Evolutionary Theory, Religion and the First Amendment

Here is an interesing argument for Intelligent Design (ID) that many IDers coming out of the Discovery Institute make (look for the Mon Nov 14, 5:29 pm post by Conservativeman),

The problem is that an “Evolution Only,” policy is not really scientific or constitutional. It is not scientific because it is officially biased rather than scientifically objective. Because it is biased, it is not religiously neutral. Evolution Only effectively requires our children to “know” that we come from a natural rather than an intelligent cause, that we are occurrences and not designs, and that we naturally arise without purpose from a purposeless process. It effectively teaches that no rational evidentiary basis exists for theistic beliefs. Evolution Only converts these scientific claims into dogmas that are the fundamental tenets of non-theistic religions and that directly contradict the fundamental tenets of theistic religions. Accordingly, in my opinion, Evolution Only is not “secular” or neutral. Rather it is an ideology that directly conflicts with the First Amendment rights of parents and students.

Not only are there some fundamental errors in this post in regards to evolutionary theory and science, it is also bad theology, IMO. For example, implying the evolutionary theory (and science in general) are not simply secular, but also have a religious component it defines religion in a way that any religious person should find troubling. Consider the following characteristics about science: scientific hypotheses are based on empirical evidence. For a religious person this should be somewhat troubling if one is to define science as a religion. What evidence is there for God? Are we going to start looking for direct and indirect evidence for God and weighing different interpretations of God based on the evidence? If you are religious and starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with this, good.

There are really only two ways I can see ID being a scientific theory. That is for aliens to have been the designer or for man to start placing constraints on God. For example, suppose we have a scientific theory, call it X. Further, let us assume that there are 100 facets to X that can be used to test/verify X, call them {x1, x2,…,x100}. Now if it turns out that we observe some y’s instead of x’s then we have to consider theory Y. In other words, theory X prohibits theory Y from holding. Or to put it another way, if X is true, then Y cannot be true. In science theories are useful because we can delineate between theories and weigh the evidence against each theory. But if we have an omnipotent supernatural being then there is no way any other explanation can compete. So to make the supernatural version of ID scientific we have to put constraints on God.

With the alien ID theory we at least could test this theory. If we find an alien race on another planet and say they have similar DNA. That would indicate that either that alien race designed us, or a third race designed both of humans and the aliens we just contacted. So at least there is a potential for testing the theory. Oddly enough this makes the Raelians a bit more scientific that the Discovery Institute people. Of course, right now we have no evidence supporting the notion of alien design so we should reject it in favor of the natural explanation.

Another problem with Conservativeman’s view is that it offers a false dichotomy. Either we arose via supernatural design, or we arose via an undirected process that has no grand purpose. Another possibility is that the supernatural being works through natural processes (you know that, “God works in mysterious ways” comment). Granted this is untestable as well, but it does offer a way for people to reconcile their religious veiws with scientific views. In a way, the IDers are putting limits on God. By saying, “God could only do something in a way we can detect” puts limits on God. It says, that God must leave a fingerprint so that we can have evidence of his work.

As for the First Amendment issue that is a dry well I’m afraid. Violating the First Amendment would mean favoring one religion over another, and that would mean making a statement about the supernatural. Science however limits itself to only the natural world and hence is it is rather hard for science to make a positive statement about the supernatural. Science does make negative statements about the supernatural, such as we no longer have to invoke a god living on a mountain hurling thunderbolts when he is angry (or a god with braids, a big hammer tossing around thunderbolts). Now we have a pretty good understanding of lightening and thunder.

It seems to me that religious people have reason to worry about Intelligent Design. Not simply that it could erode America’s scientific base (it very well could), but also because it is bad theology. Since ID is silent on who is the designer it could be anything including aliens (this last one could be why Dembski came up with his new law of thermodynamics about the conservation of information). ID opens the way not only for religion but for other tenuous beliefs such as aliens, astrology, numerology, and other psuedo-sciences. Either that or God may not be all that he is cracked up to be. After all, he was clumsy enough to leave his fingerprints all over the E. coli bacterial flagellum.

Link via the Pandas Thumb.

