"Intelligent Design," "Unintelligent Curriculum"

Lee F. Werth, Ph.D., Dept. of Philosophy
Cleveland State University
Cleveland, Ohio 44115


edited 4/11/07

I. Objective:

It is perhaps surprising that debate still rages between evolutionary biologists and creationists having a teleological orientation. The debate has been neither informative nor productive of a healthy pedagogical environment. It has continued in a contemporary form: the misconstrued conflict between science and religion, a conflict based upon an epistemic error which has not changed since Galileo's recantation. My objective is to clarify that error, thereby demonstrating that science and religion need not (and properly understood) cannot be in conflict. Moreover, the teleological orientation which creationists wish presented in the classroom in American public schools can indeed be legally and appropriately offered, however, not in a biology class.

II. The Problem:

Americans have finally come to recognize that citizens have equal rights under the law irrespective of race, gender, etc. Somehow this belated fondness for diversity has led well-meaning members of school boards to argue on behalf of equal-time for alleged alternative explanations to biological evolution. It seems harmless enough. The effect in practice has been to deprive students of a conceptual appreciation of what is and is not a scientific explanation; moreover, textbook publishers have deleted what some might find offensive, thereby making it all but impossible to learn the fundamentals of biological evolution and natural selection from current textbooks.

Debates between biologists and creationists have created heat but no light. (Checkers and Chess are played upon the same board but they are different games.) As a philosopher of science familiar with the history of the separation of philosophy, science, and religion following Galileo, I believe I am uniquely situated to defuse the conflict and to provide a resolution such that both empirical scientists and faith-based teleologists can properly achieve their respective objectives. The resolution leads both to conceptual richness and a better understanding of what qualifies as a scientific explanation.

It would be well to clear away a few of the more obvious misconceptions prior to clarifying the resolution I envisage.

The word "theory" is used differently by the lay public than by empirical scientists. Scientists are fallibilists; if an empirical theory can't be falsified, it doesn't qualify as a scientific theory. Hence, when the evolutionary biologist debates a creationist (or "intelligent design" proponent), the fallibilistic presupposition wrongly appears to be a blatant admission of the tentative character of bio-evolution, i.e., a frank admission that it is neither knowledge nor a fact concerning the origin of the species, but speculative in character, and therefore a sort of faith or dogma. And so a disclaimer is desired: biology teachers are to be required to say that biological evolution is just a theory. (With equal justification the same could be said about gravitation.) The problem concerns what counts as a fact or as knowledge; it seems to me that we have a Cartesian demand for absolute certainty, an inappropriate demand when emprirical matters are at issue. Observationally well confirmed theories are tantamount to facts and constitute what is properly considered scientific knowledge. Indeed, to demand that empirical science should provide absolute truth for all time is to not understand the nature of science. (We shall return to this later when discussing measurable regularities.)

Another common misconception concerns the role of chance in natural selection: I often ask students what they understand biological evolution to entail; frequently I respond to their answer by saying, "Well if that's what you understand evolution to mean, or if that's what you've been told, you're quite right in rejecting it, but you see that's not what the theory involves..." Such students have been told that chance alone can account for the species which presently exist, that is, that given enough time all possible arrangements of matter will eventually become actual, sooner or later, and well...here we are. That is, no clarification of the relation of an organism to its environment, no account of natural selection, gene pools, DNA, sexual selection, gravitation, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces, etc. are invoked...just chance. It's the old "monkeys typing the works of Shakespeare given enough time."

Evolution, whether astronomical, geological, atmospheric, or biological, is to be explicated in terms of the regularities (laws) of nature; it is the constraints based upon these uniformities that allow for scientific explanations and our capacity to predict and "control" nature. And as Francis Bacon observed: "Nature to be commanded must first be obeyed." The regularities of nature are learned by empirical observation guided by theories which clarify what to observe, detect, and measure. It's an ongoing process. And in a sense there are absolutes in the form of physical constants: the speed of light; the mass and charge of an electron; the graviational constant; etc. (If there is objective reality that resists spin based upon political and religious bias and post-modern agendas, it is here, physical constants, where literal truth can be found. We shall return to this in due course.)

