Yesterday in the discussion for my article “The Anthropocentrism Switcheroo“, I made the following comment:
“Everybody’s interested in how some words are defined. Like most scientists, Tyson is very interested to defend a particular definition of “science” … and to ensure that dissonant definitions like that assumed by ID are excluded.”
This prompted Andy Schueler to reply as follows:
“Since Cdesign proponentsists themselves admit that a definition that would turn ID into “science” would also turn Astrology into “science”, and since you also never hear Cdesign proponentsists arguing that we should “teach the controversy” about Astrology, this particular “dissonant definition” is actually just special pleading.”
ID and astrology? Clearly we need to hear more, and so I replied to Andy as follows:
“Which ID proponents claim that accepting ID would turn astrology into science? Can you provide the quotations and references?”
Andy then very helpfully did just that by providing an excerpt from the transcript of the Dover Trial where Michael Behe is cross-examined as follows:
And using your definition intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?
Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?
Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that — which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one.
My thanks to Andy for providing that exchange. If you want to read more you can click this link and search “astrology” in the document (or scroll down to page 39).
So what should we think of this? I have two points by way of reply.
Does Behe’s opinion settle the matter?
Let’s start with this rather obvious question. Why should anybody care what Michael Behe thinks? The reason is because he isn’t just a proponent of ID. He is one of the four horsemen of ID (along with William Dembski, Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski [or Jonathan Wells or Paul Nelson]). In other words, he’s a mover and a shaker.
That’s true, but it doesn’t follow that Behe is the arbiter of what ID is. Consider an analogy from one of those other four horsemen, you know, the new atheist ones. In one of his most quoted atheistic passages, the world’s leading atheist, Richard Dawkins, observed:
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Does this quote justify theists in concluding that atheism entails that there is no good or evil? Of course not. Dawkins doesn’t speak for all atheists, and there are many atheists who would disagree strongly with this opinion.
Just as Dawkins doesn’t decide what it means to be an atheist, so Behe doesn’t decide what it means to be an intelligent design theorist.
And indeed, Behe himself tacitly acknowledges that very point, for he sets up his response by stipulating “Under my definition” (emphasis added). Of course, that leaves it open as to whether other ID theorists accept his specific definition of science.
Is Behe’s opinion problematic?
This brings us to the second point. Behe acknowledges that astrology would count as a scientific theory on his understanding of science, though he also qualifies further in the exchange that theories like astrology (or the ether) would be considered failed scientific theories. Is there anything problematic with this consequence?
In order to answer this question, let’s consider a generic and uncontroversial definition of science:
“the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
Is it possible under this definition that science could discover that quasars are, in fact, the birthing of galactic unicorns? Can the generic and uncontroversial definition of science preclude that possibility? The short answer is, no.
Let’s make sure we get this people: it follows that science allows the possibility that quasars are the birthing of galactic unicorns!
The lesson is this: if you want to talk about theories that are fantastical, bizarre, and otherwise discredited, then any definition of science will have its share. So it is no objection to Behe’s definition of science that it allows that both the ether and astrology would be considered (failed) scientific theories.
Behe is right: astrology is a (failed) scientific theory
Before leaving this behind, let me close the loop by stating that Behe is right. Astrology is a scientific theory. Or, more precisely, it could be presented as a scientific theory. The problem, as Behe notes, is that it is a bad theory.
In astrology a mysterious connection is posited between the movements of planets and the lives of individuals. This is weird, but then so is quantum entanglement, the mysterious notion that particles potentially separated by vast distances are somehow connected so the quantum states of each particle cannot be described independently of the other. Indeed, were astrology ever to have been confirmed, it would very possibly be explicable in terms of some phenomenon like quantum entanglement.
So the problem with astrology is not that it isn’t scientific by definition. The problem, rather, is that it is a bad theory. It doesn’t explain anything and thus there is no adequate reason to posit this mysterious relationship between the person and celestial bodies. Incidentally, that’s why people don’t “teach the controversy” about astrology. It isn’t because astrology is by definition unscientific. Rather it’s because it is a discredited theory and thus there is no controversy to teach. (This leaves me to wonder if Andy misunderstood Behe to be saying that astrology is a live scientific theory which Behe quite explicitly denied.)
Likewise, one can dismiss ID as a failed theory and thus insist that here too there is no controversy to teach. But that’s very different from dismissing ID because it is considered unscientific by definition.