September 27, 2005

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

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.

Posted by Kenny at September 27, 2005 3:53 PM
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