2005-08-04

Religious qualms with intelligent design

In their last issue, The Economist ran a piece on intelligent design in the schools, "Intelligent design rears its head: It's subtler than creationism, and may be coming soon to a classroom near you". This bit touched on what I find so problematic about intelligent design:
With its claims (however spurious) of scientific respectability, intelligent design promises to reconcile mass anti-evolutionism with science. Strict creationism has been long discredited and, since the Supreme Court decision of Edwards v Aguillard (1987), may not be taught in state schools. But intelligent design is a different matter. Its proponents accept that the earth is billions of years old. They agree that gene mutation and natural selection occur within species, though not necessarily between species. They concede that scientific method, not biblical authority, is the arbiter of truth. Proponents do not even demand that intelligent design should replace evolution in the classroom, merely that schools should "teach the controversy" (which they themselves have created). In short, religious Americans who find evolution distasteful are jumping at the chance to teach an alternative that claims to be science.
As a religious person (or whatever), I'm quite comfortable with the idea that God was involved with getting the world to where it is today, and I think there's quite a lot of theological wiggle-room as to how that involvement went and what it amounted to. Obviously, my qualms with intelligent design aren't objections to a divine role. My objections are twofold:
  1. Intelligent design purports to be science — it isn't. This claim has received a lot of attention elsewhere, so I won't add much. Suffice it to say that the theory of intelligent design, even if it is true, isn't a scientific theory and is not the product of scientific methods (whatever exactly they are). This leads to my second, and more important, objection…
  2. Intelligent design itself accepts the notion that science is the way to truth: it justifies it's assertion of respectability by claiming to be better science than the going evolutionary theory. Whether this claim is made honestly or is merely part of a strategy to persuade is besides the point. What matters is that it perpetuates the idea that science offers the exclusive pathway to knowledge of the world, and it is this idea that is incompatible with religious belief (or at least any religion founded on revelation). The most that religion can accept is that science is but one way to truth, and that where the conclusions of science irreconcilably conflict with the tenets of religion, the truth obtained through science is qualified as merely the perspective on ultimate reality by certain methods and tools.
Succinctly put, intelligent design suffers from two faults which are fatal to any doctrine deployed in support of religion:
First, its principle claims are false and misleading and, to many, transparently so. Those people are in large part not religious — it is a shame that more religious people are not among them! — and the association of intelligent design with religion impugns religion in their eyes.
Second, it endorses the priority of science in arriving at truth. To my mind, scientism is a far greater threat to religion than evolution ever was. Evolution, on the other hand, poses its greatest threat to bad theology, which we religious people should be glad to be rid of.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like intelligent design because Darwinian evolution seems too simpistic. Intelligent design seems to be a reformed typed of creationism that conforms to federal establishment of religion laws and raises doubts about the theory generally. So what's wrong with a wider viewpoint? Except that it disagrees with established Darwinian science, which became established without scientific challenge because Creationists were taking a beating in the courts. Federal courts had to decide the merits of the cases before them, not advise on how to improve cases with repeated efforts. A theory of intelligent design would permit for involvement by Martians, Inter-galactic Space Aliens, and several dietites from earth's main and non-mainstream religions. Maybe the only religious fundamentalists who are intolerant to that type of exploration are Darwinians themselves.

But I wouldn't encourage independent thinkers to get too far ahead of the class on an understanding of the subject. Revenge from science teachers can have far-reaching impacts on those who have a real love of knowledge and exploration.

04 August, 2005 03:50  
Blogger miriam said...

i will admit that i have often made the "science needs to be recognized as one of many systems," etc. argument. however, i do think that there is something to 'movements' like intelligent design (or g. schroder's books, etc.) - it's all very nice to say epistemologically, that "scientism" is incompatible with religion, etc, but at ome point people still want to know
1- what * really happened,* and
2- whether what "science" says is truly incompatible with religion.

most modern people, honestly, look to science to answer questions like (1) most of the time, until they get to a sticky situation like evolution where the purported randomness rubs their religious sensibilities the wrong way. (recall that the ordinary theory of evolution specifically precludes any sort of teleology, and that according to it 'nature' will regularly choose paths that are sub-optimal in the long term, etc.) then they get into (2) territory and need an alternative answer in (1). however, they would like that answer to fit a many of the facts of contemporary science as possible. (insert unecessary kuhnian explication regarding paradigms and anomalies here)

theories like intelligent design try to take as much as they can from scinece - hte aprts that can be assimilated, with a little "wiggle," into a religious worldview, while not accepting the grand synthesis that many religious people find amoral. there's nothing so wrong with that, is there?

