Making Sense of the Dover Intelligent Design Trial

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Freelance journalist Gordy Slack has written the first book-length treatment of the trial that caught the nation's attention during the summer of 2005, The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, Pa.

It is a very readable firsthand account of what many consider to be our own version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, interspersed with thoughtful reflections on what the Dover case was all about. In addition to wrestling with the meanings of big concepts like science, the scientific method, theory, procedural naturalism (as opposed to philosophical naturalism), the trial, in Slack's view, was ultimately about the biggest question of them all:

"The intelligent design debate at Dover was in one sense a battle over which of these two worlds [materialistic or theistic] can claim primacy in the science classroom—the place where each generation gets to hear the previous generation's consensus about that which is considered objective truth. But in another way, it was a battle over who gets to define the truth itself, over who gets to say which of the worlds is the real one. The really real one. Not just which one is logically possible and socially acceptable to believe in but which one is true with a capital T."

Really?

I can't decide whether this is just the writer's understandable but wrongheaded conclusion about what the trial was about or whether it is also what was so confused about the stakes of the trial—a confusion that almost guarantees ongoing and generally futile battles over identical or similar confusions, many of which will end up being addressed (imperfectly, of course) in the courtroom.

It seems to me that this trial was about our inability to talk clearly about the fundamental differences between science and religion —and particularly about what each, as forms of knowledge, can or cannot do.

Modern science is a body of knowledge derived from hypotheses about the workings of the physical world, which, if confirmed through the procedures of the scientific method, become theories. The theory of evolution by natural selection is one such elegant theory. It is useful. It helps us understand the workings of a large part of the natural world. It can be improved upon, and it may be modified, perhaps even radically, by future scientific investigation. In the meanwhile, among other things, it tells us a lot about how we got here. But it doesn't tell us why.

As to the "why," we may come up with many reasons, many beliefs, some of which may be religious. Hard-core scientific materialists have their own metaphysical beliefs. They believe there is no ultimate "why" in the evolutionary scheme, beyond organisms passing on their genetic packages to successive generations. Randomness and chance are even minor deities for some neo-Darwinians. Genetic variation is random, and the blind hand of nature selects those genetically determined traits that confer survival advantage. But such ultimate and exclusive randomness is not a proven fact. Indeed, British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, in his work on evolutionary convergence, finds evidence of predictability that undercuts the notion that evolution is governed by contingency or chance. But the hard-core believing materialists continue to insist that randomness rules nature and indeed the universe.

That is the way science can become more than a science, even a quasi-religion.

But religion can also pretend to be science. Or at least some religious people can assert that their beliefs have the same value in describing and predicting material phenomena as modern science does. Many even claim to have evidence for their beliefs. The trouble is that their evidence doesn't stand up against scientific consensus, which is arrived at by the replicable procedures of observing and testing that make up the scientific method. Not even the most scientifically credentialed proponents of intelligent design, such as biochemist Michael Behe, have been able to come up with good experiments by which to test their hypotheses.

A wise theologian has argued that modern-day biblical literalism is the bastard child of the scientific revolution. By that, he means that religious fundamentalists, living in a world transformed by science, think that all scriptural claims must be understood as having the same kind of validity that scientific theories have. They ignore the wisdom of great theologians like St. Augustine, who said that some parts of Scripture must be understood figuratively or allegorically. And so they end up transforming religious knowledge—which derives from "trust in the evidence of things not seen," as St. Paul described faith—into an ersatz variety of scientific knowledge.

Such confusions need to be addressed, beginning in our schools. But Judge John Jones in the Dover ruling was probably right to conclude that the best forum was not the biology classroom, even though some might counter that science courses could and should do a better job of explaining the scientific method and the limits as well as the reach of scientific knowledge. Jones proposed instead that American public schools explore other academic venues, including courses on the history of religions.

It's a useful proposal, although, if taken up, it would almost certainly give rise to other controversies. Seeing one's religious tradition presented objectively can often cause uneasiness. But such courses would at least be a step in the right direction. One might even propose an additional one: Teach our schoolchildren some philosophy. Then they might learn to make those fine discriminations among different, but equally important, forms of knowledge.