ID not science, should it be called Natural Philosophy?

I read this over on UcD:

One can argue that as an empirical matter ID has failed to demonstrate that living things bear indicia of design.  Many scientists would disagree, but competing interpretations of the data are what good science is all about.  May the best interpretation prevail.  But some scientists go further than advancing competing interpretations of the data and argue that the search for indicia of design in living things is in principle illicit.

The bit about “in principle illicit” interests me in this post. While I agree that science should not include references to the deity as the casual factor and that the most teleology is out of bounds still it seems to me that there should be some name given to studies like ID that use the tools of mathematics and science but that desire to break the above limitations.

Maybe we should call it “Natural Philosophy” to reuse an old term??? Am wondering what Ted as historian of science would think of that or if he might have a better proposal.

Note I am not discussing the validity of ID in terms of demonstrating what they propose, just a name.

I wonder if such a name might quiet down the constant harping on the science issue by ID folks.

10 comments to ID not science, should it be called Natural Philosophy?

  • Ted Davis

    This is a very interesting issue that has not lost its relevance, even though it’s largely an historical question.  As you realize, “natural philosophy” was the preferred term for “science,” or at least for some aspects of the physical sciences, prior to the 19th century.   “Science” is an old word, going back to Chaucer’s time in English (it came to us from Latin via French), but it wasn’t widely used to mean the study of nature until ca. 1800 or later.  “Scientist” was coined by William Whewell in 1834, by analogy with “artist” (he said at the time), to identify anyone studying in the various “sciences” that were emerging or were already well established.
    At that point, teleological arguments were disappearing from scientific literature, esp on the Continent; they survived for another generation (or a bit longer) in England, perhaps b/c the best universities were still church controlled at that point.  There’s a lot of controversy among historians, concerning whether the “big picture” (the change from older ways of doing science to newer ways) is really centered on the “scientific revolution” of the 16th & 17th centuries, or on the 19th century when secularization really took over.  In other words, “natural philosophy” was transformed in the “scientific revolution” into something like modern science, but it remained pretty closely tied to theology and natural philosophy until the latter part of the 19th century.  Thus, we have (if I may coin a term that Francis Schaeffer might have liked) “modern modern science” appearing in the 19th century, replacing “natural philosophy” which had been practiced since the ancient world and had been transformed into “early modern science” during the “scientific revolution.”
    This is generating controversy, partly b/c the early modern period (“scientific revolution”) is the classic period in my field (it’s also the one I was trained in), and some are reluctant to see “modern modern science” appearing later on.  But, I think that’s what happened.

  • Wayne Dawson


    I still feel “natural philosophy” is rather problematical.  For one thing, that tends to imply a study about the natural world.  To a TE like me, I tend to prefer a narrow definition restricting “natural” to matters that we can investigate by modern science.   Along with that is Ted’s explanation on the origins of the term “natural philosophy”.
    I would be more inclined toward calling it a kind of metaphysics (or maybe metascience).  Admittedly, “metaphysics” is derided as nonsense by some people.  As a result, my impression is that the ID camp wants to be admitted to the purported “big boys”.  I think where TEs and IDers probably do agree is that there is more to reality than just material.  Hence, it is rather odd that, on the one hand, IDers want to be members of a camp that chauvinistically insists on a purely materialist viewpoint, and on the other hand, want to rail against it.  Science, I think, is a very restricted subset of reality, though quite a powerful insight into this aspect of reality.  Because of its very restrictive view of life truth and everything, it cannot admit anything it cannot in some way measure.  How can we measure God?  The very thought is absurd.
    The reason I would think that is more appropriate to call it a kind of metaphysics is because the fundamental assumption of a Christian should be that God exists, God was the creator of all things visible (nature in its farthest stretch) and invisible (even what isn’t nature).     Consider what we confess as Christians…
    I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
    How much of this Apostle’s creed should we expect to verify with science?  Born is ok, but not of a virgin.  Perhaps the only fully substantial claim is that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.  I think anyone with any experience in the world can grasp that some people were looking for a way to get rid of the guy. That’s hardly new under the sun.  (It seems some people in this generation would like to propose ways to get rid of the guy too.  I guess it’s a really tough call to admit that we really are sinners.)  So finally, what we believe as Christians are finally confessions of faith which are untestable propositions from the standpoint of science.  Being eye-witness accounts, they may be true, but putting on the science cap for a moment, there is no way to really know.  How do we measure a resurrection of the body?  How do we know he rose and sits at the right hand of God?  All of that is completely out of the hands of science.  So maker of heaven and earth and all things visible (let alone “invisible”) may very well likely be so too. 
    ID, in principle, does not necessarily assume that the “designer” is the God of the bible.  However, an important factor in this is the assumption that the designer left some evidence behind saying, in effect, “I made this”.  If these were some super race of beings that made us humans (or all life on earth for that matter), then there may be a way to find that evidence.  If it was a bunch of party boys who their trash behind, again maybe we could find the evidence.  However, if it is really God who make this universe, who can say how God would chose to do things?
    So I would argue that, in as much as ID is largely composed of Christians, or people who in some way believe that material is not all that was, is and ever will be, maybe a reasonable classification is some kind of metaphysics or metascience.
    By Grace we proceed,

