MN, Science and what ID Needs to Get Straight

Is it possible that as “science” means both a particular body of knowledge and also a method or process, MN has a different status or meaning in each meaning of science?

Paul, do you object to MN as the rigid exclusion of non-natural intelligence from the body of knowledge, but not to what scientists think of as MN, a rule of thumb of the process of doing science?

And/Or do you object to the use of the term MN for what you say science can do for itself?

Hi Walter,

I’ve lost my zeal for discussing MN, mostly because exchanges here go 'round and 'round on the same questions, with no discernible progress. Almost everyone at Peaceful Science who has anything to say about MN defines it differently, which should be a clue that the signal-to-noise ratio is skewed WAY over towards noise.

BUT…since you asked, one more go:

1. For me, MN means the inadmissibility of “intelligence,” “mind,” or “agency,” as a cause in scientific explanation, if those terms refer to something irreducible to physics. So, for instance, if a biologist argued that evidence indicates the first cells were caused by a mind, not a physical process, his manuscript, submitted to Current Biology or Cell, would be returned to him without review. It wouldn’t matter how well he argued his case, or even if he made strikingly novel and testable predictions from his hypothesis. “Mind” violates MN; akin to hitting the ball and running straight to third base. Back to the bench, and try again – science looks for physical causes only.

2. Here’s what MN does not mean (in other words, these standards and practices should be present in any enterprise claiming the name of science, including, if it can ever get its act together, ID in biology):

– testability [if your hypothesis were wrong, how would you know that?]
– intersubjectivity of observation and hypothesis formulation [no private or esoteric science]
– publicly accessible evidence [show your data, show your methods]
– peer review
– merit-based publication, based on peer review

If ID cannot satisfy these standards, it will have failed on its own terms. Not science, whatever else you might want to call it. MN will be irrelevant.

MN took on its current role in the wake of the Darwinian Revolution. Powerful figures such as T.H. Huxley, having climbed up onto the roof of science, in part by using theological arguments (e.g., the Origin of Species is replete with theology), pulled the ladder of teleology & premises about design up onto the roof with them. From here on out, we’ll have no more of that; all physics-based explanations from now on.

That’s the standard line, anyway, but as I explain in this article, MN is routinely violated by evolutionary biologists themselves:

I hope that is helpful.


Great. I reject that version of MN too, as does every working scientist I know. We commonly invoke minds, intelligence and agency as an explanatory cause. For that matter, so did Darwin (see sexual selection).

What I mean by MN is disallowing appeals to ad hoc miracles to explain away difficult data. As I understand it, ID and YEC also aspire to follow MN (by this definition), and realize the aspiration to different extents. From your private statements, you have no problems with this version of MN, right?

If that’s the case, we don’t actually disagree about MN as it appears in science, but merely the use of the term. That should be good news, right?

That is helpful to know. I think the issue of private and esoteric science is a major challenge for ID. I’m curious to see how you intend to resolve that problem.


Note: I pulled this to a new thread because it seems to be unexpected productive.

On second read, I found this statement by @pnelson to be transparent and surprising:

That is a very interesting statement, which I might respect a great deal if it means what it seems. Is this @pnelson acknowledging that ID does not yet have its “act together”? If so, don’t pile on. Acknowledging this is a good thing, as it creates the only possible hope for ID to get its act together.


It’s interesting that as the Editor-in-Chief of a journal in the same family as those two, I have never heard of any rule like this. I think I know why.

There are formats for speculative proposals and musings at many biology journals, including most of the journals in our family. (At Cell Reports, we focus almost exclusively on primary research papers with a very small number of review articles, so we are an exception to this.) I don’t speak for any other journal, but I can assure you that Paul Nelson knows very little about standards and processes at elite journals like ours, for considering topics like whether a “mind” explains something in the past. (Or whether a “mind” explains a novel viral sequence or whether a “mind” explains a pattern of signals from another galaxy.) Since “mind” is not equal to “ghost,” the only problem with a paper like the one Nelson describes is that there is not currently any interesting case to be made for that whole “mind” thing in the context of “the first cell.” That is not a statement about whether “minds” can be used as explanations. It’s a statement about the status of knowledge and theorizing about the first cell.

