Intransigent Design

A discussion swirled up this week on 3 Quarks Daily over an item about scientists Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer withdrawing from after the site began including intelligent design creationists in its Science Saturday segments. The discussion was generally supportive of the scientists’ decision not to support a platform that equates science with religion, with the exception of laudably non-anonymous Luke Lea of My thoughts were as follows:

The scientific method can be applied to the study of anything that can be defined. It can’t be applied to concepts whose definitions are constantly shifted around for the purpose of preventing science from examining them. We need to bear in mind the difference between a concept and a word game.

To present Intelligent Design uncritically — and especially to give it equal time — does a disservice to the public by equating it with science. I’m reminded of Dara O’Brian’s skit about giving equal time to people who don’t believe in outer space when NASA launches a satellite. Unless the Intelligent Design hypothesis can evolve into a falsifiable theory, it’ll remain what it always has been — a belief, comforting in its simplicity, but of precisely one cent less real world value than a lucky penny.

Mr. Lea responds, “Space toast: Space is an empirical concept, design isn’t.”

Luke: “Design” indicates a specific set of actions in 4-dimensional space. When I cut a board to size, I have designed it. When I measure once and cut wrong (sadly common), is the board still designed? What about if I find a use for it later? Indeed what if I find a board on the pile that’s just the right size to begin with; is it “designed” for the purpose? While we’re at is, how come trees are soft enough to be cut with metal blades, but hard enough to hold up an entire building?

It’s a fun word game, but it’s meaningless. The appeal of Intelligent Design creationism hinges on the common meaning of the word “design,” but its philosophical assertions hinge on an invented cosmic special definition of the same word.

Design is a perfectly empirical concept, when one settles on a specific definition. It’s only when ID’s assertions come under attack that its proponents get “intelligent” and begin playing a definitional shell game.

And just to sate my own curiosity, is toast an empirical concept too?

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