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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  • I am surprised that no one has commented on this topic yet here. Where are all you bright folk?
    An interesting point you raise Michael is about the idea that science looks for Absolute Truth. I myself have problems with this and have long since claimed that science is a religion. I should add that I am a committed believer in the religion of science, but I still recognize that it is a system of beliefs that explain my world. However, I am hardly one to think that Western science has all the answers. Maybe for Physics or certain aspects of Chemistry, the laws are reliable enough that we can call them absolute. But, for biology... I am far more hesitant to claim it will find Truth... just probabilities and possibilities. The place this plays out is in medecine and health. We are enamoured of our approach to medicine which is supported by chemistry and physics. Yet, why do other approaches work? Why does accupuncture work? or Ayurvedic medicine? or any of hundreds of other practices that rely on concepts that sound almost laughable or silly to us ... why do these work?
    Intelligent Design is uncomfortable to introduce at the high school level because from what I understand, teachers have enough trouble just hitting the basics. Maybe cultural-scientific relativism is a better topic for higher education or an ethics type course. Why is evolution the topic necessary for its demonstration? Whose value system is going to serve as this alternate anyway? And does intelligent design really have a legitimate claim as an introducable theory, or is it simply better to highlight the weaknesses of Darwinian evolution instead?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:45 PM  

  • Yes, it's time to take on inteligent design (and those who evolved to somehow promote it). I am also a little concerned about Random Dumbass Design - this is the theory that there is a God somwhere who has created George II, Rumsey, Cheney and gang - that they couldn't possibly have evolved...

    Go for it.

    By Blogger Gary, at 10:13 PM  

  • I have to agree with Rachel in spirit but not in explanation, here. I am a purveyor of science. But I also believe that in order for there to be scientific method, there must be acceptance that the rules aren't absolute. This is what I feel delineates scientific thinking from religion, as intrinsic to science is the appetite for discovery and change. And necessary for that appetite is recognition that knowledge is almost always incomplete, that the rules learned in school were very often wrong, and that openmindedness yields innovation.

    This necessary flexibility need not extend to negate the benefits of teaching to the best of our knowledge rather than to entertain every possible theory in the classroom. This is where I feel the Intelligent Design-ers go astray. No one here seems to be claiming that since science is fallable, God, too, has a place in the classroom. And I appreciate that. But I just don't think the argument is germain at all, provided that the nation's nutjob leaders can concede that a science classroom is the place for instruction in the as-yet-best-available science and leave the religion for sociology and anthropology where it can be taught in an even-handed educational manner rather than as substitution for the scientific model.

    After all, nothing we think we know is necessarily truth. But that I'll defer for philosophy.

    Then again, I'm also an allopathic doctor who is licensed to practice acupuncture. Everything is magic until we claim to understand it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:37 AM  

  • Michael, the fundamental issue here is the distinction between natural science and metaphysics. When you, Rachel and I were at Tufts, we railed against the philosophy department of Daniel Dennett for drawing metaphysical conclusions from naturalistic science; in other words, naturalism. This isn't an issue of evolutionism vs ID, it's a much deeper question of how to teach science at all without trampling all over metaphysics, which is the traditional domain of philosophy and theology.

    The problem is this: how can our schools teach natural science without teaching metaphysics? The IDers and the evolutionists are both caught up in the same conundrum that natural science tends to raise metaphysicial questions, yet reduces the answers to what is empirically evident. Bloom writes at length that natural science is inherently positivistic and reductionist.

    This more fundamental challenge, though, isn't being raised by the ideologues because it provides no political gain. Don't you agree, Michael, that the teaching of natural science itself is problematic? For if it is the case the teaching natural science is necessary but also necessarily dangerous (as it undermines metaphysics), then we must consider the salutary role that we want natural science to play in education in a republic, which is a question for philosophy, not science. I don't see many people struggling with this deeper issue.

    By Blogger Ken Archer, at 11:27 AM  

  • Ken of Tufts. Erica of Tufts. Rachel of Tufts. Michael of Tufts. I sense a distinctly Tuftonian interest in this topic. How many people who read this Blog are Tufts alums?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:24 PM  

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