Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why Educate?

In a comment to Intelligent Design and Evolution, Olorin writes:

“Given what you've said above, about the status of intelligent design as a scientific theory (i.e. that it has none), should we conclude that it therefore should be denied a voice within a science classroom?” Well, look at it this way. Do you want me to teach French in your chemistry class? What purpose would that serve? If a theory has no scientific evidence nor any hope of scientific evidence, then teaching it in a science class is not teaching science. Then, too, as I argued before, ID is inherently a religious theory, whether or not it employs explicitly religious terminology. So, besides being a waste of time, teaching ID as science runs afoul of the Constitution by imparting the cachet of science to a particular religious tenet.

As is my usual style, I'll address what I see as the minor points of contention before moving on the big ones. The minor point is this: there's a difference between (1) design theory necessarily entails the existence of at least one supernatural being and (2) design theory necessarily entails the existence of God as conceived by classical theism. ID is "inherently religious" only if (2) is true, not if (1) is true. I don't think I need to show that (2) is false; Kant did a perfectly good job of that in the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. That's why design theorists assiduously avoid claiming that the supernatural designer is God -- it's because they know they can't get away with it -- not in an empirical or even political sense, but in a strictly philosophical sense. (To the extent that the "strictly philosophical" can be separated out from the empirical and the political!)

(In fact, I do believe that most people who support intelligent design are theists, and moreover, theists of a very specific sort. Their theism certainly feeds into their motives for wanting design theory to be true, and their motives for wanting it taught alongside evolutionary theory. But motives are not reasons, and the luminaries of the design revolution are all too keenly aware of that!)

The main point I want to address is this: "If a theory has no scientific evidence nor any hope of scientific evidence, then teaching it in a science class is not teaching science."

Whether or not I accept this depends on what is meant by "teaching science." If "teaching science" just means "conveying to students the best of contemporary scientific theories," then I'll concede the point without reservation. But here is where I demur. Instead, I want to broaden and deepen the meaning of "teaching science" to "teaching students how to evaluate scientific theories, how to appreciate the process whereby theories are generated and tested, and how to situate science in a cultural, historical, and political context."

I suppose I'm feeling somewhat frustrated both by the larger debate and by how this conversation is unfolding here on Impure Reason. What I'm interested doing is breaking down the artificial boundaries between the teaching of science, the teaching of history, the teaching of poetry. How can students appreciate Blake without appreciating Newton? How can they understand Romanticism without the Enlightenment? Or fundamentalism without understanding Biblical criticism and "Darwinism"? (Not to mention neo-Darwinism and the Modern Synthesis!)

What it comes down is this: why do we educate? If we educate so that the next crop of wage-slaves can take the place of those who have moved on, then fine -- but then, let's cut the bullshit about "democracy" and "citizenship." Or, let's put our money where our mouth is -- in which case, let's actually teach students how to think, how to listen, how to speak, how to reason, how to experience -- and if we do that, and if we seriously want to equip students with the cognitive tools they need to actually be the informed and responsible citizens we say we want them to be, then hell yes -- let's "teach the controversy" -- and bring some epistemology and philosophy of science and, why the hell not, some history and poetry into the science classroom too, and some science into the literature classroom.

Practical? Hell no! But worth doing? Hell yes!

Pragmatism and Pluralism

In a comment below, I was asked as to what motivated my shift from What is Fundamentalism? to Fundamentalism vs. Pragmatism?

The shift in my position was prompted by thinking about fundamentalism in light of what John Dewey says in A Common Faith and Reconstruction in Philosophy. He uses similar language to describe the errors of fundamentalism in CF and the errors of rationalism in RP, and this prompted me to consider their similarities.

I was also reminded of Peirce's essay "The Fixation of Belief" and re-thinking that little essay in light of the posts I read in Uncommon Descent. Several of the regular commentators there are skilled or semi-skilled in philosophy, theology, and law, and they are very good at presenting arguments for their views, and at finding problems with the arguments presented by others.

What they are not good at, however, is recognizing the importance of experiments that can test their premises or their consequences. (It does not seem to me that they even recognize the difference between argument and experiment!)

For example, one of the more astute commenters there repeatedly hammers home the point that world-views must be given proper intellectual foundations. (He makes this point in order to establish that theism is more adequate than materialism.) This is not a stupid or foolish thing to say -- not at all! But it does show what to my way of thinking is a restricted and narrow conception of what intellectual activity consists of. It does not, for example, consider the pragmatist conception of intellectual life as one that is explicitly and emphatically anti-foundationalist, pluralistic, and melioristic.

I have therefore come to think that Peirce, James, and Dewey were exactly right to stress the importance of openness to experience as having a transformative effect on concepts and theories. And I also think that the anti-foundationalistic arguments of Quine and Sellars, but above all Wittgenstein, are, while not decisive, at any rate illuminating in showing us how the world, and our relationships with it, can be seen as drastically different than they are taken to be from within the rationalistic framework.