04 August, 2005 17:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science and religion have been at odds for about 500 years now, so it's not likely to change anytime soon. Yet with each new scientific breakthrough, religion has not yet been killed off. In fact, today there are probably a greater percentage of humanity practicing a form of religion than there was when the Pope excommunicated Galileo for asserting that the earth rotated around the sun.

At some point, faith either in scientists or religion prevails because any individual's ability to understand all knowledge is finite.

For example, in courtroom evidence, I can judge for myself if fingerprints are a good match, but DNA matches aren't linked to anything but englarged photographs of lab tests. At some point, the ability to judge for yourself is replaced by what other humans say is so. How could a defendant jump up from the table and say, "that's not my DNA profile" as he or she could say "that's not my fingerprint"?

I'm not a luddite. I'm just trying to not be too much more of a lemming.

Natural selection seems to make sense, but when you see economic Darwinism at work, there's such quick adaptation that the life spans we see in nature are, well, unnatural. Shouldn't the acorn grow to the mighty oak in a single season to maximize its chance of survival?

05 August, 2005 15:50  
Blogger miriam said...

anonymous 2, i'm not sure what your main point was, but you seem at least at the end to imply that evolution seems an unlikely explanation for things biological because the world should be more poerfect if things responded to selective pressures:

"Shouldn't the acorn grow to the mighty oak in a single season to maximize its chance of survival?"

the short answer to this, from an evolutionary perspective is, no.

evolution does not imply that the universe we have is the most efficient possible. (more interestingly, see my post before, and #3 below: scientists can't claim that evolution will ever produce the most efficient, in the long term, universe ever)
this has three facets:
1- biologists will claim that life is still changing, so for all we know oak trees are evolving to grow taller faster.
2- there are probably downsides to growing too fast, whether by genetic quirk (randomly related traits that are affected) or genuine tradeoff (eg, maybe growing faster means being less complex).
3- evolution is necessarily shortsighted, so in general (though this doesn't apply to the tall trees example), there may be an optimal situation that is never realized because a sub-optimal situation produces better results short-term.

sorry if i'm being pedantic, but evolution is one of my favorite rants...

08 August, 2005 19:28  
Blogger ginsbu said...

Regarding anonymous #2, Miriam said it better that I would have, so: "What she said."

As for Miriam herself: hmm...
I don't disagree exactly... I am quite sympathetic to attempting to make for oneself an integrated outlook, and she seems to be spinning intelligent design as the outcome of that sort of activity. But I get nervous when I believe that isn't being done honestly and with an appropriate degree of responsibility.

The concerns I raised in my post are what make me nervous about intelligent design in particular, and lead me to think that honesty and responsibility are being sacrificed to an agenda with insufficient forethought. An honest position wouldn't portray itself as a scientific theory when it isn't (and can't be), and a responsible position doesn't endorse a primacy of one way of knowing when that way of knowing isn't compatible with its fundamental commitments (even though they may appear compatible at the moment). If you are trying to push a religious agenda, though, adopting just this sort of position might look to be quite effective, so long as people don't pick of on these problems (or don't want to).

What I attempted to do at the end of my post was to point out two ways in which intelligent design is damaging to religion and so should not be endorsed by someone pushing a religious agenda, regardless of how attractive it looks as a way of furthering that agenda for the moment. Intelligent design is not a "white lie" that fulfills its purpose with no damage done; rather, it is likely to have consequences that ultimately undermine religion.

08 August, 2005 20:17  

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