Intelligent Design, or Creationism, or whatever

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

Running in both "science education" circles and "religious" circles, I've talked to intelligent people on both sides of the debate about teaching a Genesis-based curriculum alongside the Darwin-based curriculum in the schools. As usual, I find myself taking a contrary position no matter who I'm talking to.

Kenny talking to an "intelligent design" advocate

ID Guy: "Darwinian evolution is just a theory. It has holes and missing links and has certainly never been proven. All we're asking is that students be presented with both sides, instead of being given one side as an established fact."
Kenny: "Let's suppose that the holes were filled, the missing links found, the theory proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Whatever kind of evidence you personally would find sufficient, that evidence has been gathered."
ID Guy: "Well, I don't know about that..."
Kenny: "Just run with me. It's hypothetical. The question is, if all that happened, would you abandon your faith? Forget God, forget the Bible, it's all been a big lie?"
ID Guy: "Of course not."
Kenny: "Then why is this so important to you? Why fight this fight?"

There isn't really any answer to that question, but it makes a good launching point for my little rant.

In the 17th century, Pope Urban VIII laid down the law: if you believe in God, then you don't believe that the Earth moves around the sun. When Galileo begged the local priests to judge the evidence for themselves, they simply refused to look through his telescopes. They set up a cosmic Poker match between scientific evidence and religious belief, but of course the church held all the cards. Galileo himself spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest for heresy.

It was a Pyrrhic victory in spectacular flames. Over time, The Copernican solar system became more and more obviously true. If that meant the church was wrong—and hadn't the Pope said it meant that?—why then, thinking people clearly could not believe the church. We can follow that line of thought forward from there. 18th century: Isaac Newton, himself a devout believer and mystic, becomes the unwitting symbol of a clockwork-mechanical universe. 19th century: Laplace rounds out Newton's calculations, mathematically describing a solar system that has no need for God. 20th century: Bertrand Russell, arguably the foremost intellectual of his day, delivers his lecture "Why I Am Not a Christian."

And today we have Richard Dawkins leading the pack of intellectuals who actively fight against religion. All the intelligent people are atheists, Dawkins assures us, and they ought to come out and admit it. Believers are either feeble-minded or desperate. Religion has led to a long history of wars and oppression, and it's high time we put a stop to it. Dawkins speaks for a large movement whose roots, I believe, trace back to Urban VIII.

Mr. Intelligent Design, you're fighting a battle you don't need to fight. In the long term, you cannot possibly do any real damage to science. But you can damage religion, and the harm may last for centuries. Don't set up this conflict.

Kenny talking to an "intelligent design" scoffer

The folks on the other side of this debate are a lot more smug. After all, they are the ones who hold all the cards today. The loudest zealot doesn't dare suggest that we teach Genesis instead of Darwin; the most he can possibly hope for is a bit of shared classroom time. And the scientific-atheist crowd is offended that he would even ask for that. My father recently wrote to me that "The only <world-view> that I would consider sneerable is one that insists that unprovable dogma is really logical—the ‘Intelligent Design' crowd comes to mind." We're all for freedom of religion, diversity, and tolerance of all viewpoints and cultures; but the schools are ours, fellow. We won that fight.

Here's the Kenny-rant to those folks.

Our founding fathers cherished everyone's right to follow his own religion. So one thing you can't say to a fundamentalist Christian is "Just stop believing that." He has the right to believe it—as if you could take that away anyway.

What does he believe? Jesus literally meant "No man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Earthly life is just a way-station, at the other end of which lies an eternity of either bliss or torment, and it all depends on whether you believe. He'll see your Galileo-Laplace-Russell-Dawkins with his Augustine-Aquinas-Kierkegaard-C.S.Lewis, and possibly throw Newton back in your face as well; a lot of very smart folks have believed what he believes.

But his children are straying. We all know adults and children who consider their parents' dogma to be provincial at best, hateful and bigoted at worst. The believer has to face the very real possibility that he will end up in eternal paradise while his children burn for their lack of faith. He does everything to avoid this ultimate catastrophe. He takes his children to church, signs them up for youth groups and Bible studies, takes them to summer camp when they are young and mission trips when they are older. He shows them by living example how to live according to his values and beliefs.

And meanwhile, he is required by law to send them every day to a school where they are taught the opposite. (Unless he happens to be rich, of course.)

Try to imagine, just for a moment, the enormity of this. The same people who teach his children history and math, the authority figures who he wants them to respect, are telling them that Adam and Eve are a quaint story with mythological symbolism and archetypes and...pause for condescending-but-tolerant didn't actually think they were real, did you, Johnny?

When I consider what is at stake, I often marvel that the religiously faithful are as quiet and well-behaved as they are. I marvel, too, that the scientifically faithful keep repeating "They can have their little beliefs in church, but why do they want to contaminate our public schools with them?"


