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.Posted by Kenny at January 13, 2006 10:12 PM
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