Intelligent Design… a few words about my thoughts.

I find myself in a quandary lately. Many people have approached me to ask for my thoughts on the trial underway in Dover, PA about whether or not Intelligent Design should be taught in public schools as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution.

I’m happy to answer the question, but warn folks that the answer is going to take about an hour or more to share. These are complicated questions that frankly have little to do with the scientific method and much more to do with questions of Philosophy.

I’m not a biologist. As such I really don’t feel qualified to make any comments on the present state of evolutionary theory. I do know that the modern model of how natural selection works is different and more sophisticated than what I was taught when I studied biology in 10th grade.

I do have some familiarity, though, with modern Cosmology. There are issues in Cosmology that have some connection with the question of Intelligent Design. Specifically the issue in Cosmology is whether or not the Universe that we see today has arisen from random chance or if it has arisen because of a pre-ordained design. The issue described is called the Anthropic Principle. In simplest terms, it states that “because we are here to observe the Universe, the Universe must have been ‘tuned’ so that our existence was fore-ordained”. (There are versions of the Anthropic Principle which would relax the “fore-ordained” language.)

As of now, there is no way to test the Anthropic Principle and decide whether it is right or wrong. (This is the case because at the moment we don’t understand what the predictions of Quantum Mechanics mean.) Since there is no way to test the idea, the idea itself is not really something that scientists study, it’s more a thing that scientists either believe or reject. Intelligent design appears to me to be similar to the Anthropic Principle in that you either believe it or not. It’s a philosophical issue not really a scientific one.

The larger problem comes, however, when people try to use Intelligent Design to support an argument that says that Evolution is wrong. As it is presently understood, evolution is a scientific theory that is testable and which has a large body of evidence supporting it. There is apparently evidence that does not support it, but that doesn’t mean Evolution is wrong, it means the theory is incomplete. If someone is going to replace the theory entirely, the new model must predict more accurately all things which the Theory of Evolution already predicts, and then go further and predict accurately things which Evolution has not been able to explain. Intelligent Design has not done this yet. And until it does, Intelligent Design is going to have a hard time being taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

But… My quandary comes from the fact that I do believe that the Universe was created and designed with a purpose. I have no philosophical problems at all with Intelligent Design. I just can’t prove that it’s true. I understand that my belief is not scientific. But that’s okay. Science is limited in what it can do and in what it can ultimately discuss. There are matters that belong properly to the realms of Philosophy and Theology. Maybe we need to stop trying to teach Intelligent Design in Biology Class and start pushing for educators to include it in the Philosophy Course instead.

At any rate, I have found that there is nothing in my scientific training that asks or requires me to disavow the first line of our Christian Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” It says believe, not “can prove”. There’s probably a very deep spiritual teaching in that choice of words.

There is so much more that I want to write about this. Most of all I’m trying to think through why this question is raising the sorts of hackles it is raising in our culture. There is (as physicists say) information in this observation… I’m just not sure what the information is.

So, more to come…

About Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...
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5 Responses to Intelligent Design… a few words about my thoughts.

  1. MarkT says:

    Thanks, Nick.
    I’ve always had trouble with this debate. The engineer in me always liked the Evolution idea but the Christian in me always believed that God was our creator.
    I didn’t realize until recently that the two couldn’t co-exist.
    I guess Darwin x= (does not equal) Atheism. Please keep sharing your thoughts on the subject. If you have the time to write it, I promise to have the time to read it.
    Peace,
    MarkT
    Emmaus, PA

  2. island says:

    I do have some familiarity, though, with modern Cosmology. There are issues in Cosmology that have some connection with the question of Intelligent Design. Specifically the issue in Cosmology is whether or not the Universe that we see today has arisen from random chance or if it has arisen because of a pre-ordained design. The issue described is called the Anthropic Principle. In simplest terms, it states that “because we are here to observe the Universe, the Universe must have been ‘tuned’ so that our existence was fore-ordained”. (There are versions of the Anthropic Principle which would relax the “fore-ordained” language.)
    As of now, there is no way to test the Anthropic Principle and decide whether it is right or wrong. (This is the case because at the moment we don’t understand what the predictions of Quantum Mechanics mean.) Since there is no way to test the idea, the idea itself is not really something that scientists study, it’s more a thing that scientists either believe or reject. Intelligent design appears to me to be similar to the Anthropic Principle in that you either believe it or not. It’s a philosophical issue not really a scientific one.

    No, that’s false, the anthropic principle has and does still make testable and falsifiable predictions that have nothing to do with quantum theory.
    It requires an unfounded leap of faith to assume that the anthropic principle has anything to do with a supernatural god tho… which, it doesn’t.

  3. A MacArthur says:

    If you are going to include in the Anthropic Principle the language stating “the Universe must have been tuned so that our existence was foreordained,” then it definitely would be best to include it in either religion and/or philosophy courses, as that language takes it out of the realm of science. Along with the concept of Intelligent Design, which, unfortunately is being promulgated as science, which it manifestly is not.

  4. John says:

    The “intelligent design” movement is essenitally poltical in its motivations and also very authoritarian (even totalitarian) in its motivations—one of their favourite books is Total Truth—as though any “fallen” human being, or collective of humans could possess the “truth”.
    Its motivation being defense of the patriarchal parental deity. For instance the ID movement is generally quite hostile to feminism and want to “return” women to the domain of Kinder, Kuche, Kircher—-there is some Wisdom in that.
    Please check out:
    1. http://www.adidam.org/download/Religion%20and%Science.pdf
    2. http://www.aboutadidam.org/readings/parental_deity/index.html
    3. http://www.dabase.org/rgcbpobk.htm Real God Cannot Be Proven
    4. http://www.dabase.org/noface.htm on the science vs religion war

  5. Umar Hamza says:

    Consudering the fact the universe works so smoothly and consistently without any human assistance gives me the firm idea that there must be a hand behinds all the natural laws that keep the world going as we know it today. If anything that has no known life of its own works, then there must be a worker that works it. The universe does not make sense as accident. Intelligent Design as a phisolophical discoure makes a whole lot of sense to me.

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