Adding Clarity on Intelligent Design Ex Cathedra

A friend brought a news item to my attention.  It reads, “Ball State Adds Clarity to Science-Religion Debate.”  Note the leading paragraph, which apparently puts the end to a troublesome matter:  “Can science and religion exist in the same classroom?  In a word, no.”

According to the story, an assistant professor of physics discussed intelligent design with his students in a way that did not involve burning Michael Behe and Bill Dembski in effigy.  As he stood accused, it seems the controversy rose to the level of the Ball State University president, Jo Ann Gora.  She provided helpful clarity by decreeing, “Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory.  Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.”

Whether or not one thinks intelligent design should be addressed in university science courses, I certainly hope that people would not address the dispute in the way Ball State’s president has.  Anyone who has read books and articles on intelligent design can easily see that it is not religion.  Intelligent design presents arguments based on things such as probability and irreducible complexity.  At no point does it advert to revelation or divine inspiration.  What intelligent design really is, is a competing theory to the dominant neo-Darwinism.  Let us be clear.  It is a competing theory that is not well-accepted by the scientific establishment.  It is a minority position fighting for a hearing.  What will not do, however, is to attempt to prevent it from being discussed or heard by simply declaring it is religion.

Let us entertain a further question.  We might imagine a professor at Ball State invoking intelligent design several times during a semester in an unfavorable manner.  Perhaps this instructor would demonstrate facts that he believes disprove intelligent design or make it appear less likely than other, more dominant explanations.  Would Ball State University then ask this professor what business he has talking about religion in a science course?  Of course not.  It would be properly understood that the professor is favorably comparing the scientific theory he favors to the one he thinks has less explanatory power.

Just because you call something religion doesn’t make it so.  A declaration from the chair is not effective in debate.


11 thoughts on “Adding Clarity on Intelligent Design Ex Cathedra

  1. “Just because you call something religion doesn’t make it so.”
    By the same token, calling it NOT religion does not make it NOT so.
    The position that ID is not religion is severely compromised in several ways, including the Dover finding of fact that examining early drafts of the ID textbook “Of Pandas and People” reveals an origin in the much more blatantly religious “creation science” movement. It was edited to be more coy about its message after court rulings against creation science. The very best argument to be made is that it WAS religious and now isn’t. That’s a pretty hard sell in my book.
    I don’t think many can look at the ID movement in totality (its genealogy, its tactics, its personnel, its proponents, its institutions) and deny that its motive is to undermine belief in certain scientific theories which some people find threatening to religious belief.
    While it may raise interesting points and challenging questions (though many would deny even that), ID pretty clearly only wants to raise the one question: “Who, then, did the designing?”
    The Constitution stands squarely in the way of addressing that question proactively in public schools, but you can bet that in the desk of many a would-be ID teacher, there is a Bible waiting to be produced when students have been influenced to ask the question themselves.

  2. Joe, I think you’ve got this thing wrong. The Dover stuff is wrong, too. Let’s imagine that we could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that some highly useful scientific theory was absolutely drenched in the motives and history of some cult of physicists or biologists working toward religious ends. Would we then suggest that the impure (from a secular standpoint) theory (which happens to be scientifically convincing) cannot be taught (really we should say “discussed”) in public schools? Of course we would not. So, it cannot be correct to say that this cultural history to which you point is the decisive thing. Instead, it would be better to simply have the conversation and discuss strengths and weaknesses accordingly.

  3. I hear what you are saying, but I am not convinced by it. I read the Dover decision in its entirety and to simply dismiss it as “wrong” does it no justice.
    ID is not in the same state as the theory you imagine. Thus far, it stands as the latest iteration of past efforts that have failed the “is it religion” litmus test. While each iteration may further distance itself from religious assertions and employ more science-y and mathematical arguments, the movement remains (as was proven in Dover) religiously motivated and religious in nature.
    ID needs to escape the confines of its origin if it wants to be perceived as something other than dressed-up religion. The course is simple. Produce test results. Conduct experiments that confirm ID hypotheses. When that happens, ID will have become science. So far, that has not happened.
    Until it does, ID has no armor against reductionist dismissal. It can be boiled all the way down to the ages-old argument: “Watch implies watchmaker, therefore, God.”

  4. Motive is utterly irrelevant when it comes to determining the value of an argument or a proposition. It may affect the skepticism you have as you approach the proposition or the argument, but not the value of the underlying thing, itself. The point I made in the earlier comment stands uncorrected. If the motive of the group I mentioned in the comment is now determinative, then the same thing is true for ID.

    Now, motive does enter in when we are talking about public school education. Why? Because parents have a right to some assurance that the content of a science course is not determined by an agenda. I fully grant that there should be some watchfulness and some burden upon some folks for that reason. But this blog post is about a university. And the decision should not be made on the basis of arbitrary categorization.

