Sherlock Holmes Knew What Not to Do

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, loved to read detective stories. In fact, he told friends that one could learn more from a murder mystery than from most philosophy articles. Scientists who study our origins could also learn a thing or two from the great sleuths. Sherlock Holmes often warned his assistant, Dr. Watson, not to rule out any possibility before they had carefully sifted through all the evidence -- because the truth can turn out to be highly surprising, going against commonly-held assumptions. Unfortunately, many scientists today ignore this excellent advice. And that's bad news for discovering the truth about human origins. Here's an example of the problem. Robert Pennock is a philosopher of science at the College of New Jersey. He's recently published a book, Tower of Babel, attacking the theory of intelligent design -- the view that the best explanation for our origins is an intelligent cause, a Creator. Pennock's main argument is that the theory of intelligent design violates the rule of methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism sounds like a mouthful, but it's a very simple rule. It says that science works only if scientists employ natural causes -- and nothing else. A Creator may exist, but science could never discover that the Creator did anything in the history of the universe -- even if he actually did do something. Sorry, says Pennock, but the only causes science may legitimately infer are strictly natural. Seems like an odd sort of rule, doesn't it? What would Sherlock Holmes say? I don't know, but I can guess. He'd probably agree with William Dembski, an intelligent design theorist at Baylor University. In his new book, Intelligent Design, Dembski points out that science can use intelligent causes, and indeed it does so every day. There's more to the universe than natural causes, and if science is going to discover the truth, then -- as Holmes warned Watson -- it can't rule out any possibility prematurely. But that's exactly what methodological naturalism does. Philosophers of science like Robert Pennock, Dembski explains, are hung up on a flawed distinction. They see natural causes, like gravity, and assume that the opposite of these "natural" causes must be "supernatural." And since we can't test for the supernatural, says Pennock, we have to exclude it from science. Wrong, Dembski argues. The correct distinction is natural versus intelligent causes. There's nothing supernatural about my voice coming out of your radio right now, but no strictly physical cause explains what is behind this pattern of sounds. Rather, I'm acting intelligently to convey a meaning to you. When you send email to a friend, you're not violating any law of nature, but no law of nature alone will ever explain the complex pattern of symbols in your message. Only an intelligent cause -- namely, your mind -- provides a sufficient explanation. Science can handle intelligent design, because it does so all the time. And Christians ought to be excited about the potential of this theory. Design promises to restore to science a vital tool that it needs to crack the mysteries of the universe: the reality of, yes, intelligent causes.


Chuck Colson


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