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Of Something Done, I Know Not Where- reconciling evolution and intelligent design

amoskowi's picture

“Of Something Done, I Know Not Where”

Abby Moskowitz


The first time I heard about the struggle to reconcile religion and evolution was during a movie we watched in biology. One scientist spoke briefly on religious opposition to the subject, saying that, for him, the two models were far from mutually exclusive, but rather could work together quite easily if you saw natural selection as process put into motion by a Creator, as he did. Other than that coverage, there was little more discussion on the topic in my ninth grade classroom, other than my teacher’s brief mention that what we had been learning was considered controversial- in other places. In my small, liberal private school, that struggle had no bearing on our evolution unit that led neatly into pundit squares.

When I did learn more about it after freshman year in high school, the perspective I heard far more than any other was that opposition to natural selection was little more than ignorance and the censorship of knowledge. While I still see that to some extent, the conflict is far from that simple, a fact that is supported by a quote mentioned in our lecture a couple weeks ago from Christopher Schonborn, who expressed concern not with all of evolutionary theory but rather the specific understanding of it as an “unguided, unplanned process” (Grobstein, /).  Schonborn repeats, albeit with in more disgruntled tone, the view expressed by the scientist from the ninth grade film: that the theory of evolution is conceivably compatible with the conception of an overall, perhaps divine, plan for life. I wanted to explore why this potential collaborative theory is so difficult for so many, on both sides of the argument, to accept. Particularly since, as I plan to propose, evolution and intelligent design, by nature of their basis in either scientific or religious thought, are inherently different types of stories that therefore do not conflict. Provided that both sides are willing the acknowledge this, the most pressing problem then becomes how to teach this potential compromise within the current structure of education.

               Even acknowledging the more radical, less concrete view of science as a “loopy” process, there remains a reliance on empirical evidence for scientific conclusion. As presented, one takes a summary of observations, obtains new information through other observations and then, with the acknowledged influence of some subjective interpretation known as “the crack,” makes a conclusion that is then challenged or supported by new observations. With this model in mind, making distinctions between science and other areas of thought, including religion, becomes more difficult. Religion, after all, could be said to be simply a different conclusion from summaries of observations, the result of a different crack. It took another one of my courses, however, to help me understand how and why the nature of these observations is distinctly and critically different for science and religion.

            Reading about mystical tradition has given me the tools to articulate how conclusions reached through religious routes compare to those reached through scientific means. The definition of mystical moments presented by William James includes (in fact, begins with) the notion that they are inescapably ineffable, that the essence of their importance cannot be captured through language. This property, additionally, is not a restraint on the knowledge achieved through the mystical experience, (noetic quality being the second property of the mystical), but rather a mark of its significance, that it transcends the limits imposed by specificity required in language. “They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain” (James, 415). Although mysticism is simply one kind of religious experience, the model presented here and repeated in numerous mystical accounts establishes a precedent for a thoroughly different type of intellectual conclusion, one that is not supported by facts but supported all the same. For the mystical experience, there is instead some quality that assures the receiver of its credibility, as opposed to quantifiable observations used to support scientific conclusion. As stated in The Autobiography of J. Trevor, published in 1897:

the spiritual life…justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? This, at least, we can say, that it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessor, because they remain with him when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life (James, 433).  


As he speaks of the “objective realities of life,” he confirms that, like with a good scientific theory, new observations do not contradict it, but unlike scientific conclusions, it is not fundamentally supported by observations that could be explained or laid out logically, as one must be able to do for a scientific theory.

There is, so far as I can see, no justifiable reason to see one type of conclusion, either one supported through concrete facts or through inexplicable knowledge, as better than the other, with the exception of the inherent limitation of mystical-esque knowledge: the inability to transfer it to others. Because the circumstances that support it are wholly personal and incommunicable, it cannot be taught to others while still preserving the reasons that support its validity. Scientific observations, however, must be generated logically from understandable and replicatable observations in order to be successful science.

Science and religion, as understood through mystic theory, can therefore be seen as different types of stories. Evolution is based on a certain type of observations, commonly referred to as facts, that support it, while the religiously propagated story of intelligent design strives to reconcile evolution with foundationalism based on the unquantifiable but nevertheless powerfully motivated belief that supports the conclusion of a divine Creator. Because of these two different types of support structures, there will always be a stalemate when the two conclusions are placed in competition. It also means, however, that they should be able to coexist peacefully. Assuming that the observations are the question and the conclusions are evolving answers to them, intelligent design and natural selection thereby provide therefore two different answers to two different questions, not two different answers to the same question. In fact, Augustine, unaware of its relevance for future discourse, showed thousands of years ago how God and evolution could exist simultaneously. In his extended apostrophe to God, he declares “in you are the constant causes of inconstant things. All mutable things have in you their immutable origins” (Augustine, 7).      

            Accepting this as plausible, however, still unfortunately does not erase the problem of teaching it. Based on this understanding of religious conclusions, I agree with many science teachers’ opposition to teaching it in their classrooms. It becomes, by nature of what supports it, an entirely different discipline unconnected to the fundamental basis in quantifiable, explainable evidence that motivates scientific theory. Even if intelligent design were presented in a philosophical rather than explicitly religious way, acknowledging, for instance, that a purpose and direction for existence does not necessarily mean a God who directs it, it is still left fundamentally out of place in the standard areas of study in high school. Its ultimate incommunicability makes it an impossible topic to convey fairly to a classroom of students; you cannot offer evidence for or possible tests of the theory that could make listeners understand the real, ineffable reasons for the conclusion. As Glinda the Good Witch said “she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself” (Dirks, The best that we can do, then, is to not deny or ridicule the other type of conclusion in the science classroom. To understand, even while seeing certain things a certain way, there may be, visible at least to some, other questions in the world and other ways to answer them.

    Works Cited  

Saint Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Dirks, Tim. AMC Filmsite., 2008.  


Grobstein, Pau. Intelligent Design and the Story of Evolution: No Need for Drawing Lines in the Sand. /biology/evolution/grobstein.html, 2005.  

 James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: The Modern Library, 1994.  


Anne Dalke's picture


You are weighing in this week on the question of what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”; you might be interested in looking both @ some of his work and (more locally) @ eglaser’s paper on “Darwin as Prophet” --which identifies “worship” as the key distinction between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Your argument, as I see it, is counter to the one that eglaser spins out; you see that the standards which uphold these two realms of thought are not comparable—really what Thomas Kuhn called incommensurate—and so not in conflict.

What you say about the “non-transferability” of mystical experience leads directly to the real “rub” in your paper—how then to teach this way of knowing that defines itself precisely by its ineffability, its inarticulability? These questions are resonant both of enewbern’s paper on empiricism (once seen as “ignorant, unscientific practice” and “quackery” precisely BECAUSE experiential, personal and so not testable!) and the essay I mentioned in class, Richard Rorty’s “Religion as Conversation-Stopper.”

Your paper will actually form a great segue-way into the second half of this course, when we take up Walt Whitman, who was a mystic if there ever was one, who completely embraced the material world, and who tried (I would say succeeded, but I guess that will be a question for the class to pursue!) to put his mystical experiences into poetic form.

Maybe THAT’s where mysticism could enter the h.s. classroom—via poetry?