Notes for Two Talks on Intelligent Design, Evolution, and the Purpose of Education

Part I are the typed notes from a presentation given as part of panel discussion for the USC Templeton Lecture Series on "Science, Politics, Religion: The Case of Intelligent Design,” September 28, 2005. Part II we assume to be a second talk that Willard gave as part of the same lecture series around November of 2005


Part I: USC Templeton: The Case of Intelligent Design—Current Controversies

In the sense relevant here, a design is an arrangement of elements to form a larger whole, typically a whole that serves some larger function. It can be synchronic or diachronic. A checkerboard has a design, as does an egg or the leaf of a tree or a park or a dance.

Some things with a design (of course everything has one) we know to have been originated through a process essentially involving thought or, more inclusively, mind. Birthday cakes, art works, 747s, checkerboards, hamburgers. “Design” as a verb always involves thought.

An intelligent design is one the causation for which involves mental processes. Obviously, intelligent designs exist. They are all around us. There is even an occupational field known as “Design.” Some here may be studying to be designers. We hope they will be “intelligent,” but that is to use the term in a normative, not the descriptive, sense here in issue.

A non-intelligent design would be one the causation for which does not involve mental processes. There seem to be a lot of such designs around us. Everything from solar systems and galaxies, to geological strata, to tree leaves, birds and rabbits. Non-intelligent designs that we know of always originate from previously existing things, which of course have designs.

The issue now publicly agitated with reference to design has mainly to do with living things. The question is: can the existence and nature of the living things about us be accounted for solely in terms of non-intelligent design? Although that is a considerably larger issue, it is now usually focused in terms “evolution.” Even that term, however, is often misused to refer vaguely to ‘development’. Not all development is evolution. The precise issue concerns the theory of natural selection as it relates to populations of living things and the origination of species of living things from other species of living things.

It is not a priori or empirically clear, much less established, that every possible kind or quantity of design is explicable wholly in terms of non-intelligent design, that is, without the causal intervention of some mind or other. Whether or not some degrees or kinds of design require, for their explanation, the action of a mind (an ‘intelligence’) is an open question. None of the individual sciences have closed that question off, and it is not clear how they could even address the question, given their subject matters and methods. And there is, in fact, no such thing as a SCIENCE, in addition to the particular sciences, that has competence over universal questions about reality or knowledge. Such a ‘Science’ is an illusion, sustained largely by philosophers who hope to cloak themselves in an authority not based on reason or experiment, to advance all-inclusive views about knowledge and reality.

It is perfectly permissible, if not necessary, to raise the question of the limits of explanation in terms of non-intelligent causes. It is a reasonably clear question, and one with considerable significance for our understanding of the universe. It may be that it represents a futile quest, and one easily misguided. It may involve a question that is politically dangerous, socially unsettling or individually disastrous. But we should know by now that this is all to be expected in serious intellectual work, and we should know by now that repressive orthodoxy can show up anywhere. Even in universities supposed to be “secular.” Secularism is no protection from folly.

With respect to the teaching of evolution in the public schools, surely the spirit of Darwin and of great scientists through the ages is that no question should be ducked or obfuscated or avoided. This would mean, above all, that the theory—whatever it might be, in whatever domain—must face the hard questions. How can you honestly teach evolution if you do not face the hard questions—and not defensively, but with fairness and enthusiasm. You can’t defend “good science” teaching in the schools by identifying “good science” with specific theories sheltered from alternatives. Increasingly, today, “good thinking or research” is identified with coming to the “right” conclusions. We used to teach that you evaluated a conclusion, for its rational standing, by the arguments that might back it up. Now, increasingly, the argument is evaluated, to be brushed off, by whether or not it comes out with the “right” conclusion. If it doesn’t, the reasoning offered must be wrong, and the motives of the person on the other side must be bad. But, surely, the detailed work of open and thorough inquiry is what you want to involve students in if you wish to educate them in matters of science or matters of society.

