September 12, 2006

"Science, Religion and Intelligent Design" - A Review

The forum went well this evening. There was about a 50/50 split between students and faculty (with a sprinkle of older people from the area) but the crowd was diverse; there were science-minded people representing the physics, psychology and biology departments there, but also professors and students from foreign language and other fields.

Raesly started off by describing the principles of the scientific method, but also went beyond the typical observation-hypothesis-experiment-conclusion bit by addressing the importance of different ideas in science. He made clear that "facts" were not necessarily the most important ideas in science - gravity's grip on a pen or the distribution of certain animals - but that scientists seek to unify these facts into comprehensive, applicable principles; in other words, theory.

"Scientists are doing a poor job of teaching people how science is done," said Raesly.

That said, he made clear that the evolution of the eye was possible, by giving a natural history of sorts of the origin of eye proteins.

"The proteins in the eye were not originally designed to be eye proteins," he said. The proteins of the lens were once used in other areas (heat shock proteins, for example), useful in their own right, but became useful to organisms like humans by the processes of evolution.

Rev. Bill Pinches was up next, an eloquent Presbyterian minister from a local church (with several degrees in theology), explaining the differences between theology and philosophy, and trying to place ID in one of those categories. His interpretation of the Bible was refreshing, making it clear that the Bible (biblia, library) is basically a compendium of cultural literature and poetry, not a history or science book.

Pinches also pondered whether or not the conclusions of ID were logical in any sense. To assume that something was designed merely because one does not understand its complexities, he stated, is a false conclusion. He appropriately condemned ID as a "god of the gaps" argument, fearing the repercussions of embracing such a standpoint, and watching the "incredible shrinking God" result.

Both Pinches and Raesly feel that ID is not science (obviously), and should be sequestered primarily to philosophical discussion.

Then the questions began.

Raesly was criticized by a colleague briefly who had a problem with the complete separation of the domains of knowledge (even beauty and morals/values) inherent in Raesly's discussion.

"Can't beauty be explained as phenotypic expression subject to selection?" said the professor. He also questioned the evolutionary significance of morality.

I think Raesly was seeking simplicity in his argument. Of course science can analyze the evolutionary benefits of morality and the physical results of genetic selection (human beauty), but for the sake of clarification, some of these issues can be skipped (it was only a two hour discussion, after all). The professor had a point, though.

Other questions were raised, some about entropy (boring!), others about the validity of the actual arguments (both ID and science's response).

I think the most interesting thing about the forum was the tendency for student responses to begin with "I believe in..." instead of addressing some of the more relevant issues presented in the talk. But at least they were there.

My column on ID comes out tomorrow, and I'll have a link to it and an excerpt.

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