Inferring the Supernatural: Forrest v. Beckwith

Barbara Forrest’s “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy”1 is at the center of what has been dubbed “The Synthese Affair“. The bulk of her paper is a sustained and often dismissive account of Francis Beckwith’s arguments in support of Intelligent Design. Although I think Forrest’s attacks constitute a relatively minor transgression of academic norms, I find myself perplexed by some (though by no means all, or even many) of her substantive arguments. I will be teaching a unit on Intelligent Design for an undergraduate course this year, so the purpose of this post is to sort out my ideas on some issues. I would greatly appreciate feedback.

Given the poor reception by philosophers of Michael Ruse’s simplistic demarcation criteria in the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education trial,2 prosecutors in the 2005 Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District case, under advisement from philosopher Robert T. Pennock, focused on methodological naturalism as a key criterion for scientific practice.3 Pennock’s argument for excluding supernatural explanations from science is compelling. If, he argues, supernatural explanations were permitted within science, we would lose all solid ground for empirical testing. For example, he created a computer simulation of evolution that produced what appear to be “irreducibly complex” features that nevertheless evolved in a gradualistic fashion. This seems to refute the claims of Michael Behe that such a result is impossible without supernatural intervention.4 But, Pennock observed, what if a supernatural power had intervened in his computer simulation to produce those results? If Behe can argue this for biological evolution, what is to stop him from arguing this of computer simulated evolution?

This is a powerful argument, but I’m unsure of its scope. Does it disqualify all inferences to the supernatural, or just the use of the supernatural in particular explanatory contexts? Particularly, does it just point to a problem in positive arguments for the supernatural, or does it also prohibit negative inferences of the sort:

  1. According to our understanding of natural laws, X is impossible.
  2. X occurred.
  3. Either our understanding of natural laws is incomplete, or X is due to a supernatural cause.
  4. We have good reason to believe that our understanding of natural laws is sufficiently complete to confidently rule out X.
  5. There is good reason to believe that X is due to a supernatural cause.

This is the kind of argument offered by Beckwith.5 He uses the example of Jesus’s resurrection. Adapting it to the above scheme:

  1. As far as we know, the Biblical account of Jesus’s resurrection is impossible according to natural laws.
  2. It did occur (according to Beckwith).
  3. Either there is a naturalistic method of resurrection that was used by Jesus that we have not discovered, or his resurrection was due to a supernatural cause.
  4. It seems unlikely that science will ever produce a naturalistic explanation for the resurrection.
  5. There is good reason to believe that the resurrection was due to a supernatural cause.

Forrest rightly takes issue with premise (2), invoking Bart D. Ehrman’s testimony that early Christians constructing the Bible themselves argued over whether the resurrection occurred.6 She also attacks (4), noting that science has a long track record of producing explanations for occurrences that previously seemed unexplainable.7 This is my first hesitation. It seems to me that, as science is able to explain more and more phenomena, those phenomena that it is unable to explain might actually become more compelling evidence for the supernatural. Forrest uses an inductive argument to claim that, because in the past science has succeeded in producing explanations for phenomena that appeared unexplainable, in the future it will continue to do so. Why cannot I just as convincingly argue that because science has failed to produce an explanation for phenomenon X, it will continue to fail to produce an explanation for it?

Further, it seems that we can make an educated distinction between phenomena that are merely “unsolved problems” for science that will eventually be explained and those for which science will never produce an explanation. For example, it seems scientists don’t know (or at some point didn’t know) how bees gain enough lift from their wings to fly,8 but this isn’t taken to be evidence that bees invoke supernatural forces to get off the ground. Rather there is something about, perhaps, aerodynamics at small scales that we haven’t fully understood. However, if I were to instantaneously teleport myself across the country, we might think that science will never produce an explanation for how I did it.

More vexingly, Forrest disputes the validity of the entire argument:

But the only thing to which the believer in miracles can ulti- mately appeal—again—is the supernatural; thus, the theist who invokes miracles also invokes the supernatural being that produced the miracle. This is a factual claim for which evidence is warranted, but the supernatural nature of which makes evidence impossible to obtain.9

Forrest is arguing here that, even if we could convincingly argue all of the above factual premises, we could not infer the supernatural without positive evidence. Since the supernatural is de facto beyond observation, there can never be such evidence. So we can never infer the supernatural. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the argument here, but really? Doesn’t this disqualify claims for all unobservable entities? Forrest might be correct that ID supporters are unjustified in their inference from miracles to a particular God, and Forrest’s paper does a good job of showing that, despite their official claims to the contrary, ID supporters do take their arguments as arguments for the christian God, but it seems to me that you could justifiably infer that there is some supernatural force responsible for an otherwise unexplainable phenomena.

I’d really appreciate any discussion or clarification on these issues. Thanks!

