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.