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Render unto Science…

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

The controversy surrounding what students are taught about the origins of life was reignited this week when President Bush endorsed an approach that would place the teaching of Intelligent Design on equal footing with the widely accepted Neo-Darwinian Synthesis.

As Bush explained on Tuesday, while recollecting his experience with the issue as Governor of Texas, "I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught." In response to a reporter's follow-up query, pressing the President to clarify whether he believed that Intelligent Design represented a valid alterative to Evolution, Bush replied: "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

As an advocate for the “spiritual and secular” left, I've been thinking a lot about this “origins” issue as of late.

First off, I think it's unfair to lump “Intelligent Design” theorists with traditional “creationists”. Intelligent Design advocates are not claiming that creation literally happened as described in Genesis – as was William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial. They are instead disputing that the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, which emerged in the 1930s, and attributes all evolutional processes to random mutations, adequately describes the origins of life.

While there may be advocates of Intelligent Design who are agnostic, my suspicion is that the vast majority of them are Theists – or believers in a conception of a Creator God. Hence, it is quite likely that they have a philosophical ax to grind. It's useful to note that there were theories of Theistic Evolution that were taken somewhat seriously around the turn of the last century, before the emergence of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. Hence, it is fair in my view to describe these advocates as honest dissenters from the orthodoxy when it comes to current evolutionary theory. The question that society needs to address is how seriously one needs to take their dissent at this time, and whether this intellectual debate should be part of how evolution is taught in the schools.

What does the other side have to say about Intelligent Design? According to an assessment by the National Academy of Sciences in 1999:

"The claim that equity demands balanced treatment of evolutionary theory and special creation in science classrooms reflects a misunderstanding of what science is and how it is conducted.”

"Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science."

In my view, this response cuts right to heart of the problem. Whether we like it or not, “science” requires that a hypothesis be “testable”. That is, you have to be able conduct an experiment and confirm a hypothesis. You can't merely raise objections, hope to muddy the waters – and then have your competing theory be elevated to equal standing. If one postulates that God or an Intelligent Designer intervened in the evolution of this or that species' development, it strikes me that there is simply no way today to scientifically prove (or disprove) such an assertion. To do so would first require that one demonstrate the existence of a Creator God or Intelligent Designer, and then demonstrate that specific evolutionary shifts have occurred due to His, Her, or Its specific intervention in the material world. It isn't sufficient to simply point to the complexity of an organism, and then postulate that this complexity could only have resulted from the intervention of a "designer". While I sincerely wish Intelligent Design theorists the best of luck in scientifically demonstrating either of my two premises, given the intellectual history of the last two thousand years, I'm not planning on holding my breath until the day they are vindicated.

That said, according to the precepts of the scientific method, an inability to prove a hypothesis does not imply that something couldn't be true. While preference must always be given to those experiments that have been repeatedly replicated, it is theoretically possible that a different kind of test may one day validate a discarded hypothesis.

The elephant standing at the center of the space in which this controversy takes place is the notion that modern science itself has, for some, assumed the status of a de-facto religion. That is, only that which science can validate, using its current methods and technologies, must be considered “real”. Everything else must be considered a product of superstition, self-delusion, or fraud.

In my experience, evangelists for this purely mechanistic paradigm, such as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), are as obnoxious, invasive, and intentionally coercive as any religious fundamentalist. In recent decades, they have repeatedly attempted to invalidate the authentic experiences and practices of a wide range of religious and spiritually oriented Americans. In my opinion, it is in the context of this raging conflict between people of faith & spirit and these mechanistic crusaders that the controversy over evolution must be seen.

Does Intelligent Design Belong in Science Classrooms?

Science requires the testing and confirmation of theories. It postulates that only those theories that can be repeatedly replicated rise to a level where they can be considered “science”. All contemporary science (with the exception, as I understand it, of String Theory) is based on this premise. While posterity may discover decades or centuries from now that Intelligent Design theorists have been correct all along, there is no way to currently test or validate their hypothesis. Hence, given the specific parameters that science is governed by, I can see no basis for credibly incorporating the theory of Intelligent Design into the teaching of the “science” of evolution.

To offer a relevant analogy, if an 19th century Hindu or Taoist mystic had dreamed the outlines of the truly strange universe suggested by Quantum Physics, that too could not have been taught as “science” until the requisite intellectual breakthroughs had occurred in human consciousness that permitted the scientific validation of those theories. My hypothetical mystic might have been ultimately correct, but his or her vision couldn't, or shouldn't, have been taught as science in his or her time.

Render unto Science the Things that Are Science's…

In the Gospels, Jesus instructed his followers to “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's”. I believe that a contemporary adaptation of Jesus' wisdom in this passage can offer Americans a way out of our current controversy.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge in the modern world involves a specific methodology, and leads to a body of knowledge. The body of knowledge that any given branch of science produces represents the distillation of those things that can be known, to a fairly high level of certainty, at the present moment. Yet, we also know that revolutions occur from time to time in science – and the revolution of tomorrow may shatter the accepted scientific paradigm of today.

For instance, some scientists now acknowledge that when Buddhist monks are wired with electrodes, and then allowed to enter deep meditative states, significant changes in brainwaves are observed. What these changes in brainwaves portend for the future of scientific discovery in an era of Quantum Physics is an important question in my view. Other experiments have begun to explore the efficacy of Acupuncture in treating specific human ailments. While this research can be of real value in the treating of disease, the larger, more interesting area of exploration for me would involve asking why restoring the flow of a hypothetical “Qi” should have any impact whatsoever on the physiology of a human being.

From my window on human consciousness, it is clear that an understanding of ultimate reality remains far beyond our species' grasp. To pretend anything else strikes this observer as an extraordinary form of hubris – be these pretenders religious fundamentalists or mechanistic crusaders.

While understanding and documenting the physical universe is the appropriate domain of science, the cultivation of transcendent wholeness, of a peace that passes all understanding, remains the exclusive domain of spiritual practice.

If I can take the liberty of paraphrasing Jesus, my advice to parents who are troubled by the naturalistic implications of modern evolutionary theory is this: Render unto science the things which are science's, and unto to God the things which are God's.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on August 7, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.