Can the "intelligent design" theory be falsified?

Some politicians in South Carolina and Utah are campaigning to have the theory of “intelligent design” ( taught alongside the more conventional theory of unguided biological evolution in public-school science classes.,1,2590320.story?coll=chi-newslocalchicago-hed; This naturally raises the issue of what is or is not a “scientific” theory. The most basic test for that is what scientists call “falsifiability” Even if you cannot in practice devise an experiment to test your theory, you should be able to design a “thought experiment” that might yield results incompatible with your theory, or envision some kind of data that might disprove it. Phillip Heny Gosse’s “Omphalos Hypothesis,” for example (God made the fossil record, not to deceive us but as an inevitable relic of stages he decided to skip – like the growth rings in a newly created tree, or Adam’s body, which would have included a navel as a relic of a birth that never happened – is not considered scientific, because it is impossible to conceive of any evidence that might disprove it, therefore it cannot be proven. Applying this test to ID: What data would disprove it?

The thing here is that the exact same evidence that would falsify the evolutionary synthesis would equally apply any ID theory that posits the same approximate chain of events. Most ID theories don’t even contend a young Earth or lack of gradual change. They differ from the synthesis only in the belief that an entity played arole.

As such ID theories can be falsified just as easily as the synthesis can be falsified, and for the same reasons. These theories aren’t unscientific in any way (for the most part). They fail not because of any lack of scientific rigor, they fail because of Ockham’s razor. They predict exactly the same things as the synthesis and can be falsified by exactly the same observations. The only difference is that they posit the existence of an additional entity.

And this is where it gets tricky. Ockham’s razor isn’t a part of science, it’s an axiom in itself. Just because a theory violates Ockham’s razor, that doesn’t make it any less scientifically valid. An ID theory that postulates evolution with occasional guidance by an intelligent entity will make the same predictions as the synthesis 99.99% of the time. And because 99.999% of the history of life isn’t preserved there will be almost no cases where it will fail to meet exactly the same standards of falsifiability and predictive capacity. Where it actually has an edge is that it can explain those few areas that the synthesis can’t adequately explain, albeit by saying “A wizard did it”.

So there’s the answer in a nutshell. Almost any observation that would falsify the synthesis will equally falsify Behe style ID since in almost all cases they will predict exactly the same thing.

In many ways this is the modern version of the Ptolemaic vs Copernican view of the universe. They both predict exactly the same things, the only difference is in the level of complexity an tinkering required to make the theory match the observations. However in this instance the synthesis has been tinkered with and modified so much (and still is being) that the ID theories are actually more elegant in many ways, despite pissing off Bill Occam.

The real issue is whether or not ID is a scientific hypothesis, and flasifiability isn’t even needed to determine if ID is scientific or not. We need only determine if it is testable. And that depends on the nature of the Designer.

As I’ve said in other threads, if the “Intelligent Designer” is postulated to be a race of giant spiders living on Jupiter, that is testable, and therefore a scientific hypothesis. Maybe not a good one, but it is indisputably open to scientific inquiry-- we can seek these arachnids and determine if they have ID capability. If the “Intelligent Designer” is a supernatural God, that is not testable by scientific means.

Saying “God did it” because we may not understand the exact mechanism of some observed phenomenon is not science-- it is the antithesis of science. It puts an end to seeking knowledge because the existence of God is NOT testable thru scientific means. Science deals only with the natural world. God, if he exists, is not of the natural world.

Beg to differ Blake.

You are discussing only postdictions, that is explaining what has already been observed. The value of a scientific hypothesis is its ability to accurately predict future observations and the purpose of experimentation and focused observation is to test predictions, thereby growing knowledge.

