Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Religion v. Science: the fallacy of Intelligent Design

As I hear people debate about evolution and religion, I feel like I'm listening to a political debate between two middle schoolers. One says that you have to vote republican because taxes are bad and the other says no, democrats are right because the republican kid has cooties. No one seems to actually understand the sides of the debate - they only know which side they're on. They're "Intelligent Designers" or "Evolutionists" - even if they don't know what the words mean. It becomes this big battle of 'you're rubber and I'm glue', but no one actually knows what they're talking about. So before you tell me you're a Christian so you believe in Intelligent Design or someone believes in Evolution so they're a callous heretic, please, read on. Those words don't necessarily mean what you think they do.

This is a long one, so click to read the rest of it!

There are a few errors in how people use the term 'Evolution', and thus 'Evolutionist'. Evolution is not how animals came into existence. You can't argue 'Evolution' versus 'Creation'. Evolution is the changes in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. It requires a population to begin with - there's no evolution without a population of organisms. Before life existed there was no evolution. How life formed from a lack thereof is unknown - there are those who tend to believe that life spontaneously arose from a soup of amino acids after some big banging etc and those who believe God made everything in seven days, and there are still yet those who believe something in between (the 'God poked the soup' group). None of us, however, believe that life 'evolved' out of nothing - that phrase is meaningless.

So the first part of any debate is how life occurred - again, this isn't evolution at all. There are three main theories as to how life began. The first is Literal Creationism - the notion that God created the earth exactly as it is written in the Book of Genesis. Scientifically, there is a lot of evidence against this, but I'm not going to argue this here. The second is usually misnamed Evolution, so I'm going to call it the Secular Method - that life spontaneously began from a soup of amino acids and organic molecules without any supernatural intervention. The last is some variation on a strange hybrid of the two called Theistic Evolution. It is concurrent with every other part of the scientific analysis of life, except that it wasn't some 'accident' or 'random' process. Instead, in extremely oversimplified form, God (or the deity of your choice) poked the soup and made a cell form (from that point the level of involvement varies).

There's no real right answer to this, with the possible exception of Literal Creationism being wrong. OK, clearly I am a scientist, but the truth is there's a lot of evidence that suggests the earth is older than 10,000 years and Man has not always been on it - which generally throws a stick in the wheels of literal creationist thought - though you're allowed to disagree with me. My point, moreover, is to most Christians and other scientists - that there is no right answer to how life began. There's no way to 'prove' that life happened without an almighty push or blue print. Until someone makes a cell spontaneously arise from molecules (if it is possible), I don't think the debate can even begin to be settled. It's simply a matter of what you believe - and both sides should not be so quick to criticize. After all, is it really harder to believe that God made a cell form than it magically happened all on its own? The reactions within cells take billions of years to occur without a catalyst - so it's not like it was easy for life to occur spontaneously.

The remainder of the debate between 'Evolution' and 'Religion' is really a debate about how we have the diversity of life today. Did we start from one cell and gradually become many complex organisms or did we start as a group of complex organisms to begin with? Whichever side you're on, you still believe in Evolution, the theory. No, seriously, you do.

Evolution is the change in frequency of inheritable traits in a population. Save a few very "out there" people, I don't think anyone believes that genes do not exist. Nor, as far as I know, does anyone believe that the proportion of these genes doesn't change. If a bunch of blondes in New York get randy for a few decades and have a lot of kids while the brunettes decide to stay celibate, there will be proportionately more blondes than brunettes in that city. Now expand that to the world. In short, the proportion of different gene variations, called 'alleles', varies. If some devastating disaster killed the entire population of China, there would be proportionately less people with asian features - that's just a fact. So evolution occurs - no matter where life came from.

You see, where everyone disagrees isn't in evolution as a process, it's how life began before evolution, and the mechanisms by which evolution occurred to create diversity. We're already discussed the first part. The second part is a lot hairier.

