Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pluralism: The Solution to the ID Debate?

Copernicus Now has written an extremely interesting allegory about the “conflict” between religion and science. (Okay, maybe it’s a metaphor. Stop splitting hairs.) I suggest you read it, lest ye become one of the unwashed barbarians (or paranoid peasants) of which he speaks.

Instead of discussing the relative merits of evolution and intelligent design, today I’m going to take a more pragmatic approach.

At my undergraduate university, I took a class called “The Gospel in a Pluralistic World.” (Well, I didn’t so much take it as I stopped showing up after three weeks and then dropped it on the last possible day.) Anyway, that class was about addressing the different ideologies that Christians can encounter in a productive way. And in my short time there, pluralism was a four-letter word. (No, they didn’t spell it prsm, or plsm, or plrm. You know what I meant.) This is because pluralism was seen as an attempt to accept all points of view, and if you’ve read the Bible (especially the first chapter of Ezekiel and the 28th Chapter of Matthew) you know that it is the Christian’s duty to present God’s Word in the hopes that everyone will accept it. Along with pluralism, in the eyes of some academics, comes relativism.
Also, pluralism was equated with a common understanding of tolerance, that all points of view are to be embraced unless those views are intolerant of other views, or they are absolutist. But I’ve realized (probably partly due to a South Park episode and Philosophy 201) that tolerance should mean purely a pragmatic acceptance of all views (as opposed to an academic acceptance), with the caveat that we are free not to embrace those views with which we don’t agree, and even to criticize those views. (In the future I’ll try to avoid sentences with 7 or more phrases embedded within them.)

This brings me up to yesterday. I attended a lecture on the ID debate. It was excellent. He went through the history of the Bible’s relationship to public schools. A couple of things became clear. One, that religion as we know it in the US is not anti-science, or anti-intellectual, but instead anti-elitist. From that we can understand that historically religion is not opposed to the teaching of evolution, but instead it wants its side of the story presented as well. Two, the traditional debate about the Bible’s relationship to public schools was never about Christians versus non-Christians, but instead about Protestants versus Catholics, and it goes back as far as the 1830’s or 40’s. The conflict between these two groups is based on the former’s reliance on the Bible as authority and the latter’s reliance on earthly leaders (i.e. the Pope) as authority. And three, that ID is just the latest controversy in this ongoing debate that will likely never end.


So that brings me up to the lecturer’s suggestion. He implied that ID should be disregarded altogether. He also implied that ID (or any variant formulation thereof) should stay out of the science classrooms. However, he would have a sort of epistemology class offered. Call it introductory philosophy if you will. He didn’t go into much detail on it, but here’s how I would do it.
The class would go over the very basics of epistemology. Addressing Parmenides would make an excellent introduction to the class, and would make the kids more likely to listen and open to different suggestions. It would discuss popular epistemological traditions such as revelation, reason, and, of course, the scientific method. The course would promote pluralism and would hopefully make everyone happy.
In my world, it would be a required class in order to graduate.

Basically, the reasoning behind this is that science, while extremely important in our society, is not the only way to know. It gets put up on a pedestal while other epistemological methods are scoffed at. There is no good reason for this state of affairs. (Of course, maybe I’m biased because of my belief in a liberal arts education.)

This idea is not susceptible to the slippery-slope problem that FSM points out in ID. Plus, it has the added bonus of being pretty much impervious to legal attack (quite unlike ID, which, were it ever to come before the Supreme Court, would likely be struck down).

There may be problems with my proposed solution. Introducing these kinds of questions could undermine the atmosphere of authority that teachers and administrators need to keep control in the classrooms. If you introduce it at a middle school level, the children may not be capable of grasping the concepts. If you introduce it to high school seniors, many dropouts won’t ever get to hear it and the kids may already have an unquestioned acceptance of certain views (and also, everyone knows that senioritis can seriously interfere with learning).

Despite these problems (and any others I may have missed), it’s still a worthy proposal. And I definitely believe it to be important enough to be a graduating requirement. Isn’t it certainly at least as important as social studies? Or a year of history? Or reducing the kids’ options to take one of their many elective courses? Or a year of English when the students take an English class every year from kindergarten through the 12th grade?

Certainly, the question “How do we know what we know?” has been the mort important question for all philosophers since the beginning of that great tradition. Could they all be wrong?


  1. Good post. I riffed on it a little at my blog.


  2. Thanks, Rexie. I tried to check out your blog and discovered why some people have a problem with white text on black background. It's worse with yours due to the small text size, so I couldn't bring myself to read more than a few lines.

  3. Nice post. The idea for such a class is very good. There are different ways to know things, and in fact the different ways lead to different knowledge. Knowledge here meaning what we think we know (our understanding based on our mental models of our universe).

    But there's still something missing. If you research where the money comes from to finance ID, you will see that these people are not interested in gaining equal time. The man who put the seed money for the Discovery Institute is a hard-core Christian Reconstructionist. They aren't interested in having anything other than a literalist interpretation of the Bible taught in schools. The truth is these are not well-intentioned people who want to share the classroom with scientists.

    I think a lot of scientific type people fail to grasp this. The scientists refocus their glasses and prepare for a "conversation" when in fact the ID people are organizing for a full-on destructive blitzkrieg.

    Your post makes a lot of sense to people like me. But that's because I am already in the choir.

    They aren't interested in sharing with us. They are hell-bent on eliminating us. The scientific community needs to get that and respond appropriately.

    Nevertheless, great post, and I fully support you in it.