Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Unintelligently Designing the Intelligent Design Debate

The recent comments by President Bush supporting intelligent design have not only elicited the ire of the scientistic community (No, that is not a typo), but also some unfortunate comments from prominent conservatives. Ostensibly, the idea of these conservatives is to make the debate over intelligent design “more intelligent,” In fact, however, their proposal asks us to buy into an approach to the debate that is only slightly less disadvantageous than actually giving up.

In Suzanne Field’s recent column, “Designing an Intelligent Debate,” she advocates a philosophical error dating back to the Arab philosopher Averroes. “Intelligent design and the theory of evolution belong to separate spheres of theoretical thought: one is substantiated by faith, the other by scientific evidence.”

Her proposal received a faint echo in Tony Snow’s column on the same issue: “Why Can’t We Have a Rational Debate?” In Snow’s column, which was admittedly much more sober than Field’s, he remarks: “If God exists, He reveals himself through faith, not science.”

First of all, this is in direct contradiction to Apostle Paul (not an unimportant authority on the issue of faith and reason), who says that “that which may be known of God...the invisible things of him from the creation of the world" are “clearly seen” through the “things that are made.” Romans I: 19-20. Check it out.

Second, it is a philosophical view with a pedigree. The philosopher Etienne Gilson calls it view the “Doctrine of Twofold Truth.” The idea is to carve out two separate spheres of knowledge; one untouched by evidence, the other untouched by faith. Gilson’s account of this view—and the refutation if it by St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris in 13th century, is the story of one of the great demolition jobs in the history of ideas. It is a story people like Fields and Snow ought to know.

The origin of the idea lies with Averroes, a medieval Muslim thinker, but was taken up by Sigar of Brabant, a Master of Arts at the University of Paris. As is the case so often, G. K. Chesterton describes it best:

Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve… It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths.

Field’s proposal is undoubtedly motivated by the desire to take some of the heat out of the debate, but such proposals rarely work. As Chesterton said elsewhere, “The full potentialities of human fury cannot be reached until a friend of both parties tactfully intervenes.”