ASA and the History and Philosophy of Science

From: Gregory Arago <>
Date: Thu Nov 03 2005 - 04:13:19 EST

This message is partly in response to the report made by Ted Davis on the Dover (science, education, politics and religion) trial and partly about the state of affairs of the ‘controversy’ over evolution, creation and intelligent design in America. Let me provide a viewpoint (perspective) that does not come from within a natural science discipline, i.e. what is being touted as the main area of research influenced by intelligent design proponents. Instead, I will open up the question of how ‘history and philosophy of science’ (HPS) provides an enlightening view about how to contextualize the particular social-political-pseudo-scientific movement of scholars under the banner of ID.


In regard to Ted’s report about the trial testimony, specifically M. Behe’s:


“Whose Science? and Whose Religion? seem to be the big questions that are really under consideration here.” – Ted Davis


Yes, this reflects the situation speaking in the social sciences these days too. Einstein’s relativity theory did not just deal with physics or optics, but influenced personal relationships and our understanding of (absolute) space and time too. The idea that ‘by our theories you shall know us’ (D. Harvey) applies to evolution, creation and intelligent design is quite understandable. Yet the effects upon society of internalizing such diversely distinct perspectives (everyone’s views should be valued individually) apparently don’t carry the same collective understanding for natural scientists that are intent on gaining objective knowledge at the cost of subjective interpretation.


“the crucial discipline for the whole trial seems to be my own (history and philosophy of science), even more than biochemistry or paleontology.” - TD


In this, I agree as well, though not in reference to a particular trial, which I have not been following that closely. On the other hand, I somehow doubt that many scientific colleagues (e.g. biochemists, botanists and paleontologists) would agree to a rebalancing of science with philosophy to include a sense of history (progress and development) and also a taste of theology in their studies. Dawkins and Dennett would certainly disagree against theology, as would the Churchland’s, E. Scott, R. Rorty, M. Ruse, and others, though they don’t ‘own the franchise’ on evolution either. HPS performs a different role than pure philosophy or experimental science and the main supporters/comrades of Bill Dembski are philosophers or historians of science (i.e. S. Meyer and P. Nelson). Thus, if the IDM is to be understood and appropriately challenged, it must be done in the area of HPS.


“Many (perhaps most) ID advocates do not accept common descent to the degree that Behe does. Anyone who reads Phillip Johnson or Jonathan Wells or Steven Meyer will come away with the overwhelming impression that Mike Behe is the odd man out, on this issue.” - TD


The Big Tent ideology of ID is something surprising and apparently contradictory to outsiders and in some ways revealing at the same time. The current scientific epoch (21st century, some call it the post-modern age, but not all disciplines are post-modern) does not require clear majorities or consensus the way it used to; instead mere suggestiveness can be enough. The fact that leaders of the IDM do not agree with each other actually adds somehow to ID’s allure by expanding its fields of supposed relevance in appeal to non-scientific citizens. The politics is sometimes winning, if not the (pseudo-)science itself.


“By insisting that ID is science and not simply a philosophical critique of mainstream science, ID advocates are IMO missing the best opportunity they have actually to introduce ID ideas into public school science classes.” … “Here is the missed opportunity: there *is* a requirement in the PA state standards that the "nature of science" be taught in high school science classes. The phrase, "nature of science" is educationese for the philosophy of science-what counts as science, what doesn't, how are scientific theories tested, what is the relationship between theory and evidence, etc.” - TD


This is why work in HPS is therefore especially intriguing on this topic. Are there not many people working in the history and philosophy of science in the USA these days or specifically at ASA? I am from Canada, which is even younger as a nation than America, so perhaps this says something about the number and/or quality of persons focusing on the history of sciences or philosophies that took place elsewhere.


ID may not be scientific in the traditional sense, even if the IDM leadership argues that scientific methods should be changed to permit it. And yes, I do agree with Glenn Morton (see below) that ‘they’ are focusing primarily on biology, if for no other reason than that M. Behe has come up with the most effective conceptualization the IDM uses in their anti-evolutionary or partly-non-Darwinian arguments. But if it (i.e. ID or ‘argument from design’) helps to initiate students who would never otherwise enter the discourse between science and religion or theology to do so, then it has accomplished something that ‘pure science’ itself could never do. Science can only point to the limitations and achievements of its domain and submit that connections with philosophy and/or theology will help the student or researcher to come to a deeper understanding of a given topic or theme.


So I wonder then whether folks at ASA are (or would be) willing to accept the contribution ID can make to science and philosophy, especially as it is often predominantly anti-evolutionary in the conceptualization of IC = unevolvable? Or is there an alternative approach that can be embraced by spiritual scientists at the ASA that does not rely on a repatriation of Paleyan theory allied together with information theory, probability studies and the specificationalism of one W. Dembski, the interdisciplinarian? These are questions that make me curious about the scientific, philosophical and theological climate in the particularly American debate about evolution, creation and ID, which is being highlighted in this show trial.


Is there not another way to approach the topic (from a more holistic or global perspective) that doesn’t put politics first, but focuses on the legitimate scholarship of those who accept and/or advocate evolution, while at the same time also admitting where evolutionary theory reaches its boundaries or limits outside of biology, botany, geology and certain other natural sciences? There does seem to be a place for history and philosophy of science, allied together with current sociologies of knowledge to make a significant contribution here.






“I do believe in design and have written on it, but, it seems that believing in design outside of biology doesn't seem to qualify me in their minds as being an advocate of ID.” … “They [IDists] only accept design if it is in biology and thus, is antievolutionary.” – Glenn Morton

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Received on Thu Nov 3 04:15:51 2005

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