Touring with Virgil

Location: Northeast, United States

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

I have (finally) read the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District opinion, in which the court found, among other things, that intelligent design is not science. (The opinion was entered on December 20, 2005, and can be found at 400 F. Supp. 2d 707.)

This will be a long post, for which my apologies.

What the School Board Did

The Dover Area School District is located in south-central Pennsylvania, in a rural region that includes the historic city of York. In Oct.-Nov. 2004, the District's Board adopted a policy under which teachers of ninth-grade biology in the District would be required to read to their students a prepared statement about evolution and ID.

The statement, which is too long to be repeated here, essentially says: State law requires that we teach you "Darwin's Theory of Evolution"; "Darwin's Theory" is a theory, not a fact; there are "gaps" in the theory "for which there is no evidence"; ID is "an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view"; if you want to learn more about ID, we have made the "reference book" Of Pandas and People available to you; you are encouraged to keep an open mind; "discussion of the Origins of Life" is up to you and your families.

The teachers were told to read this statement to their biology students in Jan. 2005. The teachers refused, and so school administrators visited each class to read the statement. That performance was repeated in June 2005 (with minor changes to the statement that did not affect its basic import).

The Lawsuit

Parents of several students in the ninth grade or lower grades in the District sued the District and the Board on the grounds that the Board's "ID Policy" violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania state constitution. The parents were represented mainly by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The District and the Board were represented mainly by the Thomas More Law Center, a "public interest law firm" that (I believe) specializes in opposing abortion.

The case was heard in the federal district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The trial lasted six weeks and was heard only by the judge, without a jury, which is why we an opinion setting forth findings of fact and legal reasoning. (One of my questions about this case is why the defendants didn't demand a jury trial. I purposely didn't do any Googling before writing this, because I don't want to risk confusing what the opinion actually says with whatever I might read on the Net.)

The Court's Reasoning

The opinion, which takes up 60 pages in the printed reporter, is highly entertaining. I can't do justice to it here. I'll just focus on the standard the court applied and the main reasons for its holding.

The court applied two tests in deciding whether the ID Policy violated the Establishment Clause: the endorsement test and the purpose test. (The purpose test is one of three alternative parts of the so-called Lemon test, which is named after a Supreme Court case. One part of the Lemon test was not argued by the plaintiffs, and the third part was essentially identical to the endorsement test.)

1. The Endorsement Test

The endorsement test is intended to determine whether the government's action showed favoritism to one religion over another or to religion generally over non-religion. In applying the test, the court examines what message the government's action conveys to a reasonable, objective observer who is familiar with the action, its origins, the history of the community, and the broader social and historical context.

Because the Board directed its statements to both the ninth-grade students and the general community, the court applied the test both from the viewpoint of a reasonable, objective ninth-grader and a reasonable, objective adult. (In practice, there wasn't much difference between the two analyses.)

The court found that an objective observer familiar with the background would know that ID is a Creationist and religious strategy that developed from earlier forms of Creationism, would view the statement that was read to the ninth-grade biology students as a strong official endorsement of religion, and would also view the Board's public communications announcing the ID Policy as a strong endorsement of a religious view.

The ID Policy therefore violated the Establishment Clause under the endorsement test.

2. Sidebar: Whether ID Is Science

The court made a rather thin effort to explain why it needed to decide this issue. It's not really clear from the opinion that this needed to be addressed in order for the ID Policy to be found unconstitutional. However, I think the court went there because (having listened to six weeks of testimony, including a lot from expert witnesses on both sides) the court really felt it understood the issue and hoped to put it to bed (in its legal aspects) by providing a thorough examination of it.

The court found that, even though ID may be true, it is not science. It found that ID "fails on three different levels": it "violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation"; it employs a "contrived dualism" that maintains that any flaws in evolutionary theory equal support of ID; and the flaws it claims to have found in evolutionary theory "have been refuted by the scientific community."

3. The Purpose Test

The purpose test is intended to determine whether the government's primary purpose in the challenged action was to advance a religion or religion generally. In applying this test, the court looks at almost any admissible evidence that sheds light on what the government's purpose was.

This, for me, was the most interesting part of the opinion. It sheds light on small-town politics and man-in-the-street American religiosity. The court spends 15 pages going through the events leading up to the adoption and carrying out of the ID Policy.

Basically, the chair of the Board, Bonsell, began agitating among the other eight Board members for a return to religion in the District's schools as soon as he joined the Board, in late 2001. His main ally in this was the chair of the Board's Curriculum Committee, Buckingham. Four of the Board members allowed themselves to be overawed by Bonsell and Buckingham. The three remaining members opposed the ID Policy.