From: Richard Felder
August 9, 2008

I absolutely don't get your point. I believe that intelligent design is no more logical and no more testable than any religion, whether it be centered around Jesus, Brahman, Zeus, Satan, or a guy sitting on a throne with a long white beard who wants everyone in the world to offer the identical prayers and praises every single day of their lives. Science is a way of helping us understand how our world works through careful observation and by making and testing hypotheses and predictions, which I think is an important function of school and involves skills that will prove useful in many career paths. Intelligent design helps us understand nothing, has no predictive capability, and doesn't equip those who learn about it with any useful skills I can think of. (You can help kids develop moral and ethical sensibilities without resorting to any kind of religious formulation, something you've obviously decided in connection with raising your own children.) I have no objection to Christian or Muslim or Confucian or Wiccan schools for parents who want their children to be raised in those traditions (and I don't believe you have to be rich to send your children to at least some of them), and I also have no objection to teaching comparative religion in the public schools. But I can't see any basis for offering intelligent design or Christianity or Voodoo or any other untestable faith-based dogma as an alternative to evolution or any other data-based theory in public schools. If there's a case to be made for it, or for the proposition that opponents of evolution and opponents of creationism are equally illogical, I don't think you've made it.

From: Michelle Williams
August 10, 2008

Having never been "taught" intelligent design in school (or church) and having only a passing understanding of it from reading news articles and seeing an episode of Promised Land (Touched by an Angel spin-off), I decided to go to the one true and reliable source: Wikipedia. ;)

Sounds like your dad's right and writing "believe that intelligent design is … no more testable than any religion" is a little inaccurate as it isn't just belief but well-established fact. And I agree w/ Judge Jones that "advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class…is at best disingenuous."

But I remember being shocked as an adult the first time someone pointed out to me some of the holes in the Theory of Evolution. Also, I recall my Physics teacher in high school telling us something we'd learned in science class some previous year wasn't quite right but the best explanation they have and so what they taught children. (I don't remember the specifics of that example, just being irritated that they treated me in 9th or 10th grade or whatever year it had been as a child unable to handle broader concepts.) Meanwhile, I've got quite a few examples of holes in the "theory of creationism" or other aspects of the Bible. Granted they did teach in 7th grade Science class the difference between a Theory and a Law. But I don't recall much emphasis being placed on holes in the Theories as I was learning them in school. I sure would appreciate if they'd spend a little more time on those if for no other reason than to remind us that Evolution isn't a religion either.

From: Kenny Felder
August 11, 2008

OK, after reading both my father's reply and your reply, I'm afraid my essay may have been unclear in ways I didn't intend.

I definitely did not mean to suggest that "Intelligent Design" is any kind of science, any more than the things they teach in French or History class are science. From all I can tell, it is just a desperate attempt to take the Christian religion, and make it more palatable by dressing it up in scientific clothes. I wasn't trying to argue that it is anything more than that.

I wish they didn't have to dress it up. Science is not the only path to truth, and you don't have to pretend something is science in order to make a case for it. But they do have to dress it up to try to get it into the schools, and I was just trying to articulate why that is so very, very important to so many people.

From: Richard Felder
August 11, 2008

Amen to Michelle. Teaching science should definitely include teaching its limitations, including the fact that at base every theory rests on unprovable axioms. The "best" theory isn't the one that's correct, but simply the one that explains the greatest number of observations with the fewest axioms, and one responsibility of the scientist is to always examine assumptions and remain open to the possibility of finding a better theory. If you teach that in school, not only are you teaching what science is, you're teaching critical thinking. The failure to do that is in my opinion responsible for most of the messes our planet currently finds itself in.

At this point, the Theory of Evolution meets the explanation/axioms criterion and so must be considered the "best" existing theory. It's possible that something will eventually come along to replace it, but it will only do so if it meets the criterion better than Evolution does.

From: Michelle Williams
August 11, 2008

Thanks. :-)

Kenny, you say "I wish they didn't have to dress it up." Do you mean:

  1. You wish they'd teach ID in Science class?
  2. You wish they'd teach it in public school in another class? Comparative Religions is one that comes to mind.
  3. You think this whole separation of church and state thing is bogus?
I don't think you mean any of those, really. I guess what we don't get from your essay is what you think the right answer is here. Pretty clearly, it's not "teach ID or even the controversy" in Science class. "Science is not the only path to truth, and you don't have to pretend something is science in order to make a case for it." What class should they teach that in? And is that even part of the purview of a public school?

It occurs: Answering "what is the right answer?" wasn't the point of your essay. Some of us need to be hit harder over the head w/ that statement. ;)

From: Kenny Felder
August 11, 2008

Well, your penultimate statement is definitely correct: I did not offer a right answer. I wanted to present both sides of a dilemma, and show some of their shortcomings. I do the same thing in a number of my essays (such as the one on health care). It's not that I'm shy about sharing my opinions (obviously), but often I'm worried that they will distract from my real point: someone who doesn't agree with the last paragraph will throw the whole thing away.

