Intelligent Design in schools?

By Brian Edgar

There was, a little while ago, a very public debate about whether the teaching of Intelligent Design should be banned in Australian schools. There are strong advocates for doing this it and the suggestion inevitably produces tensions. The situation in Australia, however, is not as heated as in the USA, partly because the processes by which curricula are established are different, and this tends to reduce the level of tension. Nonetheless, it remains a controversial issue.

Unfortunately, I reckon there is, in Australia, a general lack of theological understanding about what intelligent design actually is and what it achieves; public uncertainty about what it means for Australian public education to be ‘secular’; confusion about what is means to be ‘scientific’ and the relationship of science to other disciplines and a general difficulty in understanding the nature of Australian Christianity in general, and evangelicalism in particular, when compared and contrasted with North America

The following discussion deals with three dimensions of the one issue and attempts to clarify the issues in a way that is probably impossible in the popular media where there are so many voices with quite different assumptions and intentions.

  1. Biblical and theological issues associated with intelligent design
  2. Implications for social level – nature of faith/religion in public education in ‘secular’ Australia
  3. What it means at a political level

This material was prepared under the title  Should Intelligent Design be Taught in Schools? A question for theology and education in a secular society
for the Australian Evangelical Alliance . It can be downloaded in that form. The first part of the paper, after the introduction,  appears below, commencing with the second section:

After the introduction the argument proceeds:

2. Biblical and theological issues

2.1 The first area of confusion simply revolves around what ‘intelligent design’ actually is.

2.1.1 Many people hold to a very general understanding of intelligent design.

A general understanding operates along the lines that certain aspects of the universe, especially living things, exhibit all the characteristics of something that has been designed by some intelligence. And for many people it makes sense for this intelligent designer to be known as ‘God’. There is absolutely nothing new about the general form of this argument. Forms of it have been around since Aristotle and the Greek philosophers and it is found in traditional Islamic and Jewish as well as Christian theology. Many Christians would see reference to it in Paul’s letter to the Romans when he justifies God’s condemnation of the unrighteous because ‘what may be known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without any excuse.’ (1:19-20).

Historically, Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas have developed arguments based on the idea of apparent design and order in the world. Aquinas offered five versions of intelligent design arguments, although it is probably fair to say that the first four are really different forms of the same argument. Often known as the Cosmological argument it suggests that because nothing comes to be with out a cause that one can trace back all events via a chain of causes until one comes to, by definition, the first cause. This first cause is necessarily without cause (otherwise it wouldn’t be the first one) and is to be identified with God. It suffers seriously from the assumptions it involves (why, for instance could there not be an infinite chain of causes?) and the jump from a first cause to the notion of God.

The fifth of Aquinas’s arguments, the so-called Teleological, argument is really a development of the cosmological argument and it has more credence with many people. It argues that the world reveals order, purpose, intelligence and design which implies the existence of some intelligent, even moral creator. ‘We see that things … act for an end … it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly.  Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end … therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.’  Also associated with this argument is William Paley (1743-1805) whose form of the argument, often known as ‘Paley’s Watch’ is noteworthy.  He suggested that anyone finding a watch who did not previously know of the existence of such a thing would, after close investigation of it, inevitably conclude that it was an object that had been designed and that somewhere there was a designer. He argued that the same should be concluded about the world and that this designer is God.

So, for many other people ID is a reference to a fairly general notion that the world looks as though it was designed by God and that this really makes one think. For other people however, it is something much more precise.

2.1.2 There is a very specific form of ID, especially for those who are aware of recent debates and controversies in the USA.

This form of ID is a cluster of ideas related to the work of theorists such as Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski and organisations such as the Center for Science and Culture. Intellectually, these ideas include, but are not restricted to, specific arguments concerning irreducible complexity (IC) as an alternative to evolutionary theory (ET), the anthropic principle (AP), specified complexity (SC) and God as the intelligent designer (ID). It is useful to understand the detail of these arguments but at this point it is sufficient to note that ‘intelligent design’ in this context is actually a cluster of scientific, philosophical and theological ideas and concepts that have been brought together but which can often operate separately.

Those familiar with the history of design arguments, which have long been an essential part of courses in theology and the philosophy of religion, are likely to be a little surprised at the way some people treat the present resurgence of the design argument as though it was a complete novelty. The theorists presenting it, of course, certainly know the history of the argument and there are some new features in the recent discussions (some of them perhaps unwelcome) which give rise to new aspects for debate. The polarisation of the debate in the USA, and, to some extent as imported into Australia, has produced arguments for and against which are simply too extreme. Part of the problem lies in the way ID arguments are often interpreted in our modernist, rationalist, ‘scientific’ and very secular context. This has led to many mis-understandings of what design arguments can achieve and what they are actually intended to do. It is unhelpful to assume that all forms of the argument are the same, or, for instance, that are all intended to be a ‘scientific proof’ of anything.

