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Animadversions on Kitzmiller v. Dover: Correct Ruling, Flawed Reasoning


In his December 20, 2005 opinion on the legality of teaching intelligent design in the classroom (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board), Judge John Jones correctly found against Dover, but did so by employing mistaken premises.[1] To the extent that Judge Jones accepted these premises based upon the expert testimony presented by the plaintiffs, the fault is not his own.[2] However, it is not difficult to show that the premises in question are false. They are premises that concern the nature of science and the scientific method; and they are among the matters fundamentally at issue in the debate between Darwinists and the advocates of Intelligent Design (ID), and in the larger “culture war” debate.

My concerns have to do with two unsound arguments that appear in Section 4 of Kitzmiller, “Whether ID is Science.” The first argument seeks to establish that ID is not a science by showing that it invokes supernatural causes, and that hypotheses involving reference to supernatural causes are not within the purview of science (even if—as Judge Jones allows—they may be true[3]). The second argument purports to show that even successful criticisms of Darwinism do not constitute evidence for ID. The argument here is also unsound, and in fact the conclusion itself is most likely false. The two arguments are connected, for—as I will show—the possibility of empirical criticism of Darwinism entails the possibility of empirical confirmation of ID.

My purpose is not to defend the scientific credentials of ID, let alone the claim that ID is true. My concerns are, first, that criticisms of ID be correct and not methodologically misguided; and second, that the methodological or philosophical debates surrounding the issue be correctly framed. In particular, such debates should be framed in such a way that Darwinists are not open to the charge that the scientific methods that they use are inherently biased against (or exclude) supernatural hypotheses.[4] This charge is regularly made by ID proponents like Phillip Johnson, and given succor by Judge Jones’ decision and by the views of a large number of scientists and philosophers. The charge is that Darwinism rests upon a methodology that presupposes methodological and/or metaphysical naturalism, understood minimally as the view that there are no supernatural causes, or if there are, they lie beyond the purview of scientific (i.e., empirical) investigation. It is further claimed that such naturalism is taken as an a priori assumption or commitment, not itself justified by rational argument or empirical evidence, and hence having the status of an article of faith. The natural implication is that (naturalistic) science itself is, like religion, an enterprise that rests upon certain articles of faith. This argument is mistaken. Both Darwinism and many supernaturalistic hypotheses are empirical claims that are amenable to empirical test.

1. ID is Not a Science

As succinctly as I can state it, here is the court’s argument for the conclusion that ID is not a science:

  1. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation; conversely, explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not part of science.[5]
  2. ID offers explanations that invoke a supernatural hypothesis or cause.
  3. Therefore ID is not part of science.

This argument is obviously invalid. I will not dispute here the truth of premises 1 and 2.[6] However, the argument plainly requires an additional premise, namely:

S. Supernatural hypotheses or causes cannot be empirically tested, observed, or measured.

But S is plainly false. Consider, e.g., the hypothesis:

H1: God created the universe and everything in it 6,000 years ago.

This hypothesis invokes a supernatural cause. But not only can it be tested; it has been tested. Not every supernaturalistic hypothesis can be tested so easily; the hypothesis that God produced the Big Bang roughly 15 billion years ago, for example, is not so easy to test. But there are lively debates among philosophers about the question[7], and all sides see empirical data as relevant. Of course, there are also supernaturalistic hypotheses that cannot be tested. Consider:

H2: One billion years ago, God caused a point mutation in the DNA of a particular bacterium.

But then there are just as many naturalistic hypotheses that are untestable, such as:

H3: One billion years ago, a cosmic ray caused a point mutation in the DNA of a particular bacterium.

It is a trivial matter to come up with perfectly ordinary natural claims that are not (now, “even in principle”) testable.[8] Hence, Judge Jones’ finding that a “rigorous attachment to ‘natural’ explanations is an essential attribute to [sic] science by definition and by convention”[9] is mistaken.

ID is not science. And it is certainly not good science, science that is qualified to enter the lists against Darwinism. But that is not because ID invokes the supernatural. Natural theology has long invoked empirical arguments for the existence of God. To the degree that those arguments fail, they fail not because they provide no empirical evidence whatever that bears on the question of God’s existence, but because they are not very good arguments, all things considered. That does not in itself, however, place them outside of the arena of scientific investigation and discourse. Indeed, many of the most important criticisms of these arguments are precisely scientific ones.