Now, if you replace “mind” with ghost or sprite or disembodied lifeforce or the Morrigan or Thor or the J man, then you have a different problem, but that problem cannot be blamed on science or on naturalism of any kind. It’s a basic explanatory problem and it’s the reason that a conversation about “methodological naturalism” is so hard to take seriously.


Out of curiosity - with methodological naturalism so defined, do you consider the hypothesis of a miraculous cause for the origin of life something that falls outside of the bounds of MN? Supposing we had theological or philosophical justification that the miraculous cause had reason to create life, it is arguable not ad-hoc.

Thanks for the response.

I find it is hard to imagine how that hypothetical manuscript supporting mind/intelligence/agency as the cause of the first cell could be produced from a process that included testability, intersubjectivity, and public evidence. Would mind or intelligence leave evidence? Would a mind or intelligence capable of that be testable?

And so I’d say the exclusion of those causes from scientific explanation should not be an iron rule created and enforced because of anti-non-physical bias, but is probably an appropriate rule of thumb based long experience.




And that’s why you don’t need to have MN written down as a rule anywhere at your journal, Steve. You already know the answer. There just IS no case to be made for the intelligent causation of the first cells.

Not all rules need to be written down. Many of the most powerful rules aren’t.

It is not your responsibility to meet those criteria. That job belongs to the ID proponent.

Your only responsibility is to judge his / proposal fairly.

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I can agree with that @pnelson.

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If you want to show that MN (or whatever you want to call it) should be abandoned, you need to show how science can be advanced by doing so. I would in particular be interested in an alternative, better explanation of the data generally used to infer common descent of, say, humans and apes, along with commentary of how abanding MN allows you to get there. If you can’t do that, why should anyone be interested?


Well, if you want your assertion that journal editors are rejecting ID papers based on bad MN, not based on acceptable standards for testability, intersubjectivity, and public evidence, to be taken seriously, the inability to produce such an ID proponent and such a paper is a major obstacle.


[My emphasis.]

This, for me at least, is the crux of the issue. I do not remember seeing an explication of what Dr Nelson means by “‘intelligence,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘agency,’ … irreducible to physics” (and I apologise if I have overlooked such an explication). It is however a mouthful, so I will shorten it to IMAIP.

It could mean that he means an IMAIP that has a physical substrate, but which isn’t reducible to that substrate. An example would be mind and brain under “mind–body dualism”. The issue with this would appear to be that the scientific fields involved, for example Archaeology or Psychology, would be unable to distinguish between the effects of the IMAIP and the physical substrate. This would seem to mean that introducing IMAIP would have no discernible benefit to these fields, nor would these fields be able to exclude IMAIP if it were covertly employed in research. This line of reasoning leads me to assume that this is not Dr Nelson’s issue, at least not principally.

This leave the issue of an IMAIP without physical substrate. A disembodied intelligence, mind or agency similar to the “ghost or sprite or disembodied lifeforce or the Morrigan or Thor or the J man” whimsically described by Stephen. Here the problem would appear to be Science’s ability to adduce positive evidence (as opposed to arguments denying the efficacy of purely physical processes) for the existence of IMAIP, let alone its effects on the physical world, let alone evidence to sustain systematic research into these effects.

Here I (as, from the conversation to date, do others) think would be a good time for Dr Nelson to present examples of excluded science that presents this positive evidence of IMAIP, its effects on the physical world, and the systematic conclusions (e.g. mechanisms) this research has made.

If people are arguing to extend the boundaries of the ‘orchard’ that is science, I do not think it is unreasonable to ask what would be planted in this new fallow ground.

I would be especially interested in applications for IMAIP outside the field of Biology (for OECs) or Biology plus Geology (for YECs), as this would demonstrate its ability beyond serving the self-interest of partisanship.

Lacking such concrete examples, IMAIP starts to look less like a genuine attempt to reform science, and more like a club to beat science, because it has produced results that some creationists don’t find to their taste.


THIS. This, a thousand, a million times over.

It is tedious to listen to “poor discriminated ID me because of MN” stories. Heck, it’s tedious for me, and I’m a notorious ID me. But we can all use a bit more tedium before moving on to the important stuff, so…

Due to the ongoing careers in question, I can only describe these true cases in general terms. They are representative, however, of a much larger pool of experience.

