The Great Danger that is Creationism

What is it? What is the danger of those notions referred to as “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design”? What is it about these notions that drive some people, even many people in certain social circles, to veritable apoplexy – certainly an intellectual apoplexy?

Might it be that it is not these notions themselves which are dangerous? Is it, instead, that these notions are supposed to harbor some sort of lurking danger, a horror which would be let loose upon the world if ever either Creationism or Intelligent Design or both achieve broad social acceptance if not actual respectability within the scientific communities?

Are Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) analogous to Bolshevism or Nazism which some people were early on able to recognize as dangerous for their in-built and intentionally dehumanizing features? Is this what the danger of Creationism and ID is supposed to be – some horrific effect which is supposed to follow necessarily from Creationism and/or ID being allowed to seem at all respectable or acceptable?

It is one thing to reject Creationism and ID; it is another thing to have good reasons for rejecting Creationism and ID and to express those reasons well, and it is yet an altogether different matter to veritably trumpet that Creationism and ID are great dangers either in and of themselves or because of consequences that will follow uncontrollably from these notions – hence, threats to be fought by any means necessary.

There certainly seems to have been a lot of alarms trumpeted, but it is not blatantly obvious just what is the danger posed by Creationism and ID.

Robert T. Pennock, in an at first glance relatively staid remark, says, in his paper, Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion? (Synthese (2011) 178: 177-206):

Distinguishing science from religion was and remains an important conceptual issue with significant practical import, and philosophers who say there is no difference have lost touch with reality in a profound and perverse way. [p. 177]

Pennock’s statement, however, actually betrays a lack of even an attempt at dispassionate analysis of the issue, and his remark strongly suggests that his is anything but a particularly thoughtful position. The idea of there being philosophers “who say there is no difference” between science and religion is preposterous on the face of it. Far more likely and, frankly, expected (since not terribly surprising) would be claims that the similarities between science and religion are more extensive than the Pennock position could accommodate with apparent comfort and ease.

Pennock’s above quoted remark amounts to a demagogic besmirching of his opponents, a technique or trait oft (but apparently not often enough) regarded as disreputable.

Let us just assume that Pennock is passionate about the issue and his position, so much so that he let loose with a not-quite-correct (if not outright inappropriate) characterization that had not been well considered ahead of its publication. It is, after all, the dangers to be had with Creationism and ID that are of interest here; so, let us see whether Pennock indicates with any of his other remarks just what it is that we must be on guard about with regards to Creationism and ID, both of which he regards as either pseudoscience or religion or both.

Pennock states that a purpose of his paper is to provide a “reasonable approach to how to think about distinguishing science from pseudoscience in general and religion in particular.” He feels this is a necessary exercise owing to the fact that those who disagree with him do so “to the detriment of both science and philosophy of science” [p. 180].

The problem is that, in his paper, Pennock does not actually indicate just how Creationism and/or ID are threats to science. Pennock announces that “probably more harm has been done to the defense of science education” [p. 200] by those who oppose his position, but, by Pennock’s own claim, that vague and alleged harm is neither to science nor, for that matter, to education. In any event, at no point does Pennock in any way indicate how any pseudoscience (granting for the sake of argument that there ever is such an identifiable thing) threatens science.

On the other hand, Pennock provides a reason for thinking that his opponents, Laudan in particular, work to the detriment of the philosophy of science to the extent that they can be depicted as being

completely out of step with the theory and practice of actual scientists. If Laudan’s view were indeed the norm in philosophy of science, then it is little wonder that some say philosophy is irrelevant to any matters of practical consequence. Is philosophy going to be so removed from the realities of the world that it has nothing of value to say even on topics that ostensibly are its core concerns? [p. 202]

But, based largely on Pennock’s own remarks, this seems more like a caricature than even a misrepresentation of Laudan. After all, Pennock’s notion of Laudan being out of touch parallels (if it is not derivative of) remarks made by Barry Gross and quoted by Pennock, and Gross’s remarks, while biting and snide, do not make the case for Pennock regarding the potential harm that people such as Laudan do to the philosophy of science.

Pennock quotes Gross as saying:

[Laudan] not only missed the context of this inquiry and the essential features of the creationist position, but has also shown lack of comprehension of the constitutional issues and standards of proof involved, of the nature of adversary trial, of the weight of legal decision …

Larry Laudan presents in his jeremiad on McLean v. Arkansas a perfect example of a philosopher richly deserving an exclusion from ‘the conversation of mankind’ … [p. 182]

Pennock begins the concluding section of his paper by summarizing Gross as saying that Laudan “neglected his own wise pragmatic advice about the need to pay attention to the relevant context of inquiry and to the actual course of the evolution of science” [p. 202].