The reason that ID is not good science is not because it invokes a supernatural creator. ID is not good science because the empirical arguments it provides fail on their merits—e.g., because the criteria for irreducible (or “specified”) complexity are defective, question-begging, or not demonstrably applicable to any known organism. ID fails because its supporters refuse to provide us with a theory sufficiently rich to allow for productive extension, novel prediction, and the like. Who is the designer? How does the designer go about its business, and with what purposes and intentions? When, where, and how have its purposes been carried out? A genuine scientific curiosity would force these questions upon anyone who took ID as a serious scientific proposal. But ID fails to the extent that adherence to a “god-of-the-gaps” strategy forces it to retreat steadily to ecological niches provided by remaining questions within the Darwinian synthesis, or to simply piggyback on advances made by the Darwinian synthesis. And it fails to the extent that—as Judge Jones notes[10]—IDers are doctrinally committed to formulating their theory in conformity with religious authority, creedal traditions, and the like, whose main purpose is not (and never was) arriving at a scientific understanding of the natural world.

2. Do Criticisms of Darwinism Confirm ID?

The second faulty argument in Judge Jones’ opinion is that IDers’ criticisms of Darwinism provide—to the extent that they are successful—no confirmation for ID. According to Judge Jones, even demonstrating the existence of a kind of complexity in organisms that Darwinian evolution cannot account for would not enhance the prospects of the ID theory. Allegedly, here IDers make two primary mistakes. The first is to pose a false dichotomy, roughly: either Darwinism or ID is true; Darwinism is false; therefore ID is true.[11] The second is to ignore the fact that what Darwinism cannot explain today it may be able to explain tomorrow.[12] Neither of these criticisms succeed.

Consider the second criticism. Of course a theory that does not presently have the resources to remove a difficulty may acquire them later; in general, it is extremely difficult to show that a theory is in principle debarred from finding a solution to a problem that it faces (and thus theories are rarely definitively falsified). But this does not show that, as matters stand, a theory suffers no damage from its inability to address a difficulty. If this were not the case, (almost) no theory—including ID—would ever be legitimately rejected by the scientific community.

Now consider the first point. Obviously, Darwinism and ID are not the only two theories that could be in the running—if only because, among other things, there are other possible evolutionary theories (though most of these are no longer live possibilities), and because different versions of ID can be proposed. But, as Alvin Plantinga has argued with some plausibility[13], for (metaphysical) naturalists evolution is “the only game in town” for explaining organic complexity and diversity.[14] So there is an opponent relation between evolutionary theories and ID theories. We might more precisely paraphrase the ID argument this way:

  1. Darwinism and ID exhaust the explanatory possibilities (for complexity and diversity).
  2. The inability of evolution to explain e (e.g., irreducibly complex system such-and-such) diminishes the likelihood that evolution is true. Formally:

               P(D / b & e) < P(D / b), where P(x/y) = probability of x relative to y
               (D = Darwinian theory, b = background information, and e = new evidence—here, irreducible complexity).

  3. Therefore, the likelihood of ID is greater, relative to e & b, than relative to b alone—i.e., e confirms ID.

This argument is valid, but it is not sound since “Darwinism” is not just one theory, and since, more generally, there may be more than two theories in play. But Judge Jones failed to discredit the essential point; the fact that other theories besides Darwinism and ID may be in play simply makes matters more complicated.

Suppose we have three mutually exclusive theories, A, B, and C, that exhaust the possible explanations for a range of phenomena. New evidence that disfavors A will redound to the credit of theory B, theory C, or both—depending on the case. That is because A, B, and C jointly occupy the probability space, and a decrease in the region occupied by A entails an increase in the region occupied by either B or C—or both.

Because there are—or may be—other possibilities than just Darwinism and ID in play, evidence against Darwinism is not automatically evidence that favors ID. But evidence against Darwinism might favor ID, and Judge Jones has failed to show that it does not. And therefore another conclusion follows—namely that Judge Jones has again failed to demonstrate that ID is not an empirical theory subject to empirical confirmation and disconfirmation. For it is an empirical question whether organisms display a kind of irreducible complexity that Darwinism has no current resources to explain. If it does not, then that may constitute empirical confirmation for ID. (Of course the sword is double-edged: if Darwinians can account for alleged cases of irreducible complexity, then the ID argument fails. But even so, ID has not been shown to be a nonempirical theory somehow beyond the purview of scientific investigation.)

