December 20, 2005
What's So Scary About Intelligent Design?

By Dennis Byrne

Here is a question for scientists who ridicule intelligent design, yet say they believe in God: When you pray, is it to a God who just sat around and watched the universe spring into existence all by itself?

Or did God give himself something to do, and thus, here we are?

It's hard to envision an all-perfect and almighty God who just likes to watch. But that's the kind of God that the critics of intelligent design would impose on us. Scientists, of course, would vehemently deny that they are in any way trying to tell people of faith what kind of God they should believe in. But they need to honestly admit that this battle between evolution and intelligent design is a two-way street: People of faith should not be directing scientists how to do their work and scientists ought to be more thoughtful and respectful about how their work complicates or complements the world of belief. Science as well as theology, philosophy and religion have legitimate claims to exploring and discovering answers to the Big Question: How did we get here, and why?

Some things science just can't explain. Such as the mystery of how a perfect creator turned himself into one of his less-than perfect creations--a man--but still remained perfect. Based on faith alone, millions of people celebrate that inexplicable miracle on Christmas.

Scientists, in fact, can't explain a lot of things, and that's no knock on scientists. It's because a lot of answers cannot meet the scientific standards of observation, experimentation, replication and verification. But it's also no reason that any subject of scientific interest cannot also be explored by theology, philosophy and religion.

Yet the fight between intelligent design and evolution is popularly framed as an effort by theologians, philosophers and the faithful to impose their unscientific conclusions on science. Perhaps a few dominators do, but most of us do feel the need to reconcile what science and faith tell us--about our world and us.

The reality today is that when theology, philosophy or religion dares to examine the Big Question, its practitioners find themselves increasingly bumping heads with scientific claims of exclusive competence. This is wrong. Neither science nor theology has the right to tell the other to butt out of this quest. In this, no one has the right to demand that the study of intelligent design be kept out of schools. Out of the science class, perhaps, but not out of all classrooms.

Centuries ago, science on one hand and philosophy, theology and religion on the other were separated--to the relief of those who correctly believed that the church had gone too far in using dogma to block scientific advances. Exploring reality through the prism of science requires one form of knowledge, while discovering and refining our understanding of God and his presence in the world require another.

Now that pendulum has swung too far the other way, to the point that science and philosophy, and theology and religion are regarded, by some, as mortal enemies. The idea of unified knowledge has come on hard times. Few people are exploring how the two approaches can help each other. That science is rushing toward a unified theory that "explains everything" is not a reason to abandon non-scientific ways to approach a comprehensive understanding of everything.

This requires an admission that there is a higher level of knowledge beyond science alone or theology alone. Vast areas of knowledge are open to those who realize that just as a branch of physics examines the "first principle of everything," so does metaphysics. Or that cosmology and theology are on the same coin, just on different sides.

We should approach the Big Question with awe and humility, not ridicule and self-certainty. With excitement and optimism, instead of division and the kind of cynicism that rejects the possibility of parallel or complementary explanations.

To leave students without a perspective of how philosophy and theology and religion help bring us to an understanding of "all things," is as wrong as denying students the understanding that science brings. Philosophers and theologians may--must, actually--rigorously examine the scientific theory that random chance explains everything. A denial of that right and responsibility rises from the same spirit of arrogant certitude that haunted Galileo.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago-area writer and consultant. E-mail:

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