A third misconception involves the "both sides" approach to introducing evolution to the biology class. A moment's deliberation reveals that there can be many teleological accounts of our existence here on Planet Earth. Ignoring for the moment the inappropriateness of any teleological account not grounded in empirical observation and the mathematically describable uniformities (laws) of nature as it bears upon the teaching of biology, why be limited to Genesis and Biblical literalism? (If the response be: "Well, that is the revealed truth!" then we have an obvious violation of the separation of Church and State, not to mention that the indigenous peoples of North America have their respective creation accounts, as does any tribe and culture.) Perhaps extraterrestrials were experimenting with DNA and tweaked the genes of Homo Erectus to create Homo Sapiens; or perhaps we exist in cyberspace as the creation of some sort of computer programmer; or was Descartes right about a malicious demon creating the illusion of an external world? Once the teleological gambit is allowed into play, speculations abound. Even Bertrand Russell, remembered by Americans as that "atheist anti-Christian" claimed that for all we know the universe might have come into existence (been created?) five minutes ago complete with our memories and the data which suggest a much earlier origin.

It's not just Biblical literalists who have questioned the epistemology of an empirically based chronology of time. (Russell's "five minutes" is a great deal more restrictive than Bishop Usher's six thousand years. When cosmologists relying upon background radiation, red shift extrapolations, event horizons, etc. present their findings plus or minus a few billion years or so, one can almost be sympathetic to the fundamentalist mind set of those who are unable to tolerate ambiguity. In any case, ad hoc speculation, teleological or otherwise (gratuitous brute facts) ungrounded by empirical observation is not science and has no proper place in a science class. As an aside, as a philosophy professor, I would be out of a job without the opportunity to discuss speculations in the classroom. There's a proper time and place for different kinds of "explanation.")

III. Science (What qualifies?)

There are always those who resist boundaries and definitions. And there are those who might say that what counts as science is simply a matter of a rather arbitrary convention: today's pseudo-scientist might be heralded tomorrow; not everyone was enamoured of Einstein's four-dimensional space-time or Wegener's continental drift. Part of the problem rests with scientists themselves who make claims that, strictly speaking, go beyond empirical science, claims more properly labled philosophical. Many philosophical speculations are compatible with empirical science (the mathematically describable regularities of nature) without being directly supported by observation. For example, George Berkeley was aware that Newton's laws of motion applied to our experience regardless of whether matter exists independently of being experienced or whether physical objects have their existence only in being perceived. (See: De Motu) Idealism as opposed to materialism can not be decided by empirical investigation; it is a matter of philosophical debate, not empirical confirmation or falsification.

It is at this point that biologists and creationists will both lose patience with my attempt to provide a resolution. The materialist biologist will argue: there is no need to clutter up biology with antiquated notions of design. Life is chemistry, reality is mass-energy in space-time. The creationist will argue: the complexity of the universe (creation) cries out for explanation; it just can't simply be a brute fact. There had to have been a designer. Neither will make progress debating the other; both will ignore me. The biologist's claim about reality and the creationist's committment to a designer both represent metaphysical perspectives, subject matter for philosophical debate. Let that debate occur, but in a cultural heritage class, or call it "History of Ideas," or "Philosophy." It wouldn't hurt to introduce Aristotle's distinction between an efficient cause and a final cause, and then ask whether everything must have a final cause. Discuss Galileo's defence of the proper role of scripture. I get ahead of myself.

August Comte claimed that science was not about causes or forces but about observable regularities. Galileo had much earlier claimed that the language of nature is mathematics. As long as science is understood as being defined in terms of the mathematically observable regularities of nature, there need not be a problem teaching evolutionary biology. Immature theories often look like philosophical speculation, but there is a growth or a transition from the metaphorical to the measurable. We learn what to measure and how to measure it. Consider the use of "flow", "current", and "ground" ("earth") in early accounts of electricity; contrast these metaphors with ohms, amps, volts, coulombs, watts (no Farradays or Edisons) and the troubleshooter's use of a multimeter. When a theory is mature it is expressed in terms of mathematical functions where quantities vary with respect to one another in predictable patterns. Darwin speculated about the mechanisms of heredity; now we understand the dynamics of DNA and splice strands to create "designer" species (unnatural selection, or merely part of the ongoing natural selection process?) The word "cause" or "force" do not appear in chemical diagrams nor in mathematical physics, nor statistical descriptions of population genetics. The point might be expressed another way: why do we sometimes say "the force of gravity" and other times "the law of gravity?" The intuitive sense of efficacy which we add to the mathematical descriptions adds nothing of cognitive significance. Hume was saying this in denying a necessary connection between cause and effect; he might better have ommitted causal language altogether. Whenever we go beyond the observable and detectable uniformities of nature and add claims about reality as a totality, or introduce a transcendental or supernatural notion, we have gone past the boundary of science and into the "realm" of metaphysics. This applies to causal language and any account of efficacy. Force, cause, will, and source words are perfectly appropriate so long as such metaphysical notions are not presented as part of or entailed by the empirically observable (falsifiable and inductively confirmable) regularities (laws) of nature. Metaphysics should be discussed in a philosophy class.

