Monday, November 12, 2012

Is Intelligent Design Scientific?

Intelligent Design is often dismissed as unscientific because it violates various criteria used to define "science." One of the restrictions imposed upon science by some philosophers is "methodological naturalism." This rules out any hypothesis that invokes a non-materialistic cause such as an intelligent designer.

I reject that limitation on science as a way of knowing. Are there any other reasonable definitions of "science" that can be used to exclude Intelligent Design while still including other hypotheses that we'd like to keep?

Here's Stephen Myer arguing that the answer is "no." Is this a good argument? Note that I'm not asking whether you agree with intelligent design. I'm simply asking whether there's a good argument for dismissing it as nonscientific and, therefore. should never be discussed in a science class. If you think the answer is "yes" then please give a definition of "science" that excludes Intelligent Design but includes speculations on the origin of life, string theory, and whether Bigfoot exists.



32 comments :

  1. What makes something scientific is not that it depends upon naturalism. What makes something scientific is that it makes testable predictions which can potentially be falsified by experimental data. Intelligent Design is not unscientific because it relies upon the supernatural, it's unscientific because it's unfalsifiable.

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    1. To be more extensive, here's something I wrote up before on the subject.

      For a theory to be scientific, it must meet the following criteria:

      It is falsifiable.
      It is consistent (although not necessarily in exact agreement) with pre-existing theory.
      It is supported by multiple foundations of evidence.

      It should also preferably be at least some of the following:

      It is tentative and correctable, rather than asserting absolute certainty.
      It is parsimonious, via Occam's razor.
      It is predictive, in that the explanation can be used to determine future outcomes.

      The theory of biological evolution meets the three required criteria. It is also both tentative and predictive; parsimony is hard to define, so we'll be generous and say it's not. Even with that, it meets all three required criteria and two of the three preferred criteria. It is science, not religion; I can't recall the last time biological evolution was considered a cultural system relating to long-term establishment of beliefs and values.

      ID meets exactly zero scientific criteria. No evidence can be presented that would make the theory demonstrably false, so it is not falsifiable. Since this is the big one, I could stop here, because the death knell has already been tolled for ID, but I'll keep going. Pre-existing theory does not consider magic or divine intervention to be valid causes, making ID inconsistent with pre-existing theory. ID has no direct evidence, much less multiple foundations of evidence; its entire premise is "we don't know what caused it, so something outside our experience must have." Proponents of ID do not present it as tentative, because there's nothing there to correct. Inexplicable outside forces with powers beyond our imagination are certainly not the simplest explanation, and are in fact not an explanation at all. And finally, it predicts nothing, because it assumes that the origin and development of life is controlled by something we cannot comprehend; it can't tell us what is going to happen over time to a life form placed in a given environment.

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    2. One of the main claims of Intelligent Design is that irreducibly complex systems cannot be explained by evolution. That's definitely falsifiable. (In fact, it has been falsified.)

      Another claim is that systems exhibiting specified complexity can only be created by an intelligent designer. That claim is also falsifiable.

      Intelligent Design requires the existence of an intelligent designer and that's a claim that can be falsified—although admittedly it's hard to prove a negative.

      I think Intelligent Design meets all of your other criteria. What about "Metabolism First" as a theory of the origin of life? Does it meet all of your criteria? What about Lamarckism? Is that scientific? How about evolutionary psychology? Are their hypotheses falsifiable?

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    3. You can approach ID in a scientific way, which doesn't mean either that it's scientific per se, or that its proponents subscribe to scientific methodology. The very notions of "intelligent design", "irreducible/specified complexity" etc. lack formal rigour and are flawed in a way that makes them unscientific. It's cargo cult science, only aping the real thing. A tentative proposition or "idea" (pending a fully elaborated hypothesis) need not be falsifiable to be scientific, but it mustn't be circular or deliberately obfuscated.

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    4. Larry,

      I am puzzled because I do not think that "methodological naturalism" is imposed by philosophers, but rather by reality. We cannot test unnatural things. We cannot even show that there is or there is not anything supernatural. The moment we can test something we claim it for nature. So, naturalism is kind of a basic principle (the "methodological" adjective might be redundant). It becomes axiomatic all by itself. Unless I am missing something.

