October 19, 2005

Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers, Pt. 5" - A merciful, if no more truthful, end

[Fifth and last in a series of responses to Stephen Meyer's "Notes to Teachers"]

(Note To Teachers Part 5: Religion and Intelligent Design)
A final misconception you may encounter is that intelligent design is simply a sectarian religion. According to this view, intelligent design is merely fundamentalism with anew twist; teaching it in public schools allegedly violates the separation of church and state.
Teaching “intelligent design” does violate the separation of church and state, but not because it is “fundamentalism with a new twist,” it’s not. And not because it’s a “sectarian religion,” it’s not that either.

ID is an attempt to forcefully stake out a corner in scientific methodology for reference to God. It is a movement motivated by, and developed in dedication to, the idea that Christian theology should eventually replace those scientific observations that are perceived to diminish the adherent’s beliefs. This anticipation is amply documented in the movement’s own literature.

To be sure, ID proponents take pains to produce public language that refrains from discussing the “designer.” There is no doubt, again confirmed by a perusal of the literature, that this is purposeful strategy on their parts. Indeed it is reflective of the very “theory” of ID which methodologically stops short of the goal of any “design” investigation – identification and description of the designing agency.
This view is wide of the mark. The idea that life had an intelligent source is hardly unique to Christian fundamentalism. Advocates of design have included not only Christians and other religious theists, but pantheists, Greek and Enlightenment philosophers and now included many modern scientists who describe themselves as religious agnostic. Moreover, the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as young earth, a global flood or even the existence of a Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source.
Meyer constructs a fragile strawman here, one stuffed with notions of confused biologists mistaking ID for fundamentalist Christianity. Of course anyone who thinks this through realizes that virtually all scientists are sophisticated enough to recognize the distinctions involved. Opposing ID due to its theological motivations and content is not equivalent to misjudging it as fundamentalism. But this shallow argument serves Meyer’s obscurantist goals.

And Meyer is correct to note that the perception of design in nature is not limited to those of the Christian persuasion. But the promoting and pushing of ID as an alternative to legitimate science is not happening as a result of pantheists or Greek philosophers. It is nearly exclusively a crusade of Christian extremism, and is opposed only on the basis of its assault on science.
In any case, sectarianism is more a matter of form than content. It is marked by a certain narrowness and exclusivity that entertains no debate and tolerates no opposing viewpoints. Given the broad appeal of intelligent design (even Richard Dawkins, a staunch Darwinist and author of the Blind Watchmaker, acknowledges "the appearance of design" in the living world), it is perhaps more accurate to conclude that the real sectarians are those who vilify design as "fundamentalist religion." Such name-calling is merely another way to avoid debate and keep the real issues out of view.
It is outright deception for Meyer to offer the Dawkins quote, which Dawkins went on to qualify in distinct opposition to the idea of “intelligent design,” as direct support for the “broad appeal of intelligent design.” It is behavior such as this that should cause anyone reading pieces such as Meyer’s “Notes…” to view with suspicion any claims made. It must be kept in mind that there is always (as with “scientific creationism”) an underlying fealty to beliefs which allow proponents to view their own statement through a lens of service to higher goals. In short, they often do not tell the truth, though they do not perceive it as lying. Consider, for example, Meyer’s specious assertion above that the “real sectarians” are those opposing ID. He knows that virtually none of his opposition qualifies ID as “fundamentalist religion.” He knows as well that there is no reason or logic behind describing opposition to ID as “sectarian.” Science is, if anything, about as a-sectarian as a discipline could get. But to Meyer, these kinds of arguments which play very loose with the facts are can be forgiven for the fact that they serve his perception of a greater good.
Even if the design hypothesis were religious, however, criticizing it on that basis begs the question of whether it is scientifically warranted. In science, the origin of an idea is supposed to be irrelevant to its validity. What matters is not the source but whether the idea is logically consistent and empirically supportable. If it is, what justification is there for excluding it from the classroom?
It is not its source that indicts ID “theory,” it is the methodology. ID demurs from adopting both the fundamental assumptions, and methodology of science. These are the grounds on which it is opposed as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolutionary biology. In regards to the campaign to force ID into high school science curricula, a valid additional response is that the “theory” is intentionally contrived to allow religious inferences. This point is only tangentially related to the “source” of the idea. Both points are justification for excluding it from the classroom.
In its landmark ruling on the Louisiana Balanced Treatment Act, the United States Supreme Court did not try to shield the classroom from dissenting viewpoints. Indeed, it affirmed that teachers already had the flexibility to teach non-evolutionary views and present scientific evidence bearing on the question of origins:

“The Act does not grant teachers a flexibility that they did not already possess to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories besides evolution, about the origin of life. Indeed, the Court of Appeals found that no law prohibited Louisiana public schoolteachers from teaching any scientific theory.”

Neither did the Supreme Court choose to limit that flexibility:

“Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.”

This is not only consistent with good science, it is consistent with the highest ideals of a democratic society.
Indeed. Though for reasons already discussed it is unfortunately not consistent with ID “theory,” or the goals of ID proponents.
As John Scopes, who was tried in the 1920s for teaching evolution, said at his own trial, "Education, you know, means broadening, advancing, and if you limit a teacher to only one side of anything the whole country will eventually have only one thought, be one individual. I believe in teaching every aspect of every problem or theory."
Let’s be fair to John Scopes here and acknowledge the honorable intent of his words. The real problem lies, of course, in Meyer’s intent.

It should not have to be pointed out that Scopes doesn’t really mean “every aspect of every problem…” Should classroom time be spent discussing moral lessons that might be derived from evolutionary biology? Should effort be made to point out that evolutionary theory does little to help resolve political, philosophical, and theological problems? Do we actually want to discuss all of the possible aspects “of every problem or theory?” Or do we really just want to teach the relevant scientific aspects?

This is a fitting way for Meyer to end his series of Notes to Teachers. The quote from Scopes, used to misrepresent the nature of the debate, encapsulates the lengths to which ID proponents will go in order to demagogue and obfuscate the issues involved. It is obvious to all but the most obdurate that scientists and educators do not resist “Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren,” or “enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.”

Scientists simply want to limit instruction in biology classes to legitimate science. There are no conspiracies to oppose new ideas in favor of entrenched orthodoxy. The paranoid atheist charlatans who conspire to limit the “academic freedom” of noble theorists and innocent children exist only in the fevered fantasies of ID zealots.

This last “Note,” as with the previous four, is full of disingenuous rhetoric and deliberate obfuscation. Shouldn’t honest, open examination of these issues, consistent as it is with the highest ideals of a democratic society, also be consistent with the ideals and dialectical focus of the “intelligent design” movement?


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