A few remarks about the Evolution debate as currently carried on: It is, or should be, almost trite by now to say that there is no necessary conflict between evolution as Darwinian natural selection and the existence of God or (more specifically) the historically prominent teachings of the Christian religion. Darwin’s theory does not depend upon a materialistic (physicalistic) ontology or world view. That is how some people have tried to use it, of course. This will be disputed by some, but one can only say: “Let’s look at your line of reasoning.”

“Evolution” as an explanation of everything is of course quite another thing. It is as obscure in meaning and dubious in evidence as most well developed theologies, at least. In fact, “natural selection” requires beforehand a fairly specific existential framework of entities and processes before it can “take hold.” Its presuppositions as a process logically exclude the possibility of it explaining everything.

“Evolution” is itself a diachronic design. A quite elaborate one. Its existence is no more self-explanatory than any other design. And, as self-explanatory, it is no less fantastic than the God who is “self caused” or “brings Himself into existence,” as Schopenhauer and many others have rightly pointed out.

So whatever one may say about the limits of non-intelligent design in general, there are clear limits to what can be explained in terms of natural selection in the clear sense of Darwin’s theory. And whether or not there are general limits to explanation by non-intelligent design in general is a further question, and one which should threaten no fair inquirer.

Sadly, what fuels much of the discussion today is not “fair inquiry,” but desire to control policy. The university could do a great deal to help public discussion if it would return to serious and rigorous teaching of logic, including instruction in the harm of informal fallacies, such as attacking peoples’ motivations rather than examining the soundness of their reasoning. It has largely abandoned its responsibilities to exemplify and teach the practice of sound reasoning, and has come, in many quarters, to distrust logic because it may not guarantee or even permit the conclusions desired.

Part II: USC Templeton: The Case of Intelligent Design—Current Controversies

I assume that the purpose of education, as a human enterprise, is to equip individuals to deal with reality (what you run into when you are wrong), and that this includes putting them into possession of facts and values of various ranges and training them to distinguish facts and valuable values from fictions and bum steers, especially with respect to the traditions and institutions within which they must live, including those of family, nation, education, sciences and arts, religion and politics. Because institutions are always more interested in survival and domination than in facts and methods for finding them, education—though not everything that goes by that name—is always subversive, not least of one’s own opinions and habits.

When I speak here of evolution, I refer to the process more clearly designated as “natural selection.” This is a process whereby living things undergo transformation through interaction with the environment, possibly even giving rise to other species of living things.

Evolution as natural selection is a highly accredited theory in Biology or the Biological Sciences. It has immense explanatory power within the proper range of its applicability and the types of mechanisms and processes that it invokes in its explanations are at home in the physical world, where the natural sciences carry out their investigations. This is not true of the claims of “Intelligent Design” and it is not true of “evolution” when it is pushed beyond the functioning and interrelations of living species and their parts and properties.

Evolution is itself a diachronic design, like erosion. It is no more self-explanatory or all-explanatory than is erosion. What the causes and conditions are of there being a world in which evolution occurs is not even addressed, much less answered, by natural selection. Evolution did not evolve out of something else and is not a self-subsistent being. In the NYT article on “Intelligent Spaghetti” (8/29, ’05, p. B3), language like this occurs: “This month, the Kansas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to allow teaching alternatives to evolution like intelligent design (the theory that a smart being designed the universe).” And “…he <Mr. Henderson> agreed that science students should ‘hear multiple viewpoints’ of how the universe came to be.” And that’s where the Flying Spaghetti Monster comes in—if that’s the way to put it. Now ask yourself: Is evolution (natural selection) one alternative theory of what or who designed the universe, or of how the universe came to be? If you think it is, you are ready to step right into the ball of confusion that is the current imbroglio around the words “intelligent design.”

Because evolution is very often presented and thought of as an explanation of “everything,” usually in some vague connection with Physics, it threatens standardly religious people, who are sure that there is something beyond the physical world, something that somehow explains that world and a lot of stuff going on within it. It isn’t just right-wing Christians who believe this. You will find it presented over and over (especially for fund raising) to audiences of people with higher degrees on KCET and other public television stations—“your tax dollars at work”—by Wayne W. Dyer (There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem, etc. etc.) and others.

