Steve Matheson (a Reformed Chistian, like myself) started an interesting thread on his website a couple of months ago, which stemmed from a conversation with Casey Luskin. (Cunning link to my previous post – see what I did there?) His argument was that Intelligent Design Theory is inherently unfalsifiable unless one specifies the character and limitations of the designer, because an omniscient designer such as God could (and of course, in both his and my view, did) design everything. Since that could include designing the incontrovertible appearance of non-design, nothing could be excluded from the possibility of design, design would therefore be unfalsifiable and design theory ergo unscientific.
The implications of this are best summarised by one of the posters, Dudley Chapmen, who writes:
As a Christian, I believe that God is the author of all things, including the natural processes in the universe. But that belief is an article of faith, not a falsifiable hypothesis. That this leads to a kind of a priori false dichotomy between natural process and design is an artifact of that. But it in no way lends the dichotomy any other kind of empirical status beyond sentiment.
In other words, I wish we could find explanations for natural processes that demonstrated a requirement for God’s intervention (beyond appeals to ignorance, that is). But that wish comes from an inevitable human weakness of faith, that begs to be corrborated by empirical evidence.
It’s hard to argue with the logic, but still this does seem to me one of those Babel Fish arguments. On a BioLogos thread I posted a thought experiment (see post #61753) to test the limits of methodological naturalism (rather than design). Essentially I posited the overnight appearance in a laboratory of an impossibly complex saltational evolutionary change. But on Steve or Dudley’s reasoning, the only valid conclusion from my scenario, even if the findings recurred whenever the chief technician said, “Hail Mary” would be that design could not be a satisfactory scientific explanation because it is unfalsifiable. Personally I can’t see that sentiment and wishful thinking would be the only objection to such a conclusion – which would in any case apply just as much were one an eyewitness to the resurrectioon of Christ.
I’m very glad that the views of Karl Popper on falsifiability, on which Steve and Dudley’s case is built, is greatly contested in the world of philosophy of science . Paul Feyerabend , for example, denies the existence of any firm methodological rules for science at all, and is highly influential among philosophers of science. At the very least that means there is no scientific consensus on what constitutes science, so we can happily cut the Gordian Knot by dismissing Matheson’s requirement for falsifiability out of hand.
But before I quit the discussion, I’d add that Matheson was contrasting ID, which can’t be falsified, with common descent, which can. This is a false comparison, because ID is not, in itself, opposed to common descent, but to random modification with natural selection (in the case of irreducible complexity) or with chemical evolution (in the case of origin of life, where I understand Matheson first crossed swords with Stephen Meyer on falsification). The latter certainly seems unfalsifiable, for how could one ever disprove for certain that unknown chemical interactions might have led to life, even though no plausible hypothesis has been proposed?
Regarding natural selection, Chapmen’s post sates:
The theory of evolution can also be characterized by a set of premises that are simple assertions about short range biological phenomenon. These premises would include simple testable assertions about mutation, inheritance, and selection, all of which are observable in any given generation of an organism.
The problem with evolution is that the claims that some find controversial take place over the “long range” of deep time, where one cannot make direct experiments and observe the accuracy of prediction for ToE.
But I find this to be no different than any other foundational theory in science. We solved the long range problem hundreds of years ago, and it is this long range extension to falsifiability that gives theories their most important utility.
But the extension of natural selection to the macroevolutionary scale is the very point in dispute. Chapmen cites Newtonian physics as an example of falsifiable science scaled up from the measurable to encompass the grand scale – but fails to mention that it was the failure of Newton’s laws on the grand scale that led to relativity. We have no way, currently, of developing a biological equivalent to Einstein’s theories that can falsify the Modern Synthesis in macroevolution. Meanwhile, because Neodarwinian theory is so trivial on the small scale (“Organisms vary and the survivors survive”) it can be invoked without evidence for any observed phenomenon (“This Precambrian rabbit confirms both how rapidly mutation and natural selection can occur in some circumstances, and also confirms the established principles of convergent evolution.”)
That being so, the falsifiability stakes are about level – and I guess we have to revert to the method of inference to the best explanation – which is what Stephen Meyer, at least, was advocating all along.