»  The American Spectator

January/February 2014

  Occasionalism Isn't Science

[This article appeared in the print magazine. The hyperlinks were added by me when archiving. None of the linked pages is offensive in any way that I can detect, but in any case the editors of American Spectator have no responsibility for them.]


Why can't the purveyors of Intelligent Design (ID) get a break? They have been plowing their lonely furrow for 20 years now, insisting on their right to a seat at science's banquet and promising that their ideas will bring about a revolutionary overthrow of orthodox biology (which they call "Darwinism" for propagandistic reasons) Any Day Now. They drop heavy hints that biologists are in a panic about the instability of their foundational theories, but are anxious to hide their doubts from public gaze.

Really? One would naturally like to see some illustrative examples. Twenty years on from the inception of ID, the revolution seems as far away as ever. The ID-ers are still shut outside the banquet with their noses pressed forlornly to the window, and the ancien régime looks to be as firmly established as ever. What's the problem here?

The least charitable skeptics accuse ID promoters of running a racket, taking part in the grand old American tradition of fleecing the rubes. (As the immortal Al Bundy told his acolytes while winding up for his sermon at the Church of NO MA'AM: "Now it's time to eece-flay the ongregation-cay.") I'm a cynic, but not that much of a cynic. I have engaged in formal debate on Intelligent Design on three or four occasions. I once spent an hour in a room full of principals from the Discovery Institute (DI). They struck me as persons who believe in what they are selling. The Charity Navigator website lists their total 2011 revenues as $5.7 million, which is not a lot. The executives, according to that same website, are not extravagantly paid.

A related accusation with much more force is that some ID-ers are dishonest in advancing their aims. This was a running theme in the 2004 book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross. You can get the flavor of the shenanigans from Forrest and Gross's account, in their Chapter 4, of the 1999 Kunming conference, to which respectable scientists were lured under false pretenses:

According to scientists who attended the Kunming conference, the involvement of the DI in the conference became known only after the conference began … It was during the presentations by [DI fellows] Wells and Nelson, when the conference was at an end, that [quoting a participating scientist] "the broader agenda of what was going on was apparent" …

(At the aforementioned meeting with DI principals I placed a copy of the Forrest-Gross book in plain sight on the desk in front of me. Seeing it, DI President Bruce Chapman reacted like a vampire to garlic. "That is a very bad book," he shuddered.)

That brings us to the question of whether ID is really science, as its proponents claim, or pseudoscience, as practically all scientists believe. To form a judgment on that, you need to have some clear criteria for distinguishing science from pseudoscience. That is much harder than you'd think. It may in fact be impossible.

Here we are in the thorny wood known to philosophy of science as "the Demarcation Problem." This problem — more broadly, the problem of distinguishing true knowledge from opinion, illusion, fancy, and wishful thinking — has vexed philosophers of knowledge since Aristotle. My impression is that they have now finally given up on it. Is astrology, for example, a science or a pseudoscience? What about Freudianism? Or chemistry? Or Newtonian action-at-a-distance? We think we know the answers — replicability! falsifiability! predictive power! — but in fact there are arguments to be made on both sides in all cases.

Even if you fall back on a purely social judgment — that science is what respectable authorities recognize as science, what gets you professorships and seats on prestigious government advisory committees — you are stuck with explaining Lysenkoism, which, though pure hokum, was surely science on that social definition (as indeed, in that same environment, was Marxism).


So why can't the ID-ers get any respect? All we have so far is a certain promotional shiftiness.

Socially, the tribal-sectional factor is undoubtedly important. I shall draw here on an anonymous analyst who described the present-day United States as: "a country which is essentially divided between two hostile tribes engaged in perpetual low-intensity warfare. We'll call them Hutus and Tutsis."

Let's also say that one tribe, Tutsis, holds a hegemony on all organs of education and opinion, virtually the entire government bureaucracy and all of popular culture. Many of the most prestigious institutions in the country consist of 95 percent or more Tutsis. Tutsi organizations like "Harvard University" and "the New York Times" are widely respected even by ardent Hutus.

