evolution & metaphysics
I appreciate Tim Kowal’s long, thoughtful response to my post on Ben Stein and intelligent design, but after reading and re-reading it I’m afraid it misses the mark. Lines like “Strictly speaking, natural selection is not a scientific theory” only help to harden that impression. They don’t call it the Theory of Evolution for nothing.
Science, as I see it, is the process by which we as humans attempt to better understand the natural world. Whether we want to phrase this as “God’s creation” or merely as “the natural world” is unimportant. When it comes to actually taking apart the radio and figuring out how it works, we don’t need to ask whether it was made by hand or by a machine, in America or overseas. All we need to do is take it apart and then put it back together. Similarly, with science – whether it is biology or geology or physics – all we need to do is ask the question “how?”
How does it all tick?
That, to me, is science. The exploration of how the natural world ticks. To me, as a person of faith, I think of this as a way to better understand God also, to understand how creation ticks. I find the anthropomorphizing of God in “theories” like Intelligent Design to be insulting both to God and to my intelligence.
Let me explain. Let’s take, for example, the rock cycle. This is the natural cycle whereby rock is pressed down into the earth and then reemerges as magma. That rock – now igneous rock – is pressed slowly down into the earth, turns into sedimentary and then metamorphic rock, and finally is melted down once again into magma. It is a process which takes millions upon millions of years. Understanding this process helps us understand the earth beneath our feet (and a great deal more) and it is entirely irrelevant to our understanding of this process whether or not it was created or designed by God. If a group of Intelligent Rock Cycle Designers came around arguing that instead of this being a natural process it was instead one guided by some other Intelligence, I simply fail to see how their alternative theory would be at all useful to our understanding of the rock cycle.
But does it diminish from it?
I think it does. Because the rock cycle is nothing more than an observation of what is happening. It carries no metaphysical weight. It doesn’t posit that an intelligent designer, an alien overlord, or a giant deific infant is responsible (or not responsible) for anything. It doesn’t ask why or who – just as no other scientific process asks why or who (except perhaps in the initial exploration of the idea, i.e. “Why are plants green?” not “Why do we exist?” “Why do rocks change the deeper into the earth we travel? not “Who created rocks?”) Once we start changing the scientific process to include “who” as an integral part of the discussion, we change the very nature of science from one of observation and theory to one of metaphysical inquiry – which it is not.
Besides, this idea of design betrays the need for an anthropomorphic God, one who could not possibly think big enough to design the process of natural selection and so must “guide” that process step by step. Intelligent design detracts not only from the hard science and from understanding that science fully, but from a deeper, more reverent belief in God – who surely is more clever than any of us, and who just might have come up with evolution and natural selection and genetics and astrophysics and all of this (without terming them such). We are, with a tool we call science, only barely scratching the surface of the cleverness which is creation/the natural world/the giant deific baby’s playground….
That we are scratching that surface does not diminish God in any way, but attributing our own human concepts of design to his far more clever biological processes, I would argue, certainly does. That we have a mind and can use it and can use it to explore the natural world, and that we term that exploration “science” does not diminish God. We don’t need to talk about intelligent design to be in awe when we study the natural world – from the infinitesimal to the vast, it is awe-inspiring. Natural selection is more awe-inspiring, more clever, and more intuitive than some endlessly tinkering deity who must forever shape and shift his creation. Even if God is endlessly shaping, perhaps he has utilized natural selection as one in a larger array of tools. This is God we’re talking about, no? Perhaps he is beyond any stretch of our imagination.
Intelligent Design no more helps us understand biology than it does the rock cycle or the death of a star. We still have to take the radio apart and put it back together. Figure out how it ticks. We still have to understand how it is that some species survive while others fail, how traits are passed on from one generation to the next, how our genetic composition can effect what diseases we’re prone to, and on and on and on. If there is an intelligent designer I suspect he is far more intelligent than the ID proponents give him credit for. Hard science will do a better job of convincing me of his existence and omnipotence than any snake oil salesman, pushing pseudo-science for political points, as a cultural battlefield in a larger, ultimately pointless war.
All that being said, if schools would like to teach theology of science classes, or philosophy of science classes, or whatever, that’s great. Kids can learn about ID or creationism or young-earth creationism or Scientology or deific-babyism there. The more the better. Metaphysics and philosophy and all of that are good for young minds. We just need to teach them biology when they’re in biology class.