Again, the difference between the religious folks and 'Evolutionists' is really one of semantics. Mutations occur (we can show that scientifically) which, very rarely, create a trait that is somehow beneficial to an organism. The main argument is whether 'random' mutations could produce the diversity of life, or if the mutations had to be somehow 'steered' to get to this point. At the moment, because in the large scheme of things we understand so little, it's mostly a matter of opinion. The key part to remember is that there's no science that can say either way - even if we perceive something as random, whose to say that's not how God wanted it?

My point is that there is no real argument between religion and science - not necessarily, anyhow. So if you're a Christian you can be an Evolutionist - in fact, many denominations of Christianity support or accept theistic evolution. For example, the 197th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth was commemorated by many as "Evolution Sunday" where the message that followers of Christ do not have to choose between biblical stories of creation and evolution was taught in classes and sermons at many Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, Baptist and community churches. Even if you're not Christian you can be an evolutionist - there are branches of Judaism and Islam that believe in some variation on Theistic Evolution as well.

What the average person might not realize is that the usual argument between religion, and science is never between a Theistic Evolutionist and a Scientist. It's between Creationists and everyone else. People aren't trying to persuade the other side that there really is a supernatural force that has had an impact on our history - they're arguing whether it should be taught in public schools as a scientific explanation.

Many of you have noticed that I've left out Intelligent Design up until this point. Here's why: Intelligent Design doesn't just mean what it sounds like it means. While it holds that the universe has a Designer (like it sounds), it also includes that this belief is a scientific one. The whole idea of ID arose from some Literal Creationists who were pissed off that in 1987, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard that Creationism could not be taught in public schools because it was unconstitutional (separation of church and state). It's not biased to say that - it's historically accurate. They then sought a theory which separated itself from its 'religious' beginnings enough to be viable in the classroom while still allowing for God's place in all of it. Thus they separated the Christian God from 'Intelligent Design' of it, and the name stuck.

Despite its roots, the actual 'religious' tenants of Intelligent Design don't mean that Literal Creationism is right. The universe having a designer does not, in and of itself, support Literal Creationism at all. Even if the universe is 'designed' that doesn't mean it was made in seven days by God - just for the record. This is the point of those who support the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Unfortunately, a major part of Intelligent Design is to find evidence of God's work so that it can be called 'science' and put in public schools. It's not about the belief in God - it's about its God's validity in the field of science, so that Literal Creationists have a way to have their opinion taught by public education. You can't believe in "Intelligent Design" but also believe that it has no place in schools, because that's one of its main tenants - if you believe God plays a role in evolution/creation/whatever but that it is a matter of faith not biology, you're a Theistic Evolutionist (which, by the way, is a really broad term for a variety of levels of God's involvement, from hands on to simply setting the wheels in motion).

The problem often becomes that what people think Intelligent Design means and what it really means are different. Intelligent Design is thinly-veiled Literal Creationists who seek a method of replacing "Science" with "God". But to the public the phrase has come to mean any number of beliefs, from Literal Creationism to simple faith in God's existence. I can't tell you how many people have said they believed in Intelligent Design when they really mean Theistic Evolution, for example. I'm fairly certain the average american sees "Intelligent Design" as simply the belief that God had his hand in the creation and current diversity of life. A belief, which, as I said before, is really a matter of opinion - there is no right or wrong answer.

If only that were what the proponents of Intelligent Design actually wanted - to have people believe that God is possible or real and has a place in modern society. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design proponents seek to undermine the "secular and materialistic institution" that they believe is "science." They are radicals and extremists fighting a battle which, in actuality, doesn't need to be fought. So when people attack Intelligent Design they aren't attacking a belief in God - just that its a science. Look at the Roman Catholic Church and contemporary protestants - they support Evolution without throwing out their Bibles. They simply feel it is inappropriate to use Genesis as a scientific text, since it was written in a pre-scientific age and originally intended for religious instruction. The seemingly chronological aspects of the creation accounts should be thought of in terms of a literary framework, or are otherwise up for interpretation.

So, to clarify, Theistic Evolutionists believe that there is a God or Designer that has made an impact on life, thus bridging the gap between science and religion, whereas Intelligent Designers believe that religion is science.

