Monday, October 10, 2005

An Intelligent Use for Intelligent Design

Now that teaching “Intelligent Design” in the schools has become a court case, I hope people will consider a constructive use for it, though its proponents will probably not like my suggestion: Using it to teach the difference between Faith and Science.

Intelligent Design is a ploy, to dress up Creationism – the idea that all life was created by divine intervention, an article of faith – in the trappings of scientific theory and discussion, and assert it is a scientific theory with standing equivalent to the theory of evolution. But it is not science, it is faith, and it has no such standing. The masquerade, though, is an excellent opportunity to use it as a teaching tool: Here, dear students, is something made to look like science, but it is not science, and here is why.

It is not science because the idea that life was created by an Intelligent Being is so far an untestable hypothesis: You can neither prove it true nor prove it false. The fact that you may not yet have come up with an explanation of how some complex life forms could evolve naturally may or may not pose a challenge to the theory of evolution, but it does not prove anything at all about the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer. Since the latter assertion is untestable, it is not science. If you insist on believing it anyway, for you, it is an article of faith.

Now, faith is often a very good thing, depending on what that faith is; I have seen cases where it has changed lives, and for the better, and it makes many people happier, and gives them a way to deal with questions science has been unable to deal with. And science has certainly proved its worth too. There need not be a conflict between Faith and Science, unless you make one, either by believing something manifestly untrue or by insisting that if it can’t be proved true scientifically it must therefore be false. You can believe anything you want, and believing it may be a good thing, but unless and until you prove it, one way or the other, it is just not science. Also, to think that attacking a theory will constitute proof of an opposing faith-based hypothesis is as fallacious as it is to say anything that isn’t proved must be false.

The two ways of relating to Reality, Faith and Science, can coexist side by side, and should. But it’s important to be clear about the key distinction between them, especially since lots of people on both sides don’t seem to understand that distinction, and because factions exploiting this confusion are likely to rise again and again.

In fact, so many people seem unclear about it that it ought to be taught in the schools.

Stopping Terrorism In Iraq, Europe, the U.S., and Elsewhere

People seem to forget sometimes the main reason people practice, support or condone terrorism is they are convinced it will eventually work for them. From that seemingly obvious truism springs the solution to ending organized terror: Make it fail for them.

Once terror is made to be counterproductive, an act that delegitimizes the terrorist and his enablers, and the cause he attempts to serve, it will stop. The world hasn’t quite done that yet. Too many people seem complaisant when terrorism, directly or indirectly, seems to help their private or local agendas.

Right now, the world is mesmerized by Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists, who have learned to recruit suicidal personalities in the Islamic world and persuade them they will earn Paradise if they blow themselves up in specified, crowded public spaces, rather than the special torments in Hell the Koran reserves for suicides. Some people say this is working and the terrorists are winning, which is what these terrorists want, even when people say these things for the sake of their own separate, localized agendas.

But Islamists are not the only extremists in the world who have shown they are willing to kill. And suicide is not a requirement: Any bomb with a cell-phone trigger will serve, or any good sniper rifle, and the terrorist can live to act again. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

In time, if the world does not delegitimize terror tactics, everyone with a real or imagined grievance and a demand to make of a government somewhere in the world will be tempted to set off a bomb or otherwise slaughter innocents. There are too many other madmen out there happy to have a justification for killing. In an age when the means of mass destruction are growing ever more numerous and ever more easy to acquire and use, passivity in the face of this possibility is not an option, whatever the motive.

Making terrorism fail of course means in part hunting down terrorists and identifying and neutralizing their enablers, and if those include regimes controlling national states, those too. But it means more, much more. It also means not playing into terrorists’ hands and doing what they want. Even more than that, it means identifying the cause the terrorists are trying to further and dealing it a setback in ways that make it clear that more terror can and will result in more setbacks – setbacks in the terrorists’ own eyes.

Do these things consistently, and organized terror will soon cease.

Consider the cases where terrorism, or at least a particular terrorist strategy, has failed. No one new has stepped forward to release nerve gas in Japanese subway stations again. Northern Ireland’s IRA has finally abandoned its policy of violence, now that individuals there have begun turning them in to the police instead of suffering in fear and silence. Once hijacking airplanes and holding the passengers hostage to publicize demands was the terrorist publicity stunt of choice; when SWAT teams learned to kill them quickly and efficiently, and the hijackings got the sort of brief news report reserved for failures, that tactic ceased. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka once practiced suicide-bomber assassinations: No more. More recently, when Al Qaeda saw that publicized videos of beheadings produced not only the shock and horror they expected, but soon thereafter sympathy for the victims and disgust and contempt for their murderers rather than demoralization, the executions and videos stopped being produced. Simple message each time: Do this and you will probably die and certainly fail. Simple response each time: It stopped.

So what can you do? I mean, personally?

Embrace the principle. Think it through. Support it visibly and vocally when the chance comes up. Support everything that applies this principle and oppose everything that violates or undermines it, even when you imagine the terror somehow serves whatever partisan political or other motive you may have, just as if it was a question of simple, fundamental morality. Go ahead, write your Congressman. And vote. And if and when you have a chance to stand up on your hind legs and do something real in behalf of it yourself, do that with a whole heart, whatever the stakes, as if you’re helping save the world.