This is so important because scientific and so- called “non-scientific” issues are interminably intermingled in both theory and practice. Scientists past and present repeatedly have incorporated into their ostensibly “scientific” discourse pronouncements about purpose, ethics, the deity, worldviews, meaning, duty, morality, chance, design, mind, metaphysics, ontology, teleology, good, evil, and so on. The question is not whether such practice is scientific. The question is whether it is legitimate to do so. Before exploring that question, permit me to recite a few examples to acquaint us with the kind of utterances I have in mind.
Ernst Mayr, perhaps the twentieth-century’s greatest biologist, argued in his book, This is Biology: The Science of the Living World, that contemporary moral and political issues are properly matters for biological discourse. He asserted that “an understanding of evolution can give us a worldview that serves as the basis for a sound ethical system that can maintain a healthy human society . . .”21 Worldview? Ethical system? Healthy society? This is hardly the stuff of old-fashioned pure and simple biology. Such topics
have traditionally been the purview of priests, ethicists, and policy experts. But Mayr contends they are matters
for the student of biology. Perhaps they are. At least they cannot be ruled out according to any received criterion of demarcation.
Now consider for a moment conclusions of several biologists who offer pronouncements that they believe to follow directly as conclusions from their biological science:
Ernst Haeckel (1877): “The cell consists of matter called protoplasm, composed chiefly of carbon, with an admixture of hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur. These component parts, properly united, produce the soul and body of the animated world, and suitably nursed become man. With this single argument the mystery of the universe is explained, the Deity annulled and a new era of infinite knowledge ushered in.”22
Douglas Futumya (1983): “Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere material mechanisms – but this seems to be the message of evolution.”23 Michael Behe (1996): “The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell . . . is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’ The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur, and Darwin. The observation of the intelligent design of life is as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun or that disease is caused by bacteria or that radiation is emitted in quanta.”24
Francis Crick (1988): “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”25
Michael J. Denton (1998): “. . . the unique fitness of the laws of nature for life is entirely consistent with the older teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specially designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose. . . the emerging picture provide[s] powerful and self-evident support for the traditional anthropocentric teleological view of the cosmos.”26
George Gaylord Simpson (1949): “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the Order Primates, akin nearly or remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material.”27
Of course there are many more such quotations. Richard Dawkins proclaims that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” while another biologist insists that “the universe is a purposeful creation.”28 We could go on and on ping-ponging back and forth quotations attesting to the scientific evidence or lack thereof for meaning, purpose, design, values, et cetera.
Let my intent be clear. I am not concerned here to argue, as some do, that the preceding quotations are dastardly intrusions of scientists into the domain of metaphysical and religious discourse, although they might be just that. Rather since rigid demarcation fails, we should openly acknowledge the fact that the various disciplines, while distinct, are not wholly separable from one another. This means we must learn to navigate those borderlands where scientific discourse overlaps most often with other human concerns. The question becomes one of legitimacy. Is it or is it not legitimate to include in science classrooms discussions of contested issues and ideas that scientists believe, nonetheless, to follow directly from their scientific practice?
There are, of course, those who answer in the negative. Yet, to my knowledge, those who do, rest their opposition to discussions of such things as good and evil, meaning and purpose, design and beauty, etc. upon the nonsensical presumption that science and non-science can be competently demarcated from one another. As already noted, such questions about meaning and purpose whether they ought to or not, do in fact have a place in science because scientists have given them a place, repeatedly talking about purpose, issuing ethical imperatives, and offering normative claims in the name of science.29 Further, scientists do, in fact have scientific methods for addressing the idea of “purpose.” Forensic scientists, detectives, lawyers, insurance fraud investigators, U.S.- government funded SETI researchers, and others all rely on sophisticated scientific methods for detecting purposeful activity. This is not the place to tease out the various conceptions of purpose. That topic could easily command yet another essay. Still it should be easy enough to see that it is one thing to determine whether a given event was the product of intention or purpose. It is another thing to identify the intention or purpose behind the event as benign, beneficent, malevolent, natural, super-natural, etc.
