What's Wrong with Intelligent Design, and with Its Critics

Article excerpt

This week, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design may not be taught in the science classrooms of Pennsylvania's public schools. I agree with the verdict, but we need to be careful about our reasons for supporting it. Most critics of intelligent design seek to undermine it by arguing that the doctrine is not science. It's actually religion passing itself off as science. Hence, its teaching constitutes religious instruction. The Constitution disallows the state's establishment of religion. Therefore, intelligent design cannot be taught in the classroom.

The problem with this argument is that it requires making the case that intelligent design is not science. And the intelligibility of that task depends on the possibility of drawing a line between science and non-science. The prospects for this are dim. Twentieth- century philosophy of science is littered with the smoldering remains of attempts to do just that.

Science employs the scientific method. No, there's no such method: Doing science is not like baking a cake. Science can be proved on the basis of observable data. No, general theories about the natural world can't be proved at all. Our theories make claims that go beyond the finite amount of data that we've collected. There's no way such extrapolations from the evidence can be proved to be correct. Science can be disproved, or falsified, on the basis of observable data. No, for it's always possible to protect a theory from an apparently confuting observation. Theories are never tested in isolation but only in conjunction with many other extra- theoretical assumptions (about the equipment being used, about ambient conditions, about experimenter error, etc.). It's always possible to lay the blame for the confutation at the door of one of these assumptions, thereby leaving one's theory in the clear. And so forth.

Let's abandon this struggle to demarcate and instead let's liberally apply the label "science" to any collection of assertions about the workings of the natural world. Fine, intelligent design is a science then - as is astrology, as is parapsychology. But what has a claim to being taught in the science classroom isn't all science, but rather the best science, the claims about reality that we have strongest reason to believe are true. …