Debating Darwin and Design: Science or Creationism? (4)

Debating Darwin and Design

A dialogue between two Christians


Is Intelligent Design science or ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo’?

Francis Smallwood – Third Response

26th February, 2012

In his first response Joshua wrote that ID ‘isn’t even a form of creationism in any theistic sense.’1 In his previous response he clarified this statement, saying, ‘ID theory does not rely on any theological premises, as Creationism does. ID is an inference from certain features in living systems and the cosmos whereas Creationism is based on a certain interpretation of the book of Genesis.’2 Although creationism need not be based on the book of Genesis—cultures and religions are saturated with a panoply of cosmogonies—Joshua is right to demarcate between ‘creation science’ and ID on account of theology.

In his previous response Joshua said, ‘Although Francis has agreed that ID and Creationism are not the same thing, he still wants to argue that it is a form of creationism. The only way he can argue for this claim is to appeal to the religious beliefs of several key design theorists and to point to the supposed theistic implications of ID theory. Both of these attempts seriously fail.’3 As Joshua also rightly says, there is an important distinction between theories and the motivation(s) which lead to their construction. One could say that deciding whether ID is creationism is an exercise in taxonomy; the issue is whether it is science, and whether the ‘promot[ion of] the intellectual respectability of interventions outside of the natural order of things’4 is scientifically acceptable.Whether or not these ‘interventions’ constitute ‘creation events’ is a matter of nomenclature; what matters is the positing of such interventions. It would be dangerous to ‘conclude that there is nothing going on but a quarrel about the meanings of words, and that if all we are arguing about is whose definitions will be used, then [that] the dispute really is without substance.’5 Dangerous, indeed.

Darwin maintained that ‘Everything in nature is the result of fixed law.’6 Scientific enquiry takes place from a naturalistic standpoint. This is not to say that scientists deny the supernatural—many of the so-called fathers of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, to name a few) were all religious—but it is to say that scientists seek to explain observed phenomena in terms of matter operating in accordance with laws. Francisco J. Ayala writes that ‘The discoveries by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and others, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had gradually ushered in a conception of the universe as matter in motion governed by natural laws… The conceptual revolution they brought about was more fundamental yet: a commitment to the postulate that the universe obeys immanent laws that account for natural phenomena.’7 This naturalism typical of all scientists everywhere is known as methodological naturalism and must be distinguished from metaphysical naturalism, a worldview asserting that the natural world is all there is, denying the supernatural.

An inference of design invokes an agent above and beyond the natural world and this is scientifically unpalatable. William Dembski frankly admits as much: ‘So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, intelligent design has no chance of success.’8 The only solution for the design theorist, then, can be to, in his words (with his emphasis), ‘dump methodological naturalism9 and institute a new scientific methodology. Dembski writes, ‘We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full-blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that nature is self-sufficient. Methodological naturalism asks us for the sake of science to pretend that nature is self-sufficient. But once science is taken as the only universally valid form of knowledge within a culture, it follows that methodological and metaphysical naturalism become functionally equivalent. What needs to be done, therefore, is to break the grip of naturalism in both guises, methodological and metaphysical. And this happens once we realize that it was not empirical evidence but the power of a metaphysical worldview that was all along urging us to adopt methodological naturalism in the first place.’10

Dembski’s stirring call to arms sounds with the air of a conspiracy theorist. This crass construal of methodological naturalism as a ‘functional equivalent’ of metaphysical naturalism, as some derivation of a prevailing metaphysically naturalistic worldview, presents Darwinism (as a scientific theory) as founded on no more than philosophical caprice; in this case, metaphysical naturalism. The equation of metaphysical naturalism with methodological naturalism is prevalent in the ID literature. Lawyer Phillip Johnson propounds a similar charge:

Scientific naturalism… [starts] with the assumption that science, which studies only the natural, is our only reliable path to knowledge… Naturalism is not something about which Darwinists can afford to be tentative, because their science is based upon it… the positive evidence that Darwinian evolution either can produce or has produced important biological innovations is non-existent. Darwinists know that the mutation-selection mechanism can produce wings, eyes and brains not because the mechanism can be observed to do anything of the kind, but because their guiding philosophy assures them that no other power is available to do the job. The absence from the cosmos of any Creator is therefore the essential starting point for Darwinism.11

One need have no quibble dismissing this as baloney. Stephen Jay Gould, in a devastating review in Scientific American12 lambasting Johnson’s Darwin on trial (from which the above quote was taken), said, ‘If some of our crowd have made untoward statements claiming that Darwinism disproves God, then I will find Mrs McInnery and have their knuckles rapped for it… Science can only work with naturalistic explanations… Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs…’13 Many keen Darwinists have been religious: ‘Theodosius Dobzhansky was a Christian and something of an amateur theologian; Sir Ronald Fisher was a deeply devout Anglican who, between founding modern statistics and population genetics, penned articles for church magazines; and J. B. S. Haldane was an unabashed mystic.’14

Philosopher of science Robert Pennock writes, ‘Johnson misleadingly inserts terminology with connotations of dogmatism into the very definition of Naturalism. Johnson provides no analysis to show that science assumes the Naturalistic principle dogmatically; he simply asserts this… Naturalism is not properly put forward as an ontological claim about what conclusively does or does not exist, but rather as a methodological rule that states a valid way for investigation to proceed, so clearly it is not dogmatic in the sense Johnson claimed…To say that a belief or principle is dogmatic is to say that it is opinion put forward as true or valid on the grounds of authority rather than reason. Does science put forward the methodological principle not to appeal to supernatural powers or divine agency simply on authority? Is it just an extravagant, arbitrary, speculative assumption? Certainly not. There is a simple and sound rationale for the principle based upon the requirements of scientific evidence… without the constraint of lawful regularity, inductive evidential inference cannot get off the ground… Controlled, repeatable experimentation… would not be possible without the methodological assumption that supernatural entities do not intervene to negate lawful natural regularities.’15 Hence, Michael Ruse asks, ‘…why insist on explaining the world through blind law when you might well believe that something else might stand behind everything? The answer given by the scientist, including the evolutionist, appeals to the pragmatic. Methodological naturalism works! …because scientists have persisted in taking a methodologically naturalistic approach, problems that hitherto seemed insoluble have eventually given way to solutions.’16

The great palaeontologist and key author of the neo-Darwinian synthesis G.G. Simpson wrote, ‘Although many details remain to be worked out, it is already evident that that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic or, in a proper sense of the sometimes abused word, materialistic factors.’17 Design theorists oft quote this passage as an epitome of the naturalistic strangulation of the empirical evidence by Darwinians and the scientific establishment. However, as I have argued, the methodologically naturalistic framework within which scientists work has proved remarkably effective. By tackling problems from a naturalistic standpoint, scientists have made remarkable discoveries without appeal to supernatural anonymities.

However, what if there were instances of supernatural agency in natural history? Would the methodological naturalist be blinded to them by a philosophical presumption? Del Ratzsch writes that ‘methodological naturalist restrictions as a pragmatic strategy may well be appropriate. But there is a corresponding worry: the risk of refusing to recognize when it is time to quit… imposing doctrinaire methodological naturalism as a policy amounts to a refusal ever, in principle, to recognize that purely naturalistic resources for explaining and understanding phenomena in the cosmos around us might be inadequate… if it should turn out that some things in nature are deliberately designed and can only be correctly understood in design terms, then a human edict that deliberate design is a scientifically forbidden concept will inevitably drive our scientific investigation, in that area, into either error or failure.’18

Philosopher of science Ernan McMullin denied this: ‘…methodological naturalism does not restrict our study of nature; it just lays down which sort of study qualifies as scientific… Calling this methodological naturalism is simply a way of characterizing a particular methodology, no more.’19 We could say that a commitment to methodological naturalism presumes the fixed regularity of nature, but it is what we might call a testable presumption. It is conceivable that there were instances of (supernatural) intelligent agency in the course of natural history, instances which, as Ratzsch notes, would not be appreciable from a methodologically naturalistic standpoint. This is the worry of design theorist Stephen C. Meyer when he writes that ‘to exclude by assumption a logically and empirically possible answer… seems intellectually and theoretically limiting… Theories that gain acceptance in artificially constrained competitions can claim to be neither “most probably true” nor “most empirically adequate.” Instead such theories can only be considered “most probable or adequate among an artificially limited set of options.”’20 The methodological naturalist seeks natural explanations only, but naturalism has yielded bountiful treasures. Ruse writes that ‘…although there are indeed many unsolved problems, notably the origin of life, past experience suggests that these problems will be solved eventually by a methodologically naturalistic approach. Therefore, one should persist, no matter how improbable the finding of a solution seems today.’21 Methodological naturalism is no arbitrarily-imposed derivation of a domineering naturalistic metaphysic, contorting the empirical evidence to satisfy a godless establishment. Simpson said that ‘few scientists would maintain that the required restrictions of their methods necessarily delimit all truth or that the materialistic nature of their hypotheses imposes materialism on the universe.’22

All scientists are methodological naturalists, yet certainly not all are metaphysical naturalists. The two are not ‘functionally equivalent’: ‘Naturalism is not necessarily tied to specific ontological claims (about what sorts of being do or don’t exist); its base commitment is to a method of inquiry.’23 McMullin warns that ‘it is not an ontological claim about what sort of agency is or is not possible.’24 The methodologically naturalistic approach to science does not allow for supernatural intelligent design, as Dembski and others are aware. Evolution is a naturalistic theory driven by the interaction of chance and necessity. One cannot do better than quote Darwin himself: ‘…these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.’25 And I have every faith that Simpson will be vindicated.

Space, once again, has not permitted me to respond to each of Joshua’s points, nor has it allowed me to treat these issues with the desired adequacy, nevertheless I hope to have serviceably moved the discussion forward with some further considerations and look forward to Joshua’s response.

References & Notes


  1. Gidney, J. Debating Darwin and design: science or creationism? (2), First Response. The God Hypothesis [blog], November 2, 2011. Available at: [Accessed 21 February 2012]
  2. —. Debating Darwin and design: science or creationism? (3), Second Response. The God Hypothesis [blog], January 27, 2012. Available at: [Accessed 28 January 2012]
  3. ibid.
  4. Ruse, M. The evolution-creation struggle. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). p.255.
  5. Pennock, R. T. Tower of Babel: the evidence against the new creationism. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000). p.8.
  6. Darwin, C. R. Autobiographies. (London: Penguin Books, 2002). p.50.
  7. Ayala, F.J. Darwin’s gift to science and religion. (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2007). p.41.
  8. Dembski, W. A. Introduction. In: Dembski, W. A. (ed.) Mere creation: science, faith & intelligent design. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998). p.28.
  9. —. Intelligent design: the bridge between science and theology. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999). p.119.
  10. —, Introduction, op cit.
  11. Johnson, P. E. Darwin on trial, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010). p.145.
  12. Gould, S. J. Impeaching a self-appointed judge. Scientific American, July, p.118-121, 1992.
  13. ibid, p.119, second column.
  14. Orr, H. A. Gould on God: can science and religion be happily reconciled?. Boston Review, October/November, 1999. Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2012]
  15. Pennock, R. T. Naturalism, evidence and creationism: the case of Phillip Johnson. Biology and Philosophy, 11 (4), 543-559, 1996. p.552.
  16. Ruse, M. Darwinism and its discontents. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). p.48.
  17. Simpson, G. G. The meaning of evolution: a study of the history of life and of its significance for man, revised ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1971). p.313.
  18. Ratzsch, D. There is a place for intelligent design in the philosophy of biology: intelligent design in (philosophy of) biology: some legitimate roles. In: Ayala, F. J. and Arp, R. (eds.) Contemporary debates in philosophy of biology. (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Ch.19. p.346-7.
  19. Ruse, Darwinism and its discontents, op cit. p.49.
  20. McMullin, E. Plantinga’s defense of special creation. In: Pennock, R. T. Intelligent design creationism and its critics: philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). Ch. 8. p.168.
  21. Meyer, S. C. The methodological equivalence of design & descent. In: Moreland, J.P. (ed.) The creation hypothesis: scientific evidence for an intelligent designer. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). Ch. 2. p.101-2.
  22. Simpson, op cit. p.115.
  23. Pennock, Naturalism, evidence and creationism: the case of Phillip Johnson, op cit.
  24. McMullin, op cit.
  25. Darwin, C. R. The origin of species. (London: Penguin Books, 1985). p.459.