Bonsell was very concerned that the high-school biology teachers were teaching things inconsistent with young-Earth Creationism. He therefore began pressuring the teachers not to talk about the origins of humans. Ultimately, he and Buckingham refused to authorize the purchase of standard biology textbooks (which included a section on evolution) in order to pry concessions from the teachers to watch a Creationist documentary and to promise to mention Creationism in their classes. Ultimately, Bonsell and Buckingham got six members of the Board to approve the ID Policy.

It was clear from the testimony that Bonsell and Buckingham pushed the ID Policy for religious reasons and that the other Board members who voted for it went along without bothering to understand the issues involved. The Board did not seek any advice from authorities on science education and disregarded the opposition offered by the science teachers in the District. (I was actually quite impressed by the science teachers' dedication to job to teach real science.)

The court was particularly exercised about the fact that both Bonsell and Buckingham were caught lying under oath. (Among the things they lied about was that copies of the Pandas book, a pro-ID work, was bought for the District with money raised by an appeal of Buckingham to the congregation where he attended church.) The judge didn't mince words in calling them liars.

The Remedy

The court entered an order permanently enjoining the District from implementing the ID Policy and from requiring teachers to "disparage the scientific theory of evolution" and to refer to ID. The court also issued a declaratory judgment that the plaintiffs' federal and state constitutional rights had been violated. Finally, it ordered the defendants to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees (which I'm sure were hefty).

All in all, a fascinating decision, well worth reading.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Inspired by Steven Goldman

Science statements and religion statements are both about "social facts," if you will. In science, the social facts are scientific objects. When we make science statements, we're not talking about experiences (e.g., "my drink tipped over") but about scientific objects (e.g., "my drink did not stay in the position I put it in because of gravity"). "Gravity" is a scientific object -- no one experiences gravity per se. Our experiences are explained in terms of gravity (we being the educated modern people we are), but gravity itself remains a scientific object, i.e., something created and shaped and revised and (some day perhaps) discarded by scientists and the society that follows scientists on matters within their bailiwick.

Religion statements can be seen the same way. They are statements not about experiences but about religious objects. We experience people being born and developing personalities and thinking into the future and the past and then suddenly ceasing to be. We explain that experience (and others) in terms of some religious object (e.g., the soul and the afterlife). No one experiences the soul per se, just as no one experiences gravity per se. But the religious objects about which people think and speak are no less real (and no more real) than the scientific objects about which people think and speak.

Is there any difference between scientific objects and other social facts (including religious objects)? There is, in that the community of scientists have broadly agreed upon certain criteria for making something a scientific object (and for un-making others, such as flogiston). Religious objects don't meet those criteria. A pure materialist might therefore say that religious objects have no more significance than, say, literary characters. But I don't think pure materialism is warranted.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Why Intelligent Design Is Not a Scientific Hypothesis

The following is my summary of a lecture by Steven Goldman, a professor at Lehigh University who specializes in the philosophy of science. (Available from the Teaching Company as part of the lecture series "Science Wars.") I thought his lecture was so well done that it was worth posting his points here.

1. Who determines whether any hypothesis is "scientific"?

The determination is rightfully made by the community of people who do science, i.e., scientists.

2. What criteria do scientists use in determining whether a proposed hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis?

Scientists expect a hypothesis to have (i) explanatory power, (ii) logical consistency within a given set of assumptions, (iii) correlation with present experience, and (iv) correlation between the consequences of the hypothesis and predicted future experiences.

3. How does the intelligent-design (ID) hypothesis fare under the foregoing tests?

- a. It lacks explanatory power because it goes outside nature for its explanation, invoking a supernatural causal agent. One of the foundational rules of science as a disciplined approach to the study of nature is that nature must be treated as a closed system. (Even medieval Catholic philosophers accepted this proposition.)

- b. It does not make any testable predictions that would not also be made by someone who did not accept the intelligent-design hypothesis. Thus, it does not make a difference operationally -- it is not fertile in terms of research programs.

4. What support is offered for the proposition that ID is a scientific hypothesis?

- a. That "Darwinian" evolution cannot explain certain things.

- Comeback: This argument is based on a logical fallacy, the argument from ignorance. The fact that theory X cannot explain something tells us nothing about theory Y; it only tells us about theory X.

- b. That "Darwinian" evolution specifically cannot explain the existence of the complex biochemical systems that are characteristic of life forms.

- Comeback 1: Evolutionary theory is more than "Darwinian" evolution. The theory continues to develop, as all "good" scientific theories do.

