Cornelia Dean, a writer for Science Times, has a column on the Evolution - Intelligent Design controversy which was carried by our local paper last Sunday. It's mostly uncontroversial except for one minor technical malapropism, a bit of rhetorical overstatement, and a couple of unfortunate instances of philosophical flummery.
Ms Dean claims that "radiocarbon dating [shows] that Earth is billions of years old, not a few thousand years old, as some creationists would have it." This is a trivial point, but it casts doubt on the level of the writer's expertise. Radiocarbon dating shows no such thing, and is not used to date samples believed to be older than a few tens of thousands of years. Radiocarbon dating is useful in estimating the ages of anthropological artifacts and other relatively young carbon containing objects, but it would not be employed to determine the age of the earth since beyond thirty thousand years or so the levels of C-14 that it measures are just too low to accurately assess.
Ms Dean then goes on to aver that "Biologists cite research on microbes, or the eye, or the biology of the cell to shoot down arguments that life is so 'irreducibly complex' that only a supernatural force or agent could have called it into being, as intelligent designers would have it." She makes it seem as if biologists have adequately answered the ID challenges and that the matter is now settled, but that's hardly the case. It would have been more accurate to use the words "respond to" rather than "shoot down." That the arguments for irreducible complexity have been "shot down" is by no means clear. Just because one side's argument is responded to by the other side doesn't mean that the response is correct or convincing. Nor does it mean that there have been no counter-responses. The dispute still rages.
Later Ms Dean observes that, "Science looks to explain nature through nature...and its predictions can be tested by observation and experimentation. Scientists form hypotheses, devise ways to test them, analyze the data that they collect and then decide whether the results support or undermine their hypotheses."
This is indeed the standard version of the scientific method taught to middle school students, but it's too simplistic for use in this debate. Scientists accept theories for a number of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with testing of hypotheses and data collection. How would one test the hypothesis that there are other dimensions that we can't observe, or that there are other universes, or that this universe went through a period of rapid inflation in its early history just prior to the Big Bang, or that this world is ultimately reducible to unobservable strings? More to the point, how does one test the hypothesis that natural processes are wholly adequate to account for the emergence of life or the richness, complexity, diversity, and information content we find in living things?
None of these notions can be tested, at least not with the tools available to us at present, nevertheless they are each held by many, if not most, scientists working in the relevant disciplines. Theories which are embraced by scientists are not accepted so much because they can be tested but because they have what's called "explanatory power." The theory is attractive to the extent that it provides a more parsimonious and elegant explanation for phenomena than does its competitors.
In the case of ID, those who accept it do so because they believe that the best way to plausibly account for what we know about cosmology and biology is to posit an intentionality behind the phenomena we observe. They argue that a single intelligent agent is a more simple explanation for the structure of the cosmos and of living things than the existence of a near infinity of other universes, and a near infinity of planets like earth in this universe, and a near infinity of highly improbable chance combinations of amino acids in some prebiotic sea followed by a near infinite number of random mutations of the genetic material formed by those combinations.
Randomness and mechanistic force are simply inadequate as explanations for the exquisite fine-tuning of cosmic parameters and the libraries of information found in every living cell's DNA, to take just two of the many examples which could be cited. Indeed, the inadequacy of mechanistic forces as explanations for the structure of the universe is tacitly acknowledged by those scientists who maintain either that we have to accept the universe as a brute fact with no explanation for why it is the way it is, or that we have to look at it as just one possibility out of a near infinite number of worlds. Given the vast number of universes which exist, they reason, at least one would have to have the structure required to sustain living things, and our world happens to be that one.
In other words, the choice in cosmology is between intelligence as an explanation and no real explanation at all. The choice in biology is between intelligence as an explanation or a miracle perpetrated by blind, impersonal forces.
Ms Dean concludes with this:
The fact that it's possible to believe in God and evolution at the same time is not, contrary to what she and other commentators have written, a difficulty for intelligent design at all. Indeed, it's possible to believe in ID and evolution at the same time. Intelligent Design theory is mute (or should be) on the question of whether evolution occurred and, if so, to what extent. Its primary claim is that however life came to be in the state we find it, it bears the impress of having been intelligently engineered and that its design is so complex and specified that random chance and impersonal physico-chemical forces are inadequate by themselves to explain it.
If there is a difficulty here it is in trying to understand what Dean means by a God who is "not a creator or intelligent agent at work in the material world in ways that transcend nature and its laws."
What sort of God does Dean say these biologists believe in? A God who is not a creator? A God who is not intelligent? A God which does not act in the world? A God which does not transcend nature? If this is the god of the biologists why bother believing in such an entity? What difference is there between this sort of god and no god at all? A god which does not create, is not intelligent, does not act, or does not transcend nature is scarcely a god worth the investment of an epistemic commitment.
Perhaps Ms Dean's words should be construed as claiming that the God of the biologists is an intelligent creator which acts in the world but which does not transcend nature and its laws. This is still a little confusing since any god worth the name will transcend nature, but let's put the most generous interpretation on her words and say that the god of the biologists is transcendent, but that he (or it) doesn't violate the laws of nature.
This raises the question of what it means to violate the laws of nature and the deeper question of what the laws of nature are. Laws of nature are simply generalizations about the way nature operates so far as we have observed. We know that the laws with which we are familiar are subject to deeper layers of law which manifest themselves only in the realm of the very small, the very large, the very hot or the very fast. In other words, a law of nature is not invariable. It is a function of prevailing conditions. It is a statement that predicts how nature will behave as long as the prevailing conditions don't change.
If, however, the will of God is one of those conditions then the way nature behaves could be subject to the mind of God. This does not entail a violation of any law, rather it involves a supercedence of the law, just as the laws of Newtonian mechanics are superceded by the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity on very small or very large scales. The pattern of events we observe would deviate from the usual pattern because the prevailing conditions would have been altered.
Newton's First Law of Motion can be taken as an example. The Law is sometimes stated this way: An object in motion will remain in motion, with constant velocity, unless acted upon by an outside force. The will of God can be seen as a kind of outside force which affects the behavior of the natural world. It transcends the laws of everyday physics, like the orders of a general might set aside the orders of a captain, but it does not violate them.