  5. In addition, the arguments are more impressive than the watchmaker argument (which I think is a pretty good one). The irreducible complexity argument strikes me as pretty strong. It hasn’t prevailed in the academy, but who knows what will happen there over the next fifty years or so.

  6. But let me add that my intention is not at all to have a big debate on ID. I simply take issue to the way the issue was addressed at Ball State. The complaint is about the process and the philosophical approach.

  7. I find it hard to believe that you actually advocate blinding yourself to motive in making policy, legal, or personal decisions. Motive matters indeed if understanding the motive behind the idea proves the idea itself to be something like a trojan horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or one component of an larger, multi-part plan. I know, for examle, that someday you’ll be asking “And why do you want to date my daughter?”

    Understanding the religious motivations of ID helps with determining the scientific potential of the field. As of yet, ID can’t be called science because it lacks key characteristics. It does not seek natural explanations of observed phenomena. It does not lead to testable hypotheses or predictions that can be put to the test. It produces no theories. But perhaps it could be considered an emerging science, and it could be asked whether further study is warranted. Unfortunately for ID, knowing why it exists sheds a bad light on this question of its legitimacy and casts considerable doubt on its potential.

    Lets say it could be determined that ID is simply the latest effort from the same band of religious partisans who have been saying “but, but, but, but, but” since the publication of “The Origin of Species.” Then would you truly argue that that band does not carry a heavier burden of proof for their claim to space in the science classroom? I would say that it does. Again, unfortunately for ID, institution after institution keeps making exactly this determination and agreeing with my conclusion.

    Additionally, both the watchmaker argument and irreducible complexity are variations on the same theme; “I don’t understand how [thing] could happen without God, so that is evidence for God.” And that can be an interesting statement. But it’s not a *scientific* statement. All ID has to do is prove something, produce an experimental result that must be addressed, and that will force the issue. Until then it will be regarded as mere potshots at real science.

    But I’m fine with your idea of not having a big debate on ID. (We’ll call this is little one and keep it from getting any bigger.) Yet I’m also fine with Ball State setting policy not to teach ID in science classes. It’s not arbitrary categorization, it’s failure to compete in the market of ideas.

    Full disclosure: I follow science a lot as an amateur hobby and I care a lot about it. I think often on the idea of whether and how God could be proven by science. I ponder what that would mean and if it would actually be a good thing. I’ve followed and read up on ID and have made my opinion. I’m aware you have skin in this game, and you are personally affiliated with some of IDs more notable personalities. I don’t mean to insult you or them, but I can see what you are doing, and I disagree with the entire effort. While “God exists” is not a tenet that must be checked at the door of the science class, “…it must be God” is an extraordinary, antithetical conclusion that cannot there be made in absence of incontrovertible, ironclad, irrefutable proof. I don’t think we’ll ever get proof that strong (I am undecided whether it would be a good thing), and that’s why I hold that the study of God needs to remain in other departments. Let science study His creation without giving Him credit.

    I will let this serve as my conclusion. You may take the last word if you desire. I commented because you made unequivocal statements that ID is not religion, and that claim should not go unchallenged.
    Everything about ID, from its origin to its ultimate goal, comes from religion. It did not itself cease to be religion when it changed its name and removed all of its internal references to a specific god.

  8. I have no idea what you mean by your comment “I can see what you are doing.” I have no affiliation with ID professionally. My mentor Francis Beckwith wrote a couple of articles on the question of where ID stands legally as a matter of church and state. In terms of his own position as a philosopher, he does not identify as an ID advocate. I think he would be comfortable with theistic evolution, but we’d have to ask him. My interest in intelligent design is almost entirely on the front I have discussed here. I think I have demonstrated why motive cannot be the deciding factor in determining whether a theory can be discussed. You might note, by the way, that the individual in the story was actually a physicist, so he was probably talking about the anthropic principle rather than necessarily attacking Darwin.

    You think Intelligent Design is about proving God. That is one way to think of it. But the more basic question is a scientific one. Is it possible to infer the presence of intelligence based on things like the molecular structure of living things? That is the biological version. The physics version is whether we can infer an intelligent act of creation based on the impressive set of coincidences that make life like ours possible. If you really want to battle this out, I encourage you to go to the websites of folks like Dembski, Behe, and a variety of physicists who are actually trying to do the science you encourage them to do. I am content whichever way this thing comes out. I am not content with the way it has been handled academically.

  9. I promised you the last word, and you shall have it. This is to let you know I read you reply and thank you for it. I will respond if you would like, but I’m OK not to if you are finished.

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