      But ID is not scientific. It is just an attack on evolution. A misguided one at that. Attacks on evolution can be scientific (we have lots of debates in the field after all). But the branches of science dealing with such things are not called something different because they attack this or that aspect of evolutionary theory, do they? For ID to be scientific it would have to have actual propositions leading to think of some intelligent designer. Other than faulty logic and faulty basic philosophy.

      So, that evolution could not produce irreducibly complex systems is not deserving of having a new scientific field named (let alone one called ID). It is a doubt about what the processes described so far could do. That's it. They should use the name of the appropriate field instead of inventing a stupidly faulty one.

      That complex specified information could only be made by an intelligence is more in line with an ID idea. But how can anybody test this if they claim that we see complex specified information everywhere? If we saw complex specified information everywhere proposing a "designer," a being who inputs the information everywhere, would be silly. It would be like saying that because we see gravitation everywhere there must be a gravitationist. Thus not very scientific. Faulty logic and faulty philosophy. So, presence/absence/abundance/non-abundance of something is not a way towards a designer just as it is not a way towards a gravitationist. So, not scientific either.

      Anyway, too much of a rant. I agree with you that some stuff they do is plainly bad science. But that little science they manage to do does not make ID scientific. They make a few of their attempts bad science. But they are far from justifying calling their whole creationist bullshit as science. Even if bad science.

      (preparing myself for a good slap ...)

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    5. Just a note in reply to Larry...

      I don't think that the claim that irreducible complexity cannot be explained by evolution is really falsifiable, because the idea of irreducible complexity is itself unscientific. Irreducible complexity is not "explained" by evolution; evolution shows that it doesn't exist at all.

      I can't imagine any specific falsifiable predictions ID could make to support itself at all. It's a theory-of-the-gaps (which is why all the blogs just try to poke holes in evolution instead of advancing their alternative theory), and there's nothing scientific about that.

      And I just want to mention String Theory, because I'm sort of an armchair physics nerd. String Theory isn't falsifiable, but it's not a complete theory; it's still in mathematical development and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Any string theorist will tell you that ultimately, it will have to be verified by experiment to be anything more than a very intriguing possibility. It's still science, but in a nascent, conjectural stage.

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  2. Dear Professor Moran:

    The answer to your question seems to rest within the logical inconsistency of the question itself.

    Science concerns itself with that which can be observed (empiricism); therefore, any observed phenomenon, even intelligent design would not only have to be observed but we would also have to have an explanation that could also be observed, once it was proposed.

    If there were a "non-materialistic" component to intelligent design it could never be proven using the means of a materialistic science (empiricism). In short, what you suggest is an oxymoron: the discovery of a non-materialistic force using methods devoted solely to materialistic claims, i.e., science or empiricism.

    To use the old cliche: one cannot have one's cake and eat it too. One cannot adopt the most effective epistemological method mankind has ever created, rooted in the notion that all proposals must be validated by observation, and then suggest that things which cannot be observationally validated must also be accepted.

    Furthermore, if a "non-material" factor were shown to have some influence on our world, then it would by the fact that it is observed cease to be a "non-materialistic" factor.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Jeffery L. Irvin Jr., Ph.D.
    Author of "This Is the End: The Coming Apocalypse, the Culture of Fear, and the Fate of American Society"

    www.jefferyirvin.com

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    1. Dr. Ph.D. and all... holy crap, you must be one educated fellow!

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    2. Not only that, he's also a "Jr."!!!

      That means there's two of them.

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    3. 'Furthermore, if a "non-material" factor were shown to have some influence on our world, then it would by the fact that it is observed cease to be a "non-materialistic" factor.'

      I am not convinced that non-material influences would cease to be non-material merely because they are observed indirectly via their material impacts. A little more nuance is needed here. ID is entirely counter-evidenced, it has no empirical support nor does it even have any justification in providing otherwise missing explanation for something that is known to be true. And that is why it is not science, it is more akin to anti- science. I don't see this material versus immaterial distinction to be fundamental here, it's relevant only insofar as the immaterial adds an extra level of indirection, but indirection is present in empirical evidences anyway. We observe, for example, various fundamental particles and forces indirectly, via their behaviors.

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    4. The immaterial soul (whether human or God) supposedly influences the material world, so we would be able to confirm the existence of such souls if they decided to demonstrate their existence to us. We may not be able to analyze these immaterial souls, but we could know that they exist.

