Thursday, December 08, 2005

Charles Darwin and the Intelligent Designers.

The image accompanying this post is sometimes blocked by hackers. Please see "New Jersey's Feces-Covered Supreme Court" and "Is New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz unethical or only incompetent?" I think that Ms. Poritz was both, unethical and incompetent. This is her legacy, suffering and disgrace for persons subject to the legal system over which she presided -- both of which will grow with the passage of time, symbolizing everything that American law should not be.

July 31, 2007 at 8:50 A.M. I blocked the following New Jersey intruders and hackers:

Margaret Talbot, "Darwin in the Dock," in The New Yorker, December 5, 2005, at p. 66.
Harry Collins & Trevor Pinch, The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 89.

A recent court case in Pennsylvania concerns the teaching of evolution in schools (yes, that issue is still controversial in America), and whether "intelligent design" theory merits inclusion, along with Darwinism, in the science curriculum at a local high school.

I will rely on an article that appeared in the New Yorker, written by Margaret Talbot. Ms. Talbot is an excellent writer, with a wicked sense of fun and a ready wit, usually sharpened at the expense of pompous morons. She is too often reined-in by dull editors (let her be mean, please). Unfortunately, Ms. Talbot is on her best behavior in this piece.

Ms. Talbot won my heart when she said: "I would kill for Marianne Williamson's critique of Kierkegaard." Ms. Williamson elevates banality to a new level of meaninglessness, but she's trendy and looks nice in her cover photo, that is, until she was the subject of Margaret Talbot's "profile" in The New Republic, if I remember correctly. If I were asked to define "New Age" drivel, I would point to Ms. Williamson -- who once compared herself, seriously, to Kierkegaard, and promised readers a "critique" of his work. I would then light some aromatic candles and listen to "Enya."

I will not discuss all of the legal details of this Pennsylvania case or the richness in the coverage by Ms. Talbot. This long article is a reminder of why we used to read the New Yorker as well as the Times. The crux of the issue, for me, is whether elected officials and school board members can insist, legitimately, that "intelligent design" theory be given equal time with evolution, or that it be mentioned as a rival to Darwinian theory in a ninth grade biology class.

I do not think that school board officials or politicians should make scientific determinations nor alter the public school curriculum of science for political, religious, or any non-scientific reasons.

Local high school biology teachers were dismissive of intelligent design theory and it certainly does not have the general acceptance among scientists enjoyed by traditional evolutionary theory. I say this as one who finds intelligent design theory -- especially the book by microbiologist Michael J. Behe -- interesting, though mostly for philosophical reasons.

Intelligent design points to the great beauty and precision, the rational order in nature, and postulates a "designer" on the basis of this observable intelligence in the design, as the most plausible explanation to account for this "splendid coherence" of all natural processes. The failure of imagination in this theory consists in not seeing that the word "God" includes and is that great beauty and the elegant design. Such an understanding of "God," makes all scientists (including atheists), into theologians, since they are revealing to us the "face" of God in the workings of nature.

Darwinists speak of random selection and point to the large number of species that have disappeared, wondering why an intelligent designer would create a process in which most species do not make it. This continuing discussion is conducted at the level of theory. This issue turns into the ancient questions of theodicy. But what is a scientific theory?

... although all science is provisional, a scientific theory is a powerful explanation that unites a large body of facts and relies on testable hypotheses. As [an expert testified,] "it is not something that we think of in the middle of the night after too much coffee and not enough sleep."

Teachers of high school biology were asked to read a statement to students informing them of the "option" of "intelligent design" as against standard Darwinism. The statement was written by schoool board members. The teachers refused to accept this statement:

In a letter to the board they argued that "central to the teaching act and our ethical obligation is the solemn responsiblity to teach the truth [truth, it seems, is not relative after all]."

The teachers and scientists said:

"...if I, as the classroom teacher, read the required statement, my students will inevitably and understandably believe that intelligent design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on a par with the theory of evolution. That is not true."

O.K., so what should the judge do in this case?

I think that he -- it happens to be a man who is the judge in this case -- should abide by all the provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That Amendment requires the government both to refrain from any "establishment" of religion and from interfering with the "free exercise" of religion.

Intelligent design is not a scientifically accepted theory; thus, it should not be taught by science teachers, AS SCIENCE, even if parents or school board members would like it to be taught or would prefer that it be accepted by scientists as equal to, or just as plausible as, Darwin's theory. It just isn't. Too bad. To force teachers to utter this statement may be interpreted as an imposition of belief or an impermissible "establishment" of religion.

The plausibility of a scientific theory should and must be determined by scientists and not by elected public officials, nor (heaven help us!) judges. To require scientists to accept as true a theory which is not true or mistaken, in their judgment, is an imposition of a religious or other value judgment, in my opinion, upon adherents of a discipline concerned to describe natural processes in as value-free and accurate or truthful a manner as possible. Notice that this says nothing about discussions concerning what our scientific knowledge means, aesthetically or theologically, morally or metaphysically.

