Dembski, Naturalist?

Intelligent design advocate William Dembski argues correctly that science shouldn't presume naturalism. But he also argues, correctly, that if science confirms the existence of an intelligent designer, such an entity becomes part of the natural world. Is this really what proponents of intelligent design want?

In his article “In Defense of Intelligent Design[1] , William Dembski takes Barbara Forrest, Eugenie Scott and others to task for supposing that science is governed by “methodological naturalism” or “methodological materialism.” This is to suppose that in investigating the world, science should consider only natural or material explanations and causes (see the section on “Methodological materialism,” pp. 8-12). Dembski objects that methodological naturalism/materialism pre-judges the question of whether nature might contain not just material causes, but “intelligent causes” as well, what he calls “mind” and “designing intelligence.” Science should be free to investigate these other sorts of causes, which, if confirmed, would not be supernatural or magical (the stuff of miracles), but natural, insists Dembski. Remarkably enough, in making these claims Dembski comes across as a naturalist: his preferred way of knowing about phenomena – science – generates a single natural world which would include even a designing intelligence, were it discovered.

Dembski has a plausible point about methodological naturalism, also made here. Science needn’t define itself as the search for “natural” or material causes for phenomena. In actual empirical fact, in building explanations and theories, science proceeds quite nicely without any reference to the natural/supernatural distinction. Science is defined not by an antecedent commitment to naturalism (whether methodological or ontological),[2] but by criteria of explanatory adequacy which underpin a roughly defined, revisable, but extremely powerful method for generating reliable knowledge. These criteria can themselves be understood as having being selected for (during the more or less spontaneous development of science) by virtue of giving us the capacity to predict and control our circumstances, and by giving us a unified picture of the diversity of phenomena that, as cognitive creatures, we find deeply satisfying.[3] The world that science gives us is what we call nature.

Taking up Dembski’s suggestion, what would happen if science were to admit the possibility of intelligent causes? Well, we know what would happen. Scientists would take the proposed explanatory hypothesis involving mind or designing intelligence and test it against accepted criteria of explanatory adequacy. For instance: Does the hypothesis say anything about the designing intelligence? Does it specify the relations of the hypothesized mind to material phenomena already established by science? Does it proffer any mechanisms of action, that is, does is describe how the proposed intelligent cause (as opposed to material cause) might make things happen? Are there any testable consequences of the hypothesis? Is there independent evidence of the cause apart from its hypothesized role in design? These are the tough, routine questions science asks, and there’s nothing in them that presupposes naturalism.

In point of fact, science has already interrogated intelligent design, and ID has nothing to say. It’s taken a good hard look at the explanatory resources of ID, and found them to be critically wanting, indeed completely vacuous. Although Dembski is right that science shouldn’t define itself by reference to naturalism (and in actual practice it doesn’t), his call for open-mindedness and philosophical neutrality on the part of scientists doesn’t help his cause. ID fails not because mainstream scientists pronounce the hypothesis that there are intelligent causes “supernatural” and thus off-limits to investigation, but because the hypothesis simply has nothing going for it empirically.

As noted above, Dembski states correctly that if science were to confirm the existence of an intelligent designer, then it would be naturalized – it would be part of an expanded natural world, not resident in a categorically distinct supernatural realm. Would proponents of ID really welcome such a development? After all, the functions of god – to create the universe, and to provide extra-natural foundations for meaning and morality – could hardly be fulfilled by something resident within nature. Dembski et al should be careful what they wish for, for if science gets us to god, it may not be quite what they hoped.

TWC, August 2005


[1] This is Dembski’s contribution to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, edited by Philip Clayton; see

[2] In a way, the injunction of methodological naturalism to search for natural causes simply states a plausible scientific conservatism: before concocting wild and crazy hypotheses, first look within scientifically-certified nature when devising explanations. This is fair enough, but regrettably, some on both sides of the ID debate (including Dembski) misconstrue this injunction as saying that science has a commitment to metaphysical or ontological naturalism. Dembski is wrong to suppose that Forrest and Scott make this mistake, since they both disavow ontological naturalism as essential to the conduct of science. But there’s little question that the phrase “methodological naturalism” has sown considerable confusion about the philosophical commitments of science. Let’s just call what science does “science.”

[3] One cut at these criteria is here. Proposed changes, e.g., to drop #7 (“an explanation can’t simply be posited to match the target phenomenon in order to fill an explanatory gap - there has to be independent evidence of the features of the explanation”), will only be accepted if in fact they get us more reliable knowledge. Regarding the nature of scientific explanations, the final court of appeal is always real-world results; about which see the conclusion of “True science: does it presume naturalism?