IV. An Appropriate Disclaimer:

As already stated, a disclaimer in the form of: "Evolution is just a theory" is based upon a misconception of science and the appropriate use of "theory." However, the attempt to wall off and limit scientific discourse to measurable (observable and detectable) regularities of nature may seem unduly constraining or perhaps implicitly metaphysical without suitable acknowledgement. Clarification is in order.

It is not my intention to present the empirical data supporting biological evolution and natural selection; I leave that to the biologists. Matters have progressed enormously since Darwin's time. It is useful to consider not just biological evolution but the broader evolutionary perspective which embraces the formation of stars, planets, geochemistry, etc. Each of the "forces" of nature plays a role in concert with the others. Without gravity there would be no planet; without nuclear fusion, no elements; without electromagnetism no chemical syntheses; etc.

The significant point is that the different sciences mutually support and corroborate data involving the timing of events such as the formation of continents with its associated fossil evidence and magnetic field shifts. The seemingly cavalier manner with which a billion years is treated is actually rather precise in terms of background radiation data and retrodictions going back to the Big Bang, the latter being an ultimate empirical limit even if metaphysical discourse attempts to transcend it.

The coherence provided by the separate scientific disciplines mutually supporting one another's chronology is strong evidence in support of the larger evolutionary perspective. It would be quite wonderful if students were encouraged to learn enough of the sciences so as to be able to appreciate the broader evolutionary perspective which is genuinely awe inspiring.

However, a disclaimer is not altogether inappropriate: the metaphysical presupposition that makes the scientific enterprise possible is quite simply that the observed and seemingly observable and detectable regularities (uniformities) of nature are just that. The assumption is that the uniformity of nature is a fact, not an illusion. By "nature," as here used is not meant any more than what is described mathematically, i.e., no metaphysical claim is intended, merely descriptions in the languages of the separate sciences. Even so, the measurable regularities (observable and detectable patterns) are taken to be literal hard-core empirical truths (facts). (I rather doubt the moon landing would have been a success if they weren't.)

The truly resolute Biblical literalist can argue that God has set up the scientific data to test the faith of the true believers; that is, God changes the laws of nature as it has pleased Him, and the universe is only six thousand years old, appearances to the contrary. The evidence used by scientists thereby counts for nothing. It is not clear why anyone would believe a non-deceiving God would create us with the ability to reason rationally and then create a scam chronology. As it happens, this view which I once presented as a joke in order to show how virtually any account can be defended by making ad hoc qualifications, is genuinely being embraced. Therefore, it is appropriate to make a disclaimer in which it is acknowledged that the presupposition of scientific endeavors is that there are patterns and regularities which endure, and which can be observed or detected and which can be mathematically described. John S. Mill was aware that induction can only be confirmed inductively, a circular argument. Hence, the uniformity of nature is indeed a metaphysical presupposition and is the faith or dogma of the empirical scientist. (It should not be thought that the uniformities presently embraced rule out the stochastic processes in quantum mechanics. The focus is on empirically confirmable regularities. Philosophers are at liberty to claim the universe lacks chance; it is a metaphysical claim. Quantum theorists are constrained by what is empirically measurable.)

V. The Resolution:

It has already been indicated that metaphysical issues, that is, issues which lie outside the boundaries of empirically measurable regularities, are to be addressed in the appropriate venue. A cultural heritage class would allow a discussion of religious traditions and philosophical perspectives; teleological, ethical, political, and aesthetic, views can be introduced and examined in an orderly and critical manner. In this way students might acquire epistemic criteria which would help them understand the sort of method that is appropriate for specific sorts of problems. For example: are the properties of a triangle a matter of opinion subject to the caprice of time and culture? When is deduction appropriate as opposed to induction? When has language crossed over into metaphor and poetry. Why do we reject Anselm's ontological proof of God's existence today when philosophers as brilliant as Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza accepted some form of Anselm's argument? The cultural heritage course or (history of ideas) has as its real objective the teaching of critical reasoning skills; it's objective is not indoctrination.

No doubt students will mention an idea from class discussion at the dinner table at home, and probably without clarifying the context. "Hey Dad, we learned about this guy called Nietzsche...he said God was dead and...Hey, don't be mad at me...I'm just saying what the teacher said." The risk is worth taking. If the teacher genuinely and sincerely presents a view for discussion, it is my experience that students are rarely offended, but the syllabus should warn students that the subject matter will sometimes involve subjecting ones most cherished beliefs to scrutiny, an open mind and a thick skin are required, and no intention to offend exists even if irony is used as a rhetorical device.

