Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Metaphysics and Science

A decade or so ago Dover, PA became internationally famous because the local school board inserted mention into high school biology classes of the availability of an intelligent design textbook in the school library. For this grievous transgression of secular decorum the board was thrown out on its collective ear by the good citizens of Dover, the ACLU sued, and a judge who acquired whatever expertise he possessed in such matters by virtue of having served as head of the state liquor control board, ruled that the school board was in violation of the sacred principles enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution.

That case and similar controversies since have revolved around the scientific status of intelligent design. Is ID a scientific theory or is it a religious, i.e. metaphysical, hypothesis? If it's the latter, it is presumed, then it has no place in the science classroom, and this is in fact how the judge ruled.

It was an odd ruling since metaphysical hypotheses are discussed in science classes all the time. Indeed, a couple of years later the new school board blithely rubber-stamped a proposal to teach a unit in biology classes on the ethics of cloning, a decision which seemed to me absurd given the community's history of opposition to even the slightest insinuation of the nose of the metaphysical camel into the tent of science. Here's a post I wrote on the subject at the time:
The morning paper brings word that the Dover School Board has unanimously approved the biology curriculum for next year and that the good people of Dover, having struggled mightily to successfully purge their science classrooms of the metaphysical taint of ID, have added a unit in which they will discuss the ethical implications of cloning!

To arms, citizens! How can the same people who campaigned against the previous board because they wanted a mere mention of intelligent design to fall upon their students' ears now approve a unit in a biology class that is so clearly a matter of values (metaphysics) and so obviously unscientific? Where are the hearty defenders of scientific purity? Where are the staunch advocates of allowing only those matters to be discussed in public school science classes which can be subject to empirical testing? Where are Judge Jones and the ACLU?

Perhaps the failure of the board and the Dover biology teachers to see the richly amusing inconsistency of their position is understandable. One can scarcely pick up a book written on some topic of science today without finding discussions of topics which are not in any sense empirically testable but which many scientists evidently find to be suitable topics for a book on science nonetheless.

Presumably, many of these topics would not precipitate the arch of a single eyebrow were they to be discussed in a public school science classroom (except possibly #14 below) yet every one of them is a metaphysical, not a scientific, idea. Here's a tentative list of such topics off the top of my head:
  1. Many universes: The idea that ours is just one of a nearly infinite number of universes all of which are closed off from each other defying detection.
  2. Oscillating universe: The theory that our universe has expanded and collapsed an infinite number of times.
  3. String theory: The idea that the fundamental unit of material substance are unimaginably tiny vibrating filaments of energy.
  4. Other dimensions: The theory that the four dimensions of space-time are only part of physical reality.
  5. Principle of uniformity: The assumption that the laws and properties of the universe are homogenous throughout the universe.
  6. Assumption of uniformitarianism: The idea that the same processes and forces at work in the world today have always been at work at essentially the same rates.
  7. Scientific method: The idea that there is a particular methodology that defines the scientific process which ought to be followed.
  8. Law of parsimony: The principle that assumes that the simplest explanation which fits all the facts is the best.
  9. Assumption that reason is trustworthy: The notion that a faculty which has evolved because it made us better fit to survive is nevertheless a dependable guide to truth which is an entirely different matter than what's most propitious for human survival.
  10. Assumption that we should value truth: The idea that truth should be esteemed more highly than any competing value, like, for instance, personal comfort.
  11. Preference for naturalistic explanations: A preference based upon an untestable assumption that all knowable truth is found only in the natural realm.
  12. Naturalistic abiogenesis: The belief that natural forces are sufficient in themselves to have produced life.
  13. Assumption that if something is physically possible then given the age of the universe it probably happened.
  14. Anthropic principle: The idea that the fine-tuning of the cosmos points to the conclusion that the universe has purpose.
  15. Assumption that there's a world external to our own minds.
  16. Reductionism: The conviction that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, can be ultimately explained solely in terms of physics and chemistry.
  17. Assumption that the universe arose out of a "vacuum matrix" rather than out of nothing.
  18. Ethical claims regarding the environment, nuclear power, cloning, and genetic engineering.
  19. Assumption that the cosmos is atelic, i.e. that it has no purpose: This assumption is acceptable in science classes. The opposite claim that the universe is telic for some reason is not.
  20. Memes: According to biologist Richard Dawkins memes are the cultural analog to genes. They are ideas or customs that are believed by Dawkins and others to get passed along according to their survival value rather than their truth value. An example of this, unfortunately, would have to be the concept of the meme itself.
Mind you, I'm not passing judgment on the truth of any of the above, nor am I saying they shouldn't be discussed in a science classroom. They should. I'm merely noting that with so much philosophical theorizing flying about in the scientific literature and in public school science classes, it seems a little ironic that people are catapulted into outrage and hysterics at the mere suggestion that a teacher might also mention to our children that some scientists believe that mind played a role in the creation of the universe and the appearance of life. Some metaphysical ideas, apparently, are less acceptable in a science classroom than others, although one wishes there were consistent, reasonable criteria for determining acceptability.

The demand that unscientific concepts be kept out of the science classroom is really a ploy, of course, designed to keep a particular allegedly non-scientific view, Intelligent Design, out of the public school while allowing other non-scientific views and topics, which pose no danger to the regnant materialist orthodoxy, free access to our students' hearts and minds.

The Dover board, oblivious to the bias they're displaying, sees no contradiction in having students talk about ethical issues in a science class after having just replaced a board that was voted out because they sought to introduce a topic from the philosophy of science into the science classroom.

It's sad that such is the blindness of those who make these decisions, but we have to laugh nonetheless. It's too funny not to.