Natural History magazine (4/02) has a set of articles on intelligent design: three by intelligent design advocates Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, followed by three responses by Kenneth R. Miller, Robert T. Pennock, and Eugenie C. Scott. Then an interesting article about the history and strategy of intelligent design advocates by Barbara Forrest. And last, Ian Tattersall weighs in on science vs. religion and argues that they are not really in conflict!
At least, they would not be in conflict, he seems to say, if religionists would only stay in their place — which is to reveal timeless, absolute truths–and stay out of the scientific realm — which deals with knowledge that is provisional and anything but absolute. Tattersall writes:
“How can we make progress in science if what we believe today cannot be shown tomorrow to be somehow wrong or at least incomplete? Religious knowledge is in principle eternal, but scientific knowledge is by its very nature provisional.”
He goes on to say
“scientists are in pursuit of knowledge about mundane realities and are not in the business of revealing timeless truths.”
True enough. But has he succeeded in setting up “non-overlapping magisteria” (as I believe Stephen J. Gould described it) between science and religion?
He has not. The distinction between absolute and provisional truth is not a distinction of subject matter but rather a distinction of the nature of knowing. He leave the religious side quite free to deal with “absolute truth” without giving us any rationale for limiting religion to a particular range of subjects. So long as religion and science address the same subjects, they can and probably will conflict. Tattersall fails, therefore, to set up non-overlapping magisteria.
As I recollect his line of argument, Gould failed to so do as well, though he came closer since the realm of religion he assigned to morals and metaphysics (if I recall correctly — I may not).
Religion and science can be made non-overlapping only if science is defined as the study of the behavior of things (including people, of course), whereas religion is made the study of our subjective experiences and feelings. Where science attempts to describe the world, religion attempts to describe our feelings about the world.
This puts religion squarely in the category of literature and poetry, of language use which is inspirational and story-telling rather than factual and denotatively descriptive. Science deals with the nature of the world, and even with the nature of our feelings. But religion deals with the content of our feelings and experiences, which is something quite different, something science cannot tackle.
There is a third magisteria: philosophy, which must address the issue of the relationship between science and religion, the nature of thought and information and the world, why the scientific method works, why “absolute truth” seems absolute, and so on. A question like “where does information exist?” is difficult to address scientifically because to address it requires us to step back from being scientists and to look at the process itself of thinking scientifically.
Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University, has followed the transformation of “creationism” into “intelligent design”. She points out that the advocates of intelligent design know that they are really in the business of philosophy rather than science. She quotes Phillip E. Johnson (author of Darwin on Trial ) thusly:
“This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science. It’s about religion and philosophy.”
And Forrest quotes Dembski,
“[Intelligent design] is just the Logos of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”
She quotes Dembski further:
“As Christians, we know naturalism is false. Nature is not self-sufficient….Nonetheless neither theology nor philosophy can answer the evidential question whether God’s interaction with the world is empirically detectable. To answer this question we must look to science.”
It is a reasonable observation. But in fact the advocates of intelligent design do not look to science for evidence of God’s interaction with the world. Were they to do that, they would obviously look at current scientific ideas about the big bang singularity and they would look carefully at the behavior of sub-atomic particles like quarks–areas where current science could be construed as pointing to interaction between God and the world.
But instead of looking for scientific evidence for God, they prefer to disagree with science, to reject well-established scientific theories. In particular, they focus on attacking the theory of evolution. Instead of turning to science for evidence, in other words, they prefer to dispute science on philosophical grounds.
Why attack evolution, rather than embrace the big bang?
I believe it is because they know, unconsciously or intuitively, that evolution (“descent with modification” as Darwin called it) has huge philosophical implications. That it allows the formulation of a philosophy in which nature is indeed self-sufficient, and God is unnecessary.