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Do Kids Need Intelligent Design Theory to See Design?

May 3, AD 2014 25 Comments

Moving June 2012 068

I’ve been hesitant to weigh in on the intelligent design debate because so much is already written, and I’m still forming an opinion. The body of work is computational and possibly, in part, an exact and quantitative science of objects in so far as the researchers study patterns (quantities) in nature (objects) to infer design. The debate, however, is about whether the inference is justified from probability calculations because the inference has implications outside the bounds of science.

My first concern, as for others, is how intelligent design affects educating children. The oft-repeated definition given by the Discovery Institute seems problematic. “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” Teaching children that scientists distinguish “certain features” as having an “intelligent cause” implies that other features do not. For Christian children, this wording muddles the cosmic view taught in the Creed.

I can hear my own mini-interlocutors asking about God’s on-off smart-switch, “Mom, how come worms are intelligently designed but water is not?” The answer is not trivial.

“God knows everything. He created everything. It’s just that researchers have done computational work to highlight what they call ‘signs of design’ in complex systems. That doesn’t mean other things do not have an intelligent cause, just that the researchers can’t determine intelligent cause in those things using their computations.”

Should the kids ask how the researchers know their computations, and theirs alone, are right, such questioning would land the kids smack in the company of most academics weighing in on the issue. Design theory, as far as I can tell, comes down to our human interpretation of design, which will always be a matter of human perspective.

Design theorists, of course, have explained how their theory differs from the theological doctrine of creation, but the explanation is heavily theological and nuanced.* A parent or teacher would have to explain that if humans fail to see design, it’s due to our lack of knowledge not God’s lack of intelligence. How does that provide clarity? Besides, I’ve grappled with inorganic surface chemistry at the angstrom scale, and you bet your boots I saw design. I didn’t “see” it with probability theory the way design theorists do, but the presence of design struck me as apparent even when I wasn’t religious. Likewise, I am certain kids can “see” design without aid from sophisticated theorems beyond the scope of elementary or secondary education.

I argue that the focus for science education simply needs to be on exact physical science, on imparting solid fundamentals. Even for biology, teach the facts and leave metaphysical theories—goodbye Darwinism—out of science lessons completely. Oh yes, that’s a loaded statement, but insisting on limits goes both ways. Kids who pray will see design in science because meaning and purpose pervade their education. Kids who don’t pray? If they are taught scientific fundamentals, maybe they will discover design for themselves.

*For instance, see William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), all 324 pages.

Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my tiny office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • Bill S

    “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

    We need to understand the Cosmos. What is the Cosmos? Is it a person, like God? Is it a set of physical laws and constants with no known origin? Is there an end purpose to the Cosmos such as the creation and development of intelligent beings who can appreciate and continue to discover the attributes of the Cosmos?

    The Torah, on which are religion is based, provides the most rudimentary attempt at an explanation of the Cosmos. It is primitive and archaic. Yet we use it to form our understanding of things that have better explanations in science than in religion.

    • Charles C

      ” Design theory, as far as I can tell, comes down to our human
      interpretation of design, which will always be a matter of human

      A Scientific interpretation is also a matter of human perspective. Your atheistic bias is showing. One method assumes God is involved, the other does not. Other than that, the methodology is the same. I fail to see your point.

      • Bill S

        How can you think that a fictional character from the stories about the creation, the flood, the exodus, etc. is the intelligent designer? Whoever or whatever is behind all this, I can’t see it being any god of any of the world’s religions.

        • Charles C

          You are entitled to your opinion. You realize that there are many who don’t share your opinion. Peace

          • Bill S

            It depends on the venue. Here, of course, there are many who disagree with my opinion. I am as out of place here as Stacy is among materialists in the scientific community.

          • Charles C

            I hope you read the rest of the posts. They reiterate my initial post.

          • Stacy Trasancos

            Oh I am a thorough materialist. ;-)

          • Bill S

            Yeah. And I am a thorough Jehovah’s Witness :-)

  • Ib

    Intelligent design philosophers like to resort to probabilities to make their arguments, as do scientists in most instances. But there’s a fundamental problem with doing this.

    First we need to know a little background: Probability theory only considers measures that range over the set-of-all possible-outcomes (i.e., the probability space). We call each measurable subset of the probability space an event, whose probability is given by the measure. These probability measures must return results in the unit interval [0, 1], returning 0 for the empty set and 1 for entire probability space.

    Now here’s the problem: using any probability measure requires you to know the probability space well enough to tell what events are in the space and what are not. So, if the probability space itself is ill-known, it is very difficult to define an accurate probability measure. One of the roles of theory in science is to prune the probability space into a shape where theoretically-okay probability measures can be applied. So who decides what’s in the probability space (a possible event) and what’s out (an impossible event)?

