Keep Philosophies Out of the Classroom — Or Let Both In

Original Article

In Kansas, in recent months, there has been much discussion about the theory of evolution versus the theory of Intelligent Design. The discussion has become quite intense with the proponents of evolution claiming that Intelligent Design theorists were attempting to bring theology and philosophy into the science laboratory.

Last week, in this space, I discussed the relationship between faith and reason with some particular attention focused on the impact of this relationship upon scientific inquiry. I repeat what I said in my earlier column: Faith has nothing to fear from the authentic pursuit of the truth. What we should fear is a half-hearted pursuit of truth. Scientific inquiry has done so much to improve our lives. Authentic science provides us a greater understanding of the beauty and wonder of the natural world. At the same time, science must be careful not to claim to prove more than it can legitimately substantiate by its own methodology.

It intrigues me that some proponents of evolution have been upset by what they perceive as injecting philosophy and theology into the science classroom, while they have appeared oblivious to the entwining of the philosophy of materialism with evolutionary theory for the past 150 years. In fact, the authors of Intelligent Design accept natural selection — the key principle of evolution — but they maintain it can only explain a relatively small range of change in the natural world. They assert that the data supporting natural selection tells us nothing about the origin of the world, the origin of life and the development of such varied and complex life forms.

In the place of natural selection for the answer to these bigger realities, the Intelligent Design theorists hold that the empirical data supports the principle of “irreducible complexity.” The important consequence of this principle results in a conclusion that it is impossible to explain by chance the natural world with its amazing variety of life forms, the microscopic intricate mechanisms found in the ordinary cell, and the incredible volume of information encoded into a cell’s DNA directing its remarkably complex activity.

The Intelligent Design theorists hold that an objective examination of natural phenomena leads one to the conclusion that explanations relying on chance and natural selection are not nearly as credible as explanations that admit the remarkable design observed in the natural world. The acknowledgment of design points to an intelligent designer.

Opponents of Intelligent Design argue to keep all philosophical assumptions or theories out of science class discussions. I would support such an approach, if this meant that in science classes the limited areas, where there is hard scientific evidence for natural selection, would no longer be used as a springboard to teach the grand assumptions and theories of materialism.

Let the scientific facts speak for themselves with no philosophical explanations offered. However, if materialism is going to continue to be expounded in science classes, then why not allow a hearing of the competing theory of Intelligent Design?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion of these issues reveals the acceptance by the church of all legitimate scientific inquiry and a confidence that a fair reading of the discoveries of science will lead us to the true source of the world and of life:

“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: ‘It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements . . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.” [283]

The catechism also acknowledges the irresistible urge to go beyond just the articulation of the scientific data to the deeper questions about its meaning. The answers to these philosophical questions profoundly affect how we understand our world and ourselves. The catechism states:

“The great interest accorded these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called ‘God’?” [284]

I would be comfortable if our public schools taught both the philosophical theories of materialism with its view of a world that evolved by chance and Intelligent Design with its vision of a world whose order and beauty reveal an intelligent architect. I am confident where an objective reading of the evidence will lead most students.