Which brings me to my next major point for this post: the meaning and value of "pluralism." For the time being, I'll provisionally define pluralism as a negative thesis: the claim that there is no single description of reality that fully satisfies all human needs and interests. There are some needs and interests that are satisfied by science (and of course different needs and interests are satisfied by different sciences in different ways); others by history; still others by poetry, or by music, or by religion, or by communion with bird and trees and wild things; or by love and friendship.

I don't have a perfect term for the contrast with "pluralism" -- "fundamentalism" comes to mind, as does "monism" (of course), "rationalism," and "Platonism." I shall use "rationalism" here as a general term for the thought that there is, or must be, a single description of reality which fully satisfies all genuine human needs and interests. (Notice my use of 'genuine' here -- see note (1) below!)

By this light, classical (non-liberal) Christianity is a form of rationalism, but so too are the metaphysical systems of philosophy -- including those of antiquity, such as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism -- and those of modernity, such as those of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Marx. But so too is the metaphysical naturalism and 'scientism' that has been a rival to theological metaphysics since the time of Hobbes, and which today finds no shortage of defenders among scientists (e.g. Dawkins, Pinker), philosophers, and cultural critics (e.g. Hitchens). (But see note (2) below.)

In short, my contention here is that religious fundamentalism and 'scientistic' fundamentalism -- the most extreme, and therefore the loudest, of the views in the debate between intelligent design supporters and evolutionists -- are both contemporary fruits of the rationalist tree. The pluralism which I support, and to which I hope to contribute, is therefore critical of both of them.

(1) A rationalist promises to satisfy all genuine human needs and interests; conversely, whatever needs and interests are not satisfied by a certain description of reality, the rationalist maintains, are not genuine but false or misleading or distorted. This line of thought can be clearly discerned in Platonism, in Christianity, and in Marxism. I do not contend, by way of contrast, that there are no preferences to be made with respect to human needs and interests. On the contrary, I'm a strong advocate of the capability approach when it comes to social justice, and I am something of an ethical perfectionist in terms of self-relations. (Reading 'ethical perfectionism' in a broad sense so as to include virtue ethics.) I am pluralist insofar as I don't think that there is any correct way of hearing, and responding to, the perfectionist call.

(2) There are in fact many different kinds of rationalism and pluralism. For example, Sam Harris in his The End of Faith insists that there is only viable method for assessing beliefs -- the method of science -- but allows that some "religious" beliefs could be vindicated by such a method. In particular, he suggests that the Buddhist belief in reincarnation could be so vindicated. But this does not detract from his larger point, which is that no belief which is not justified through scientific means should be treated as justified at all. Whereas my pluralism goes "all the way down," even to the point of embracing pluralism with respect to forms of justification

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What is "Darwinism"?

Now that I'm wading into the intelligent design/evolution controversy, I want to say something about how I position myself, terminologically.

There's some debate about the meaning of terms such as "evolution," "evolutionary biology," "Darwinism," "neo-Darwinism," etc. I would distinguish between weak Darwinism and strong Darwinism.

"Weak Darwinism" is best characterized through a quote by the philosopher Richard Rorty:

as good Darwinians, we want to introduce as few discontinuities as possible into the story of how we got from the apes to the Enlightenment.

This basic idea -- telling a story that goes from Miocene apes who were the ancestors of both us and chimpanzees, through Pliocene hominids to the emergence of Homo sapiens, and from the rudimentary cultures and forgotten myths of the Upper Pleistocene through to mythologies of ancient Greece and Israel and beyond that to the Enlightenment (along with the immanent critique of the Enlightenment of Nietzsche, Adorno, Dewey, and Foucault) -- that insistence on continuity is what I call weak Darwinism, and I'm proud to consider myself a "weak Darwinian" or a "Darwinian in the weak sense."

It is "weak" because it is not committed to any position about the empirically detectable mechanisms through which these events unfolded.

By contrast, I would call "strong Darwinism" the position that unpredictable mutations and natural selection are individually necessary and jointly sufficient in explaining biological change, including cognitive change. Richard Dawkins is certainly a "strong Darwinian" in this sense.

I am not a "strong Darwinian," because I think -- from my very amateur position! -- that neo-Darwinism must be supplemented with a theory of form. The best candidates for such a theory today, from what I can tell, lie in the sciences of self-organizing systems and what is called "autopoeisis." Recently I have encountered the idea of an "Extended Evolutionary Synthesis" (PDF). I doubt that an EES is the complete theory, either, but I would regard it as a helpful step in the right direction of getting us closer to being able to tell a story, with fewer discontinuities, that runs from the apes to the Enlightenment -- and beyond.

