A possible case for teaching intelligent design

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who declares himself an atheist, argued in a 2008 article in Philosophy and Public Affairs that intelligent design (ID) can not be dismissed as easily as young earth creationism. Yes, ID is very problematic, as Nagel knows:

“I understand the attitude that ID is just the latest manifestation of the fundamentalist threat, and that you have to stand and fight them here or you will end up having to fight for the right to teach evolution at all.” [Thomas Nagel, “Public Education and Intelligent Design,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, v. 36, no. 2, p. 203.]

However, Nagel says, both ID and scientific naturalism are grounded in worldviews that originate outside science. He then asks, Why is it OK to disallow one of these world views in public education, while allowing the other worldview? Speaking as an atheist, he says:

“I do not regard divine intervention as a possibility, even though I have no other candidates. Yet I recognize that this is because of an aspect of my overall worldview that does not rest on empirical grounds or any other kind of rational grounds. I do not think the existence of God can be disproved. So someone who can offer serious scientific reasons to doubt the adequacy of the theory of evolution, and who believes in God, in the same immediate way that I believe there is no god, can quite reasonably conclude that the hypothesis of design should be taken seriously.” [pp. 202-203]

Many political liberals will reject this notion out of hand, but Nagel makes a convincing argument that they should think more carefully about their rejection. It is worth reading the entire article, in order to follow Nagel’s careful and nuanced line of thought; the article is online here.

9 thoughts on “A possible case for teaching intelligent design

  1. Steve Caldwell

    Dan — I’m troubled by this because I think Thomas Nagel doesn’t really understand the science work behind modern-day biology. This may be some sort of Dunning-Kruger effect happening here.

    Just because he’s famous philosopher and written on how humans think, that doesn’t translate well into having a good grasp of the science work supporting evolutionary biology (and the lack of this work supporting evolutionary design).

    The author is a smart person but he unintentionally acknowledges that he probably working in an area beyond his competence on page 202 of the PDF:

    Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.

    Human thinking evolved before modern-day society and is suited for human scale phenomena. That is why we find areas outside human scale phenomena to defy common sense (e.g. astronomy, relativistic physics, quantum physics, etc).

    These areas of science may appear to violate everyday common sense but we accept them because they work — they explain things allowing us to make sense of the world (even though it’s not human scale “common sense”). They also have predictive powers (making testable predictions is a huge part of science).

    Geology and evolutionary biology also lie outside our day-to-day realm of human experience and “common sense.” With a typical lifespan less than a century, we have a hard time thinking of incremental change happening over millions and billions of years.

    The paper is flawed in my opinion but his argument is an interesting tack that most intelligent design advocates don’t take.

    That is all that I will say here … I will blog about this on my personal blogs and pingback here as I write about it.

  2. Pingback: A Response to “Public Education and Intelligent Design” (Part 1) | Philosophical Penguins

  3. Dan Harper Post author

    Hrafn, that link doesn’t work. You have to be registered at that site — and the site will read your email, contacts, and more when you register — in order to have access. However, here’s the abstract of that article (from here):

    “In a recent article, Thomas Nagel argues against the court’s decision to strike down the Dover school district’s requirement that biology teachers in Dover public schools inform their students about Intelligent Design. Nagel contends that this ruling relies on questionable demarcation between science and nonscience and consequently misapplies the Establishment Clause of the constitution. Instead, he argues in favor of making room for an open discussion of these issues rather than an outright prohibition against Intelligent Design. We contend that Nagel’s arguments do not succeed. First, we argue that Nagel’s case trades on an ambiguity regarding the content of non-theological views and fails to engage adequately some of the problems of ID. Then we raise concerns about Nagel’s conclusion; specifically, we will point to three incongruities between Nagel’s argument and his conclusion, and then we will raise a more general worry about the likely impact of Nagel’s view.”

  4. Dan Harper Post author

    Steve, Nagel’s paper certainly has its flaws, but I think you’re avoiding a central point in the paper, which is that the intelligent design debate really lies outside the domain of science, in the realm of public policy and philosophy. He is making the point that supernaturalistic theism and naturalistic atheism are both worldviews that are extra-scientific. So in the paragraph preceding the passage you quote above, Nagel points out that evolutionary theory leaves many things unexplained (of course it does, all theories do, otherwise we would know everything about the way the universe works) — what is left unexplained is filled in by the prevailing “naturalistic worldview.” Nagel is pointing out that worldviews have nothing to do with science; there are plenty of respectable biologists who are supernaturalistic theists in their worldview, but that doesn’t prevent them from doing good science.

    For another critique of Nagel’s paper, see Hrafn’s comment.

  5. Steve Caldwell

    Dan wrote:

    Nagel’s paper certainly has its flaws, but I think you’re avoiding a central point in the paper, which is that the intelligent design debate really lies outside the domain of science, in the realm of public policy and philosophy. He is making the point that supernaturalistic theism and naturalistic atheism are both worldviews that are extra-scientific.

    Dan — Nagel’s claim ignore the pragmatic observation that methodological naturalism has a very good track record for explaining things and supernaturalism has a marginal record for explaining things.

    For almost 500 years, we have been successfully used methodological naturalism in our exploration of the world because it works. Atheist writer Greta Christina makes the following observation about the differences between the naturalism and supernaturalism:

    When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.

    Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.

    All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation?

    Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

    Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?

    Exactly zero.

    Now … if we didn’t have this track record for methodological naturalism, Nagel’s claim that naturalism is a worldview outside the realm of science would be a valid concern.

    But that isn’t the case. Naturalism is an empirical conclusion about how the world works — the empirical evidence here is many years of success.

  6. Hrafn

    1) My apologies on the link, it is valid, but apparently also requires a recognised referring page to work. Going to http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=Nagel+on+Public+Education+and+Intelligent+Design&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5 and then clicking on it (the “[PDF] from academia.edu” link at the top of the page) should work.

    2) The paper’s main point is that Nagel’s presentation of the issue as a conflict between “supernaturalistic theism and naturalistic atheism … both worldviews that are extra-scientific” is spurious, “a false dilemma”, and that “rejection of ID is not atheistic”.

    3) Seeking to fill the “many things unexplained” by scientific theories (to the extent that these are not themselves gross exaggerations, as they all too frequently are in the case of evolution) with something supernatural is widely derided as “God of the Gaps” reasoning. These supernatural fillers, including ID, ubiquitously lack positive evidence.

    4) There are indeed “plenty of respectable biologists who are supernaturalistic theists in their worldview”, but the vast majority of them accept *Methodological* Naturalism, and are opponents of ID (see point 2).

  7. Hrafn

    I would also point out that Nagel’s claim that ID should be taught in schools is directly contradicted by his main public policy source, R. Kent Greenawalt, who is ‘Does God Belong in Public Schools?’ states:

    Were educators to go further and insist that intelligent design is probably a needed supplement to natural selection and other aspects of neo-Darwinism, or that intelligent design is the alternative to unvarnished neo-Darwinian theory, they would step over the constitutional line, because such judgments could now be made only on religious grounds. (p 124)

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