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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December 24, 2005

How Much of Science is Philosophy?

There is an interesting post over at Parableman about the relationship between science and philosophy, in the context of the Intelligent Design debate. Jeremy claims that (1) ID is clearly not religious in nature, and (2) its philosophical nature is not a good reason to exclude it from science curriculum, because everything else in science is philosophical too. It's worth a read.

Personally I've been arguing for some time (not on this blog, in real life) that the vast majority of scientists don't have a sufficient grasp of the philosophical foundations of their fields to adequately pursue some of the deep questions they are coming up against. This is particularly true in physics. For instance, the physicists want to do cosmology now; they think they have a better grip of the problem than the philosophy department. Meanwhile, they literally don't know the meaning of the word. Brilliant minds like Steven Hawking go around talking about the "Big Bang Cosmology." A "cosmology" is, as the name implies, a theory of the cosmos, something like string theory. The Big Bang is not a theory of the cosmos, but an account of the origin of the cosmos. This is known as a "cosmogeny."

Now this is an issue of vocabulary, and I suppose they can use words however they want, provided they are consistent and understand one another, but then there are issue like so-called "quantum teleportation" and this very deep question of whether this process transports a particle from one location to another, or creates an entirely new particle at the new location: in short, the question of whether fundamental particles have what philosophers call "haeccity" or "thisness," and, if so, whether the two particles have the same haeccity. The problem of individuation is in many ways at the heart of metaphysics, and those desiring to give an answer to it should really pay attention to the last 3000 years of debate on the subject rather than starting over from scratch.

I believe that these issues show that the distinction between philosophy and science is ceasing to be useful, especially at the level of highly theoretical physics. This distinction was not drawn until the 19th century, but it has indeed served us well for the last hundred years. Science is usually viewed as being characterized by experiments and observations; philosophy simply by reasoning (although, for analytic philosophers and the British empiricists before them, this is still reasoning about the things we perceive in the phenomenal world around us). This division has never been that strict, as philosophy reaches over into essentially every academic discipline (we've got "a finger in every pie," as I like to say), but it has in some degree served us well, by allowing individuals to focus more intensely on fields like chemistry or biology that require very different knowledge and training than the mainstream of philosophy. However, today many realms of science are encroaching on issues that were traditionally the domain of philosophy and all too often recklessly ignoring millenia of thought on these issues. It is true, as Jeremy suggests, that much of science simply cannot be extricated from philosophy.

However, none of this means that the distinction between science and philosophy is quite so unreal as Jeremy claims. ID is not a claim about the workings of the physical world as such. It is a metaphysical claim about how those workings came to be, and an epistemological claim that we can know about that based on observation. Now a metaphysical claim about how the physical laws came to be is very different than a physical claim about it, such as Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang leaves the metaphysical question unanswered: it merely posits that the first moments of the universe looked a certain way. When physicists try to answer questions about what caused the Big Bang or what came before it, it is because they think that it had some physical, rather than metaphysical, origin. If the big bang began at the first instant of time, and there are no other physical universes like ours which could have spawned the creation of this universe, then physics has nothing to say about the origin of the Big Bang. If someone claims that God caused the Big Bang to occur, this is a metaphysical appeal, and has no place in physics.

Science makes important metaphysical assumptions, and scientists need to be aware of this, and they need to be able to think "outside the box," as it were, and ask occasionally whether a different set of metaphysical assumptions might be better able to explain the world. This requires scientists to have solid knowledge of metaphysics, and the available positions and the arguments for and against them. It does not, however, require that scientists become metaphysicians or otherwise collapse the boundary between science and philosophy. The position of ID, properly understood, is that there exists a sound teleological (design) argument for the existence of God. This is a meta-scientific observation: that is, it goes beyond science by examining the metaphysical consequences of what science has discovered, in much the same way that examinations of the impact of quantum mechanics for the issue of free will vs. determinism do. Neither of these debates need be taught in science classrooms, because science as such is agnostic about them. Note that this cuts both ways. As Alvin Plantinga once said:

[The idea that] human beings and other living creatures have come about by chance, rather than by God's design, 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.
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November 29, 2005

Quote of the Day

"We know that while there have been, on the one hand, able philosophers who recognized nothing except what is material in the universe, there are, on the other hand, learned and zealous theologians who, shocked at the corpuscular philosophy and not content with checking it's misuse, have felt obliged to maintain tha tthere are phenomena in nature which cannot be explained by mechanical principles; as for example, light, weight, and elastic force. But since they do not reason with exactness in this matter, and it is easy for the corpuscular philosophers to reply to them, they injure religion in trying to render it service, for they merely confirm those in their error who recognize only material principles. The true middle term for satisfying both truth and piety is this: all natural phenomena could be explained mechanically if we understood them well enough, but the principles of mechanics themselves cannot be explained geometrically, since they depend on more sublime principles which show the wisdom of the Author in the order and perfection of his work." - G.W. Leibniz, "Tentanem Anagogicum: An Anagogical Essay in the Investigation of Causes," c. 1696 (tr. Leroy F. Loemaker).

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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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