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Designer deity

The old religion versus evolution debate is back. The latest contender in the conservative religion corner—attracting no lesser personages than the president of the United States and a senior cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church—is known as intelligent design.

This concept does not deny the possibility, or even the reality, of evolution by natural selection. But it argues that key elements of living organisms are so intricate that they are beyond the capacity of evolution to generate. Therefore, they must have been planned and designed by a higher intelligence.

The proponents of intelligent design have enlisted the power of statistics and probability to support what they are saying, but there is a fatal flaw in their argument that intelligent design is an alternative scientific explanation to evolution. It's not science. That does not necessarily make it untrue, but it does make the debate essentially irresolvable. There's a better way of thinking about things.

In the early 1950s, Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa won an Oscar for an unpretentious black-and-white movie called Rashomon. It was the story of an assault—but the viewer had to piece together what actually happened from a series of different perspectives, the stories of participants, witnesses, even a ghost. Every viewpoint was different, none provided the whole story, but each contributed to a more profound understanding of what was going on.

Science depends on an experimental method. This demands that a proposition arising from any explanation can be tested and shown to be either true or false. Without the ability to generate falsifiable propositions, there is no science. Explanations that depend upon God or a higher power fall into that category. They cannot be gainsaid. If God is involved, no experiment can be designed where God is not present, and vice versa. There is no false position.

So creationism, creation science, intelligent design and other schemes of the development of life on Earth which incorporate a higher power are not science, by definition. They could conceivably be right, but they cannot be tested scientifically. In fact, some would even argue that they are antithetical to the workings of science—because if intelligent design were somehow accepted as science, researchers could invoke it every time they could not explain the development of some biological feature.

Evolution and intelligent design are not two alternative scientific explanations of the development of life on Earth, to be taught side by side in a science class, as is presently being argued in the American legal system. They are two different perspectives—one scientific, the other religious or faith-based—on trying to get at the truth.

If you believe, as Archimedes does, that religious knowledge tackles a whole lot of fundamental moral questions outside the realm of science, and that an understanding of religion is part of a balanced view of the universe, then why not do as Kurosawa suggests in his marvellous movie and weave what we can learn from science and what we can learn from religion into a broader picture?

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.

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