Could life have evolved from a single cell? Yes, but maybe it did so with a little help - a blueprint, perhaps. Whose to say that is wrong? Who can make life happen spontaneously? Who can prove that mutations are random? Tell me, who can really prove there is no design or plan for it all, no God? Whether you want to believe in a God is your own business. I'm not saying everyone should believe what I just wrote. Hell, I don't, personally. But I can't exclude the possibility, either.

Most people would rather have a union of science and religion instead of a war between the two. 'Evolution' doesn't preclude God. There's no way we could, would, or necessarily want to prove that there is no supernatural hand in life. Intelligent Design's proponents are trying to undermine the foundations of scientific inquiry, which has led to a division of science and faith. Science doesn't have to be a materialistic endeavor by the Godless. Does it disagree with the specific sequence of events that the Bible portrays? Yes. But even many Christians believe that some of the bible is meant to be symbolic instead of literal, and some even believe it does have flaws because, while inspired by a perfect god, it was written by imperfect men who might have lost a little in the translation.

Of course, the real debate is whether any of this should be taught in schools. Let's be honest for a moment - those that want Intelligent Design in schools are being self-indulgent. They want their system of beliefs to be pushed upon every child because they believe that they are right (which they have every right to, mind you). They believe others will suffer eternally if they do not believe in what they do, and that thusly children are better off if they learn to believe. Some even believe that society is worse off because of atheists and other religions. Maybe they're right - maybe God is waiting to send Dawkins into a fiery hell for the rest of eternity. Maybe our secular society is partially at fault for the greed and corruption that occurs in it. But in this country, we have the right to make that choice for ourselves and for our children - that is the freedom of religion.

Intelligent Design isn't scientific because it can't be shown by scientific methods. Empirical science uses the scientific method to create knowledge that justifies experience based on observation and repeated testing of hypotheses and theories. As intelligent design proponent Michael Behe concedes, "you can't prove intelligent design by experiment." Therefore, it doesn't belong in a science classroom. We might find little footprints that may or may not suggest that God exists, or find that something is almost entirely impossible if it weren't for an almighty hand, but we can't test God's existence. The belief in God is a religious, not scientific, premise - that's why it's called faith. If we could prove God, there would be no place for faith.

However, unlike many people, I do believe that there is room for religion in public schools. As a scientist, I am the first to say that there could be a God, Buddha, or whatever deity you wish to believe in. However, none of these have anything to do with science as it is taught to elementary and high school students, and therefore do not belong in the scientific classroom. If a kid were to ask a biology teacher if God made life, the correct answer is that the question is not one of science but of faith, and to talk to Mom and Dad. However, I do believe that learning about religions is valuable. I would be completely supportive of comparative religion courses at the high school level. Since I went to private school, I took classes on Eastern Religions when I was in high school. It gave me understanding of the viewpoints of others in a way that no science course could have. Simply understanding where a person is coming from can make a big difference. And if such courses wanted to explain the tenants of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution as a part of Christian faith's beliefs, I would have no problem with that.

Personally, I dream of a world where there are no wars between science and religion. Once upon a time religion might have been a way of explaining how the world worked, but that's not its place anymore. We no longer believe the earth is the center of the solar system. How is the acceptance of evolutionary biology fundamentally different from the acceptance of other sciences, such as astronomy or meteorology? Science seeks to understand how things work, religion, why. I believe that God could be the philosophical answer to 'why' we're here just as much as evolution is the scientific explanation of the exact process. We shouldn't think of Science v. Religion in America - it's a matter of both coming together to give our lives explanation and meaning.

So before you get in the next argument with your coworker or boyfriend, make sure you understand what you're arguing. If you believe that God exists, that doesn't mean you believe in Intelligent Design, and if you believe in Evolution, that doesn't mean you are Godless. If you really are an extremist to either side, that's OK - at least now you know for sure. But don't expect that just because I'm a scientist I'm the next Dawkins or just because someone's a Christian they'll support Intelligent Design. Most likely, though, you're not an extremist. You don't have to be an extreme. You're allowed to be conflicting and confounding, and you're allowed to believe in God and Evolution. You, like all of the life on this planet, are complex and dynamic, whether inspired by a creator or not.


Shea said...

