What is it really about?

| 14 Comments

A high school student doing an article on evolution and Intelligent Design for her school newspaper asked me for a summary “in simple language of what the issue between intelligent design and evolution in Kansas really is.” This was a good but challenging suggestion.

In response I sent her the following:

The theory of evolution has met with resistance ever since it was proposed, even though the theory has become solidly accepted by the world’s scientific community as a fundamental, unifying concept in biology.

The main reason for this resistance is that the theory of evolution conflicts with some aspects of some people’s religious beliefs. Some people hold beliefs about the world that are just not supported by science, such as believing that the earth is only 6000 years old.

Others have a more philosophical objection that the theory of evolution denies the existence of God - that the theory of evolution is atheistic; and thus denies any purpose or source of morality for human beings. This belief about the nature of science is false: many people and many mainstream religions believe that evolution is not in conflict with their religious beliefs.

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the latest version of this anti-evolution perspective. Intelligent Design advocates claim that there is scientific evidence that the natural causes could not have produced all aspects of life, and that therefore an Intelligent Designer (which is clearly understand to be God despite their reluctance to say that sometimes) must have been involved.

However, Intelligent Design has had virtually no impact on science: it has made no testable hypotheses, proposed no empirical methodologies, and derived no data from its claims. The scientific community has found nothing valid about Intelligent Design at this point.

The real issue here is the nature of God. Those people who believe in God (primarily Christians in our society) and who also accept the theory of evolution believe that God is continually and pervasively present in the physical world, every moment, and that He works through natural causes in ways that are beyond our comprehension (and beyond scientific investigation.) For these people, God has guided the evolutionary process described by science just as God guides each of our lives in ways that are beyond our direct observation and comprehension.

Intelligent Design, however, seems to claim that most of the time natural causes act on their own; and that periodically God has intervened, in a way that science can detect, in order to produce some aspects of life.

More importantly, the Intelligent Design movement believes that those who believe in God and accept evolution are wrong. In fact, Intelligent Design founder Philip Johnson has said that such Christians “are worse than atheists because they hide their naturalism behind a veneer of religion.”

This is the philosophical background of the problem. Now let’s look at current political and educational issues.

The Intelligent Design movement has tried to influence various educational policies, including state science standards, in a number of states in the past five years. Here in Kansas we are now revising the state science standards. Also, we will have a majority of state Board members next year who support the ID cause. The concern is that these Board members will add Intelligent Design-influenced content to the standards.

Science standards are meant to summarize the basic essential knowledge that all schools should incorporate into their science curricula. These ID arguments have no place in the science standards for two reasons. First, they are not basic essential scientific knowledge - as noted above, they have made no impact on science, much less become established as core mainstream knowledge.

Secondly, the issues raised by ID are primarily religious, philosophical, and cultural. There are places in which this whole issue might be appropriately present in the high school curriculum, but not as science, and certainly not as fundamental science contained in the state standards.

It is common and appropriate for science teachers to discuss topics which relate science to larger issues, such as environmental issues, bioethics issues, and so on. A science teacher might take a small amount of time to discuss the general issue of resistance to evolution as a cultural issue, much as he or she might discuss other “current events” type issues.

There are, however, a number of reasons why this might be hard to expect. First, many science teachers lack the background to tackle this issue. Secondly, there is a lack of appropriate materials for a teacher to draw upon. More importantly, any materials that might try to discuss the topic in an evenhanded manner would undoubtedly arouse strong objections from someone. Furthermore, those who object to evolution would want their objections taught as science, not as an issue of religious or philosophical differences, and that would not be appropriate.

The sad truth is that because of the strong feelings of people who object to evolution (which is not surprising given the ways in which they see evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs), many teachers shy away from teaching evolution itself because of their apprehension about arousing student and parental objections. Given that environment, explicitly bringing up the issue of these objections as an element of larger cultural disagreements is probably not something many science teachers would want to do.

And last, in all cases a teacher would have to be careful about not crossing the line between teaching about different metaphysical or religious perspectives to teaching for a particular perspective. It would be wrong for a teacher to teach, even implicitly, that any one of these metaphyical perspectives is correct, be it young-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, materialistic atheism, or whatever. Teaching the various ways that those perspectives see the nature and content of scientific knowledge, despite how useful it might be, would be a daunting task that most science teachers would probably want to avoid.

Science teachers want to teach science, and within science the theory of evolution is the accepted theory for how life evolved to its present state of diversity. It would be good for students to learn about some of the ways in which people reconcile (or fail to reconcile) this scientific knowledge with larger belief systems, but expecting science teachers to do this well would be asking a lot.

[Note: the last two paragraphs were edited at 7:00 pm, 10-10-04, to respond to suggestions made and/or confusions about what I meant as reflected in the first three comments below.]

14 Comments

Jack,

A very nice piece, except (I regret to say) for the last paragraph. There really are degrees of “correctness” at least in science. While a teacher should be wary of urging one or another philosophical/metaphysical view as correct, there are certainly more and less correct assertions about the data and theories of science and biology, and that needs to be crystal clear lest the argument that all views are equally valid and therefore all ought to be taught in science classes (the “teach the controversy” argument) be strengthened. You introduce your last three paragraphs with the appropriate reference to resistance to evolution as a cultural issue, but that you are referring to that question rather than the science may be lost by the last paragraph.

