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Evolution and the evidence of reason

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Dover, Pa., school board requires ninth-grade public school biology students to listen to a short statement saying that there is a controversy over evolution, that a competing theory is intelligent design and that, if they want more information on that theory, the school library has available a book, “Of Pandas and People: the Central Question of Biological Origins,” published by a foundation promoting that theory.

Eleven parents sued to bar the requirement as an unconstitutional promotion of religion. The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, is now in trial in the federal district court in Harrisburg. Plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the defendants by the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor. Three of the Thomas More attorneys on the case are Notre Dame Law School grads.

The teaching of evolution in public schools has frequently been challenged, without success, but this is the first court challenge to a school district’s provision of information to students about intelligent design. Intelligent design theory, according to Baylor Professor William Dembski, a proponent, claims that “intelligent causes are necessary to explain the complex … structures of biology, and that those causes are empirically detectable.” The theory makes no claims about God. “It detects intelligence,” said Dembski, “without speculating about the nature of the intelligence.”

In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, a Louisiana law required the teaching of evolution to be accompanied by teaching of “creation science,” which the statute defined as “the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences.” The Court held the law unconstitutional because its purpose was to promote a particular religious belief. The Kitzmiller plaintiffs argue that intelligent design theory, like creation science, is not scientific but religious. The Dover school board claims it is scientific and that informing students of the controversy between intelligent design and evolution helps them develop critical thinking. Whatever the result of the trial, the Dover case could possibly end up in the Supreme Court.

The academic and judicial controversy in this area has brought death to many trees, sacrificed to provide paper for the scholarly articles that have belabored the subject. But the Dover case is really about a more important issue that the courts don’t touch: Apart from faith, can we really know through reason that God exists?

The existence of God is not self-evident, and the reach of science is limited here. But can we really know from reason that there must always have been in existence an eternal being, who always was and who had no beginning? The alternative is that there was a time when there was nothing in existence. But if there was ever a time when there was nothing, there could never be anything. This we know from the self-evident principle of sufficient reason – that whatever exists must have a sufficient reason for its existence. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “that which does not exist only begins to exist through something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist, and thus even now nothing would be in existence – which is absurd.”

Or consider what the evidence of design in the universe really means. “The evolution of living beings,” said John Paul II, “presents an internal finality. … This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a mind which is its inventor, its creator.” Finality, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn put it, is “synonymous with final cause, purpose or design.”

“To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator,” John Paul continued, “some oppose the power of chance or of the … mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us … [I]t would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence.”

It is true, as John Paul put it, that “science must recognize its inability to reach the existence of God: it can neither affirm nor deny His existence … [H]owever … the scientist … can discover in the world reasons for affirming a Being which surpasses it.”

Not only is belief in God reasonable. It is unreasonable not to believe in God. Can you really believe that the human eye, in all its complexity, came about by chance rather than by design? If you were walking along a beach and saw traced in the sand the letters, “Go Irish,” would you think, “Look at the words the waves traced in the sand?” If you did, your election as mayor of Idiot Village would be assured.

“[T]he marvellous ‘book of nature,'” said John Paul in Faith & Reason, “when read with … human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator.” In abandoning the “basic rules” of reason, “the human being … ends up in the condition of ‘the fool’ [and] shows … how deficient his knowledge is and just how far he is from the full truth of things, their origin and their destiny.”

Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at plawecki@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.