In this regard Evolutionary Theory has a stellar record. It was indeed falsifiable and has stood up to every test to do so. Describe exactly what potential future observation would falsify ID? In what ways does ID guide future knowledge growth?Heck, I can even falsify it based on postdictive evidence!* No intelligent designer would leave us with an appendix, or a mouth so crowded of teeth, or a hip and back so awkwardly balanced. An intelligent designer wouldn’t have left women with tailbones that occassionally stick in far enough that they get broken during childbirth. This was either a stupid designer or an Intelligent Designer on drugs. Less humorously modern Evolutionary theory predicts the rate of genetic drift in different isolated populations as a function of random mutations the circumstances under which such random events would be selected for. ID would have to posit that the mutation rate is not random but occurs preferentially in directions that will be adaptive at some later but not extant time. No such observations have been made.

*This material stolen from a recent Science Letter to the Editor BTW.

No, I specifcally am not. I was specifically discussing predictions and so so several times.

That simply isn’t true. It isn’t even remotely true. There have been numerous evolutionary theories, and they have all been falsified except the current version. The current version of the synthesis only works because it has a huge number of adenda cirrigenda, modifiactions, caveats and escape clauses.

FFS just a few years ago it was dicovered that phenotypic changes could be inherited with no change in genotype. That was totally antithetical to evolutionary theory as it existed up until the late 90s. It even ran counter to one of themost common defintions of evolution, which is a change in gene frequencies. Since then the syntehsis has been re-written to accomodate that knowledge. But to say that the evolutionary theory has a stellar record of prediction when the current incarnation has only existed for 7 years at most is nonsense.

It’s an impressive theory with a lot of evidential support for many things, but it has far from a stellar record of predictions. It is in fact precisely the type of theory that Popper was describing when he discussed theories that had become exceedingly weak science because they were latered everytime they failed the predictive test.

What the current theory mostly has are a lot of postdictions of the type you describe. All the evidence that existed up until 1995 was fitted into the latest incarnation of the synthesis witha little side-note to allow prion mediated evolution sand gentypic variation. As a result the current theory has predicted very little, it couldn’t becaus eit has only been in existence for afew years. What you think are predictions are poistdictions, which may have been predictions of earlier related theory but were certainly never predictions of the current theory.

That’s easy. Any answer that you could give tp those questions as applied to the evolutionary synthesis will be equally applicable to most ID theories. I already covered this above as well. If the syntheis has predictibve power than ID has approximately the same predictive power.


HTF can you possibly know that? How can you know what an intelligent designer would do when you can know nothing baout the designer?

No it wouldn’t. Most ID theories are in teh style of Behe. these theories do not posit any such thing. They predict that 99.99999% of the time the rate of genetic drift in different isolated populations as a function of random mutations the circumstances under which such random events would be selected for. The other .000001% of the time the rate will be increased. there is no requiremnt in such theories for mutation rates to occur in a non-random fashion at any rate that would be discernibale at anyhting but the macro-evolutionary level.

John Mace I’d just like to make sure we’re not enegaging a false dilemma here. This isn’t simply a choice between an untestable intelligence and a testable one. There is the third choice, the one used by most ID proponents in my experience. That third choice is the undefined creator.

A theory that posits an undefined entity is not inherently unscientific even if that aspect of the theory is untestable. Darein’s original theory hinged upon undefined entities, something that Charlie himself frankly admitted. He had no knowledge of genetics and as such his theory hinged upon an undefined ‘elements of transmission” of traits. This mechanism was undefined, and hence untestable, but Darwin’s work wasn’t unscientific as a result. Because the work had predictive power outside of those areas dealing with ‘elements of transmission” the theory was scientifically sound. And in exactly the same way an ID theory can hinge upon undefined ‘elements of intelligence’ without being untestable and unscientific.

Such elements of intelligence seem to be the norm in ID theories, probably to get around separation issues, but it still works to validate the science. So while Behe might posit God as the element when talking to creationists he is always careful to leave it undefined when promoting his theories as science.

Both science and religion are closed belief systems. But neither will accept that they are so much alike as to be brothers. Flip sides of the same coin.

They both have methods, procedures, rules, doctrine and dogma that must be followed to be "fact, truth, reality’, or other determined names to meet the approval of the respective systems members.

For science to say ID must meet the basic test for what scientists call “falsifiability” is not different than religion saying evolution is not Biblical, therefor false.

