Teach the Controversy

One thing advocates of teaching Intelligent Design (ID) in school like to say is why not expose kids to both sides and “teach the controversy.” I’m actually very sympathetic to this approach. The goal of education is to learn how to reason and evaluate evidence on your own, not merely have your head loaded up dogmatically with “facts.”

However, there’s no scientific controversy between evolution and ID; therefore no appropriate way to present the controversy in science class. ID relies on abandoning the scientific method and declaring that despite all the scientific evidence, evolution (at least macro-evolution) does not occur.

There is a controversy, of course. But it’s not a scientific controversy.

Now it’s true that ID could be brought up in science class in the context of explaining the scientific method — ID could serve as an example of what the scientific method does not look like. But that would be unfair to ID, for it is at heart a philosophical outlook, not a scientific one.

“Teaching the controversy,” teaching it right and doing so fairly, requires doing something long overdue: adding philosophy to the high school curriculum. Not, mind you, to teach Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and the boring same ol’ same ol’. Rather, add philosophy to the curriculum in order to engage students in an intelligent fashion in the burning controversy of our times: the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism. That really is what animates the proponents of ID.

The central tenet of supernaturalism is that some pre-existing intelligence or mind is the cause of physical existence, including brains. The central tenet of naturalism in contrast is that physical brains, themselves a product of natural evolution, are the cause of intelligence and mind. This is a debate which has consequences and matters to people, so why not bring it to school where it can be utilized in teaching reasoning skills.

I don’t harbor any illusions that most high schools students are going to find naturalism more appealing than supernaturalism. Nor do I harbor the illusion that our society would allow naturalism to be presented in a adequate fashion in any high school textbook today, but that is ok. Engage students in the subject and they’ll fill in the missing points and arguments themselves over the course of their lives. Getting that process started — even if imperfectly — is what counts.

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