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Intelligent Design Debates Continue

One of the many arenas for the debate over "intelligent design" education is the Dover Area School Board in Pennsylvania. Yesterday proponent of intelligent design education Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael Behe spoke as the board's first "witness".

As is the case in most politicized debates, the level of discourse in not particularly high. Both sides tend to use arguments that don't make much sense. Though I don't have the time to go deeply into the issue, I wanted to make a quick point that is certainly worth considering:

A statement about Intelligent Design Theory from Intelligent Design Network:

Objectivity results from the use of the scientific method without philosophic or religious assumptions in seeking answers to the question: Where do we come from?



[1]: This statement seems to imply a contradiction. The scientific method itself is mired in philosophic/religious assumptions. Strictly speaking, (most) interesting assumptions are not necessary to the scientific method. Taking the scientific method without any generally controversial assumptions requires taking it as no more than a description of a method that a person might choose to follow. We cannot say why a person would use the method, or what they would use it for - or not, at least, that we have any reason to think that the scientific method would be useful for any particular purpose.

An analogy: Take standardized, multiple-choice testing. We can consider the method of this practice on its own, free from any assumptions, as no more than a potential method that a person might choose to follow. Without further assumptions, we can't say that we can use this method to test learning, knowledge, intelligence, etc.. As soon as we hold that the test is a test of something, that it is useful for some end, we are bound to a whole mess of assumptions.

The same goes for the scientific method. The real problem people have with the teaching of evolution is, I take it, that evolutionary theory is taught from the perspective of Scientific Realism. Scientific Realism is the philosophical position that we should take our best science to be thoroughly true. That is, if our best atomic theories involve electrons and protons and quarks and so forth, the scientific realist is committed to the existence of electrons, photons, and quarks.

One alternative view is Scientific Instrumentalism. On this view, we might use the scientific method because that method seems to be of practical use for us. It seems to allow us to make successful predictions that enable us to come up with technologies that we like, etc. But the instrumentalism is not committed to saying that our best theories are true, or that there really are things like electrons, protons, and quarks. The theories may be true, or they may not - the important thing is that they are useful. Many people find this an attractive view, especially those influenced by people like Kuhn or Feyerabend who point out the massive shifts in the scientific atmosphere from time to time. After all, if almost every scientific theory (except the most current) has been shown to be wrong in the past, it seems reasonable to expect that our current theories will one day be overturned. Maybe, hopefully, they will be replaced with better onces. But unless we have some clear indication that we have reached the correct theory (current science gives us no such indication, as almost any scientist would readily agree), we may never reach a point where we can be even reasonably sure that our current theories will not one day be overturned. If there is a reasonable chance that our current theories will be overturned some day, it does not seem unreasonable to take up a view of Scientific Instrumentalism as a kind of epistemic modesty.

If evolution was not taught under the philosophical assumption of Scientific Realism, anti-evolutionists would not have much cause for complaint. Under the assumption of Scientific Instrumentalism, evolutionary theory poses no threat - it would simply be presented as a useful theory. It would not be presented as true, and there would be no implication that using it or learning it even suggested that alternative views (like creationism) were wrong.

Evolution or scientific method taught either way is clearly not at all free from controversial philosophic assumptions. Teaching it without either assumption would require a context of epistemic uncertainty: "Here's evolutionary theory. It seems useful to know, but we can't really say whether or not we should believe it. Maybe it's true, maybe not."

The problem is that such (relative) neutrality may be practically impossible. Scientific education begins at a young age, and most of the children learning about it are not in a position to understand the philosophical underpinnings of either understanding. Perhaps by high school many students would be capable of grasping he basics of each view, but what would we do before then? Presenting science under the assumption of scientific realism seems much simpler. Theories would be presented as being true, and it is probably much easier to understand that a theory is true than it is to understand that a theory is practically useful even though it may not be true.

Case in point: Many/most students still learn something about Newtonian physics, even though no one takes Newtonian physical theory to be strictly true. The common view is that the Newtonian laws generally hold within a properly limited domain, but all sorts of examples show that they are not actually The Laws of Nature (whatever that means). But most students, and almost all of the younger students in any case, are taught the Newtonian laws as if they were true. It simply takes a certain level of sophistication to understand how some laws could work even if they aren't true (or why we would be taught something that isn't true), and most people don't have that early on (if they ever do).

What's the upshot of all this?

There is a deeper problem behind the current intelligent design theory debates, but these debates don't really touch on it. Problems in any number of areas come up when we take current scientific theory to be Really True - the fact that the current hot topic has to do with evolution is a secondary matter. If we want schools to teach the scientific method objectively, we would have to demand that scientific method (and evolution, and other theories) was not presented under the assumption of Scientific Realism. We can't even pretend to approach "objectivity" without turning science courses into philosophy of science courses. But we can't do that without making the subject far more complicated than most students can possibly understand.

And that is the real issue here. We want students to learn, but we don't want particular views forced on them. But until students do learn, mature, and come to a point where they can recognize and critically evaluate the philosophical underpinnings of various branches of study, it seems practically impossible to teach them in a neutral way.

We want to cross a river without getting wet, but the wood required to build a bridge is on the other side.

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