Friday, August 26, 2005

Is it time to take on intelligent design?

As I mentioned recently (see here), Senator John McCain has come out in recent days in support of the teaching of (so-called) intelligent design alongside evolution in America's schools. In so doing, he has aligned himself with President Bush and (insert sarcasm here) no less an enlightened practitioner of modern medicine and defender of the scientific method than Senator Bill Frist — you know, the guy who "diagnosed" Terri Schiavo by videotape and then flip-flopped (over to the right side, thankfully) on stem-cell research.

Here's how Frist put it, as reported last week by AP: "I think today a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith… I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future." Bush himself argued (wrong choice of words, I realize) that including intelligent design in the science curriculum would help people "understand what the debate is about". In response, Howard Dean — doing what he should be doing (i.e., picking apart the opposition, not generalizing and name-calling) — declared that Bush is "anti-science".

Note what the proponents of intelligent design — here, the advocates of its inclusion alongside evolution and other scientific theories — are doing. They're arguing that all points of view, all possibilities, all claimants to the truth, even the most absurd, should be considered on an equal basis with one another. Since the truth itself is, it seems, largely indeterminate (except for ardent creationists, who must be willing to go along with intelligent design so as to sneak creationism back into the schools), various "truths" may be put on the table — and into the minds of our children. In short, they — right-wingers all — have become relativists.

What would Allan Bloom, the teacher of my teachers, say? For years, theorists and commentators like Bloom railed against what they saw as the encroaching nihilism brought to America by German and French philosophy, namely, by the followers of Heidegger. And, to a certain extent, they were right, which is why the right, the new Republican Party, has had such success winning the "values" votes. Blue-staters on the coasts and in the urban heartland may be quite comfortable with some of the softened aspects of postmodernism, such as value relativism and multiculturalism, but huge swaths of middle America object to what is seen as the political supplanting of their theistic and absolute values by the levelling of all values.

But this is precisely how intelligent design is being sold. Creationism won't work politically in diverse America, but intelligent design can be brought in as a substitute, as one value among many, as one possible answer to the fundamental questions of existence. Which is precisely why the rhetoric has changed (always look to the rhetoric, for therein lies the political truth). Frist refers to "a pluralistic society," that is, a society with different values, a society without one overarching truth (except, perhaps, the absence of any one overarching truth). And Bush calls for more "debate," as if our children, who would be subjected to this debate on the origins of life, need to consider all possible options before settling on, well, what? Do proponents/advocates of intelligent design hope that the teaching of their theory would be the thin end of the wedge that reasserts creationism? Or will there simply be endless debate? Or are we left with nothing more than infinite possible truths, with pluralism run amok? After all, as Sir Humphrey Appleby says in the great BBC comedy Yes, Prime Minister to the impressionable Bernard Woolley, "anything might be true". That, for now, seems to be where people like Frist are coming from.

In the end, I oppose the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution. Science must allow for introspection and self-doubt — and the most of it does — but theories that have no basis in the scientific method have no place in science classes, especially where our children are concerned. But, then, I live in reality. If you don't, and you can't accept that some things are scientifically true and some things aren't, then you might as well tell your children, not to mention yourselves, that life is, say, The Truman Show, or a figment of Bill Gates's imagination, or "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

But here's an interesing suggestion: Over at Slate (see here) Christopher Hitchens — whom, these days, I am usually not one to quote with pleasure — argues that it might actually make sense to allow intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution in the schools, as long as evolution is taught alongside creationism in tax-exempt religious institutions. How could evolution — how could science — lose?

If we take the president up on his deceptively fair-minded idea of "teaching the argument," I think we could advance the ball a little further in other directions also. Houses of worship that do not provide space for leaflets and pamphlets favoring evolution (not necessarily Darwinism, which is only one of the theories of evolution and thus another proof of its scientific status) should be denied tax-exempt status and any access to public funding originating in the White House's "faith-based" initiative. Congress should restore its past practice of giving a copy of Thomas Jefferson's expurgated Bible—free of all incredible or supernatural claims—to each newly elected member. The same version of the Bible should be obligatory for study in all classes that affect to teach "divinity." No more Saudi Arabian money should be allowed to be spent in the United States on the opening of jihadist madrasas or the promulgation of a Wahhabi Quran that preaches hatred and contempt of other faiths and of atheism until the Saudi government permits the unmolested opening of Shiite and Sufi places of worship; Christian churches and Hindu temples of all denominations for its Philippine, Indian, and other helot classes; synagogues; and Thomas Paine Society libraries. No American taxpayers' money should be given to Israel unless it can be shown that it is not being used for the establishment of religion by Orthodox messianic settlements in the occupied territories and/or until the Israeli rabbinate recognizes Reform and Conservative Judaism as authentic.

He calls it "equal time," and he's got a point. Theories like intelligent design thrive in part (and perhaps mostly) because they're never subjected to rigorous scrutiny. They're so mind-bogglingly stupid, after all, that no serious person, and certainly no reputable scientist, would ever waste much time on them. But this just allows them to fester beneath the surface, acquiring popularity and momentum and eventually emerging, as intelligent design is now, to challenge our accepted (because discovered through the scientific method) truths.

So shall we tackle intelligent design? Shall we expose it for what it is? Yes? Well, then, let's find out what John McCain really thinks. I'm sure he's all for having a spirited debate on its merits.

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  • The concept of introducing "intelligent design" in equal time, with the presumption that only a fool wouldn't then choose evolution as his truth, is riddled with one problem: most people are fools. That, and that we're then opening up our nation's "science" classroom to ANY theory - after all, the Christian literalist idea of creationism... ahem, "intelligent design," isn't the only theory out there. We're getting into precisely the situation that Flying Spaghetti Monsterism tries to elucidate. I believe!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:05 AM  

  • Sadly, Erica, you're probably right. One wonders what other crazy theories could be brought into America's science classrooms. And how many people would actually believe them!

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:35 AM  

  • It isn't genuine relativism. It's a ploy to call "diversity" liberals' bluff and hoist them by their own petard. The religious people behind Intelligent Design believe that God is the Designer. They've simply come up with an argument they think liberals can't refute without exposing their own dogmatism and hypocrisy.

    By Blogger amba, at 10:48 PM  

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