Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Constitutionality of Intelligent Design

Since there are a lot of individuals who have become aware of Thomas Nagel's recent article, Public Education and Intelligent Design, via this Discovery Institute representation of it, or, worse, a re-representation of that (e.g., here), my aim in this blog post is to present and examine--for public consumption and in the spirit of fairness--the arguments of that article from a philosophical (rather than religious or scientific) point of view. I should note, though, that I won't be following Nagel on every tangent of his, instead concentrating on the parts of his arguments that are worthy of our attention. If that means that this blog post reflects my own ideas more than Nagel's, so be it.

Nagel's most important concern, as he describes it, is that "the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it." Now, neglecting for the moment the issue of who exactly is supposed to count as "the scientific establishment", I hope that we can all agree with Nagel that a full examination of the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief is beneficial to our understanding of both.

Nagel's article touches on so many different concerns that it is hard to summarize his arguments succinctly. One thing that must be understood from the beginning is Nagel's (I think, idiosyncratic) definition of "evolution by natural selection" (ENS). Nagel says, "It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness." The important observation is that Nagel's understanding of ENS has a built-in anti-purpose component. (We should note that Nagel's assertion that ENS "was originally introduced as an alternative to design" is a historical misrepresentation; natural selection was introduced by analogy to artificial selection by humans rather than as an alternative to divine selection.)

Nagel's preliminary argument is essentially this:

1. There can be a scientific argument for the presence of a ghostly/godly/gremlin cause if and only if there can be a scientific argument for the absence of that ghostly/godly/gremlin cause. These positions are alike in whether they are scientific or not.
2. If two positions are alike in whether they are scientific or not, they are equally constitutional (insofar as the Establishment Clause is concerned).
3. Therefore, an explanation of the presence of a ghostly/godly/gremlin cause is just as constitutional or unconstitutional as an explanation of the absence of that ghostly/godly/gremlin cause.
I see no problems at all with this argument, so I won't consider possible objections to it. But Nagel thinks that "the scientific establishment" rejects premise one (thus regarding divine-absence claims as scientific and divine-presence claims as unscientific), and spends considerable time trying to refute the idea that there is this asymmetry. Those who object to the argument should read Nagel's article in its entirety.

Nagel says, speaking of the establishment, "No one suggests that the theory is not science", and I suspect he is right about this de dicto, but I don't think the establishment has his definition of ENS in mind when they say it. I think many in the establishment would object to the anti-purpose clause of his definition, and would reject that part as unscientific. These individuals would be expressing agreement with regard to premise 1 above, but rejecting that this definition of ENS is scientific.

But Nagel dislikes this move too. He thinks that surely there must be a fact of the matter as to whether there is divine cause or not, and that failure to consider both arguments in favor of as well as arguments against divine cause "reveal[s] an intellectually unhealthy situation". He says, "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."

At this point, I'd like to admit that I agree with Nagel, but only to a degree. The crucial issue is what we mean by the term "science". I shall now examine two different interpretations of the argument above, taking two different conceptions of 'science', and finding that while the argument remains sound as long as our interpretation is consistent, the argument will be unsound if there is equivocation between these conceptions.


Nagel considers the position endorsed by Kent Greenawalt in the following passage:
Science teachers should not get far into the question of whether any as yet undiscovered principles of order in evolution, were they to exist, are likely to have proceeded from creative intelligence. One reason not to engage this possibility at any length is that students with religious objections to standard evolutionary theory may build much more than is warranted from any scientific perspective from conjectures about intelligent design.
This view, that science teachers should abstain from discussion on the topic at all, assents to premise 1 of the argument by acknowledging that arguments against divine design have no more place in our classrooms than arguments for it. Neither kind of argument is sufficiently scientific to have a place in the school classroom. We should be teaching biology in a biology class, chemistry in a chemistry class, and physics in a physics class; we should not be presenting arguments there for why we are teaching biology, chemistry, and physics. Nor should we be explaining what arguments count or don't count as biology, chemistry, or physics. Those arguments and explanations wouldn't be on topic.

Nagel laments this view with regard to the high school classroom, saying "I would like to believe that something less inhibited would be admissible, namely, a frank discussion of the relation of evolutionary theory to religion in some part of the high school curriculum. If biology teachers would be too burdened by this task, room should be found for it elsewhere." Turning aside from the issue of whether this position is acceptable in the high school classroom (which I will reserve for my conclusion, below), I hope that Nagel would assent that Greenawalt's position is entirely acceptable and constitutional for a university-level biology class. The Lemon test for constitutionality adopted by the supreme court requires, as Nagel explains, "that a law or practice must have a secular purpose, must not have a primary effect of either promoting or inhibiting religion, and must not foster excessive entanglement with religion." I believe that Nagel wouldn't object, then, to the constitutionality of Greenawalt's position in a university biology class, since his position is implicitly neutral with regard to the truth or falsity of intelligent design (ID) and prohibits (as off-topic) even a broaching of the subject by the instructor.

