Saturday, June 11, 2005

If it is not Natural it is not Science

There are well-organized groups of people all across America today who have as their goal a watered-down science curriculum in public schools. They are the advocates of intelligent design, claiming it to be a valid alternative theory to evolution.

The focus currently is on Kansas, where the State Board of Education has been conducting public hearings on whether the concept of intelligent design should be taught along side evolution in high school biology classrooms.

But these menaces to scientific methodology are not restricted to that state. They are at the moment making some level of assault on the science curriculum in 24 states. They must be stopped.

They must be stopped not because of some dangerous cult belief system. Their beliefs are, if not mainstream, at least within the confines of Christianity. They are fundamentalist Christians who only think they know enough about science to inoculate the curriculum with their own variety of it.

But science is science and religion is religion, and the two disciplines are seldom easily blended, especially when it comes to question of how we got here. So what should be taught in the biology classroom?

There is one underlying postulate of science that makes up its foundation. It is that all laws of nature operate exactly the same for everything, everywhere, and throughout time. Science seeks to find natural answers to the questions of how nature operates. And without that underlying postulate, there would be no science.

It has thus far proved to be true. Galaxies that are billions of light years away seem to follow the same law of gravity that an apple falling from a tree on earth follows. But if we ever discover that the laws of nature behave randomly, or are at times altered by some supernatural entity, then science would collapse. Science cannot operate in a universe where the natural laws are unpredictable.

And, so, when we teach science in school, we must assume that all the theories of science are operating within the bounds of knowable natural laws. If we don’t understand how something works, and there is a lot we don’t yet understand, we don’t throw up our hands and say, “This must happen because of an act of God.”

It was less than 100 years ago that the theory of continental drift was first postulated by a meteorologist named Alfred Wagener. Before then, nobody knew what caused volcanoes or earthquakes.

Native islanders in various parts of the world, including Hawaii, thought volcanoes were brought on by the wrath of some god. They often sacrificed innocent people to the volcano to appease that god.

Scientists had no idea why volcanoes occur here but not there. They had no idea why they occurred at all. But they didn’t yield to the supernatural. They knew there had to be a natural answer to the question.

Eventually, they discovered that most volcanoes were caused by the action of crustal plates sliding underneath each other, or by hot spots in the earth’s mantle. Earthquakes and volcanoes were caused by what used to be called the theory of continental drift, but has since been modified into the more comprehensive theory of plate tectonics.

And so it is with evolution. Science does not have all the answers to evolution. What creationists might call irreducible complexity in organisms may be reducible after all.

But just because science isn’t able to answer all the questions about evolution yet doesn’t mean we throw in the towel and admit it must be God’s handiwork. God is a supernatural entity, operating outside the bounds of science. And, thus far, scientists have been able to explain away the hand of God in virtually every theory that He was supposed to dominate, such as the old theory that put the earth at the center of the universe, a notion held by the early church.

Eventually, researchers will come up with more of the answers that creationists ascribe to God. Indeed, the theory of evolution will one day join the ranks of the heliocentric view of the solar system, but not if we allow fundamentalists to weaken the science curriculum with their superstitions.

If it is supernatural, it can’t be natural. If it isn’t natural, then it can’t be science. And if it’s not science, however well disguised, then it does not belong in the science curriculum.

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