by Father Jonathan Morris
Wednesday, February 15, 2006 Ã¢â‚¬â€ You religious folk may want to send me to the dog house after reading what I have to say today.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been thinking about the Kitzmiller vs. Dover School District case in Pennsylvania which touched off a blistering debate on the appropriateness of intelligent design theory (ID) in a public science curriculum. The case is over, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not done with. You can bet that weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be seeing this or a similar case in the Supreme Court sometime soon. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why I want to get ahead of the news and look at it with you today. You may remember that the press presented the case as a duel between two conflicting visions of reality: liberal secularists vs. religious conservatives. A chance for a perfect headline: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Judge Sends Christians Packing.Ã¢â‚¬Â
But they missed the point, and this guy in a collar who youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re reading is the proof of their folly. HowÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s that? Because regardless of Judge John JonesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ inadequate rationale as expressed in his judicial decision, I actually agree with him that ID should not be taught as modern science.
Before you throw the Good Book at me, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s agree on what we mean by modern science and what we mean by intelligent design. Unlike thinkers of ages past, who intertwined gracefully some elements of philosophy with the natural sciences, today we prefer Ã¢â‚¬â€ for reasons of method Ã¢â‚¬â€ to separate one from the other. In these categories, the competence of modern science accepts only what we can observe and measure (empirical evidence). Questions like, Ã¢â‚¬Å“WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the essence of it?Ã¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s it for?Ã¢â‚¬Â are sent down the hall to the philosophy department. And thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fair.
Intelligent design theory asks just that type of Ã¢â‚¬Å“down the hallÃ¢â‚¬Â question. Its proponents claim that a good scientist canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t look at the complexity of the human eye without asking himself, Ã¢â‚¬Å“How did that happen?,Ã¢â‚¬Â and responding with the answer, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know, but I do know that it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just happen; there must be intelligence behind that design.Ã¢â‚¬Â The affirmation is quite logical, but the evidence would be philosophical, not empirical, and for that reason it belongs down the hall.
You would think this reasonable principle would be valid for everyone. Not so. Judge Jones wrote that ID was Ã¢â‚¬Å“a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory.Ã¢â‚¬Â An alternative to what? Ask your children or grandchildren what they are taught in their public school about the origin of human beings. They may say Ã¢â‚¬Å“evolution,Ã¢â‚¬Â but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more than that. They are being taught a very unscientific theory called Neo-Darwinism, the belief that there is NO purpose or intelligence behind life forms, that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all random. WhereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the empirical evidence for that? As a matter of fact, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s impossible to prove, either scientifically or otherwise. It too should go down the hall.
“Father, are you saying that evolution is not true?” Nope. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m saying that mainstream, atheistic, Neo-Darwinism is bad science because it isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t science. No reasonable person denies that life forms can evolve, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s quite different to say that through purely random natural selection one species evolves into another to the point of reaching human intelligence.
What do I think? I think that we should send Judge Jones down the hall. Time for Philosophy 101. He should have written this: ID is Ã¢â‚¬Å“a philosophical alternative being marketed for creationist religious reasons as a scientific theory.Ã¢â‚¬Â Sure, he wanted to sock it to the creationists for trying to get their product sold under a different brand name. He completely misses the point, nevertheless, when he labels ID as religious and not philosophical. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s philosophy just like Neo-Darwinism is. So pick and choose, or teach both. Of course philosophical theories have their place in education. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all over the place! Hint: any time you see an Ã¢â‚¬Å“ismÃ¢â‚¬Â thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a philosophy behind it. Marxism, feminism, elitism, environmentalism, vegetarianism, atheismÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ I could go on, but I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to give an exhaustive description of the entire Harvard faculty. Or maybe whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s okay for them isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t okay for the rest of America.
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to end without clarifying that I do believe in intelligent design when itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s taught in the right place and in the right way. In fact, teaching it to our children as a philosophical (not just religious) theory is a sign of common sense and open-mindedness. IsnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the whole of reality a little bigger than science? The problem is that in most public schools the Ã¢â‚¬Å“philosophy department down the hallÃ¢â‚¬Â doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really exist.
Given the state of things, maybe thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all right. After all, who do you want to teach your kids about something as important as their origin and purpose? ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s your job. Thanks for allowing me to help.
Did I help? Let me know.
God bless, Father Jonathan
Father Jonathan, I agree with the both-or-neither conclusion you reach regarding the teaching of ID and NeoDarwinian theory. That is simply a matter of balance for teaching a scientific theory for which there can be no positive demonstration of its larger claims. For instance, challenge an evolutionary biologist to demonstrate the ostensible evolution of the eukaryote nucleus from a prokaryote ancestor via random mutation & natural selection. It’s not possible. It’s past history and the only evidence remaining is imprints in rocks that appear to be like modern bacteria and we can’t find imprints of nucleated organisms from that period in time. That’s not much of a demonstration. No one has observed it happening in a lab. When there is no positive demonstration, a balanced presentation demands that other possible explanations be taught lest it appear there are no other possibilities.
But extrapolation of observations of living tissue, such as reproductive continuity and a (virtually) universal genetic code, coupled with we have learned from the fossil record, make a compelling scientific case for descent with modification from one or more common ancestors. Since we can observe in living tissue that random mutation + natural selection is capable of causing descent with modification today, within bounds that do not exceed the creation of new genera, it’s valid to extrapolate and use this as a tentative explanation of how all of evolution ocurred.
Where I disagree is your conclusion that both ID and Neodarwinian evolution are metaphysical. The preference of one or the other can be and in many cases certainly is driven by metaphysical predisposition but they are both science. ID is the theory that certain patterns in nature are best explained by intelligent agency and it further claims that the product of intelligent agency is empirically distinguishable, in some cases, from the result of non-intelligent causes. Design detection is used in other sciences such as cryptoanalysis, criminal investigations, accident investigations, archeology, and SETI. Design detection is science. Applying it to recently discovered molecular scale machinery in living cells is a new application of an existing science is all.
Darwin himself wrote that if it could be shown that an organ could not evolve in a stepwise fashion with each step representing a fitness improvement for Natural Selection to act upon, that his theory would be in serious doubt. ID claims to have met that challenge using design detection. In that case, intelligent design is the scientific falsification of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. If Darwin proposed a method of falsification that is metaphysical in nature then his theory itself is metaphysical. Scientific theories must have scientific methods of falsification. I don’t believe that the challenge Darwin made can only be answered by metaphysical claims.