Dogmatism won't work, anyway. You can't teach something as science, which isn't science. However, you can teach something that is not science as art or philosophy, religious insight or myth leading to wisdom. Reality will say yes or no to our most cherished theories.

"You mean, there is such a thing as truth?" In a word: "Yes."

To the extent that we wish to move forward in our understanding of the empirical realities of the universe, it will be incumbent upon us to accept those lessons provided by science when it comes to how things are in the (Carl Sagan, this is for you!) "cosmos." The deepest religious wisdom comes with the identification of God with all that science reveals, but such wisdom does not belong in a science classroom.

On the other hand, when experts appear in a courtroom to advise a judge concerning a legal issue with scientific implications, then judges must not substitute scientists' opinions for their own reasoning as to THE LEGAL CONCLUSIONS. For example, Insanity is a legal conclusion, not a psychiatric diagnostic category -- a legal conclusion, which must be made by judges, with the help of psychiatrists and others providing scientific information and explanations concerning relevant diagnosed mental illnesses, when there is consent to examination by the patient, together with adequate basis for such diagnoses.

Intelligent design may be an appropriate argument to consider in a theology class or philosophy discussion (I am not even sure about that, much depends on one's conception of philosophy), but its validity in biology is only for biologists to decide.

I think that intelligent design is more of an aesthetic point or issue, appropriately mentioned in a discussion of, say, Romantic poetry. That does not mean that it is something "trivial" or not "objective," something relegated to the unimportant "feminine side of life," along with the emotions and child care issues. Aesthetics and affective states are not only "objective" realities, but very important social realities or parts of culture.

Ironically, the very same issue of the New Yorker includes a review of a new biography of Wordsworth, making the same point as intelligent design theory from the perspective of a nineteenth century English poet. The "Lake District" must be somewhere in California. If so, Ms. Williamson may be right at home there. Me too, probably. A frightening thought.

School boards and courts, even scientists, have no right to tell people who wish to believe that intelligent design is proof of the existence of a Creator or God (which I don't think it is), that they are prohibited from holding this belief. Belief is a matter of private conscience. It is not the State's business to judge the beliefs of persons. Criticism is always allowed. Action on the basis of belief is the State's business.

"Yeah, well how about if my religion requires me to go around killing people who advocate 'politically correct' views, since most of them are from the planet 'Modor,' and that will include Ms. Williamson."

This is the kind of comment I usually get from a young guy in a baseball cap, who drives a pick-up truck because he lives in the "farm country" of Queens, New York, while chewing tobacco. Usually, he will end up marrying a young woman in black, wearing Converse high top sneakers, who will make him read Sylvia Plath's poetry. A fitting punishment, as far as I am concerned, and for both of them.

While I am highly sympathetic to this cap-wearing person's beliefs and practices, it is well settled that regulation of behavior by the State, through the criminal law, does not constitute infringement on the free exercise of religion. You can't go around committing crimes and then justify doing so because your religion requires it, while claiming tax-exempt status of course.

I may believe that my neighbor is a visitor from the planet "Modor" (Ms. Williamson?), even as the government cannot forbid this belief. If I kill my neighbor because I believe the inhabitants of "Modor" plan to take over the earth, then the State can and should act against me. Fortunately, I may have a lack of capacity or insanity defense that negates the specific intent that is (usually) necessary for a murder conviction. However, until there is specific action by an individual, the state cannot limit freedom. No one's beliefs may be criminalized, though all are invited to criticize and undermine beliefs deemed unethical, after debate.

I often find myself objecting to scientists' presuming to make value judgments for the rest of us. This Pennsylvania case is an example of people making a value judgment and disguising it as science, or as a theory about biological phenomena, which is worse. Science is concerned to inform us about and explain natural phenomena. Science is not dispositive when it comes to the value judgments that we make about those workings of nature, or when we decide how we will make creative use of our scientific knowledge. Notice that it is quite "natural" to make value judgments about our knowledge of nature.

We bow to science when it describes how things work in nature, that is, why things are the way they are in the universe or in empirical reality. How the brain works, for example, is a scientific determination. The nature of our mental lives or phenomenological investigations -- desiring, wishing, loving -- are not matters that are exclusive to science, though I want to know what scientists say even about such subjects.

What I refuse to allow, however, is for scientists to claim that determinations concerning values and emotions are also the exclusive province of science, because they are not. When it comes to values questions, scientists' opinions are no better than anyone else's opinions. This is true also when it comes to the meaning of such phenomena as death or love.

Evolution is a description of the workings of nature, whose accuracy must be left to the determination of scientists. How we choose to apply the lessons of that theory to social or moral life, or whether we choose to do so at all, is a matter of conscience for each individual to decide in his or her own mind and heart, which is not the State's business. Such matters are appropriate subjects of public debate, in which all are invited to participate, as equals. Scientists have no special status, as citizens, when it comes to such discussions. Neither do judges, lawyers, doctors, auto mechanics, artists, and certainly not politicians.

Oh, there's the bell. Class is over. See you next time. Don't forget the homework on the board.

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