From the October, 2005 issue of Touchstone

Irrational Faculties by Thomas S. Buchanan

Irrational Faculties

That Someone Will Be Jailed for Teaching Darwin & Other Unscientific Beliefs

In early August, the chairman of a large department at a major university in the Midwest told me that faculty members were going to be put in jail if they mentioned the word evolution in the classroom. “You see,” he said, “fundamentalist Christians have pushed through bills that require the teaching of Intelligent Design and outlaw the teaching of evolution. We are going to have to start teaching that the world was made in six literal days and won’t be allowed even to mention evolution.”

I tried to assure him that his understanding of any legislation regarding Intelligent Design was somewhat amiss, but he would have none of it. “I know,” he said. “You can’t tell me.”

Fearful of ID

I wish I could say that this conversation was an isolated incident, but it was not. Recently, I have had many conversations with people in positions of academic leadership who expressed similar fears.

These scientists do not understand Intelligent Design because the notion that naturalistic processes may not account for all historical events in physics, chemistry, and biology is anathema to them. They automatically reject any other principle introduced to account for scientific events, no matter how sound the evidence or logical the argument.

Why would they do this, if the purpose of science is to search for the truth of things? For this kind of scientist, to concede that even one small event in history is beyond naturalistic explanation is to admit failure, or worse, to admit that modern science has failed. “One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution, writing in The New York Times last August.

Scientists express themselves in a language that logically excludes any postulations not based upon naturalistic explanations. As a result, to admit that any miraculous event (i.e., any event that cannot be explained by naturalistic causes) ever occurred is to cease to be scientific. Thus, any other explanation of the history of the universe is unscientific and cannot be taught in science classes, though it might be taught in classes of religion or philosophy.

The circular logic of modern science is designed to provide an explanation for how all the processes understood in biology, chemistry, and physics could have developed without God, not to seek the truth about how they actually happened. To its devotees, modern science is a systematic theology, the first principle of which is that there is no God.

The simple idea behind Intelligent Design, in contrast, is that while in many or possibly most cases the difference between these two (i.e., explanations involving God and not) are nil, that does not mean that there is no God and that he never played a role in events scientists study. That is, the circular logic of science may not explain everything that has ever occurred, because it begins by assuming an answer.

I do not think that this should be a threat to most logically minded people, but that has not been my experience. Rather, scientists who are normally logical and principled become hysterical and paranoid when faced with such arguments.

Irrelevant Evolution

What particularly surprises me is that of all of the professional scientists I have spoken to about this, not one of them would have any reason even to mention evolution or design in his classroom. Outside of a few courses with titles like Evolutionary Biology, which make up about ten percent of the undergraduate curriculum of a biology department, the topic isn’t particularly relevant to the work even of biologists.

That is, most of modern biology and medicine is concerned with the present and immediate future rather than the distant past. And those, like my scientific colleagues, who teach courses in allied health or biomedical engineering, should have even less reason to worry. In other words, these scientists fear that their academic freedom may be jeopardized . . . if they wish to teach in an area in which they have no expertise and which is largely irrelevant to their field.

Most scientists have a very narrow area of expertise. A typical doctoral thesis is about the most narrowly focused document you would ever hope to read. It is like a pinprick on the huge map of science, representing years of work on one carefully selected microtopic. Of course, the good scientist needs to be well read in his field, to know about all the previous work done in the area, but those works are like pinpricks located very near his own.

Breadth of scientific understanding is not generally a part of a curriculum for doctoral studies. The problem is perhaps worse in Europe, where university programs are traditionally even more focused, with the presumption that breadth of learning was acquired during high school.

Perhaps that, and the lack of any substantial religious base, is why European scientists are even more derisive toward Intelligent Design than their American counterparts. The combination of narrow scientific training built upon a presumption that there is no God makes any explanation involving an Intelligent Design of the universe unintelligible.

I recently asked a colleague who was deriding the notion of Intelligent Design what he knew of the topic. As is generally the case, his understanding was based on caricatures of ignorant fundamentalists trying to use science to advance their religious beliefs. I told him about the arguments put forth by Dr. Behe at Lehigh University and Dr. Dembski at Baylor University (he has recently moved to teach at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky), based on biochemistry and probability distributions.

He offered no logical counterargument, but heatedly said that if they were right, then evolution would be wrong, so they can’t be right. I felt like I was speaking with a kind of Zaphod Beeblebrox from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who had rewired his own brain so he would not be able to learn particular facts.

Fearful Scientists

Such is the confusing state of science education today. Tenured and well-funded professors fear being taken to jail for talking about evolution. People publicly dedicated to the pursuit of truth treat the scientific suggestion that scientific analysis itself may suggest that the universe was designed as if it were as irrational, and as dangerous, as the declarations of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists.

The academics are afraid of that which they do not understand because they have defined science in a way that keeps them from understanding. There is no way even to speak about it in their own language.

Thomas S. Buchanan

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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