Friday, January 06, 2006

The Voice of Reason: Where Science Ends and Faith Begins

NB: This essay is the first installment in a new op-ed program at CAC.

‘Intelligent design’ is not science; it is faith, and it must be treated as such

Advocates of “intelligent design” are gearing up their fight to teach the controversial theory now that U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III has ruled that the religious-based explanation for the formation of the universe and human evolution may not be taught in Pennsylvania public schools. The debate over intelligent design is important, because at root is the idea of “certainty” and the method by which scientific truths are established.

Proponents of teaching intelligent design in the public schools argue that evolution is a “theory” and ask why shouldn’t their theory be allowed equal time in a science class. The problem with this position is that a scientific theory and an intelligent design theory are two very different things.

To explain facts, scientific theories rely on observation for support. For example, to explain the origin of species, evolutionary biology draws upon field data from the ongoing changes that occur among populations of organisms, fossil data from plants and animals that no longer exist, data regarding the temporal and geographic distribution of genetic markers, and experiments that attempt to replicate the conditions of species-change in the laboratory. Some facts have yet to be explained fully. For example, we are not yet sure how some of the simplest parts of living things originated nor precisely how spoken language evolved.

Admitting the unknown facts regarding human origins, however, doesn’t mean that the explanations aren’t out there, waiting to be identified. The unknown is the unfinished business of evolutionary biology, a business in which today’s most promising grade school students might one day play a part in completing. Properly speaking, evolution is a “theory,” but it is entirely based on evidence, and an important part of scientists’ jobs is to identify how what is known can be used to discover what is not yet known.

Contrast the theory of evolution with the theory of intelligent design. The proponents of intelligent design argue that the world is simply too complex (or too “perfect,” implying that there could be an imperfect reality) to explain the origins of life and human intelligence. These proponents argue that ultimately only the intervention of a creator can explain man’s existence. Thereafter, there is no unfinished business for the researcher because an intelligent designer is not subject to further observation and experiment.

To evaluate this idea, it is useful to draw a parallel: imagine a scientist trying to find a cure for cancer through such reasoning. Like the origins of life and language, cancer is complex; it behaves strangely, and its nature is hard to pin down. Should the scientist then conclude that only God’s intervention causes cancer? Obviously, no real scientist would draw that conclusion, and it would be absurd to teach an intelligent design theory of cancer. Instead, researchers assume that the cause of cancer is ultimately caused by the interaction of the materials that make up our observable physical world, and they are working to discover what those interactions are so that they can control them and thereby discover a cure for the disease.

Philosophically, the proponents of intelligent design are wrong because they assume the existence or “primacy” of a consciousness that shapes the universe when no such evidence exists, or is even possible. None of the advocates of intelligent design can point to God and say, “Look there—you can see Him” and not rely upon faith to justify their claim. This is why intelligent design theory—whether applied to the origins of life or cancer—is not scientific. It eschews observation, experimentation and any kind of natural causality. What it attempts is to deny the essential process of science—explaining the complex and unknown by means of investigating the less complex and better understood. Because intelligent design theory is simply an article of faith, disconnected from the observation of reality, it should neither be taught in the science classes of public schools (which must maintain a separation of church and state) nor even in the science classes of religious schools that attempt to prepare the scientists of the next generation.

The theory of creationism and intelligent design may be worthy of study, possibly in a class on intellectual history. History, the field of study that examines the ideas held by men and how they act upon those thoughts, might properly document the fate of the theory of intelligent design, its proponents and its cultural effects. However, this hypothetical curriculum must in no way change how science is taught. Competing faiths may belong in a history class, but in science class, only competing scientific theories deserve attention.

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