March 02, 2006

Dennett v. Swinburne on the Origin of Religion and the Existence of God

Prospect Magazine has published a series of letters between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Dennett regarding the existence of God and the historical origin of religious belief, following the publication of Dennett's new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett's book argues that an evolutionary explanation for religious belief exists, and that religion can and should be examined empirically by science with the initial presumption of "methodological naturalism" (i.e. we must assume for the sake of argument that God does not exist in order to take on this investigation). Swinburne argues that no such investigation can be adequately undertaken without first determining whether the evidence supports belief in the existence of God and his activity in the world, especially with regard to the formation of religious belief. "Methodological naturalism," Swinburne claims, must first be justified by an argument showing that such a method leads to truth, and this will only be the case if its naturalistic assumptions are, in fact, correct.

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January 13, 2006

Can High School Students Handle Philosophy?

Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas Austin, points to an LA Times article about a lawsuit against a California public school district over an attempt to introduce an elective course entitled "philosophy of design." The suit charges that the course is about promoting a particular religion, rather than looking at the issue in the sort of balanced way a permissible "comparative relgion" course would. Now, if the charge is true and the course teaches only one viewpoint and seeks to convince students of that viewpoint, then it is a bad philosophy class (the constitutional issue is, of course, also somewhat important, but I tend to ignore it since the federal deparment of education is unconstitutional anyway). However, evaluating the course is not my primary interest. What I'm interested in are Leiter's comments. He says,

Of course, there are real philosophical issues about naturalism and intelligent design, but they have nothing to do with the proposed course in California, and, indeed, they are far too hard for high school students. ( ... It would be a marvel if there were high school students prepared to sort through the issues about substance dualism, antirealism about material objects, and the theory of perception that are implicated in genuine philosophical discussion of the issue.)

Are high school students prepared to handle these issues? Can they be taught on that level without doing more harm than good? The thing about philosophy, in my view, is that, at least historically, the questions have been more important than the answers. This is certainly true pedagogically (consider the "Socratic" method). Furthermore, the questions philosophers consider are the questions that any deep thinker will eventually get to, with or without actually studying philosophy. If you start from any observation and ask "why" enough times, eventually you will get to philosophy.

Nevetheless, there is a strong temptation toward elitism in philosophy, and it is very understandable. For instance, I can personally attest that the more I study philosophy the more I become irritated with people who refuse to think. Also, because of the universal availability of the questions, there are a lot of people out there who want to call themselves philosophers but have had no schooling, and this is something of an affront to someone who spends 8 to 10 years studying to become a philosopher (I guess I belong to the former group, since I call myself a philosopher after not even 3 full years of school, but I'm working toward that latter). However, I hold that this usage of language is legitimate. A "philosopher" is just that - a lover of wisdom. The term was used by Socrates/Plato to contrast with the sophists who claimed to actually have wisdom. The philosopher claims only to love and pursue it. Now, some people have pursued it farther than others, and they want a little credit, and they deserve more than a little, but does that mean that no one else is competent to think about philosophical issues? No! In many cases, the same evidence is available to all of us, so it would in fact be a logical fallacy to believe something just because some philosopher says it; everyone has to think about it for himself.

Now, back to the issue at hand: Leiter asserts that it is highly unlikely that any high school student could grapple adequately with the issues involved. Do they need to grapple adequately? Is it not of pedagogical value just to have them start thinking about it, and wanting more information? Intelligent design might even become an entry for a general introduction to philosophy since it has bearing on issues of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language (via questions of whether religious texts are consistent with evolution), and so forth.

Leiter lists three issues as examples of things that intelligent design is related to, and I say that they are all things that high school students could benefit by asking questions in relation to. This is not to say that everyone is equally good at answering this question, or that there is no priveleged place for professional philosophers, it is merely to say that high school students could benefit from being trained to ask the right kind of questions, and to start looking at a few possible answers, and anyone willing to put in the work is capable of accomplishing at least this much under a competent teacher (or perhaps just with a good book on the subject).