    In particular, should intelligent-design-events be in a scientific probability space? Well, events similar to them have been excluded for a little over two centuries (Hume published his discounting of miracles on the basis of probability in 1748, and Paley published his watchmaker analogy in 1809). If they were to be included, what would the basis of such an inclusion be? Would it arise from consideration of scientific theory (which is the norm for these sorts of inclusions)? That seems unlikely, since right now it deliberately excludes that. Would it arise from philosophical and/or theological considerations? Maybe, but if this were the case, then the origin of its inclusion is not due to science. Again, doesn’t seem likely.

    Perhaps we should remember that contemporary science (distinguished from what Aristotle called epistêmê) is a human pursuit. What knowledge it provides is mediated through the words and deeds (i.e., the human wills) of the people doing it. They will include or exclude things from a given science based on much more complex motivations than simply a pursuit of knowledge. Caveat emptor.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you lb. Yes! Probability theory depends on non-random behavior of matter that abides by the laws of physics. That also seems like an excellent point to make to those who fail to see design in anything.

      • Ib

        Exactly. Probability theory emerges from lack of foreknowledge. We can’t see future events, so we make educated guesses based on past, observed, regularities. If we knew all events beforehand, we would not have developed a probability calculus. I’m not sure that contemporary physics can assert that all behavior of matter is non-random … In fact many string theories seem to assert random behavior as a basic part of their mathematics. You probably (that word again!) know more about this than I do …

        However, whatever a scientific theory may say, we must keep in mind the difference between our theories about stuff and Aristotle’s epistêmê (certain knowledge). Our contemporary science doesn’t yield certain knowledge, just more or less likely scenarios. Scientists are constantly seeking new horizons of data, of theory, of measurement, of lab-rivalry, etc. Just skim the big science journals once a month and you’ll see it. Epistêmê on the other hand is at the basis of all rational procedures, including science. No randomness there …

        I’ve been busy so haven’t had much time or energy to comment … Thanks for all your hard work in keeping this very valuable blog going!

        • Bill S

          Would you consider Catholic dogma to fall in the category of epistêmê (certain knowledge)?

          • Ib

            Ha, ha … That’s a good one … If I did I wouldn’t be a very good Catholic, since the Church teaches that doctrine, though entirely consistent with reason, cannot be derived from it without the light of Revelation.

            Another important point that is true about epistêmê according to Aristotle, is that it too derives from our senses, i.e., it is not innate in any way. This makes Aristotle’s philosophy far more empirical than so-called “empiricists” like John Locke or Bishop Berkeley, who held that we had innate ideas.

          • Bill S

            So, Catholic dogma is not certain truth?

    • VelikaBuna

      One important thing always missing out of these probability equations is the life span of interacting particles for example in physics and organisms in biology. It seems there is always assumption of a permanency of both, and things just constantly adding up.

  • Ib

    A small postscript to my earlier post:

    A good example of how science actually works (especially in biology and medicine), as opposed to how the “myth of science” works, can be found in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, “The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease” by Nina Teicholz. She writes:

    “Our distrust of saturated fat can be traced back to the 1950s, to a man named Ancel Benjamin Keys, a scientist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Keys was formidably persuasive and, through sheer force of will, rose to the top of the nutrition world—even gracing the cover of Time magazine—for relentlessly championing the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.”

    Twas ever thus. Modern science is done by human beings who have ambitions and agendas. Even peer-review and “reproducibility” are not enough to keep the all-too-human failings of scientists from dominating results. Any results need to be treated quite skeptically.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you again! Good to hear from you, been a while. It struck me while studying the history of science that it would be delusional for anyone to think we had all our science right today. No one ever has, and neither do we at our own point here in history–an all too often missing attitude in current debates.

  • Therese

    I have to weigh in on a lower level – as a high school school science teacher (Catholic school) I have noticed that the vast majority of students do not ask the kind of questions your children seem to. One must deliberately put ideas and thoughts in front of them. Some will see the connections many years (and courses) down the road, but most of them will not make any connections, However, they will hear bits and pieces of assorted ideas as they pass through social media and allow uninformed, false impressions to settle in as fact.
    Therefore, I take every opportunity to present the debate to them and the Catholic Church’s response (atheism is currently quite popular). I have used several of Fr. Spitzer’s videos with great success. With most modern teenagers, one has to force them to think.

    • VelikaBuna

      Problem with Fr. Spitzer is that he takes science as the gospel and makes the true Gospel fit the science gospel. I think that is wrong approach. He accepts all the atheist icons (Big Bang and macro evolution) included. So if atheists can present their gospel in schools today and claim all things are product of random interactions slowly growing more and more complex and meaningful, why fault ID(intelligent design) for doing the same?