Intelligent Design and Evolution: Following Up

I've had more blog traffic in the past day than I have in the past year. Apparently this is a topic that stirs the passions.

In the comments to the post below, some points came up that I wanted to respond to, as a way of better situating myself among the various options on the table.

For one thing, I must strenuously disagree with Kirby Olson (Lutheran Surrealism) who writes that

The fact that evolutionists believe that theirs is the only theory that can or should be taught is itself a kind of religious faith that asks to be established.

This remark indicates, I think, a confusion of the distinction between a good theory (or the best theory among various alternatives) and a religious or quasi-religious faith. Evolutionists ask that their theory be the only one taught for a reason: because it's the best theory we presently have. The question I want to raise is this: is that a good enough reason to silence all challenges to it?

In all the discussions I've observed and participated in over this issue, one thing has struck me again and again: that people who disagree with mainstream biology feel oppressed and marginalized. The very rhetoric of "teach the controversy" works because it appeals to a deeply American sense of fair play and championing of the under-dog.

You see, what I want to do is quite difficult: I want to articulate a position that acknowledges the sense of resentment at unfair treatment that is associated with criticisms of evolutionary science, but without granting any scientific validity to those criticisms.

I have no qualms with the view that evolutionary theory, in some sense, is the best theory we presently have. And I certainly don't think that intelligent design theory or creationism have any chops as scientific theories -- at least in the versions that have seen the light of day up till now -- and this is not because they involve claims about supernatural beings, but because they claims they do make are not testable.

My suggestion, rather, is that even if that is the case, they still have a place in science education. At stake here in what I'm saying isn't so much about theology or epistemology -- I can't bring myself to care about theology at all, and I have little patience for all the details of epistemology. Rather I'm slowly working my way towards expressing a sentiment I have about what education is, about why education is important, and about the point of having an educational system in a pluralistic society.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Intelligent Design and Evolution: Preliminary Thoughts

I've been writing at several blogs (Thoughts in a Haystack, Eye of the Storm) on the debate between advocates of intelligent design and evolution, and I've been taking up far too much space on those blogs with my own ruminations. (I've also been following Uncommon Descent very closely, though I was banned from there due to inappropriate language.)

Thinking over the problem from a variety of perspectives, I've arrived at the following point of view:

1) Intelligent design is necessarily committed to the existence of at least one supernatural being.
2) Intelligent design is not necessarily committed the view that this being must be God.
3) Intelligent design does not succeed as an argument for the existence of God.
4) Intelligent design fails to pass muster as a scientific theory.
5) Intelligent design should be mentioned in science classrooms in high schools and colleges.

My argument for (1) is that intelligent design theorists themselves go so far as to define "intelligence" as "that which is irreducible to the combination of chance and necessity." In this approach, basically reading Plato against Monod, they define intelligence as non-natural. Although biological intelligent design (BID) leaves open the purely formal possibility of design by aliens, this only raises the further question as to where those aliens came from. Either they did evolve, in which one can well ask why that hypothesis is not available for terran life as well, or else they were also intelligently designed. By contrast, cosmological intelligent design (CID) explicitly requires that the fine-tuning argument licenses the inference that there must be at least one being which cannot be described by the laws of the physics of this universe, and that sounds close enough to "supernatural" for it to count. (But see my note (1) below.)

My views for (2) and (3) are basically indebted to the insights of Hume and Kant, though I think that Kant sees the problem in a more general and deeper way that Hume does. (Briefly: Hume only provides a criticism of the argument from design when cast in the form of an argument of analogy; Kant provides a criticism of the argument from design in any form.)

My argument for (4) hinges on the importance of testability. Consider these two hypotheses (thanks to John Pierot of Thoughts in a Haystack for the discussion, based on work I've read by Eliot Sober):

H1: There exists a supernatural being which is solely responsible for the natural order and which wants (or would have wanted) everything to be purple.

H2: There exists a supernatural being which is solely responsible for the natural order and which wants (or would have wanted) there to be exactly as many different, and different types, of purple things as there are.

Firstly, notice that both hypotheses are claims about supernatural beings, and both make claims about the relation between supernatural beings and observable phenomena. But there's a crucial difference. If H1 is true, then there is a set of observable phenomena -- "everything being purple" -- which can be shown to be false. So H1 is testable -- that is, it can be tested, and it can be shown to be false according to the test.

But compare that with H2. The observables entailed by H2 are indistinguishable from observations that can be made independent of H2. There are exactly as many different purple things, and as many different types of purple things, as there are -- regardless of the truth of H2. Since the truth or falsity of H2 makes no difference in what can be expected, it is not testable.

