A Response to “Public Education and Intelligent Design” (Part 1)

On 30 April 2014, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dan Harper mentioned a paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel on his blog — “A possible case for teaching intelligent design” is the title of the blog post and the Nagel’s paper is Public Education and Intelligent Design.”

In the opening section of his paper, Thomas Nagel makes the following observation about the assumptions used in the sciences and how they may conflict with religious assumptions:

But the conflicts aired in this trial [Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District]—over the status of evolutionary theory, the arguments for intelligent design, and the nature of science—reveal an intellectually unhealthy situation. The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of legitimate interest. Most importantly, the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it.

I’m not sure what Nagel means by a “counterorthodoxy” and “tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory.”

Yes, it’s true that many scientists are philosophical naturalists (who hold that only natural processes operate in the universe and there is no evidence for supernatural forces of any sort).

A commonly cited statistic is that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god (72.2% expressed disbelief and another 20.8% were agnostic concerning the existence of a personal god who answers prayer — cited from Wikipedia).

But even scientists who hold supernatural beliefs (theism – a belief in a personal god) employ methodological naturalism when doing science even if they are not philosophical naturalists.

In writing the Kitzmiller decision, Judge Jones made the following comments about methodological naturalism and its role in the sciences:

“Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena … While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science.” Methodological naturalism is thus “a self-imposed convention of science.” It is a “ground rule” that “requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.” (cited from Wikipedia)

At first glance, this quote from the judge’s decision appears to support Nagel’s opening statement in his paper.

But that really isn’t the case.

For almost 500 years, we have been successfully used methodological naturalism in our exploration of the world because it works.

It’s not an a priori assumption.

It’s an assumption with a proven track record — a pragmatic assumption.

Greta Christina mentions this on her blog:

When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.

Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.

All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation?

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?

Exactly zero.

Now … there may be theological implications for some regarding methodological naturalism as it is currently used in the sciences.

And there may be theological implications in some conceptual frameworks currently used the sciences.

We now view lighting being caused by electrostatic discharge in clouds.  We don’t consider Thor to be useful here.

We now view HIV and AIDS being caused by a virus.  We don’t find the “AIDS is God’s curse” to be useful.

Our understanding of natural selection and evolution is that both are “material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless” — a process that happens without forethought or goal.  Google “Luria–Delbrück experiment” — we’ve known that this is a blind and purposeless process for many years.

But one might say this is not consistent with my theology.

The rejection of Thor causing lighting also clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of HIV/AIDS being a divine curse clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of intelligent design clashes with some theological opinions.

If we are being reasonable in the first two cases ignoring theological concerns (lighting, HIV/AIDS), we may be reasonable ignoring theology in the third case (evolution and natural selection).

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