January 9, 2006
The Intelligent Design Debate:
Many Americans miss the point
America should be uniquely qualified to appreciate the human significance of faith traditions. Unfortunately, concerted efforts to protect our religious freedoms seem to have backfired, replacing free choice with widespread ignorance. This deficiency places us all at risk in the post 9/11 world. Rather than aggressively facing this challenge, ever-growing segments of the populace summarily dismiss or ignore all things religious, creating a vacuum that is filled by an incoherent amalgam of the supernatural and the occult. Yet the impact of this weakness may well be dwarfed by a less recognized impairment: much of America completely misunderstands the nature and significance of science. The latter deficiency is nowhere more evident than in the national dialog surrounding public school Biology curricula.
I was raised on rural Long Island during the cold war, where faith in God and democracy were instilled alongside the mythic accounts of the hurricane of ‘38. Echoes of the sonic booms of war machines, originating where flight 800 was since reassembled, were reminders that at any time our young eyes might be seared by a flash, followed by the winds of a mushroom cloud we'd never see. As I played in the creeks, woods and salt marshes, I learned lessons about our stewardship of the earth. I experienced awe, wonder, and thankfulness while watching the sun rise over a sparking ocean on crisp mornings. Poised at the interface of earth, sea and sky, I was energized by an awareness of my connection to the surrounding processes of life. Nurtured by a church congregation that included technicians, engineers and scientists, I came to appreciate the complementarity of science and faith, even as I questioned everything.
The content and methods of science are quite different from those of religion. Science deals with verifiable facts, but is silent about truth, purpose, or meaning. Good science requires critical testing of details using the scientific method, an absurd approach for sacred or devotional texts. However, science is not merely a series of facts or theories, but rather a comprehensive process of testing and reevaluation. This process requires a rule called parsimony: whenever two or more alternative interpretations exist, you must choose the least complicated one. Moreover, even a flawed or incomplete model cannot be replaced by something untestable. Until recently, America's stewardship of science has been faithful. The engine of science has been quite productive for us.
Like everything in science, evolutionary theories are continuously refined in the face of new evidence. Evolution isn't confined to "Darwinism" any more than physics is confined to "Newtonism." Unfortunately, vocal critics of Darwin's original simple model, focusing as it did on "the survival of the fittest," have imbued the nuanced scientific debate with the baggage of politics, where the doctrine of free speech carries more weight than the scientific method. Shouldn't alternatives to evolution also be taught in public schools, particularly if they are easier to reconcile with traditional religious beliefs? Can't some unanswered scientific questions be more easily answered using a science of Intelligent Design?
The answers are a resounding "No!" Atheists and the faithful can equally recognize that the concept of God is the single most complex and universal mechanism that can be envisioned. God is the very antithesis of parsimony. Consequently, any "theory" based on the purposiveness of creation cannot be science at all. Even credible concepts that are derived using holistic or teleological insights must be reformulated, or they are not science. Finally, the tenuousness implied by colloquial usage of the word "theory" bears no resemblance to a firmly based scientific theory.
As a neuroscientist, a church elder, and a parent, I call for America to reclaim its birthright as a land of faith and reason. We must neither degrade our science to salve the uneducated, nor discount our valuable religious diversity. The real Darwinian threat to America comes not from the Biology classroom, but the international marketplace. America can ill afford to lose its competitive edge in science.
Craig E. Tenke is
a Research Scientist at NYS Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University, and an elder in thePresbyterian Church of the Moriches,
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