TCS Daily

The Invention of Design

By Robert McHenry - October 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Douglas Kern has written a peculiar essay on what he asserts is the inevitable success of Intelligent Design in the schools and in society generally. It is difficult to determine just what his personal attitude toward this development is; he seems a neutral observer in one paragraph, a partisan in another. His message is that we all ought just to close our eyes and think of England. He writes many things that are simply wrong, but a bullet-pointed list of corrections would serve little purpose. Instead, I should like to try to reestablish some truths that ought to govern the debate over ID but that have regularly been ignored or obscured or falsified.

Let's think for a moment about how we know things, and by "things" I mean practically or arguably true statements about how the world is made and how it works. There are three ways in which we come into possession of such knowledge: by investigation, by revelation, or by invention. (I omit being told by another, which ultimately traces back to one of the three.)

Investigation is the means by which infants learn that things tossed up fall down, by which teenagers discover lots of things we wish they hadn't, and by which careful observers and experimenters learn that matter is composed of atoms; atoms of electrons, protons, and usually neutrons; protons and neutrons of quarks of various sorts; and so on.

Revelation occurs when knowledge is imparted directly to an individual by some supernatural power. History records many claims of such occurrences. The fact that revelation happens to individuals, not to groups or to the whole world at once, is unexplained and unfortunate. Those individuals are often then charged with distributing the knowledge thus received, and they are left to deal as best they may with others' suspicions about its source.

Invention is the method whereby we assert that thunder is produced by an angry god, or by celestial bowling balls, or by clouds bumping together. Invention may yield anything from transparently silly just-so stories to timeless poetry. In any case, it seldom yields anything in the way of useful results.

The investigational method that has come to be known as science is by far the most successful method ever devised for yielding, in the first place, practical results, in the sense of control over matter and energy for human purposes, and, in the second, consistent descriptions of what is going on in nature.

Science begins with the foundational assumption that all material phenomena have material explanations. Science does not assert this to be true, though some individual scientists may do so. This point is worth making more pointedly: There is no necessary association between science and atheism, for science takes no position on matters supernatural. (It is a pity that one source of the confusion of the two is a prominent evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, an acerbic atheist whose chair at Oxford is dedicated to, of all things, the "public understanding of science." You're not helping here, Dick.) A commitment to materialism is simply the necessary axiom upon which to build a structure of demonstrable knowledge about the natural world. What this means is that when a scientist's first attempt to explain the origin of thunder fails, he does not shrug and declare "OK, it's Thor." Instead, he looks for another material explanation. He keeps this up until he finds one that is consistent with what is already known and has predictive power that encompasses other phenomena. His tested and verified hypothesis then becomes part of the body of scientific knowledge, but -- and this is an absolutely vital point -- it remains, as all human knowledge must, provisional. The best grounded and most rigorously tested of our theories remain provisional, open to challenge on account of new observations or failures to predict. A theory thus challenged may be discarded or it may only need to be modified, but it is the essence of the method that it respond to the challenge.

It is possible that there are things in the natural world that are beyond the ability of the human mind, using the scientific method, to explain, but there is as yet no evidence of these, and there are very few, if any, scientists who are ready to give up the chase. The accelerating accumulation of scientific knowledge over the centuries argues that they are right to be optimistic.

The theory of evolution, or Darwinism for those who prefer their ideas personalized, is a product of the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, experiment, confirmation. Evolutionary biology in the 21st century is a vast body of knowledge that would astound its eponym, whose crucial insights into variation and selection have held up through the discovery of genes and DNA and mutation and all the rest. But it is not equivalent to science. If the theory were to fall, it would not mean the end of science. It would mean that science had found a yet more fruitful theory, one that explains even more and makes testable predictions that Darwin's theory, as modified by the work of thousands of scientists who came after, could not.

There has never been in human history a more powerful theory -- embraced and celebrated not just by scientists but by artists, poets, architects, philosophers -- than Newtonian mechanics. Yet it fell, early in the 20th century, because scientists observed phenomena that it could not explain and went on to devise a new theory that could. That theory is known to be incomplete, like evolutionary theory, and in both realms the search goes on for still more potent ideas.

It is legitimate to ask, then, why evolutionary biologists, and the rest of us as well, ought suddenly to abandon what has worked so well for so long, and brought us so far. Proponents of ID offer no answer to this question. They simply tell us that we've gone as far as we can, that some things are irreducibly this and impossibly that. "Show me," say my Missouri forebears, but they don't. The source of this private knowledge of theirs must then be either revelation, which they hasten to deny, or invention. It would appear that they're making it up.

The ID party pretend that a commitment to the scientific method is just another blind ideology. They pretend to be the victims of a scientific establishment that cannot brook contradiction. This merely shows either that they do not understand science, which lives by informed criticism, or that knowledge is not, in fact, what they are about.

After several readings I honestly could not decide whether the tone of Mr. Kern's article is the triumphalism of a partisan who believes that his side is justly winning or the enthusiasm of the late convert in the service of a new master. Perhaps it was neither of these. I do know that he confuses the product, a theory, with the method, science; that he confuses pattern with design; that he doesn't understand randomness; that he idly invokes a "metaphysics of information"; that he believes, on no evidence, in "memes"; and that he thinks that allowing appeals to the supernatural will have no ill effects on the practice of science and that adulterating their science classes will not cripple the education of our youth.

But let me clear about one thing. I am aware of no evidence that he is a poopy-head.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004). He is a frequent TCS contributor.


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