Dr. Robert Koons is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, where he has been since he earned his doctorate from UCLA in 1987. He is currently working on the logic of causation.
The philosophers, scientists and scholars who met together at the Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise conference made substantial progress on the very important question: Is methodological naturalism an essential part of science? In the course of the conference the participants moved toward several shared conclusions:
1. We cannot make a priori pronouncements about what kind of theory or what kind of explanation can properly be made in the course of scientific inquiry. In principle, there is nothing to exclude appeals to a superhuman, or even extra-cosmic, intelligence.
2. Good science consists in working within research programs that are progressive in the following senses: (a) they generate empirically testable, novel predictions; (b) they generate explanations of a wide range of phenomena on the basis of a simple, spare system of postulated entities and relationships; (c) they deal with anomalies and predictive failures without resorting to ad hoc repairs. The inspiration for a scientific research program can come from anywhere (including religious conviction) but the evaluation of an existing program must be rigorously empirical.
3. If theistic science or intelligent design theory is to become a progressive research program, it must do more than poke holes in the evidence for Darwinism: it must acquire auxiliary hypotheses about the intentions and preferences of the designer from which we can generate specific, testable predictions and informative explanations.
4. We should not expect intelligent design theory to offer much, if anything, in the way of support to Christian theology (which does not stand in need of any such support). But, if we are to pursue theistic research programs, it must be for the sake of doing science and doing it well, not for the sake of religion.
These four theses became so widely shared at the end of the conference that I think we could call them the Canonical View of the NTSE conference. This convergence was especially remarkable in light of the wide diversity of views with which we began, including non-believers and adherents of all the major branches of Christendom, and a mixture of those sympathetic to and initially hostile toward the published works of Phillip Johnson.
I should mention at least one other point upon which the participants reached a firm consensus: the time has come to conduct the debate on methodological naturalism and theistic science on the merits (indeed, on the scientific merits) of the case, and we should no longer tolerate personal attacks on Professor Johnson, with attendant name-calling, bullying and intimidation ("he's just a lawyer . . . he doesn't understand how science works . . . ," etc.). The project of launching theistic paradigms in science is now much larger than a one-man crusade, and would go forward even if (though improbable) it were possible to silence or discredit Johnson.
A growing number of young scientists, scholars and philosophers of science are staking their careers on the prospects of an emerging design paradigm, including William Dembski at Notre Dame, Paul Nelson at Chicago, Steve Meyer at Whitworth, and Michael Corey at the Union Institute, to name a few. Most participants would also agree that the emerging design paradigm needs to be given adequate time to mature and develop before a definitive verdict can be rendered.
The core idea of intelligent design must be supplemented with auxiliary hypotheses and generalizations about the structure of the design and about at what points the design makes contact with the natural world. We are at a stage analogous to Copernican astronomy before the discovery of Kepler's laws (to say nothing of Newton's).
Of course, there were a number of big issues which did not get resolved at the conference.
There was no consensus on the question of whether the prospects for a successful theistic science are good. Some feel there are strong, although dispositive, reasons for doubting whether such a project can be successful, and others feel that the chances of success justify the investment of their time and energies. Fortunately, this is the sort of disagreement that is commonplace in science and that should lead only to friendly competition, not mutually destructive warfare. No one supposes that neo-Darwinian research should be abandoned or even substantially cut back.
There is a wide range of questions for which Darwinian modes of explanation have been (and in all likelihood will continue to be) very successful in answering. The only issue in dispute is whether there are some questions, such as biogenesis and phylogeny, for which alternative strategies should be pursued in parallel.
Another issue on which there is continuing disagreement is that of the degree of tension between methodological naturalism and historic Christianity. Although addressed in some length by Michael Ruse and Fred Grinnell, this question was really outside the scope of our conference, which concerned the definition of science, not of religion.
Philosophers love to make distinctions, and I am no exception. One important distinction that emerged for me in the course of our discussions is that between dogmatic or apriori methodological naturalism (DMN) and empirical or aposteriori methodological naturalism (EMN).
DMN involves the claim that the very definition or inherent logic of science demands that it accord with the rule of making use only of naturalistic explanations (that is, explanations in terms of events and processes located within space and time). EMN, in contrast, is the claim that in the long run it will turn out that all successful scientific research programs are naturalistic ones, that science will converge upon methodological naturalism in the long run.
EMN is based, not on the definition of science or on any supposed direct access to the essence of science, but upon the actual history of science. A defender of EMN has no objection to the practice of theistic science, nor to calling it 'real science.' He merely conjectures that such scientific enterprises will not prove successful in the end. I hope that, as a result of our conference, the thesis of DMN will be seen, once and for all, as definitively refuted.
