Sago Boulevard

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Misunderstanding the Question

When I started blogging, there were a few topics I decided I wasn't going to touch. One was the subject of my thesis: Plato's Euthyphro and Rabbinic Literature. I caved on that one last week. Another was the creationism/intelligent design vs evolution debate. Something about that whole issue really annoyed me but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. That is, until I read this post by Julian Sanchez.
For a lot of people, positing a deity is a pretty straightforward form of inference to the best explanation—and for a lot of our history, given the dizzying complexity of the natural world, it was scarcely an unreasonable hypothesis. Evolutionary theory is seen as a threat to religion precisely because, at least when they're first forming their views, most people don't rely on "faith" at all: They're rational empiricists to a much greater degree than most secularists probably give them credit for.

Julian's right. "Intelligent design" isn't religion; it's just bad science. And its handful of advocates misunderstand both. They mistake the Bible (the first chapter of Genesis at least) as describing a physical reality when in fact its focus is a spiritual one. As R. Heschel explains:
Science... describes and explains the way in which things behave in terms of casual necessity. It does not try to give us an explanation in terms of logical necessity - why things must be at all, and why the laws of nature must be the way they are (italics in original).

Science is interested in "what" and "how" questions: how did life as we know it develop into what it is? Or, what's the structure of an electron? The answer doesn't clash with religion because religion (mature religion, that is) addresses a different kind of question. A question about why things exist at all and what they mean.

The confusion comes in because the two kinds of questions sound alike and are easily confused. "How did life come to be?" for example. The appropriate answer depends on your perspective. Which kind of question are you asking? R. Heschel gives an analogy:
On a lovely summer afternoon an influential educator admired the sky. His little girl turned and asked: "What is there beyond the sky?" The father gave her a "scientific" answer: "Ether, my child." Whereupon the girl exclaimed: "Ether!" and she held her nose.