In either case, let's proceed to a classroom in which examinations of intelligent design should be permitted.


While the biology class may not be the appropriate place to explain or examine why we are teaching biology, it seems that there must be some place where this be allowed to take place. There are concerns raised by ID that are worthy of our attention, and those concerns must be addressed if we wish to be "intellectually responsible".

Nagel explains, "ID is very different from creation science. To an outsider, at least, it does not seem to depend on massive distortion of the evidence and hopeless incoherencies in its interpretation. Nor does it depend, like biblical literalism, on the assumption that the truth of ID is immune to empirical evidence to the contrary. What it does depend on is the assumption that the hypothesis of a designer makes sense and cannot be ruled out as impossible or assigned a vanishingly small probability in advance...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."

This is the point at which I must agree with Nagel. There is a genuine debate over the truth of claims involving whether extranatural, metaphysical things are going on, and there is a place where these debates can be examined in detail.

Nagel explains:
I agree with Philip Kitcher that the response of evolutionists to creation science and intelligent design should not be to rule them out as “not science.” He argues that the objection should rather be that they are bad science, or dead science: scientific claims that have been decisively refuted by the evidence.
I think we can assent to part of this, but only under a different conception of science than the one used in university biology classrooms. Let's reflect on the historical, etymological fact that our term "science" used to mean something like our more general term "knowledge" (which includes not just empirical science, but also mathematics, logic, and the study of possibilities). If we take that general conception for the word "science" in the argument, we again assent to premise 1 in the argument above, but this time because arguments for and against ID are considered science.

The argument is still sound, however, so the conclusion must follow as well. Presenting arguments for ID in a classroom where this is the concept of science would be constitutional, and I think it is quite likely that philosophy and education departments can be so counted, specifically in courses on the philosophy of biology or on science education. We have a secular purpose (the promotion of knowledge), and an appropriately designed course in the subject need have no excessive entanglement with, promotion of, or inhibition of religion, so the Lemon test could be satisfied.

The question is still open as to whether these arguments would be worth considering in these classrooms, whether they are more than merely constitutionally permitted, whether they further our understanding in any way. I think educational prudence would suggest that there would be very few, if any, classrooms in which the arguments for ID would bear any intellectual fruit, but there are probably a few possible courses in which they would and it would be wrongful if our constitution were to prohibit our teaching them there in our public universities.


I can't disagree more with Nagel in his conclusion that the arguments for ID belong somewhere in the high school curriculum. I can't even agree that they should be merely constitutionally permissible there.

Nagel asks us to consider, "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."

What I think is missing from Nagel's account is an observation that the primary or secondary classroom isn't the place for what he calls "intellectual responsibility". He seems to think that the purpose of a high school class is to give students a very clear understanding of its subject matter. But he's wrong about this; the purpose of a high school class is to give students a clearer understanding of its subject matter than they had before the class. The high school biology class, for example, is supposed to replace a very naïve model of living things with a less naïve model. It is certainly not supposed to get very clear about its subject; it is only supposed to get the students as clearer on the subject as they could get in one year's worth of classroom study.

If this is correct, the high school teacher doesn't even have to be sure that what he or she teaches is true. A high school physics class, for example, may never get beyond classical mechanics, but that doesn't mean that the instructor should present the class with any kind of warning that what is being discussed isn't true. The classical model of mechanics, though false, is less naïve than the model the students had before the class.

Even a class on philosophy at the high school level shouldn't be discussing ID; it should restrict itself to teaching whatever will provide the students with the most comprehensive understanding of philosophy. The most likely place in a high school for any discussion of ID might be an elective course on the history of the relationship between science and religion, and there might be a case to be made that the arguments for ID could be constitutional there, but it would be a hard case to make.


But there is more yet to be said. Having settled in my mind whether ID arguments are consitutional or not in various classrooms, it remains an open question what we should be saying in our public debate, in our books, in our blogs, in the news.

Nagel says, "One of the disturbing things about the public debate is that scientists engaged in it sometimes write as if the idea of fundamental problems with the theory (as opposed to problems of detail in its application) were unthinkable, and that to entertain such doubts is like wondering whether the earth is flat." If Nagel is right that scientists do this, then I agree that we should object to it. He says, "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."

Whether he is right about this or not is a discussion we need to continue having. Nagel says, "I understand the attitude that ID is just the latest manifestation of the fundamentalist threat, and that you have to stand and fight them here or you will end up having to fight for the right to teach evolution at all." But he is also right that we need to keep our eyes on the goal. We want our public to have the fullest, least naïve, understanding of the relationship between evolutionary theory and religious belief, and that means that we can't always see ourselves as fighting against the fundamentalists. There are some arguments that can be made for intelligent design that, when we stop to evaluate them critically, can and do provide us with a better understanding of this relationship, a less naïve understanding of how evolutionary theory and religious belief interact. There must be a place for both messages: Intelligent design has no place in our public high schools and there are some arguments for intelligent design (or similar ideas) that deserve rational consideration rather than outright rejection.

No comments:

Post a Comment