It is to my mind significant that no one defended DMN, not even those, like Michael Ruse, who have endorsed it in the past. I think we can only conclude that the DMN thesis is now in full and hasty retreat and will have no serious defenders in the very near future.
I would like to interject a few words of encouragement and advice to those who are considering whether or not to join one of the theistic paradigms of scientific research (here I am speaking only for myself, and not for the conference as a whole). I think that the primary reason why theistic research programs have not been undertaken in the recent past (i.e., the last 200 years or so) is not from lack of courage or lack of opportunity, but from lack of imagination.
I would encourage scientists to think theistically, to adopt a theistic heuristic (if you'll pardon the alliteration). Christians, of course, have nothing to fear from scientific progress. But instead of merely contributing to the research programs launched and developed by our agnostic colleagues, we need to consider the possibility that as theists we can discover order and regularityeven natural laws of universal designthat our unbelieving colleagues do not see because they are not looking for them.
We need to consider that being a theist is not only not a hindrance to good science, but it may be a necessary condition for certain discoveries being possible at all.
John Lennox, a mathematician from Cardiff at the conference, made a very paradoxical, but I think prescient, remark. He suggested that, just as it is possible to be an ontological theist but a methodological naturalist, so is it possible to be an ontological naturalist and a methodological theist. John and I agree that much of current biology (in so far as functional and teleological claims are still current) is in fact methodologically theistic. As the theistic paradigm develops, there is every reason to hope that it will be joined by scientists who are personally agnostic but who recognize good and successful science when they see it.
Indeed, historians of science like Duhem and Whitehead have argued that the development of modern physical theory in the 14th through 18th centuries would have been impossible without the Christ-engendered conviction that the physical universe might prove to be intelligible to us.
A number of design theorists have made an analogy to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and I think the analogy is an apt one. We are currently spending millions of dollars searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the absence of any data that such exists. In contrast, we already have considerable evidence of the existence of extra-cosmic intelligence (for example, in the anthropic coincidences), so surely a scientific search for additional evidence is warranted.
Let me reiterate that the research program does not consist in simply finding more and more examples of things that Darwinism cannot explain. To constitute an alternative paradigm, it must demonstrate that it can produce novel predictions and informative explanations, and that it can out-perform naturalism in doing so, at least within certain significant sub-domains.
I can think of one example where this has already happened. A design theorist can confidently predict that we will find more and more anthropic coincidences, with higher and higher levels of fine-tuning required, since the design hypothesis should include the auxiliary hypothesis that the designer created a world in which the necessity of design would be abundantly manifested.
This is a prediction that the main competitor to theismthe many-worlds hypothesiscannot duplicate. The many-worlds theorist can always explain, retrospectively, any particular anthropic coincidence (since otherwise we wouldn't be here, i.e., in this world), but he has no reason to expect that there exist any as-yet undiscovered coincidences. Hence, the vast number of new anthropic coincidences discovered in recent years strongly confirms the theistic paradigm and disconfirms its naturalistic competitor.
In addition to anthropic coincidences, design theorists should look for two other kinds of order or regularity that Darwinists are not looking for: biological functionality that cannot be explained by the need for reproductive fitness, and functional or developmental homologies that cannot be explained by common descent. For instance, theistic ecologists should look for evidence of ecological functions, functions that benefit the ecosystem as a whole without contributing to the reproductive fitness of the organism itself (or its near kin).
Theistic cognitive scientists should look for evidence of cognitive functionality (epistemic reliability, aesthetic sensibility) that far exceeds the needs of reproductively adaptive behavior. Comparative biologists and paleontologists should look for repeated patterns of adaptation and functionality that cannot be explained in terms of genetic inheritance alone
To pick one wild example at random: Does phylogeny recapitulate ontogeny? Or said another way, can we find patterns in the development of individual organisms that are later repeated on a macroscopic scale in the development of the phylum? We cannot anticipate in advance exactly what sort of design patterns we may find. God is of course inscrutable: merely asking "how would I do it if I were God?" is of course notoriously unreliable. But as a heuristic for generating hypotheses, this is exactly righthow might I do it if I were God? Once we have specific hypotheses, we can look to observation or experiment to confirm or refute them.
Scientists in the sixteenth century faced exactly the same problem in investigating matter. The laws of matter were just as inscrutable then as the principles of universal design are now. Descartes thought (wrongly) that he could logically deduce how matter had to behave. He proved dead wrong, but the hypothesis he produced was perfectly legitimate and quite testable.