Lewontin and “the A Priori”

At Thoughts in a Haystack, Pieret notes that Citizens For Objective Public Education, Inc. (COPE) has brought a lawsuit in Kansas to block the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards. (The whole complaint is here (PDF).)   The complaint alleges that teaching evolutionary theory amounts to state endorsement of atheism, and hence is unconstitutional.

In making their case, COPE quotes this well-known passage from Lewontin’s review of Sagan’s A Demon-Haunted World:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”


Firstly, this passage is taken out of context; read in context, it is fairly clear that Lewontin is attributing this dogmatism to Sagan, and not endorsing it himself.

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On the Idea of “Scientism”

Defenders of evolutionary theory are sometimes accused of “scientism”, and this much-used (and much-abused) term has also arisen in the republic of letters due to Steven Pinker’s recent “Science is Not the Enemy of the Humanities” in The New Republic, which drew interesting responses from Leon Wieseltier, Ross Douthat, and Dan Dennett.    Here I want to examine a bit more carefully the idea of “scientism” by way of a criticism of Wieseltier’s “Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture”: A Defense of the Humanities”.  There he complains that

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic question.

Wieseltier isn’t a philosopher but a professional pundit who sprinkles his prose with philosophemes to appeal to the class-prejudices of his intended audience. So it would take some work just to locate his rant on a more well-traveled map.

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The Limits of Evolutionism: ‘Things That Don’t Evolve’

Just like the ideology of ‘naturalism’ claims that *everything* is ‘natural,’ the ideology of ‘evolutionism’ says that *everything* ‘evolves.’ As you have seen recently, I am questioning the ideology of evolutionism openly and directly here at TSZ.

As such, I have a simple challenge for people here:

What are examples of things that don’t ‘evolve?’

It’s a very basic and straightforward question. But it’s one that shows itself to be very difficult for people who are or consider themselves evolutionists to answer due to the ideological exaggeration of evolutionary theory (biological, cosmological, cultural or otherwise) into the belief that everything evolves, i.e. into ‘evolutionism.’ Those who are not ‘evolutionists’ (whether theists or atheists) usually find it easier to answer and thus to circumscribe the meaning of ‘evolution.’

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Is there an ‘Intelligent Design’ Community of Philosophers? A Response to Neil Rickert’s Hypothesis

Here is what started this conversation:

“At risk of being a bit off-topic, let me add that there is a far larger “intelligent design” community. I am talking about philosophy, particularly academic philosophy. Philosophers, as a group, tend to look at things from what I consider a[n] intelligent design perspective. That perhaps comes from Plato. Perhaps it is a natural way of thinking. To be clear, that particular intelligent design community is honest and largely non-political, unlike the religious version. And yes, there are “fine tuning” ideas coming from that community.” – Neil Rickert (http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/?p=2926&cpage=2#comment-27860)

I asked him:

“could you elaborate on this: “Philosophers, as a group, tend to look at things from what I consider a[n] intelligent design perspective”? … which philosophers, specifically who … which you suggest display a “natural way of thinking” about ‘intelligent design’?

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Why Methodological Naturalism is a Questionable Philosophy of Science

Elizabeth started another thread (http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/?p=256) stating that methodological naturalism (MN) “underlies the methodology that we call science.” Later she spoke of “methodological naturalism, as in the working assumption that scientists make about the world in order to predict things.” Then she quoted Wikipedia, which states: “all scientific endeavors—all hypotheses and events—are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events,” adding that this is “more or less the definition I have been assuming.” In other words, science studies ‘nature-only’ because it is naturalistic – it sees nothing other than nature that *could* be studied. Elizabeth sticks with this definition when she says “Science occupies the domain of natural explanations.”

Still later, Elizabeth admitted she is ‘not wild about’ MN (or what I suggested as more accurate of her statements: science applies ‘methodological probabilism’) and also that “‘methodological naturalism’ is a poor term.” Thus, her concession: “now that I realise that the term [MN] appears to denote different things to different people, I will avoid it.” So, the main argument in the OP was deserted.

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