Biology is not an isolated science; similarly, ID is not an isolated theory. Just as Darwinism must square with other parts of biology, and with physics, chemistry, geology, and so on—and can draw additional confirmation from these fields—so too ID must square with a broader range of disciplines, including theology. For example, IDers can be deists (for whom God’s only concourse with the world occurred at the moment of creation), theists (according to whom God engages in ongoing interactions with the world), or, more specifically, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim theists. Each carries its distinctive share of difficulties and advantages.[15] But to be worthy of intellectual respect, IDers need to flesh out their commitments and put all their cards on the table. As it is, they are not dealing from a full deck.

3. The Bona Fides of Naturalism

IDers regularly allege that science (or the scientific establishment) illegitimately adopts or presupposes methodological naturalism as a matter of principle. More fundamentally, they often allege that scientists regularly assume the truth of metaphysical naturalism[16] without argument. Unfortunately, the charge—at least when laid at the feet of scientists—is often correct. And, as noted earlier, it invites the claim that naturalism (of either variety) is simply an article of faith, epistemically on a par with religious faith in the existence of supernatural beings whose activities can explain some of what we observe in the world.

Are there any good arguments for methodological naturalism?[17] Implicit in much of the discussion is an argument that supernaturalistic hypotheses cannot be empirically tested because they do not—indeed cannot—have empirical implications. We have already laid that argument to rest. But is it true that supernatural entities cannot be observed or measured? I know of no cogent argument that reaches that conclusion. To observe something—an electron, a distant star, the oak tree in the front yard—is to note the effects that this thing has made on our experience. To show that supernatural beings are in principle unobservable, one would have to show that they cannot have any causal impact upon our experience, either directly or through changes they produce in the material world. But no theist will accept that causal restriction upon her favored supernatural beings. Perhaps it could be shown that a disembodied spirit, lacking mass, spatial location, and arguably even temporality, could in principle not causally interact with our physical world. But no one, to my knowledge, has ever demonstrated such a thing; and if it could be demonstrated, theism would immediately become an uninteresting religious position.

Thus I do not see that any argument of this kind has succeeded. A fundamental mission of science is to discover the causes (more generally, the explanations) of things. If there are supernatural causes, then science should seek them. How easy or difficult this might be will depend upon the content of supernaturalistic hypotheses and the phenomena they are invoked to explain, as well as upon what competing naturalistic hypotheses are available. Science regularly proceeds by way of arguments to the best explanation (abduction). There is no in principle reason why a physical phenomenon could not be best explained by a supernaturalistic cause—even if, as a matter of fact, we have never encountered any such phenomenon.[18] So I see no way that this kind of route could exclude nonnaturalistic hypotheses from the purview of science.

But there is another argument that does support methodological naturalism (and, by proxy, metaphysical naturalism). It is a straightforward inductive argument. It relies upon the simple observation that over time, science has regularly been able to supply naturalistic explanations for phenomena not previously understood; and in so doing, it has regularly overtaken supernaturalistic explanations for the same phenomena. It has done so even for phenomena that were initially thought most suggestive of a supernaturalistic explanation.[19] Darwin and his scientific progeny provide a paradigm example. By contrast, supernaturalism can point to no comparable track record of scientific advances produced by successful supernaturalistic explanations, or where supernaturalistic explanations have often overtaken older naturalistic ones.

This historical fact about the pursuit of science gives us ample empirical justification for adopting methodological naturalism as a favored research strategy. It does not rule out the possibility that science could discover supernatural causes; and it does not take methodological naturalism as an article of faith. It simply teaches us to adopt naturalism provisionally as our best bet. And, because it appears to be our best bet by way of a successful strategy for discovering causes, it also appears to be the best way to form a judgment as to the nature of what there is in our world for science to discover and explain; that is, it supports at least a weak form of metaphysical naturalism.[20]

Civil libertarians—and indeed, all Americans—can celebrate the fact that Judge Jones undertook to issue a broad ruling in Kitzmiller, rather than confining himself, as he could have, to narrow issues raised by the incompetence and malfeasance of the defendants in this case. At the same time, if the arguments above are correct, there remains the theoretical possibility (even if it is only that) that ID could mature into a legitimate scientific proposal. Should that happen, it will be important for the relevant sciences to face the dispute head-on (as indeed they have), and not rest their case on an appeal to naturalism. And although this maturation could occur, I am certainly not holding my breath.

