September 14, 2006
A “false and disabling” view of science
Ronald Dworkin answers one of three questions for America (the others are on the pledge of allegiance and gay marriage):
[T]he cosmological and biological beliefs of the religious conservatives do not just coincide with their religious convictions: they would reject those cosmological and biological beliefs out of hand if they were not dictated by those religious convictions. Almost all religious conservatives accept that the methods of empirical science are in general well designed for the discovery of truth and that their children must be taught the reliability of those methods if they are to be prepared for their lives. They would not countenance requiring or permitting teachers to teach, even as an alternate theory, what science has established as unquestionably and beyond challenge false: that the sun orbits the earth or that radioactivity is harmless, for example. The biblical account of the creation of the universe and of human beings is just as silly if it is treated not as a myth but as a scientific explanation.
… If there is any scientific evidence against evolution, then of course students should be taught what it is. But the intelligent design movement has discovered no such scientific evidence at all. We must distinguish the following three claims. (1) Scientists have not yet shown to all their satisfaction how the Darwinian processes of random mutation and natural selection explain every feature of the development of plant and animal life on our planet; some features remain areas of speculation and controversy among them. (2) There is now good scientific evidence that these features cannot be explained within the general Darwinian structure; a successful explanation will therefore require abandoning that structure altogether. (3) This evidence also at least suggests that an intelligent designer created life and designed the processes of development that have produced human beings.
The first of these claims is both correct and unsurprising. The details of evolutionary theory, like the phenomena it tries to explain, are enormously complex. Eminent biologists disagree in heated arguments about, for example, whether some features of developed life are best explained as accidents or byproducts of no survival value in themselves. Evolutionary biologists face other challenges and disagree in how best to meet them.
The second of the three claims is false. It does not follow from the fact that evolutionary scientists have not yet found or agreed on a solution to some puzzle that their methods have been shown to be defective, any more than it follows from historical controversies or unproved mathematical conjectures that the methods of historians or mathematicians must be abandoned. […] The proponents of intelligent design theory claim in their lectures, popular writing, and television appearances that the irreducible complexity of certain forms of life proves that Darwin’s theory must be rejected root and branch. No element of certain even primitive forms of life could be removed, they say, without making it impossible for that form of life to survive. But their arguments are very bad, a judgment confirmed by their failure so far to expose these arguments to professional review by submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals. It is no explanation of this failure to suppose that the scientific establishment would reject even well-reasoned articles that challenged Darwin. On the contrary, a scientifically sound general attack on evolution would be very exciting news indeed: a Nobel Prize might be around the corner.
The third claim would be false even if the second claim were true. The proponents of intelligent design do not state explicitly that the designer must be a god—they try to avoid overtly religious claims in hopes that the constitutional bar to religious instruction in public schools would not prevent their theory being taught there—but that is the clear and unacceptable implication of their argument. If the failure to find a natural physical or biological explanation of some physical or biological phenomenon were taken to be evidence of intervention by a god who intended to bring about that phenomenon, science would disappear.
Which of course is the theocrats’ ultimate goal.
Very few socially conservative Americans would vote for a school board that allowed teachers to explain anything they wished by citing a supernatural intelligence at work. The intelligent design theory appeals to some of them because it uses the idea of such an intelligence only to confirm the plausibility of the specific miraculous claims that are described in the Bible. But science can provide no reason for restricting appeals to supernatural intelligence to those that confirm the claims of a particular religious tradition. […] So once appeals to a supernatural intelligence are recognized as competitive with scientific explanations, the damage to reason cannot be limited or controlled.
… If we are to protect dignity by protecting people’s responsibility for their own personal values, then we must build our compulsory education and our collective endorsements of truth around the distinction between faith and reason. We need a defensible conception of science not only for the intensely practical reason that we must prepare our children and youth to advance knowledge and to compete in the world’s economy but also in order to protect the personal responsibility of our citizens each for his own religious faith. We need an account of science, in our public philosophy of government, that does not make its authority depend on commitment to any set of religious or ethical values. So Senator Frist [in his support of teaching ID in schools] made a serious mistake when he said that describing intelligent design only as a scientific alternative to evolution doesn’t “force any particular theory on anyone.” In fact it damages young students, practically and politically, by using the state’s authority to force on them a false and disabling view of what science is.
Dworkin’s reasoning on the other two questions is equally compelling.
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