Second Response to ‘The Politics of Demarcation’

Abstract. The most widely disseminated arguments against Intelligent Design have failed to produce invariant and objective demarcation criteria sufficient to establish that ID cannot be a matter of science. Ultimately, ID opponents rely heavily upon the fact of there being a strong tie between ID and religious thinking. Even this tack, however, ends up seeming more a matter of ideology than of either science or philosophy.

In his paper, Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited, Robert Pennock displays, at the beginning of his article, this quote from the opinion issued for the Kitzmiller v Dover case:

“[W]e have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

Such a statement should quickly strike philosophers (and especially philosophers of science) as being at least somewhat troublesome – philosophically speaking – for reasons well enough covered here, here, and here.

As discussed in the First Response to ‘The Politics of Demarcation, there is no necessary incompatibility between science and religion even when “methodological naturalism” is put forth (as it is in Pennock’s paper) “as a ‘ground rule’ of science.” Accordingly, the judge in the Kitzmiller case is at least on extremely dubious philosophical grounds when he so closely associates the non-science standing of ID with religious antecedents. In fact, such antecedents are philosophically irrelevant for the reasons discussed in the references cited in the preceding paragraph.

Pennock says that:

even if Laudan had been correct that philosophers viewed demarcation as a pseudo-problem, that would not mean that it is a pseudo-problem in other settings or for scholars with other interests.

Even if all philosophers were to acknowledge that Laudan’s arguments with regards to demarcation were philosophically unassailable, Pennock’s point about “other settings” and “other interests” would still stand. Indeed, nearly thirty years ago, in the Autumn, 1982, issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values, Michael Ruse noted that “the kinds of conclusions and strategies apparently favored by Laudan are simply not strong enough for legal purposes.”

However, all that the Ruse and Pennock points indicate is that the demarcation issue is more a matter of something other than philosophy, and for both Ruse and Pennock that something-other-than-philosophy, those “other settings” and “other interests” are the legal and political domains which are, in the end, extensively identical, certainly as regards the ID issue.

In his essay, The politics of demarcation, Paul Newall reasonably hypothesizes that the apparent abandonment of philosophical rigor by the likes of Ruse, Pennock, and many other philosophers might well be related to thinking of this sort:

Although the [demarcation] problem may be philosophically interesting and there may be philosophical counterarguments to the various criteria thus far presented as viable, the question of how important the objections are has to be weighed against the political problem of preventing intelligent design from being taught in schools.

What Newall refers to as a “political problem” arguably could have been presented in terms of political interests or even cultural or sociological interests. But, it is by describing these interests in terms of “problems” that even those philosophers who are aware of the inadequacy of criteria put forth for the thoroughly objective demarcation of science can justify (at least to some extent and even if only to themselves or their own cadre) the abandonment of philosophical rigor.

In “Conflict and Harmony” (found in The Tyranny of Science), Paul Feyerabend tells the story of “a student of sociology from Yugoslavia” who had been witness to the civil wars there and who had sent Feyerabend “a tape and a letter.” The student had seen the

destruction of houses, of entire cities, killings, mutilations of the most inhuman kind. He had always believed in the power of democracy and free speech, he said in the letter; he had believed that conflicts could be solved by a rational debate – and so on. ‘Now I only trust a man with a gun who is on my side.’ And, indeed, he is right. For who can reason with torturers, murderers and rapists?

Even those with the most passionate devotion to rationality and to “rational debate” can easily imagine there arising circumstances in which attempts at reasoning with some other(s) will prove impotent and fruitless, and, in some of these circumstances, the devotee might judge that it is best for him to abandon (he will hope it is only temporarily so) what he has been regarding as a principle that has guided the development of his self.

However, is the Creationism/ID issue the sort of circumstance that warrants the abandonment of the principle of philosophical rigor?

Noting that the setting is a legal/political one does not itself justify the abandonment by philosophers of the devotion to argumentative rigor to which they are presumed to be devoted. The Creationism/ID matter is anything but a harrowing circumstance; so, as exactly what are philosophers operating when they so willingly sacrifice the philosophical for the sake of the political? Are they anything more than window dressing?

Absent invariant and objective criteria for the demarcation of science, it might be that philosophers could do no more than suggest that science is best regarded – in the legal/political setting – as a sociological entity into which neither Creationism nor ID has been accepted. However, when such a sociological basis for a judgment against teaching Creationism/ID as science is put forth in a political context, the political question can rather easily be recast in terms of whether the public has a right – or is to be allowed – to decide for themselves what will be any of the details that have to do with the acculturation and socialization of their children that occurs within public education.

In the case of the American legal/political setting, opponents of Creationism/ID happen to have at their disposal a legal tradition which has a quite strong bias against any legislation which can have its intent tied to religion. This feature of the legal/political setting provides for a course of argumentation which allows Creationism/ID opponents to discuss the personal religious beliefs as if those unveil the actual public policy intent of Creationism/ID proponents. In terms of philosophy and philosophical argumentation, such a tack is seen as essentially irrelevant especially to ID in and of itself, but this at least mitigates the (philosophical) problems that there are with being able to provide invariant and objective demarcation criteria for science.

In the end, it certainly seems that the demarcation issue is more of a political issue than one regarding the characteristics of science, and while philosophy (especially as distinguished from ideology) can have a significant role within the political, it is anything except apparent that the most oft heard arguments of the ID opponents amount to anything but very poor philosophy (if those arguments are even to be properly regarded as philosophical instead of ideological).

So, we are once again left to wonder just what it is that is being served by the philosophy presented as testimony against the Creationism/ID proponents. If the philosopher’s participation in court cases or in legislative hearings results from attorneys and legislators thinking that philosophical expertise is useful for the overall presentation, in conjunction with the philosophers’ own judgments that it is best that Creationism/ID not be taught within a high school science curriculum, then it is easy to imagine the philosophers thinking of themselves as participating in a public service.

However, when philosophical considerations are restricted or abandoned for the sake of political expediency and to the detriment of the usual notions about what makes a good philosophical argument, then is the philosophers’ no doubt well-intentioned public service a disservice to philosophy? And, if so, is such a disservice under such circumstances ultimately a disservice to the public?

Some of these matters, or similar issues, could also be directed to any philosophers who would argue in favor of having Creationism and/or ID included in a public high school science curriculum. However, it is the Creationism/ID opponents who most rely upon arguments in terms of – and in favor of – demarcation criteria, and the issue at hand here is whether the attempts at demarcation that have been put forth most often are philosophically suitable or nothing more than politically efficacious.

This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Evolution, Feyerabend, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Politics, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Second Response to ‘The Politics of Demarcation’

  1. Pingback: First Response to ‘The Politics of Demarcation’ | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: Belated response to the politics of demarcation « Praj's Blog

  3. Pingback: Hypocrisy happens « Praj's Blog

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