Thursday, January 12, 2006

Intelligent Design and Philosophy

Advocates for "intelligent design" have found a new tactic: since they cannot seem to pass legal muster in their efforts to get ID into science classes, at least one teacher has taken the suggestion of the ACLU and others that ID might be taught as part of a philosophy course.

The problem is that the teacher in question doesn't seem to have the slightest idea what philosophy is, or what it means to teach philosophy.

The New York Times reports today that a special education teacher in a small school district in southern California is offering a four-week course described as follows: "This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological and biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid."

(The course was approved by the school board in an "emergency meeting" held on New Year's Day. Nothing fishy there.)

It seems that much of the course will involve watching 24 videos, 23 of which were, according to a lawsuit filed by 11 parents, "produced or distributed by religious organizations and assume a pro-creationist, anti-evolution stance."

I can only assume that the teacher (and school board) understand philosophy in the casual sense, as one's own, personal, idiosyncratic opinion about the world in general. To teach philosophy, in this sense, must mean to foist one's opinion upon one's students by any means necessary.

In the California case, the result seems to be a straightforward attempt at religious indoctrination in the public schools, since the evidence points to the teacher in question being an advocate of young-Earth creationism. The course seems at the same time to be a wholesale attack on a scientific theory from what purport to be scientific bases, but in a course that is not called "science."

I think that those who are bringing the lawsuit aimed at stopping this course need to be very careful, and need to have a clearer understanding about what philosophy is as a discipline and as a form of inquiry. Philosophy in this sense is not a fixed set of opinions but a way of asking questions about the world, about ourselves and our assumptions.

I discussed ID with my own students last semester. I did so as part of a larger discussion of Darwin's work and its meaning, which was in turn part of a still larger unit on human freedom and materialist explanation. The point of introducing ID was simply to get students thinking and talking about the relationships among science, religion, ethics, and politics.

I was critical of ID theory, working with students to draw out its assumptions and call them to account. At the same time, I was critical of what Dennett calls "greedy reductionism", which would reduce every aspect of our existence and our lived experience to the terms of physics and chemistry. I introduced Kant's two standpoints as one way of addressing the tension between science and ethics, science and faith: we can look at the world as a field of matter that follows deterministic natural laws, and we can at the same time look at the same world as the domain of meaning and of moral community. Then, I left the students to think it over for themselves.

I had an end in view, but it was not indoctrination. Rather, I aimed to get students to take these matters up as a (perhaps intractable) problem. Giving the sciences their due - including evolutionary biology - how far does their writ run? How do we reconcile the undeniable power of materialistic explanations of natural phenomena (including our own bodies and brains) with our own lived experience of freedom and dignity, our sense of our own uniqueness as a species and as individuals?

These are question with which I still struggle, and the kinds of questions that should be at the heart of any philosophy course worthy of the name.

No comments: