Sunday, August 7, 2005

Teaching ID (Pt. II)

A couple of days ago we did a post on teaching Intelligent Design. Today I'd like to advance the discussion a bit by examining how ID could be presented in public school science classrooms in such a way as to allay the fears, perhaps, of those who see it as a Trojan Horse for sneaking religion into schools.

Science teachers discuss a host of topics in which it would be appropriate to include in the presentation of the scientific content a simple statement that scientists disagree on the philosophical significance of the material being covered. Some believe that the data which they've gleaned from their investigations have a purely natural explanation while others believe that natural processes by themselves are inadequate to explain what they observe and that the phenomena bear the impress of intelligent input.

Consider discussions likely to occur in a high school physics class whenever any of the dozens of forces, constants, and parameters of the universe are explained. These phenomena of physics are so exquisitely fine-tuned that were they different in just the slightest degree life would be impossible. The electromagnetic spectrum, for example, has a vast range of frequencies but only an extremely thin sliver of them is not only not harmful but is also necessary for carbon-based life to exist. Even more astonishing precision appertains to gravity, the strong nuclear force, and other such topics of interest to physics students. A teacher who wishes to enrich his students' understanding might point out that some scientists say this fine-tuning points to intelligence and purpose. Others say it's just a brute, inexplicable fact of nature. But to simply leave the matter hanging, as it were, is to deny students an important piece of information and, worse, to deny them an opportunity to do some good thinking.

An earth sciences teacher discussing cosmology with her classes will present to them the theory of the Big Bang. If she's skillful she might mention that a beginning to the universe implies a cause and a cause implies something which transcends the effect. If the universe had a beginning (like the Bang suggests) then it's reasonable to assume that something caused it. If so, that cause would've been either personal or impersonal, intelligent or not. She could then mention that scientists and arguments can be found on both sides of this controversy.

The earth sciences teacher will also have occasion throughout the year to mention dozens of details concerning the location of the earth in the solar system and in the galaxy as well as its physical structure (size, mass, composition, atmosphere, period of rotation, plate tectonics, amount of water, etc.). All of these properties of the earth seem to be exactly what is necessary for advanced life to be sustained and that the number of geophysical characteristics required by life is so high, the earth, in the minds of some scientists may well be unique in the cosmos.

Some scientists believe, our teacher might explain, that because the earth and universe seem so finely calibrated for the demands of living things, and because it is very difficult to account for how this could have happened just by chance, there must be a nearly infinite number of universes. If there are infinitely many worlds then it becomes more probable that there will be one like our own in which life can exist. Against this view many other scientists argue that talk of other universes is mere speculation and that there's no evidence for any universe but ours, as improbable as it is, and that the precise settings of the forces, constants etc. are better explained in terms of purposeful engineering in the design of the cosmic structure.

A chemistry teacher might well make clear to his students while discussing the properties of water why the chemical and physical characteristics of this substance are absolutely astonishing. Every one of the properties of water make it perfect for the role of sustaining living things. If any one of these properties were even slightly different, life as we know it could not exist. The same is true of a host of elements like oxygen, iron, and especially carbon and carbon compounds, particularly carbon dioxide and the bicarbonate buffer system.

The teacher might note that many chemists are awe-struck by the suitability of these substances for life and consequently conclude that the laws of chemistry are biocentric. Others, however, simply impute this fitness to the "way things are."

A biology teacher discussing the origin of life could rightly point out that there is no plausible theory in the scientific literature which explains how chemicals could have been ordered and arranged by purely mechanistic processes to construct self-replicating, information-filled, living cells. She could also mention that some scientists like Fred Hoyle have argued that the mechanistic origin of life under the conditions believed to have prevailed on the early earth is so difficult to imagine that life must have originated on some other planet and subsequently been imported to earth as spores. Other scientists, she could add, think that the extreme improbability of life emerging as a result of blind, undirected forces suggests that in fact it didn't emerge this way at all, and that it was instead the result, at least in part, of the work of an intelligent mind.

She might go on to instruct her students that a minority of biologists have come to believe that the mechanisms of evolution, natural selection and genetic mutation, are inadequate to explain the rich abundance of both specified and irreducible complexity found ubiquitously in biological structures, biochemical pathways and molecular machines throughout nature. Such complexity, these biologists believe, points at least as emphatically toward intentional design as to blind fortune.

It might also be pointed out that the differences between these scientists are matters of philosophy not science. They don't disagree about the empirical facts so much as they disagree about how best to account for those facts. Darwinians, for example, assume that natural forces and processes are sufficient to account for the vast richness and complexity of life, but this is not a scientific assumption. It does not lend itself to empirical testing or observation. The very act of trying to test it requires the input of an intelligent mind. As such the Darwinian assumption should be no more privileged in science classrooms than its denial.

A science teacher might also have occasion to discuss the wonders of the human brain and wish to note that only brains generate consciousness. How they do it is a mystery but that they do is an amazing fact. Matter and machines are not conscious. Computers are not conscious. Conscious states (feeling, hoping, desiring, hating, guilt, fear, wishing, moral judgment, understanding, believing, doubting, etc.) exist only in brains and possibly only in human brains. Even if a computer could be built that would be capable of "conscious experience" it would never have those experiences unless it were appropriately programmed by an intelligent software designer. The notion that consciousness can arise spontaneously out of the inherent properties of brute matter is a dubious hypothesis for which there is scant evidence.

The teacher could also mention that the marvelous uniqueness of consciousness is nevertheless believed by some scientists to be an inevitable consequence of gathering together the right matrix of biochemical and electrical phenomena. Other scientists are convinced that human consciousness cannot be explained in purely material terms and that it instead suggests the input of an underlying mind.

The preceding is a relatively tiny sample of topics and concepts which could serve as springboards for discussion of the controversy between materialism and Intelligent Design. There is nothing in the above examples which involves anything religious. Indeed, the debate is not a conflict between science and religion. Science is not in dispute nor is religion at issue. It is rather a controversy between philosophical physicalism (or materialism) and a kind of philosophical dualism. The physicalist insists that nothing but physical forces and processes are at play in the universe. The dualist maintains that physical forces by themselves cannot account for the precision, complexity, or high information content of every aspect of the cosmos all the way down to the tiniest sub-atomic particle. Matter, the dualist argues, is only one aspect of reality, mind is another.

Any science teacher would find that discussing these differences in how scientists explain the phenomena they observe in the world with his or her students would spark tremendous interest and learning. Science teachers are always searching for ways to stir a sense of awe in students, but the demand to limit science instruction to empirical facts detached from any philosophical interpretation or explanation of those facts leaves their lessons more sterile than they have to be and deadens enthusiasm.

It's a shame that students are being subtly discouraged from experiencing the exhilarating wonder good science inspires, but the fear that such emotions will lead young minds to questions about transcendence drives secularists into a panic. Better, the tacit thinking seems to be, to dampen the intellectual satisfactions students could experience than to have the physicalist paradigm subject to challenge. So one philosophical position, physicalism, or materialism, enjoys an unjustifiable monopoly in science classes, protected by those who would rather children not think at all than that their thinking lead them to suspect that perhaps materialism is false.

Teachers and others interested in exploring this topic in more depth might want to read one or more of the following: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr, Nature's Destiny by Michael Denton, Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, The Design Revolution by William Dembski, and Rare Earth by Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee.