Plantinga and Wishful Philosophizing

ID advocate and philosopher Alvin Plantinga has a reputation for operating at a higher level than the mass of ID advocates. Over at After the Bar Closes, a commenter noted that Plantinga had weighed in on the falsifiability of “intelligent design”. One might have expected Plantinga to be somewhat more astute about this than his colleagues, William Dembski and Michael Behe, who have each demonstrated that they didn’t have a clue what the concept meant in the past (or, alternatively, they knew full well and spewed misleading and erroneous material about it on purpose; take your pick). One would be wrong. Plantinga is just as much a patzer (or con artist; again, take your pick) as the other two ID advocates.

The specific problematic reference is in a Plantinga article available online at Science and Theology News.

For example, the statement “God has designed 800-pound rabbits that live in Cleveland” is clearly testable, clearly falsifiable and indeed clearly false. Testability can’t be taken as a criterion for distinguishing scientific from nonscientific statements. That is because in the typical case individual statements are not verifiable or falsifiable.

As another example, the statement “There is at least one electron” is surely scientific, but it isn’t by itself verifiable or falsifiable. What is verifiable or falsifiable are whole theories involving electrons. These theories make verifiable or falsifiable predictions, but the sole statement “There is at least one electron” does not. In the same way, whole theories involving intelligent designers also make verifiable or falsifiable predictions, even if the bare statement that life has been intelligently designed does not.

Sir Karl Popper is the name most noted as promulgating falsifiability as a specific, well-defined concept and as a demarcation criterion for science. Popper’s falsifiability concept is pretty much discounted now in the philosophy of science field as giving a demarcation criterion for scientific statements. But whatever the academic status of falsifiability as a concept in separating science from non-science might be, we can still compare ID advocates’s representations of it to what Popper actually said and determine whether they seem to have a clue or, as the case may be, are simply talking nonsense.

One thing to get out of the way is the silly notion of Plantinga’s that anybody seriously thinks that any falsifiable statement is thus rendered a scientific statement. There are plenty of statements that have nothing to do with the natural sciences that are falsifiable. Popper, for example, never said that falsifiability was a sufficient criterion to make something science; he only asserted that it was a necessary criterion.

Plantinga has two further confusions in this short bit of prose. First, if he had bothered to read Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, he would have surely noticed that Popper is at pains to distinguish between basic statements and statements that can have the property of falsifiability. Basic statements are the sort that make up the data about the universe. They are what are used to test falsifiable statements to find out if such a statement is, in fact, false. Yes, the class of basic statements is much, much larger than that of falsifiable statements, but this isn’t exactly a novel insight for Plantinga to deliver. That he felt it necessary to do so argues against any close familiarity with what Popper actually wrote.

Second, existential statements, like “God has designed 800-pound rabbits that live in Cleveland” are explicitly excluded from having the property of falsifiability by Popper. Popper used an example of what he called a “pure existential” statement to illustrate this point. Simply piling up qualifications on a pure existential statement to bring it within the practical limitations of exhaustive search does not convert it into a falsifiable statement. Perhaps Cleveland could be searched for 800-pound rabbits effectively; the proposition still is no closer to being falsifiable in Popper’s framework than the search for the ten-times-larger pearl Popper originally posited as a canonical unfalsifiable statement.

Why is it that ID advocates who opine on philosophy have such trouble with Karl Popper? He was one of the more accessible writers on philosophy, and certainly falsifiability is no tremendously complex concept, elusive to the mental grasp. It’s just modus tollens, after all, a concept that arrives very early on in any introductory course on propositional logic, or even artificial intelligence. The probable answer is that the courts have continued to rely on falsifiability as a means of determining which concepts are science, and especially which are not science, so there is a huge incentive to somehow, any which way, to assert that, of course, “intelligent design” does have that property. The problem is that a small amount of research will reveal not only that various statements made by Plantinga, Dembski, and Behe on the topic are completely at odds with what Popper wrote, but that “intelligent design” as presented by the Discovery Institute’s Fellows certainly is just the sort of proposition that Popper went to some pains to note was not falsifiable.

I hadn’t made it past the first few sentences of Plantinga’s article on my first acquaintance with it back in March; it was so embarrassingly bad that I went on to other, more pressing things. Maybe, though, I’ll spend some time on it… plenty of “targets of opportunity” are given by Plantinga.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.