  • VelikaBuna

    We should all either stick to pure empirical science without making any extrapolations beyond, or why should only ID be censored for observing the obvious, if we are subjected to blind watchmaker gospel of atheism without a whisper of a complaint? We are presented with pure extrapolations as scientific facts, by atheists. What is going on with the world today, everybody is mesmerized or in a deep comma, can people still use common sense or they need it first certified and blessed by the high atheist priesthood of modern academia? Nothing is more obvious than design in everything that we can see, in all of creation. It is in fact so blatant that one has to strain and do mental contortions in order to avoid the obvious and replace it with musing of and imagination wishful thinking.

  • Mary B Moritz

    I’d like to relate to you an excellent comment received on the fb page science_meets_faith:

    “This short, well-written article succinctly captures how most scientists who believe in God view this subject, but it explains it far better than most scientists would care to write about.

    Intelligent design as a philosophy is vital to the Christian worldview. Intelligent design as a *science* is a
    load of baloney. They have no theories, no testable hypotheses, their statistical arguments are found wanting, and they twist the very definition of science. Intelligent design should be taught, but it should certainly not be
    taught in science classes.

    At the end of the article, I had to pause. I think the author needs to define what she means by Darwinism. Does she mean
    natural selection as a mechanism? If so, any natural selection at all, even under the course of microevolution, is Darwinism. Or does she mean a purely naturalistic explanation of the diversity of life that does away with God altogether? Darwin had nothing to do what that idea, so why is that paraded around as Darwinism? It’s comical to me how often “Darwinism” is
    demonized when in fact Darwin himself emphasized that a Creator could be behind the natural processes he was describing. Not in the sense of creating millions of miracles to achieve the variety of species, but rather acting through divine providence — creating nature and letting nature take its course. The first chapter of Genesis says that the earth and the waters “brought forth” living creatures — not because they have supernatural powers, but simply
    because God willed it.”

    I liked your article a lot. “If they are taught scientific fundamentals, maybe they will discover design for themselves.” Sounds right. JH Newman said: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.”

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Thank you Mary! It’s good to hear from you again. I agree with the commenter that Darwinism needs to be better defined. When I use it, I mean the atheistic view that evolution explains all diversity and our origins. I think it’s enough to teach kids about natural selection and genetic mutation, and how those processes affect genotypes, phenotypes, and populations. I don’t think science class needs to go beyond that.

      • Mary B Moritz

        I’d agree with you to use the term Darwinism as the atheistic view. It is still a misnomer that we should all avoid I guess. Darwin’s theory has developed further – he spoke of variations, not even knowing about genetc mutation – and we know may in the future also weigh cooperation as factor besides natural selection into the picture. Darwinism is an ideaologically used by those that oppose evolution and want everybody to believe that knowledge got stuck in 1859.

        • VelikaBuna

          “he spoke of variations, not even knowing about genetic mutation”. He spoke of variations because variations are apparent, and every human on this planet that ever lived knew about and saw variations, but were not Darwin and did not talk about it, in connection with the origin of species. A belief system promulgated by atheists as factual that all life on earth is spontaneously generated through some yet unknown purely natural method, and it evolved from one simple cell through the process of mutation and natural selection over billions of years into all the varieties that we see today. This definition of evolution is which I reject as lacking scientific evidence. (nobody knows what to make out of fossil record) I am not arguing that you cannot imagine things and assume things and make up things. That is easy enough and that is what the proponents of atheist version are doing. They are appealing to imagination, and then evolutionary psychology and all kinds of other nonsense was born out of this idea. Nobody can reasonably reject the small and quantifiable changes, that occur within organism, but to then go on and claim…aha…if this keeps going for billions of years we can get a brand new species is wishful thinking.

  • Jerold G. Paquette

    You should read the Kitzmiller US District Court case ( Pennsylvanoe) to get an idea of the range of the issue and the stupidity of “Intelligent Design” to describe animal or vegetable creation. Ignoring the science and believing in what cannot be reasonably proved; startiign out from the anwer and then saying it is all a miracle Stacy only brings you to a conclusion you created, with no evidence, rather than an evidence based, fact based understanding of tthe worls. Reliigion does not have the answers to science Stacy. Religion just gives the aswer and says it is all a miracle while science reads the evidence, places miracles where they belong – for religionists to claim acts beyonf the Universe does not affect the Universe. Alll this stuff is fun for your kids, they can believe that babies are miracles for example while the grown ups among us take them for what they are procreations between two willing animals genetically determining a result. I know you make your living and insist on magic to explain the world and if your kids believe you they will just grow up uneducated and look forward to death- after all they ARE going to Heaven aren’t they?