However, this speculation raises (if only hypothetically) an interesting constitutional question. Suppose that, contrary to all expectations, ID (or any other empirical supernaturalistic theory) were to outstrip all competing naturalistic proposals along all of the standard dimensions we use to judge the truth of a theory—explanatory power, fertility, and the rest. Would it then be appropriate for that theory to be taught in public school classrooms?[21]


[1] I wish to thank Alvin Plantinga, Robert Pennock, and E. Daniel Larkin for helpful comments (especially in note 2 below).

[2] As with the Kitzmiller decision, plaintiffs have regularly made the successful (but—I hope to show—mistaken) legal argument that creationism is, as a matter of law, not a scientific theory, but a religious one, as it explicitly appeals to supernatural causes. I do not dispute that ID is religious; but in principle it could become a scientific theory (it is not currently one). In law the trier of fact must base all findings of fact on the evidence permitted into the record by the court, and the court must determine the law by which the facts of record will be evaluated by reference to controlling statutory and decisional law. Judge Jones found as fact that the ID presented in Dover was legally indistinguishable from creationism. He further found that controlling decisional law held that creationism is religion, not science. As required, he applied that law to what he found to be the legal facts of Kitzmiller, and so was obliged to find that ID is not science, but religion. So the claims that I am contesting are really those of the plaintiffs, their lawyers, and the expert witnesses in the cases which set the precedent controlling Judge Jones’ findings. Nevertheless, for simplicity I will describe the reasoning as Judge Jones’. Just off-stage here lurk some general jurisprudential questions, questions about the discretionary powers of judges in evaluating expert testimony, and about the extent to which the reasoning in Kitzmiller and its predecessors may influence or constrain future litigation in this area.

[3] Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board, p. 64.

[4] See Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway Publishing, 1991), especially Ch. 10; Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995); and “Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism” (1990) reprinted in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives ed. Robert T. Pennock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 59-76. See also William A. Dembski, “Introduction” in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing ed. William A. Dembski (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004). That Darwinists’ methods exclude the supernatural a priori is liberally reiterated by the contributors throughout Uncommon Dissent.

[5] Paraphrased from Kitzmiller, p. 66, quoting a statement by the National Academy of Sciences.

[6] IDers have occasionally tried to elude premise 2 by facetiously suggesting that the designer might be a space alien. Premise 1 seems acceptable so long as we understand ‘observable’ and ‘measurable’ liberally enough that we count as observable everything from the Big Bang to neutrinos, quarks, and mental states.

[7] For example, see William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995), and Adolf Grünbaum, “Theological Misinterpretations of Current Physical Cosmology.” Philo 1(1): 15-34 (Spring/Summer 1998).

[8] Which even led Michael Dummett, in line with his vigorous instrumentalist views, to deny that such statements were either true or false.

[9] Jones, appealing to Robert T. Pennock and Kenneth Miller in Kitzmiller, p. 66.

[10] Kitzmiller, pp. 69-70, quoting the National Academy of Sciences.

[11] Kitzmiller, p. 71.

[12] Kitzmiller, p. 72.

[13] Alvin Plantinga, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible.” Christian Scholar’s Review 21(1): 8-33 (September 1991), and Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), Chapter 12.

[14] For a cavil or two, see Evan Fales, “Plantinga’s Case Against Naturalistic Epistemology.” Philosophy of Science 63(3): 432-451 (September 1996), pp. 434-436. This is reprinted as Ch. 15 of Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives ed. Robert T. Pennock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

[15] Each of these monotheistic traditions makes historical claims, for example, that can—and must—be shown to withstand empirical scrutiny.

