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Wilson on ID

James Q. Wilson had a very good column yesterday in The Wall Street Journal about Intelligent Design. Wilson is one of the most influential and important political scientists of the 20th century. From studies of political parties, to the bureaucracy, to urban politics, to the sociology of crime, Wilson is a giant among those who try to understand politics scientifically.

This is why his critique of Intelligent Design was so devastating - the man knows what science is about. He argues that ID is not science because it is not subject to empirical testing. Writes Wilson,

God may well exist, and He may well help people overcome problems or even (if we believe certain athletes) determine the outcome of a game. But that theory cannot be tested. There is no way anyone has found that we can prove empirically that God exists or that His action has affected some human life. If such a test could be found, the scientist who executed it would overnight become a hero.
This is a point that cannot be understated. Intelligent design may be a correct theory, just as Hegelianism may be a correct theory. However, neither is scientific because neither is testable (i.e. falsifiable). Wilson here advocates the position that falsification is what separates science from non-science.

Unfortunately, Wilson actually gives ID too much credit. If you look closely at his essay, you will see that he later implies that ID is falsifiable and that it has been falsified:

But if an intelligent designer had created the human eye, He (or She) made some big mistakes. The eye has a blind spot in the middle that reduces the eye's capacity to see. Other creatures, more dependent on sharp eyesight than are we, do not have this blind spot. Some people are colorblind and others must start wearing glasses when they are small children. All of these variations and shortcomings are consistent with evolution. None is consistent with the view that the eye was designed by an intelligent being.
The key word in this passage is “consistent”. Wilson implies that there is empirical evidence that is inconsistent with ID. However, to say that there is inconsistent evidence is to presume that ID makes predictions about the world that can be compared with the data to determine consistency. In other words, it is to say that ID is falsifiable and therefore scientific. Accordingly, Wilson here is arguing that ID is scientific and false.

I think that Wilson's initial claim of unfalsifiability is much stronger. I do not think it is possible to find empirical evidence that is inconsistent with ID. The reason for this gets to the heart of ID itself. In broad outline, the theory asserts that life is too complicated to have occurred “randomly” (a word that is often abused by people in this debate, but that is another story) and that therefore it unfolded according to a designer's intention.

The only way this could be falsifiable, and therefore scientific, is if it makes specific claims about the designers' intentions. These claims, further, must not be dependent upon the evidence used to test those claims. In other words, to be scientific, it must first make predictions about what specifically we should see in the world and then see whether those predictions come true. But it does not. ID argues that we know the design intention only from the observed design product. It makes no attempts to theorize what the will of the designer is beyond, “What you see is what you get!” Thus, there is no imaginable state of the world that goes against ID.

Wilson, however, implies that ID has an independent idea about what is in “God's” design plan - the principle of efficiency. Consider again Wilson's discussion of the human eye and why it is evidence that is inconsistent with ID. The reason that he sees it as being inconsistent with ID is that he is presuming that ID holds that the designer values efficiency and that we can expect the design product to be efficient. But ID does not claim that efficiency is part of the designer's scheme. ID theorists are quasi-Protestant in their outlook, arguing that the designer's will is inscrutable, except when inferred from the design product.

Thus, an ID theorist is “immune” from the point that Wilson makes. In actuality, ID “predicts” that creation is efficient when the design schematic says it is efficient and it is inefficient when the design schematic says it is inefficient, but it says nothing about the design schematic independent of what it observes in the world. Bill Preston has 20/20 vision: all part of God's plan! Ted Logan is blind as a bat: all part of God's plan! It is a theory that cannot possibly be shown to be wrong by empirical evidence.

So ID is not science. Does this mean that science, in any way, implies the non-existence of God? No. Does this mean that belief in God is irrational and that we should all be "free thinkers"? No. Does this mean that it is impossible to arbitrate between various theories of the existence/non-existence of God and come to some reasonable conclusions? No. Does this mean that we cannot say that humanity is meant to exist? No.

In other words, rationality outside of science is quite possible, and has been around for a long time. How do you think humanity invented science in the first place? We surely did not do it scientifically. Science as we know it is the product of millennia of philosophical debate -- from Aristotle to Lakatos. Science depends upon philosophy, which itself is unfalsifiable and unscientific.

The debate about ID has been blown way out of proportion because of the social status that science has acquired in 21st century Western society. For better or for worse, deserved or undeserved, science is a very powerful concept. It is quite coercive. If somebody tells you that you are not being scientific, you will probably take that as a criticism. You should not necessarily, though. The fact of the matter is that, despite the message of our culture about the authority of science, it is not the end-all-be-all of rational thought. Science is a very limited form of inquiry that produces results that are, from a certain perspective and with certain assumptions, reliable. But they also do not tell us all of the things we need, or want, to know about life. Man cannot live by science alone.

Neither, for that matter, can science. Do you have a snarky friend who thinks that science is the only legitimate type of inquiry? Tell him to prove that one scientifically!

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