Intelligent Design as a "Science Stopper"? Here's the Real Story
It is almost a mantra among Darwin's most devoted followers: Intelligent Design is a "science stopper." High Priestess of the Darwinian faithful Eugenie Scott insists that "Intelligent design is a science stopper. It stops science in its tracks because you stop looking. And I don't think that's a very good lesson to teach students" (see her comments in PBS Religion & Ethics).
What is a much worse lesson, however, is to teach students that the philosophical underpinnings of an argument can be sloughed over and that history doesn't matter. Yet that's precisely what the "science stopper" argument does -- it ignores its own a priori philosophical assumptions and actually stops historical inquiry as if the past doesn't matter. It, in effect, loosens science from its logical moorings and strips it from all historical context, making it into little more than an ideological tool for a dogmatic methodological naturalism (MN).
Let's address the philosophical side of the argument first. Before we can decide whether or not ID is a science "stopper," we have to be clear about what precisely is being stopped. What Eugenie Scott and others who make this argument are actually claiming is that scientists must invoke only natural causes functioning through natural laws in thoroughly non-teleological ways. Thus, what's being stopped is their commitment to MN. Of course the functional definition of MN given above is a view that is not itself a scientific statement.
As Bill Dembski has pointed out, "If methodological naturalism were merely a working hypothesis, maintained because it supposedly has served science well in the past, that would be one thing. . . . But methodological naturalism isn't saying that we have yet to encounter empirical evidence of design in nature but we should stay open to it in case it comes along. Rather, methodological naturalism insists that one is most logical, most scientific, if one pretends such an empirical possibility is logically impossible. Instead of holding methodological naturalism as a working hypothesis, methodological naturalists hold it as a dogma" (The Design Revolution, pp. 170-171). And that's why a "stoppage" of MN is not a stoppage of science; it's a halt to a very particular notion as to how science must be practiced.
If the "ID is a science stopper" argument rests on weak philosophical foundations, its historical underpinnings are even shakier. The leading natural philosophers (what we would call "scientists" today) of the 16th through 18th centuries, the men who established modern science as we know it -- Copernicus, Galileo, Vesalius, Harvey, Newton -- would have considered the MN dogma absurd and indeed rather peculiar. In fact, James Hannam has recently examined this issue in some detail and found that religion, far from being antagonistic or an impediment to science, was an integral part of its advance in the Western world (see my earlier ENV article on the subject).
But let's put it in more immediate terms that even the Darwin lobby can understand. Alfred Russel Wallace, the acknowledged co-discoverer of natural selection, broke with Darwin in 1869, calling upon an Overruling Intelligence to explain the special intellectual attributes of Homo sapiens. One year later he elaborated on that theme in an essay titled, "The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man." He concluded that "the whole universe, is not merely dependent on, but actually is, the will of higher intelligences or of one Supreme Intelligence." For Wallace, evolution was a fact but it was teleological and detectably designed; he would spend a good deal of the remainder of his long life explicating the nature of that intelligent evolution.
Now according to Eugenie Scott's own statement, Wallace should have from 1869/70 on "stopped looking" for explanations for natural phenomena. In fact, Scott implies that once ID is accepted all interest and curiosity in the natural world should concomitantly wane. This, however, was surely not the case for Wallace. His two-volume Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876) is considered the seminal work in modern biogeography. According to biographer Ross Slotten it served as the definitive text on the subject for the next eighty years (The Heretic in Darwin's Court, p. 325).
Just two years later Wallace released Tropical Nature and Other Essays, whose prescient concern for the sustainability of fragile ecosystems Slotten correctly calls "the spiritual forerunner of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring" (p. 352). Wallace's Island Life (1880) was something of a companion volume to his Geographical Distribution book. The alternative title gives an accurate summary of its contents: The Phenomena and Causes of Insular Faunas and Floras, Including a Revision and Attempted Solution of the Problem of Geological Climates. Darwin considered it Wallace's best book, and historian Martin Fichman has accurately observed that "Wallace's contributions to the late-19th- and early-20th-century debates regarding causal mechanisms for observed distributional patterns [the essence of biogeography] retain their profound historical significance" (An Elusive Victorian, p. 60). So precisely what science did Wallace's adherence to ID stop?
The Darwin lobbyists who want to berate ID as a "science stopper" dangerous to our children's education are actually serving up some very bad medicine. It is a heaping dose of bad philosophy made palatable only through the historical ignorance of the patient asked to swallow it. In the end those who purvey the "ID is a science stopper" argument are not interested in protecting science but rather their own view of what science should be. That, of course, is not education at all. It is indoctrination