Neither will admit that what they are talking about is really unknowable. No one really knows how the world began, or man began, no one was there, it is all opinion, calculated guesses…

It is a little like the argument of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.

If we were wise we would just say we don’t know and let it go at that.

But as soon as this post is noticed, the two sides will set about to produce quotes, rules, dictions, procedures, doctrine, and scriptures to show what I have said is wrong and to prove they are right. The game goes on and on.

Nah, for right now I am just not going to pay attention to your nonsense.

Wouldn’t you say that the mechanics are essentially irrelevant to ID theory, and the only essential aspect of ID theory is the presence of an intelligent designer? I would.

The concept of an intelligent designer is unfalsifiable in general, but as John Mace has pointed out, if ID theorists bothered to get more specific, then some, but not all, posited intelligent designers could be falsified. They generally don’t seem to bother getting very specific about who the designer is.

Blake, are you sure ID theory is being carried on with the same scientific rigor as evolutionary theory? A large part of work on the theory seems to be published without peer review, and few alternative hypotheses are tested and/or eliminated…

Nope. No ID theory would work if there wasn’t an intelligent designer, so in that respect it is an essential facet. But at the same time they wouldn’t work if the hereditary mechanics weren’t there, so we can’t say that such mechanics are irrelevant.

Can you reference any ID theory that would work without the mechanics? And if not then how can you conclude that they are irrelevant?

And as I pointed out, Charles Darwin never bothered getting very specific about what the elements of transmission were. So by this argument Darwin’s initial theory wasn’t scientific.

Of course that’s not true. Darwin couldn’t get very specific because the truth about the elements of transmission wouldn’t be known for almost 100 years. That don’t make the theory unscientific because those areas which were specifically elaborated could be tested.

Wevets you seem to be conflating falsification of ID theory with falsification of an intelligent designer. Those are not the same thing. As with Darwinain evolution a theory can be itself falsifiable even if the nature of key mechanisms is unknown and unknowable

I’m very sure it is not being carried on with the same rigour, but that just makes it weak science, it doesn’t make it unscientific.

As for the issue of peer review, that is another debate. I am not at all convinced that it would be as easy to get an ID paper published as it would be for a Synthetic paper. But once again, that doesn’t make the subject unscientific.

Incorrect. Science is a method. Specifically, it uses something that’s been a distant stranger to you for some time on this board: the scientific method.

Blake, You lose me here, and I’m going out of town so I will be forced to exist bereft of your response, but to me Darwin’s positing as unnamed element of transmission was not “unscientific” but the essential prediction that was later confirmed. It was unknown in his time, but not unknowable. He predicted that later observations would identify an element of transmission that was inheritable and subject to variation within generational cohorts. Those elements have later been identified and the means that they vary fleshed out. You seem to take every particular specific speculation or tentative hypothesis of the exact details of the means as a full theory that has been falsified. By that token the germ theory of disease has been falsified because many specific guesses about how germs operate in specific circumstances have been modified in the face of additional data.

The hallmark of a scientific approach is that we are willing to change or reject a hypothesis based on new observations. In science a new hypothesis is preferred if it makes future predictions bettter than the extant hypthesis after it has been formed to fit existing data. A hypothesis that says, “I believe that the sun and the moon and the stars were created by an intelligent designing invisible pink unicorn named Fred to ultimately produce me, and that She did it by all the physical mechanisms described by current scientific thought, just it wasn’t exactly random.” is not falsifiable, it adds no predictive value, and is not science. It just adds an additional nonflasifiable mechanism on top of all of the above, and if all of the above changes then it would change too. If it adds nothing to predictive value to what already is extant then why bother? Other than if it makes for a position more parsiminous with some other aspect of your worldview that is not science.

