How to ignore the blatantly obvious

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to How to ignore the blatantly obvious

  1. SteveMatheson says:

    You have refuted arguments I didn’t make. My post was specifically about the actions of an omnipotent God, and I never argued that the unfalsifiability of such design assertions had anything to do with whether ID is science. The “requirement of falsifiability” which you “dismiss out of hand” was someone else’s claim.

    You misunderstood my contrasting of “ID” and common descent. I’ve regularly written that design and descent need not be mutually exclusive. My purpose in that post was to note that those who assert the action of an omnipotent deity must tread carefully when making empirical claims. And I thought I explained why: one can never point to anything that isn’t designed, unless and until one has specified the characteristics of the designer.

    You have significantly misrepresented my position on the importance of falsifiability, perhaps because you didn’t read my words very carefully. Please don’t use me as your foil anymore. Thank you.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I’m sorry if I misrepresented your position, but I did read your whole thread several times, together with other links on your site, and tried not to put words in your mouth. But one can get things wrong. I don’t think you’ve been harmed though, as I referenced your thread so that people can check out the arguments for themselves. And to be honest I was a lot more interested in the arguments than in the personalities behind them.
    It does seems, perhaps a little churlish to try to insulate your public domain ideas from comment, though. Concepts are there to be discussed, even though that inevitably produces some misunderstandings.

  3. SteveMatheson says:

    It does seems, perhaps a little churlish to try to insulate your public domain ideas from comment, though.
    Is that what you think it means to ask that you not use me as a foil? Having visited my blog, do you really want to suggest that I seek to avoid comment on my ideas???

    No, Jon, I have a specific objection to your post. It airily dismisses ideas I don’t accept, attached to my name, under the title “how to ignore the blatantly obvious.” You can decide whether this is a legitimate concern on my part or not. But please don’t spin it into an attempt to avoid comment or disagreement.

  4. Gregory says:

    It would be foolish to use Matheson as a foil, when Matheson foils himself with his anti-ID ranting and raving philosophical muddiness.

    “those who assert the action of an omnipotent deity must tread carefully when making empirical claims.” – SteveMatheson

    A cute way for Steve to compartmentalize knowledge ‘the American way,’ i.e. according to USAmerican philosophy of science. Only ’empirical’ ‘pragmatic’ or ‘positivistic’ knowledges allowed! Little does he know, there are far stronger traditions than the one he’s educated in.

    “one can never point to anything that isn’t designed, unless and until one has specified the characteristics of the designer.” – SteveMatheson

    If something (actually, really) ‘wasn’t designed’ then there would be no ‘designer’ to point to. Are you promoting that low a level of discourse, Steve? ‘Blatantly obvious’ to everyone except for evangelutionists, maybe?

  5. SteveMatheson says:

    Hey John, just a quick note to say that I didn’t assume that you were deliberately misrepresenting me, and to apologize if I gave that impression. Also to say that I really like your blog.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Steve – you’re a gent. If we keep in touch maybe I’ll end up representing your views correctly one day. Thanks for the good and informative series on limbs reproduced over on BioLogos – I’m watching the interactions with interest.

  7. SteveMatheson says:

    I’m sure you’ll represent my views perfectly well, just as I’ll spell your name correctly. 🙂

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I respond to “John” OK since it was the name of a host of forbears going back to the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh in 1589. How they all evolved into Staffordshire iron moulders I’ll never know.

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