VI. Intelligent Design Revisited:

Let us return to our focus: intelligent design. There is an intelligent way to introduce a teleological perspective in the context of evolutionary biology. We shall assume we are teaching a cultural heritage course. After discussing various pre-Darwinian evolutionary accounts, we introduce natural selection and show that from an empirical biological perspective, the theory is autonomous. It makes sense in terms of the laws of nature. No designer or intention is required to explain the origin of the species or the descent of man. (Let's ignore for the moment those statistical arguments concerning the origin of DNA.) Grant the non-teleological autonomy of biological evolution. It's a messy history replete with extinctions and cruelty; indeed it has a sort of existential absurdity about it. Just what are we doing as a species?

In a cultural heritage course we can present perspectives in terms of which scientific theories can be subsumed within the larger conceptual framework of a metaphysical account. In the present case of intelligent design it can be argued (claimed or suggested) that God or "something" intended the laws (uniformities) of nature to be what they are in order that evolution should eventually result in beings who question their place in the universe, who have a spiritual awareness, and who worship what they regard as their creator. That is, there is indirect intelligent design through the laws of nature being what they are, a state of affairs which was not in the least a matter of chance. Here there is no quarrel with science, no conflict of science and religion; rather, the biological evolution of beings capable of both science and spirituality can be seen as supporting a teleological view of our place in the universe. This is not meant as a proof but as demonstrating that science and religion need not be in conflict when the respective domains of the empirical and the speculative (metaphysical) are properly distinguished. (Epistemolgy has its uses; epistemic failure and confusion have resulted in much misery in human history. Our emotions are what they are, unless we redesign the human species through DNA engineering. But how many suicide bombers have a firm grip on epistemology?)

And what of extinctions and cruelty? The planet was, perhaps, made more suitable for humans owing to the existence of species now extinct. However, like Spinoza, it seems to me rather anthropocentric to see our existence as the goal of existence. Perhaps our thoughts and consciousness relate to a larger "mind" as the individual neurons in our brains participate in our consciousness as persons. Hegelian views or those of Aurobindo come readily to mind. Perhaps the existence of cruelty makes love and compassion more meaningful. It is interesting that a capacity for love characterizes many mammals; those who work with lions, bears, and other wild animals develop a genuine rapport with them. Scuba diving naturalists have found giant squid and killer whales, even sharks, to have been much maligned. A sort of protoplasmic empathy abounds. Is this mere sentimentality? Perhaps. But there is no need to perceive the universe as an absurd and pointless display charging toward thermodynamic death. Nor is there a need to uncritically embrace some form of Biblical literalism. Love is real enough, and love is in our biologically evolved genes.

VII. Language and the Ineffable:

Immanual Kant didn't quite adhere to his own canons concerning the limits of language. His Ideas of Pure Reason circumvent the limits imposed by the Categories of the Faculty of the Human Understanding which can only be applied to phenomena, not reality as reality. From the perspective of evolutionary biology Kant's categories can be reconstrued in terms of our biologically hard-wired capacity for language, induction (learning from experience), and our way of organizing sensory input into things and events. There is no reason to believe that our being evolved on a particular planet has resulted in a sensory and cognitive capacity to understand the universe. Selection pressures have not been about organisms that can do mathematical physics; it was a matter of food and shelter. And yet we are vastly different from our close cousins, chimpanzees. One might well sympathize with those who advocate the anthropic principle, that is, those who claim it is just too unlikely that the sky should allow astronomy, that the physical constants which if ever so slightly different would have made life impossible... that it is just statistically impossible for our being who and what we are without some sort intelligence being behind it. This seems to overlook that we evolved in terms of the extant physical constants, so naturally life as we know it wouldn't have evolved had these constants been different. As to statistics...in what way are we in a position to make claims about the probability of how the universe might have been?

The present point concerns language. In that we evolved along with our linguistic capacities, we should remember that language does its ordinary pedestrian work in our daily affairs, and that Wittgenstein was correct in saying, "Philosophy begins when language goes on holiday (vacation)." This is no reason to restrain language to its ordinary function. However, when language is used speculatively as in philosophical and religious discourse, its function, as Alfred N. Whitehead observed, is more akin to poetry. To argue over matters of religious dogma or as to what metaphysical system is a correct description of reality is like arguing over matters of taste (de gustibus non disputandum est.) One cannot catch reality in a net of words. Words used metaphysically and/or in religious discourse guide rather than describe. Metaphysical accounts attempt to describe primordial possibilities, or ultimate actualities (which is logically and/or temporally prior... possibilities or actualities?), or employ words like "Being" or "Becoming" ...all very poetic, even rather beautiful at times. But there's a sense in which Bach's chorales are more "informative" than anything written by Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, Aurobindo, Peirce, Whitehead, or anyone who puts his or her faith in the power of words.