails miserably.

To demonstate this, let's pick a particular example of an ID hypothesis and see how the scientific method can be applied to it: One claim made by many ID creationists explains the genetic similarity between humans and chimps by asserting that God -- uh, I mean, An Unknown Intelligent Designer -- created both but used common features in a common design. (For any IDers who object to this example, please feel free to substitute any other non-naturalistic ID hypothesis that you do like.)

Let's take this hypothesis and put it through the scientific method:

  1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
    OK, so we observe that humans and chimps share unique genetic markers, including a broken vitamin C gene and, in humans, a fused chromosome that is identical to two of the chimp chromosomes (with all the appropriate doubled centromeres and telomeres).
  2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
    OK, the proposed ID hypothesis is "an intelligent designer used a common design to produce both chimps and humans, and that common design included placing the signs of a fused chromosome and a broken vitamin C gene in both products."
  3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
    Well, here is ID supernaturalistic methodology's chance to shine. What predictions can we make from ID's hypothesis? If an Intelligent Designer used a common design to produce both chimps and humans, then we would also expect to see... ?
    IDers, please fill in the blank.
    And, to better help us test ID's hypothesis, it is most useful to point out some negative predictions -- things which, if found, would falsify the hypothesis and demonstrate conclusively that the hypothesis is wrong. So, then -- if we find ... (fill in the blank here), then the "common design" hypothesis would have to be rejected.
  4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

Well, the IDers seem to be sort of stuck on step 3. Despite all their voluminous writings and arguments, IDers have never yet given ANY testible predictions from their ID hypothesis that can be verified through experiment.

Take note here -- contrary to the IDers whining about the "unfair exclusion of supernatural causes", there are in fact no limits imposed by the scientific method on the nature of their predictions, other than the simple ones indicated by steps 3, 4 and 5 (whatever predictions they make must be testible by experiments or further observations.) They are entirely free to invoke whatever supernatural causes they like, in whatever number they like, so long as they follow along to steps 3,4 and 5 and tell us how we can test these deities or causes using experiment or further observation. Want to tell us that the Good Witch Glenda used her magic non-naturalistic staff to POP these genetic sequences into both chimps and humans? Fine -- just tell us what experiment or observation we can perform to test that. Want to tell us that God -- er, I mean The Unknown Intelligent Designer -- did like humans very much and therefore decided to design us with broken vitamin C genes? Hey, works for me just as soon as you tell us what experiment or observation we can perform to test it. Feel entirely and totally free to use all the supernaturalistic causes that you like. Just tell us what experiment or observation we can perform to test your predictions.

Let's assume for a moment that the IDers are right and that science is unfairly biased against supernaturalist explanations. Let's therefore hypothetically throw methodological materialism right out the window. Gone. Bye-bye. Everything's fair game now. Ghosts, spirits, demons, devils, cosmic enlightenment, elves, pixies, magic star goats, whatever god-thing you like. Feel free to include and invoke all of them. As many as you need. All the IDers have to do now is simply show us all how to apply the scientific method to whatever non-naturalistic science they choose to invoke in order to subject the hypothesis "genetic similarities between chimps and humans are the product of a common design", or indeed any other non-material or super-natural ID hypothesis, to the scientific method.

And that is where ID "theory" falls flat on its face. It is not any presupposition of "philosophical naturalism" on the part of science that stops ID dead in its tracks -- it is the simple inability of ID "theory" to make any testible predictions. Even if we let them invoke all the non-naturalistic designers they want, intelligent design "theory" still can't follow the scientific method.

Deep down inside, what the IDers are really moaning and complaining about is not that science unfairly rejects their supernaturalistic explanations, but that science demands ID's proposed "supernaturalistic explanations" be tested according to the scientific method, just like every other hypothesis has to be. Not only can ID not test any of its "explanations", but it wants to modify science so it doesn't HAVE to. In effect, the IDers want their supernaturalistic "hypothesis" to have a privileged position -- they want their hypothesis to be accepted by science without being tested; they want to follow steps one and two of the scientific method, but prefer that we just skip steps 3,4 and 5, and just simply take their religious word for it, on the authority of their own say-so, that their "science" is correct. And that is what their entire argument over "materialism" (or "naturalism" or "atheism" or "sciencism" or "darwinism" or whatever the heck else they want to call it) boils down to.

There is no legitimate reason for the ID hypothesis to be privileged and have the special right to be exempted from testing, that other hypotheses do not. I see no reason why their hypotheses, whatever they are, should not be subjected to the very same testing process that everyone else's hypotheses, whatever they are, have to go through. If they cannot put their "hypothesis" through the same scientific method that everyone else has to, then they have no claim to be "science". Period.

Lenny Flank is the author of Creation "Science" Debunked and Lenny Flank's Herp Page.

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