Update: Just because I like to stir things up, I’m linking this to Jack Lewis/Danny Carlton’s trackback post.

FILED UNDER: Education, Science & Technology, ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. Mark Jaquith says:

    In a way, the IDers are putting limits on God. By saying, “God could only do something in a way we can detect” puts limits on God. It says, that God must leave a fingerprint so that we can have evidence of his work.

    Nicely said. Of course, they could always go the Thomas Aquinas route and say that the fingerprint must exist because the Bible says that it does, but that would expose them as A) trying to promote their religion and B) having such weak faith in their religion that they find themselves compelled to seek a scientific basis for it.

  2. RJN says:

    Conservativeman has nailed it. He has illuminated the First Amendment components of the controversy so very well. I don’t think “Science” advocates can divert the attention of SCOTUS justices from Conservativeman’s thesis by claims of intrinsic objectivity in science.

    My take is that should this ever get to SCOTUS, Katie bar the door. Think about it; science advocates would have to prove that science is intrinsically objective. Lots of luck.

    Thanks, Steve, for another opportunity to spread understanding.

  3. RJN says:

    I just reread my comment. I was not intending to be snotty in that last line. I really do think your posts on this matter, though I disagree with your views, are useful to all. Thanks.

  4. Just Me says:

    Perhaps if we just taught evolution, but left out the “random” “purposeless” parts, it wouldn’t be so difficult.

    But when science says a proccess is random and purposeless, they do in effect say something about “God” and it is hard to dismiss this.

  5. Steve Verdon says:

    Just Me,

    Actually evolution isn’t simply random as many like to claim. Natural selection isn’t random. It isn’t like a cosmic dice is rolled and some sub-group of the species is allowed to live while the rest die. For example, look at anti-biotics. There is nothing random about the selection for anti-biotic resistant bacteria. It isn’t like they just got lucky, they had the right mutation at the right time. Now the mutation is random, but it isn’t a completely random process.

    But when science says a proccess is random and purposeless, they do in effect say something about “God” and it is hard to dismiss this.

    It only says something about a literal iterpretation about the bible. Funny how people don’t have a problem with the speed of light, age of the earth, and so forth, but the idea that Adam and Eve might not have been just like us seems to really ranckle for some reason. Maybe it is like how people attribute human motivations to their pets (Fido pee’d on the rug because I left him alone the other day).

    RJN,

    Conservativeman has nailed it. He has illuminated the First Amendment components of the controversy so very well. I don’t think “Science” advocates can divert the attention of SCOTUS justices from Conservativeman’s thesis by claims of intrinsic objectivity in science.

    This is a strawman. I haven’t claimed that science is inherently objective. Scientists are biased, and yes they do limit the set of possible explanations to the natural world. But the reason they do this is methodological not theological reasons.

    Imagine you have a phenomenon (I don’t care what) and you come up with a natural explanation. No matter how good your natural explanation it can never, ever beat my supernatural explanation. Ever.

    The reason why science and Western culture has tended to reject the supernatural is for methodological reasons. First, with a good natural explanation we don’t need the extraneous assumption of the supernatural. Second, there was a realization that nothing can “beat” the supernatural explanation. So such assumptions are jettisoned in favor of just natural explanations. The result was a tremendous outpouring of scienctific advancement.

    My take is that should this ever get to SCOTUS, Katie bar the door. Think about it; science advocates would have to prove that science is intrinsically objective. Lots of luck.

    No, because nothing is “intrinsically objective”. This is too high a bar and if any Supreme Court Justice advocated that as the test he should be removed from the bench immediately for being a complete dunderhead. What has to be shown is that evolutionary theory is not a religion, which is obvious as by definition evolutionary theory precludes the supernatural in its positive statements.

  6. BWE says:

    Evolution is still a thory based on nothing more then pure speculation and junk science as well as a few fossels that show absoluttly no signs of evolution EVOLUTION IS JUNK SCIENCE

    I don’t really have anything to say, I think Thunderbird does a pretty good job of making himself look ridiculous. Oh, bye the way-
    THE EARTH IS FLAT! I SAID, THE EARTH IS FLAT! BE STINKING CAREFUL YOU MIGHT FALL OFF! THE EARTH IS FLAT! THE EARTH IS FLAT! THE EARTH IS FLAT!