According to Genesis, Man has not always been on the earth.

scripto said...

Most of the ID proponents I talk to make the assumption that methodological naturalism (or materialism as they call it) leads to philosophical naturalism and atheism. I never can get a straight answer as to how you can approach scientific questions except through methodological naturalism. The assumption that the universe behaves in a regular and for the most part accessible manner has turned out to be a pretty good one.

HawaiianPun said...

Hear hear! A very thoughtful, evenhanded, and well-reasoned essay. Shades of Stephen Jay Gould even. (Speaking of, if you haven't read his Rocks of Ages, I'd definitely put that at the top of your list, as it sounds like you would wholeheartedly approve of his "non-overlapping magisteria" [NOMA] take on science and religion.)

Dwayne said...

You're right Christie...there is no real need for this either/or straightjacket that we have been offered.

Intelligent design/creationism is not only cherry-picked science, it is faulty theology as well. Startling as it may seem, by continually protesting that “blind” chance could only lead to “accidental evolution”, all denialist forms of creationism contradict the Bible's clear teachings that chance occurrence in the universe (randomness), is always under God's direct control!...Oops! Try this:


It's called: "Intelligent Design Rules Out God's Sovereignty Over Chance"

Anonymous said...

Steven J. Gould, NOMA, etc. It's all crap. Your long winded, deluded post does nothing to change it. Believeing in supernatural religion is a fool's errand, doesn't matter what terms you want to couch it in.

Christie Lynn said...

My point is that others are allowed to be 'fools' as you would call them. People should have a mutual respect for each other no matter how foolish you think their beliefs are. And there is no, and never will be any, proof that God does not exist. You'll never win an argument about faith, so why try? You're entitled to your opinion (though cowardly for not even daring to put a name), but putting others down and treating them as lesser human beings is exactly what we should be fighting against as reason-driven atheists.

TruePath said...

First of all I want to thank you for not repeating the ridiculous claim that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It's true that ID is not science in the sense that it's not a conclusion supported by the scientific method (in fact it's repudiated by the scientific method) but the idea that modern species were designed and placed on earth full formed is a perfectly valid scientific hypothesis (maybe god did it or maybe it was aliens), just one that happened not to fit the evidence. In other words it's not that the ID hypothesis is 'unscientific' it's that it's wrong.

However, I do want to nitpick a couple points.

While it's true that evolution and belief in a supernatural god are compatible it's false to suggest that the evidence for evolution doesn't reduce the probability of such a being. This is a simple application of Bayes theorem. Unless our prior probability for creationism was 0 discovering creationism is false decreases the probability of god existing.

Also the point of the church of the flying spaghetti monster is somewhat different than you suggest. The primary point is to demonstrate that the absence of evidence for something (the flying spaghetti monster) can be evidence for it's abscence in counter to the standard religious argument that wants to hold that because you can't ever conclusively prove god doesn't exist it's justifiable to assign god a reasonably large probability.

I don't feel like continuing to write this comment but I think your attempt to say that religion and science should be perfectly compatible is undermined by this point. The continued accumulation of evidence comptable with a secular view of the universe is evidence against the existence of god just as the continued accumulation of evidence consistent with the earth being older than 10,000 years old is evidence for it being older than 10,000 years (even though you could never prove it didn't pop into existance with oil and dinosaur bones pre-arranged).

Still, I agree with your broader point that people use ID to stand for a certain emotional attitude that has very little to do with the underlying claim. However, this could be said about most people's attitude to religion in the large as well.


"Christie Lynn"

People who believe in religion aren't inferior or anything of the kind. They are simply mistaken. We all believe false things for bad reasons and religion is just one example. While I think the anonymous comment above was needlessly offensive it is true that acting on false beliefs is generally a fools errand, i.e., a waste of effort.

To nitpick I would say that we can't (nor should we try) to be respectful of everyone's beliefs. We should try to be respectful of the people and not be cruel, arrogant or mean but that's respecting the individual not the belief.

The reason I draw this distinction is that frequently people take the idea of being respectful of someone's beliefs to imply that you have to treat those beliefs as reasonable.