On the other hand, maybe I’m hyper-sensitive. :)

RBH

No, I agree. The last paragraph should be changed.

“It would be wrong for a teacher to teach, even implicitly, that any one perspective is correct, be it young-earth creationism,”

is incompatible with

“The main reason for this resistance is that the theory of evolution conflicts with some aspects of some people’s religious beliefs. Some people hold beliefs about the world that are just not supported by science, such as believing that the earth is only 6000 years old. “

Otherwise, good essay. Very lean and concise.

I understand why Jack implies that teachers should just “present the evidence” provided by science, as opposed to teaching with a certain perspective in mind.

Throughout the history of the “Evolution vs. Creationist” debate, scientists (myself included) have claimed, among other things, that the Creationist is simply just endorsing a theory that is motivated by faith-based beliefs. For a scientist, it would be unconscionable to tell another scientist that “My theory is correct, yours isn’t,” SOLELY on the basis that he/she believed it was true - that is, without presenting any sort of emperical evidence (or logical possibility for the future acquisition of emperical evidence through scientific experimentation).

But, to many scientists, this is what the Creationist does with every argument against evolution.

And, to put it bluntly, this is quite a turn-off to many evolutionists.

So, we have scientists who, in their opinion (and mine), have a large amount of unrefutable evidence for evolution. Plus, the Creationist - by arguing (in our opinion) with nonscientific tendencies - gives the evolutionist further motivation to not even CONSIDER their argument, much as cosmologists of today are sluggish to adopt (or even consider) astrophysical theories that could be construed as teleological.

In essence, Jack is simply trying to be fair. He was given the opportunity to tell a student what is really going on out there, and he didn’t want to go crazy and say that evolution was true because HE THOUGHT SO, but because that is where the evidence lies. He didn’t want to come off as a fanatic, and he overcompensated by trying not to make the same mistakes that so many of the Creationists have made.

Indeed, were the same opportunity to be given to a Creationist, I am not sure that they would be so unbiased. If this student had written an ID supporter, would the reply have been an invitation or argument for joining a specific religion or a belief in God, or would it be an explanation of the scientific FACTS about the organic history of our planet?

But, the reason his comment “It would be wrong for a teacher to teach, even implicitly, that any one perspective is correct…” is misplaced is because the biology teacher in this case is (hopefully) a scientist. I do not think it is wrong for a scientist to tell his/her students that one of the central tenets of science is correct, or at least likely.

I have strong doubts about the efficacy of a biology teacher who, after explaining cellular respiration, remarks, “Or, at least that is just what the evidence points towards. I am not sure if it is true or not, but you should learn it as it will be on the test.”

Of course, one could make the argument that nothing in the biological sciences is an irrefutable fact - and I would not argue this - but SCIENCE is, generally, in the business of acting on and presenting the experimental evidence as what drives our theory - and, ceterus peribus, this is taken to be as factual as we can get at this point in time.

Jack, I think we all appreciate your efforts to refrain from making this debate a mere slugfest. It is clear you understand that intelligent people DO NOT have to have the facts forced down their throats. In this manner, the job of science is simply to present the facts about our world, and people will make their decisions: on the facts, on their faith, or in some cases, a combination of the two.

simple:

You realize, I hope, that IDists don’t place the same value on evidence than you do, and this is part of the central conflict. Once again, you view IDists as bad scientists, while they view you as starting from philosophical error. In his book Intelligent Design, Dembski writes:

Christology tells us that the conceptual soundness of a scientific theory cannot be maintained apart from Christ. Christ is the light and the life of the world. All things were created by him and for him. Christ defines humanity, the world and its destiny. It follows that a scientist in trying to understand some aspect of the world, is in the first instance concerned with that aspect as it related to Christ - and this is true regardless of whether the scientist acknowledges Christ.

Not a whole lot of room in there for basing conclusions on evidence. The conclusions have long been known; the task of the scientist is to discover how the evidence fits them. And why is it so important that scientists do so? Because as things stand, as Philip Johnson tells us (in The Wedge Of Truth):

Once we learn that nature does not really do its own creating, and we are not really products of mindless natural forces that care nothing about us, we will have to re-examine a great deal else. In particular, we will need to have a new discussion about the nature of reason…and what we might mean by the true, the good and the beautiful. Upon what foundation should we build our theories about all these things? After seeing that trying to build everything on a foundation of matter has led us into a blind alley, we will have to look for something better. Once the question is put that way, Christians have an answer. Scientists as such do not. If reason is to be a reliable guide, it must be grounded in a foundation that is more fundamental than logic…Instrumental reason is not enough. That is why fear of the Lord is not the beginning of superstition but the beginning of wisdom.

