Philosophers to the Rescue? the Failed Attempt to Defend the Inclusion of Intelligent Design in Public Schools

By Sloan-Lynch, Jay | Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Philosophers to the Rescue? the Failed Attempt to Defend the Inclusion of Intelligent Design in Public Schools


Sloan-Lynch, Jay, Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly


In recent years, a number of philosophers have authored books or articles defending the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) in public schools. For the most part, these philosophers have avoided interjecting themselves into the scientific debates concerning evolutionary theory or ID and have instead targeted what they perceive to be the flawed intellectual framework relied upon by academics in recent criticisms and judicial rulings against ID.

The general methodology employed by these philosophers is conspicuously similar. First, these critics present various arguments meant to challenge the ubiquitous tactic of rejecting the legitimacy of ID on the grounds that it isn't genuinely science. This rationale, for instance, was employed by Judge John E. Jones in the significant Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District ruling that ID could not be taught in public schools because it was not properly scientific. It is argued that the presumption that biologists, philosophers, or judges possess a clear answer to the question of what is or isn't science (the "demarcation problem") is fallacious and thus attempts to exclude supernatural explanations in science a priori are intellectually arbitrary.

Second, these critics argue that given the absence of clear criteria satisfactorily distinguishing evolutionary science from ID, both theories can be legitimately taught in public school science classes. While the question of how and in what context ID ought to be taught is largely eschewed, the overall conclusion held by these authors is that the teaching of Intelligent Design, perhaps even merely as "bad science" or as a suggested alternative to evolution, would not be illegitimate in the public classroom.

I am sympathetic to the claim that defining ID out of science classes by invoking contentious solutions to the demarcation problem is a fundamentally flawed approach. I have yet to see a convincing argument that science, in principle, prohibits positing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. I will argue, however, that the move from the conclusion that ID is not nonscience to the conclusion that it is legitimate to teach it in public schools is deeply mistaken.

What Is Science?

The most common reason given for rejecting discussion of ID in science classes is based on the claim that ID violates the fundamental scientific commitment to methodological naturalism. Proper science, critics of intelligent design claim, is restricted to natural explanations of empirical evidence and confirmable data. Science, the philosopher Michael Ruse argues, "deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by natural law." Accordingly, any explanation that references supernatural causes (e.g., an Intelligent Designer) is precluded from the proper domain of science. But what justifies defining science in such a way that keeps supernatural explanations out of the classroom?

Rarely is an argument given. Often it is simply asserted, as Ruse does, that a commitment to methodological naturalism is an essential tenet of science. The problem with this approach, as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, is that you can't simply settle an ongoing dispute about what science is by citing a definition of science.

Furthermore, the belief that scientific explanations must be confined to natural phenomena ignores the existence of weighty counter-examples. For example, if the claim is that science must restrict itself simply to hypotheses that are empirically testable, then it seems possible to construct imaginative examples that involve testable supernatural explanations that could plausibly meet this criterion. Consider the following story provided by Bradley Monton:

   Imagine that some astronomers discover a pulsar that is pulsing out
   Morse code. The message says that it's from God, and that God is
   causing the pulsar to pulse in this unusual way. The astronomers are
   initially skeptical, but they find that when they formulate
   questions
   in their head, the questions are correctly answered by the message. … 

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