Thursday, January 12, 2006

Intelligent Design and Philosophy, cont'd

On reflection, I think there's an easier way to characterize the problem with the supposed "philosophy" course in California that is set up to assault the "philosophy" of Darwin.

The point of "teaching" ID in a philosophy class would not be to get students to either accept or reject ID as such, but to help them gain some critical perspective on the broader debate over the place of ID in public schools. This would involve looking carefully and thoughtfully at the existing debate over science and religion, its history (going back to ancient times, if necessary), and the assumptions that underpin the arguments of various advocates on various sides.

This is "teaching the controversy" in a different sense than the phrase is used by ID advocates. There is no scientific controversy regarding ID; instead, there is a cultural controversy over the scope and meaning of the sciences in relation to religious faith and ethical ideals.

This brings me back to something I didn't really focus on the first time around. The teacher of the course is going after the "philosophy" of Darwin. This is slippery, to say the least. In part, this is just a way of observing the letter of the law: by casting Darwinian evolution as a "philosophy" rather than as a scientific theory, the school can claim that it is not teaching ID as science. However, it is fairly clear that the intent of this particular course is to undermine the credibility of Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory, the established naturalistic explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.

But there is an important distinction to be made here. Insofar as it is a scientific theory, evolution is about as well established as it can be. It is at least the peer of relativity and atomic theory in that regard.

However, insofar as the interpretation and teaching of the theory is allied with strict positivism or a more general "scientism" - the ideology that holds that scientific explanations are the only valid form of knowledge - or greedy reductionism, then it may amount to an equally unconstitutional teaching of contempt for religious faith in the public school classroom.

It may turn out to be a shoddy compromise, but what this points toward is a division of labor. Science teachers should teach the best that the sciences have to offer, including a full introduction to evolutionary theory as the core of modern biology. However, they should leave broader considerations about the meaning of evolutionary theory for human life to other contexts - a broad-ranging philosophy course based on open and critical discourse, for example.

In both cases, I suppose something like the Christmas Tree test could be applied (see my post for 12/7/2005). The question with public holiday decorations should be: What is the message being sent? If a display amounts to public endorsement of a specific point of religious doctrine, then it is unconstitutional and should be removed or altered.

So, the same applies in public school classrooms: what is the message being sent? In the California case, the message seems to be that students should doubt Darwin in order to spare a particular doctrine - special creation of living things - from a bath in what Dennett calls the "universal acid" of Darwinian evolution.

Applying the same standard to the science classroom, there are two possibilities. The appropriate message is that Darwinian evolution is a powerful scientific theory that unifies biology. An inappropriate message would be that anyone who maintains any sort of religious faith is (metaphorically, at least) a Neanderthal worthy only of contempt.

No comments: