Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Intelligent (?) Design

I see the appeal of intelligent design, though it doesn't really make sense to me, at least insofar as I understand it, and although I have only a rudimentary understanding of Darwinian evolutionary theory, it seems more sound. That said, I'm always looking for information to fill the knowledge gaps I have, and recently I saw a NOVA special about both evolution and intelligent design that I found rather enlightening.

As a viewer, you knew going in which side was going to "win" in a science-based program like NOVA, but I felt like intelligent design had a fair chance to defend itself. It just didn't stack up to evolutionary theory.

Many people argue that intelligent design is a convenient repackaging of creationism, a point which I agree with but I feel is most certainly debatable. Sill, I would say intelligent design isn't about creationism in the same way Animal Farm isn't about Stalinist Russia. Orwell never says Napolean is Stalin or Snowball is Trotsky, but we all know the score; similarly, "intelligent design" could easily be "creation" and the "intelligent agent" behind it all could be "Creator" or "God."

Whether intelligent design constitutes religion is a huge issue concerning its potential to be taught in school sciences classes, but perhaps the more important one is whether it is even science. Let's turn to the dictionary, shall we:

science - the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena

Accordingly, for intelligent design to be science, it would have to meet the above criteria. In relation to intelligent design, one could make the argument that notions of irreducible complexity are based on observations that seek to describe and identify phenomena. However, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation are nowhere to be found.

Again, let's consult the old dictionary:

theory - a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena

Experimental investigation is based on falsifiable testing of a phenomena, and intelligent design cannot be tested. Since it cannot be tested it can never assume the status of theory. Period.

Intelligent design seems to have come about from a religious need to provide a counter to Darwinian evolution, even if that counter has no basis in science. The common critique of evolution is that it is "just a theory," as though it is some random idea that is accepted without questioning. Perhaps in the early stages that might have been a fair critique (probably not though), but over 150 years of repeated empirical testing through anthropological records and genetic experimentation have provided a large body of evidence for the validity of evolutionary theory. It has also been used as a successful model for prediction.

The bottom line is that theory is more than an idea; it is a body of work. Evolution meets this standard while intelligent design falls short, aiming only to debunk evolution and replace it with pseudoscience.

The problem is that intelligent design introduces the untestable supernatural element of an intelligent agent (i.e. God) aimed at purposeful creation. While this view could very well be true, it cannot be tested. Once the supernatural enters the debate, you've gone beyond the realm of science. To teach intelligent design in a science class would mean an expansion of the very principles that make science science.

I have no problem with the introduction of a scientific theory to counter evolution; if one exists (and I'm not aware of any that do, though there probably are some) then by all means, teach it. But intelligent design is not a scientific theory and should not be taught alongside evolution. That's a humanities course at best, but frankly I'd rather read the mythology that already exists. I see no need to add to it.

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