The first issue is "substance dualism." This view is also known as Cartesian dualism. It is the view that there are two completely different types of substance in the universe: the physical and the spiritual (or mental). That is, the physical world is one type of substance, and minds or souls are another. This is a question everyone is capable of understanding. When you ask "do I have a soul?" you implicitly ask the question of substance dualism. Descartes' Meditations are not difficult to read; motivated high school students with good teachers could easily get through it. That is not to say that there are not difficult problems in the text that have been debated by philosophers for centuries, and that people have devoted many years of scholarship to solving, but the basic outlines of Descartes' thoughts are within the reach of any thinking person. So is the question of substance dualism. Now, the contemporary philosophical literature on the subject is much more difficult, but that does not mean that high school students can't "sort through issues about substance dualism." They won't do it as well as professional philosophers, but then they don't understand Newtonian mechanics as well as professional physicists, but no one thinks they shouldn't be taught Newtonian mechanics. In fact, in many high school physics or chemistry classes the very most basic principles of quantum mechanics and relativity are at least mentioned in a qualitative sort of way, and these are extremely difficult issues! But that doesn't mean high school students can't start trying to wrap their minds around ideas like superpositions or wave-particle dualism or "warped" space. Likewise, high school students are equipped to start asking questions about substance dualism, if they are sufficiently motivated and well taught.

Leiter's second issue is "anti-realism about material objects." What he means, I think, is basically the same idea as "representation dualism" (there are a lot of "dualisms"). This is a concept which I personally believe (a) to have been pioneered by a favorite of mine, Parmenides, and (b) to be the really foundational question that makes it possible to start doing metaphysics as something distinct from physics. Representation dualism claims that the world we see (the representation) is not identical with the "ontological ground-floor," as it were, of the universe. That is, if the world we see is real at all there exists something that is more real. If one takes the description of the universe from, e.g., particle physics to be fundamental, one is already endorsing representation dualism, because the particles are not the things that we are aware of experiencing in every day life. In fact they are not even similar. This issue really isn't that hard to start inquiring about either, as you can see.

Finally, he mentions "theory of perception." Now, I don't even want to begin to discuss theory of perception, because there are so many issues and I'm not sure which ones count as "basic," but clearly we all know what perception is, what it means to perceive, and we are all equipped to at least start asking questions.

I hold that asking these questions is greatly beneficial to intellectual development, even if one doesn't arrive at a good or satisfactory answer. However, there is the issue of whether the students can apply these issues to intelligent design. I think the answer is yes. Going from "are there non-physical substances?" to "is there a God?" is not hard. Seeing the difficulty of interaction between substances, particularly unlike substances, is also not hard (but solving the difficulty is; that's what makes i a "difficulty"!). Asking questions like, "if the world has a Creator, what kind of being is it?" is also not hard (but, again, answering them is). Asking whether the world we see is the fundamental reality, and understanding the arguments of Berkeley and Hume that it can't be, is not hard. Answering that question is. Asking all these questions, and making first halting attempts to at least understand what the possible range of answers is is of great benefit to one's intellectual development. If the class was taught well, I don't understand how anything other than excessive academic elitism could motivate an educator in the field of philosophy to oppose it.

Now, Leiter does go on to charge that "this course is obviously just masquerading as philosophy in order to present crackpot theories as though they had scientific support or standing," and perhaps he is right. Perhaps the course doesn't exist for the purpose of an examination of the philosophical issues surrounding intelligent design. Perhaps, instead, the "philosophy" label is merely an excuse to push religious indoctrination into public schools. If he has good reason to believe that this is the case (and, as I said, I haven't investigated this issue), then Leiter is quite justified in his opposition to the course. As I said, IF it is taught well, there is no good reason to oppose it. However, given the degree of knowledge about philosophy found in most public school teachers (and most people, in general), and given the (lack of) availability of good textbooks, it may be highly unlikely that the class will be good. I merely hold that Leiter greatly overestimates the amount of difficulty there is in bringing difficult philosophical issues to high school students.

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September 27, 2005

The Right Way to Introduce Intelligent Design to Public Schools ...

is by teaching philosophy of science. Metaphysics and philosophy of science, no matter what anyone says, are "ontically prior" to experimental science. What that means is that you must have at least a working philosophy of science (with some difficult conceptual work it is possible to abstract away the metaphysics in most cases) in order to interpret the results of observations and experiments. Remember that "scientific method" thing you learned in high school (or, hopefully, middle school)? Scientists hold to a philosophical - not scientific - theory states that that method works. The details of this philosophical position will determine the interpretation of evidence. That is not to say that evidence cannot change the theory (you might find the evidence completely incomprehensible within your theory or, more likely, another theory might turn out to provide a more plausible interpretation of the evidence), but merely that one must have a working version of it before one can begin scientific enquiry.

