Unintelligent Debate Over Intelligent Design

“…the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” — Stephen Jay Gould.

The debate between some scientists and some believers over the issue of Intelligent Design is only useful in that illuminates the re-occurrence of issues that should have been settled rather definitively in the last century. The movement to promote Intelligent Design as a critique of Darwinisn is primarily reflective of a reaction by believers against some rationalists and humanists who wish to stamp out belief.

Intelligent Design posits an answer to a question that science, as a matter of axiom, refuses to allow itself. The essential argument of Intelligent Design is that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not sufficient to explain either the origin of life or of its observed wondrous complexity and beauty.  Hence, there must be an “intelligent designer.” Although the theory of natural selection has proven extremely useful and effective in explaining observed evolution, there are surely open questions that need be addressed or observations that can not yet been completely explained.

One axiom of science is not to permit itself to resort to supernatural explanations. When confronted with the unknown or unexplainable, scientists must step a back and simply say science is not sufficient, at least not yet, of explaining the observations. An intelligent agent behind nature is excluded from the scientific solution set

Nonetheless, people are free to adopt the disciplines of science or not depending on their purposes and preferences. Indeed, one can assert the existence of an intelligent designer even if we find scientific explanations largely sufficient.

As Gould observes “…the magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” Religion answers the questions of why not how. In any integrated personality, both these questions must be addressed, but there is no reason why an individual cannot use the different ways of thinking to address different problems. For example, no one would find it unexpected that one would use a different set of sensibilities for  scientific inquiry than literary or art appreciation.

At this point, the polemical extremes are battling it out. One one side we have evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who mock traditional believers and not too subtly paint them as simple-minded and religious belief as inherently destructive. On the other hand, Ben Stein in the new film Expelled criticizes the scientific establishment for using dismissals and tenure denial as a heavy-handed means to suppress criticism by Intelligent Design advocates. Science, which is based on open inquiry, is thus easy to paint as hypocritical.

This is an unnecessary battle resting on a misunderstanding of the appropriate relationship between science and religion.

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