  • Moorad Alexanian

    Perhaps I am naive but it seems to me that scientists when practicing their profession are basing their findings on design. First, as observers, humans use all their intellectual and mental abilities to make sense of all that exists. Such an endeavor would be hopeless if there were no designs whether in the human observers or the world outside our bodies and minds.

  • Gordon Brown

    Concerning Moorad’s comment, I think that science involves detecting patterns rather than design. Whether pattern requires design seems to me to be a philosophical question. From my theological perspective everything, whether a detectible pattern or not, ultimately happens by design.

  • David Wallace


    “For one thing, that tends to imply a study about the natural world.  To a TE like me, I tend to prefer a narrow definition restricting “natural” to matters that we can investigate by modern science.” 

    To an EC like me, natural does not just include that which we can investigate with science but it includes all that is not a part of the spirit or supernatural world.  I could live with a three fold split of spirit world, human, and natural as Gregory used to suggest on the old email list.  Michael Polyani in one of his books described kinds of knowledge that IMO are not natural ie science, with your definition and would not be part of my understanding of the supernatural for example knowledge of how to do sports or even ride a bicycle or how a dr listens to ones chest for pneumonia signs. Sure I read the best descriptions I can find about how to ski but in the end real knowledge come from actually falling down the mountain in a controlled fashion on skis.

    “How much of this Apostle’s creed should we expect to verify with science?  Born is ok, but not of a virgin.”

    I agree that we should not expect to be able to verify much of the creeds with science although of a virgin would be potentially partially falsifiable if we could get dna samples from Jesus and Joseph and all the other men in the village.
    To me revelation straddles the boundary between the natural and supernatural which I see as precisely its point. But if the gospels are not essentially or in essence history then we should throw it all out with the slops.

    “Science, I think, is a very restricted subset of reality, though quite a powerful insight into this aspect of reality.  Because of its very restrictive view of life truth and everything, it cannot admit anything it cannot in some way measure.  How can we measure God?  The very thought is absurd.”

    But science is also restricted to not having God as a cause which ID wants to do.  I agree that ID is and can be formulated with just a designer but IMO that is a very steep slippery slope.  I really don’t like playing the demarcation game with ID.  I think NOT having God as a cause in science is a very useful restriction that in essence I knew about and liked long before I ever heard the term.  I admit that I waffle on the issue of ID being science which I why I proposed a broader term.  It does not go over well when people point out on UcD and Biologos that ID shares a lot of common ground with the new atheists but I think your point is valid about the commonality and I find it disturbing.

    IMO even if one considered ID, as a field, to be science or science like I would consider ID at best failed science like astrology, although I see essentially no hope that astrology could become good science but ID might in the future become so although I have my doubts.  My expectation is that ID will never be successful because of the hiddeness of God and because IMO the only way we can reliably distinguish between Gods actions in governing and sustaining the world is if it is apparent from scripture.  That is not to deny God’s providential actions but demonstrating them to someone not immediately involved is often close to impossible.    Behe comes closest to science as he caused significant activity to be invested in an effort to prove him wrong and such work needed to be done, at least as I understand it.  ID does include the fine tuning arguments which it shares with the EC position, but that seems clearly to be metaphysics and is something I agree with.

