January 6, 2006

How can they say that? (#1) - Teaching ID is not religiously motivated

Anyone who spends enough time discussing issues of skepticism, pseudoscience and metaphysics will eventually run up against familiar popular arguments that are just plain boneheaded. The instinct is to imagine that these kinds of canards must be short-lived and ineffectual but the sad truth is they often turn out to be effective memetic replicators.

On the assumption that my reaction to this kind of situation – something akin to intellectual vertigo – is not unique I thought it might be useful to take a brief and honest, if not-too-serious, look at these arguments as either the whim or opportunity strikes. I know that there are plenty of people who make silly arguments because they can’t or won’t, listen to reason. But I have been amazed at how often capable individuals repeat anserine nonsense. So I thought maybe I should try to look at some of these situations from their perspectives, if only to find out how they can believe in what they say.

My approach, then, will be to examine these ideas with an a priori assumption that most of the people offering them are not wicked or stupid or insane, leaving the goal to discover if there is another view that I’ve not previously considered.

I suspect there may be qualities that many of these fictions share, though they are most likely to be found in the motivations that underlie the arguments. Maybe there will be a giggle or two to be extracted as well.

How can they say that? – Teaching ID is not religiously motivated

For the first entry in this category we go right to what may be the most topical, if not the most egregious canard occupying the public consciousness. The recent trial in Dover has brought the subject of “Intelligent Design” onto the frontlines of national news, availing some particularly frustrating notions improved opportunities for dissemination. The following, which comes by way of Ed Brayton’s blog, probably makes all of us raise our eyebrows, shrug our shoulders, and reach to pick our jaws up off of the floor.
“First, proponents of intelligent design are not trying to smuggle religion into the classroom.” - Kerby Anderson, Myths about Intelligent Design
Reading something like that feels like a physical assault upon my optic nerve. It’s stupendously clear, to me at least, that this is not true so, say it with me, “how can he say that?”

Okay, it’s possible that there are ID advocates, even prominent ones, who do not wish to shove their religion into public schools. But it’s also blindingly, gears-grindingly obvious, as revealed by their own statements, that the vast majority of school board members, politicians, protesters, and even “theorists” behind the promulgation of “Intelligent Design” are interested in carving out a nook in science for their God (overwhelmingly the god of Christianity). And in spite of their protestations that ID is science, they are especially keen to skip the peer-review process and have this “theory” taught in public schools. The reasons are painfully apparent – they despise philosophical materialism, conflate science with it, and wish to persuade students that there is something more.

So, assuming these individuals are not all idiotic or insane, I have to wonder if there is a way someone of the ID stripe can utter a statement like Anderson’s above in all sincerity. How can an individual, in the light of his own religious convictions, and understanding the non-natural inference at the heart of ID, honestly believe that they are not smuggling religion into the classroom?

Here’s what I think...at least for the time being.

I think the only way this thought process can work without producing convulsive episodes as a result of severe cognitive dissonance is for the category of “non-natural” phenomena to be accepted as a non-controversial component of the argument. In other words, and I guess this just makes sense, the people who makes these assertions don’t seem to realize the conceptual difficulty non-believers have with the idea of any kind of non-natural phenomenon. They seem to think that as long as they’re non-specific in their inference to something from the kingdom Supernaturalia (avoiding things with names like, say, Jehovah, Allah or Elvis) this should not be cause for consternation.

So I think that for many, not all, of the people using this argument it works out to be something more along the lines of, “we may be invoking non-natural inference, but not our particular religion or God, why would you have a problem with that?”

Hey, I’m not claiming it makes a whole lot of sense, I’m just trying to imagine how someone can utter statements such as the above without blood leaking out of their ears. Anyway, it all puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes about the acceptance or rejection of gods. It comes from Stephen Roberts.
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
I don't suppose it really sheds much light on the subject but, hey, it's early and I haven't had my caffeine.


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