Nothing upon another’s word

Nullius in Verba
~ The Royal Society

Nothing upon another's word

Yet another tattoo.

Count it as either 13 or 14, it’s my 2nd in New Orleans. Generally with the tattoos I get each year, they are meant to sum up something about the previous year leading up to the inking, but because I’ve already gotten 1 tattoo here in the city, I decided to get a phrase that was less about marking a moment in time and more just part of my personal philosophy.

“Nothing Upon Another’s Word” (in the original latin) is the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) organizations dedicated to science. It has existed since 1660. There are religions that are younger than that.

This motto is the essential heart of science, and the hallmark of a skeptical mind (note: skeptical, not cynical). Every atheist has the spirit of this phrase running through their veins, even if they’ve never read it. Of course, you don’t have to be an atheist to respect this basic tenet of the scientific pursuit (there are, after all, scientists who are religious), but to live it in your day to day life is to refute the very notions of ‘blind faith’ and ‘authority.’

There are those who will claim ‘science’ is just another ‘faith,’ revealing that they don’t understand either word. The phrase “Nothing upon another’s word” is what sets science apart from religion. Being an atheist or admiring science doesn’t mean one lacks the ability to believe, it only means that we don’t believe based on someone’s word or assurances. If a scientist makes a claim, s/he has to provide evidence to support that claim. Once that has been done, a portion of faith (used in the sense of “good faith” not “blind faith”) is allotted to that person, so long as each additional claim is supported with additional evidence.

Science builds on what has been established. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection didn’t just appear in Darwin’s head, he built it on observations and well-established facts. These observations and facts were so well established that Darwin wasn’t even the only person to come up with the theory. He was just the first to get it published and widely disseminated.

Religion doesn’t work that way. It makes a huge claim (an omnipotent God, a Holy Prophet who speaks for Him, Heaven and Hell) and works backwards, demanding that the believers accept the most outlandish claims first (with no evidence) and then everything else they say is pretty easy to swallow in comparison.

When religious people attack science by claiming that the Big Bang Theory or String Theory are just matters of faith, they’re displaying the very mindset that makes them susceptible to religious faith. They are used to thinking about the big and working small, whereas science takes the small and builds up to the big. Those religious people who dismiss scientific theories don’t understand that such theories are built on smaller observations and well-documented facts, because their personal “theories” (God) have no such foundations.

When I say I believe in the Big Bang Theory or the Theory of Natural Selection, I’m not saying I have faith in someone else’s word. I’m saying that there has been enough research, study and established facts to make each theory believable. The theory could be proven wrong, but if that’s the case the base facts won’t change any. On the other hand, if God is disproved (obviously this will never happen), every religion will suddenly be meaningless (I mean, more so).

When someone proclaims faith in a particular religion’s God, their belief is built upon accepting the unproven claims of another. When I state that the only thing I believe in is science, I’m plainly saying, “Nothing upon another’s word.”

Nothing upon another's word Context

Extranatural: How Intelligent Design Hopes To Reclassify ‘God’

Ex-tra-nat-u-ral: Adj. – 1. Any explanation for unexplained phenomenon that is a possibility in nature, yet so outside the realm of normal human experience and scientific discovery that it is highly improbable.  2. A method of explaining the Supernatural as an aspect of the Natural.

Let’s discuss the idea of God A Designer as a scientific theory.

I think it’s fair to say that the Intelligent Design movement does not mean Spock when they say A Designer.  After all, if we concede that aliens created life on this planet (a theoretical, but unlikely possibility) that would still just leave the question of the origin of those aliens.  It’s merely passing the buck in a way that even IDers would find unsatisfactory.

The Designer then must be something other than just another, ancient biological creature.   After all, the point of ID is to confront the materialistic worldview, specifically biological science’s reliance on a wholly natural approach to describing life and the universe.  The Designer, who or whatever that may be, is something that exists outside of our normal understanding of nature.

The vast majority of Intelligent Design proponents would happily call that Designer “God” and would mean the monotheistic God of either the Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith (ID has made inroads in many Arab nations).  However, as a ‘scientific’ proposal, the Designer need not be labeled in any direct way, and, in fact, the ID movement must be careful to distance themselves from their religious supporters for fear of, rightly, being labeled as reconfigured Creationists (the landmark case Kitzmiller V. Dover Area School District ruled that ID is merely Creationism 2.0 and thus unconstitutional to teach in schools, as the Judge stated in his decision: “For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the religious nature of ID [intelligent design] would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child.”)

(Interested bystanders would be advised to watch the documentary about the case, “Judgment Day,” available to watch for free online.)

It is worth noting (though, not as a mark against ID’s validity) that the outspoken proponents of ID are all very religious (Christian) men, Including Michael Behe (Roman Catholic), Jonathan Wells (Unifacationist), William Dembski (Southern Baptist) and Stephen C. Meyer (Presbyterian), who is the director of the Discovery Institute, the single organization behind ID’s explosive emergence in the past two decades.  Their religious background and association under one Institute’s umbrella by no means debunks ID, but it should be kept in mind when the more conspiracy-minded proponents of ID start claiming a widespread blackballing of ID on ideological grounds (I ask, who is more likely to have an agenda: A worldwide spectrum of scientists with varying backgrounds and religious beliefs, or a singular organization brought together under the flag of one idea?).

The Designer

Back to the theory: Can the idea of the Designer be somehow both non-naturalistic and yet not religious?  God is supernatural by definition, but to be supernatural is to be ostensibly religious.  Science as it has been understood since its origins has always been interested in the material world.  Even when science has delved into ideas like psychic abilities and ghosts, there has been a determinedly naturalistic approach to the studies.  After all, we are natural, material beings, how else could we expect to understand the world?

