Over at the Christian Science Monitor, philosopher Alexander George offers an interesting oped concerning the intelligent design debate and what should and should not be taught in science classes. While he agrees with the verdict in the Dover case that ID should not be taught in science classes, he does so for different reasons than those most often touted by intelligent design critics, that ID is not science.
The problem with this argument is that it requires making the case that intelligent design is not science. And the intelligibility of that task depends on the possibility of drawing a line between science and non-science. The prospects for this are dim. Twentieth-century philosophy of science is littered with the smoldering remains of attempts to do just that.
Let's abandon this struggle to demarcate and instead let's liberally apply the label "science" to any collection of assertions about the workings of the natural world. Fine, intelligent design is a science then – as is astrology, as is parapsychology.
Then having abandoned demarcation as a criterion for the content of science classes he offers another:
But what has a claim to being taught in the science classroom isn't all science, but rather the best science, the claims about reality that we have strongest reason to believe are true.
Although this may still seem a bit sketchy as a criterion, it sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it? What I like about it is that it replaces the failed enlightenment strategy of searching for absolute algorithms (demarcation rules) instead with a reliance on discourse and judgement. In the place of an attempt to formulate and apply certain rules to make decisions, they will have to fall out from a much broader and looser process of exploring the history of science, philosophy of science, evaluating methodologies, weighing the evidence, and forming intuitions. Now obviously this seems quite a bit messier and less certain, but isn't it really the milieu of discourse and judgement within many communities of inquiry that ultimately determines what is to be considered good science from bad?
George's sentiments also seem to track well with what prominent philosopher of science Larry Laudan has to say in his book Beyond Positivism and Relativism: Theory, Method, and Evidence . He also comes down hard on the quest to formulate a demarcation scheme for science and pseudo-science:
Through certain vagaries of history, some of which I have alluded to here, we managed to conflate two quite distinct questions: What makes a belief well founded (or heuristically fertile?) And what makes a belief scientific? The first set of questions is philosophically interesting and possibly even tractable; the second question is both uninteresting, and judging by its checkered past, intractable. If we would stand up and be counted on the side of reason, we ought to drop terms like 'pseudo-science' and 'unscientific' from our vocabulary; they are just hollow phrases which do only emotive work for us. p.222
But Laudan still thinks there are important issues to be resolved:
In asserting that the problem of demarcation between science and nonscience is a pseudo-problem (at least as far as philosophy is concerned), I am manifestly not denying that there are crucial epistemic and methodological questions to be raised about knowledge claims, whether we classify them as scientific or not. p. 221.
What we need is to provide is a way of distinguishing reliable knowledge claims from unreliable ones. Once we can do that, it matters not a whit whether a reliable claim is scientific or not. The problem of characterizing the nature of empirical evidence is a major problem but it has nothing directly to do with the demarcation problem, while that latter problem is more an issue in the sociology of disciplines than it is a problem in epistemology. p. 24
So what does Laudan suggest to address this issue of beliefs and knowledge claims being well founded and reliable? He suggests focusing on "empirical and conceptual credentials."
Insofar as our concern is to protect ourselves and our fellows from the cardinal sin of believing what we wish were so rather than what there is substantial evidence for (and surely that is what most forms of 'quackery' come down to), then our focus should be squarely on the empirical and conceptual credentials for claims about our world. p. 222
Perhaps this could be, at least one, reasonable strategy for determining what George seeks in "the best science, the claims about reality that we have strongest reason to believe are true." If so what might Laudan's criterion have to say considering the teaching of intelligent design and Darwinian theory?
First, I would suggest that both ID and Darwinian theory have reasonably legitimate conceptual credentials. Both have been washed through considerable conceptual discourse and find prominent support among both scientists and philosophers. Both have metaphysical undergirdings that have been tested for systematic integrity. Also while some may disagree, I don't think that the conceptual credentials of either is the main issue in the debate. So what of the empirical credentials? This seems to be the main point of contention.
First, intelligent design. I believe that even prominent ID proponents will agree that intelligent design theory has not yet, to date, "made its bones" on the empirical side. The evidence to be weighed is certainly there, but its credentials are not yet well established. Keep in mind that the concept of credentials is also a complex one. From the dictionary, credentials: "That which entitles one to confidence, credit, or authority." This entitlement can come from many levels: from theoretical success, from communal support, from longevity, from the credentials of proponents, etc. For ID to be well credentialled first there must be adequate empirical evidence established and a convincing case made that it supports intelligent design theory. This means that the theory must "work" and many more people in the communities of inquiry become convinced of its empirical merit. There are certainly inroads in this area as more and more scientists come out in support of ID but only time will tell how far this goes.
Darwinism, at least on the surface, has the empirical credentials to be considered a "best" science. At least in the past, it has seemed to "work" in explaining the emergence of biotic reality. Most scientists and other thinkers find it convincing. It has many prominent advocates in fields of inquiry. At least to date, from this standpoint and its conceptual credentials, it would seem that based on Laudan's criterion, Darwinism meets the test to be considered best science and therefore should be taught. I have no problem with this. However, things get a bit more complicated with regard to both the conceptual and empirical credentials once the surface crust is penetrated. Credentials are a tentative thing. The history of science has shown how they come and go as scientific and philosophic explorations continue. Even if Darwinism has empirical credentials for microevolution, do those translate into credentials for macroevolution and all the complexity we see? It is no mystery that those credentials are being questioned more and more not only by ID proponents but also coming from critics of ID as well. As with ID, only time will tell if the credentials of Darwinism remain intact.
George asserts that demarcation should be abandoned and only the best science be taught. Sounds reasonable. However, perhaps it is equally important for science students to be taught what makes a particular science the best, well founded science and what it takes to overthrow it. After all, the brightest of students will not be attracted to science unless they feel they can move science forward and even perhaps supplant what exists today. Intelligent design is a nascent theory. Its full blooded credentials are yet to be realized. However, perhaps because of the cultural prominence it has taken on, it offers the student an interesting and cogent example to be explored. It offers a range of philosophical and empirical issues not normally found in science today. If demarcation is a mute issue, perhaps educational institutions would be well served to adopt a broader and more vital approach to the inquiry into the workings of our cosmos.
[HT to prosthesis for pointing to George's oped]