So we return to the question: Is it legitimate to include in science classrooms discussions of issues and ideas that scientists believe to follow directly from their scientific practice, even if some of these issues lurk on the borderlands shared with presumably “extra-scientific” concepts like purpose, meaning, beauty, and design? Permit the proposal of a tentative answer that defends the inclusion of such issues on a carefully limited basis, while avoiding the pitfalls of an “anything goes” free-for-all in the classroom.
Legitimacy and Liberal Education
The great Samuel Johnson rightly noted,
Prudence and justice are virtues, and excellences, of all times and all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at leisure. Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one man may know another half his life without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostaticks or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears.30
I submit that the chief end of education is to furnish and discipline students’ minds and to equip them for human flourishing and constructive participation in civil society. If I am right, and if Samuel Johnson was correct about the perennial need for virtue, if he was correct about the secondary need for technical specialization, and if he was correct when he also asserted that “whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is . . . knowledge of right and wrong,” then I submit that all teachers, of whatever subject matter (even biology, physics, astronomy, or hydrostatics), need to understand these things and be committed to them. Otherwise their primary educational duty cannot be fulfilled.31
I am not suggesting that the science classroom abandon the periodic table for the ten commandments, that learning acid-base titration techniques be replaced by speeches on moral philosophy, or that Mosaic cosmogony replace study of natural selection. I am suggesting that limiting the science classroom to such activities as studying the periodic table, learning titration techniques,
or understanding a natural process like descent with modification, while necessary, cannot be sufficient, even for science education. I am suggesting that to realize the primary pedagogical aim of preparing students for virtuous and constructive participation in civil society, we must not retreat exclusively into the comfortable disciplinary hinterlands of specialization and technique, as if science can be hermetically sealed from other issues. It rarely can. Instead teachers must lead students into the sometimes risky no-man’s land where science overlaps with religion, with ethical and metaphysical theory, with public policy, and with epistemology. For it is there that some of the most important educational work can and must happen. To retreat from it through fear of transgressing a dubitable demarcation line between science and non-science is not just a technical philosophical mistake, but a potentially dangerous omission.
In short, I propose a vision of education that begins with a particular view of mankind and ends with a corresponding understanding of liberal education. Both biologists and theologians acknowledge our identity as homo sapiens. The Latin homo means “mankind or man.” The word sapiens, from the Latin sapientia, means “wisdom” and “discernment.” To be truly human thus requires the cultivation of wisdom and discernment, that is the cultivation of what the ancients called the cardinal virtues – Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. Cardinal here is from the Latin cardo, meaning “hinge.” In short, the realization of all other human goods and of our full flourishing hinges or turns upon the acquisition of these virtues, especially wisdom.32
There is another view of mankind. We might call it homo sciens, from the Latin scientia from which we get the word science. Homo sciens knows lots of stuff. The stuff he knows begins with the assumption that man is, like everything else he sees, a material thing. To be fully human, on this view, is to stockpile material things, to amass knowledge of material things, and to acquire expertise in the techniques of manipulating material things. In the end, this view of mankind underwrites the cynical conclusion of the twentieth-century American journalist H. L. Mencken who declared that human beings are no more than “an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acids.”33
What is man? Any view of education must begin with a working answer to this question. Homo sciens can do things. He knows stuff. He is the master of means. Homo sapiens knows what to do and why to do it. He understands ends. The story of the modern era has been the story of the waning of homo sapiens and the waxing of homo sciens.34 As we have acquired the tools to do more and more, we have lost the wisdom needed to tell us what ought to and ought not to be done. The way to restore a salutary balance between these two visions of man is to foster an integrated view of education, a view that sees education as more than merely imparting information and techniques. We need a view that explores the disciplinary borderlands and is suspicious of the alleged sufficiency of narrow specialization. Richard Weaver put it so well when he noted, “Specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost . . . specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed.”35
In her insightful discussion of Evolution as a Religion, the philosopher Mary Midgley remarked upon the popular ideal of scientists as objective inquirers: Scientists ought to be so impartial that they either do not have anything so unprofessional as a world-picture at all, or,
if they have one, do not let it affect their work. But this is a mistaken ideal. An enquirer with no such general map would only be an obsessive . . . Merely to pile up information indiscriminately is an idiot’s task. Good scientists do not approximate to that ideal at all. They tend to have a very strong guiding imaginative system. Their world-picture is usually a positive and distinctive one, with its own special drama.36
My present concern is to recommend that scientists and science teachers embrace a sufficiently large world-picture to help foster what John Henry Newman called, in his classic treatment of liberal education The Idea of a University, a “philosophical habit of mind.” Newman described this educational ideal:
An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes . . . He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what . . . I ventured to call a philosophical habit.37
This ideal can only be achieved when science does not presume to be the only kind of knowledge, when moral categories and virtues are not just things we teach students about in comparative religion classes, but things we teach students to embrace in every class. Students cannot embrace things they do not know. Both science students and humanities students must study issues at the borders between the sciences and the humanities; for to comprehend a subject requires knowledge of its relations to other subjects. Fostering this relational perspective is the duty of all teachers.38
One practical avenue toward achieving this perspective comes from admitting that scientific knowledge is not the only valid form of knowledge, that one can have genuine knowledge of such things as duty and virtue. “We have to allow there is another kind of knowledge besides the explicit, exact and testable kind . . . Traditional skills, intuitions, scientific systems, poetic and religious insights and the understanding of moral values are all fed from the same root.” This is what the philosopher and physical chemist Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowing.”39 We could profit from considering his perspective.