It certainly seems arguable that Laudan was not especially concerned with “the constitutional issues” nor with the “standards of proof” in a legal context, but no respectable person with even but a modicum of reasoning skills would leap from that state of affairs to the condemnation that Laudan (or his remarks) are “a perfect example” of someone or some remarks that deserve to be excluded “from ‘the conversation of mankind’”.

Indeed, if Laudan’s primary interest were to regard the philosophy of science and a proper representation of its interests and perspectives, and if he were to determine that the focus and interests of the very different legal context were not compatible with the broader interests of either science or the philosophy of science, then Laudan would simply at worst not make for a very good witness in a legal context. Being a wretched witness in no way detracts from Laudan’s position regarding the demarcation issue.

As Peter Mulderry notes in his essay, The Expert as a Labor-Saving Device:

in any relationship in which one party seeks the opinion of another as an expert … The expert is the subordinate and should provide opinions that serve the other party’s interests as defined by that other party. It is not the place of the expert to presume or define what that other party’s interests are.

This is to say that, in the legal setting, it is those presenting the legal argument who determine what it is that they want their experts to establish. Pennock admits that “[t]he relevant context … is the legal arena and deciding Constitutional questions regarding the establishment of religion” [p. 181], and it was with this context in mind that Pennock recommended “to the legal team … that it was overly and unnecessarily ambitious to attempt to lay out criteria that are necessary and sufficient to define science … for the Constitutional case … the contrast classes are not even science and pseudoscience, but rather science and religion” [pp. 183-184].

While the legal context required that the goal of the argument had to be establishing ID as a religion matter, it was also thought to be necessary to present some means of distinguishing between science and religion – if only to be able to preserve the current manner of teaching evolution in public schools wherein religion is not necessary for the science at issue.

Pennock acknowledges that Laudan’s position with regards to demarcation “addresses quite a different question” than ways of distinguishing between science and religion, but what Pennock not only fails to see but actually refuses to see is that the case which Pennock makes is more for the sake of law than it is for science. Accordingly, to the extent that Pennock’s case is to be regarded as at all philosophical, it is an argument for the sake of a particular philosophy or law (one which presumes the illegality of any religious teaching in public schools) rather than an argument regarding any philosophy of science.

Indeed, if Pennock did not have at his disposal the contextual prejudice prohibiting any and all religious teachings, his “ballpark” manner for demarcating science from religion would very likely have failed to provide sufficient basis for a ruling to prohibit the mention or teaching of ID in a public school.

Had Pennock’s argument been set in a less secularist context, then, in light of Pennock’s own statement that “neither [evolution nor scientific naturalism] are inherently atheistic or theistic but are neutral with regard to metaphysical views”, a court may well have ruled that there were no reason not to teach that a supernatural entity could have intervened to direct the evolutionary process for the sake of “possible transcendent purposes”.

Pennock’s “ballpark” methodological naturalism would not be sufficient to dispense with the version of ID being hypothesized because the intervener or designer would be depicted as working within and in accord with the already extant naturalistic processes. Pennock would then likely want to recount how there is evidence that the particular version of ID to which he was responding was cagey about the genuine goals of its proponents, but the ID hypothesized here could simply be interested in and concerned for noting that, since there is nothing inherently incompatible between evolution, science, or methodological naturalism, a better understanding of science is taught when an actual compatibility with even a supernatural entity gets explicitly mentioned.

The point is that since science and science as practiced have no need of presuming an incompatibility with the so-called supernatural or with any sort of transcendent entity such as God, Pennock’s claim that “[d]istinguishing science from religion was and remains an important conceptual issue with significant practical import” for both science and philosophy of science amounts to a very poor quality philosophy of science – if it is philosophy of science at all.

This is because of prime interest to any philosophy about science and the conduct of science is the identification and explication of features of science that are the most invariant across contexts; it is not a defining interest of philosophy of science (or any philosophy, for that matter) to determine how best to operate in only one context.

Pennock’s demarcation between science and religion is not only not essential for science, it is a demarcation which has force only in an extra-scientific context (such as an American legal proceeding) which has a built-in or developed secularist prejudice (in the non-pejorative sense) that, certainly with regards to public schools, veritably prohibits the incorporation into public policy of notions that either do or can express religious perspectives.

Accordingly, what Pennock imagines as an “important conceptual issue” pertains more to a particular social or cultural context and matter than it does to science itself or to the practice of science. What Pennock in no way bothers to consider is whether a philosophy which eschews demarcation emphases might better reflect and describe a science that evolves. The non-demarcation approach might not suit normative science particularly well; the non-demarcation approach might not even deftly serve the legal interests which prevailed in the Kitzmiller and the McLean cases, but the non-demarcation approach could very well go much farther towards describing how scientific discovery proceeds before it becomes convention. And, contrary to Pennock’s accusations, none of this puts the non-demarcation approach out of touch with either reality or its practices. Nonetheless, these are issues that are separate and apart from the matter being addressed here.

So, we are back to considering the nature of that danger which is – or is supposed to be expected to come from – Creationism and/or ID, certainly given the tone and rhetoric of the likes of Pennock.

It has been noted that the Creationism/ID issue might be regarded by Pennock as threatening to a particular currently predominant culture within the United States, at the very least. But, is Pennock’s claim that “harm has been done” or is being done “to the defense of science education” its own separate issue?

In his paper, Foiling the Black Knight (Synthese (2011) 178: 219-235), Kelly C. Smith casts the issue in terms of “the creationist threat” and “a failure to see the nature of the problem clearly” [p. 219]. Smith puts forth “the problem” as a matter of “rational pathologies” because of which “creationists are slowly winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public” [p. 220].

Smith says that he takes “a creationist to be anyone who denies a robust macro-evolutionary process”, but there is no apparent reason why Smith’s points need to be restricted to so narrow a description – if only because the side that is allegedly “winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public” might be doing so as the result of that public interpreting the so-called creationist position as more subtle or more broad than Smith’s depiction.

In any event, Smith says that:

we can’t simply infer from the fact that a class is full of gifted biology majors that it’s unnecessary to talk to them about creationism. To be sure, we have good reason to believe such students will be able to lay out the basic tenets of evolution on an exam, but we must be careful concluding from this either that they really grasp what these tenets mean or that they agree they are correct. [p. 229]

To drive home his point that it is insufficient to get students or the population in general to know the details of theories of evolution, Smith says:

Thus, when I teach a Philosophy of Science class that deals with creationism, it is quite common for biology majors to carefully regurgitate all the details of some creationist argument and all its various problems, only to admit at the end that they still think creationism is true. They often realize the dissonance between the evidence they have just discussed and their conclusion, but simply refuse to follow the evidence in this case. [p. 229]

Since, for Smith, the critical matter is not that people “understand all the facts involved”, since it is, instead, most important that “they really grasp what [the basic] tenets [of evolution] mean” and “agree they are correct”, Smith prescribes “[a]s a remedy” that “we … do a better job teaching young students to think critically” [p. 230].

If Smith actually had in mind the idea that the goal of education were to teach people to agree with what they are taught, if he had in mind the notion that the measure of success in education were the extent to which people agreed with what they were taught, then Smith’s notion of just what qualifies as critical thinking would be its own despicable horror. It would be plain and simple indoctrination, and, surely, no one will try to argue that indoctrination is either necessary or good for science, even normative science.

But, the sort of critical thinking that Smith has in mind is not indoctrination. Smith’s notion depends on making judgments about what is “a bad idea” [p. 231]. Smith puts forth one example of a bad idea as follows:

The most obvious one, of course, is the idea that people must choose between their religion and science —e.g., they can’t be good Christians and also believe in evolution. This is not true, of course, but we have to take the time to point out that it’s not true. As long as the public believes that they are being asked to choose between their faith and science, it’s hardly surprising that they choose the authorities with the white collars over the ones with the white lab coats. [p. 231]

Would it also be one of Smith’s bad ideas to insist that the compatibility which Smith asserts be forbidden from being mentioned in a public school science class?

Maybe the most serious danger related to Creationism and ID is the exacerbation of an already extant inclination which some people have for resorting to prohibition as a preferred method for problem solving.

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9 Responses to The Great Danger that is Creationism

  1. Pingback: The dangers of creationism « Praj's Blog

  2. Peter says:

    Living in the UK means I can’t be sure I fully understand the issues or the motives of those involved in this peculiarly American controversy. However, I think it’s pretty clear that there is a difference between wanting to prohibit the promotion of creationist ideas and wanting to prohibit the spending of public money on the promotion of creationist ideas. I don’t see anyone seriously advocating the former. Even less a prohibition of holding creationist opinions. Perhaps the danger perceived in the teaching of creationist doctrines in public schools is that it would divert schools’ funding, a finite resource, away from other subjects, and needlessly so, given the vibrancy of the private sector creationist advocacy industry in the US.
    It seems to me that participants in this debate should try to get beyond the distracting details of creationism and look seriously at more fundamental issues.
    The constitutional separation of church and state in the US and its interpretation to imply a prohibition of teaching of religious doctrine in public schools would be one. Is the teaching of religious doctrine in public schools (as opposed to its teaching elsewhere), a danger to the American republic and if so, why?
    Another issue would be that of what compulsory universal education is supposed to achieve. To engineer a culture of politically active citizens? A culture of docile and compliant voter-workers? Or to provide free education to those whose demand for it exceeds their willingness to pay, at the expense of those whose ability to pay exceeds their demand for education?

