October 13, 2003

Thinking for oneself?

While reading a section of Phillip Johnson's "Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds" the other day I came upon a notion I felt required comment. Although "intelligent design" creationists are given to extensive use of political rather than evidential argumentation (e.g. "teach both sides," "freedom of thought," etc.) what seems to be one of Johnson’s most peevish habits is to constantly refer to the value of allowing individuals to "think for themselves." It will surprise no one that this attribute is most often extolled when dealing with the classroom scenario of a creationist student confronting a science teacher. When his arguments and evidence are dismissed as religious in nature he is, by Johnson’s lights of course, being urged to close off his mind, to stop thinking for himself and let the scientific establishment take over. Needless to say Johnson is similarly offended when courts dismiss creationist challenges. Apparently the courts do not think for themselves and they wish to impose the same restrictions on decent, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who only want to keep open the minds of our children.

What I would like to know is just what it is that Johnson considers "thinking for oneself" (hereafter TFO). Does this activity occur in a vacuum or are the attendant circumstances important to whether TFO is in fact worthwhile, or even possible? Most of us would agree (I hope) that TFO and reaching a conclusion can produce either a reasonable: net positive truth value, or unreasonable: net negative truth value, result ("zero-value" results are not important to this point, and probably happen very seldom outside of scientific methodology). Those who accept this premise will also agree then that the environment (empirical knowledge, credibility of imparted knowledge, relative motivations of teachers and the thinker himself, etc.) in which this TFO takes place will influence the nature of the conclusion. Clearly if these preconditions are accepted then it can be agreed that, depending on conditional influences, TFO can lead an individual to an incorrect conclusion.

Surely it is logical then to presume that a mental evaluation of the circumstances surrounding a TFO event is appropriate before reaching a conclusion, for instance asking oneself questions such as,

1) Is what I "know-to-be-true" evidentially supported?
2) Is this a subject/field in which there can actually be objective expertise, i.e. it is predominantly grounded in empirical evidence rather than subjective opinion?
3) Do the experts in this field agree, in significant measure, on the nature of the evidence and those conclusions that can be drawn from it?
4) Would the experts in this field agree that what I "know-to-be-true" is consistent with the current consensus?
5) Should the experts not agree with my perspective, can I accept that what I "know-to-be-true" might be mistaken?
6) Can I accept that there might be reasonable societal consequences that accrue by choosing to believe that I "know" despite overwhelming contrary evidence?

etc., etc...

Anyone can think for themselves. The real value is derived when this enterprise is informed by evidence and guided by personal epistemological integrity (5, above).

If a Sunday School student raised his hand in class, asserted the truth of Islam and requested its inclusion in the curriculum I suspect Johnson would consider this TFO event inappropriate, and so he should. Thinking for oneself is not valuable regardless of the outcome or the circumstances. It is an entirely context dependent activity and should be encouraged in the light of an unrestrained search for empirical evidence.

Am I making an Ararat out of an anthill? Possibly. However it is just this kind of sloppy reasoning on the part of the ID crowd that prompts aggressive questioning of their motives. The self-aggrandizing logic and appeal to emotion continue to expose ID as a predominantly political endeavor.

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