Science And/Or Philosophy

So George Will thinks that intelligent design is worth talking about, just not in science class. I don’t agree, but not for a reason I’ve seen anyone else mention. Intelligent design belongs in the science classroom not because it’s science, but because it’s philosophy.

I’ve had this gripe for a long time. Considerations of how a discipline is pursued, and its basic epistomological underpinnings, should not be put off until graduate school. It’s a glaring weakness of secondary and undergraduate college education in the United States that it so often is. I’m not claiming the hard sciences are particularly bad in this regard; in fact, they’re probably better than history and some of the social sciences.

I came to realize how ill prepared undergraduates were to make basic process critiques when I started teaching History of Economic Thought at the UT/Dallas. (Yes, this is an odd course to relegate to a teaching assistant. But until I offered to teach it, it had been in the catalog for ten years and taught once.) You have to start somewhere in a survey course like this; I started with the Scholastics. But you can’t understand anything about how the Scholastics approached economic questions unless you know something about the philosophical structure they used, and in particular the ways they thought it was permissible to argue from individual observation to general theory. Then, when we moved on to the early French and English mercantilists, I realized that my students were no better prepared to understand their epistomology than they were with Aquinas. Most of them had picked up what the mercantilists believed in other classes; none of them had the foggiest notion why they believed it. And so it went, on up into Marshall and Keynes and the standard supply-demand and IS-LM analyses they’d all been suckling since they were freshmen.

And it’s just the same in other disciplines. A student who majors in history spends his entire undergraduate career taking courses that teach him what happened when. They teach nothing about why historians think that happened then, how historians work, how evidence is weighed, how contradictions are reconciled. And students of evolutionary biology learn the evolutionary theories that are currently in vogue. They learn nothing about how those theories are formed and tested. They learn nothing about how one would challenge a standing theory, what constitutes a meaningful challenge, how a priori assumptions focus attention on some evidence and blind us to other evidence.

That is why students of biology should be introduced to intelligent design in the science classroom. I hold no brief for or against intelligent design. I don’t know enough about it to have an informed opinion. But the little I do know seems to place it squarely in the Kuhnian tradition. Evolutionary biology as it currently stands, while it has significant explanatory power and a body of solid physical evidence, has unexplained mechanisms, apparent contradictions. Intelligent design is one approach to correcting those problems. There is nothing unscientific about the process that sometimes lead to scientific revolutions.

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13 thoughts on “Science And/Or Philosophy

  1. Kathy, I’m glad you mention Kuhn. He’s key to understanding this mess and isn’t mentioned often enough.

  2. I think philosophy is present in the classroom Kathy.

    In my opinion philosophy and the special sciences are unavoidably connected, so it has to be present, but it doesn’t have to be present explicitly. So your complaint is really that no one is making the philosophical assumptions of a given area of study explicit at the high school and college level.

    I am also of the opinion that just as science is connected to philosophy, so philosophy is connected to religious assumptions. If this is correct, then it may be a partial explanation for why such issues are avoided. Delving into the philosophical assumptions of a theory would also tend to reveal its religious underpinnings. And that would open the door to alternative explanations, something our secular public school system wants to avoid at all costs.

    After all, why would they want to screw up the monopoly on truth they have funded at taxpayers expense?

  3. Design belongs in the science classroom because it is the basis of all science. The first premise in any scientific inquiry is that the thing works. Science then devises mechanisms to identify how it works.

    This type of talk that science writers use today that because only the best things last there is an “illusion of design” is just an affront to the intellect. This apotheosis of unreason is cutting the limb out from under science itself: science is by definition THE STUDY OF DESIGN.

  4. I once spoke about ID/Darwin with an engineer who had moved on to Ivy League training in another field. He explained he didn’t swallow Darwin whole because any good engineer knows that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WORKS UNLESS IT IS WELL-DESIGNED.

  5. Hi Kathy

    I’m afraid I can’t agree with your assertion that a philosophical claim needs to be discussed in a science classroom just because it is a philosophical claim. While it is true that there used to be a certain intersection between what was once called “natural philosophy” and what Aristotle called “first philosophy”, that intersection has long since dissolved, and the special sciences now have quite different methodologies. Intelligent design should not be discussed in a science classroom because it is not science, and it should not be discussed in a course in the history of science because it is not a significant part of the history of science. No philosopher until the 18th century thought of God’s design as falling within the perview of the special sciences: beginning with thinkers like Albert the Great and John Buridan we already see a keen awareness in Medieval philosophy of the important distinction to be drawn between what we would call the empirical disciplines and the theoretical or speculative ones (like philosophy).

    Since the 18th century you find no philosophers and only a few scientists who think of intelligent design as a subject for scientific rather than theological discussion, precisely because the methodology is a priori rather than a posteriori. The special sciences are almost exclusively a posteriori (with the rather interesting exception of mathematics and geometry), but intelligent design requires a good deal of a priori assumption, including the rather dubious one that like causes can be inferred from like effects.

    None of this is to deny that Christians–and perhaps other religious folks as well–cannot possibly commit themselves to either empiricism or materialism as some of the more blockheaded scientists such as Richard Dawkins appear to believe the only reasonable thing to do. We must be anti-realist about science precisely because we believe that even a world in which natural selection is the mechanism by which change occurs, that does not change the fact that natural selection itself is part of God’s design in the kosmos.

    Now, the commitment to anti-realism about science is a topic that I think all working scientists should be exposed to–but in a philosophy class, taught by someone who has expertise in realism and anti-realism, i.e., a philosopher.

    Not that I’m trying to toot my own horn, mind you.