The various components of the arguments about ID, IC, AP and so forth have become the focus of vigorous debate in the US and, despite what some people think, it is not a two sided debate in which theists argue in favour of these arguments and atheists or secularists oppose them. It is much more complex that that. Many Christian scientists and theologians argue that some or all of the components of the program put forward as ID are defective and even potentially dangerous to either  (or both) good theology or good science and sometimes atheists weigh in on the side of ID theorists. The only substantial difference for them is that God is not the intelligent designer but some alien life that is more advanced in its interaction with other parts of the universe than humanity is at this point in time.

2.2 Generally, intelligent design arguments are subject to criticism, but some forms of it still have value.

Now it is well known that the general ID argument is subject to question and criticism. Difficult questions for ID include: Does evidence of design prove the existence of a designer? Can design emerge within a system without an external designer? How does this account of the universe account for apparent flaws in the design: why is there suffering and pain in the world? If there is a designer can one conclude that this is God? And if so, what kind of God? Does it prove anything about God’s nature, name or character? Is the attempt to ‘prove’ God contrary to the Christian notion of faith? Is there, in fact, any theological value in the notion of a God who can be proved by rational means?

However, although the general consensus is that the argument does not stand either logically or theologically as a ‘proof’ of God, this argument and a number of other arguments which seek to prove and disprove God, will not die. They continue to be discussed in theology and philosophy of religion classes. And for very good reason. It should be noted that the question ‘should intelligent design be taught in schools’ has already been answered in that it already does exist, very appropriately, in secondary school philosophy courses. The problem is that philosophy is such an undervalued subject that few people take it. This relates to the modernist division of disciplines, but more on that later.

The failure of the teleological argument to achieve the goal of proving God does not mean that it is, as some would then suggest, without value. It can be used to raise questions in the mind of those who do not believe in God or a designer who can reasonably asked whether their explanation is more reasonable. Apart from anything else it is apparent that the apostle Paul was prepared to use one form of it. In fact, it can be argued that the attempt to see it as a definitive proof is misplaced and that it ought to be seen, as some of its proponents have insisted, not as a definitive proof but as a rational explanation of what is believed on other grounds. And there is nothing in principle wrong with this as human beings often act on other than on the basis of previously considered and demonstrably rational grounds. A rational argument for acting in a particular way may subsequently be offered without anyone requiring that such a reason be completely thought out beforehand and without it being a comprehensive demonstration that it was the only action that should reasonably have been taken. The expression ‘faith in search of understanding’ is often associated with those notable Christian writers and defenders of the faith, Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury, who both considered design arguments at length. Altogether, it is quite reasonable to understand faith in God as being supported, but not proved, by rational argument.

ID arguments also fulfil a useful function in the modern context in that they present a challenge to the assumption that scientific explanations are all that is needed to explain the world. There are those who want to keep ID out of the science class-room because they do not believe in any religious realm at all. They usually (though not always) are confused about the nature of causation and think that a purely physical explanation is sufficient to provide a basis for meaning, life, ethics and so on. They often do not realise that invoking evolution or chance as an ultimate cause and as a completely sufficient explanation which negates the need for God is actually as much as ‘religious’ position as the claim that God is an intelligent designer. In other words they are keen on removing one particular religious position form the class-room while (often unconsciously but sometimes deliberately) promoting another. The belief that God is not needed as an explanation is a matter of ‘faith’ as much as the view that God is needed.

There are also those who want to keep ID out of the classroom because although they are believers their conviction is that these two different realms of thought need to be kept separate. One realm is scientific, which deals with matters of the physical world, and the other is the spiritual which deals with matters of faith and ethics and so forth. They integrate these realms in their personal lives and have no problem seeing, for example, faith as dealing with ‘why’ and science with ‘how’. But these distinctions are reflected in the way they see science as quite separate from faith in, for example, school curricula. While this is an advance on the former position in that it recognises the reality of the spiritual world it is far from adequate and the overall effect of this position over a long period of time has not been entirely helpful.