From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

I don't think you are really representing the scientific side of this debate. I think you correctly suggest that the ID people frame the debate in terms of scientific evidence when that is not what it's really about for most of them. I think your discussion of what it means to them emotionally is right on the money, but you don't follow it through to any conclusion. Should we teach Genesis as an alternative to Darwin in the schools because a lot of people believe it and feel strongly about it? If so, it becomes a numbers game. How many fundamentalist Christians are there in the U.S.? Or in the world? Which number matters? If we teach the bible as a viable cosmology, do we just teach the origin-of-the-world part or the parts about redemption and damnation too? How many devout muslims are in the country and at what point does that need to be taught as well? I think the status quo is to say that we teach science and we not only allow private schools for the rich but also home schooling for the middle class, which is obviously the route taken by many fundamentalist Christians. I'm not saying it's a perfect solution, but I note that you carefully avoid taking any stance in this essay on what the right solution is. (In between me writing this and sending it to you other people posted similar comments and you replied with an explanation of why you didn't take a stand in this essay.)

From: Matthew M
September 29, 2008

Dear Mr. Felder,

I read your intelligent design essay and I emphatically disagree with you on several points. I have studied the intelligent design controversy since I heard about the film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed". Since then, I have read several articles as well as scientific papers on the subject and I have reached the conclusion that intelligent design is a valid scientific theory.

So my first point of disagreement is your equating "Mr. Intelligent Design" with "Mr. Let's-Teach-Genesis-in-the-Science-Classroom". There is a bewildering amount of confusion floating around on intelligent design, which is constantly reinforced by not only personal biases but also the media as well as farces like the Dover case. Intelligent design is viewed differently by different groups of people, and I'll try to keep this brief:

As viewed by proponents: "Intelligent design is a valid scientific theory."

As viewed by creationists: "Intelligent design as a 'valid scientific theory' is a cover for creationism."

As viewed by atheists: "Intelligent design is creationism in a Trojan Horse, backed up by fundamentalist Christians to boot."

As viewed by evolutionists: "Intelligent design is unscientific religious dogma, and should be banned from all legitimate scientific discussion."

Finally, as viewed by the public: "Intelligent design is a valid scientific theory/is a cover for creationism/is creationism in a Trojan Horse/is unscientific religious dogma."

You see where I'm going with this? (Isn't it ironic that both atheists and creationists have virtually the same viewpoint?)

My point is that I believe, according to the evidence I have gathered and the research I have conducted, that intelligent design is a valid pursuit. Of course, this alone doesn't mean that you should rewrite your viewpoint to match mine; that's preposterous! What I am saying is that I hope you take a closer look at what the theory of intelligent design is rather than leaping to conclusions.

This is a fairly long message, so I'll stop here. I hope you've found this email stimulating.

P. S. In case I didn't make myself absolutely clear, I am in the "As viewed by the public" category on the side of the "intelligent design is a valid scientific theory" viewpoint.

From: Kenny Felder
September 30, 2008

I feel like you wound up talking around your point and never quite getting to it. If ID is a valid scientific theory that really is separate from religion, then what is it?

From: Matthew M
September 30, 2008

In response to your question, yes, I didn't really define what intelligent design was. It was late when I wrote that letter and I had spent a good deal of the energy I had left elucidating what I had already written. My apologies if this resulted in confusion.

Intelligent design, broadly stated, is the theory that certain features of the natural world and living things within that world are best explained by some sort of intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. This has provoked immense backlash and hostility, because of the obvious counter-claim that the only sort of "designer" this theory could be talking about is some kind of divinity: namely, the Christian God. However, that is not a feature of the theory itself. Now, to be certain, many proponents of the theory take the implications as pointing to the Christian God, being as they are devout people (and please note that not only Christians are proponents of this theory: there are also agnostic, deist, and uncommitted theist proponents, as well).

As to what the theory entails in terms of actual scientific or mathematical statements, William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher who has held positions at Baylor University (Associate Research Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science) as well as currently at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth (Research Professor in Philosophy). His mathematical arguments for the theory of intelligent design are absolutely beyond me; but they seem plausible inasmuch as I can make sense of them! :) (As a fellow scientist, perhaps you might be interested in them?)

Here, I'll quote from "Through the study and analysis of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof." As to whether or not intelligent design is creationism in scientific clothes, I'll let this other quote speak for itself: "No. The theory of intelligent design is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the "apparent design" in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism typically starts with a religious text and tries to see how the findings of science can be reconciled to it. Intelligent design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural."

I hope this brings clarity to you. Please let me know if you have any more questions, but keep in mind that the only educational degree I have is a high school diploma. The rest of me is just thirsty for truth.

From: Kenny Felder
October 1, 2008

Well, that's certainly more than I knew! Still, I have to conclude that the primary battle being fought here is a religious one, not a scientific one. If someone proposed a new theory that might explain gravity better than Einstein, you wouldn't see a whole bunch of people (many of whom have little or no scientific background) lobbying legislatures to get it into the schools. What you would see is a gradual acceptance in the scientific community (possibly taking decades and definitely requiring a lot of careful weighing of evidence), followed by an even more gradual push into the curriculum.

I'm not disagreeing with anything you said, of course. But I think it's an important point to make. As I said in my essay, if people are going to argue from their religious convictions, I want them to do it honestly, and not with a feeling that they have to cloak it in a scientific guise. Traditionally, religion was regarded as a higher philosophy than science, and I still subscribe to that idea.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

 Send comments or questions to the author