Why the Evolution vs. Science [Design] Row Replays Again and Again

The “evolution vs. intelligent design” debate seems to be marred by a most fundamental misunderstanding of how scientific reasoning works and what it is trying to achieve; in other words, the distinction “religion” and “science” is really not very clear, except by way of the belief on both sides that we’ll know it when we see it. But that’s too simple to be accurate.

 What advances science is the willingness on the part of a large community of persons to revise its judgments. What advances a religion is the willingness on the part of large communities to hold on to judgments and not to revise, despite evidence to the contrary. To find out whether a person belongs to the one or to the other community is to simply ask for the minimal evidence necessary for the person to change his or her mind about any issue. If the person acknowledges no conditions under which s/he will retract, then that person is of the religious community. Ironically enough, some scientists belong into that category. If the person can say clearly and unambiguously that, if X conditions were to obtain, then the person would change his mind, then that person is clearly in the scientific community. Interestingly enough, some religionists also belong into that category. I strongly suspect the Dalai Lama, for example, to be part of the scientifically thinking community when he cautions against violence in the “Free Tibet” movement because of the harm that violence has done and will do; I strongly suspect the former Cardinal Ratzinger and present Pope to be of the religionist community when he insists on avoidance of birth control in the face of suffering imposed by overpopulation and poverty.

Let me illustrate with a simple example. We know that if litmus paper is dunked into acid, it will come out red. If I think about this matter scientifically, I will not get my knickers into a twist by simply acknowledging that if I ever were to dunk what really is litmus paper into what really is acid and come up some other color than red, then the original rule would be wrong. I’d have to revise my rule in accordance with the new findings. Suppose I believe that a god handles the affairs of this world in a benign manner. Under what circumstances will I change my mind? Thinking scientifically, I conclude that with the death of millions in pogroms, genocides, imbalanced economic distributions, or terrible health-care systems, that ruling god is either not ruling or not good, since goodness would require moral intervention of one capable of moral intervention without great harm to him-/herself.  Scientifically thinking, I should reformulate my view of the deity. Religiously thinking, I am going to pad my theory with a lame excuse such as god’s transcendence of my understanding—never mind the very obvious fact that, in that case, I shouldn’t even talk about something I have acknowledged not to understand.

I think that intelligent-design theory is or could be a viable theory if the adherents to it show clearly an alternate universe where they would be willing to abandon the theory. I suspect that they will not do so. The evolutionist, on the other hand, is not insistent on the truth of the theory; the evolutionist finds the theoretical framework pragmatically adequate for new evidence. Once evidence to the contrary comes in, I am sure that no evolutionist will cling to the theory. If a parasite manages to swim up a urine stream to live on and in the body of a man or if a worm munches on the heart of a dog, then these are all sufficient to give evidence of, at best, “stupid design” or “malicious design” while the evolutionary framework can handle those phenomena just fine.

If we were to reflect about this basic fact, namely that religionist thinking seeks certainty and truth without sufficient evidence and without acknowledgment of falsifying characteristics and that scientific thinking seeks probabilities with acknowledged falsifying conditions, then we probably could bury this silly debate about evolution vs. design quite quickly. Let’s hope that our schools will also teach the rudiments of inductive reasoning so as to help students develop their own judgments properly no matter what legislators with limited intellectual horizons are trying to do to them.