Monday, June 14, 2004

The Privileged Theory

The culture wars have finally arrived in our humble county. A local school board has balked at adopting a high school biology textbook because it gives short shrift to any metaphysical alternatives to Darwinian evolution. Our evening newspaper, always on the look-out for controversy, has decided to create one by opining that the school board's recalcitrance somehow flies in the face of Supreme Court decisions which forbid teaching Creationism in schools.

There are so many confusions here that one scarcely knows where to begin to try to clarify. It is true that the Supreme Court found in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that it's unconstitutional to require that creationism be taught in public schools, but in his majority opinion Justice Brennan wrote: "The [Louisianna act mandating Creationism] does not grant teachers a flexibility that they did not already possess to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life. Indeed, the Court of Appeals found that no law prohibited Louisiana public school teachers from teaching any scientific theory. As the president of the Louisiana Science Teachers Association testified, 'any scientific concept that's based on established fact can be included in our curriculum already, and no legislation allowing this is necessary.'"

It is not clear, therefore, why a school board would be in violation of Edwards in wishing to furnish district students with textbooks that present evidence of other explanations of origins besides the Darwinian account. Edwards struck down an attempt by a state legislature to enact a law requiring that a view of origins which is based upon a particular interpretation of the Biblical book of Genesis be taught by all schools. A school board, however, is not a state legislature. It is the task of a school board to select texts they deem suitable for their students and which will help them attain the best possible education. The board, in carrying out this responsibility, may exercise poor judgment, may be mistaken, may be unwise, but it's hard to see how it violates Edwards.

In rendering his opinion in the Edwards case Justice Brennan sites the three prong test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). He writes: "First, the legislature must have adopted the law with a secular purpose. Second, the statute's principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute must not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion. State action violates the Establishment Clause if it fails to satisfy any of these prongs."

One thing seems clear about this. Lemon addressed a law enacted by a state legislature, it's not clear that it applies to a school board displaying a preference for one textbook over another.

Brennan also writes that: "Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family. Students in such institutions are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary."

Just so. The problem that Justice Brennan and the editorial writer for my local paper don't see is that neither Darwinian evolution nor "Scientific Creationism" are scientific in the classic Baconian sense of the word. Darwinian evolution is the belief that blind, purposeless processes, acting over long periods of time, gave rise first to living cells, and then ultimately, to all the diversity of life which inhabits this planet. The theory insists that all life, indeed all of space-time, can be explained solely in terms of material causes. Darwinism goes on to assert that the universe is closed to any non-material interference from any entities existing "outside" of it.

Now whatever this is it's not an empirical theory. It's not science. It's a philosophical assumption that some scientists make about ultimate reality. As such it is pure metaphysics masquerading as science, and as Justice Brennan implies, teaching this to a captive audience of impressionable young people is seen by many parents as a betrayal of the trust that they placed in the school when they enrolled their children.

In my view, the proper approach for a concerned, conscientious school board to take is not to look for a book that teaches Creationism because Creationism is indeed a view based upon a particular religious interpretation of the Bible. It holds that the world and life were created by God in six days some ten thousand years ago. This may well be the case metaphysically, but it is hard to see how it can avoid the charge of being a religious dogma dressed up in scientific drag.

A much better way to present a balanced approach to the issue and to truly educate our children without entangling public tax dollars in sectarian controversy is that employed by Intelligent Design theorists. What they advocate is that a teacher be encouraged to present to his/her students the standard Darwinian model and then explain the evidence both for and against it. There is no constitutional objection to this methodology. It's what education should be and the way many of the best teachers, going all the way back to Socrates, have taught. As Darwin himself said in the Origin of Species, "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."

There are many scientific, empirical challenges to Darwinism, but the major challenge is philosophical. Philosophers and scientists have been telling us for some time that there is a mounting body of empirical evidence that leads to the conclusion that the universe, including the biosphere, is richly endowed with information. They argue that since we have a uniform experience of information being produced solely by intelligent minds, it is reasonable to assume, in lieu of evidence to the contrary, that the information contained in, for example, the elaborate and intricate cellular assembly line machines that generate proteins, is an artifact of intelligence, of a mind. Teachers should teach the biochemical facts of cellular machinery, ID theorists insist, and explain the emergence of this machinery in terms of blind, undirected, mechanical processes, if they wish. But we need to recognize that the claim that this machinery came about through impersonal, unintelligent agency is no less metaphysical, nor any more scientific, than the claim that it came about through personal intelligent agency. Therefore, if teachers are to be free to explain the origin of life, the emergence of cellular machines, and the appearance of consciousness in terms of mechanistic processes, and they should be, school boards certainly should have it within their purview to provide students with textbooks which also present arguments for the contrary view that these phenomena can best be explained in terms of intelligent agency.

Claims as to exactly who, or what, the intelligent agent is, or was, are not apposite. It could be the God of the Christians and Jews. It could be Allah. It could be Zeus. It could be aliens from a distant galaxy. Neither need there be controversy over how long ago the original biogenetic event took place. Whether it was 10,000 yrs. ago or 3 billion years ago is irrelevant to the fundamental question at issue. Likewise, there need be no debate over what means the intelligent agent used to bring higher life forms about. It could, indeed, have been a long process of evolution. Intelligent Design theorists are methodological agnostics on all these matters. The only question of concern to them as professional scientists and philosophers is: Do living things show the impress of design or are they the sorts of things that could plausibly be generated by physical forces and serendipity?

Put this way, the debate is not one of religion vs. science rather it is a debate between two different schools within the philosophy of science. It's a debate between those who think the cause of all we find in the world is material and those who think it is mind. It's a debate between those who believe the universe is closed and those who believe it is open. Since these questions are philosophical some may think they have no place in a science classroom, but I think this would be a mistake. Let's have students examine the scientific evidence and let them draw their own conclusions. It would also be a mistake, and an injustice, to arbitrarily privilege one school of thought while excluding the other. This would cheat our children, but it is what Darwinians are all too happy to do to protect their theory and themselves from criticism and to perpetuate their privileged status.