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    5. His PhD is in history if anyone is interested. I thought the fact he had to over-emphasise it stank. It is kind of assumed that anyone reading this has, or has least has plans to have, a PhD. Kind of a ridiculous thing to try and assert authority using this in this kind of company...

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  3. In my opinion, ID is not science and should not be discussed at any length in science classes because it has failed to discover creditable evidence for its hypotheses. One could spend the same five minutes or so that were given to phlogiston in my high school Chemistry class, I suppose, as an example of how science progresses by replacing bad ideas with better ones, but in the case of ID the example would probably cause more distraction than enlightenment.

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  4. The question is ambiguous. Are you asking whether ID could be science if approached properly, or whether it is science as currently practiced? Sure, various claims of ID are testable, and so could be considered scientific. But IDiots aren't doing science, because they don't actually test their claims and ignore tests by others.

    So I'd say that the answer to your question is "Not so far."

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    1. An interesting discussion reduced to "clever" name calling. Bravo !

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    2. I presume you're objecting to the word "IDiots". Hey, it's the accepted term around here. What would you call them? Cdesignproponentsists? Substitute your favorite term if you like; it wasn't important to my point, though, so why are you fixated on that one word?

      If on the other hand you object to my characterization of ID "science", go ahead and support your claim with examples of actual tests of ID claims by ID folks.

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  5. Irreducible complexity has been demonstrated to be false, so insofar as irreducible complexity is asserted to be a key justification for ID, ID is a failure. Another reason is that ID doesn't have any value added. There is nothing that ID explains that is not otherwise explained. ID Is not rooted in the empirical evidences which strongly favors evolution, which contradicts ID. Another reason is that supernatural explanations have a long history of being complete failures, with all empirical evidences favoring metaphysical naturalism, and thus must be rejected on a weight of the available empirical basis. In contrast, origin of life speculations are (usually) firmly rooted in empirical observations, and string theory both accurately models the known laws of physics and has added value in reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity via gravitons.

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  6. Irreducible complexity has been demonstrated to be false, so insofar as irreducible complexity is asserted to be a key justification for ID, ID is a failure. Another reason is that ID doesn't have any value added. There is nothing that ID explains that is not otherwise explained. ID Is not rooted in the empirical evidences which strongly favors evolution, which contradicts ID. Another reason is that supernatural explanations have a long history of being complete failures, with all empirical evidences favoring metaphysical naturalism, and thus must be rejected on a weight of the available empirical basis. In contrast, origin of life speculations are (usually) firmly rooted in empirical observations, and string theory both accurately models the known laws of physics and has added value in reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity via gravitons.

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  7. As mr Meyer said ITS ABOUT THE TRUTH!
    Any investigation of nature/universe that excludes options, including famous and historical and popular ones, about cause is just plain dumb.
    If "science" purpose is to discover the truth it must include all options or rather not exclude, off the mark, any options.
    Materialistic? Oh brother.

    In reality there is not and never has been a species of investigation called science!
    Its all about people figuring things out about nature/universe.

    They can't say but the best they can say is that SCIENCE is a higher standard of investigation, as opposed to regular standards, that can DEMAND confidence in its conclusions!
    Then demonstrate this high standard took place case by case.

    Sayin' something isn't scientific is just saying it ain't true or its evidence is wanting.
    It's been a silly resistance to say YEC or ID is not science.
    Judges or anyone have just wasted everyone's time.

    All conclusions or criticisms of conclusions about nature should be based on evidence, evidence, evidence!
    Evolutionism fails to do this.
    Some YEC fails because of its evidence being from revealed religion.
    YEC can smash the other guys however.

    YEC and ID do present to their audience their conclusions based on investigation of nature using evidence from nature.
    Dismissing and dissing ID/YEC as unscientific is unpersuasive and finally let the people vote.

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    1. byers said:

      "Any investigation of nature/universe that excludes options, including famous and historical and popular ones, about cause is just plain dumb."

      You're right robert, and I'm really upset because the 'Fifi the pink unicorn god theory' is rejected by science without a fair hearing. I simply can't imagine why scientists reject such a truthful theory that has so much concrete evidence to support it! Why just last night I was visited by several my little ponies that were personally sent by Fifi to reassure me that she is the designer and creator (cause) of the universe. What better evidence could anyone ask for?