    I don’t care at all about the name “natural philosophy” that I suggested but think that ID should be part of something that is science like.  Of course if they demonstrated that one of their theories is probably correct then the argument becomes much more compelling.  

    Sorry I took so long getting back to you on this.  
    Dave W

  • Bernie Dehler

    Just like ID’ers, real scientists do consider how to detect design, such as in the SETI project.  These ‘philosophical naturalism’ scientists should also be consulted to see what they could name this practice of detecting intelligence… maybe they already even have a name for it…?  I guess a big difference is that SETI focuses only on communication intercept, whereas ID is into ‘product design’ detection.

    Probably one of the biggest problems for ID is the dissention in their own ranks.  Macroevolution can’t happen because it is too improbable,,, but oh-wait, Michael Behe can accept macroevolution (man from animal).  They have to get on the same page before they can expect the critics to consider them.  It sounds to me like the hypothesis is still too much in flux.  And have they ever been able to make a prediction based on their hypothesis, other than that they think their gap will never get filled (since it is god-of-the-gaps type thinking)?

    (Friend of the ASA)

  • Wayne Dawson

    Maybe the main question is “how does God interact with the world”?  Maybe better said is “how would we detect the supernatural”?  At this point, at least, we don’t have any detectors that can directly identify an act of God and distinguish that from some natural event.  So unless God has mechanisms that we can detect (and we are granted the privilege to probe them irrespective of faith), we have no means to be sure.  Yes,  it may very well be quite reasonable to infer from the extreme improbability that without God, life could not be.  Yet we cannot call such an inference science because we don’t have a way to intercept communications made by God through standard channels of communication, so we don’t have direct, reproducible evidence that God exist, though of course, we still seem to feel it is true all the same.
    On the other hand, if some alien from outer space makes some communication in the universe and we happen to intercept that, we have evidence that all can see and examine irrespective of religious persuasion. We have some form of manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum like radio waves to point to and analyze as many times as we wish in order to decide if this is a hoax, noise, or a genuine signal from a different civilization not here on earth.  Dembski’s book “The Design Inference”, also very briefly mentioned SETI.  I agree, aliens from outer space would share all the characteristics of material and manipulate the material universe as a means of communication, and therefore, we would be able to infer that they exist if we intercepted a sufficiently complete communication from such beings, even if it were some mind numbingly boring alien soap opera.
    Were God to send such a public announcement through the standard communication channels, we would all have to accept the proposition that there is a God.  Yet, more likely, most of us would suspect such a communication to be the work of bunch of swindlers trying to bamboozle us.  Why is it that we believe in God, yet we would find such a display like this suspect?  Perhaps because we also sense that God is much bigger than all that.
    by Grace we proceed,

  • Bernie Dehler

    Wayne said:
    “So unless God has mechanisms that we can detect (and we are granted the privilege to probe them irrespective of faith), we have no means to be sure.”

    And this will never happen because God says people must come to him by faith.  If something actually proved God, then people would believe in him because of facts and not faith… so then the smarter the one is, the easier they could be saved.  But because the faith is based on ‘faith’ and not ‘facts’ I think there’s nothing that will prove God.  Evolution? Multiverse theory? God is said to work through it all.

    (Friend of the ASA)

  • Scot Sutherland

    Church-going students sometimes identify themselves by using the creation-evolution debate as an excuse to avoid academic work.  If they espoused ID I would ask them what explanation ID would give that would offer an improvement over evolution for the way microscopic animals behave when their environment is heated, or the pH is altered?  How does ID predict what they will do in ways that evolution can’t?
    I asked these kinds of questions partly to motivate students to engage in scientific inquiry, but also to illustrate that a theory needs to allow researchers to pursue scientific questions like these.  So I propose the above question to both the evolutionary biologists and the ID folks here.  I am a learning scientist and psychometrician that once taught science at the high school and middle school level, so I am not an expert in evolutionary theory or intelligent design.

  • Randy Isaac

    Scot, that’s a good learning approach. You’re right, a good theory makes helpful predictions in realistic conditions that help us gain understanding. Meyer’s ID predictions (see the blog on his book)  tend, for the most part, to address hypothetical situations which will seldom resolve key issues or gain understanding.

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