Leveling the Playing Field: Improving Origins Science

Whenever a hypothesis is subjected to direct competition, it will either emerge from the challenge stronger than ever, or it will be replaced by a superior hypothesis. What’s more, a hypothesis that turns out to be the best of several competitors will, by virtue of having fairly competed in the first place, reap greater respect and broader acceptance from spectators.

This is particularly true whenever it comes to scientific hypotheses. The testing of alternative ideas actually drives scientific progress. For this reason, even when a hypothesis seems well-supported by the available evidence, competitors should always be taken into consideration.

A classic example of competition driving progress is the replacement of Ptolemaic astronomy with the Copernican system. Ptolemy’s model placed the earth at the center of the universe, with all of the heavenly bodies revolving around it. This model was fiercely embraced for around fourteen centuries, largely because of its compatibility with Aristotelian philosophy. Eventually, it was replaced by the heliocentric Copernican model, which actually elevated the position of planet earth by removing it from the cosmic cesspool (the center of the cosmos was thought to be the place where all undesirable impurities settled). According to Copernicus, the sun was at the center with the planets revolving around it. Later observations and the development of associated technology confirmed Copernicus’ hypothesis, and the Ptolemaic model perished. The moral of the story is, had Copernicus (or someone else) not challenged the reigning model being used–pretty effectively, I might add–to explain the motions of the heavenly bodies, Ptolemaic astronomy, beloved for its philosophical appeal, would have persisted far longer than it did. The bottom line: astronomy ultimately had to be dissociated from the restraints of Aristotelianism before it could advance. Challenging the paradigm was very productive.

Curiously, the scientific community recognizes this yet remains staunchly resistant to any hypothesis that doesn’t conform to its currently revered philosophy–the philosophy of naturalism. According to naturalism, only material explanations (the laws of physics and chemistry, coupled with the dynamics of natural selection) are permitted in formulating hypotheses about the origin of the universe and the origin of life. Therefore, the hypothesis (i.e., intelligent design) that suggests an intelligent agency is a viable explanation for some features of the natural world is scientific heresy. The proponents of naturalism are passionately opposed to allowing intelligent design (ID) to be considered an actual hypothesis, not because science has already debunked it–far from it–but because ID goes against their sacred philosophy.

Now, here’s the thing: if an eternal quantum vacuum field is responsible for the Big Bang and naturalistic chemical evolution is the true account for the origin of first life, a non-naturalistic hypothesis isn’t at all likely to threaten these naturalistic explanations. On the contrary, if the hypotheses are permitted to compete, the superior one (whichever that turns out to be) will hold its own, grow stronger, and garner wider acceptance as it competes against the inferior ones. Thus, proponents of naturalistic cosmology and chemical evolution, despite their seething hatred for ID, should welcome the design hypothesis as a scientific opponent. If their hypothesis is true, they can only benefit from having an official challenger. Atheists Dr. Thomas Nagel and Dr. Bradley Monton have championed the cause of granting ID scientific status, despite the fact that they both believe ID isn’t actually true (see Nagel’s article and Monton’s book). The reticence of the scientific community to get behind this idea demonstrates the zeal they have for naturalism. This is not a case of science versus religion, it is purely one of philosophy versus philosophy.

What would origin of life research look like if (what I call) the “Two Viable Hypotheses” model was widely employed, allowing design to be postulated alongside of naturalistic explanations? Contrary to the claims made by advocates of naturalism, no avenue of scientific research would close or be otherwise impeded. Rather, several new lines of investigation would open alongside of those currently in use. The design hypothesis carries with it an entirely novel set of questions to ask about the evidence. Shouldn’t science view this as strongly preferable to an artificial limitation on what researchers are allowed to ask? Shouldn’t proponents of naturalism relish the opportunity to fortify their own theory? They should actually be vociferously encouraging ID research and the diplomatic scrutiny of ID in the arena of higher education, crying, “Bring it on! May the best hypothesis win!”

The fact that they do not is very, very suspicious.