- Comeback 2: A new science of self-organizing systems has arisen since the 1970s that is a more promising scientific basis for explaining the emergence of complex biological systems than jumping to the ID hypothesis.

- Comeback 3: There is evidence that complex socio-technical systems have in fact emerged from the bottom up. For example, the automobile engine, which is the result of discoveries & inventions in unrelated areas for unrelated purposes.

5. Attempts to discredit evolution as a scientific theory reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific theories and of scientific knowledge. Scientific theories evolve over time, and all major scientific theories evolve multidimensionally, becoming integrated into an expanding explanatory web driven by correlated research programs. Evolutionary theory displays precisely this characteristic, with its developing correlation with genetic theory, molecular biology, anthropology, ecology, environmental science, and plate tectonic geology.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Posters on the IMDb Philosophy & Religion Board

Following is a list of posters on the Philosophy & Religion board at IMDb. The information below was provided on a volunteer basis, so I have no idea whether it's accurate. (This is an updated version of a list I posted in February 2008.)

acureforgravity, 44, male, sales

Airline_Amy, 36, receptionist, pagan

Anakin McFly, 18

the artichoke, 19, female

AtxAxLoss, 20

Azaezel, 21, male, student

BillabongSurfer, 22, male, pre-med student, agnostic

blemish08, 18, male

bluesguitarguy02, 25, male

Cadency, 20, male, retail assistant

Caim, 20, student, practicing the teachings of Buddhism

chris harkus, 16, male, student, atheist or something close

cingulated, 35, male, atheist

creeese, 32, female, atheist

the death of achilles, 19, male, student, theist

Dennis Waterman, 25, male

Dragon-Fury, 29, female, product management, theist

EdwardLongshanks, 44, male, graphic artist, sometime Celtic Catholic

emsby the prawnaquat, 29, female

F Gump, 48, male

fictionalsleep, 27, male

Fire in Babylon, 27, male, production assistant/comedy writer, atheist

GayIthacan2, 54, male, teacher, atheist

GendoIkari 82, programmer

graham-167, 38, male

guyzzerino, 50, male, accountant, currently corporate controller

HairynosedWombat, 59, male

Hamster-on-a-wheel, 25, teaching assistant/doctoral candidate

happycurl, 35, female, parent

Harvardlawguy, pushing 50, male, lawyer, non-theist

hauntedknight, 24, male, writer, pagan

HentaiGuy42, 24, male, bomb squad, agnostic atheist

Infamous-Sulla, 50, male, atheist

Invincible_JEC, 37, male, former teacher (social studies, grades 7-12)

Jalopasiers, 32, male

Janitor Of Lunacy 456, 19

Jeff-The-God-Of-Biscuits, 24, male

jluis1984, 23, male

josh-384, 26, male, musician, agnostic

July Iris, 24, female

Karyes, 56, female, water works

katcrux, 24, female, candy store shopgirl, atheist with pagan tendencies

Leon-Scott-Kennedy, 21, male, student, Orthodox Christian

Lord Gyaldhart, 30, writer

Mary-Jane Watson, 24, female

MeanerWithTheScenery, 26, male, fired

Melkor Bauglir, 19, male, student, agnostic atheism

mjbrandstoettner, male

morkatt, 44, female, administrative/veterinary assistant, Pagan (2nd degree Wiccan priestess)

MrsO again, 34, female

muppetlass87, 20, female, student

MuthaResurrected, 51, attorney

NunchakuMichelangelo, 20, male, slacker, planning to be a student

odds lane, 14, female [it appears that this poster is in fact male and in his mid-20s, though that has not been confirmed]

ootsonati, 30, male

prawnchopsuey, 47, female

PrincePickwick, 31, male, real estate

Pwny, 30, male, programmer, atheist

Quasarsphere, 33, male, busker, atheist

raceal2, 16, male, student & actor, non-denominational theist

the_robin, 31, male, Christian

Run Mr. Postman, 21, male

SarahLTS, 29

seisiader, 43, male

Semi-Bluff, 53, male, poker player (may soon change), atheist

skyhawk0, 39, male, atheist

Some Dude, 22, male

Sorte Orm, 24, male

Spaz91, 16, male

Sunswipe, 34, male

the65dollarman, 25, male, student/researcher, Scandinavian pagan (Asatru)

To Whom It May Concern, 25, male, atheist

trainrider, male, 61

vampyreaayin, 21, female

WhataRecch, 20, male

whatismyname, 48

words on your screen, 30, male

X-Ice, 53, female, retired/disabled/welfare cheater

Yuck Fou, 18, male

zomnificent, 22, male

Monday, March 17, 2008

Science and ID

I'm currently listening to a series of lectures on the historical interactions between Western science and Christianity. The lecturer is Lawrence Principe, who's a professor in chemistry and history of science at Johns Hopkins.