Now of course there are Hutu organizations and no shortage of powerful Hutu people. But, unlike the reverse, there are virtually no prestigious institutions where Tutsis are excluded …

In this schema, ID is definitely Hutu by dint of its plain connections with the older style of fundamentalist Creationism. That older style is wellnigh a badge of Hutu-itude, a tribal marker of exceptional precision. Ain't no pointy-head perfesser goin' tell ME I'm descended from no monkey! Pass the likker jug there, Lud. Tutsis can thus scoff at ID as ignorant, rustic, and low-rent, without bothering to engage with its arguments. That's a bit unfair, as ID promoters nowadays run more to sharp business suits and postgraduate degrees than (to borrow a Hutu characterization from Tom Wolfe) "Iron Boy overalls … or hats with ventilation holes up near the crown."

The line of descent from old-school Creationism to ID is in plain sight, though, identifying ID with fundamentalist Christianity. (ID is in fact even more closely allied to fundamentalist Islam, but nobody notices that. More on this topic in a moment.) Christian fundamentalism is of course Hutu, and likely getting more so.

Through its first decade of activity the American ID movement conducted a dainty dance with its religious inspiration, keeping it as much out of sight as possible in hopes of winning one of the recurrent lawsuits over the teaching of ID in public schools.

Thus ID-ers, in debate, were always at pains to tell you that the Designer was by no means to be identified with the God of the Abrahamic religions. It might equally well be a space alien! They even had an avowedly irreligious non-Christian on board, like one of the tame Tibetan lamas the Chinese communists keep on hand for display to foreign visitors.

The 2005 Kitzmiller case killed stone dead the possibility of getting ID into the public schools, as well as revealing, in the Discovery Institute's character attacks on the presiding judge, yet more of the crude low-kicking side of ID promotion.

The net effect of Kitzmiller was beneficial, though. ID-ers are now more relaxed about admitting their religious connections — a slight but welcome increase in honesty. After Kitzmiller, ID-ers don't have to lie so much.


It is the religious aspect that causes most scientists to shy away from ID. Not that scientists all hate God. Many of them are devout. Of the non-devout, most are just indifferent to religion. Actual God-haters like P.Z. Myers are a minority.

No, it's not hatred of God that keeps ID shut out from the halls of science. The problem is more deeply metaphysical.

The metaphysics of ID is occasionalist. It holds, to abbreviate the doctrine rather drastically, that causation is an illusion; that everything happens because God makes it happen.

Why does ice float on water? Aristotle thought it was a matter of shape (see On the Heavens, IV.6). Science says it's because ice is less dense than water. The occasionalist says it's because God wills it so.

ID-ers likewise believe that any given species exists because the Designer wants it to, and came into existence by His will ex nihilo at precise moment in time. Unkind critics refer to this as the Puff of Orange Smoke theory of the origin of species.

Scientists are instinctively repelled by occasionalism because it doesn't give them anything to do. If ice floats because it's less dense than water, all sorts of questions and embryonic research projects bob to the surface (so to speak) of the curious mind. Do all less-dense-than-water objects float? Do those more dense necessarily sink? Why is ice, water's solid form, less dense than the liquid form? Are there more substances with this property? Do they have other properties in common with water? Etc., etc. Science generates science, opening up new questions, new topics for inquiry, new problems. That's the fun of it. That's the point of it.

But: Ice floats on water because God wills it? Oh.

It is possible, at a stretch (see below), to think up research projects based on an occasionalist approach to the origin of species, but the usual and natural human response to an occasionalist metaphysic is a passive sigh of insh'allah. This whole cast of mind is repulsive to the spirit of scientific curiosity.

Occasionalism should not be confused with the wind-it-up-and-let-it-go deism of (for example) Leibniz. The occasionalist Designer is very busy indeed, all the time, creating new genes and adaptations and body types.

And yes, occasionalism is the metaphysical position favored by Islam. Hence the near-invisibility of Muslims in the lists of Nobel prize-winners for the sciences. (Chemistry 1 out of 166; Physics 1 out of 196; Medicine 0 out of 204.) Luxembourg, population 500,000, has as many science Nobels as Islamia, population 1.6 billion. Go occasionalism!


Resisting occasionalism's pull toward passive fatalism, one can think of questions raised by an occasionalist approach to the origin of species, questions that might generate research projects.

