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Do Kids Need Intelligent Design Theory to See Design?

May 3, AD2014 10 Comments

I’ve been hesitant to weigh in on the intelligent design debate because so much is already written, and I’m still forming an opinion. The body of work is computational and possibly, in part, an exact and quantitative science of objects in so far as the researchers study patterns (quantities) in nature (objects) to infer design. The debate, however, is about whether the inference is justified from probability calculations because the inference has implications outside the bounds of science.

My first concern, as for others, is how intelligent design affects educating children. The oft-repeated definition given by the Discovery Institute seems problematic. “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. ” Teaching children that scientists distinguish “certain features” as having an “intelligent cause” implies that other features do not. For Christian children, this wording muddles the cosmic view taught in the Creed.

I can hear my own mini-interlocutors asking about God’s on-off smart-switch, “Mom, how come worms are intelligently designed but water is not?” The answer is not trivial.

“God knows everything. He created everything. It’s just that researchers have done computational work to highlight what they call ‘signs of design’ in complex systems. That doesn’t mean other things do not have an intelligent cause, just that the researchers can’t determine intelligent cause in those things using their computations.”

Should the kids ask how the researchers know their computations, and theirs alone, are right, such questioning would land the kids smack in the company of most academics weighing in on the issue. Design theory, as far as I can tell, comes down to our human interpretation of design, which will always be a matter of human perspective.

Design theorists, of course, have explained how their theory differs from the theological doctrine of creation, but the explanation is heavily theological and nuanced.* A parent or teacher would have to explain that if humans fail to see design, it’s due to our lack of knowledge not God’s lack of intelligence. How does that provide clarity? Besides, I’ve grappled with inorganic surface chemistry at the angstrom scale, and you bet your boots I saw design. I didn’t “see” it with probability theory the way design theorists do, but the presence of design struck me as apparent even when I wasn’t religious. Likewise, I am certain kids can “see” design without aid from sophisticated theorems beyond the scope of elementary or secondary education.

I argue that the focus for science education simply needs to be on exact physical science, on imparting solid fundamentals. Even for biology, teach the facts and leave metaphysical theories—goodbye Darwinism—out of science lessons completely. Oh yes, that’s a loaded statement, but insisting on limits goes both ways. Kids who pray will see design in science because meaning and purpose pervade their education. Kids who don’t pray? If they are taught scientific fundamentals, maybe they will discover design for themselves.

*For instance, see William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), all 324 well-written and illuminating pages.

Filed in: Education, Science

About the Author:

Stacy Trasancos is Editor-in-Chief of Catholic Stand. She is a mother of seven and a former research scientist turned homemaker, writer, editor, and educator. She earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Pennsylvania State University in 1999 and a M.A. in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in 2014. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Visit her website where she writes about science, theology, and life in the Adirondack Mountains.

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  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Brandon Rimmer

    Excellent article. I think you clearly identify the central problem with intelligent design. ID does not fit well with traditional Christianity. A robust Christianity that believes in One God who has made “all things seen and unseen.” Not simply living things, or self-replicating things. All things. And a science that is based on an inference to a category that includes all existing things is not a very useful science. How could we possibly infer, scientifically, that something is not designed?

  • WHB

    Super! You have made the case simply, positively and clearly. Let’s see what the critics dream up.

  • james

    God comes to those who have the insight to think
    in another dimension and the wisdom of a child.

    J. Makiewicz

  • http://theyhavenowine.wordpress.com/ Bob Drury

    Another fine essay
    from Stacey. Science does not discover that there are mathematical relationships (designs) among the measureable properties of material reality. Based on the philosophy that material reality is inherently intelligible, science seeks to discover the mathematical details of those intelligible relationships. Perhaps it takes the perceptivity of an inquisitive child to realize that this includes water.

    • Reuben Scicluna

      I think that your point about “inherent intelligibility” is the crux of the matter. When we say that God “created everything” I think that what we mean is that God created the laws governing behaviour of matter (which I like to think of as the intelligibility of creation) Anything that happened after the point of creation is allowable by God who must necessarily act on the physical level to maintain creation.
      The ID theory, I think, is an unnecessary (and inappropriate attempt) to dumb down the relation between God and His creation to terms some people can grasp. We have to look at the Bible as a “progressive” dialogue between an adult and a child. When you start teaching a child maths, for instance, you don’t plunge at the deep end, but you work through the basic concepts until you reach your intended end. Same with Revelation. In the Bible, God’s chosen people were gradually being introduced to God. The first thing we ought to know was that there is nothing without God. But how can you explain to someone from more than 10K years ago the intricacies and relations of the laws governing matter (which would obviously include evolution) ?

  • duhem

    Very fine column Tracy, as always. But water is intelligently designed, not as a separate entity, but as forthcoming from the laws of nature. See my post from some time ago–“The Theology of Water”, Is Design Intelligent” at

    http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-theology-of-water-is-design.html

    A quote from that post is relevant:

    “To my mind this is a “God of the gaps” type argument–to attribute that which we don’t understand to specific divine intervention. Moreover, a God who frames fundamental physics so that variety and complexity grows “naturally” from a unified beginning is much more to be admired and worshiped than a God who assembles, Leggo-like, all the objects of a Young Earth (including evidence for a 4.5 billion year old earth and a 14 billion year old universe).”

    The God who framed physical laws such that hydrogen-bonds are so crucial to organic life is truly to be worshipped.

    Bob Kurland

  • David Peters

    Excellent article Stacy, both rational and faith building! Darwinism taken out of science lessons is so cool!

  • Nicholas Bollaert

    I certainly agree with this. Without being explicitly told “God did this” you look at some biological things, how the body functions, and the idea that it is pure random happenstance doesn’t seem obviously more likely than design.

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  • Jeff_McLeod

    Two things are so impressive about what you’re saying. First, I just love the phrase “exact science” as a counterpoint to “popular science” or “speculation.” This is powerful.

    Second, the title of your piece is a perfect illustration of how ingenious insight often needs little more than to frame the question clearly. You frame it in such a way that the answer is obvious. Then you proceed to draw the answer out.

    It’s very disarming — it prevents our preconceptions from rushing in to answer the question.

    I totally agree with your thinking on this. Wonderful job.