My contention, then, is that intelligent design is like H2 -- it claims that there exists some intelligent being which wanted to produce either the universe (CID) or life (BID) exactly as it is. This yields zero explanatory insight, or what is the same thing, it is not testable.

Having said all that, one might reasonably expect me to argue that intelligent design has no place in the science education of our public schools, colleges, and universities. Here I depart from what is basically an entrenched consensus, on the following grounds.

Firstly, "teaching the controversy" -- that is, bringing the full weight of evidence and reasoning to bear -- is an excellent opportunity to teach students how to think scientifically and not merely master a body of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, science educators are not themselves taught in how to teach epistemology. The easy solution is to ignore the problem. The hard solution, and the better one, is to regard the "teach the controversy" movement as an excellent opportunity for the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) to create a program on how to teach science educators how to teach epistemology and philosophy of science for high school and college students. It's a public secret that we are not teaching students how to think scientifically, we're not teaching students how to appreciate and enjoy what science can and cannot do, and the "teach the controversy" strategy is an opportunity to change that.

Secondly, consider the argument raised by Crispin Sartwell in favor of teaching intelligent design in schools (here or here). In brief, he argues that while intelligent design (or, for that matter, creationism -- though he doesn't mention creationism by name) is anti-naturalistic, and for that matter, anti-scientific, that doesn't mean that it should be excluded from science education. And I agree.

Consider, Sartwell asks us, someone who is deeply religious, and who believes, as part of her faith, that neo-Darwinian explanations are incompatible with that faith. That person is going to be very upset if her child is subjected to nothing but the neo-Darwinian point of view in a school that is supported by her school taxes. But more interestingly, Sartwell points out that it's completely reasonable for her to be upset. It would be puzzling if she weren't upset, given what she believes! Now, does her voice deserve to be heard in the classroom?

I think that the answer is "yes" -- "yes," even though intelligent design is not a scientific theory. That's because science education has be about more than instilling in young minds all the latest scientific theories. It has to be about training people about how to be scientifically informed citizens in a pluralistic and (supposedly) democratic society. And for that reason, anti-naturalistic -- even anti-scientific -- voices should not be excluded. To exclude those voices from the classroom -- or, to put it more pointedly, to silence those voices within the classroom -- is tantamount to isolating science from its social and cultural and historical and political context. And doing that is a failure of science education.

Having said that, I would take issue with Sartwell in one serious respect. On his view, the naturalistic world-view, which is (for him and for me) the scientific world-view (but see note (2) below), is the stance of "reason" -- in contrast with that of "faith." For one thing, I'm not happy with any simplistic, Enlightenment-era contrast of "reason" and "faith." For another, I'm not happy with the identification of science and reason.

If we take "reason" here in a broadly Sellarsian sense -- in the famous phrase, taking part in "the game of giving and asking for reasons" -- then it seems clear to me that anyone who deliberately excludes him or herself from that game has positioned him or herself outside the range of views that are available for dialogue in the public sphere. So if one takes up an anti-scientific position, and in doing so puts oneself outside of the space of reasons altogether, then no, I don't think that position is entitled to a public voice. (I say that even though the division between public and private is itself highly contested.) And I take it as fairly obvious that someone such as P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula) holds precisely that view: that scientific methods and rational inquiries are simply co-extensive. (But see note (3) below)

Therefore, in order to maintain that anti-naturalistic/anti-scientific voices deserve to be heard, I conclude that one can position oneself outside of science without thereby positioning oneself outside of "reason" altogether, and that means that the identity between "science" and "reason" should be rejected.

I don't doubt that this view as outlined here would be of little comfort to either party of the intelligent design/evolution debate, but for the time being, I think it's the most plausible view to hold.


(1) However, one might consider the multiverse hypothesis. Suppose there are infinitely many possible universes. Each universe is defined by a set of values of different physical constants. Possibly, a fully developed physics could explain the nature of universes as such. Call this a general physics and the physical laws for each universe are defined by a particular physics. Then a supernatural agent, in keeping with the tradition of theological speculation, would be an agent that cannot be defined in terms of a general physics.

(2) Of course, the sharp contrast should be noticed between my view and that of the advocates of intelligent design. On their view, the identification between the domain of scientifically explicable phenomena and the domain of natural phenomena is precisely what ought to be rejected!

(3) I'm not entirely sure if Myers can afford to be as committed to materialism as a metaphysical position as he advertises himself as being, for the simple reason that it has proven to be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to adequately account for mathematics and for ethics in materialist, or physicalist, terms. Myers is best understood, I contend, as an Enlightenment rationalist whose basic commitments are to science, to liberalism, and to secularism. Whether this is ultimately a compelling view, or whether the work of Nietzsche, Adorno and Horkheimer, Foucault, Wittgenstein, and Rorty shows how deeply problematic this view is, is a matter I shall address in a subsequent posting.