Saturday, October 21, 2006

An intelligent starting point for discussing intelligent design

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:22 AM |  

From the PiPress --
Neither science nor religion, but, in context, a way to think critically

One of the first things I learned as an undergraduate student of philosophy was "Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish." Even if this was meant as a joke, it contains a good deal of wisdom.

Paul Hanle's essay, "War on evolution has a price" (Oct. 3), contains a number of hysterical reactions to the "war" he imagines the advocates of intelligent design are waging against science. According to Hanle, "This war could decimate the development of U.S. scientific talent and erode whatever competitive advantage the U.S. enjoys in the … global economy." "By teaching intelligent design," he thinks, "we are greatly diminishing our chances for future scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, and are endangering our health, safety and economic well-being as individuals and as a nation. We must teach science, not religion, in the science classroom."

Hanle seems to think intelligent design (hereafter I.D.) is as great a threat to our civilization as terrorism, and I would be terrified were it not for the fact that Hanle's hysteria results from the failure to make a few simple distinctions.

First of all, I.D. is neither religion nor science. The argument for the existence of an Intelligent Designer belongs to a field called "natural theology" which is sometimes called "theodicy," a term first used by the German philosopher Leibnitz in 1710.

Natural theology must be distinguished from what the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy calls "supernatural theology." Natural theology is based on reason and rational principles; "supernatural theology" and religion are based on faith. Once an important and respected subsection of philosophy, natural theology went out of fashion over a century ago, but has enjoyed a revival during the past 25 years.

In natural theology, there are nine well known arguments for the existence of God, e.g. arguments from motion, from causality, from possibility and necessity, etc. The argument from design is one of these. It is very ancient, being found in Greek philosophers who had no access to the Hebrew Scriptures and lived centuries before Jesus was born. Natural theology is as much a part of philosophy as logic, ethics and aesthetics are.

Theories that, as one philosopher puts it, "predict and explain observed phenomena by appeal to law-like generalizations" are scientific. That natural theology is not a scientific theory in this strict sense is too obvious to call for argument.

Philosophy is rarely taught in American high schools, but it is a common subject in France, Germany, other European countries and in other parts of the world. I see no reason why natural theology, including its arguments for the existence of an Intelligent Designer, should not be dealt with by seniors in public high schools if philosophy is carefully distinguished from theology, religion and sciences such as biology and physics.

If there is one thing that K-12 educators and college and university professors agree on, it is that critical thinking is one of the goals of education. Hanle's identification of I.D. with religion is a failure to think critically, a failure to make important distinctions. If "U.S. high school students lag near the bottom in math skills compared with students in other developed nations," it's most likely because of the K-12 version of "fuzzy math" or because, in the U.S., math is sometimes taught by teachers who didn't major in math. Also, if our "high school seniors are performing worse in science than they were 10 years ago," it can have nothing to do with I.D. There must be other causes.

The fact is that the truth is most likely to emerge when scholars with opposing views challenge one another. When one side has a monopoly on discourse, its members tend to become dogmatic, complacent, divorced from reality and eager to silence the opposition, as indeed Mr. Hanle is. Darwinians should be thankful there are critics who are keeping them on their toes. While claiming to "value open inquiry," Hanle wants to silence the proponents of I.D.

A final irony: Modern science is based on a philosophy called "scientific materialism" which has not been established scientifically nor can it be. It is taken on faith.

Jeremiah Reedy of Mendota Heights is professor of classics emeritus, Macalester College.
(I have worked with Prof. Reedy establishing Seven Hills Academy, a charter school with a core knowledge curriculum located in Bloomington.)