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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Intelligent design and high culture: Philosopher says teaching students about intelligent design should be okay

Okay with some qualifications, that is.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel of New York University is probably best known publicly for his 1974 essay, "What is it like to be a bat?" (He was writing against reductionism in thinking about animal minds.)

Now, in "Public Education and Intelligent Design" in Philosophy & Public Affairs (pp. 187-2005), Nagel, an atheist, stirs the pot again:
The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory.
You'd think Nagel was referring to the Michael Reiss affair, but he can't be, because the essay came out before Brit Reiss was forced to resign.

It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way.
Actually, if the Reiss affair in Britain or similar incidents in North America are any guide, teaching evolutionary theory" in an intellectually responsible way" is not in fact an education establishment goal. He reflects on the odd situation that arguments against design are considered quite legitimate but not arguments for it. Why is that?:

The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.
This, he says, creates a dilemma:

The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken.

Critics take issue with the claims made by defenders of ID about what standard evolutionary mechanisms can accomplish, and argue that they depend on faulty assumptions. Whatever the merits, however, that is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else. ... It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the two sides are in symmetrical positions. If one scientist is a theist and another an atheist, this is either a scientific or a nonscientific disagreement between them. If it is scientific (supposing this is possible), then their disagreement is scientific all the way down. If it is not a scientific disagreement, and if this difference in their nonscientific beliefs about the antecedent possibilities affects their rational interpretation of the same empirical evidence, I do not see how we can say that one is engaged in science and the other is not. Either both conclusions are rendered nonscientific by the influence of their nonscientific assumptions, or both are scientific in spite of those assumptions.

In the latter case, they have a scientific disagreement that cannot be settled by scientific reasoning alone. ...
So then with respect to discussing intelligent design in a classroom, he asks,

What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life’s development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause.
This sounds a lot like "teach the controversy" to me.

Nagel makes clear at various points* that he thinks that the Darwin fans have oversold their theory. Which they have. All around me, "icons of evolution" are tumbling (another one just came down the other day) ....

Basically, in order to keep serious discussion of evidence for design from surfacing, the fans must imply to the public that vastly more evidence exists for the standard Darwinian view of the history of life than actually does exist - and all discussion of the quality of evidence must be suppressed. And for the very good reason that once we get rid of the bad or questionable evidence, there is only a little good evidence. Not enough to justify Expelling scientists who doubt.

Here is the article behind a paywall, but you may be able to read it through a library subscription. Here is lawyer Ed Sisson's view.

*For example, he writes,

My own situation is that of an atheist who, in spite of being an avid consumer of popular science, has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life. ... Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.
Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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