    • I think it is important and worthwhile to try to put aside or get past the motivations (real or imagined) of the pro- and anti-Creationism/ID positions — particularly the legal positions. I think it is apparent that one reason why – maybe the most legitimate reason why – Creationism/ID is not part of normative science is that neither Creationism nor ID are particularly interesting in the sense that they do not (as of yet) provide much if anything in revealing needs for new and novel investigatory approaches. Even if evolution were properly depicted as itself no longer providing for new and novel approaches, that would in no way necessitate interjecting Creationism/ID into normative science. I also do not find Creationism/ID to be especially interesting from a theological or a philosophy of religion perspective. Actually, evolution is at least slightly more interesting for theology/philosophy of religion. Still, I do see design-detection as an interesting problem in itself. In fact, via what currently stands as science fiction, I can see how design-detection might eventually have to become a normative science issue, for instance, if humans are ever able to develop more greatly comprehensive and more direct biological and/or genetic engineering capabilities (particularly if any such engineering is ever done secretively).

    • parolang says:

      I hate to simplify, but I fear what I think is the primary issue is being forgotten. The issue is the *social* question on whether the creation story of the Christian Bible should be considered the legitimate understanding of the origin of mankind and the universe. The key word is “legitimate”, which only predicates on societies and communities. The question is what is *our* view, and not just *my* view.

      Beyond that, everything else is mere details. On the whole, the people on the creationist/ID side of the debate have the greater burden: they have two criteria to meet, religious and scientific. I don’t think they are anti-science, but have the conviction that true science would reveal the same thing that scripture depicts. The idea that science and religion might contradict isn’t blasphemy, but bad science, and this explains the suspicion of sinister agendas.

      A lot of our social issues that find their way into politics are disguised questions over legitimacy, and I wouldn’t trust people who say otherwise. Like the debate over gay marriage is *really* about whether gay relationships should be considered legitimate, as marriage is the social sign that a relationship is legitimate. I genuinely don’t believe that the opposition to gay marriage is based on homophobia, or the desire to oppress gays, though I’m sure such people exist. (Notice that the issue that is being debated is “gay marriage”, and not gay intercourse, or having a gay partner.)

      Issues over legitimacy, in my opinion, are the sort of the thing that democracies should excel at, because otherwise you’re trying to impose an evaluation that people in general don’t agree with, which causes tension, hostility, and conflict. In both cases, I disagree with the majority, but I also think these are issues that we should submit to popular opinion, other than trying to alter popular opinion in honest ways.

      • I hate to simplify, but I fear what I think is the primary issue is being forgotten. The issue is the *social* … the legitimate understanding … The key word is “legitimate”, which only predicates on societies and communities. The question is what is *our* view, and not just *my* view.

        Simplification in the form of elimination is not all that simple to accomplish while also maintaining at least the bulk of what is at issue. There is no inherent problem with there being both “the *social*” and a multiplicity of views. This is to say that there need not be a singular “*our* view”, and, indeed, with a broad understanding of “the *social*”, there is virtually never a broad and comprehensive “*our* view” – regardless of whether or not there can be or ever ought to be a singular, broad, and comprehensive shared social view.

        The legal tussles regarding Creationism/ID and evolution can be rather easily depicted as an attempt at demanding the imposition of a singular social view, a perspective which tends towards a demand for the veritable utter privatization of anything that whiffs of not just religiosity but even belief in and reliance upon any notion of transcendent reality.

        people on the creationist/ID side of the debate … have the conviction that true science would reveal the same thing that scripture depicts. The idea that science and religion might contradict isn’t blasphemy, but bad science …

        There is no doubt that some people think about scripture(s) in the very restricted manner you seem to have in mind, but it is most definitely “bad science” to think that evolution necessarily precludes the reality of God, even the God of Western monotheisms. Well, let me qualify that statement. It is “bad science” if the assertion is that the unreality of this God unavoidably follows from the science that concludes with evolution as an unavoidable fact of reality and if for science to be good (or not-bad) a conclusion is not to be put forth as unavoidable so long as other conclusions remain viable.

