Quote of the Month: Robin Collins on why design isn’t part of science

So things have been a little quiet here over the past six months. Life has an irritating way of screwing things up and preventing me doing things like this. And it doesn’t help that I’m one of the worst offenders when it comes to procrastination. My head has been occupied with adapting to a new job and various changes at home. Anyway, I’m intending on getting back into writing. This post is just a brief one to get the ball rolling. There’s more to come soon.

The other day I was reading a paper by Christian philosopher Robin Collins (the fine-tuning chap). In the paper Collins elaborates on his concept of ‘methodological theism‘ and has some interesting things to say about ID. In his own work Collins argues for design using physics and cosmology. He accepts design, but has various friendly criticisms of ID and its relationship to science. Here’s one of his problems:

…the major problem I see with ID’s claim that we should include the hypothesis of a transcendent or generic designer as part of science is that it is not what I have called scientifically tractable. Typically, when scientists propose an explanation of some set of phenomena, that explanation can be filled in using other branches of science. For example, consider the big bang theory. The postulated “fireball” that resulted in our current universe provides a detailed explanation of such things as the microwave background radiation and the abundance of elements because we can use current particle physics to elaborate this fireball’s internal dynamics. If its internal workings were forever beyond the realm of current science to investigate, it is doubtful such an hypothesis would be of much scientific interest. Ditto for the theory of evolution and other scientific theories.

Insofar as the hypothesis of ID invokes a transcendent or generic designer, it lacks this characteristic. One cannot use current science to elaborate the internal dynamics of a transcendent or generic designer (though one might for a specific sort of non-transcendent designer, such as an extraterrestrial intelligence). Yet, lacking this characteristic is no small matter, since it is what allows scientific hypotheses to provide detailed explanations and predictions, and it gives scientists something to work with. It is not sufficient for advocates of ID to reply that intelligent design is the best explanation of various features of the natural world: many theists argue that God is the best explanation of the big bang and the laws of nature and many platonists argue that the existence of an immaterial realm of mathematical truths is the best explanation of the success of mathematics in science, but clearly this is insufficient to make the God hypothesis or platonic hypothesis part of science. So, whether or not one wants to consider ID as part of science, this significant and relevant difference between it and regular scientific hypotheses should be acknowledged.

So, what do you make of Collins objection? Note that he isn’t claiming ID is false, but merely that it can’t be considered to be a part of science.

My initial thoughts are to say that it isn’t true that the data ID seeks to explain can’t be illuminated by categories that are already found in science. As ID theorists have pointed out many times, intelligence is already a part of various sciences. We invoke it to explain data in all sorts of areas. We can utilise our firm knowledge of how design processes operate, what marks are often left behind by intelligent forces, and make various predictions based on that. Collins recognises that ID doesn’t necessitate supernatural design and can just appeal to generic intelligence, and also admits that non-transcendent, extra-terrestrial design hypotheses don’t face this problem. But ID does in fact allow such hypotheses and so to my mind Collins objection falls.

What do you think?


Critic’s Corner: Sahotra Sarkar

Sahotra Sarkar is a philosopher of science and conservation biologist at The University of Texas at Austin. He specialises in history and philosophy of science, most of his work being focused on physics and biology. 

As a critic of intelligent design and creationism, Sarkar is not as well known as people like Ken Miller and Barbara Forrest. Having said that, in my view Sarkar is one of the few good critics. Even though I think his case against ID isn’t successful, it is sophisticated and carefully argued. I think because Sarkar isn’t particularly well known in general, there has been little interaction with his work (I hope to fill this gap at some point as I think his work is well worth responding to). Here is the material related to Sarkar and ID:




Doubting Darwin?: Creationist Designs on Evolution

Papers & Articles

Sober on Intelligent Design

The Science Question in Intelligent Design

Decoding “coding’-information and DNA

Fine-Tuned Deception

“Intelligent Design” Creationism Is An Immoral Fraud

Book Review: Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution

Book Review: Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design

Sarkar’s blog posts on ID


Debate with Paul Nelson (Discussion paper for Sarkar/Nelson Debate on Evolution and Intelligent Design)

In the Face of an Aspiring Baboon: A Response to Sahotra Sarkar’s Review of Science vs. Religion?

Review: Doubting Darwin?

Not So Innocent: Methodology and Metaphysics of Evolution 

Evolutionary Revisionist Sahotra Sarkar Fine-Tunes Recent History

Why Can’t Intelligent Design Critics in Synthese Accurately Represent Their Opponents?

Sarkar’s Review of My Book, and Dougherty’s Defence-Bradley Monton

Response to Sarkar’s Review of ‘Seeking God in Science’-Trent Dougherty

Peter S. Williams & Denis Alexander’s Dialogue on Intelligent Design

In this post, I wanted to draw attention to a particular written dialogue between ID advocate/philosopher Peter S. Williams and biologist/ID critic, Denis Alexander. Both Williams and Alexander are committed Christians (Williams being one of the UK’s foremost Christian philosophers and Alexander being the director of the Faraday Institute for Religion and Science), so in terms of their broader worldviews, they have much in common. Denis Alexander is a Christian neo-Darwinist, which would put his views pretty much in line with the Biologos crowd (in fact he is one of the bloggers at Biologos). Alexander has critiqued various aspects of ID in many publications¹

Back in 2006, Alexander had an article published on the website Bethinking.org called Creation and Evolution?. In it he discusses theistic evolution, creationism, and ID. Subsequently, Peter S. Williams penned an interesting piece in the form of a hypothetical dialogue called Theistic Evolution & Intelligent Design in Dialogue. There are several characters in the dialogue who are coming from various perspectives in the origins debate. This article was written as some form of response to Alexander’s initial article. In response to this, Alexander wrote Designs on Science, an open letter to the characters in Peter Williams’ dialogue, which neatly summarizes some of Alexander’s criticisms of ID. Finally, in response to Alexander, Peter Williams wrote Intelligent Designs on Science: A Surreply to Denis Alexander. This was the concluding part of their dialogue.

It is well worth reading through the dialogue from start to finish. Both authors engage in a polite and cordial fashion throughout, and much ground is covered in great depth. In particular, Williams’ concluding response is very lengthy (25.000 words with almost 300 footnotes) and very well researched, and to my mind constitutes a devastating refutation of Alexander’s objections to design. In addition to this, Williams presents a strong positive case for ID. Of course, Williams doesn’t answer everything that Alexander has written on ID but he deals with the most salient points.

In future, I shall be writing my own response to some of Denis Alexander’s more recent publications on intelligent design.

  1.  Denis Alexander has critiqued ID extensively in books such as Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?The Language of Genetics: An IntroductionRescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain TodayBeyond Belief: Science, Faith and Ethical ChallengesRebuilding the Matrix: Science And Faith In The 21St Century. On top of these, he has published many articles on the topic including Is Intelligent Design Biblical?Intelligent design is not scienceA Critique of Intelligent DesignA Response to Should Christians Embrace Evolution?