      /sarcasm

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    2. Robert ByersMonday, November 12, 2012 8:49:00 PM

      As mr Meyer said ITS ABOUT THE TRUTH!


      Ah, yes, "THE TRUTH". Whose truth are we talking about exactly, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist? They're not all the same, are they? Come to think of it, what is "truth" or, more specifically, what do you mean by "truth"

      If "science" purpose is to discover the truth it must include all options or rather not exclude, off the mark, any options.

      Really? If there are several competing explanations for something we observe, the presumption is that they can't all be true, so part of science is to exclude those options which are less likely to be true

      Materialistic? Oh brother.

      That's right, brother, materialistic. Show me, I mean show me something that actually exists without any material component.

      In reality there is not and never has been a species of investigation called science!
      Its all about people figuring things out about nature/universe.


      In your reality maybe not, but in my reality and that of most others, "people figuring things out about nature/universe." in a rigorous and methodical manner is science. Pretend it doesn't exist all you want, it won't change the fact that it works.

      Sayin' something isn't scientific is just saying it ain't true or its evidence is wanting.

      No, science is not about "TRUTH", it's about observations and evidence and explanations and proof in the older sense of testing. Saying a claim is not scientific is saying that it is not the product of the scientific process, that it is not observed, that there is no evidence so no need of it as an explanation.

      It's been a silly resistance to say YEC or ID is not science.
      Judges or anyone have just wasted everyone's time.


      There are parents who keep their children out of public schools because they don't want them exposed to explanations like the theory of evolution. They want them to only hear the Biblical accounts. People who are as closed-minded as them campaigned to have their religious stories taught in the science classes. The courts rejected those moves, quite rightly. No faith has the right to impose its beliefs on others. Resisting religious oppression is never silly or a waste of time.

      All conclusions or criticisms of conclusions about nature should be based on evidence, evidence, evidence!

      Yes, but where does this eviedence come from? It comes from investigation, observation, experimentation, cogitation and explanation, in other words, the scientific process.

      It does not come from the so-called revealed "truths' of religious texts.

      YEC can smash the other guys however.

      In your dreams.

      YEC and ID do present to their audience their conclusions based on investigation of nature using evidence from nature.

      Not even close, which is why they have no traction in the scientific community. Most of what is written by YEC/ID proponents is about criticizing or just plain deriding alleged flaws in the theory of evolution. Apart from saying that an unspecified Designer/God did it they have virtually nothing else to offer.

      Dismissing and dissing ID/YEC as unscientific is unpersuasive and finally let the people vote.

      Science isn't decided by popular vote but, as you said earlier, by evidence. But if it were decided by a vote, how reliable would that be, given that there are an awful lot of the voters who just plain won't look at the theory of evolution and the evidence that supports it?

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    3. Yes its about evidence. Then let the people judge the evidence and there we are.
      Your saying your conclusions are 'scientific" and yEC/ID are not.
      Well we say otherwise.
      No matter.
      The origin struggle is about the quality and quantity of evidence and criticisms thereof of both sides claims.

      Yet evolutionism does try, OFF THE MARK, to dismiss creationism by accusing it of NOT being scientific and by saying evolution IS the result of scientific methodology.
      They try to win their fights by words and not deeds of evidence discovery.

      Its all about investigation of nature and then making your case to your peers.
      Mankind is your peer.
      A creationist thinker is always satisified to see our opponents run from making a case on the evidence.
      Pointing to "degrees" on the wall ain't evidence.
      It's an appeal to authority.
      Saying creationism ain't sciency is a appeal to authority.

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  8. I think that Matthew Prorok gave a good answer, though the various points are actually different aspects of the same thing. I think that his point #2 (consistancy) is the main one, though I would rephrase it as "plausibility"

    Basically, the mechanism proposed by the IDers is implausible. They claim that some intelligent being created life as we know it, yet we have no direct evidence that such an intelligence actually exists. Historical scientists match observed patterns to observed processes in order to infer historical processes. If you've never observed the process, then there in no basis to infer its historical role.

    Once you reject that requirement (consistency or plausibility), then your hypotheses will never be falsifiable or parsimonious. Likewise, the predictive power will be negligable because the mechanism is a complete black box.

