Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Evolution and religion

A week ago, the Kansas Board of Education adopted new science standards. Amazingly, "the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena." Not only does that open the door to the teaching of intelligent design creationism in the science classroom, it necessarily embraces other fields such as astrology, geocentrism and flying spaghetti monsterism.

In that decision's wake, there have been several interesting articles about evolution, religion and the teaching of science.

• Chet Raymo comments, in his always interesting Science Musings blog, on the rift between science and religion.
Even if the religious right succeeds in getting creationism (in any of its forms) into the public school science curricula, it will have zero -- let me repeat that -- zero effect on how science is practiced by scientists. So we will have a curious disjuncture between what scientists do and what is taught as science. A sorry situation, indeed, and not worthy of this great nation.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the flap and fury, some of us -- theists, atheists, and agnostics alike -- believe that science is too shallow a vessel to contain the fullness of our response to the world, yet we treasure science for what it is: the most valuable way of knowing humans have yet devised for obtaining reliable public knowledge of the world.
• Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson has an interesting article in Harvard Magazine on Darwin's legacy and Intelligent Evolution.
The revolution in astronomy begun by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that Earth is not the center of the universe, nor even the center of the solar system. The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation, and not its purpose either. But in freeing our minds from our imagined demigod bondage, even at the price of humility, Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products: [...]
Many who accept the fact of evolution cannot, however, on religious grounds, accept the operation of blind chance and the absence of divine purpose implicit in natural selection. They support the alternative explanation of intelligent design. The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it. The formulation of intelligent design is a default argument advanced in support of a non sequitur. It is in essence the following: There are some phenomena that have not yet been explained and that (and most importantly) the critics personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore there must be a supernatural designer at work. The designer is seldom specified, but in the canon of intelligent design it is most certainly not Satan and his angels, nor any god or gods conspicuously different from those accepted in the believer’s faith.

Flipping the scientific argument upside down, the intelligent designers join the strict creationists (who insist that no evolution ever occurred in the first place) by arguing that scientists resist the supernatural theory because it is counter to their own personal secular beliefs. This may have a kernel of truth; everybody suffers from some amount of bias. But in this case bias is easily overcome. The critics forget how the reward system in science works. Any researcher who can prove the existence of intelligent design within the accepted framework of science will make history and achieve eternal fame. He will prove at last that science and religious dogma are compatible! Even a combined Nobel Prize and Templeton Prize (the latter designed to encourage search for just such harmony) would fall short as proper recognition. Every scientist would like to accomplish such an epoch-making advance. But no one has even come close, because unfortunately there is no evidence, no theory, and no criteria for proof that even marginally might pass for science. There is only the residue of hoped-for default, which steadily shrinks as the science of biology expands.
Despite the claims of the creationists, biology isn't "anti-religion". Science simply cannot determine the involvement of supernatural forces in the generation of the diversity of life.

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