Most of the time the opinion one has regarding ID vs. the “modern evolutionary synthesis” hinges on whether one believes in the existence of God. There are exceptions, however, and one that stands out is Kenneth Miller, who is both a staunch defender of evolution and a Catholic Christian who believes in the God of the Bible. What I want to do in this post, however, is to introduce Tom Nagel, who has published a paper entitled “Public Education and Intelligent Design”. Nagel is an avowed atheist, yet he argues in favor of teaching ID. I highly recommend reading the entire paper, but here are some annotated excerpts. Referring to the “campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design”, he says:
It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause [of the first amendment of the Constitution] made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way.
This is an important point. Many who assert that this or that is unconstitutional because of the ‘separation of church and state’ misunderstand or misappropriate the term. The intent is that neither the church nor the state should ever be allowed to subsume the other. It does not mean that religion should be kept entirely out of the public square.
In addressing evolution as science, he says:
It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative.
The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim. Something about the nature of the conclusion, that it involves the purposes of a supernatural being, rules it out as science.
The problem cannot be just that the idea of a designer is too vague, and that nothing is being said about how he works. When Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection, neither he nor anyone else had any idea of how heredity worked, or what could cause a mutation that was observable in the phenotype and was heritable. The proposal was simply that something purposeless was going on that had these effects, permitting natural selection to operate. This is no less vague than the hypothesis that the mutations available for selection are influenced by the actions of a designer. So it must be the element of purpose t
hat is the real offender.
Now, he gets to the crux of the matter.
What would it take to justify the claim that there are propositions such that the discovery of evidence against them can qualify as science, but evidence in favor of them cannot? Someone who accepts this view would probably extend it to propositions about ghosts or extrasensory perception.
The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken.
Atheism is not science. Yet by expunging all reference to non-naturalistic explanations for origin, we allow only atheism, which in itself is a belief system, and therefore not ‘science’. We have succeeded in raising several generations of young people who have been told by nearly everyone that belief in God is something we have outgrown.
My own situation is that of an atheist who, in spite of being an avid consumer of popular science, has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life. The theory does not claim to explain the origin of life, which remains a complete scientific mystery at this point.
Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.
I applaud professor Nagel for his intellectual honesty here. It is refreshing to find someone who can separate his view of the ultimate question of the existence of God from the question of whether teaching that challenges the naturalistic-only paradigm should be allowed. He actually believes that we should be teaching our children to think for themselves. Bravo!
Here’s the full paper.