Dispatches from the Creation Wars

ID and Testability

Richard Hoppe has a post at the Panda’s Thumb answering an argument by the DI blog’s new contributor, Martin Cothran. Cothran makes a claim we’ve heard many times before:

The opponents of Intelligent Design have recently been trying to slither out of a logical dilemma they have created for themselves. Their problem is that they make two mutually exclusive claims: First that ID is not science, and, second, that ID makes false claims.

The primary reason opponents say that ID is not science is because it doesn’t make falsifiable claims. But if it doesn’t make falsifiable claims, then it can’t be said to have made claims that have been found false. Yet this is exactly what they charge.

Oh gosh, it sounds like we’re in trouble, doesn’t it? He’s caught us in a “dilemma.” Eh, not so much. Richard answers them, but I think he actually gives them too much credit. He writes:

What Cothran is apparently unable to comprehend is that while ID proponents occasionally make testable empirical claims, ID theory itself does not. It is untestable since the sole content of ID “theory” (as I’ve said a number of times) is this:

Sometime or other, some intelligent agent or other (maybe one god or another, or maybe space aliens or time travelers) designed one or another biological structure (or maybe process), and then somehow or other manufactured the designed biological whatsit, doing so while leaving no independent evidence of either the design process or the manufacturing process, and no independent evidence of the presence (or even the existence) of the designing and manufacturing agent(s).

I think he’s actually making things more complicated than they are. There is no “ID theory” and there never has been. What ID proponents call “ID theory” is nothing more than a set of bad arguments against evolution, all straight out of the creationist jokebook. They all take the form of a basic god of the gaps argument: “not evolution, therefore God.”

Every single ID argument, from irreducible complexity to Dembski’s explanatory filter to all of Wells’ icons of evolution are merely critiques of evolution, with the assumption being that if they poke enough holes in evolution that leads logically to the conclusion that God did it. This, of course, is quite silly. It would be silly even if their arguments against evolution were valid.

The real problem with Cothran’s argument is this: all of those testable claims he refers to are not tests of ID theory (which does not exist), they are tests of evolution. Those arguments are falsified when the gaps upon which they are premised are filled in with knowledge, knowledge that can only come from continued research on specific questions about how various systems evolve.

The difference between ID explanations for, say, the immune system, and evolutionary explanations for the immune system is that evolutionary explanations can actually spur research. Scientists can propose hypotheses about how the immune system may have evolved and derive testable hypotheses from them. Then they can go about doing the experiments that test those hypotheses.

They have done this with the transposon hypothesis, from which one may make testable predictions about evidence that had yet to be found. Lo and behold, when they went looking for that evidence they found it. What kind of response can this possibly elicit from ID advocates other than “nuh uh”? Behe can only stick his head in the sand and declare that it isn’t detailed enough to satisfy him.

If there was an actual ID theory that could spur such research, one would think that Behe, of all people, would have done it. After all, he is a biochemist himself and he has access to the laboratories at Lehigh. Yet he has published a single paper in the whole time he has been writing about ID (Behe and Snoke 2004) and that was a computer simulation that actually proved the opposite of what he intended to prove.

ID argument like this can be falsified because they are tests of evolution, not of the non-existent “ID theory.” ID is a purely negative argument that invokes supernatural causation, and that is why it cannot be tested on its own merits.