[16] The definition of both terms is a rather vexed matter. For present purposes, I take methodological naturalism to be the view that scientific investigation should not or cannot look for nonnatural causes, where a (metaphysically) nonnatural cause would be a disembodied spirit or mind that lacks mass and spatial location, and possibly temporal location as well. For more details, see my “Naturalism and Physicalism” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[17] Pennock, for his part, does offer the court two arguments for the in principle untestability of religious claims, and hence for methodological naturalism. (See Robert T. Pennock, “Dover Expert Report” on Pennock’s faculty page of research papers.) The first is that religious claims invoke the activity of supernatural agents, activity that cannot be investigated scientifically because it transcends the laws of nature, and thus is not subject to them. Aside from the fact that some religions do not invoke supernatural agents, this point initially seems to have some force. But at best, this point is a controversial one. For instance, it is controversial whether the actions of human agents are fully subject to natural law, and yet the human sciences are, after all, legitimate sciences that offer legitimate explanations even when they make no appeal to the (largely unknown, at best) natural laws that may govern human thought and action. Thus it is far from obvious that supernatural agents, if richly enough characterized, could not be understood in similar fashion, and their behaviors similarly predicted. Indeed, this is precisely the ID strategy. IDers’ attempts to devise a criterion for identifying intelligent supernatural activity have thus far been an abysmal failure; but this does not show that it can’t be done.

Pennock’s second argument is that supernatural activity cannot be scientifically investigated because supernatural agency is not subject to (human) control, and scientific testing requires the possibility of performing controlled experiments. But this last claim is, again, doubtful. Indeed, many of the data that confirm Darwin’s theory come from discoveries of facts whose production did not involve any human intervention—e.g., Darwin’s observations of finch beaks on the Galapagos Islands. Controlled experiments often provide important direct or indirect evidence for a theory (e.g., Darwin’s breeding experiments). But this is true of religious claims as well—e.g., for neurophysiological and sociological investigations of mystical experiences. But couldn’t the theist allow the discovered naturalistic explanations, and just add that God works through these very mechanisms? (cf. Pennock, “Dover Expert Report,” p. 23). This maneuver, which imports covert divine action as a free rider on naturalistic mechanisms, is not as easily purchased as it may seem. Christian doctrine, for example, yields expectations about mystical experiences that are not met by the facts on the ground, and is therefore disconfirmed by those facts. (I show this in Evan Fales, “Scientific Explanations of Mystical Experiences, II. The Challenge to Theism.” Religious Studies 32(3): 297-313 (September 1996), and elsewhere.) So ‘God causes mystical experiences’ is testable, and the evidence on balance is negative.

Pennock also claims that science is neutral with respect to the truth of metaphysical naturalism. That seems right, so far as the initial stance of science is concerned. But it need not remain neutral, with respect at least to sufficiently fleshed out supernaturalistic claims, as relevant evidence mounts.

[18] Just what kind of naturalistic explanation might the following phenomenon admit of? Imagine: One night, the stars in the sky visibly rearrange themselves so as to spell out, first in one language and then in others, the message “MENE MENE TEKEL PARSIN” (Daniel 5), all the while blinking on and off in unison?

[19] As, for example, for the phenomena of mystical and near-death experiences, for human moral instincts, and for the origin of the universe—all of which are rapidly yielding to naturalistic methods. Naturalistic answers to scientific puzzles have often led to new questions even as they deepen our insight; methodological naturalism has a distinguished track record of not only provoking but pursuing and progressively answering such novel questions. In stark contrast, the proponents of ID display a marked—one might even say studied—indifference to filling the multitude of gaps in their own theory. To cite just one familiar example: Michael Behe has suggested, I suppose facetiously, that the designer(s) of terrestrial life might have been space aliens; but he has certainly not tried to formulate a program of research directed to answering the question of whether this proposal might be correct.

[20] I say ‘weak’ for several reasons. For one, there are a priori arguments (which I take to be cogent) for the existence of certain sorts of abstract entities—e.g., numbers and universals. In general, no argument I have given rules out the existence of nonnatural entities that do not causally interact with our world.

[21] Perhaps the best argument that can be made for teaching creationism in public school science classes has been made in Alvin Plantinga, “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives ed. Robert T. Pennock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 779-792. Plantinga is refreshingly candid about the theological motivations for creationism. He begins his case with a distinction between ordinary beliefs and what he calls comprehensive beliefs—beliefs that provide “deep ways of understanding ourselves and the world.” Certain basic Christian beliefs will qualify as comprehensive, as will a commitment to metaphysical naturalism. While asserting contestable comprehensive beliefs may be off-limits for classroom instruction, examining what these beliefs imply is legitimate instructional material.