Firstly, it allows the confusion of causes which many have to continue and does nothing to help people come to a clearer understanding of the situation with regard to the often unconscious confusion of scientific explanations with ontological ones. Secondly, it ignores the fact that the areas can and should be more integrated more as the world moves into an increasingly post-modern context. The world is changing and greater levels of integration of areas of knowledge are essential. The process of integration is difficult but it cannot be ignored. It is taking place in a number of areas and in each case it produces tensions. But those who think that the post-Enlightenment, modernist, secular form of education which separates or even excludes values, meanings and God-talk from education and implicitly devalues ‘non-scientific’ approaches  is not helpful or adequate. We need to find a better way.

In addition to those who want to keep God-talk completely out of the class-room there are those who want to be able to engage in such talk but who simply think that the current ID movement is neither good theology nor good science. The deficiencies of the latest form of ID must be explored.

2.3 Certain specific components of design arguments have insurmountable difficulties

It is only since the early 1990’s that a more refined and precise set of arguments have come to be known in some quarters as ‘Intelligent Design’. It has some distinctive arguments relating to irreducible complexity and sometimes the anthropic principle. For some people if you don’t have irreducible complexity then you don’t have ID. In fact, it is very likely that a good number of people (though not the ID theorists themselves) who are unaware of the longer history of intelligent design arguments think that irreducible complexity (IC) and the work of Behe, Johnson and Dembski is all that there is to intelligent design. That is a problem when people wish to reject aspects of IC.

The IC argument suggests that evolution through mutation and natural selection cannot work in all situations via the gradual steps usually postulated by evolutionary theory because none of the component parts which develop prior to the formation of the final entity would be functional or advantageous until the entire system is in place. Therefore there would be no natural selection favouring those prior forms and their selection would be unlikely. There is some difference of opinion on precisely what the argument proves. The strong claim, usually associated with its original proponents, comes in two parts: (a) that it disproves evolution by being an alternative explanation and (b) that it therefore proves that a designer (ie God) exists. A weaker form of the argument is that it does not prove that God exists but that some designer exists (maybe alien life) or perhaps simply that it challenges the opposite, and equally unverifiable assumption held by some (but by no means all evolutionary theorists) that everything in life can be explained by a naturalistic form of science which excludes God and all transcendent meaning and purpose.

So far the specific examples used to demonstrate IC and the alleged difficulty of explaining why intermediate forms would be selected have completely failed to persuade the scientific community.  No properly refereed scientific journal has an article which purports to demonstrate such a situation.  This has led to accusations of scientific prejudice and bias in favour of naturalistic models but such a claim is difficult to sustain given the number of scientists that are actually believers.

Not only has IC failed to persuade the scientific community but it has produced a strong reaction from those who argue that it is dangerous if the idea of a designer is, by itself, a sufficient explanation for the existence of an entity and that further scientific research is unnecessary once a designer is postulated. Any such suggestion (and it is not one advanced by all theorists) should be rejected. It is an unscientific approach to examining the natural world which inhibits proper research. There is a sense in which scientific research must be ‘methodologically atheist’. That is, in those areas accessible to scientific research the notion of God cannot become an alternative explanation to a scientific one. For example, it would be inappropriate to describe in scientific detail the processes involved in clouds becoming rain, and then the processes involved in the subsequent formation of streams and rivers moving to the sea, and then, in the absence of a full scientific understanding of evaporative processes to say simply that water becomes cloud again by the action of God. If that is taken as a satisfactory alternative to an understanding of evaporation and cloud formation it would not only inhibit further scientific research into the actual processes but it would suggest that God is involved in only some activities (the movement of water to cloud) but not in the rest of the processes of rain and the formation of water tables and so forth.

The same principles apply in the more controversial area of the origin of living entities. The action of God, the ultimate cause, should not be confused with intermediate causes of a physical nature. When the action of God is used to fill in for scientific processes this usually known as a God-of-the-gaps approach. God only fills in the gaps where scientific understanding is limited. The result in such a situation is that when the scientific processes are actually discovered there appears to be no place for God at all. It is a scientifically inappropriate approach and a theologically deficient view of God. Thus it is a matter of some concern when the more recent proponents of ID and IC either directly advocate or suggest that scientific explanations are be alternatives to theological ones.  Interestingly, those who stand at the opposite ends of the spectrum on the matter of creation and evolution frequently make the same mistake. There is a form of scientific imperialism which believes that proving evolutionary theory disproves the existence of God, as well as a theological imperialism which does the reverse. Both are equally fallacious.

The rest of the article can be read by downloading it via the link above. It includes a discussion of the social and educational issues involved; argues that simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers to the question ‘should ID be taught in school’ are often unhelpful; analyses the nature of a ‘soft’ secular society and concludes that present debate about ID is an excellent case-study in cultural change. It cannot be resolved without reference to broad-scale social issues as well as the detailed analysis of philosophical, scientific and cultural issues.

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