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A Final Thought on Intelligent Design—and a Modest Proposal

Virginia Quarterly Review | Saturday, Apr 01, 2006

So, Judge John E. Jones III has now ruled on the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district’s “intelligent design” lawsuit and, with eminent common sense, ruled for the plaintiffs and against the one-time school board majority that mandated the inclusion of some sort of antievolutionary intelligent design proviso in the Dover schools’ science curriculum—and that’s too bad.

Too bad, because the spectacle of some pointy-headed secularizing judge upending their most fervent beliefs, all his protestations notwithstanding, will now only be serving to inflame the bottomless sense of victimized grievance entertained by Dover’s sizable (even if not permanently majoritarian) antievolutionary contingent and their endlessly put-upon allies all around the country. And in the end it is not altogether clear that a courtroom is where this sort of issue should be thrashed out in the first place. Or, at any rate, that a court can ever be expected to provide closure or surcease to the roiling passions underlying this particular corner of the culture wars.

Hence, a modest proposal. Might it not make more sense to fashion a compromise along the following lines:

a) Intelligent Design will not be taught in science classes, which for their part will limit themselves to surveying the ongoing systematic study of the natural world through observation and the assertion of (falsifiable) hypotheses subject to eventual testing by experiment or further observation.

b) Intelligent Design may be taught in world religion survey courses offered as electives.

c) But Intelligent Design will be required to be taught—and taught as vigorously as its proponents can muster—in the context of a mandatory new class, to be offered, say, to eighth graders throughout the country, built around questions of epistemology, or more colloquially, How We Know What We Know. What does it mean to say that we know something, or believe it, or trust in its efficacy? On what basis do we ever do any of those things; to what extent do those processes overlap, or else conflict; and how can and do we deal with those conflicts, both within ourselves and between each other? What does it mean to prove something, or else to come to doubt that proof? What sorts of claims are made, say, by evolutionary theory—what are the bases for those claims, how might they be tested, and how do such claims themselves evolve over time? Likewise with Intelligent Design: after all, at first blush the notion that creation might have had an intelligent designer is by no means inherently outrageous. Questions arise as to the bases for such a claim, how they might be tested, and whether for that matter they even constitute the sorts of claims that ought to be tested in the way a “scientific” claim would need to be tested and affirmed or debunked.

For that matter, such a class might broadly consider the status of all sorts of other claims: the claims of advertising, say, or that violent videos and computer games propagate actual physical violence, or that one particular painting is better than another one, or that there were WMDs in Hussein’s arsenal (or not). What does it mean to assert anything, or to accept such an assertion?

Come to think of it, that’s a class we all might benefit from.