  1. Forrest, B. 2011. “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy.” Synthese.
  2. Lynch, M. 2006. “From ruse to farce.” Social Studies of Science 36 (6): 819–826.
  3. Pennock, RT. 2011. “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited.” Synthese (January).
  4. Behe, Michael J. 2006. Darwin’s Black Box. The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press.
  5. Forrest, p. 356-57
  6. Ehrman, B. D. (2003). Lost scriptures: Books that did not make it into the New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press. From Forrest, p. 364.
  7. Forrest, p. 359
  9. Forrest, p. 359


  • Allan Olley Reply

    On the Pennock-Behe debate, I would say that the advantage to a computer program is that you can keep a running list of each step and then verify that each step (considered individual) obeys the syntax of the program. In which case there is no room for the same sort of miracle to act on the computer program (you would need a very different miracle to act on the verifier and you could probably verify in an infinite number of ways). Keep invoking miracles like that and you are either engaged in special pleading or everything becomes a “miracle” and so the term is meaningless and can’t help the ID camp. More likely Behe might still argue that Pennock built the irreducible behaviour into his code in some way and that argument is going to be hairy. Actually, my impression is that a ID type would usually admit that X phenomenon has been reduced but then go buy ah, what about Y, Z etc. (often Y and Z will be what you just reduced X to). An IDer wants to keep his test for miracles tight so he’s not going to invoke more and more miracles in the way Pennock suggests.

    The use of miracles in the way Pennock suggests is problematic but its actual similar to the Duhem-Quine thesis or the problem of ad hoc hypothesis saving (ie oh my Ptolemaic theory gets the motion of Mars off by a degree every century, add another epicycle). You can save any general hypothesis by jiggering with another (auxiliary) hypothesis. The thing is that sometimes a little ad hoc jiggering is actually needed (planets acting funny don’t chuck Newton maybe we missed a planet, sometimes that works, sometimes not). This suggests you should judge the two theories in total and not say well if you did X once then clearly your not being scientific.

    Perhaps the best parallel case for all this is the question of whether science can declare any event random (lets just say in the sense undetermined by past events). It seems as though many find the evidence that quantum events are random persuasive, but this does not license them to explain everything by randomness, even though randomness has a property similar to miracles in its ability to “explain” anything in this case as a coincidence (100 sevens in a row at craps table is consistent with the dice being random, just unlikely but if there are enough random events in the world then any given state of affairs that is actual is exceedingly unlikely). So I don’t think the introduction of miracles has to be a game breaker either, but only if you only invoke them in a very disciplined way (as a last resort for example). If the IDers just constantly invoke it then they are weakening their own claim to be offering an explanation.

    Moving to the Forrest argument I think you are right, that X is an exception to the laws of nature seems like a scientific conclusion (although never an absolutely certain one, but if I’m going to say that say Phlogistion does not exist I have to be saying that it would be inconsistent with the laws of nature or something like that). Forrest’s argument reminds me of Hume’s argument, miracles require either that the witnesses are untruthful (mistaken or lying) or that the laws of nature were temporarily suspended. Its always explicable within the laws of nature that witnesses are mistaken or lying and therefore always the more credible explanation. In real reasoning though we can overturn the currently known laws of nature by coming up with evidence and a theory that explains it that we give more credence to then the (less than perfect) credence we had for the previous laws. If miracle means break with actual laws that are literally universal (exceptionless) then its just a logical impossibility, so it seems what is meant is a claim that the laws of nature are not strictly universal and they have exceptions that can not be predictable by the past or present state of the physical universe. Such a proposal is no more or less subject to scientific evidence than the claim of randomness.

    The difference between the claim of randomness and the claim of a miracle is that in QM randomness is constrained to obey the probability function derived from the equations of quantum mechanics (which we confirm by measuring relative frequency on the assumption that it will converge, which is partially assuming what is to be proved), whereas miracles are supposed to be constrained by the will/end of the appropriate supernatural agent or agency. Just as you can reasonable believe I have loaded the dice without examining them based on my winning record, you could look at a series of exceptions in natural law and see that they conform to some interest, design, plan or purpose. This is the evidence about the supernatural that Forrest claims is lacking (like saying well not only can’t you prove I loaded the dice but you can’t prove I did it intentionally). For example if we establish Jesus was resurrected it’s good odds it was not Thor that did it, however clearly the miracle always admits of other readings and the sort that ID invokes (making complex protein structures appear) can hardly said to be suggestive of much about whoever might be imagined to be fixing the game (God wants bacterial flagella to exist, okay…).

    The thing to note is to establish you have an exception to the laws of nature is at least as hard as establishing that quantum events are truly random. Which is not merely a claim from observing relative frequency, but one from the very way quantum theory works, relates to other theories and the ways we can see to spin it out. Also, there always hangs a spectre that some non-random explanation could yet be found even if it becomes ever more unlikely as QM becomes ever more successful. It seems unlikely that most claims of a miracle’s status as an exception to natural law would achieve that level of evidential support, so its hardly a trivial standard.

