Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Intelligent design as a teaching opportunity

Bookworm and I were talking about the intelligent design controversy in Kansas the other day when I realized what a superb teaching opportunity the debate provided: First, present the evidence as objectively as possible. Then, present the "theories" which have been offered to account for the evidence. Explain that there are different kinds of theories. Certain theories, like the theory of evolution, are called "scientific." These theories are evidence-based. They rely on something called the scientific method, the constant testing of the theory against the evidence. Scientists look for ways to obtain more evidence in the known physical world and test their theories, refining them as needed, to best match the evidence they find. This approach seeks truth through proof. Other theories, like the theory of creation, are "faith-based." These theories do not depend on proof and their supporters commonly do not seek to "prove" the truth of their theories by testing them in any way. This approach seeks truth through revelation. Recently, there has been much discussion of a theory called "intelligent design." This appears to be a hybrid of the two major types of theories, in that it accepts the scientific evidence and, at least to some extent, the notion of testing theories and refining them to match the evidence presented. However, it retains a strong, and important, element of faith. Adherents believe that an intelligent being designed the world. They have no affirmative proof that this is the case; they accept an intelligent designer as a matter of faith. On the other hand, they do point to the evidence, for example the gaps in the evolutionary record, the periods of very rapid evolution and the very complexity and wonder of DNA, as consistent with, if not supportive of, the existence of an intelligent designer. Lead the students in a discussion of truth, and encourage them to think about and express their ideas on the importance of truth and how the truth may best be determined. Is collection of evidence and testing of theories most likely to lead to a better understanding of reality? Or is prayer and revalation the best path to truth? Is it possible to combine the two approaches, or are they fundamentally incompatible? In our day-to-day life we use the scientific method. We don't just cross the street in faith that no cars are coming; we test our theory by looking both ways before crossing. On the other hand, there is an element of faith in much that we do. Most of us have no idea how heavy metal airplanes can defy gravity and fly, but we step on to them in the full faith that they will fly, under control and safely. True, this is a faith in the scientific work of other humans, not in the work (or even existence) of a higher being. However, it does illustrate the point that we can believe something without fully understanding it, even if it defies common understanding (that things which are heavier than air do not fly). Even if the teacher stops here, the students will have learned a valuable lesson. But the lesson can be improved still further if teachers are permitted to go on and discuss, for example, the fact that the problem with revelation is that its truth cannot be shared, tested or verified (unlike the scientific work that went into the design of the airplane). Faith in an intelligent designer, unlike faith in an airplane, is unprovable. The point is, rather than focusing on whether certain theories will even be mentioned, let's look at what lessons can be imparted by sharing each of the significant theories and, more importantly, both evidence-based and faith-based approaches to truth.