Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Who cares if it's science?

Mark Shea advises readers to have a look at Cardinal Schonborn's article in this month's First Things dealing with the question of discerning the creation through 'natural philosophy'. It's an interesting article, and I'll write more on it shortly.

However, the main thing that seems to bother Shea about the intelligent design debate is: "Fine and dandy. It is not science. And that is cause for a judge to banish it from the classroom why?"

Well, the most immediate response that occurs to me is: Because it made the strategic mistake of pretending to be science in order to get into the classroom.

Remember, the Dover trial wasn't a grand showdown of elemental principles. It was a specific question of whether a school board had violated the Supreme Court's current understanding of the separation of church and state (which, of course, is a pretty idiotic understanding) in mandating the use of a science textbook called Of Pandas And People, which (from the selections I've read, I haven't read the whole thing) appears to contain a pretty broad brush version of the scientific form of 'Intelligent Design' exemplified by the Discovery Institute.

So the reason why intelligent design (as presented in Of Pandas And People) was banished for not being science is, at the most basic level, that it made the mistake of being presented as science, and rather badly done science at that.

The problem probably has a great deal to do with the historic roots of the scientific Intelligent Design movement (as distinguished from the philosophical points that Schonborn seeks to make). It's fairly clear that the Discover Institute and scientific intelligent design were developed in the late 80s and early 90s in order to provide a replacement for "scientific creationism" which had been ruled as too religious to be taught in public schools. ID used significantly more sophisticated scientific methods (most of them wrapped in the terminology of statistics and information science) than scientific creationism, and it remained studiously silent on the nature of the designer that is posited.

However, like scientific creationism, the strongest support for ID first came from the ranks of bible Christians -- a group not known for its philosophical chops. (Dang it if getting too far into philosophy didn't tend to lead bible Christians to become Catholics or Orthodox...) So instead of recognizing that polemicists who attempt to use the evolutionary narrative or Earth's history to "disprove" the existence of God are making very, very basic philosophical mistakes, the ID movement set out to prove that evolution was scientifically mistaken, and that God's "thumb print" could found "proved" scientifically.

If we want to try to provide public school students with arguments that will make them less likely to be seduced by the arguments of "scientific" materialists like Richard Dawkins, our goal should be to attack the philosophical roots of the problem, not evolutionary science. Additionally, if we want to play in the public school sand box, we need to play by their rules. Unless the last 50 years worth of "establishment clause" jurisprudence is overturned (and I don't see that happening real soon) any text that follows a straight through-line to "and that's how we know that God exists" is not going to make it. Nor need an introduction to philosophy book necessarily be so one sided in its assertions. If we are right in our understanding of the universe and of human nature, the arguments for God will naturally win out of the arguments against. We don't need to write the conclusion, many of the students will discover it just fine by themselves.

Indeed, if there's a target out there that we should replace, it's not the science curriculum, but rather the "Critical Thinking" texts that have become popular in many sectors -- including a number of public schools. The texts that I've seen definitely have a number of things to recommend them. They provide good lessons in addressing texts critically and the construction of logical syllogisms. However, many of them are written by skeptics or "brights" and have a bias towards materialistic philosophy. As such, they also ignore most of the great philosophers throughout history, starting with Plato and Aristotle.

What I would love to see if a good book on "Thinking About the World" which tackles basics like "How do we know about the world?", "What kinds of thought do we employ in making everyday decisions?" and "What do we mean by 'good'?" It could also deal with issues like efficient versus final causality, realism vs. nominalism, essence versus accidents, etc. All of these are tools which would allow students to put assertions such as "we know that human evolved from single-celled organisms and therefore there is no God" in their place, without explicitly teaching religious conclusions to major questions. And getting students to think about these kinds of philosophical issues will not only open a whole new world of understanding to them in later life, but set them on the road that has led countless souls to God.


Deep Furrows said...

Excellent point. I recently discovered something similar in a quote by E.F. Schumacher: "Education cannot help us as long as it accords no place to metaphysics. Whether the subjects taught are subjects of science or the humanities, if the teaching does not lead to clarification of metaphysics, that is to say, of our fundamental convictions, it cannot educate a man and, consequently, cannot be of real value to society" (Small is Beautiful).

John Farrell said...

Excellent post. What I'd like to see is...something that Peter Kreeft is quite good at...a return to classic style "dialogues". Perhaps it's time for that "genre" to have a comeback....

Anonymous said...

Dang it if getting too far into philosophy didn't tend to lead bible Christians to become Catholics or Orthodox...

I suppose Alvin Plantinga (Calvinist philosopher, perhaps the foremost living philosopher of religion, and incidentally a supporter of ID) is the exception that proves the rule?

Anonymous said...

I think at least half of the major analytic philosophers of religion working these days are Protestants, but I doubt that it really changes the point much, because they usually aren't fundamentalists. Plantinga, for instance, has no interest whatsoever in reading Genesis as a literal account of creation, nor as a literal-except-for-the-number-of-days account; he certainly believes that God created the world, indeed he believes that God has acted directly in at least some instances to guide the evolutionary process of life. But he doesn't believe that simply because the book of Genesis says that God created the world, nor does he think that the text is our only or even our primary source for the knowledge that God created the world. I think you'd find the same rejection of literalist hermeneutics in most of the major Protestant analytic philosophers of religion writing today -- not just Plantinga, but Adams, Alston, van Inwagen, and others. Certainly few if any of them are scriptural literalists, and none (?) of them would regard it as scientifically viable to prove the existence of God or even of 'design' in biology.

So, if the point is supposed to be, "look, Christians who do philosophy become Catholic or Orthodox," then it's plainly false. If it's supposed to be, "Look, Christians who do philosophy tend not to be fundamentalists," then I think it's generally true.

jenny said...

Darwin, I think you should write that book. I'd read it. I always thought philosophy was nonsense about angels dancing on pins. Until I read Mere Christianity. Now I can't get enough of it. I realize that we never teach people how to think philosophically. Most critical thinking only teaches analysis and skepticism.

My husband made what I think it a great point that really articulated my beef with the scientific ID formulation. They are the first people to take the apparent exceptions to nature's laws as proof of a creator. Throughout history, the fact that the universe has underlying order at all was seen as proof that there was an intellegence behind it.

Darwin said...


You make a fair criticism. Honestly, it was partly just a flip statement, mainly thinking of the WSJ article that I'd just read (see above). I do think that there is something of a pattern, but it's more that the dislike for overly independant analysis that tends to go with excessive biblical literalism will tend to also make people dislike philosophy in general.

I think there's also an extent to which knowing too much about the historical tradition of philosophy in Western Culture will tend to bring one to Catholicism, Orthodoxy or one of the forms of Protestantism that lies closer to the historical Christian tradition.

Although I'll openly admit to a bit of playful prejudice on such topics, I think it probably is accurate that you're far more likely to have an Episcopalian or Lutheran philosopher than one from the Church of God.


I keep toying with the idea, my main fear being that I'm not as well educated as I often try to sound, and so I fear I'm not all that qualified to write such a book.

What I've been thinking of is setting up a wiki linked to the blog here and writing something up chapter by chapter so that I can mooch of the expertise of occasional readers like Scott Carson who actually know what the heck they're talking about philosophically speaking.

We shall see...