The limits of science

Autor: Michael Cook
Publicado en: MercatorNet
Fecha de publicaciónMonday, 13 February 2006

Intelligent Design is compatible with Christian theology, but it is not the only such approach to evolution that is. A philosopher clarifies his views.

The MercatorNet interview with Santiago Collado in November provoked a lot of comment from our readers. Many wondered how a professed Christian could dismiss Intelligent Design as unscientific and inconsistent with a traditional Christian approach to creation. We have asked Dr Collado to expand upon his ideas.

MercatorNet: How is it possible to doubt whether intelligent design is compatible with Christian theology?

Collado: Let me clarify things a bit. Intelligent Design is compatible with Christian theology. But it is certainly not the only explanation of evolutionary change which is compatible with Christian theology. And I do have some serious reservations. My misgivings hinge on the fact that ID is not a theory which will allow us to reach an understanding of the Christian God through science. In fact, the main ID theorists never tire of repeating that they are not necessarily speaking of God when they propose the existence of intelligent design.

I think that science can help us to know God better, just as our ordinary knowledge of the world around us helps us. Contemplating nature leads us to God the creator. But it seems clear to me that the God which we detect by using the theory of intelligent design – if we assume that the intelligence which they defend for the designer of living beings is actually God and not an alien intelligence, for instance – would be a very poor god when we compare him to the God whom we know through theology and philosophy.

Let me repeat: ID does not deny the existence of the Christian God. But if life originated as ID contends, and that origin is to be called god, I feel that he would be a very poor god and that eventually we would be able to do without him in our explanations of the existence of life.

MercatorNet: You said that the debate between intelligent design and evolution "serves to renew an important philosophical debate and… forces a rethink about issues where there is still much to be learnt". What is at the heart of this philosophical debate and what issues you are referring to?

Collado: The main thing is whether empirical science is the only model for certain knowledge about the real world, or whether philosophy can also give us certain knowledge. This problem is not explicit in the debate, but an important thread running through all discussions is whether evolution and ID can both be considered true science. Of course, each side says it is scientific. Each feels that unless their arguments are deemed to be scientific, they are useless – mere subjective preferences or religion questions. Both sides seem to be rather sceptical of philosophical knowledge.

MercatorNet: So where does philosophy fit into this? Does it have anything to say about the world which has not already been said by science? In particular, should we accept a materialist vision of reality or do realities that are not merely physical really exist?

Collado: If human beings have a non-material dimension, then science will be incapable of grasping all of what it means to be human because science deals only with material reality. In fact, this debate shows that there is a limit to empirical science.

MercatorNet: When you say "Darwinism does not seem to have found a way of explaining the formation of living structures which ID claims are by design" do you mean that Darwinism has not solved the origin of life?

Collado: Darwinism has definitely not solved the mystery of the origin of life. Furthermore, as the ID theorists point out, Darwinism cannot explain certain structures in living beings. Nor can Darwinism account for all of the increasing complexity that we observe in living beings, just certain features of this complexity. In particular, the notion of irreducible complexity presents a real challenge to Darwinism. The trouble is that while the theoretical notion of irreducible complexity is clear enough, it is hard to demonstrate that particular systems are irreducibly complex.

MercatorNet: You distinguish between "evolution" and "Darwinism". Why?

Collado: Equating the two is a big part of the problem we face in discussing ID. Darwinism and evolution are not identical. For example, long before Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had quite a different explanation in which he claimed that acquired characteristics could be transmitted. Even Darwin admitted that random modifications and natural selection – which are the core of his theory -- are not the only mechanisms at work in the evolution of life. Now people are mentioning "self-organisation" -- that organisms can modify themselves in some way. Scientists are only beginning to work in this area. It is a fact that we can observe increasing complexity amongst living beings and it is a fact that living beings have common ancestors. In this sense, evolution is a fact. But how evolution happens is a different matter. There we pass from the realm of fact to the realm of hypothesis.

MercatorNet: When you say both parties use scientific rhetoric but easily slip into discussions that go beyond the scientific level, what do you mean?

Collado: What I mean is that scientists sometimes propose ideas that are not demonstrable scientifically. Let me refer to what I said before. Science works with assumptions which cannot be understood by science alone. For instance, what is "matter"? This is a key notion in physics but it is still very difficult to grasp theoretically, especially after the changes that physics experienced at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Or what is life? Each science relies upon assumptions that cannot be examined by science itself. Although philosophy needs science, it has a broader scope.

MercatorNet: Some Darwinists, such as Richard Dawkins, accuse supporters of Intelligent Design of being dogmatic. It strikes many people that there is no lack of dogmatism amongst Darwinists. What is your impression?

Collado: The defenders of Darwinism have offered explanations which have been accepted as fact by the scientific community. One of the peculiarities of modern science is that it can reject false ideas more easily than other disciplines – unlike philosophy or history, for instance. This is why science has been so successful and why it is so attractive. Scientific knowledge allows us to control physical reality and that control offers us at the same time, a guarantee that we are on the right path.

Science becomes dogmatic, however, when it tries to impose on reality purportedly scientific contentions which are outside the boundaries of what science can legitimately affirm. It is legitimate to accuse the defenders of ID of being "dogmatic" when they try to do this. But in the same way – bearing in mind what we know and do not know about evolution and the origin of life – I think that we can accuse Dawkins and others of being "dogmatic" when they adopt Darwinism as a faith without admitting that there can be, or even must be, other explanations for evolutionary phenomena.

MercatorNet: Darwinist thinking nowadays has invaded psychology, sociology, history and even literary theory. Is Darwinism the key to understanding the universe?

Collado: Perhaps in the not-so-distant past this was the case. Nowadays there are many theories in the disciplines which you mention which have been inspired by Darwinism. But it also seems clear that the facts no longer support Darwinism as a global explanation of everything, as some people are wont to do. We have some appalling examples in quite recent history of what happens when social relations are interpreted in a Darwinian way.

MercatorNet: You are sceptical about both Intelligent Design and Darwinism as explanations of evolution. What is the way forward?

Collado: At this moment in time, I don't think that there is a single "way forward" to solve the questions raised by evolution and the origin of life. We do not have a "unified theory of life". Today's theories offer solutions which are partial and limited. Anyway, speaking as a philosopher, I think that we may never reach a self-contained, all-encompassing explanation of the Universe. And if this is the case, we won't even have one for biology or physics either. On the other hand, it seems certain to me that our knowledge of Nature is ever growing and our control is ever more effective.

The positive side of intelligent design theory is that it asserts this (amongst other things) very clearly. Darwinism proposes a mechanism which is important in the development of living beings, natural selection. This is a mechanism which is scientifically true, but it is only a part, and not a very large part, either, of the truth about life. But everything which is truly science contributes to a better knowledge of the cosmos. Problems crop up when a particular science is proposed as the one and only method of interpreting the world and ourselves.

Dr Santiago Collado, lectures in the philosophy of nature at the University of Navarra, in Spain. He is reseaching the philosophical underpinnings of the intelligent design movement.