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In an article titled Intelligent Design is Falsifiable, the Discovery Institute claims:

There is a belief among media commentators that intelligent design is unscientific because it is unfalsifiable or untestable: no empirical evidence can count against it. Though common, this charge is demonstrably false. Of course there’s no way to falsify a mere assertion that a cosmic designer exists. This much we are agreed on. But contemporary design arguments focus not on such vague claims, but on detectible evidence for design in the natural world. Therefore, the design arguments currently in play are falsifiable.

[...]

So contemporary arguments for intelligent design in both biology and the physical sciences are not only testable; they’re falsifiable. We have given only two examples here. There are other design arguments in origin-of-life studies and paleontology that are also falsifiable. Therefore, honest commentators should stop claiming that ID is unfalsifiable. The claim itself is falsifiable, and it has been falsified. It’s time to move on to other and more pertinent aspects of the debate over intelligent design.

Is Intelligent Design falsifiable?


To facilitate the discussion, the following is a list of summaries/excerpts containing specific sub-claims made by the article in order to build its case for the falsifiability of ID:

  • The claim that Michael Behe's argument for the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum is falsifiable.

  • In The Privileged Planet, Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards describe how to falsify their design argument. They argue that there is a correlation between the conditions needed for life and the conditions needed for diverse types of scientific discovery, and suggest that such a correlation, if true, points to intelligent design." The most decisive way to falsify our argument as a whole would be to find a distant and very different environment, which, while quite hostile to life, nevertheless offers a superior platform for making as many diverse scientific discoveries as does our local environment. The opposite of this would have the same effect — finding an extremely habitable and inhabited place that was a lousy platform for observation.

  • Our argument presupposes that all complex life, at least in this universe, will almost certainly be based on carbon. Find a non-carbon based life form, and one of our presuppositions collapses. It’s clear that a number of discoveries would either directly or indirectly contradict our argument.


For context, there is a similar ongoing discussion on Philosophy Stack Exchange: Does Intelligent Design fulfill the necessary criteria to be recognized as a scientific theory?

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  • 3
    "the design arguments currently in play" is not the same as "Intelligent Design" on the whole. That's how creationists move the goal posts.
    – hdhondt
    Jun 5, 2023 at 23:27
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    "Intelligent Design" covers a broad spectrum of hypothesis and claims, this would be easier to answer if it were narrowed down. Many, such as Irreducible Complexity (ex. the eye) are really arguments against Evolution, but lack a theory of their own. These arguments have been repeatedly shown to be false.
    – Schwern
    Jun 6, 2023 at 0:08
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    I'd also note there is a bit of bait and switch in the article. The article is attempting to give scientific credibility to ID along the lines of 1) scientific theories have to make predictions which are falsifiable, 2) we will make some predictions which can be shown to be false 3) ID is science! The problem is, the predictions are based on no theory.
    – Schwern
    Jun 6, 2023 at 0:33
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    I am not convinced this is a good question for this site - it is more of a philosophical discussion of argument and science, and less of a "Here are some references with empirical evidence that support or refute the claim". Reminder that this site is for applying scientific skepticism, not discussing it's nature.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 6, 2023 at 2:18
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    I know they are widely believed, but I cannot take this question seriously; hence the -1. No matter how they spin their arguments, the assumption of a creator that exists outside of observable reality is trivially unfalsifiable. Jun 6, 2023 at 6:37

1 Answer 1

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They have shown Evolution is falsifiable.

Intelligent Design lacks its own hypotheses or theories to make predictions or explain observations. They instead focus on trying to falsify Evolution. If they can show Evolution to be false even in the most minute observation, they can ignore all the other evidence for Evolution and declare Intelligent Design valid as the only alternative. This contains multiple fallacies.

The reasoning in the article seems to go like this.

  1. Scientific hypotheses and theories must make falsifiable predictions.
  2. Let's make some claims which are falsifiable.
  3. We're a science now!

The problem is, Intelligent Design provides no detailed mechanism which is coherent and consistent enough to explain our observations nor make predictions.

A hypothesis must propose a mechanism to explain observations. For example, a hypothesis could be "all things fall at a constant acceleration towards the center of the Earth regardless of their weight" and then make some predictions based on that like "when I drop two items with the same size and shape, but different weights, from the same height they will hit the ground at the same time".

"You're wrong" is not a hypothesis. It explains nothing.

What the article puts forward as examples of falsifiable claims made by Intelligent Design are actually attempts to falsify claims made by the Theory of Evolution. They're saying "you're wrong".

Let's look at the article's first example to see why.

(Their second example about The Privileged Planet is... worthy of its own question.)

God Designer of the gaps

Consider the argument that Michael Behe makes in his book Darwin’s Black Box. There he proposes that design is detectable in many “molecular machines,” including the bacterial flagellum. Behe argues that this tiny motor needs all its parts to function — it is “irreducibly complex.” Such systems in our experience are a hallmark of designed systems, because they require the foresight that is the exclusive jurisdiction of intelligent agents. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection and random variations, in contrast, requires a functional system at each transition along the way.

Irreducible complexity is nothing new. It has been claimed for centuries for everything from the eye to Bombardier beetles to, yes, flagella. In all cases, an explanation which agrees with the Theory of Evolution has been found.

Even if Evolution were unable to provide an explanation, it would only show an issue in Evolution; it would not be an argument for Intelligent Design...

The "If Not A Then B" or False Dilemma Fallacy.

These claims are about disproving Evolution. The article proposes if they disprove Evolution, then there must be an intelligent designer, what other option is there? This is the False Dilemma or False Binary fallacy, the premise that there are only two options; if I disprove your theory, mine must be correct. It arises from an Argument of Ignorance, we've only thought of two possibilities (incorrect, but that's the idea), therefore there no other possibilities, therefore if you're wrong I'm right.

What would be valid is if they proposed their own hypothesis and show that it explains these and all other observations as well or better than Evolution. They would also have to consider if a change to Evolution could explain the observation. And alternative hypotheses must also be considered.

Because Intelligent Design lacks its own hypothesis to explain observations, they focus on trying to falsify Evolution. By the article's thinking, if they can show Evolution to be false, even in the most minute way, they can ignore all the other evidence for Evolution and declare Intelligent Design valid as the only alternative.

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