For example: When the Designer decides to create a new species that will be sexually reproducing, does He create one male and one female simultaneously? Or, for some genetic variety, many males but only one female? Or, for even more genetic variety, many of each sex? Thence to the oldest question of all: If the new species belongs to the higher orders of mammals, do they have belly-buttons?

Or, in the Newtonian spirit of understanding the Designer's mind, one might ask whether there is any discernible pattern to the creation of new species. Any hypotheses as to why the rates of creation prior and subsequent to the Cambrian explosion seem to be so much less? Why is the rate irregular, rather than steady?

Some close work in genomics, perhaps supplemented with fortuitous finds in the fossil record, should be able to shed light on topics like this. ID-ers, however, do not seem interested in pursuing such research.

Why would they? If there is a naturalistic path from gene A to gene B, it would be interesting to try to figure it out and see if it explains other phenomena. If, on the other hand, the Designer one day decides to increase the information content of the universe by changing gene A into gene B, there is no path to be discovered. It is hardly surprising, then, that so far as I can ascertain, ID has no research programs at all.

Nor do the proponents typically offer any speculative-imaginative theories as to the circumstances under which new species appear. The puff of orange smoke is of course meant facetiously; but what do ID-ers think actually happens when a new species appears, at some actual moment in time, at some actual point on the earth's surface? I have never seen any of them address this point.

There hangs over the whole enterprise the atmosphere of the barstool crank, who wants to repeat to you over and over the one and only idea in his head, an idea that leads nowhere, to nothing interesting. Faced with a careful, reasoned refutation, he just repeats what he said before. Zzzzzzzz.

That is one aspect of a larger issue: ID-ers don't behave like scientists. Given the above-mentioned fuzziness about what science actually is, it's imprecise to say "they don't do science," but they sure don't do it the way most scientists do it most of the time.

ID is an entirely negative critique of modern biology. That can, at a stretch, count as scientific endeavor — Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser has words to say about that in his Great Courses lectures on the Philosophy of Science — but it's not how most science is done. This applies even to ID-ers like Michael Behe who are themselves working scientists. From an earlier article of mine on this point:

Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a critic of ID, wonders why Behe has never presented his ideas to the annual conference of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as is his right as a member. As Miller explained, "If I thought I had an idea that would completely revolutionize cell biology in the same way that Professor Behe thinks he has an idea that would revolutionize biochemistry, I would be talking about that idea at every single meeting of my peers I could possibly get to."

You sometimes hear from ID-ers that they can't get their ideas into the scientific arena because orthodox biology is a closed guild fearful of revolutionary innovations. There are a number of ripostes one can make:


All of which is a shame, because there are important gaps in our understanding of the world that ID, if it didn't waste its time on far-fetched critiques of well-settled scientific topics, might have something to say about.

Last week I registered for the April 2014 Towards a Science of Consciousness conference at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It should be a fun week, with presentations on (to quote the website) "neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, molecular biology, medicine, quantum physics, and cosmology as well as art, technology, and experiential and contemplative approaches."

I attended the 2008 conference. Keeping tabs on the topic, it seems that progress in putting together a science of consciousness is awful slow; but I figured that after six years it might be worth attending again.

The problem of Mind has vexed philosophers for at least as long as the Demarcation Problem. Is Mind a part of nature, or outside nature? Since the only minds we know of are intimately attached to brains — organs with a fairly well-understood phylogeny and ontogeny — it seems that a naturalistic explanation of Mind ought to be forthcoming, but no-one has come up with one that has received general acceptance.

So the question is open, and for all we know it may be that Mind is outside nature. In that case, the kinds of interactions between Mind and nature that ID talks about can't be ruled out.

This doesn't seem to me intuitively very likely. Nor can I see how working biologists at present have any way to advance their understanding than through naturalistic enquiries, making their nonacceptance of ID perfectly reasonable. ID's occasionalism offers them no research program, and ID, as I have noted, has none itself.

However, Mind is an extremely odd business, and my intuitions are merely those of some guy with a laptop.

If there is any hope of understanding conscious experience and intentional intelligence, I'd bet 99 of my hundred dollars on the guys at Tucson to fulfill that hope, and only one on Intelligent Design. Hardly an endorsement; but one is not zero.