Saturday, May 03, 2008

Obiter Dictum

.... I must, for the moment, content myself with pointing out that it is a philosophical and not a literary position. In filling their book with it they have been unjust to the parent or headmaster who buys it and who has got the work of amateur philosophers where he expected the work of professional grammarians. A man would be annoyed if his son returned from the dentist with his teeth untouched and his head crammed with the dentist's obiter dicta on bimetallism or the Baconian theory.

CS Lewis, Abolition of Man

I guess that this quote best expresses my uneasiness with the recent controversies about whether Intelligent Design ought to be taught as an alternative theory to evolution in public school science classes. It is often expressed as a controversy between religious and non-religious types, but I don't think that this dichotomy accurately represents the difference between the positions on this.

As a Catholic, I teach my children that the universe is, as Pope Benedict VI says, an "intelligent project". But supposing I were sending them to school. Why on earth would I want amateurish metaphysics taught under the name of hopefully slightly-less-amateurish secondary-level science? I can't think of a way it could work in a secular setting, especially nowadays. I don't like the way even the natural sciences are taught in school, but at least the classes transmit some sort of content to do with their own proper sphere. I can't think of a way that a concept of Intelligent Design could be brought into this without muddling the disciplines and thus muddling the minds of the students even more than they are now.

This article Vatican: Intelligent Design is not Science sums up the ID position this way:

Supporters of "intelligent design" hold that some features of the universe and living things are so complex they must have been designed by a higher intelligence.
That is what I think too. But how is that to be transmitted in a science class? Studying the natural world may lead to indications of the presence of an intelligent Hand in its design, but that would not explain anything about the "how" which is what the natural sciences are concerned with. If I said "how does a watch work?" it would not answer my question to be told, "some think the best watches are made in Switzerland and some think California."

In some ways, this reminds me of some forms of literary criticism that "explain" Hamlet's theme, say, in terms of some life event of Shakespeare's. This is a blending of two distinct types of investigation. The worst is that it is not done well; you get a sort of soup that does not integrate, but muddles the different elements. The literary critic goes outside his scope in psychoanalyzing Shakespeare. The natural scientist goes outside his scope and bends metaphysics out of shape by trying to employ them in physical investigations.

The article I linked above about the Vatican's opposition to teaching of Intelligent Design quotes Professor Facchini, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Bologna wrote in L'Osservatore Romano:

"This isn't how science is done. If the model proposed by Darwin is deemed insufficient, one should look for another, but it's not correct from a methodological point of view to take oneself away from the scientific field pretending to do science."

(Intelligent design) "doesn't belong to science and the pretext that it be taught as a scientific theory alongside Darwin's explanation is unjustified,"

"It only creates confusion between the scientific and philosophical and religious planes."

The Professor clarifies what he means by the different planes :

"In a vision that goes beyond the empirical horizon, we can say that we aren't men by chance or by necessity, and that the human experience has a sense and a direction signaled by a superior design."

In the old days, metaphysics was seen as above physical science... in fact, that is a circular statement because metaphysics MEANS beyond physics. Evidence from the natural world can be used to some extent in religious and philosophical investigations and proofs; but not vice versa. Nature cannot prove or disprove what stands beyond its realm. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity holds that a larger system that is at more of a remove should not do for the smaller system what it can do for itself. Theology is the larger discipline with the higher object, in this case. True religion and true science can never contradict each other; science cannot properly concern itself with theology, which stands beyond it. When Professor Facchini says that Intelligent Design does not belong to science he is speaking with strict precision. To our modern ears that may sound like he thinks theology is less important than science, but I read it as rather the reverse. I do not belong to my house, but vice versa.

Father Fessio details the distinction clearly in a letter to First Things :

Modern science does not investigate finality or purpose. It limits itself to “natural” phenomena: material and immediate efficient causes. Therefore, from within its own (very successful) method, the scientist as scientist can neither conclude that there is not an Intelligent Designer, i.e. that physical processes are unguided or unplanned, or, for that matter, that there is one. But the scientist as a human being can affirm the latter. As Cardinal Schönborn puts it: “by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world.”.

.....Cardinal Newman in his discourse “Christianity and Physical Science” said: The Physicist “contemplates facts before him; the Theologian gives the reasons of these facts. The Physicist treats of efficient causes; the Theologian of final. The Physicist tells us of laws. The Theologian of the Author, Maintainer, and Controller of them.”

I do think Darwinian evolution can be taught in a reductionistic, glib way without recognition of the problems such as irreducible complexity, thus giving explicit or implicit accordance to the philosophy of materialism -- the view that everything that exists is material. I think that those who combine genuine scholarship in science and philosophy can be helpful to the scientific world in providing a sorely needed reality check, at times. But as far as the schools go, I would be deeply concerned with a muddled metaphysical approach to science that didn't respect the legitimate province of the fields of metaphysics OR natural science.

I think the proponents of ID in schools probably think that evolutionary theory already stakes out a field in metaphysics, the materialistic or physicalist one, so the ID theory is needed to provide an alternative. But I can't see a way that ID in those circumstances would become anything but a tool, a subset of science and a rather strained one at that. It is First Causes being wrenched into the service of subsidiary ones. This is what I don't think the proponents of ID in schools understand. They hope to use science to point to something outside of science, but instead they would be bringing what is beyond science into the province of the field, and thus falling into the same trap as the professional scientists who think themselves qualified to pronounce on amateur metaphysics.


Theresa said...

Beautifully said, Willa. Really. Thank you.

Faith said...

Ditto, to what Theresa said! I'm going to read this one to my husband. I think he'll really enjoy your thoughts, Willa.

momof3feistykids said...

Wow! You stated this so clearly and beautifully. I agree with everything you wrote.

Evenspor said...

That was very well-said. I agree that I would rather my kids not learn religion from a science teacher. I would prefer that if a science teachers get into evolution that they emphasize that it is one theory (not proven fact) that some people like, and then they can leave it at that. That is what I see as the problem - too many people think it is scientific fact when it is still only a theory.

The Bookworm said...

Thank you Willa. You absolutely hit the nail on the head. I very much enjoyed reading that.

Laura A said...

I agree with what you wrote, Willa. The problem, as you noted, is that science (and other) teachers don't stay out of the realm of amateurish metaphysics. They don't even stay out of how we should spend our Saturday nights! And young minds do not always discern the difference.

Willa said...

As you said, Laura and Evenspor, that is the difficulty.... that evolution is sometimes thought to have a wider claim than it possibly can have. It is a mechanism, insofar as it's a true representation of reality -- like what my car does when I turn it on, say (hope that analogy works).

It makes me glad I am homeschooling, certainly, since I don't really have a solution for the problem. At home I can integrate different fields in their proper hierarchy, rather than make a soup of it.

shaun said...

This is such a live issue for me -- in my eclectic homeschool group a bit of a skirmish has broken out between the IDers and the firm secularists. I, as a person of faith who also accepts evolution as an explanation for observed biological phenomena, have been identified as the "middle way."

Except I don't see it as a compromise -- I just see it as an accurate understanding of the difference between science and theology as disciplines. The discipline of science, and the history of science, is in general so poorly taught and so poorly understood -- and this is true among well-meaning homeschoolers as well, it's not just in traditional schools -- that the vast majority of adults and children in our world do not understand that "science" is a mode of inquiry (that is, one in group that is more than one) that is applicable only to observable, *measurable* phenomena.

One thing that makes science amazing is how it continually expands the boundaries of what is observable and measurable -- but outside of those boundaries it cannot go.

The failure to understand this has been disastrous, IMO.