As to not knowing anything about the designer … sounds a lot like “the Lord works in mysterious ways and far be it from us mere humans to know the mind of God …” - a fine religious perspective and one that I actually believe - but not science. For the purposes of science I must assume that a designer could design this vessel any way He chose and to have left obvious design flaws speaks against the work of a designer. OTOH they make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Unlike Darwin’s prediction of some means of transmission to be observed in the future but within his time unknown, ID posits a mechanism that is both unknown and unknowable. I cannot know the designer so therefore I cannot test if it exists or, by your position, even test if designs are intelligent according to His plans (despite some obvious poor features). It, like all religious thought, may be true, but it is a level of supposition that is unnecessary and is outside of evidenciary methods. It does not belong in science class.

Thank you, Monty. This is a point that is frequently confused in threads such as these.

My thoughts: It is best to think of science purely as a method of inquiry. Comparing science and religion as two competing “closed systems” is disingenuous. Science itself holds no preconceived notions regarding the universe. Science – good science – is not inherently dogmatic or “closed.” It is purely a mental tool with the purpose of better understanding reality through empirical, testable means.

Yes, and religion also uses a method of testing whether something is true or false, they call it the Bible. Both the scientific and the religious methods are the creations of man. Both are only as good as the knowledge of the people who wrote them. That knowledge being very limited.

As to which will be taught in school depends on who has the power to make the decision, not on the “rightness.” That is who both should be taught or neither.

Science is a closed system of thinking. Only data, research, criteria that meet the methods and rules of science are allowed to be called science. Even then most scientists will not accept good evidence if it doesn’t follow the current theories already accepted as science. There is a large difference between what you say happens and what really happens.

For example tell me why science won’t accept first-hand eye-witness personal experience as evidence. Our judicial system accepts this evidence and so do most people. By eliminating this evidence science has closed the door on any evidence that doesn’t come from their system making science a closed belief system.

<a toddler having a hissy fit>

Mom! They keep saying I can’t prove NDEs with the evidence available to me! Make them stop! Wahhhhhhh!

This indicates an extraordinarily narrow view of religion, as well as an unusual meaning for the word “test.” Exactly how is the Bible a “method,” and how would one go about using it to test the truth of any statement about the natural world?

This sentence truly has a nice poetic flow to it, but I am unable to extract its meaning. Could you restate it please?

What you mean to say is, “most scientists will not accept good evidence if it is not good evidence.” Science often revises theories based on evidence. It just needs to be evidence.

Because people lie, hallucinate, and get confused. You want scientists to accept firsthand evidence of the most bizarre kind with no further questions, when scientists just ask for further investigation.

I’m not really sure what you’re talking about throughout this thread, but ID does lack scientific rigor and is not falsifiable. To say that it makes predicitions similar to evolutionary theory is really a distraction. Those predictions don’t depend upon ID, they depend upon those aspects of evolutionary mechanics (some) ID proponents have begrudgingly accepted – and only to try and maintain scientific credibility, I imagine. It’s a parlor trick to pretend ID is falsifiable or scientific because parts of the theory that have nothing to do with ID are falsifiable or scientific. It’s like if I say I’ve ridden my bike three times around the world and if you don’t believe me I can show you the bike. The bike isn’t evidence of my assertions, and has nothing to do with them.

If you think that ID has any kind of scientific rigor and that it would be easy to get an ID paper published, then why has ID failed to do so? It would certainly give them the credibility they want. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or maybe ID just hasn’t got any actual scientists doing work and research – ID is completely a non-scientific movement, trying to force its way into the public consciousness as science when there is no scientific work being done.

lekatt, you clearly don’t have a grasp as to what the scientific method entails. I have a feeling this is an exercise in futility explaining this to you, but I need a workout anyway.

Please explain to me just how the Bible can be used to test anything at all? I think you’re using the word “test” far too loosely. Science utilizes a non-dogmatic approach of inquiry. It is concerned only with determining the best theory to explain a particular phenomena with the evidence at hand. If sufficient new evidence is discovered that challenges a current theory, then said theory will undergo revision. This is a system based entirely on self-checks. As such, it is the most non-dogmatic means we have of understanding reality. I don’t even see how you lump the bible in there. One is a mental tool and the other is a book of beliefs.

There is no inherent knowledge ascribed to the scientific method. It doesn’t matter who wrote it.