The Words of the Eby Family

What Is Science? Part II: Pennsylvania 's Intelligent Design Case

Lloyd Eby
Published January 5, 2006
World Peace Herald Contributor

WASHINGTON -- Both sides in the evolution vs. intelligent design (ID) controversy invested a lot of energy, interest, and expectation in the court case concerning the Dover, Pennsylvania school board that had mandated reading of a statement favorable to ID in the district's biology classes. The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Jones, delivered on December 20, 2005, went against the teaching of ID. But the judge then went on to thoroughly criticize and denounce the ID position itself. (The judge's opinion is available in pdf file online at )

In his opinion - the case is known as Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District, 04cv2688 - the judge referred to the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries, saying that since then "science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena." He continued, "This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension revelation, in favor of empirical evidence." A bit later he wrote, "While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as 'methodological naturalism' and is sometimes known as the scientific method. Methodological naturalism is a 'ground rule' of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify." The judge ended by declaring that ID is not science but religion and that it therefore must be excluded from science classes.

The most noteworthy 17th century case on this matter was that of Galileo, who came into conflict with the religious authorities of his day - the Catholic Church - because of his views on cosmology, views that were declared by that religious hierarchy to be false because they conflicted with Church doctrine and authority. The Galileo case is frequently seen as the great opening salvo, or at least a central battle, in the so-called war between science and religion. Thus, in thinking about this present ID controversy, it is useful and instructive to review the case of Galileo. Here is a summary of it, taken from the website

"In 1611 Galileo came to the attention of the Inquisition for the first time for his Copernican views. Four years later a Dominican friar, Niccolo Lorini, who had earlier criticized Galileo's view in private conversations, files a written complaint with the Inquisition against Galileo's Copernican views. Galileo subsequently writes a long letter defending his views to Monsignor Piero Dini, a well connected official in the Vatican; he then writes his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina arguing for freedom of inquiry and travels to Rome to defend his ideas.

"In 1616 a committee of consultants declares to the Inquisition that the propositions that the Sun is the center of the universe and that the Earth has an annual motion are absurd in philosophy, at least erroneous in theology, and formally a heresy. On orders of the Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine calls Galileo to his residence and administers a warning not to hold or defend the Copernican theory; Galileo is also forbidden to discuss the theory orally or in writing. Yet he is reassured by Pope Paul V and by Cardinal Bellarmine that he has not been on trial nor being condemned by the Inquisition."

"In 1630 he completed his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which the Ptolemaic and Copernican models are discussed and compared and was cleared (conditionally) to publish it by the Vatican. The book was printed in 1632 but Pope Urban VIII, convinced by the arguments of various Church officials, stopped its distribution; the case is referred to the Inquisition and Galileo was summoned to Rome despite his infirmities.

"In 1633 Galileo was formally interrogated for 18 days and on April 30 Galileo confesses that he may have made the Copernican case in the Dialogue too strong and offers to refute it in his next book. Unmoved, the Pope decides that Galileo should be imprisoned indefinitely. Soon after, with a formal threat of torture, Galileo is examined by the Inquisition and sentenced to prison and religious penances; the sentence is signed by 6 of the 10 inquisitors. In a formal ceremony at the church of Santa Maria Sofia Minerva, Galileo abjures his errors. He is then put in house arrest in Sienna. After these tribulations he begins writing his Discourse on Two New Sciences.

"Galileo remained under house arrest, despite many medical problems and a deteriorating state of health, until his death in 1642. The Church finally accepted that Galileo might be right in 1983."

The religious authorities won that particular battle, but they lost the war. Although Galileo was silenced and put under house arrest, while overtly recanting and assenting to the religious authorities, he supposedly muttered under his breath "nevertheless it moves" (speaking about the earth), and even the Church ultimately had to admit that he was right. Convinced belief about something may be suppressed and forced into silence for a time but it cannot be changed by overt threat or authority no matter how fierce that threat or strong that authority, as has been shown over and again throughout the history of attempts to suppress unpopular or unappreciated political, religious, scientific, or other beliefs and opinions. Moreover, the scientific approach embodied by Galileo has its own authority and rational force, a force and authority that cannot be blocked or thwarted by the supposed authority of religion and revelation.

Even if you favor some form of ID, as I do, you should recognize that the ID proponents vastly overplayed their weak hand in this Dover case and deserved to lose. Nowhere did or do ID proponents perform any of the philosophical heavy lifting needed to show where and how the demarcation should be made between science and non-science, nor did or do they produce any credible attempt - credible to the larger non-ID scientific community - to show how ID could be incorporated into the corpus of received scientific methodology. They also tried to claim that ID is not religion, but they did not give a credible account of how it is either good science and thus not just religion, or how religion and science could or should be merged, if, as I suspect, that is really their view. Because of those catastrophic failures they deserved the scorching that Judge Jones gave them.

One widely held view about the correct demarcation criterion is that a scientific statement, in order to be genuinely scientific, must be falsifiable (More on falsification theory at another time) - there must be some condition or statement, that, if shown to be true, would show that the purported claim or theory is false. ID proponents have not really answered that condition, either by showing convincingly what would falsify their ID claim or by showing that the falsifiability criterion itself is wrong. Today's science proceeds - mostly anyway - through data gathering, testing of statements, conjecture of theories and testing of those theories, retesting, and then presenting those theories and data to peers in refereed journals and/or scientific colloquia, so that a community of scientific peers can examine and argue about the theories and the evidence for them. That too, as Judge Jones correctly noted, the ID proponents have not done.