This in turn threatens many scientists and those who like to think of themselves as scientific, because they think something not physical (or at least “natural”) threatens their results. They go for “causal closure” of the physical universe as a defensive move, though causal closure has vast implications for the understanding of human life and the universe (one would think that anyone who thought the universe had a beginning would have to give up causal closure at the beginning, and why, then, worry about it later), and to rationally defend causal closure, not just shout about it, is a huge metaphysical project, and not something any science actually proves.

What characterizes both sides of the popular debate is overreaching. They both, speaking generally, try to claim too much, and much that they have no need of. You will hear some scientistic persons (often scientists in some field) say that anyone who believes in God cannot be a good scientist. (Poor Newton, Pasteur, Faraday!) They have not done any empirical research on the relative scientific successes or intelligence of believers as non-believers. It’s just “obvious.” Or, on the other side, the claim is made that evolution rules out God and/or the spiritual nature of human beings. So evolution is false. All one can say is: Where is the sound argument for such conclusions. It doesn’t exist.

But here is where the problem lies. The religious person, especially in American culture, is likely to think that logic is not to be trusted, and therefore does not know it and cannot use it in a discussion. On the other side, those who teach “science” often do not understanding scientific methodology, and wind up teaching the genuine or presumed results of “science” as dogma. The public advocates of evolution often come dangerously close to this, and I am convinced that many high-school teachers actually wind up doing this because they really do not know how to do anything else. They often have no training for it. I believe that the high rate of rejection of Natural Selection by the American public is based, among other things, upon the overreaching claims made for evolution, which cannot be supported, and the experience of students with the teaching of it, where it comes over as dogma. “Scientistic” dogma is still dogma.

How would a thoughtful person approach teaching on either side? They would try their best to refute the views that are most accepted in the context, whether “religious” or “scientific.” Falsification of views, not defense, is the appropriate human goal. Educators from whatever quarter would induct students into the discussion in this way. If you believe anything, you want to find out if your belief is wrong, and you are in the debt of anyone who can help you see that it is wrong. But we are all, in Nietzsche’s words, “menschliche, allzu menschliche.” (human, all-to-human) And it is hard to maintain the posture of open and honest inquiry in the social context where people want to know: “Are you one of us, or not.” And perhaps your social standing and financial viability depend upon the answer. Perhaps you have even internalized the pressure so that it is you who suspiciously want to know: “Am I one of ‘us’.” In this respect, religious groups and scientific—and, dare I say, philosophical—groups are depressingly similar.

The “spirit” of Falsification needs, by word and example, to be imbued into our students (first, ourselves) so that they can always hear the still small voice that says “bosh” or “humbug,” and will not endure humbug even if comes from the most respected religious or scientific sources. This will not happen if when you raise certain questions you are automatically treated as if something deep is wrong with you.

Between evolution as NATURAL SELECTION and religion in general there is no logical contradiction. The fight over the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis can, but need not, and often has not, led in that direction. For Christians, at least, in none of the central creeds of their history, from the “Apostle’s Creed” on, is natural selection an issue, much less something rejected.

It helps to realize that God and religion are two different issues—though our legal system currently is, one might say, almost devoted to confusing them. You can have God and not religion (Aristotle, Deism) and religion and not God (as any thoughtful atheist would tell you). The question about God is a question about what actually exists. The question of Intelligent Design can be a question about the limits of what can be explained, about living organisms or other things, by “Natural Selection.” There is nothing wrong with these questions, and if you try to shut them down you will simply arouse legitimate suspicions in thoughtful minds. Not the business of the educator, one might think.

As educators we can help by guiding students and others into settled habits of drawing distinctions and recognizing logical relations (and their absence). These habits need to become part of one’s moral identity, a way of life which we follow without thinking about which subject matter we are dealing with. I have some doubts about the usefulness of parody, especially in a situation already emotionally and socially inflamed. It tends to generate emotional resistance in those attacked—it is always an attack—and to catch the attacker and his or her friends up in self-satisfaction with one’s cleverness. Neither is of much help, though if you are on the attacker’s side it can be fun. Hardly so for the other side.

For more on this subject matter, another article on the larger question of creation is “Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence

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