Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Philosophy in the schools?

One thing I can't get enough of in the blogosphere is the endless uproar about "intelligent design." There are various debates in there somewhere as well, but it's the uproar that I find particularly fascinating. Non-philosophers discussing philosophical issues are always good for a laugh (or fit of despair, as the mood strikes you), and even after the tears, of whichever sort, have been wiped away, there's always something to think about. I have a couple of posts (or papers, if they get that far) in the works about substantive issues, so stay tuned (or tune in again; you know what I mean).

Today's topic, however, is what we should teach the kiddies. You will probably have noticed that whenever someone objects to discussing, in public school classes, the existence, or not, of an intelligent non-human designer, they always say: not in science class! Save that stuff for philosophy class! My first reaction to this is: Philosophy class?? In public high school? Bwah hah hah hah hah! Where do think you are -- France?

Of course, I'm sure some school district somewhere has a philosophy elective, or even more than one (school district, that is, not philosophy elective). What's funny here is that this is the only time the idea of philosophy for high-schoolers ever comes up -- when it's a question of what's not appropriate material for some normal class like Science, where we teach proven facts instead of batting around unanswerable questions in a heady rap session to entertain the weird kids.

Related to this is the assumption that in philosophy class we would of course be discussing the Existence Of God, along with the other Central Questions of the discipline, such as the Meaning of Life, How Do You Know You're Not Dreaming Right Now and Whether, When a Tree Falls in the Forest and No-one Hears it, it Makes any Sound. (This being the modern era, philosophers have finally abandoned such earlier head-scratchers as Whether the World is Made of Fire or Water or Both and How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin.) On the other hand, I have to admit that HDYKYNDRN, while not exactly a live philosophical question, can at least serve as a catchy intro to one if you do it right. But the EOG? Please. ("So you see, class, if God is defined as that most perfect entity, which instantiates all predicates essentially, then that God exists is a necessary truth!")

Of course it would be nice if there were philosophy classes in high school. But what should be discussed (that is, taught) in philosophy class, should there be one, are such things as what is an argument and what is it to believe something and what's the connection between agency and normativity and rationality and objectivity (okay, maybe that one's a little advanced, but we could make a start on it) and why "metaphysical" doesn't mean "supernatural" and why all non-philosophers, and most philosophers too for that matter, who say anything at all, pro or con, about "postmodernism" or "relativism" are hopelessly confused.

Some of this does intersect with the question of what counts as "science," and is thus relevant to the issue of evolution vs. design. But I don't see why addressing that issue in science classes would be inappropriate simply because it is not itself to be determined scientifically. (Of course, even some philosophers think every philosophical question should be reduced to empirical investigation. For some reason which I do not understand, this view is not known as "nihilism.") Why should it be irrelevant to the study of science to think about what science is? For that matter, and here we do approach a substantive issue I claimed to be putting off, I don't see what's wrong with addressing, again in science class of course, the particular issue of how, if life (or the cell, or the wombat, or whatever) had been the result of design, it would be possible to tell this.

Here's what's ironic. Biologists say: Intelligent Design isn't science, because it's just unverifiable speculation about ultimate origins, where what science is concerned with is verifiable facts about nature. One standard anti-evolution reply is: that's right, science can't tell us with certainty what really happened, or if there is anything beyond nature, so it's all a matter of blind faith, which means you can't teach naturalistic evolution as The Truth (indoctrinating those impressionable minds with atheism, etc.). Playing the "fairness" card, this reply invites us to see the "two sides" of the question as equally valid. But that's not enough for ID-ers, who after all, like the "Creation Scientists" before them, see naturalistic evolution as not merely "unprovable" but in fact provably false. That's why they take such pains to detach the question of design from the identity of the Designer (uh, better make that a small d): so that the idea of detecting design cannot be ruled out of court as essentially non-naturalistic and thus beyond the bounds of science.

Quite right; but now the argument for time in the classroom is no longer based on claims about the symmetry of unprovable assumptions about ultimate origins, but instead on the viability of the "design inference" as science. But (here's the irony, finally) the pro-evolution side is still arguing that ID isn't science, so we shouldn't discuss it (because to mention it at all, even to dismiss it, would give those people credibility). But if it is admitted that the issue is not one of unprovable assumptions after all, then we get to examine it scientifically. And although I won't argue the point here, I think it is indeed instructive for the young 'uns to see the result -- which includes places where we have to shrug and say, well, here we don't yet know exactly how it went; that's an issue for further research (something you might want to do, perhaps?). After all, that's true; and, as my own teacher liked to say, you shouldn't deny facts.


MH said...

I think the reasoning behind insisting that it isn't appropriate for science class is less the 'design' inference (which, let's be honest, has never been reliably used, ever) and more the status of high school science education specifically. There are indeed certain very valuable lessons that can be learned from comparing ID to actual science -- but they tend, in my experience, to be the sorts of things that are only really useful once the relevant science has been pretty fully covered.

So there's a practical reason there - once the students have learned the biology, then they could perhaps spend some time on the not-biology. But of course there's never enough time to learn the biology in the first place, and so.... etc.

Secondly there's the simple (and again, practical) fact that most science teachers really aren't competent to be teaching the science in the first place. So adding new layers of complexity is really just asking for it (in the same way as having a Philosophy class in high school would be - you and I would probably both think it would be a great idea, but let's be honest here: they'd probably have the wrestling coach teach it).

In other words, at the very least I see good practical reasons to keep ID out of high school science classes entirely - even if in some sense it would probably be an interesting and useful issue. I think that's the motivation in the pro-science position (or, at least, I've heard similar "it would be nice to teach both together...." sentiments from many of them - usually followed by some of the considerations above - more than once).

Duck said...

Thank you, Doctor, for your excellent comment. I readily concede both points (of course, I hadn't claimed otherwise). Maybe I hang out at the wrong places, but I certainly see more "What?? Never!!" than "It would be interesting, but ...".

In my own case, so long ago (late 70's, if you must know), all there was was a quick treatment of the Miller/Urey experiment (I remember Mr. Quad writing ZAP on the overhead to indicate the lightning bolt, which I dutifully copied into my notebook). For the most part we were indeed, as you suggest, memorizing the Krebs cycle (with the ATP and the NADPH) and the circulatory system of the shark.