Finally, and even more practically, our science classrooms would do well to include discussion of select issues that surface in public discourse with which our students must eventually wrestle and reckon. Perhaps the best and diciest contemporary example, which I mentioned at the opening of my remarks, has emerged in the case of “intelligent design” theory (ID). One of ID’s most vigorous critics is the political philosopher Larry Arnhart. Despite his conviction that intelligent design is wrong, he puts forth a recommendation for teaching ID in the science classroom:
Allowing our public school students to study and debate creationist criticisms of Darwinism in their biology classes would promote a better understanding of scientific argumentation and of the moral and political implications of science. If students were allowed to study some readings from the intelligent design theorists along with Darwin’s writings and some contemporary defenses of Darwin, they could better judge the evidence and arguments . . .
Science education in the public schools often consists of mindless memorization of scientific formulas so that students have no understanding of how one goes about weighing evidence and arguments for and against scientific ideas. Moreover, students rarely see the emotional excitement associated with scientific controversies that have moral, political, and religious implications. A lively classroom debate over Darwinism would be a great improvement, and it might actually prepare students to become citizens capable of judging scientific disputes that have deep consequences for human life.40
Both politicians and philosophers appear to concede the merit in Arnhart’s proposal. The explanatory statement accompanying the 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization Act included the following language: “A quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”41 Philosopher of science Del Ratzsch takes head on the tendency of most scientists to exclude the notion of supernatural design from the discussion table:
[A]ttempts to support blanket, normative prohibitions on even considering supernatural design in science seem without exception to fail for various reasons. Attempts to justify such prohibitions on pragmatic grounds seem to do little better. The intuition that science cannot deal with the supernatural, so must systematically ignore it, seems a bit like advising swimmers in the Amazon that since they cannot see pirhanas from the bank nor survive a pirhana attack once in the water, they should plunge right in, pretending that there are none. Perhaps better advice might be to work on learning some pirhana recognition techniques.42
We live in one world, not separate scientific and religious worlds, but one world. Consequently, the differing perspectives from which the sciences and humanities view our one world must be accommodated by the minds of individual human students in which these different perspectives are fostered.
Consider these remarks from a Canadian newspaper by Michael Ruse, an internationally respected and widely-published philosopher of biology who has written extensively on evolutionary biology: “Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion – a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. . . . Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.”43 Now, Dr. Ruse may have gone over the top. He may be as far off the mark as one can get. He may, on the other hand, be right on target. This is not the issue. The issue is that students who may read his words in the newspaper at breakfast before school should be able to ask their science teachers to help them sort these things out. Science teachers should be eager to devote class time to doing so. But they cannot do it correctly unless they are permitted to do so and properly equipped for the task. Our schools will better serve their primary educational mission of furnishing and disciplining minds if they welcome, indeed encourage, opportunities to consider contested issues in the science classroom. Sometimes valuable pedagogical lessons lurk in the disciplinary borderlands. And there is no questioning the fact that divisive public policy issues are often thorny to the degree they are interdisciplinary. Acknowledging this in the science classroom is one way to prepare students for wise participation in contemporary civil society.