Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The verdict for the Dover School Board case on "Intelligent Design" is now in.


The judge's opinion found (correctly, imo) that the case was essentially unsuccessful activism against the establishment clause of the 1st ammendment of the U.S. Constitution because ID is disguised religion being forced onto educators as part of the curriculum in science classes.

As I read the opinion:

1. ID is an untestable explanation which cannot be untangled from its religious creationist sources,

2. Weaknesses in evolutionary theory do not provide support for ID as an alternative scientific theory,

3. The ID proponents who may have sincere and bona fide scholarly intentions have however repeatedly lied about their motivations for supporting the movement and therefore place their loyalty to the movement above their integrity as scholars,

4. The bedrock claim by the ID proponents that evolutionary biology is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general is utterly false.

Therefore, on 1st ammendment grounds, the Dover School Board was permanently enjoined from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, and from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID.

My thoughts:

Not only is this ruling consistent with the establishment clause, but my feeling is that this should also be the common sense position of schools other than public schools where science is supposed to be taught competently. There should be no supreme being or intelligent designer entering into science classes, unless the consensus of scientists in that field is that the use such concepts is justified in their theories. As the testimony made clear, the ID proponents are a tiny and idiosyncratic minority of scientists who think in terms of a different tradition than other scientists and envision scientific theories differnently. Materialism is not given equal time in theology classes or catechism, theology should not be automatically given equal time in science classes just for the supposed sake of balance. You are no longer balancing yourself when you reach over to the person next to you for support. The interests of scholarly balance or charity do not require abandoning the core epistemic values of science and its distinct tradition of thinking.

I agree with the judge's opinion on all major points. For all of its variations in the different fields, science is conducted in accordance with a tradition that speaks with a single voice and a single set of epistemic values regarding inquiry into nature. This tradition is what is and should be the content of competently taught science classes, whether they are in public schools or not. ID is inconsistent with those epistemic values. Any role that research into "Intelligent Design," can play (explanations relying on something having planned nature itself, and explanations that rely on causes from outside of nature, violating physical causal closure of the scientific methodological naturalism) should be in other kinds of classes, not forced upon science classes by political or legal pressure as affirmative action alternatives. This is not just based on the abstract definition of science as physicalist, but on an observation of what scientists actually do and how they work. When they are speaking as ID proponents, professional technologists are not thinking as scientists in terms of constructing testable predictive hypotheses and testing them when they promote ID. They should certainly have the freedom to pursue those scholarly pursuits without prejudice, but scientists and educators in existing organizations are autonomous experts with their own ethical boards and have the right to decide on what is part of their own tradition and their own fields and what is not. Politicians should not be able to force alternate theories to be taught or to be able to interfere with topics of research in general unless the scientists are themselves doing something illegal.

The central ID argument that the naturalistic tradition of science is unfairly atheistic and therefore that religious explanations should be considered in the interest of religious tolerance is clever and unfortunately appears to be consistent with the way a lot of American conservatives think, but ultimately it is wrongheaded. Patriotism and religious faith are carried too far in emphasizing the moral criteria of loyalty over that of truth in this argument.

In my opinion, even apparently "non-religious" philosophical dualist arguments against materialism are ultimately inconsistent with the way science is and has been practiced for centuries and continues to be practiced, but the ultimate criteria should be their testability. I don't see how they could be tested, but I don't reject the possibility at some point. Notwithstanding, those arguments are not the basis for the ID movement as it now stands, nor do they seem to share the same motivations. They are another way in which some people have wrongly seen science as overly restrictive and want to expand it to be consistent with more intuitive ways of looking at nature.

To me, the reason science works as well as it does in certain domains of thinking is that it opposes our intuition in various ways, letting us get past it using other kinds of tools. That's why it is important that it remain autonomous as a domain of inquiry and not be pressured to conform with other traditions for social and political reasons.

By the same reasoning, neither do atheist radicals like Richard Dawkins who see no value whatsoever in religion speak for science. The constitution unambiguously protects freedom of the practice of religion. Science leaves little room for the operation of miracles, but it does not deny their possibility, nor the existence of a supreme being, nor is it a religious tradition or equivalent to religious traditions in any meaningful sense.

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