Intelligent Design Makes Good Debate

A spirited, grounded debate about the merits of intelligent design should be welcomed into schools, houses of worship and the broader community because it represents ageold discussions, illuminating intellectual history and stimulating brilliant conjecture into an otherwise intellectually dull contemporary society.

Intelligent design, frequently labeled as the argument from design or the teleological argument in Western philosophy of religion, has a long history in preenlightenment philosophy as one of the standard “proofs of God.”

In each of its permutations, the proof that God exists rests upon the fact of harmony and complexity in nature so overwhelming that mere existence implies that a designer be behind all of creation, or, in the case of teleology, that the universe has a purpose and is operating within the confines of a grand plan.

Without the arcane language and speculations, this idea goes back to Plato’s insistence that there is a transcendental world, more real than our own (God and heaven to us), and to Aristotle, who asserted an “Unmoved Mover,” which should be the cause for all changeable experience which contains a purpose.

In the intervening centuries, there were many exciting and stimulating Christian philosophers in the West who built upon or challenged the thinking of their forebears to provide the historical dialogue which has culminated into the development of both science and the theological grounding of many contemporary Christian churches.

It is of note, that Aristotle, of Unmoved Mover fame, was so well-known for his classification of living species that his pupil, Alexander the Great, ordered his generals to send back any new found living creatures to Aristotle as they expanded the empire.

The history of science and religion, particularly Christianity, are ripe with edifying interactions and should be a portion of the foundation of thought for any contemporary citizen. The most important part of the lesson is that science and religion both seek to provide safety and comfort to people living in an awesome universe. Both seek to offer some control in a world both terrifying and marvelous.

The problem is that neither has the authority to supercede the other. They may be twins of the same mother, but they have their own proper spheres of influence and authority.

It is only because of the ignorance of the citizenship and the ulterior motives of some zealots that the significant discussion of intelligent design, its meaning, its importance in history, and the creative arguments for and against by the greatest Christian thinkers in history are not in the minds of citizens in the contemporary apologetics.

We would be far better off if the contemporary discussion explored William Paley’s watchmaker hypothesis, David Hume’s discussion in “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” or the inspirational work of the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. Paley’s description of a beachcomber finding a watch on a beach has stimulated philosophy students for years to induce what information we can get about God from the universe as a complex entity.

Hume forces critical thinking about both the world and inferences about God. And therein sits another proper similarity between the spheres of religion and science: critical thinking.

All critical thinking is not the same. Scientific thinking rests upon the scientific method, wherein hypotheses develop out of observation and creative speculation. These are tested and if the surviving evidence is strong enough, they can become a theory, which, after long and extensive testing and observation, can become recognized as a law.

Religious and philosophical debate is no less important to a society. The proof, however, meets a different standard. The proof, if you will, rests with both religious authorities, whether it is the church, the Bible or the conscience of the believer, and the critical mass of public opinion. These are to be informed by science and history, but should not be confused with science per se.

Taking intelligent design as a scientific matter, one might suggest the hypothesis that the world, as an infinitely complex organism, requires a creator. This meets the criteria of an observation and creative induction. It does not allow, however, for scientific testing and it discounts counter observations of chaos so obvious in contemporary science.

Nor by the way, does it give any insight into the nature of the creator. It is, at best, an hypothesis, not a theory and does not carry the status of evolution. At worst, it is the lowest form of dogmatism. The problem being, of course, when the leap from wonder to the decisions about the meaning of life make a stop at certainty before arriving at meaning. Evolution is a theory: a developing theory properly challenged by new finds and experimentation.

The persistent problem that is exposed in Kansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere is that an uninformed citizenry has been coerced by groups of equally uninformed zealots to accept the notion that there is no difference between religious authority and the scientific method. The sad part is that these events were both predictable and avoidable.

In his 1952 introduction to the “Great Books of the Western World,” University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins lamented the diminished influence of a full liberal arts education on the students of his time. He wrote in the strongest terms that a democratic society depends upon an informed electorate grounded in knowledge of history, philosophy, literature, economics and science.

He feared that an educational system increasingly geared toward career choice rather than life experience would limit the ability of students where creative thinking was most necessary in their lives as citizens of a democracy. He wrote that by not knowing how previous cultures have dealt with problems similar to our own, we would see our own problems as unique and lack the ability to apply previous experience to our own.

The paucity of the real issues embedded the delightful ruminations of intelligent design in favor of the dubious issues currently under public debate make Dr. Hutchins’ concerns the real cause for alarm.

Dale Braiman of Haines City has a master’s degree in religion from Yale and is retired from Florida Hospital in Orlando. There, he was a clinical associate in neuropsychology and then the clinical supervisor of the brain injury rehabilitation program.

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The Ledger, USA
Jan. 21, 2006 Opinion
Dale Braiman

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 23, 2006.
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