But the judge did go much too far in his opinion. He noted, correctly, that Galileo had based his cosmological views on observations of nature, and not on any supernatural revelation or authority. But Judge Jones went beyond both his competence and the proper bounds of his office when he propounded an answer - and a tendentious one at that - to the question, "What is science?" and then went on to declare that science must be restricted to methodological naturalism.

A central consideration here is whether genuine science needs to be restricted to verifiable claims, as the judge declared. As a matter of fact, since all law-like scientific theories do go beyond the actual evidence that is or can be given for them, natural science itself necessarily enters the realm of non-verifiable metaphysics. (The term "metaphysics" comes from Aristotle's work that was placed after his Physics in the corpus of all his works, and that went beyond the Physics into the conditions or factors that needed to be the case, in his view, so that the physical sciences could exist). As John Passmore has written, "[scientific] laws are, by the nature of the case, not conclusively verifiable; there is no set of experiences such that having these experience is equivalent to the truth of a scientific law." (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 5, p. 55) If we make, for example, the scientific law-like statement "Pure silver melts at 961.78 degrees Celsius," we are necessarily going beyond our experience and observation because we have not tested every sample of silver in the universe to see whether that statement is true, nor could we do so. So that statement, and every scientific statement like it, should be regarded as being metaphysical. Metaphysical claims go beyond scientific data itself into an extra-observable domain where statements or claims go beyond the evidence for them.

As I understand them, the proponents of ID hold that many biological organisms and structures exhibit such abundant evidence of complexity and of seeming to have been designed (Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker and other important works on these issues and one of today's most adamant opponents of ID and proponents of neo-Darwinian evolution, explicitly admits this) that the most reasonable conclusion is that they have in fact been designed (Dawkins adamantly denies this). That is to say, responsible ID proponents hold that, in the face of this observable complexity of seeming design, the most likely and intellectually credible conclusion is that these organisms did not and could not, in fact, have come about through the blind or mechanistic processes described by Darwinist or neo-Darwinist evolution, but, instead, came about through actual design by some intelligence. At least one such ID proponent holds that some biological structures exhibit what he calls "irreducible complexity," meaning that one part of the complex structure could not be taken away without the entire structure becoming inoperative or even collapsing completely. This means, he claims, that these structures could not have come about through the gradual and lengthy, small step by small step process described by Darwinism and neo-Darwinism.

There is growing evidence that methodological naturalism does not yield answers to some of the most intriguing questions that arise at the edges of today's science. How could an irreducibly complex biological structure come about through evolutionary methods that require gradualism - that go against what is known in revolutionary biology as saltationism or the view that completely new living things appeared all at once in discontinuous jumps from what existed before? In the domain of astrophysics, how is it that there exist a significant number of physical constants such that if they were different by as little as one part in twenty decimal places (i.e. 1 in 10 to the 20th power) or even less, the universe could not exist? (Although his conclusion that God exists does not follow from the evidence he presents for it, Michael A. Corey's book The God Hypothesis does a quite good job of laying out and explaining the meaning and implications of a number of those physical constants for readers who are non-scientists). If the Big Bang really happened, where did it come from and what came before it? Where did that first living cell come from and how did it come into existence? - the question known in biology as the question or problem of abiogenesis. (Darwinism and neo-Darwinism do not have any answers to the question of abiogenesis.) Proponents of ID do offer a strong inductive argument for their conclusion, although it is not deductively conclusive - it is possible that, by some unexplained means, the blind and mechanistic physical world and the processes described in today's neo-Darwinian theory of evolution got lucky. It is also possible that naturalistic answers could or will ultimately be found for each of the questions given above. But the ID argument looks at the evidence and concludes that it is so infinitesimally unlikely that these design-marked structures could have come about through a process that has no intelligence or design behind it that the most credible or likely conclusion is that the ID claim is, in fact, overwhelmingly justified.

Whether or not ID is a scientific theory or whether it goes beyond science into an extra-scientific metaphysical - or religious - realm depends on what we consider to be the domain and limits of science. While correct in rejecting the teaching of ID in high school biology classes as impermissible because ID as presented in the evidence given in his courtroom is religious - a conclusion supported by the evidence he cited in his opinion - the judge went too far in his attempt to draw a bright and hard line between science and religion.

It is true, as Judge Jones asserts, that methodological naturalism has been the stance of the sciences - usually anyway - from the beginnings of the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries to now. But many people, among them a lot of today's proponents of neo-Darwinist evolution, move from the scientific stance of methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism. In other words they make a leap - a leap that is not supported by either good logic or good observation - from a method of science in which only natural explanations are to be accepted as scientific, to a declaration that only natural phenomena exist and that all natural phenomena can be explained without reference to extra natural (supernatural) phenomena and existence(s). (See my article, "Viewpoint: The Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Controversy" in the World Peace Herald, Oct. 6, 2005, available at, for a discussion of the many different meanings of "evolution" and ways this term is used). Thus, in the stance of many of its proponents, Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution frequently becomes a semi-religious view because it is given as a support for the view that no supernatural reality exists, and because it is offered as an answer to the question of "ultimate things." Such answers are, by their nature, at least semi-religious if not fully so.

I predict that sometime in the future - say a hundred years hence - this case and Judge's Jones opinion in it will turn out to be seen as having been like the Catholic Church's case against Galileo. Except that this time the winning and losing sides will have switched; the proponents of evolution and scientific naturalism will by then have lost the war against religion and ID, even though they won the Dover battle.

Lloyd Eby holds a doctorate in the philosophy of science and teaches in the philosophy department of the George Washington University, Washington, DC

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