    National Center for Science Education

    The poor people of Dover must feel relieved. Relieved that they don’t live in Kansas.

  7. RJN says:

    The strawman is that there is no intelligence in the people who support the possibility of intelligent design. All IDers who read, or write on the subject, well understand the concept that a good, non-supernatural, explanation of phenomena is the default for scientific and engineering progress.

    Those who scoff at the brainpower of IDers usually infer, strongly, that science is by its nature objective, and is thus intrinsically sufficient for all origin and development questions.

  8. BWE says:

    Ok, THis is what gets me, Evolution is easy to support and ID is not. The problem is that to understand the details of how evolution works, and thus put to rest any genesis literalness, requires an education. Intelligence and knowledge do not necessarily go hand in hand like fear and hate do.

    THe education in science illustrates a number of things, among them is where the boundaries of science are. The problem with Christian wingnuts is that their cult doesn’t teach them where the boundaries to their philosophy are. Evolution is squarely within the boundaries of scientific inquiry. ANd scientific inquiry has illustrated without question that evolution is the mechanism for organisms’ change over time and speciation.

    The “theory” of evolution does not make a claim about how the first simple protiens became RNA and DNA. It doesn’t say that SHiva didn’t put those little suckers down here to start evolving away. It only empirically demonstrates that man and all other animals evolved from other life forms dating back to a long time ago. The problem is that the discussion needs to go through Biology, Geology, Oceanography, Physical Geography, Astronomy, Chemistry, Astrology, Phrenology, and, did you catch those last two? -I guess I am showing my religious underpinnings here- and that takes a long time. Especially to people who have already been brainwashed into taking someone’s word for how the universe started. As if anyone knows.

  9. RJN says:

    BWE:

    Does this National Center for Science Education know who you are? The smart-ass and generaly ignorant tone of your last post should make them blush by association.

    The basic divide between ID and origins by evolution argument is about RNA and DNA. You seem to give ID a pass on RNA and DNA. Thanks, it makes the job easier.

    By the way, the Christians made science, and the Christians made public education, and the Christians made Colleges and Universities, and the Christians made the land grant Universities in this country. Some brainwashing, some brain.

  10. BWE says:

    The basic divide between ID and origins by evolution argument is about RNA and DNA. You seem to give ID a pass on RNA and DNA. Thanks, it makes the job easier.

    No it isn’t. It’s about speciation. Evolution makes no claim as to the transformation of simple proteins into RNA or DNA. Look it up.

    RNJ I’m sorry for being a smart-ass. You are right, I am ridiculing where I should be discussing. The anonymity of the internet makes it too tempting to be mean spirited.

    As far as brainwashing goes, religion does fall into that category, regardless of the institutions it fosters or creates. Taking someone else as an authority on a subject that we as a species are not authorities on is allowing control where it does not belong. This is a sincere belief and not a smart-assed comment. I have never had an intelligent entity directly speak to me in my native tongue and neither has anyone else, ever. Therefore, all ideas that god has an agenda are mere speculation. That is not to say that there is no religious experience. Religious experiences occur every day to some people. But something gets lost in the translation. As Lenny Bruce said “Any man of God with more than 2 suits is a shyster”.

    Thank you RJN for reminding me of the importance of civility.

  11. floyd says:

    bwe; i see you’ve been reading my comments , and paraphrasing, thanks for the complement.

  12. BWE says:

    Hi Floyd.
    WHich part did I paraphrase? THe sorry for going a bit over the top or the part about speciation?

  13. floyd says:

    bwe; paraphrase was the the wrong word choice.the reference to phrenology was my primary indication.is it not specieous[sic] to refer to phrenology as religion since ,in it’s time, it was only seen as science. please pardon me if you were not making that indication. i am sometimes embarrassed by comments made by those who claim to be christians , just as i’m sure you share my embarrassment caused by some who claim to be scientists. if i am to believe that you think christianity is “religion” then i guess i should resent your false statement about “brainwashing”. junk science is just as bad as junk religion.