Revival of the `intelligent design' debate raises many questions

September 01, 2005|By Stephen Vicchio

PRESIDENT BUSH was asked at a recent news conference if he would reveal his "personal views" on "the theory of intelligent design." Proponents of intelligent design argue that their view is an alternative to evolutionary theory.

Mr. Bush reminded the reporters from Texas newspapers that when he was governor of Texas, he suggested that local school districts should decide if they teach evolution or creationism. Then he added, "I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught."

Ron Hutcheson of Knight-Ridder newspapers responded, "Both sides ought to be taught?"

"Yes," Mr. Bush replied, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

Mr. Hutcheson followed up: "So you accept the validity of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution?"

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. ... You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes," Mr. Bush replied.

Mr. Hutcheson began to try one more time. "So we've got to give these groups," at which point the president cut him off, "Very interesting question, Hutch." That provoked laughter.

Mr. Bush has brought back to the public realm a debate that we have not seen since President Ronald Reagan advocated the teaching of creationism in the early 1980s.

There are, nevertheless, a number of important questions to be raised about this new incarnation.

First, note that Mr. Bush never answered Mr. Hutcheson's question. Does the president think that intelligent design should be accepted as an alternative to evolution? Why did he not explicitly respond to this question? The question he did answer is very different from the one he refused to answer.

Second, the theory of intelligent design - that an organism's complexity is evidence for the existence of a cosmic designer - has existed in the history of philosophy since the late 18th century.

William Paley, an English philosopher, suggested that the universe is like a watch. In the same way a watch implies a watchmaker, the orderliness of the universe, he argued, implied a universe maker. This argument in philosophical circles came to be called the teleological argument, or the argument from design.

Third, the teleological argument was convincingly done in by Immanuel Kant and David Hume with devastating arguments against the theory in the late 18th century. Indeed, since the time of Kant and Hume, the argument from design has been accepted by few Anglo-American philosophers as a valid one.

Fourth, creationism and intelligent design are not the same theory. It is unlikely, for example, that the advocates of intelligent design believe that the universe is only 6,000 years old, as the many proponents of biblical creationism believed. Creationism and intelligent design may be compatible theories, but they need to be explored more fully to determine that.

A final observation involves the amount of sheer, physical, scientific evidence that Charles Darwin was right. A corresponding amount of evidence could not possibly exist for intelligent design, for scientific theories are not proved, they can only be falsified. To show that gravity is a competent scientific theory, we would have to show one example where it did not work or devise a plan by which we could show it is not true.

With intelligent design, we do not have a scientific theory because there is no way of showing how it could be false.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.

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