Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dear Phil. of Science People: How to Express the Falseness of Intelligent Design?


Apropos of the discussion in the comments to my last post, I overheard a discussion about intelligent design in a coffeeshop lately. A working scientist of some sort was holding forth at some length about why ID is not scientific because it's not falsifiable. (Or, more to the point, doesn't make falsifiable predictions.) But I'm really dissatisfied with that, for three reasons:

1. I think the falsifiability criterion for demarcating science from non-science is pretty much a wash.

2. Intelligent design proponents, at least, do make falsifiable predictions in the name of ID, albeit of a weird sort. They often are heard to say things like "you won't find an intermediate step between species/organs X and Y" or "you won't find a mechanism for the development of X." The problem is that those claims are invariably, well, demonstrated to be false!

3. I want to see claims about god that actually have empirical content, so as to be confident about the deaths of certain incredibly annoying Kantian arguments.

Part of me just wants to say, sure, ID is a scientific theory, just as is the phlogiston theory. And just like the phlogiston theory, it's been debunked. But that isn't satisfactory either, because every time evolutionary biologists knock down one claim, a new one comes up. "Well, fine, ok, that's how that bacterium's flagella could have evolved, but how about THIS bacterium, huh? huh?"

So, for the last few hours, part of my brain (the part that wants to procrastinate game theory work) has been trying to come up with a way to express the falsity of ID that can handle that problem. I've thought of a couple of things, and I wonder, if any phil of science people are reading, if any of them make sense/appear in the literature? I'm a little familiar with the literature, but not nearly enough -- really, only the basics -- Popper, Kuhn, etc. and the causal explanation stuff thanks to a class...

Here are the random things that have been going through my head.

1. Asymptotic/inductive falsity.

The idea here is that the pattern of behavior -- the fact that biologists have successively knocked down every claim they've made, and every time, they change the theory in some non-fundamental way to accommodate that falsification and then make a new claim -- itself constitutes a kind of falsity by induction. We have ever-increasing reason to believe ID is false, every time a new claim is knocked down, and so we conclude that our subjective probability in its being false is really frickin' close to 1. And we have good reason believe that as the process continues and the number of claims ID makes goes to infinity, the probability will approach 1.

2. Differential falsity.

This is a more comparative idea. We can say theory A dominates theory B if, every time the two theories make different predictions, theory A turns out to be correct and theory B turns out to be wrong. So the idea here is that evolution bears a relationship to ID sort of like relativity bears to classical mechanics. The difference is that ID came AFTER evolution, so it isn't even entitled to the respect due an incomplete advance. I think this might just be a subcategory of 1. above though.

3. Noncohesion.

And here, the idea is that what's wrong with ID is just the fact that it can avoid falsification by changing the claims without changing the central theory. So consider classical mechanics again. When something goes wrong, you can't just -- or so I think (are there any physicists in the house?) just change a coefficient somewhere or add a constant, and magically have the anomaly taken care of. Not, that is, without creating a bunch of other anomalies elsewhere. You've gotta change the whole damn thing. And that's something that we ought to want out of a science. But that feels a little too Hempel and Oppenhemim for taste (does that really mean nondeductiveness? or worse, nonfalsifiability?).

Someone wanna clue me in?


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home