  6. It is sometimes useful to recall that Darwin started out holding William Paley’s arguments on design as the paradigm to use.

    Kuhn wrote: “. . . the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all.

    “How, then, are scientists brought to make this transposition? Part of the answer is that they are very often not. Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus’ death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Contintent, for more than half a century after the *Principia* appeared. Priestly never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on. The difficulties of conversion have often been noted by scientists themselves. Darwin, in a particularly perceptive passage at the end of his *Origin of Species,* wrote: ‘Although I am fully convinced by the truth of the views given in this volume . . . , I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite of mine. . . .[B]ut I look with confidence to the future, — to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.’ And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his *Scientific Autobiography,* sadly remarked that ‘a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its oppnents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.'”

    (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Second Edition, Enlarged), University of Chicago Press 1962, 1970, pp. 150-151)

    Just a modest reminder that Kuhn cast Darwin in the role of the newer, better paradigm.

  7. I think that, with regard to Kuhn, it is worth recalling that he, too, is in a sense an anti-realist. For this reason I find it rather dubious to associate speculation about intelligent design with his philosophical program. He is the epistemological relativist extraordinaire, yet most defenders of ID want to challenge the modern synthesis not because they think, with Kuhn, that there is no chance of obtaining epistemological certainty, but precisely because they think the synthesis is false, and objectively so, and that ID is true, and objectively so. I presume that most defenders of ID not only think that ID is true, they also think it is knowably true, that is, they are positivistic and realist about our prospects of confirming it.

    That strikes me rather as the opposite of Kuhn’s program, rather than consistent with it.

  8. Hi, Scott.

    Now, the commitment to anti-realism about science is a topic that I think all working scientists should be exposed to–but in a philosophy class, taught by someone who has expertise in realism and anti-realism, i.e., a philosopher

    I realize the guild gets nervous when outsiders invade their turf. Heck, it makes me nervous to remember what I was trying to get those kids to think about, given my own meager credentials. But here’s the rub: the chance any of my students were going to take a class in the philosophy of science was zero. In fact, it was a real long shot that they were even in my class, given they could just as easily have fulfilled their credit requirements with some vapid B-school nonsense like The Tao of Marketing. If you get one shot at them, you take it, do you not?

    I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but confining a concern for teaching philosophy to “working scientists” strikes me as both elitist and hazardous. The electorate is being forced to make policy decisions about more and more esoteric scientific and technological practices with serious ethical ramifications. In this situation, the only voter more dangerous than a complete know-nothing is a guy with a B.S. who thinks his political opinions are mandated by scientific fact, when in fact they’re based on unstated a priori assumptions underlying his “facts.” He might or might not agree with these assumptions were he to examine them, but it’s a sure bet he doesn’t even know there are unexamined assumptions to be considered.

  9. Hi Kathy,

    You’re right, I didn’t mean it that way. I was thinking about working scientists primarily because the folks that I teach in my philosophy of science classes are science majors who want to go on to become working scientists and it’s primarily because of that that they don’t really see why they ought to take a philosophy of science class.

    But regardless of who it is we’re talking about, I still can’t see any reason to teach intelligent design in a science class. Science is, by its very nature, empirical and a posteriori. ID is neither and, more importantly, it isn’t testable. The special sciences must confine themselves to hypotheses that are testable, otherwise they cease to be the special sciences as we understand them.

    ID can be discussed profitably in a philosophy class or, perhaps, in a religious studies class. It is an a priori hypothesis about the nature of the kosmos, and certainly there are plenty of venues for the discussion of such hypotheses. But a biology class, or a physics class, or a chemistry class isn’t one of them, in my opinion.

    Now, the issue of anti-realism seems to me to be a different matter. There may be some sort of methods class in some biology departments in which it would be appropriate to discuss the differences between realism and anti-realism. But I don’t see that a whole lot really hangs on that distinction when it comes to actually doing science. A working scientist doesn’t really need to be all that familiar with that.

    But what about these voters and policy makers that you’re talking about? How much do they really need to know about this? Again, I’m not all that sure they need to know a lot. We see, in places like Kansas and here in Ohio, a return to the public square of debates over such things, but in the end what difference is it going to make if Kansas mandates ID as part of their curriculum? I don’t think it will matter much. There are two possibilities–on the one hand, maybe the students will just roll their eyes, listen to the ID spiel, and then come out of school as regular biologists. On the other hand, perhaps biology majors in Kansas may come out believing weird things about evolution and ID, but they will have to compete in the worldwide marketplace of biological ideas and in the end there really are only a few places in the US where this is an issue at all–most of the world has no such debate and never will. So these folks will just disappear in the great intellectual gene pool (Darwin’s revenge).

  10. No Kathy that’s a faulty argument for injecting philosophy into the science classroom. What it might be is a decent argument for having another class which looks at the history of science. It’s worth pointing out that ID really wouldn’t have much of a place in that class either, although it’s parent, creationism, probably would deserve a discussion.

  11. “I once spoke about ID/Darwin with an engineer who had moved on to Ivy League training in another field. He explained he didn’t swallow Darwin whole because any good engineer knows that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WORKS UNLESS IT IS WELL-DESIGNED.”

    Then this guy was a complete idiot. Engineering is replete with examples of items that worked accidentally, or that ended up being terrible at what they had been designed for but great in some other capacity.

  12. Oh and kathy, in my phiscs schooling we absolutely covered the history and methodology of many of the most important experiments (even the ones that yielded negative results) so as to understand how the field developed as well as where it was. I personally did Millikan’s oil drop experiment (which is a freaking headache) that determined the quantiziation of charge, along with several others.

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