    I would note that there is a case made against randomness as ever being a scientific. One way is to claim that the principle of determinism is basic to the scientific method (past events are precursors to future events) as say Mill or Danny Goldstick would. Also its unfalsifiable to say I can’t predict X in any way but I was never convinced by that demarcation criterion.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Thanks Allan, that is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of randomness. A couple of thoughts.

      (1) I think an issue with Pennock’s program is that it would be practically impossible to examine each step in the way you suggest due to the number of iterations. This seems similar to computer proofs in math? Another issue would be that the program is surely non-deterministic—there is some random component. Perhaps God is playing with the random number generator in a way that would be nearly impossible to detect (if God intervened very rarely, you couldn’t just rely on statistics to tell whether the RNG is performing correctly).

      (2) ID supporters probably do not want to go down the road of looking for a pattern that conforms to a divine plan. As far as I can tell, the reply to the “problem of evil” is that we cannot know or hope to understand God’s plan. If we assume that God is working in comprehensible ways in directing evolution, shouldn’t we apply this in other areas for consistency’s sake? This would lead to a lot of problems I think.

      • Allan Olley Reply

        On 1) note I was imagining you verify by computer, but you can use a different computer program (indeed probably any number of computer programs running on any number of different machines) to verify that the steps were carried out correctly. The problem of pseudo-random number generators sort of goes into the problem of building in your solution, in order to show you can get the evolved complexity (without the tornado in a scrap metal yard building an airplane scenario) you should use lots of different random number generators to prove its not due to some special biased picking process. Note that pseudo-random number generators are determinate and obey rules, so again you could check deviations in the mechanism (by computer).

        On 2) well Thomas Aquinas took the line that some aspects of God were subject to demonstration (i.e. evidence and proof), while others were not (Summa Theologia, First part, Question 2, Article 2). The existence of God would be one example of what many theologians take as provable, while the solution of the problem of evil is often left to the realm of faith. I think the point is, for people who go in for this sort of thing, that proving there is an “intelligent designer” frees the board to make believing in the Christian God more plausible, without really giving evidence for that claim against a vast array of alternatives (any number of other human religions, positions like Deism and so on).

  • W. Dean Reply


    Let me say first that this is good topic for a history of science course, if done well, because it intersects with so many issues related to the philosophy of science and its institutionalization.

    1. Philosophy of science: what is and is not a science.

    2. Academic norms in the philosophy of science: what is and is not appropriate for scholarly debate and academic journals.

    3. Sociology of the philosophy of science: the intersection of advocacy and academics, and the role of philosophers in public policy controversies.

    Second, I want to say something about the issue itself, because I think the purely philosophical part of it is simpler than it seems, and I want to suggest why it has become more difficult than it should be. So, I’ll offer a nutshell sociological account (3) of the first two points above (i.e., 1 and 2).

    1. No matter how slice the epistemology, the necessary condition for a scientific theory is naturalism—i.e., that the explanation, to be scientific, must be appeal to natural causes, even when it might be useful to infer a Creator. At bottom, then, ID is not a science and it doesn’t belong as a subject in a science curricula.

    Nonetheless, anti-ID and anti-God talk doesn’t belong in science curricula either. Scientists and philosophers have no business shoe-horning their politics and religion into science curricula by making tendentious claims about how evolution “disproves” Genesis and other extemporizing about religious and political affairs.

    We can see this in Forrest’s piece. She’s not content with pointing out the inconsistency between ID and naturalism, she also has to [a] attack Christian faith, [b] personally attack Beckwith and [c] editorialize on what public schools ought and ought not to teach. How is her personal opinion about what belongs in public school curricula authoritative enough to stand on assertion alone?

    The fact that many have taken it upon themselves to make such claims goes a long way toward explaining the origin and persistence of ID. In the simplest terms, if Dawkins and his epigones hadn’t been using Darwinian evolution to further their atheist agenda, we wouldn’t have ID as a going concern. The best evidence for this claim is the Roman Catholic hearing for the ID crowd. ID often receives sympathetic treatment in places like First Things, even though Catholics see no conflict between Catholic doctrine and evolution, as the previous pope stated in an encyclical (i.e., because Catholics accept the Thomist principle that reason and Revelation cannot conflict, all conflicts are only apparent ones to be resolved by further inquiry).

    2. In my opinion, the real “Synthese Affair” is not that the editors printed a disclaimer, it’s that they allowed to journal to be co-opted for political advocacy in the first place. Only those who’ve allowed their passions to overrun their judgment could pretend that this issue (and the Forrest piece in particular) is anything but a polemic in a philosophical dress. My guess is that the editors tried to split the difference between rejecting (one or more of) the papers and running them after they realized that the issue would be a hatchet-job. The result was predictable: trying to please everyone pleased no one.