Among the points he makes in the lectures are:

1. The "warfare" model of science-religion interactions is a product of the late 19th century and is historically inaccurate.

2. Intelligent Design does not add anything useful to science, even if one is a believer, and purely naturalistic science has not historically come packaged with atheism.

His take on ID was particularly interesting. He situates ID in the tradition of natural theology stretching back centuries and in attempts by "natural philosophers" (i.e., scientists) in the 17th century to come up with ways to distinguish between miracles and the normal workings of nature.

Principe points out that one of the claims of IDers is that ID has explanatory force regarding scientific questions. The problem is that "God did X" doesn't provide an explanation, at least not in the scientific or analytical sense. It's equivalent to saying that something was a miracle. If something was a miracle -- the direct work of a god -- then it's inherently beyond our analytical ability. It can't be broken down any further.

Even if we accept that, for example, the Christian god created the universe, that idea neither advances our scientific understanding nor hinders our search for explanations of natural phenomena.

EDIT: Some of the Q&A regarding the above post, from the Philosophy & Religion discussion board at IMDb:

Theist: "Then why do evolutionist professors see the 'ID' movement as such a threat?"

Response: "I don't think science professors see ID as a threat. Certainly not as a threat to science. If anything, they see it as an annoyance. It's an annoyance because IDers fill (some of) their students' heads with the mistaken ideas that (1) ID deserves to be called 'science,' and (2) it's not taught in science class because of a conspiracy among 'secular humanist' scientists. They react to ID claims with the same exasperation that your doctor would display if you told him/her that, instead of taking the medicine s/he prescribed for your high cholesterol, you're going to have a shaman wave a rattle over your loins."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Bible

The Bible comes in for a lot of abuse from the average atheist. Too often, s/he seems to simply dismiss it as a "book of fairy tales."

I wouldn't deny that the Bible does contain some stories that could fairly be characterized as fairy tales. But it also contains much, much more than that.

The Bible is of course an anthology of ancient works written at widely different times by different people. The Old Testament (mostly written between about 900 and 500 BCE) includes works whose literary value matches almost anything produced during the same period by other cultures. As for the New Testament, from a literary standpoint it's widely agreed to be greatly inferior in quality to the OT. It is, however, fascinating from a historical perspective, since it includes hints of everyday life in the ancient Near East that can't be found in any other primary sources we have.

"Official" Bible translations typically homogenize everything and thus give a poor sense of the Bible's literary merits. To get a sense of the literary qualities of the OT, I recommend A Poet's Bible, which consists of terrific translations by David Rosenberg. (It's inexplicably out of print, but lots of used editions are available.) I also recommend The Book of J, which contains Rosenberg's translation of the portions of the Pentateuch believed to have been written by a single author referred to as "J" (short for the "Jahwist" or "Yahwist"). If you read the reviews on Amazon, you'll find a lot of quibbles with Rosenberg's work, mainly because, in an effort to bring the ancient texts to life, he takes liberties with the literal meanings. But he has tried to do something really unique and significant in rescuing the Bible from ritualism.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Rational Arguments for God and Apologetics

I recently finished reading Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (from Oxford's "Very Short Introduction" series). Toward the end of the book, he gets into arguments for & against religion. I think he makes a good point about arguments for the existence of a god:

Pick up any introduction to the philosophy of religion and you'll see a number of traditional arguments for the existence of God. ... [T]o my mind it is not worth spending too much time on them for the simple reason that these arguments don't provide the reasons why people become religious. This isn't just my view, but the honest opinion of many religious people who give much thought to these arguments. For instance, Peter Vardy, a Christian philosopher and author of several leading textbooks in the philosophy of religion which consider these arguments, calls them 'a waste of time'. Russell Stannard, the leading physicist who wrote a book called The God Experiment on evidence for God's existence, says, 'I don't have to believe in God, I know that God exists -- that is how I feel'. In other words, evidence and arguments are neither here nor there -- it is personal conviction that really counts.

Baggini then explains that these arguments were never intended to prove that a god exists, but instead were apologetics:

The function of such arguments is not to show that God exists, but to show that belief in God does not require any irrationality. It is about reconciling belief and reason, not showing belief to be justified through reason.

I agree with this analysis. As proofs, the arguments for a god are quite weak. They make a lot more sense as efforts to show that belief in a god can be consistent with a rational approach to life.

(cross-posted from the Philosophy & Religion discussion board at IMDb.)