One thought on “Debating Darwin and Design: Science or Creationism? (4)

  1. “All scientists are methodological naturalists, yet certainly not all are metaphysical naturalists.” – Francis Smallwood

    I disagree because I define ‘science’ more broadly than Francis Smallwood. The above statement depends on one’s definition of ‘scientist.’ Is it possible to be a ‘scientist’ and not a ‘naturalist’? The person who coined the term ‘scientist’ in English, William Whewell, disagrees with Smallwood’s very narrow definition. Whewell says that “a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.” Notice please the OR and consider what difference it makes; not all scientists are naturalists.

    A few quick points:
    1) I reject the notion of ‘methodological naturalism’ as an example of ‘weak American philosophy.’ The term MN was coined by an American philosopher of ethics and educational administrator at Wheaton College – Paul de Vries. It is not informed by deep or sufficient knowledge in philosophy of science (PoS). Likewise, one must notice ‘methodological naturalism *in* natural sciences’ was de Vries’ topic and not MN in science generally. The ‘natural’ qualifier to ‘science’ limits or narrows the topic of science to ‘that which studies nature-only,’ whereas alternative definitions of ‘science’ allow science to study more than just ‘nature.’

    2) How many German, Polish, Hungarian, Russian or Chinese authors has Francis Smallwood read on this topic? The vast majority of his examples are Anglo-Americans. PoS is, however, much more advanced in the East than in the West, partly due to the tendency to reductionism and atomism in analytic Western thought, and partly due to the fact that ‘science studies’ and ‘systems paradigm’ were invented in the East. In the East, ‘supernatural’ is not the only ‘opposite’ term for ‘natural,’ while most Anglo-American philosophers of science, iow, all of the people Smallwood uses in his paper, pit natural vs. supernatural. In a more mature and developed PoS, one can easily find other ‘opposites’ or ‘alternatives’ to ‘natural’ than only the single term ‘supernatural’ (which is a feature of Anglo-American science vs. religion conflict).

    3) What difference does adding an ‘-ism’ make? E.g. McMullin, who was a philosopher of science, indeed, but unfortunately, did not involve developed, coherent knowledge about ideology in his works. Without taking into account ideology, talk of ‘naturalism’ – which is clearly an ideology – makes little sense. Turning the discussion into talk of qualifiers – methodological vs. metaphysical or ontological – is derivative of the major conversation, which is the meaning of ‘naturalism’ itself. Smallwood focuses on the qualifiers, instead of on the ideology that is qualified.

    4) Which natural scientists are not naturalists? Aren’t all natural scientists by definition ‘naturalists,’ according to Smallwood’s terminology? Instead of accepting the Anglo-American reductionistic term ‘methodological naturalism,’ I propose simply speaking about ‘natural scientific methodologies’ or ‘methodologies of natural sciences.’ Speaking of NS methodologies allows some natural scientists to reject the label ‘naturalism’ as an ideological approach to science, rather than being forced to accept it as a supposedly neutral way of doing science according to (mere) methodology. The ‘single, monolithic Scientific Method’ has already in our time been shown to be a myth; there are multiple methodologies for multiple sciences. Those natural scientists who reject naturalism then become Smallwood’s research subjects, allowing him to understand or to discover for the first time why ‘naturalism’ can safely be rejected without necessarily rejecting all of the natural sciences or having to posit ‘supernaturalism’ as a new kind of (intelligently designed) spiritual science.


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