The point of religion and faith has always been to try to explain the supernatural, the realm beyond our senses (in the grandest case of Begging the Question the world has ever known).  But, whereas scientists have historically been religious to some extent, it was almost always understood that science dealt with one realm (the natural) and religion dealt with a different realm (the supposed supernatural).

ID hopes to upend that paradigm by claiming the natural world is a window into how the supernatural world exists.  They are seeking to manufacture a middle ground between science and religion, all the while claiming that their feet are firmly set in the realm of science.

The Designer must be something beyond nature, but for ID to be scientific, it can’t be supernatural.

I suggest a new term for this merging of natural and supernatural into a plausible sounding (but ultimately specious) form of nature:


Alien abductions are an extranatural phenomenon.  By that, I mean, from a purely hypothetical point of view, aliens could exist (probably do somewhere in this unimaginably vast universe), and less likely, but still infinitesimally possible, could be visiting our planet and abducting humans.  No real evidence exists for such occurrences and scientific insights lead us to conclude that it is highly improbable, but even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a chance that this happens means it cannot be ruled out as a real, natural event.  All natural understanding denies it, but extranatural understanding keeps the door open.

Aside:  One of my favorite shows, “Supernatural” (about brothers originally from Lawrence, Kansas who hunt and kill demons, monsters and other assorted beasts of legend), has taken the classic myths and legends of world religions and combined them into a mythology that is actually less Supernatural and more Extranatural.  The monsters are usually mutants or changed humans and the demons and angels are affected by natural items, like symbols written in blood or a special gun that can kill any creature (and the demons leave behind sulfur wherever they go).

(It may sound a bit hokey when written on the page, but as a show it nicely runs with the humor and excitement that the best seasons of the X-Files had in spades.)

Back on point:  How does this relate to ID?

Intelligent Design is an attempt by Creationists (the history of the ID movement is littered with Creationists who adjusted their views to get more public and legal traction) to move the Designer out of the realm of the Supernatural and into the realm of the Extranatural.

Obviously, since I’m coining the term Extranatural, this isn’t their stated aim, but it is ultimately what they are trying to accomplish.

The Argument from ID

This is the ‘scientific’ argument of ID, as concisely as possible.

Aspects of nature (the eye, bacteria flagellum) are so intricately fashioned and precisely crafted that if they were missing any parts they could not possibly function as they do.  Since evolution by Natural Selection builds up from simplicity through random mutation [but not by chance, it should be noted], it would have been impossible for these ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanisms to have been evolved.  Therefore, something or someone must have intentionally created them.  Ergo, Designer.

Now, an astute reader will recognize that this argument is not a scientific hypothesis, but rather a logical argument.

It could be reworded as such:

Aspects of nature appear to be intentionally designed.
Natural Selection cannot explain how such designs came into being.
There must be a Designer.

I apologize to IDers who might consider that overly simplistic, but that is the argument boiled down to its most basic form.

As we can see, it is a logical argument, and so to approach it requires addressing the premises and questioning if the conclusion follows.

What can also be plainly seen is that this is not a scientific argument.  Science is a branch of philosophy.  It has specific qualities that distinguish it.  Logic informs science, but it is not science in and of itself.

No (scientific) predictions are made based on the conclusion that there is a Designer.  No testable hypotheses come from the conclusion.  The only pseudo-prediction we could make, once accepting a Designer, is that we will find aspects of nature for which we cannot explain a natural evolutionary development.  But this is a circular argument: “Because of irreducible complexity, God exists, and because God exists, things must be irreducibly complex.”

From a scientific point of view, the idea of a Designer is antithetical to inquiry and exploration.  It tells us to stop looking further, to give up if a problem seems too complex to figure out.

It also assumes that because we have yet to unlock the evolutionary history of the flagellum that we never will.

(I will not go into the actual evolutionary science behind the eye and the flagellum here, but interested parties are encouraged to research “evolution of the eye” and “evolution of the flagellum” or simply “responses to irreducible complexity” for counterarguments to ID assertions.)

If the ID movement can affectively transform The Designer (God) into a logical conclusion, they will have moved this supernatural figure into the realm of extranatural existence.

So, the question remains, do they have a sound logical argument?


Let’s look at it again:

Aspects of nature appear to be intentionally designed.
Natural Selection cannot explain how such designs came into being.
There must be a Designer.

We must look at the first premise.  The words ‘appear to be’ in there is important.  If we leave that out, the argument is a logical fallacy, “Begging the question.”

Aspects of nature are designed assumes a Designer, the conclusion.

That ‘appear to be’ in there is important not only for logical consistency, but because it allows us to probe further.

The second premise is where all the heavy lifting is done.

It is, in fact, missing an important word.

Natural Selection cannot yet explain how such designs came into being.

Science is an ongoing endeavor and to assume that a lack of knowledge now precludes future knowledge is counterintuitive and in complete disagreement with the spirit of science.

Furthermore, the leap from the second premise to the third premise is another fallacy, a False Dilemma.  It assumes if not X, then Y, but it gives no reason for ignoring a potential Z, or A through V.

If any of A through V, or Z, is true, then it would undermine X (Natural Selection) and Y (Intelligent Design) equally.  For any of the hypothetical alternatives to X & Y to be considered, though, they will have to be testable, researchable and capable of making predictions.  Natural Selection has all of these features.  ID does not.

And that is where we live, with two prominent theories, one that has been vetted for 150 years and, while not perfect, has stood the test of time, and another theory that has existed since the beginning of time, yet has never produced a satisfactory prediction, test or repeatable result.

The Designer (“by any other name”) is still Supernatural.

The Intelligent Design movement is attempting to give said Designer an Extranatural makeover, but they lack the science and the logic.  They have some pretty confounding rhetoric, though, so don’t expect them to go away anytime soon.