December 29, 2004
Evolution & Intelligent Design
Even though my ethical beliefs have as central interbeing
(interconnectedness) and consilience, I recognize that we do have
different domains of knowledge in human affairs. Various human
endeavors generate different ways of knowing. Yet, we also have reason,
rules of conduct, and other heuristics to help us sort out things.
Science is not only obligated, but quite cognizant of the need to push
arguments and probe deeply at weaknesses. That's how scientific
progress takes place. One of the things I'm glad for in science is that
one can be pretty certain that somewhere some scientist is pushing the
envelope and probing in dark corners, not to mention weak spots, in
order to further what we can know about a particular object of study.
Science works by building on top of what has gone before. Hence, it
requires commitment to intellectual honesty for discovery. When that
honesty or commitment is not present, we have serious trouble (As we've
seen in various occasions Science is also twisted or distorted by those
willing to put their interests ahead of the wellbeing of others --
seen most recently in the cases of Vioxx, Celebrex, and before that
with anti-depressants and children).
Most of the scientists I know are far from "materialists" with no
appreciation for the wonder and awe in nature. Most are religious
folks. Most have a reverential attitude towards the natural world. Most
also recognize that their knowledge is only as good as the science
behind it, and as human nature can make it. In short, they are well
aware of human imperfection, of contingency, of Murphy's laws, etc. They tend to be agnostics when it comes to perfection, they tend to be agnostics when it comes to truth claims. What makes them fairly secure in their facts, discoveries, processes, and gained knowledge is: 1) that they take great pains to follow a naturalistic methodology, 2) that they work within strict guidelines and constraints, 3) that their field of study is clearly demarcated and bounded and confines what truth claims they can make, 4) that others are constantly checking their work in progress, 5)
that they have to specify with rigor and lots of detail the process of
discovery, their logic, their speculations, their theoretical
commitments, and their assumptions, 6) that they have to be willing (and likely will have to see) to see their work replicated in order to test it for validity; and, 7)
that their work has to find its way past a slew of tough minded peers
that submit it to serious scrutiny before it gets out for larger
consumption. Moreover, once it gets out for larger consumption they have
to withstand serious criticism and challenges to all aspects of their
work, with no sacred cows protected.
Religion does not have to go through all those things we just
mentioned for science. Religious knowledge is different in nature,
although it might seek to provide answers to some of the same issues. Of
course, I'm glossing over how we define "know," and "knowledge." I'm
not sure to what extent we can apply "knowing," as traditionally
understood, to religion. Yet, religious folks might very well feel
they know something about the universe, their life, the purpose of
life, how things work, and more. Moreover, they might combine religious
attitudes with scientific knowledge. Other religious folks might choose
not to, or might believe that to be apostasy. All these folks have a
right to believe as they wish, they have a right to give expression and
voice to their beliefs, as long as they follow some basic societal rules
(no human sacrifice, etc.).
But, and here's the key thing: in the Public school Biology
curriculum, we try to stick with Science's naturalistic methodology for
some simple reasons: 1) It makes for good science, 2) It leads
to knowledge claims within our domain, 3) we cannot make knowledge
claims about religious "truth", 4) we should not present one religious
theory and be fair to other religious standpoints that might be present
in the classroom, 5) if we didn't stick with science we would run afoul
of the U.S. Constitution. In short, if we add creationism to
the Biology curriculum, we are no longer studying science, we are
discriminating against other religious beliefs, and we run afoul of the
law of the land.
Religious students (and their parents) don't have to believe in
evolution and the process of natural selection. They do have to study it
and understand it. And here I mean truly try to understand it,
especially if they are going to critique it. There are many many reasons
why they have to study it and understand it, and they would take a bit
too long to post. I suspect we can figure those out easily enough.
For those who say that they don't want to teach creationism but intelligent design...
I would note that many intelligent design proponents out there speak
quite publicly about their religious motives and intentions for pushing
intelligent design in the Biology curriculum. That makes claims about
intelligent design's religious neutrality suspect. In addition, we ought
to start that conversation with some history. Arguments from Design are
quite old, and religious in nature. In fact, Aquinas made an argument from design in his early formulation attempting to prove the existence of God. A bit of reading of David Hume
would also clarify quite a lot. But even if we move to the peak of
contemporary intelligent design arguments (a move we need to make
because even Paley's arguments regarding the "watch and the watchmaker" are fairly well refuted by Darwin's idea of Natural Selection), i.e. those by Dembski and Behe, we ought to note two things: 1)
scientific responses to Dembski and Behe are numerous and powerfully
engage, challenge, and refute their scientific claims (irreducible
complexity, specified complexity, etc.); and 2) we are
left over with how to make sense of a claim about an/or intelligent
being(s) that has/have the knowledge, wherewithal (resources and power),
and inclination to create life on Earth (possibly in other places),
has/have a purpose, and stand far above natural laws as we know them. By
the way, this or these being(s) would also be responsible, even if
indirectly, for free will I would imagine. My friends, at this point we cannot claim we are making, doing, or talking science.
One question ought to be asked by all supporters of intelligent design
(heck everybody should ask it): What would have a higher probability: a
scientific explanation that provides a provisional yet sensible answer
to nature's complexity, or one that posits imaginary beings made of
whole cloth as creators to whom we can then attribute all sorts of
Whether such beings are posited as an omnipotent god (or gods), or as
super-intelligent aliens that have directed evolutionary development in
our world, we have much to sort out, little of which falls within the
realm of science, and thus not to be included in a Biology curriculum.
So.... Religion might very well ask a different question, "what's the point" as Tom
notes in his reply to my previous post on this subject. It might even
produce knowledge of "whether" rather than knowledge of "what" or "how."
That kind of knowledge however is not scientific knowledge, and we
ought not be teaching it in the Biology curriculum, although we ought to
be very concerned about it. In any of the cases, savvy, well
disposed people ought to make sure they can understand the claims made
at least to a certain point. Critical thinking requires
intellectual honesty also, and so, we ought to apply some sharp mental
grease to the kind of truth claims generated by religious accounts. Here
we run into some trouble. Apparently, we can't apply much critical
thought to some religious beliefs. I say apparently because once one
starts critically engaging some religious beliefs it is soon that one
finds that such beliefs are
based on revelation, faith, or some other means of understanding the
world. Those means are not friendly to critical rational attention.
Moreover, some religious folks get rather upset when their religious
beliefs are held up to the searing light of rational thought.
Frankly, I think people ought to believe, within reason, what they want
to believe. If you want to believe that a set of nature gods sprouted
out of mother earth and created the world we know, and thus you want to
worship mother earth as the giver of life, by all means have at
it. *But* I said within reason because in human affairs we ought to be responsible for the reasonable consequences of our actions, and the reasonable consequences of our beliefs.
We ought to always ask ourselves what are the consequences of our
beliefs, and we ought to have secular human society ethical standards by
which we can discern the common good in a world of such diversity.