An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons
Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor, La Salle University
Despite a stinging setback in the Dover School District case, true believers continue to demand that “intelligent design” be part of the public school science curriculum. But before pressing on, they would be well-advised to stop and consider that the worst thing that could happen to them might be getting what they want.
Put simply, intelligent design’s proponents insist that life forms are entirely too complicated to be the product of mere evolution. An intelligent designer must have been at work. Some scientists find this leap of faith tenable so far as their personal religious beliefs are concerned. But they understand that such speculation is not scientific, but religious. Why? Because it is utterly untestable. And testability is what makes science, science.
Intelligent design backers insist that there are two competing scientific points of view concerning the creation of life: evolution and intelligent design. Then they complain that only evolution is currently taught. This claim is patently false. There aren’t two scientific points of view. To claim that, ignores the unscientific nature of religious speculation which, as previously observed, is untestable.
Intelligent design advocates also complain that science teachers are remiss if they fail to point out that evolution is only a theory. But this reveals these advocate’s fundamental ignorance of how scientific theories work. Such theories are not facts and are never so intended. In science, theories explain facts.
So, yes, just as the intelligent design partisans say, evolution is a theory. But it is a theory that eloquently and parsimoniously explains tens of thousands of facts that have been painstakingly established via the scientific method. That is why the theory of evolution has come to constitute the very core of modern life sciences.
The “Bush Doctrine”
When he was President, George W. Bush responded to a question about teaching intelligent design by saying, “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas. Yes, they should be.”
Let’s call this “the Bush Doctrine.” It can be summarized thus: when it comes to controversial subjects, educators should provide students with all significantly different ideas and schools of thought.
Ok, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that. Then what would a Bush Doctrine type inquiry into intelligent design amount to? What sorts of considerations would educators have to explore to insure that students were exposed to all relevant schools of thought?
Well for one thing, it would have to involve an inquiry into the nature of the alleged intelligent designer(s). For instance, the students should be encouraged to ask if that alleged designer should be understood in a theistic way? Why? Because for theists the designer(s) would have to be both transcendent and immanent. In other words, both infinite, and still present and at work.
So, under the Bush Doctrine, educators would have to ask students to consider if theism adequately describes the nature of the alleged intelligent designer. And, if so, how they think the designer’s work is being carried out at the moment; inasmuch as that bears on the intelligent design advocate’s central assertion. But here is the problem. They would be inquiring into religious beliefs, not science. And that tells us a great deal about how unscientific intelligent design really is.
Under the Bush Doctrine many other schools of religious thought would also have to be examined as soon as divine creation makes its way into the science classroom. Here are some of them:
—Deists, who are neither Christian nor Jew, would assert that while God is the original designer, he, she, or it does not intervene in the world once the original construction is complete. Moreover, such a creator does not have human qualities, and does not answer prayers or cause miracles. The Bush Doctrine would require educators to familiarize students with this perspective and then lead them in an inquiry as to whether this is the true nature of the intelligent designer.
—Pantheists believe that all of creation is God and God is all of creation. In this view, scientists can be said to be revealing God as they work. Logically, the Bush Doctrine requires that students consider whether, by studying evolution, they are in fact studying the very nature of God.
—Dualists, also known as Manichaeans, maintain that there is both an absolutely good God and an opposing utterly evil deity of equal potency. What will students make of this when, under the Bush Doctrine, they examine how it relates to intelligent design? Might dualism explain, for example, what could be understood as flaws in the design? In what sense is a design “intelligent” if it gives rise to such horrible human suffering as Huntington’s or Parkinson’s disease?
—Monolatrists hold that there are many gods—but only the gods in which a person believes have power over them. In other words, the gods can influence only those who believe in them. Such a belief poses unique problems, not only for intelligent design but for educators charged with creating a curriculum that considers how monolatrism applies to the descent of man. Would this have to be done? Under the Bush Doctrine, yes.
—What implications does atheism have for intelligent design? Remember that atheism is the belief that there is no God (or gods) whatsoever. Under the Bush Doctrine, educators would have to lead students in a consideration of who or what might have carried out the design if God (or the gods) weren’t involved. Students might be called upon, for example, to consider whether we may have been put here as a future food source for advanced beings from another galaxy.
—Educators would also have to lead students in considerations of the possibility of intelligent design by committee—polytheism. For instance, Smarta Hinduism, a contemporary “soft polytheistic” (technically, “inclusive monotheistic”) religion, recognizes thousands of gods and goddesses, each representing one characteristic of a supreme Absolute called “Brahman.” Creation design might be parceled out to specialists. Mortality, for example, might be the work of Kali, the goddess of time and of the transformation that takes place with death. The evils that afflict humankind could be explained as the work of Dhumavati—a hideous and forbidding goddess who, nonetheless, blesses those who can discern the Divine Mother in her.
Consideration of these different schools of thought are exactly what the Bush Doctrine entails. Yet, if they were to be explored in school it certainly would not make fundamentalist Christians happy.
Of course the Bush Doctrine also requires that students explore the possibility of a female intelligent designer. Males, after all, are merely modified females. (Nipples on men bear mute testimony to this biological fact.) So it seems reasonable to consider whether or not the intelligent designer might have been female. They might even want to consider if a committee of females did the designing.
The Problem of Evil
Finally, any examination of intelligent design would have to consider what philosophers call the problem of evil. It concerns how one can reconcile the existence of an omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-loving) Intelligent Designer of the Christian kind with seemingly gratuitous physical evils such as birth defects, degenerative diseases, or destructive micro-organisms such as the AIDS virus or TB bacillus. Can you picture the almighty, at least in Christian form, creating, or even permitting, leprosy? Yet all of these kinds of questions should arise if creation science is a part of the public school curriculum.
And what of the Biblical Noah’s ark and present day creations. It would seem that every living thing currently existing, including all that cause suffering and death, must have been on the ark. Mark Twain describes this in his Letters From The Earth. Here Noah accidentally forgets the housefly that carries Typhoid. Desperately he sails back and rescues it. And, writes Clemens: “From that one housefly, in the ages that have since elapsed, billions of sickbeds have been stocked, billions of wrecked bodies sent tottering about the earth, and billions of cemeteries recruited with the dead.”
Epicurus, a third-century B.C. Athenian philosopher, put the problem this way:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Why, then, is there physical evil?
All of the questions reviewed here, and many more, would have to be explored if the Bush Doctrine were applied to the teaching of intelligent design. And it is quite apparent that the vast majority of intelligent design partisans are not ready for that. What they want is their version of Christian creation taught as co-equal to modern science; which it isn’t.
In the end it comes down to the matter of authority. If you accept the authority of scientific research, intelligent design has no place in a science class. Why? Because it involves unprovable religious speculation. In fact, if you accept a literal interpretation of the Bible as God’s holy word, scientific inquiry is largely unnecessary. Why? Because Biblical assertions necessarily supersede any and all research findings. They are, true believers claim, the incarnate word of God and not subject to error. So if scientific research finds the earth to be more than 4 billion years old, the research is flawed.
Such a point of view is plainly religious: and not scientific. This is because intelligent design is not about science. It is a stealth tactic designed to slip increasingly fragile religious beliefs into the public school science curriculum.