How Do We Know Intelligent Design Is a Scientific “Theory”?
by Casey Luskin
A question I commonly receive is whether intelligent design is a “scientific theory.” The word “theory” gets tossed around a lot as if everyone agrees on what it means. To answer the question, we must first consider the meaning of the word “theory.”
As I’ve already elaborated here, philosopher Peter Kosso explains that calling something a “theory” says little about the degree of certainty backing the idea. As he states, “neither ‘theoretical’ nor ‘law’ is about being true or false, or about being well-tested or speculative.” In Kosso’s view, a theory “describes aspects of nature that are beyond (or beneath) what we can observe, aspects that can be used to explain what we observe.” Thus “[s]ome theories are true (atomic theory), some are false (caloric theory), and the scientific method is what directs us in deciding which are which.”
Does ID meet this definition of theory? Yes, it does.
ID is a theory of design detection, and it proposes intelligent agency as a mechanism causing biological change. ID allows us to explain how aspects of observed biological complexity, and other natural complexity, arose. And it uses the scientific method to make its claims.
The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. ID begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be tested for by reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function. When scientists experimentally uncover irreducible complexity in a biological structure, they conclude that it was designed.
Meeting the Definition of “Theory” from ID’s Most Eminent Critics
Though Peter Kosso might disagree, I believe ID qualifies under his definition of “theory.” But as I suggested above, there are many definitions of “theory” out there. How can we know if ID is a scientific theory? Take the definition of “theory” given by ID’s most eminent scientific critics, and if ID meets that definition then there’s a good bet ID may properly be considered a scientific theory.
Perhaps the most eminent scientific opponents of the theory of intelligent design can be found among the membership of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In contrast to Peter Kosso, the NAS defines “theory” as an idea that is well-tested and well-supported by the scientific evidence:
- “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, and tested hypotheses” (Science & Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (National Academy Press, 1999).)
- “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence” (Science, Evolution & Creationism (National Academy Press, 2008).)
Even if we accept the NAS’s more stringent definition of theory, ID more than qualifies. When we’re confronted with multipart tests, it’s often useful to break them down into their elements…
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