Friday, February 25, 2005

Intelligent Design is Falsifiable

Over on the Panda's Thumb evolution site the question was posed: How would you falsify ID (Intelligent Design)?

It turns out that this question was not offered in good faith. You see, the unfalsifiability of Intelligent Design is a huge weapon in the evolutionist arsenal: ID is not science, because it is not falsifiable, and since it is not falsifiable, it is not science.

Panda's Thumb promulgates at least two ipso facto theorems:

The Meyer-Sternberg Theorem
  1. ID is not science, because science publishes in peer-reviewed journals
  2. ID cannot make it through peer review, because ID is not science
  3. If ID manages to get published in a peer reviewed journal, then one or both of the following is true:
    1. The journal is not as respectable as first thought
    2. The editor was not properly vetted

To this we add the following, so-far unnamed theorem:
  1. ID is not science, because it cannot be falsified
  2. ID cannot be falsified, because it is not science

I recently had quite a discussion on PT where I ran up against the dizzying logic of this second theorem. Here are some of the exchanges, between me and “Thumber”, who represents any of a number of evolutionists on the PT site.

Thumber: Give us an example of evidence which, if found, would disprove design. If you want design to be called a hypothesis (we can talk about being a theory later), it’ll need to be falsifiable.

Me: Well, for me, proof that either
  1. the universe had no beginning or
  2. there are an infinite number of parallel universes

would destroy ID. Both of these are active areas of research, and so ID is being subjected to possible falsification.

Thumber: David Heddle, while I might agree that in your private version of ID those might be possible falsifications (I won’t try to attack your version of ID), the general ID hypothesis could simply state that the Designer had created a universe without a beginning or that he had created multiple parallel universes. After all, it is an all powerful Designer.

Me: So I offer legitimate ways to falsify ID, but those don’t count. And no matter what I or anyone else provides, you can always say “that doesn’t count, because IDers will just say God did it that way.”

That is an over simplification. If you chip away at what IDers see as evidence, which for me is the fine tuning of the universe at large— not the diversity of life— then at least the scientific-IDers will withdraw support. Sure, people who do not know science and support ID purely for (as opposed to in conjunction with) religious reasons will never give up. But scientists who are IDers will. And I gave some examples that would falsify it for me.

I could make the same argument about evolution’s falsifiability. When that question comes up, and after you weed out the absurd (“sure, just find a 200 million year old human fossil”) you get things like the discovery of species with no common DNA would falsify evolution. Would it? Or would people just say that life originated more than once? My point is, can you come up with a non absurd finding that would falsify evolution for everybody? Or would some zealots hang on?

So when you ask for falsifiability of ID, I think you should ask: would a scientific-minded ID proponent accept something as falsifying, and forget about those who are just religiously motivated.

Thumber: proving that the universe had no beginning or there are an infinite number of parallel universes are practicable experimental proposals for disproving ID, but finding out-of-place fossils is absurd?

Me: Yes, because those are precisely hot areas of cosmology. But asking to find a 200 million year old human fossil is absurd, and using that as an example of falsifying evolution weakens the case. You need something plausible. If only a miracle can falsify evolution, then evolution is not falsifiable. The out of place fossils are absurd (as a falsifiability test) because there is no chance of it happening. I’ll use an analogy I’ve used before. It would be like saying that gravity is falsifiable: just show that something doesn’t fall if you drop it. If that were the only way you could falsify Newtonian gravity visa-vis General Relativity, then Newtonian gravity would be unfalsifiable.

Thumber: Why couldn’t the designer have created infinite universes? Why couldn’t the designer have operated in a universe without a beginning? Besides, the IDist could easily say, “The designer stepped in and made all of our observations make it appear as if the universe had no beginning or that there are parallel universes, but that’s really not the case and ID is still valid.” The whole point to the exercise is that explaining things by a supernatural cause is really no explanation at all because you can not prove nor disprove the supernatural.

Me: I’m an IDer, and I just told you what would falsify it for me, and your argument is that “no it wouldn’t falsify it for you.” But, sorry, it (parallel universes) would. Why? Because it is the fine tuning of this universe that does it for me. If there are infinite universes, then the argument that “we just happen to be in a lucky one, otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking about it” becomes very plausible—i.e., I.D. is dead.

Thumber: But, why would it not be valid to say that the designer fooled us into thinking we saw parallel universes? Why would it not be valid to say that the designer made all those universes? Perhaps the designer created life on all the parallel universes, life that is different and “fine-tuned” to the laws of each universe. If you really understood the implications of ID, you would realize that it is NOT falsifiable, because the supernatural can always bend the natural to its will.

Me: I just told you what would falsify it! It’s amazing to me that (a) I am an IDer, (b) I gave plausible outcomes based on ongoing research that would falsify ID for me, only to find (c) that you are telling me that, no, it wouldn’t falsify it!