Because our society is pluralistic with respect to the comprehensive beliefs that citizens hold, Plantinga suggests that fairness demands that taxpayer-supported schools recognize—and teach—the implications of all (or else none) of the different belief systems widely held in a given school district. I shall not comment on this principle of fairness except to second Robert Pennock’s reply (“Reply to Plantinga’s ‘Modest Proposal'” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, pp. 793-797). Pennock notes that taxpayer support does not obligate schools to cater to every popular ideology. The comprehensive beliefs of white supremacists include the conviction that there exists an Aryan race that is superior to others, and that those others are by nature defective, even corrupt. But I think we would all agree that, even in school districts having a large white supremacist population—or perhaps especially in such districts—schools should not be obliged to teach students that given the basic white supremacist convictions, most likely the Holocaust never occurred, or that racist social policies are morally obligatory.

Now, Plantinga believes that in school districts where Christian fundamentalism is popular, school children should be told what the Bible says and its implications. (And if very few parents have naturalist views in such districts, I suppose that there would be no obligation to explain Darwinism and its implications.) However, my main question concerning this is as follows. What are the scientific bona fides of ID assuming the truth of the comprehensive beliefs of theists in general? Plantinga seems unconcerned about creationism’s scientific credentials, and so would apparently be happy to see it presented as a religious, nonscientific view. But here we are concerned with the science classroom, and we are prepared—given sufficient empirical grounds—to jettison methodological naturalism.

Here “creationism” might refer either to a general view about the universe, or to the more limited “special creation hypothesis.” In the general view, the universe was created with a design or purpose in mind, and so everything in the universe is designed; in the more limited view, God has directly manufactured living species to design specifications. In the former case, the main positive arguments of ID theory, which are devoted to demonstrating how we can empirically recognize intelligent design in nature, are futile. After all, on the general creationist view everything except God is designed. On the more narrow conception, ID is relevant, but everything hinges on whether ID theory has succeeded in devising a good criterion of design—and has then (a) gone on to provide empirical means for determining when, where, how, and why God has implemented his designs in the biosphere; (b) has pursued those means; and (c) has cogent results to offer.

But so far ID theory has failed to meet any of these basic standards. For one, it has not offered a cogent criterion of design. A careful and easily understandable analysis of the attempts of Michael Behe and William Dembski to define irreducible (or specified) complexity can be found in two book reviews by H. Allen Orr in the Boston Review: A review of Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (December 1996/January 1997) and of Dembski’s No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Summer 2002). Some of the more interesting recent work on how Darwinism can explain novel structures is presented in Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2005), and Marc Kirchner and John Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005). And notoriously, IDers have not pursued—and indeed explicitly abjure—asking other questions that beg answers. So even on its own framing assumptions (or comprehensive beliefs), ID has not risen to the standards of a competent science.

Plantinga proposes that both Darwinism and creationism be taught in public schools—but only as conditional claims. The underlying comprehensive beliefs (naturalism and theism) are not to be defended, attacked, or questioned, only presented, and along with their implications. That is, students are to understand that if the comprehensive belief in naturalism is true, then Darwinism provides the best account of life; and if the comprehensive belief in theism is true, then creationism does. But this is not how matters stand, at least scientifically. For creationism (though a going enterprise since at least the 13th century) has not yet reached the level of scientific achievement that would qualify it for presentation to our students as a science, with our without naturalistic presuppositions.

The notion that schoolchildren should (or could) be protected from confrontation with topics or disciplinary findings that directly challenge their (or their parents’) cherished values and beliefs conflicts with the very purpose of public education. The suggestion that when such conflict arises, a topic must be taught only conditionally (if at all) amounts to drawing a protective perimeter around entrenched public opinions. So, far from encouraging the critical examination of basic assumptions (which is what IDers insist “equal time” will achieve), such a policy would sow massive confusion, forcing into the classroom, as a conditional proposition, every deeply held point of view represented within the local community—whether its presuppositions can withstand serious scrutiny or not. In short, the school curriculum would be forced to tip-toe around every hare-brained sacred cow that somebody’s got grazing in their intellectual front yard. Instead of promoting critical, informed thought, such a policy would amount to a prescription for political correctness run amok.

More personally, I certainly hope that my children will be taught by teachers who know more about many important topics than I or they do, and that they will, from time to time, bring home with them solid evidence that is bad news for some of our opinions, evidence that forces us to reexamine our positions.

Copyright ©2009 by Evan Fales. The electronic version is copyright ©2009 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Evan Fales. All rights reserved.