    At any rate, I don’t know if this helps with the course, but I (obviously) think a different reading of it is worth considering.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply


      IDers are familiar with the argument that naturalism is a necessary condition for scientific theories. They argue that this is an arbitrary or circular requirement, effectively banning ID by fiat. Pennock’s argument isn’t circular, but I’m not convinced that it works. It’s particularly odd if we decide that we can have evidence for the supernatural, but can’t include the supernatural in scientific theories.

  • W. Dean Reply

    Hi Mike,

    I’ve heard the ‘banning by fiat’ argument before. But it should be obvious to anyone that it’s an irrelevant objection because, without naturalism as a necessary condition, an explanation wouldn’t be an explanation at all. In my view, Pennock’s extension of the argument misses the point and thus undermines the case. As you’ve characterized it, his argument is a reductio ad absurdum. It shows that one could insert supernatural agency anywhere to account for observations that appear to contradict one’s hypothesis. True, but that’s not what IDers do.

    God isn’t a hypothetical cause in ID explanations in most of what I’ve read, He’s a necessary inference. The ID crowd appeals to “irreducible complexity” to infer the existence of a creator, which is a kind of reification of the Aristotelian-Thomist first cause and Prime Mover arguments – roughly, that material things cannot be without some cause wholly unlike the things caused to make them be. But then the ID version is a different kettle of fish from the old “Ways”: the Thomist version is a metaphysical argument, not a scientific one. (Ironically, it’s also an attempt to differentiate and preserve natural science—natural philosophy—as a distinct science from metaphysics.)

    As I said before, much sound understanding has become lost in the debate, because everyone wants a checkmate and no one wants a stalemate. I include the anti-ID crowd in this too, because I get the impression—though I can’t prove it—that they’re not happy with naturalism either. To paraphrase that James Bond movie, the world is not enough—they want God out too. But as the old saying goes, “chase two rabbits, catch none.”

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Because we’re thinking of explanation in deductive nomological terms and you can’t deduce any consequences?

      When careful, IDers say that a designer is the “best explanation” (notably, an explanation), but not certain. Regardless, if the explanation for irreducibly complex features is an intelligent designer, then the cause of those irreducibly complex features must have been an intelligent designer, no?

      • W. Dean Reply

        Mike, my philosophical friend, we’re a wink away from perfect understanding.

        Pennock’s mistake is to characterize the argument in hypothetico-deductive terms, as if IDers introduced God as a cause to explain an observation. But IDers are arguing abductively (i.e., inference to the best explanation) that only supernatural agency can explain this particular phenomena (i.e., irreducible complexity). The different logical structure of the argument is what causes Pennock’s refutation to miss the mark.

        He should have stayed with naturalism, in spite of the stalemate it produced, because now he’s a philosopher stuck trying to prove a scientific fact, namely that irreducible complexity is really reducible. And that bar is higher than a human-produced computer simulation that generates complexity from simple things, because, after all, it was designed by a human being (an agency) to do so.

  • D. Serban Reply

    How do you define unobservability? I think your claim that Forrest’s argument implies the elimination of all unobservables assumes a particular definition of observability.

    I have a hard time understanding the concept of “supernatural” altogether so I really can’t see how can it be used in an argument. What does it mean to say that “x EXISTS in a supernatural world and is the cause of A”? I find the third premise meaningless unless someone defines supernatural existence. The ID argument seems to use two kinds of existential quantifiers, one for existence in the natural world, another for existence in the supernatural world. The third premise would be “Either …. are incomplete or there is(supernaturally) an x and x is the cause of a(which is considered to exist in the natural world)”. Don’t know if I make myself clear enough

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Unobservability: That’s a question with a lot of history of course. What I mean is this: Intelligent Designers claim to find indirect evidence of an unobservable designer. Specifically, they claim to observe things that cannot be caused by any natural processes and which are exceedingly unlikely to have arisen through chance. I disagree that they have found such evidence, but I do believe there are conceivable observations that would fit their criteria. A common example is if the faces on Mount Rushmore began speaking, and further began correctly predicting the future. But Forrest seems to require more: some kind of positive evidence. All I can think of that would count is, well, seeing the designer. And if you can only believe in things you can see, then you are an anti-realist about all unobservables — all things you can’t see. There are people who hold this position, but it’s not an accepted standard in science. People don’t laugh at you for claiming electrons exist.

      The supernatural is something that isn’t natural, or is beyond the natural. What would it mean to say “X exists in a supernatural world”? I think it would simply mean that there is at least one world other than ours, that world doesn’t follow our laws of nature, there is at least one thing in that world, and X is that thing.

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