The difference between a belief in magic and an appreciation of mystery has never been clearer than in the debate over intelligent design and the alleged challenge it presents to evolutionary biology. In claims that religious people make about a designer, as well as many of the typical refutations of that position, we see our species hubris on display.
Our predicament is simple: We humans know -- and are capable of knowing -- far less than we would like to know about how the world came to be and what kind of beings we are. For all our cleverness and inventiveness, what we dont know still dwarfs what we do know. In the words of Wes Jackson, a biologist and sustainable-agriculture researcher, we are fundamentally ignorant. That doesnt mean we know nothing, but simply that we dont know enough to understand as much as we would like, as deeply as we desire.
What to do in the face of those limits? One possibility is to acknowledge them and understand life as an endless engagement with the mystery that we can, at best, only partially comprehend. Another approach is to craft magical solutions that purport to give definitive answers. Unfortunately, too many take this latter path.
Unlike traditional creationism, this approach doesnt identify God as the designer, though its nearly impossible to find an intelligent-design proponent who doesnt believe in such a God. But the shift from God-as-creator to unidentified-designer is strategic not principled; by declining to inject religion directly into the debate, intelligent-design campaigners can make arguments that appear to be rooted in a call for objectivity -- the teach both sides rhetoric. Instead of arguing for the superiority of intelligent design, its backers simply argue it should be taught as a competing scientific theory alongside evolution.
The problem, of course, is that intelligent design is not open to being tested experimentally and has no basis in science. It is speculative philosophy that could appropriately be taught in a course that deals with various cultures origin myths. Such treatment is not disrespectful of peoples religious beliefs, but simply intellectually honest.
This reflects a need to articulate clear answers to questions that cant be definitively answered given the limits of human intelligence. Those folks have cast their lot with magic, typically out of fear of mystery.
Secular people who believe science is a more compelling way to resolve this question tend to find this perplexing and/or maddening. As one person put it in casual conversation with me, Why cant they (creationists) just accept that evolution is the answer?
While I also weigh in on the evolutionary theory side of this debate, I am uncomfortable with the declaration that there is any the answer concerning the origin and development of life. Is not a belief in sciences ability to provide definitive answers also a kind of magical thinking, a willingness to believe beyond our capacity to know? Could there be forces beyond evolution-through-natural-selection also at work that we dont yet understand? Can we be skeptical of mystical assertions and yet open to alternative avenues of inquiry?
Both religion and science, when taken down these limited magical roads, impoverish our imaginations. But the problem isnt religion or science per se; the best traditions in both realms dont talk in such absolutes.
Science is based not on claims of absolute truth, but on evidence marshaled to support a theory. It works on the principle of falsifiability: Ideas must be capable of being proven false to be scientifically valid. Rather than saying something is TRUE, we can only say that to date it has not been proven false. And, of course, the history of science is a history of change, as claims once widely accepted give way to more robust ideas.
Scientists know this, as do many lay people. But in a culture that glorifies the products of the scientific method -- especially our dazzling high-technology machines -- many believe that science offers definitive answers. In that sense, the culture corrupts science by demanding magical answers.
Jim Rigby -- pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, and a progressive theologian -- puts it this way: Religion and science conflict only when one or both forget their proper bounds. When religion makes competing claims with science it is like a retina moving to the front of the eye; it cannot help but stand in its own light. The proper concern of religion is not declarations of truth, but the search for meaning.
At their best, religion and science recognize mystery and reject magic. Both accept the limited scope of their inquiry and encourage other forms of understanding.