The occasion for this post was a couple of news articles (NY Times (1), NY Times (2), AP) and an insightful post at Every Thought Captive concerning a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania school district for attempting to mandate teaching of intelligent design. It is expected that in the course of the case a court will have to answer the question of whether intelligent design is a "scientific" theory.

The answer to this question is, of course, no. Intelligent design is not a "scientific" theory. It is, in fact, a philosophical theory. Of course, as revered philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga recently remarked, the converse proposition, that natural processes are not guided by a higher Being, "is also not a proper part of empirical science. How could science show that God has not intentionally designed and created human beings and other creatures? How could it show that they have arisen merely by chance. That's not empirical science. That's metaphysics, or maybe theology. It's a theological add-on, not part of science itself. And, since it is a theological add-on, it shouldn't, of course, be taught in public schools." (Plantinga's quote was discussed at the time, last month, on several blogs, including Parableman and Prosthesis).

Now, I don't necessarily think it follows that it shouldn't be discussed in public schools. (Let me qualify that - I don't really think public schools should exist, I think that in a perfect world all schools would be private and parents would choose any school they liked, and private charitable funds would ensure that children of poor families could afford an education, but leaving that aside, insofar as the existence of public schools must be tolerated in our non-ideal world, I do not think that control by secular government ought to prevent them from discussing these issues). I do, however, think that it would be clearly and obviously wrong for the government to fund the propagation of any particular viewpoint on matters such as these (of course, as I have often said, education necessarily involves some degree of indoctrination, and this is my primary reason for opposing government involvement in it, besides the government having no right to appropriate the money involved).

The solution to this problem, I suggest, is to discuss the philosophy of science and its development at the beginning of every science class (I do remember having about a week on "scientific method" in just about every science class from grades 6 to 12). Students should be informed that today mainstream science accepts a controversial philosophical principle known as "methodological naturalism," and recently many philosophers and popular thinkers, and even a few scientists, have questioned this view. Furthermore, this was not the view of any notable scientists prior to the 19th century. Prior to this time it was assumed by all of the most prominent scientists (Galileo, Newton, Boyle, etc.) that they were investigating the will of God. There was much philosophical debate as to whether God willed once that matter should exist and obey certain laws (and if so, whether He made exceptions to these laws - "miracles"), or whether He continually willed that certain natural laws should hold. Whatever the case, it was assumed that the ultimate explanation, at bottom, for natural laws would come to "God wills that it be so." Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that this in any way hampered the intellectual inquiry of these men by causing them to stop asking why to soon. (See my discussion of Del Ratzsch's brilliant paper "Natural Theology, Methodological Naturalism, and 'Turtles All The Way Down'" here). The most important point is that, whether or not the laws of nature are so because God wills them, the truth of this matter is not a "scientific" truth, but a metaphysical one. Perhaps there are some ways the laws of physics could be that might be more amenable to one view than the other, but in general this kind of knowledge must be the product of philosophical reasoning.

Even more ridiculous, apparently some scientists are objecting to a statement the school board is requiring to be read to students saying, "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered." Isn't this the way science works? Students given a basic grounding in philosophy of science would not need to be told this; they would see the word "theory" and their first thought would be "a proposed explanation of the facts which has successfully explained a wide variety of phenomena within the realm of its applicability and been accepted by the majority of the scientific community" - and evolution most certainly has this status. (Of course the students wouldn't phrase it quite like that if they are in middle school, but you get the idea).

Where did we ever get the crazy idea we could teach science without first figuring out what science was and how it worked? This debate would be virtually a non-issue if we would figure out these sorts of questions first, as no one but Peter Atkins (a well-respected Oxford chemist and bad amateur philosopher who insists that you are not following the scientific method unless you assume before you start that the ultimate yet-to-be-discovered laws of physics are logically necessary, as is the existence of the universe) should be expected to object to saying "science is agnostic as to the ultimate origin of the laws of physics". Sure, science can tell us about the "big bang" (which I believe in) and evolution (which I don't particularly), but Newtonian mechanics couldn't tell us why force should be equal to mass times acceleration, and in the same way no scientific theory is likely to contain within itself the reason why it must be true (i.e. to be logically necessary), but rather there will most likely always be a deeper explanation. If there is a deepest explanation, it must be metaphysical, and may include God. If there is an infinite regression of explanations, there must be some explanation for why there is an infinite regression, and this explanation must, again, be metaphysical and may, again, include God. These sorts of truths are outside the realm of experimental science, but nevertheless important to think about. Science, especially teaching of evolution on the high school level, often makes non-scientific assumptions about these sorts of truths, and when it does this without explicitly stating its assumptions it is out of line. Students should be made aware of these issues and taught to look critically at all scientific theory in their light.