Here we stare into the vacuum of the fat end of the ID wedge, where reason itself is disallowed except as it adheres to scripture. But whose interpretation of that scripture? A trip to Northern Ireland might provide the essential insight that Jack Krebs is tactfully avoiding. If reason is disqualified as a tool to resolve doctrinal disputes, than irrational methods stand ready. The target of the creationists is not science, but society and the (to them) hateful ideals of the Enlightenment.

Thanks for the feedback. I have edited the last paragraph, and added a new last paragraph, to make my meaning more clear (although it may now be less to simple’s liking.)

The key distinction is between our knowledge of the physical world, which science brings us, and our metaphysical beliefs which are arrived at in other ways and which includes an understanding of how the physical world relates to our notions of the metaphysical (or lack thereof, for the pure materialist.)

As I tried to make clear at the start, beliefs about the physical world, no matter how tied they are to religious beliefs, are subject to scientific investigation and therefore to invalidation. No matter how central it is to some people’s religious views, the earth is not 6000 years old and no science teacher should leave any doubt about that.

But in those areas where people hold beliefs that go beyond the scope of science, which includes the issue of whether there is a metaphysical or spiritual component to reality, science teachers must not teach that science supports or fails to support any one perspective.

So people have two options (to make a simple dichotomy.) People can have metaphysical belief systems which accept fully whatever scientific knowledge arises about the physical world, and then add understandings about the meaning, purpose, and nature of our spiritual self; or people can have metaphysical belief systems which make claims about the physical world. In this latter case, one’s metaphysics needs to be prepared to change

Intelligent Design claims that design is empirically detectable, and thus can be investigated by science. So far the science community see no validity in this claim. Teaching that God has periodically intervened in ways that supercede natural causes would be wrong, because that is a statement that falls within the realm of science, and it is, at this point, considered false.

What is the difference between the claim that “the theory of evolution is atheistic” is “false” because “many people and many mainstream religions believe that evolution is not in conflict with their religious beliefs,” and the claim that “the theory of evolution is atheistic” is “true” because “many people and many (nonmainstream?) religions believe that evolution is in conflict with their religious beliefs?”

Depending on how you use the word, evolution can be atheistic or not. Some religious people claim it doesn’t conflict with their beliefs, so it’s perhaps not necessarily atheistic. But if you define atheistic as a worldview in which god is not asserted to exist, you could call evolution atheistic. The problem stems with how people percieve atheism. Many think it means a strong denial of a god. If so, evolution’s not atheistic, it doesn’t deny a god. I think atheism’s better defined as ‘lacking a belief in a god’. Evolution’s compatible with atheism, and it’s claimed to be compatible with some forms of theism. You can say, though, that it’s incompatible with certain forms of theism, the kinds where they assert that god did x on day y, when science says z.

quote: *** What is the difference between the claim that “the theory of evolution is atheistic” is “false” because “many people and many mainstream religions believe that evolution is not in conflict with their religious beliefs,” and the claim that “the theory of evolution is atheistic” is “true” because “many people and many (nonmainstream?) religions believe that evolution is in conflict with their religious beliefs?” ***

It only takes one person who accepts evolution and believes in God to disprove the latter statement.

In this snippet from paragraph 6, I think you meant to use “understood”:

“therefore an Intelligent Designer (which is clearly understand to be God”. Good summary, IMHO.

It would be helpful to me if you defined the term ‘evolution’. In reviewing many textbooks, it seems as though the definition has undergone its own evolution. To determine how the term relates to religious beliefs, it is important to provide that definition. Is there a currently accepted definition of ‘evolution’?

To determine how the term relates to religious beliefs, it is important to provide that definition. Is there a currently accepted definition of ‘evolution’?

Terms may be defined, but nature must be discovered. ‘Definitions’ of things are better called descriptions, and as such are susceptible of being wrong.

Things (the process of evolution for instance) may be described in varying degrees of detail and accuracy. Broadly, evolution is the process of heritable change occurring in populations of living, reproducing organisms over generations.

I consider myself an athiest, so..this statement makes me think -

“I think atheism’s better defined as ‘lacking a belief in a god’.”

I neither deny the existance of a god nor deny that one can be proved…I only await the proof.

There are many things that I would LIKE to believe exist - in no particular order - Fairies, the atman, bigfoot, aliens, leuprechans, good will, telepathy, angels, reincarnation, Yggdrasil, Superman, god, the intelligence of the American voter and so many more..again…

I only await the scientific, reproducible proof..

Steve-O

I consider myself an athiest, so..this statement makes me think -

“I think atheism’s better defined as ‘lacking a belief in a god’.”

I neither deny the existance of a god nor deny that one can be proved…I only await the proof.

There are many things that I would LIKE to believe exist - in no particular order - Fairies, the atman, bigfoot, aliens, leuprechans, good will, telepathy, angels, reincarnation, Yggdrasil, Superman, god, the intelligence of the American voter and so many more..again…

I only await the scientific, reproducible proof..

Steve-O

A good way to frame it, Steve-o, is to ask if someone’s an atheist or an agnostic with regard to the Easter Bunny. Then you see that atheism, properly defined, is not an indefensible position.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Krebs published on October 10, 2004 10:39 AM.

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