        I think that the actual crux of the contentiousness pertains to matters of the transcendent to which I referred earlier, and I think that is precisely why Kelly C. Smith casts the issue as a matter of the public seeing itself as having to “choose [between] the authorities with the white collars [and] the ones with the white lab coats.”

        Issues over legitimacy, in my opinion, are the sort of the thing that democracies should excel at, because otherwise you’re trying to impose an evaluation that people in general don’t agree with, which causes tension, hostility, and conflict. … these are issues that we should submit to popular opinion

        The fact of the matter is that the “legitimacy” is being established legally and not in anything like a direct democratic fashion. The point is that this is not actually being determined socially via outright “popular opinion”. But, even that is not the problem. After all, this society broadly construed has itself constitutionally structured in order to be better able to withstand or survive wild fluxes of popular opinion. Instead, the problem is more closely related to a particular family of constitutional interpretations which some (if not many) perceive as progressing in a manner that imposes an ever more absolute exile from public discourse of those considerations which invoke transcendent concerns.

  3. Peter says:

    parolang said:
    “The issue is the *social* question on whether the creation story of the Christian Bible should be considered the legitimate understanding of the origin of mankind and the universe”

    Parolang, I’m having a bit of trouble with that. For me, the simplest and most general understanding of “legitimate” is that it means “according to law”. Given that, I’d have to ask why there would be a need for the law to prescribe any particular understanding of the origin of mankind and the universe? What kind of legal decision would have to hang on such a legitimate view, other than one whose conclusion was the predicate for the legitimate view being there in the first place?

  4. parolang says:

    I think I replied to your blog post out of context. I should have realized, at the time, that your post was primarily about the legal argument, an issue that I have no knowledge or opinion about. I apologize.

  5. Pingback: 120th Philosophers' Carnival | nicomachus.net

  6. Paul Newall says:

    I commented previously that I think we need to appreciate that it is often through “hollow phrases which only do emotive work” that minds are changed and decisions won. It seems to me that the wider problem is the amount of “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric involved in public debate and the failure of some public intellectuals – including philosophers of science – to engage it. After all, it has been known for many years now that demarcation does not work (or certainly not in the way it is often applied to Creationism) and yet many people are clearly unaware of this and quite convinced that the term “pseudoscience” is meaningful. If philosophers of science know the shortcomings of demarcation criteria and yet these criteria are still influencing legal proceedings and the content of public education, who are the fools? Those who will bet their lives that a theory has to be falsifiable for it to be science, or that methodological naturalism defines science, have (temporarily, at least) had their way and if anyone is going to change this then it seems most unlikely to be those who lament the decisions taken but do not ask how to make it known that some phrases are hollow and should perhaps be dropped from discourse.

    I’m pretty sure that philosophers of science do appreciate this and may choose (like Monton, say) to discuss ideas on their own terms because they want to and because it’s interesting. Still, the point is many non-religious people are heavily invested in fighting Creationism and perhaps with good reason: no doubt they don’t wish to live in a theocracy and if that’s a genuine (or, more importantly, genuinely believed) possibility then it’s good that some people are objecting and criticising. What we have to understand, though, is that at the moment there’s little place for careful analysis, particularly that conducted without regard for consequences. If a person believes Creationism to be a political threat, regardless of its scientific or philosophical merits, then philosophical discussion of it can probably be expected to have little impact upon this belief.

    The real threat, it seems to me, is that we allow these concerns to shape dialogue in such a way that it becomes permanently or primarily conducted in emotive fashion, with ideas and arguments useful only insofar as they advance a position and dissent unwelcome. The irony is that the supposed institutionalisation of dissent within science via falsificationism, from which we derive a critique of choice against Creationism, is meant to be something we welcome and assist, not apply selectively. No doubt we can reply that there already is plenty of debate within biology and that there simply isn’t enough time or money to support every challenge to a theory, especially ones motivated by religious commitments, but this doesn’t really address the problem: if we don’t support alternatives or at least don’t actively disbar them, whatever their perceived merits, then how could we ever arrive at a potential refutation? Moreover, the support could – as a bare minimum – consist only in not opposing those who want to elucidate and work with the strongest form of a particular challenge, rather than burdening them with ad hominem objections or trying to bring them within the rhetoric and motivations shaping the rest of the debate and discussion. If we don’t allow this process to take place, or if we hinder it, then the merits of our best ideas and the shortcomings or failures of their challengers become self-fulfilling and we learn nothing, even if ultimately we are on the “right” side.

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