Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Intelligent design and its discontents

Out of either intellectual dishonesty or sheer lack of acumen--it is not my place to judge which it is--the President has joined the call of the fundamentalist part of his base and Senator Frist for the teaching of intelligent design in the nation's public schools. His, surely disingenuous, rationale for this policy is the need to expose students to varying points of view. Quite apart from the question of whether it is wise or possible to introduce varying viewpoints to elementary student--isn't there a reason why we teach young students as if Newtonian physics were everywhere correct and only later introduce the problems that led to relativity and quantum theory?--it is clear that almost no one in favor of the teaching of intelligent design really wants an intellectual free-for-all on human origins.

No one is proposing that we also talk about various demiurge theories in which the designer is intelligent but flawed, or religious traditions in which there are various factions at play--and opposition--in the creation of humanity and the rest of the "created order". No one thinks we should introduce the Finnish stories of the mother goddess who through a virgin birth and a mysterious egg leads to the creation of the world. Nor are people jonesing for the teaching of the masturbatory creation stories in Japanese and Egyptian mythology. And, absolutely no one in favor of opening up the "debate" thinks that, alongside intelligent design and creationism and evolution we should also introduce students to the well-reasoned arguments of Hume and, much later, Stephen Jay Gould exposing why, if we take there to be a Creator, we must think Him to have been pretty bad at design. There just can be no doubt that the reason for introducing intelligent design is religiously motivated.

I am in favor of teaching something like intelligent design, but not in a science class. Because, after all, it just cannot be thought of as a scientific theory.

It doesn't make predictions. Thought experiment: Does evolutionary theory or intelligent design do a better job of telling us how viruses will change? Evolutionary theory gives us a mechanism according to which they will change. Intelligent design tells us that God will change them according to His inscrutable plan--presumably His inscrutable plan involves killing more people, but never mind that. So it's useless as a predictive scientific theory.

It does absolutely nothing to explain phenomenon. Question: Why do humans have the same spinal structure as quadrupeds? Intelligent design doesn't tell us why, other than that was the way in which God chose to do it, meaning that bipedal humans would suffer back pain after their early adulthood, having given them a spine ill-suited for upright support. (Perhaps God was a friend of chiropractors.) Evolutionary theory explains this through tying our current structure with the structure of beings that came before modern humans and from which modern humans evolved.

It cannot be supported nor falsified by observation. What would the observation be that showed that God planned our present form? It's impossible to say. It's not a bit of science, it's a leap of faith. Or better yet, it is a meta-theory. It doesn't say anything about the way in which beings arose on this earth. It isn't even inconsistent with evolution. For instance, one could believe consistently that God intelligently designed life via evolution.

So, whatever this theory amounts to, it isn't science. And it doesn't belong in a science class. Where then does it belong? In the humanities and what was called social studies when I was a lad in elementary school. Intelligent design is a theory about meaning and ultimate causes and reasons for living. As such it belongs in the same classes in which children read Great Expectations and learn about the caste system in India and about the religious tradition of the West. And it belongs there together with secular, humanistic and downright atheistic theories about meaning and ultimate causes and reasons. But never in the science classroom.

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