– a close colleague and friend submitted a design-motivated hypothesis on cell function to a major journal, high impact-factor (you would recognize its name if I said it). The MS went through full peer review, and was about to be set in galley proofs, when the editor-in-chief asked the author if he was a well-known ID advocate. My friend said yes, and the submission was yanked.

– another friend, much younger than me, landed a postdoc in a lab at a top-3 Ivy League school. During his undergraduate and graduate training, he had been active at ID meetings, published ID articles, etc. The lab director knew this, and told him, No more of that. You got the postdoc, but I don’t want to see your name on any ID papers or in any news stories mentioning ID. So he quit, and it seems now (in 2020), as he is competing for biology faculty tenure in his first university post, that he has quit permanently.

– another friend is junior science faculty at a really good university, famous for its science acumen. This person was recently told by a faculty performance review committee that he was doing exceptionally well, except for his ID publications. No more of that, they told him.

And so on. Were these episodes motivated by MN? Who knows? Who cares? The point it, those of you on the majority side (i.e., science as applied naturalism, look for the physical / material / non-intelligent cause) need to know that we on the other side can feel your boots on our neck. Every summer, when students from all over the world come to the Discovery Institute summer seminar, they do so with some anxiety. Every year, we schedule a session for them about how to survive in science with an interest in exploring design.

The most competitive, unsentimental, ruthless people I’ve ever met are high-performing scientists. This is true even within ID circles. In 2004, at an ID research meeting in North Carolina, an Ivy League trained ID advocate (cell biologist) cut me into small pieces after my presentation, laughing as he did, and I still feel the pain today. Why do journals proudly feature their impact factors? Because having others pay serious attention to your ideas and data, versus ignore you, matters. Getting funding matters, and the process is deadly competitive.

SO…science is not a game for whiners. Listening to ID sob stories is like being stuck next to some guy (this is a pre-COVD analogy, bear with me) in the stands at a major league baseball game who tells you that he could have been a major league hitter, except the pitchers insist on throwing breaking balls. He says, I hit everything in Little League. .450 batter. Could have been a contender. Blah blah blah.

No, what we’re looking for is a fair competition. Don’t rig the rules so we lose no matter what.

Last point, and then I really am done with MN whining. Who suffers, really? Not us. Y’all do. If design is true, then MN is slowing YOU down. Want to know my idea of science hell? Trying to solve problems that don’t have answers. Think about the difference between these two questions:

– How did life start?

– By what natural, physical pathway did life start?

Those aren’t the same question.


You have a fair competition. The rules aren’t rigged, you just refuse to play by them, the same rules everyone else uses. That is not science’s problem. If you had a better way, better “rules” which produced better, more consilient results you’d use it. But you don’t.

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26 posts were split to a new topic: Side Comments on MN and Science

All the problems don’t have answers. Otherwise, they would no longer be problems. Nobody gains much recognition for replicating results.

YEC, on the other hand, is a constant churn of deliberating problems which have in fact been long solved. For instance, the distant starlight paradox. But there is no scientific problem to solve. The universe is billions of years old, distant starlight took billions of years to reach earth - no problem. Creationist hell is trying to create problems where the answers have been well established.


I will note that you didn’t respond to the challenge at all. And you also snipped it in half, leaving out the part I would consider most important:

If it wasn’t clear already, I’m asking for a productive use of non-MN methodology in science, particularly in the subject you specifically mentioned in your review, common descent. Whining about persecution, even when you say you’re done with it, is not a response. Now the question becomes “Why are you incapable of a response?”


Not really. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of science.

Yes, it is possible that ID is true and we don’t know it. So what? “Is ID true?” isn’t a scientific question. It’s a theological question. To be a scientific question, we would have to be examining the details of how the designing went.


So instead of details of earth-shattering MN-defying science, we get a trio of vague detail-free sob stories.

We don’t even get a link to the paper on this “design motivated hypothesis on cell function”. If it got to the “galley-proof” stage, then there should be a version fit for public viewing.

Paul, we’ve heard this tired, worn-out line before. Even if these lachrymose tales of woe could be substantiated (and none of the more widely publicised ID persecution claims that I’ve seen have stood up to scrutiny), it still isn’t evidence that ID has anything of value to contribute.

Nothing you’ve said here comes even close to evidence for the existence of ‘intelligence, mind, or agency, irreducible to physics.’