Friday, August 26, 2005

Purveyors of doubt: Intelligent design, relativism, and the postmodern right

In my last post, I argued, via Christopher Hitchens, that now may be the time for those of us who defend the theory of evolution and who otherwise live in the real world to take on the claims of intelligent design and those right-wing leaders, like Bush and Frist, who propose that it be taught alongside evolution in the schools.

Now, I find that Noam Scheiber has published an excellent piece on intelligent design and relativism at The New Republic, drawing on Jonathan Rauch's 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors. So, as an addendum to my last post, let me quote from it, then add some additional commentary:

Rauch's book has held up remarkably well in the twelve years since it was published. This is particularly so in light of the current debate over intelligent design (ID)–the idea, popular on the right, that life is too complex to have resulted from random variation. Even President Bush has suggested, as the creation scientists (and multiculturalists) of the 1980s and 1990s did before him, that both sides of the supposed debate be treated as legitimate in public school curricula.

But there was one thing Rauch didn't anticipate. At the time, he suggested that, even though creationists had adopted the tactics of the academic left–the demand for equal time–they still believed in objective truths. They just didn't think all of these truths were discoverable by science. By contrast, today's IDers have gone further and adopted the epistemology of the left – the idea that ostensibly scientific truths may be relative...

Like all conservatives, of course, the IDers claim to decry relativism and to embrace absolutes. But, for them, the claim is logically incoherent in a way it wasn't when it came from their creationist predecessors. When a proposition is empirically false, as both creationism and ID (to the extent that it makes empirical claims) are, you're free to assert its truth; you just can't call it science. The creationists had no problem with this; they just rejected any science that contradicted the Bible. But the IDers aspire to scientific truth. Unfortunately, the only way to claim that something empirically false is scientifically true is to question science's capacity for sorting out truth from falsehood, the same way postmodernists do.

Conservatives were quick to point out the danger of this view in the '80s and '90s. They argued that a science that rejected the idea of truth was vulnerable to the most inane forms of intellectual hucksterism. And they were right. It's not hard to imagine scams like cold fusion or the Scientologist critique of psychiatric drugs gaining ground in a world where science's ability to identify knowledge has been undermined. (Among other monuments to postmodern thought was the idea that E=mc² might be a "sexed equation" that "privileges the speed of light over other speeds," as Belgian-French theorist Luce Irigaray once asserted.)

Americans don't like thinking of themselves as backward. As a result, the risk from science-rejecting creationists hasn't been particularly acute in recent decades. But most people don't have very strong views on the philosophy of science. If, unlike the postmodern left, the ID movement can enlist mainstream conservatives in questioning science's capacity to produce objective truth, then it's by no means clear the effort won't succeed. In that case, it will end up threatening a whole lot more than just evolution.

It's a spot-on assessment of what's happened to the right in recent years. Back when I was at Tufts, in the early-'90s, the enemy of Truth (as something other than power-based subjectivity) was clearly the multicultural left (or, to be fair, at least the most extreme elements of it). But such left-wing postmodernism has been in decline since that period of academic triumph. Now, the most pernicious postmodernism is clearly to be found on the right, once the bastion of objectivity (at times stubbornly so). The meddlesome purveyors of doubt are no longer the textual deconstructionists in humanities departments but the theocratic opponents of science.

Coming from a background in political philosophy, where I learned from the ancients to value reason and to pursue enlightenment (in Platonic terms, to get out of the cave), this is a troubling development the enormity of which has not yet been fully grasped. Whatever else we might think of the right, this is where its true impact may lie and where its ultimate revolution may come. (See my previous posts on this problem here and here.)

In the end, Scheiber is right: Intelligent design, and right-wing relativism more generally, could, if left unchallenged, threaten "a lot more than just evolution". It could threaten the whole idea of enlightenment, and hence the very core of America.

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