It’s somewhat of a frustration that the issue of whether “intelligent design” should be taught in science classes or not is still a prominent one. Most debates on the subject seem to center around contesting intelligent design as being good or bad science: advocates claim that in the absence of physical proof for evolution or intelligent design, respectively, the former theory and the latter notion stand on an equal scientific footing. Yet a key mistake made by advocates of intelligent design is their assumption that excluding it from being taught in science classes implies a complete denial of its truth. The fact of the matter, however, is that this issue need not be so divisive- not because one side of it is clearly “wrong” but simply because there is a confusion here of what one means by “truth”.
What must be realized is that intelligent design is not scientifically false, because natural science does not use that criterion. Natural science simply deals with what is the case or not, using fact and reason: scientific explanations gain credibility through evidence, predictability, and verifiability. Thus while you could say that it is the case that scorpions are nocturnal, it is not false that unicorns exist; it could possibly be shown in the future that they do, but at the moment it is simply not the case, or “untrue”. As far as scientific theory goes, a theory cannot be proven, because what can be proven must be shown to empirically exist. A theory is a regulative idea that is supported by physical evidence to a greater extent than other ideas: hence, evolution is a theory while intelligent design is not. One cannot disprove gravity any more than one can disprove evolution or intelligent design: it simply comes down to that what the physical world shows us implies that these ideas are more useful than others. Hence why astrology and phrenology could possibly be true, but do not belong in science classes simply because there is no legitimate reason so far to connect them to the physical world.
A theory is only worth studying insofar as it permits further study. Intelligent design is not scientific because as it is impossible to study the nature of such a designer, there is no way to establish a necessary link between physical events and whatever being may have ordained them. Yet excluding intelligent design from science class does not imply that it is completely without merit as an idea. If it is indeed true, then it is a metaphysical truth dealing in realms that science does not deal with; it deals with a topic far greater than simply physical events, and as such is deserving of study in philosophy and theology classes. A scientist is unsuitable for determining whether abortion is ethical or not, whether democracy is preferable over dictatorship, what the value of a work of art is, or if it is acceptable to kill one person to save a thousand. Likewise, the theory of evolution having priority in science classes does not deprive intelligent design of its rightful place of study in other disciplines.
In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the philosopher and empiricist David Hume said: “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion" (128). This adequately sums up what so many proponents of intelligent design fear: the assumption that science not only denies intelligent design merit in its own field, but that it is attempting to ban the subject from study altogether. Not so. No scientists worth their salt would reject intelligent design if, by some twist of fate, all the evidence suddenly gave it more empirical credibility than evolution. Denying intelligent design a place in science class does not entail book-burning or the enforcement of state atheism; Darwin, Copernicus and Einstein are not of the same breed as Goebbels, Hitler and Stalin. Every idea deserves a place of study in academia, but a fine line has to be drawn as to what area a given idea is suitable for.
How, then, to allow the study of intelligent design outside of science class? The problem here lies in the rather skimpy variety of studies that our public school system offers. In an average American high school- if there is such a thing- one generally sees science, math, language, and the social sciences given priority while the arts are placed on the back burner, philosophy and theology being practically nonexistent. The priority, though, should not fall on what academic fields are given privilege by tradition, but on what fields deal with the most relevant issues that our society currently faces. Doubtless the sciences (both natural and social) meet this requirement, but considering how pressing the issue is of the relationship between religion and science in the West, as well as what it means to be a human being in an increasingly inhumane world, an expansion of what the public schools have to offer must occur. Not only does this allow controversial topics such as bioethics and intelligent design their rightful place of study, it also provides American students with a far richer and more vibrant educational experience than the dull, standardized-test format that we currently see in our public school system.
I can think of few matters more pressing than how future generations of Americans are to be educated, and as such an issue as relevant as intelligent design must be included without compromising the integrity of what constitutes “good science”. In a school system plagued by lack of funds, inadequate requirements for students, and an overemphasis on college admissions, American students face the very real risk of becoming the same mindless drones that so many stereotypes paint them as. It is high time that both society and government cease their squabbling over issues such as intelligent design, establish its proper and rightful place in education, and devote the proper attention to revitalizing the educational experience of young Americans everywhere.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 1772. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.