Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Should science by governed by methodological materialism? That is, should scientists assume that only undirected causes can figure in their theories and explanations? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there can be no such thing as teleological science or intelligent design. But is methodological materialism a defensible approach to science, or might it prevent scientists from discovering important truths about the natural world? In my contribution to The Waning of Materialism (OUP, 2010), edited by Robert Koons and George Bealer, I consider twelve of the most common arguments in favor of methodological materialism and show that none of them is convincing.
Of these arguments, perhaps the most prevalent is the “God of the gaps” charge, according to which invoking something other than a material cause is an argument from ignorance which, like a bad script writer, cites a deus ex machina to save our account from difficulty. Not only materialists, but also many Christian thinkers, like Francis Collins, worry that appeal to intelligent design commits the God of the gaps fallacy.
As I argue, however, not only is an inference to an intelligent cause not the same as an inference to the supernatural, it is a mistake to assume that all gap arguments are bad, or that only theists make them. If a gap argument is based solely on ignorance of what might explain some phenomenon, then indeed it is a bad argument. But there are many good gap arguments which are made both by scientific materialists and proponents of intelligent design. For example, there is a gap between the fact of dinosaur extinction and processes known to be at work on earth at the time. Materialist scientists reasonably proposed that asteroid impact would bridge the gap, and went on to find independent confirmation of this hypothesis (shocked quartz in the Cretaceous boundary). Likewise, there may be a gap between a student’s musical ability and the CD he produces, leading one to conclude that he relied on the creative intelligence of other artists, something confirmed by further study of the tracks on the CD.
As Stephen Meyer has argued in his Signature in the Cell, intelligent design argues in just the same way, claiming not merely that the material categories of chance and necessity (singly or in combination) are unable to explain the complex specified information in DNA, but also that in our experience, intelligent agents are the only known causes of such information. The argument is based on what we know about causal powers, not on what we do not know about them.
Since the inference is based on known causal powers, we learn that the cause is intelligent, but only further assumptions or data can tell us whether that intelligence is immanent in nature or supernatural. It is a serious mistake to confuse intelligent design with theistic science, and the argument that since some proponents of design believe that the designer is God, that is what they are claiming can be inferred from the data, is a sophomoric intensional fallacy. By a similar argument, because I believe Jack is a terrorist target, I cannot infer that Jack’s car caught fire for any reason other than terrorism, as if I had never heard of car accidents or overheating cars. Even an intelligent child who believes the ring of presents round the tree signifies the work of Santa will not claim that it is the only explanation!
After undermining the supports of methodological materialism, I go on to propose an alternative. I do not advocate that methodological materialism should be replaced by methodological design. For one thing, methodological materialism works very well in many areas of science where no serious question of intelligent causes arises, because we are considering lawful relations between material entities. But it is possible to show that in other areas of science, particularly in varieties of historical science, methodological materialism can inhibit the discovery of truth.
Furthermore, methodological design is already in wide use. For example, treating the cell as a collection of engineered protein machines has paid enormous dividends, regardless of the ideological commitments of the scientist. What I propose is methodological realism, according to which the iconoclastic facts determine which of our provisional methodologies (materialism or design) should be used.
There is no rational justification for the a priori assumption that design has or does not have a role in science. But if design is found to promote scientific discovery, by doing work, or by doing it better than materialism, there is no reason why it cannot earn a worthy place at the scientific table.