Archive for Monday, June 6, 2005

Science, religion in different realms

June 6, 2005


The current confrontation in Kansas between evangelicals and biologists marks an unfortunate polarization of traditions that had long ago achieved wide consensus. Early debates on Darwinian evolution helped to generate a division of labor among most Christians and most scientists. Most Christian scholars do not read the Bible as literal fact. God, they believe, created nature and science is free to discover what God had wrought. Religion is concerned with what lies, not in nature, but behind nature.

Current religious critics of evolution have dropped this division of labor, believing the dispute concerns competing scientific theories, evolution vs. creation/intelligent design theory. But scientists cannot be persuaded that explaining the natural by the supernatural is science. Why not? Because if the concept of God were scientific then every fact could be explained from it. Science does not stand on promising explanations but on delivering them. The concept of God is too big for science which, therefore, stands mute on the existence of God.

The gap between nature and the cause of nature cannot be bridged by science. Yet the argument from design in nature to a designer of nature, is suggestive and has a long history. We do find objects exhibiting design that imply human designers, such as stone tools. And were we to find a machine with strange symbols embedded in ancient rock we would infer a visitor from the stars since humans were not around when the rock formed. Still, science must stand mute on any idea, which claims to explain all of nature. For example, the materialist principle that everything, everywhere, and over all time, is a consequence of matter bumping about also outruns the limits of science.

There are many ideas that science borrowed from outside to make scientific use of them. Excellent examples are found in pure mathematics: the idea of curvature of space was there before Einstein found a scientific use for it. Atoms, as tiny fundamental building blocks of objects, have been in philosophical literature since antiquity. But, for scientific use, atoms cannot be all that fundamental since scientific atoms have parts.

Living organisms show a kind of design that implies, not a designer, but a kind of purpose. Organisms are so called because they are organized so that their parts function in cooperative ways that leads to the functioning of the whole. The heart pumps blood so as to circulate nutrients needed by cells, and to remove toxins produced by cells, contributing to the survival of the organism.

The notion of intelligent designers for the whole of the cosmos, like the idea of God, is too big an idea for science. But in biology, with the exception of evolutionary theory, ideas of function are commonplace. We may say that a principle of understandable, or intelligible, design leads research in many biological fields. It is not unthinkable that a natural process for changing genes, as opposed to attributing all such changes to chance, plays a role in evolutionary adaptation. The causes of genetic change are not fully understood. This seeking a functional process is more modest than looking for cosmic designers, but success would make an enormous contribution to finding wider intelligible design in the universe.

The Kansas Board of Education's use of the power of the state to manipulate biological curricula is an overreaction. Curriculum is a matter not for politicians, but for biologists. It is obvious that a free society ought to avoid discrediting biologists, crippling their freedom to seek the truth.

The principle of free inquiry is a principle imported from philosophy. In Plato's "Symposium," truth is that which is good and beautiful. The worth of free inquiry comes from the extraordinary attraction and value truth seekers find in truth. The search for truth is a search for what is most attractive to the human spirit, and truth discovered is the best possession of the human mind.

Richard Cole is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Kansas


mastap88 12 years, 10 months ago

Very well written article. Why is it that people in support of the separation of church and schools sound so eloquent and those in favor of 'intelligent design' sound so ill informed. Some people just are having problems evolving.

hannah 12 years, 6 months ago

Quite frankly, because you are biased against us - as are most of your sources, probably. When did everyone who disagrees with you, or your favorite science textbook, get to be a lower form of humanity? I am willing to think of you as a real, valuable person, worthy of my respect and time. But your opinion of me and all my friends is automatically disparaging, degrading, and superior. Luckily, I know better than to believe you and go kill myself tomorrow. Survival of the fittest sounds great- until you are not so fit. Then you might realize that being human is something more than being a collection of cells that don't even work right. God bless you.

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