    I've written on this elsewhere:
    http://www.science20.com/gee_whiz/blog/what_would_cast_doubt_evolution_spontaneous_generation_1

    When you drop plausibility, all you're left with is wild speculation. This is distinct from reasonable speculation (e.g. origin of life hypotheses), where you build a theory based on processes that are known to occur... and admit that you are speculating.

    On the point of "irreducible complexity", I don't think that it is properly part of ID theory. Instead, it is a criticism of evolutionary theory. The most that it could accomplish is to discredit evolutionary theory and leave us without a plausible theory. One of the problems with the approach of ID proponents is that they treat ID as the default belief -- as if all they need to do is discredit evolution.

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  9. I'm just going to throw out some quotes from Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, from her awesome book Knocking on Heaven's door:

    "For a scientist, material mechanistic elements underlie the description of reality. The associated physical correlates are essential to any phenomenon in the world. Even if not sufficient to explain everything, they are required."

    "The materialist viewpoint works well for science. But it inevitably leads to logical conflicts when religion invokes a God or some other external entity to explain how people or the world behave. The problem is that in order to subscribe both to science and to a God--or any external spirit--who controls the universe or human activity, one has to address the question of at what point does the deity intervene and how does he do it."

    "Clearly people who want to believe that God can intervene to help them or alter the world at some point have to invoke nonscientific thinking. Even if science doesn't necessarily tell us why things happen, we do know how things move and interact. If God has no physical influence, things won't move. Even our thoughts, which ultimately rely on electrical signals moving in our brains, won't be affected...."

    "If such external influences are intrinsic to religion, then logic and scientific thought dictate that there must be a mechanism by which this influence is transmitted. A religious or spiritual belief that involves an invisible undetectable force that nonetheless influences human actions and behavior or that of the world itself produces a situation in which a believer has no choice but to have faith and abandon logic--or simply not care."

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  10. Hi, I'm from Brazil, and to tell the truth I'm not a biologist or something. Just someone who understands when facing real science or just a lie. I have recently read this post, http://sandwalk.blogspot.com.br/2012/01/physicians-can-be-idiots.html and I was sort of surprised this kind of thing happened. I would like to know the position of the publisher and how scientific community reacted about it. At least I hope that those publishers somehow have lost reputation or something like that. Thanks!

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  11. In my view science is not just about evidence and theory, but is also aboout ideas. And I've always been leary about declaring some ideas rational and others irrational. I'm sure back in 1720 what we now accept as true or likely to be true would be roundly considered irrational ideas back then.
    The problem is that the number of ideas out there are nearly limitless (and since they amount to guesses, almost all of these ideas will be wrong) and it is quite enough to attempt to cover those ideas for which we have some or lots of empirical evidence that they are valid.

    Having said that, even amongst the obstensibly non-religious there is often a predispostion toward thinking there is design or purpose (somehow) in this universe. I see no harm in alluding to these ubiquitous notions at least when discussing evolution, and origins of universe and life, if even just to point out that these are indeed just notions that should be constantly re-examined in light of new evidence and free from the obscuring yokes of religious certitude, human exceptionalism, and teleology.

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  12. I am with Jerry Coyne's recent post on this: ID was a reasonable tentative scientific conclusion until 1859, when a much better idea supplanted it.

    To those who think that ID would be a science-stopper, please take note of the "tentative".

    To those who doubt that we could never conclude design in principle, I offer the following thought experiment. Imagine we discovered, in the future, another planet with life forms, and it has the following properties: There are no fossils until in sediments about a few tens of thousands of years old, and the earliest fossils already contain all the extant diversity of organisms. The organisms show no phylogenetic structure whatsoever when we try to do molecular or morphology based phylogenetic analyses. And every species appears to have started from complete genetic health but also genetic homogeneity a few tens of thousands of years ago and only accumulated the number of mutations we would expect over that short time - all of them.

    Now what would be the most reasonable conclusion? Well, that life on that planet has been designed by some kind of alien civilization that we can only speculate about. In short, science would have to tentatively conclude ID.

    The important point is, life on our planet looks nothing like that.

