Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Big IDea

Whose Intelligence? Whose Design?

Polls are showing large or majority preference for the teaching of creationism or its current iteration, “intelligent design,” alongside the theory of evolution. However good this proposal, problems remain. Given that the presumption on teaching intends the public schools, the first question becomes, where in the curricula?

Popular understanding sees creationism (the act of God as creator) as the explanation for the natural order. Creationism accepts that species have always existed as they are at present and that the Biblical record is inerrant and sufficient on the subject. Intelligent design offers that though it took ages to get to the present state of existence, current species are too complex to be explainable by the accidents of adaptation and natural selection. This complexity requires, therefore, the originating agency of intelligence at work in the universe. Creationists and design theorists do not necessarily agree on the issue.

Likely, the proponents of side by side teaching would like these subjects taught in science classes. To do this requires the application of scientific principles to the discussion. Science is based on theories that must explain existing observation and data and be subject to publicly verifiable tests of evidence, experiment, prediction and disconfirmation. Creationism and intelligent design cannot hold up to scientific requirements because they argue from revelatory authority and conjectural inference that do not account for all the evidence except in dismissive ways. Put the duo to the test in science classes, and they would not hold up. Do their proponents want that? Public school science classes are inappropriate venues for topics that are not scientific. Of course, we could radically alter the basis of what constitutes science.

Another possibility for teaching creationism and design theory is in some social studies or history class where students explore the function and effect of ideas in civilization. This approach is certainly preferable to science classes, because here the particular requirements of science give way to how ideas stand and have stood through time on their own. Such ideas do not have to be valid, just widely and long held. Ideas of a Creator or of a Design Agent are of long standing, and here the tests are ones of reason and the rules of logic while the evidence is the effect or consequence that such ideas have in practice. Unfortunately, since the enlightenment period, these ideas have not fared well under examination.

Bishop Butler in The Analogy of Religion (1736) casts doubt on the assumption that the God known through nature can necessarily be the same God known through revelation. David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (posthumous, 1779) questions how things in the world can be comparable to the world as a whole; logic stretches beyond its bounds when one of the things to be compared is beyond the world. Immanuel Kant found in The Critique of Pure Reason (2nd ed., 1787) that the argument cannot lead to a theologically significant conclusion about God since the attributes of God are beyond causation. These are some of the major intellectual difficulties to overcome. Do the proponents of creationism and design want to come up against such critiques where they would not always fare well? Nevertheless, this approach to the origin alternatives seems a welcome way to explore the character and roots of modernity. Of course, we could otherwise radically alter the basis of what constitutes logic and reason.

Perhaps, the best place to teach these various views is in a world religions class since creationism and design agency are basically religious ideas if not phenomenological ones. Sadly, few schools have world religion classes, but this issue might be just the motivation our educational system needs to make comparative religion more widespread. Here tests for relevancy, coherence and consistency exist, but on the surface anyone’s claim to revelatory authority is potentially as good as anyone else’s claim. Creationism and intelligent design (to the extent it is religious) would have a level playing field. Put them alongside the variants in creation mythology from all times and all places and let them rub shoulders with the creation stories in Animism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Native American beliefs, Islam and whatever others are out there. Presumably creationists and design theorists would welcome this approach since one of the talking points for alongside studies is that it is good to consider alternative ideas.

Further, this approach also encompasses the varieties of Christian doctrine and teaching. Encounter a little Martin Luther or others among the reformers and soon discover that one of their reforms was to clear away the dominance of Aristotle (Metaphysics, Physics and Ethics) and the scholastics (Peter Lombard’s Sentences) from medieval theology and get to the scriptural root of the faith. They taught that we don’t need argument to find God; rather, God finds us through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. We do not see God because we first find a creator; rather, through God’s gracious action, the divine finds us, and therefore we see God as the providential author of all things. This alternative takes the security of faith away from dependency on good argument for, instead, faith in faith alone. What a happy resolution exists amid the whole confrontation between created nature and its evolution!

Because wide availability of religion courses remains unlikely, school children and their parents can pursue the side by side examination through study and reading. Good and wide reading sets up a useful dialogue within oneself, however neglected that process may be in practice. Where Darwin is the target, how many opponents have read his books and those of his successors? How many proponents have read them?

Alas, whenever the common aim is to prove the credibility of creationism and intelligent design against either science, reasonable thought, or sound belief, these ideas will always have a tough time. What merit creationism and design theory may have, they must win in the professional areas among scientists, philosophers and theologians before they become welcome and widespread subject matter in public schools.

When ideas cannot win out in the long run, they have to be propelled by political force or unexamined indoctrination. That, too, is an option, but certainly not a happy one in a democracy where harmless actions are to be the result of self-examination, scrupulous knowledge and not wish fulfillment.
Roger Sween advocates the wary examination of received ideas by rigorous exploration of our cultural heritage through continuous, self-directed learning. For twenty years he repesented the Minnesota Association for Continuing Adult Education on the Board of the Minnesota Coalition for Intellectual Freedom and maintains a large library to support his research and writing, a library that ‘has something to offend everyone.’

© 2005, 2009 by Roger Sween.

First published in The Carp #11 (2005), and here slightly revised, the article was written at a time when Intelligent Design was a strong force and even the President of the United States was saying school children should be allowed to consider the merits of the idea along side biological evolution in science classes. Though the ID proponents promised not to go away when they lost a court case, mass publicity attendant on them has disintegrated. Nevertheless, the ID and similar arguments on the appearance of species will continue to face the same arguments perilous to them as outlined above.

I invite substantive comment on the contents of this blog. Personal comments may be made to me at my email address,

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