If a universe with no beginning is demonstrated (and such models are being studied) or parallel universes are demonstrated (and such models are being studied) I will pay for a front page post on PT where I renounce ID. So exactly how is it not falsifiable?

Editorial Note: there ensues some discussion that (true enough) I am not a spokesman for ID, and what may falsify ID for me will not falsify for the “true” IDers, and my private version of ID gets dubbed DHID (David Heddle ID.) It is more-or-less stated that only Dembski’s and Behe’s ID is “real” ID.

Me: This business of “my” version of ID is nonsense. First of all, why do Dembski and Behe own ID? The ID in the book The Privileged Planet is very similar to what I believe. They also list many ways that ID can be falsified. Does that not count because they (Gonzalez and Richards) are not Dembski or Behe? Or Hugh Ross? I agree with much of what he writes—but falsifying his ideas doesn’t count?

As far as I can tell, nobody will admit that ID is falsifiable because you don’t want to admit that ID is falsifiable.

But you still have this nasty problem that if certain ongoing research turns out a certain way, then certain people (not just me) will drop ID. If that isn’t textbook falsifiability, then I don’t know what is.

Thumber: This is just self-serving. What Heddle has done is specified something that will satisfy HIM that ID has been falsified (though it’s not clear whether his conditions are in principle capable of investigation. They might be), but it’s extremely doubtful that any other creationist would be satisfied. If we discover that our universe had no beginning or is one of an infinity of universes, well, that’s just the way God did it! He created an infinite number of eternal universes (there’s no requirement that it had a beginning even so since God controls time) because, well, God need not explain His motivations to us. It’s all creation.

Heddle doesn’t seem to grasp that ID is not falsifiable in principle, EVEN IF he’s willing under hell-freezes-over circumstances to change his mind. He might as well argue that the way to falsify ID is to administer a frontal lobotomy to every creationist.

Me: No, I can quote ways that Gonzalez and Richards list for falsifying (or at least weakening) ID:
  1. To find a distant environment that was hostile to life and yet a better place than earth for making scientific observations.
  2. Find complex life where they claim you won’t find it—say on a gas giant, or near a x-ray emitting star in the galactic center, or on a planet without a dark night, etc.
  3. Find complex life on a planet that does not have a large moon (that produces good solar eclipses.)
  4. Find non-Carbon based life

They are not the same as what I posted. They are all, in principle, doable. So at least according to Heddle, Gonzalez, Richards, and Ross, ID is falsifiable.
As for the hell freezing over, you are sidestepping the fact that I am not talking about research that “in principle” could be done to falsify ID, but research that IS being done.

Thumber: OK, this is kind of interesting. After all, if someone agrees that ID has been falsified, what they are necessarily agreeing is that God might not have created what ID creationists are crediting Him with. They are, in essence, specifying criteria by which design can be distinguished from non design. But as I tried to say, this means that they can (at least hypothetically) point to something and say with full confidence that God didn’t create it. And THAT I’ll believe when I see it!

Me: I don’t agree. To me, falsifying ID means that God has not left any evidence that he created something. It doesn’t mean he didn’t create it. For example, if parallel universes were demonstrated, I would lose the evidence that God created the universe. But I wouldn’t have to abandon the belief. I just couldn’t call it ID anymore. It would just be old fashioned faith.

Falsifying ID is not the equivalent of falsifying God. Falsifying ID means there is no evidence of anything other than natural means for things to be the way they are. Why is this a tough concept? Like you (I think) said, God could have made parallel universes. With one universe, I can claim the fine tuning is evidence for design—for I don’t see any other credible explanation. With parallel universes, I have to acknowledge the anthropic arguments rather than ID. But God is not falsified—only the claim that there is physical evidence of his handiwork. What’s the big deal?

Thumber: “What evidence would falsify ID” != “What evidence would make David Heddle not believe in ID”
There can be no evidence that falsifies ID because you can’t claim a restriction on an all powerful being. Perhaps there are multiple universes.

Me: With that irrefutable comeback, I claim it is then disingenuous to ask the question (what can falsify ID). And I also claim you (they) are not really asking “how can I falsify ID?” but are only pretending to ask that. You are really asking “how can I falsify God?” which more-or-less everyone has agreed, through the ages, is impossible.

Thumber: Yes it is! [Falsifying ID is the same as falsifying God] Falsifying ID means demonstrating conclusively that design did not happen and could not happen. There is a vast qualitative difference between (1) demonstrating that something is false; and (2) Not demonstrating that it’s true.

Editorial Note: At this point the discussion ended (no further comments allowed), because one of the moderators was embarrassed by the names I was being called (which, by PT standards, were actually quite mild: lying conniving troll, moronic troll, and intellectually dishonest. The day before I had been called a child abuser for raising my children as Christians.

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