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  13. I think science as a way of knowing seeks to reason from evidence and accepts the provisional nature of conclusions. Thus science can speak to any question as to which evidence and reasoning therefrom are useful. This includes questions of whether something is science, e.g. Bigfoot, ID, astrology, religion. All of these except astrology posit the existence of entities (Bigfoot, a designer, a deity) for which there is no good evidence, nor is there a chain of reasoning. Rather, there is an unevidenced assertion the entities exist. In the case of ID, requests for positive evidence of ID inevitably are met with proffers of supposed negative evidence regarding an entirely different theory, evolution.

    Thus I do not think there is any problem created by designating various theories as not science. They can still be discussed in science class, and often are (e.g., phlogiston, the 4 elements, the 4 bodily humors and their balance as an explanation for disease).

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  14. Can we say ID is science/ scientific?

    It's 'standard' scientific procedure to propose a hypothesis --> ID proposes a model of (evolutionary) developement based on the fact that the complexity of current live on earth has been designed.

    You could validate the hypothesis by making it SMART.

    Is the ID hypothesis specific? I would argue it's rather vague, it states there's ia a higher intelligence which created the complexity of live on earth, but doesn't specify which one. Ofcourse the IDiots claim their own deity, but Hindu's, Muslims and other religous factions have their own deity as the superior intelligence. To answer this question you would have to decide which deity is responsible? Obviously, you will never get the definite answer, because every religion claims their own deity as the only one, the one and only.
    Perhaps we can help, by picking one from the list:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_deities

    Also, you would need to define complexity and make it measurable. Is the human T-cell response complex? Or would you define the internal processes within a T-cell complex? Or perhaps the transcription of proteins is the complex bit?

    Subsequently, can you measure what the ID hypothesis claims? This is where the ID hypothesis falls flat on it's face, you would have to falsify the hypothesis and perform measurements to validate your hypothesis. One way to falsify could be: ok, can we beyond reasonable doubt explain the current diversity of live on earth without a designer being involved...

    Actually Behe himself is quoted saying in the Dover case, that he is not doing any experiments to validate the ID hypothesis.

    Anyway, back to the question asked, is ID scientific?? I would argue, 'kinda' in the way they are trying to attempt to position ID hypothesis as counter to evolutionary theory.

    Ultimately, I would argue: NO. The ID hypothesis hasn't until now been validated by measurements and experiments, nor has any data confirming ID been published in scientific peer reviewed papers. In 20 years that ID hypothesis has been formulated, not one single shred of evidence has been published.

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  15. One thing science is, is everything we've learned about the world. We have found out that people will perpetrate hoaxes and people will believe in things on unreliable testimony which affects their supposed perceptions. Therefore by a critical assessment that takes this knowledge into account, there's no evidence at all that Bigfoot exists any more than UFOs or ESP. The only difference between Bigfoot and UFOs is that we don't have to postulate unknowns laws of physics to accommodate the hypothesis of UFOs. And the difference between Bigfoot and ESP is that the ESP hypothesis actually contradicts the known facts of how things are.

    Frankly, I would think discussing Bigfoot's possible existence in a science class would be encouraging poor judgment about the reliability of testimony and evidence, preaching a gullibility about what constitutes evidence that would be antiscientific. Of course, like parapsychology, it could gin up a whole elaborate apparatus with testability and predictivity, then keep on testing and predicting no matter what.

    On the contrary, I think the essence of science is that it is based as much as possible on what is already known. The scientific speculations on the origin of life, as well as string theory, are devised using as many known facts as possible. The logic follows the principles generalized from the knowledge we have acquired, such as the second law of thermodynamics.

    Most generally of course, the principle of naturalism is justified by centuries of experience. It is not a logical, a priori argument. But science is all about a posteriori judgments. And any supernaturalist hypotheses are contradicted by all that knowledge, hence are not scientific.

    Or so I think. Sorry, but I think you're all wet about wanting to regard Bigfoot as a scientific hypothesis. Or was that a trick question?

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  16. I'm not sure how ID could work as a science because it neither offers a mechanism, nor is it falsifiable. There are plenty of falsifiable claims that the proponents make - but they are usually about the validity of evolution, or can be dismissed by calling into question the presumption of naturalism in an explanation. If there are no observations that could disprove it, and no way of knowing if it happened or not, then how can it be science?

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  17. Larry, I was wondering, do you define the "God ot the gaps" arguments as a scientific argument? Why?

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