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August 28, 2005

Dennett: "Intelligent Design" Obscures Real Objections to Evolution

Daniel Dennet, a brilliant philosopher at Tufts University, known (to me) for his work on personal identity and philosophy of mind, is an avowed atheist. In today's New York Times, Dennet joins the "intelligent design" controversy with a lengthy Op-Ed. The article is four pages long, but I just want to focus on one thing he says and the conclusions he draws from it:

The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.

Dennett argues that the political focus of the ID movement, and especially the Discovery Institute, has made it nearly impossible for anyone to bring an actual scientific objection to evolution. For an objection to be "scientific" (rather than purely philosophical, which is a better description of most creationist theories), it needs to make testable predictions which are different from the reigning theory. Simply pointing out all of the things the reigning theory has not yet explained is not a scientific objection. (However, I think most evolutionists fail to admit that a list of facts that are within the realm a theory is supposed to cover, but which the theory does not in fact explain, does constitute epistemic ground for an individual to reject the theory in favor of another or, in the absence of a better theory, withhold judgment.) Thus far, proponents of intelligent design have predicted that various things wouldn't be found - for instance, I, who am not a scientist, predict, rather ignorantly, I admit, that we will not find a good evolutionary explanation for the creation of new chromosome pairs. If it could be proven that there was no such explanation (what would such a proof look like?) that would severely limit the applicability of evolution, to something like the "micro-evolution" that most creationists believe in. However, if intelligent design proponents want to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment - or at least make a serious breach of proper scientific methodology necessary for their exclusion - they must predict what we will find, and then go look for it. I would be willing to bet, and Dennett seems to agree with me, that an ID paper that made concrete predictions on, for instance, what would be found by our work to interpret the recently mapped human genome, would be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even if the prediction had not been verified or falsified yet. The problem, however, is that ID proponents are letting their faith get in the way of good scientific methodology. They know that concrete predictions might be proven wrong, and this might be damaging to their faith, so they make no such predictions. That kind of faith is no faith at all. Faith in a lie is at best unbenificial - at worst, extremely damaging. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 15:19 when he says "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable." That is, the New Testament insists that your Christian faith is not beneficial to you unless it is TRUE. If you have real faith, you will be confident that your belief can withstand an honest inquiry into truth, and come out on top. And if it doesn't, the Bible says you are better off with your apparently false belief removed. Christian faith is not blind.

Therefore, Christian biologists, those with scientific training who believe in ID: don't be afraid to follow good scientific methodology, to make real testable predictions that might be wrong! If your theory is purely philosophical, say so and go on doing science with these different background philosophical assumptions. Later on, we can do what has been called "worldview analysis" and look at which understanding fits the facts most naturally (no doubt both will be able to be fitted to the facts, but hopefully one will fit more naturally, so that we have some rational ground for belief). Above all, don't let your belief in God as the designer of the universe stop you from making further inquiry into just HOW He designed it! Faith in God was not a stumbling block, but rather an encourager, in the inquiries made by Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Priestly, and all of the other early modern philosopher-scientist-theologians who searched for better understanding of the physical world.

In the end, Dennett is right in his criticism of ID as a "scientific" theory. However, I am surprised that he did not evaluate it as a philosophical theory. Does anyone out there have an opinion on this? Are there non-political intelligent design proponents? Do these people believe in the theory as philosophical or scientific? How do they view the distinction between the two? I think more philosophy of science should be included in public school science curriculums, so that students know exactly what assumptions are being made. Do others agree? Would this be a better way to push for some mention of the fact that science doesn't necessarily mean rejection of God? (I think it would.) Whatever the case, I think that Dennett has contributed much more useful thoughts to the ongoing debate in the Times than most of the other writers, and I thank him for his legitimate, if perhaps excessively strongly worded at times, critiques of the intelligent design movement as it exists today, and I hope that the Discovery Institute and others like them will take his criticism to heart and either begin doing real science, or begin to frame their theory as philosophical instead of scientific.

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