On Wednesday, November 29, 2000, a letter of mine was published in the Pratt Tribune commenting on anti-evolution science standards that had recently been adopted by the local school Board.

The following week, Intelligent Design Network managing director John Calvert replied with a letter of his own.

Here is my reply to Mr. Calvert.

My original letter

Calvert's reply

 

An Open Letter in Response to John Calvert's
Letter in the Pratt Tribune, Wednesday, December 6, 2000

from

Jack Krebs
Kansas Citizens for Science
December 11, 2000

 

Part 1: A short reply sent to the Pratt Tribune.

Part 2: A longer reply to the issues concerning the philosophy of naturalism, the nature of science, and the alleged "censorship" of information about "intelligent design."

Part 1

Last week, John Calvert of the Intelligent Design Network responded to a previous letter of mine by saying that he and I agree "that Pratt can be likened to an outpost under siege in a culture war," and then went on to call Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS) a "ruthless outfit" and identify us with the philosophy and tactics of Nazi Germany.

These charges cannot go unanswered.

My letter said nothing about a "culture war." Both the phrase "culture war" and the accompanying military metaphors are Calvert's alone. There is a political conflict going on in Pratt, no doubt. KCFS and the ID Network have been active in this conflict throughout the state. Such activity is one of the rights and responsibilities of democracy. That does not make this a "culture war", and I don't agree with him that we are in one.

I also find it ironic that Calvert accuses me of using "scare tactics", and yet he effectively calls us Nazis and sprinkles his letter with images of war. This is offensive, and, even more than his "culture war" statement, exaggerates the nature of the conflict and adds an aura of potential violence where none is remotely possible.

KCFS is a non-profit educational organization whose members are educators, scientists, and citizens from many different occupations. We support teaching mainstream science in schools. We also support and encourage constructive dialog on all the related issues in education, science, and religion. Despite the tensions and disagreements this has brought, society will ultimately benefit from this discussion.

But we at KCFS are not Nazis, and we are not at war with anyone. To call us such is purposely divisive, and is meant to heighten emotional reaction rather than reasoned response. This type of rhetoric does not encourage constructive dialog, and has no place in civil discourse.

Part 2

Naturalism

The key issue of concern to Calvert is philosophical naturalism.

Calvert defines Naturalism as "the belief that all phenomena result only from the laws of chemistry and physics and that teleological or design explanations are not valid." Note that he consistently capitalizes "Naturalism" to emphasize that it is philosophical naturalism he is talking about - the belief that the physical world is all there is, and that no moral, spiritual, or supernatural reality exists. He then identifies Naturalism with "a Nazi regime that used the philosophy to justify a eugenics program of terrifying proportions." Without any moral or spiritual foundation, philosophical Naturalists are for Calvert like Nazis, capable of any type of behavior without restraint.

Calvert asserts that "the use of Naturalism by the science establishment and the KCFS is acknowledged by Mr. Krebs in his letter when he says that '.... science...limits itself to NATURAL explanations for natural phenomena.' (emphasis added)."

Calvert is wrong that KCFS is endorsing the philosophical Naturalism that he abhors. This equivalence of Naturalism with science is a mistake that Calvert persists in making. Let me explain.

The sentence Calvert quotes is similar to one from the 5th draft of the state science standards - the draft whose alteration and subsequent adoption set off more than a year of intense discussion in Kansas. In fact, the word "natural" which Calvert emphasized was changed by the Board to "logical," in part under the influence of Calvert's group, in order to open the door for supernatural explanations to be considered as science. However, the new Board elected this fall will undoubtedly change the sentence back to its original form: "Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we see in the world around us."

Notice the differences between the definition of Naturalism and the definition of science.

Philosophical Naturalism is the belief that all phenomena must be explained by natural causes, because the physical world is all there is.

Science, however is defined as the activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us. Science purposely limits itself to looking for natural explanations for observable phenomena in the physical world. Science does not attempt to offer spiritual or theological explanations for such phenomena, nor does it attempt to explain other types of phenomena such as moral, aesthetic, or spiritual experience. These fall outside the realm of science.

Nowhere in the definition of science is there a commitment to the belief that what science studies is all that exists, or that the methods of science are the only valid human ways of seeking knowledge. Science is not the equivalent of Naturalism.

This is a clearcut distinction that Calvert refuses to acknowledge.

A personal statement

Let me be somewhat personal about this.

I am a person who whole-heartedly supports the scientific enterprise and the knowledge that arises from it. I am also not a philosophical Naturalist (and neither are the vast majority of KCFS members and other supporters of science that I know.) I believe that there are moral and spiritual dimensions to our life that are separate from anything science can address.

Science purposely limits itself to a certain type of investigation of only part of the world - that which "we observe in the world around us." I accept this limitation of science. I also believe that other types of investigations and other types of knowledge are available to me. Supporting science in its traditional limited role of investigating natural causes is not the same as believing in or supporting philosophical Naturalism.

For Calvert to confuse these two - Naturalism and science as defined above - is therefore not only of theoretical interest. It is a personal affront to my religious beliefs, and an affront to every person who accepts science and also understands that science is not all there is of value in the world.

Calvert's position promotes the "culture war" he wants to exist because he insists on dividing people into two groups - those who support science versus those who believe in our moral and spiritual nature. Such a dichotomy is, in my opinion, totally unjustified.

Calvert may wish to drive a wedge between people so they will feel like they are at war with each other. I don't. I wish to support people in their quest for knowledge and understanding of all types. Any one who knows me as a teacher knows that every day, in countless ways, I am working to help young people grow in intellect, in responsibility, and in self-understanding. I teach character and moral behavior continuously. I do all of this in part because of my care and committment for their human spirit, and as part of my contibution to society. To claim that the scientific enterprise is fundamentally antithetical to the beliefs that motivate these efforts is flat-out wrong.

What is this all really about?

So why is the nature of science worth defending? What are we really arguing about?

Calvert claims that "the science establishment's use of Naturalism is designed specifically to impede the progress of design theory by refusing to give any objective consideration to a growing mountain of evidence developed by credentialed and highly respected scientists."

There are four things wrong with this claim:

1) Science doesn't "use Naturalism", as explained above.

2) Modern science, with its self imposed limitation of looking for natural explanations, began 400 years ago, starting with Galileo. It was "designed" to free investigation of the physical world from the armchair speculations of Scholastic philosophy. It has proven to be a tremendously successful enterprise. It continues to produce new knowledge, and despite the assertions of the ID crowd, has not hit any dead ends yet. For Calvert to claim that people are now defending this common definition of science "specifically to impede the progress of design theory" shows a lack of historical perspective about the importance of the ID movement.

3) There is not a growing mountain of evidence for design theory. In fact, there isn't even any well-articulated hypothesis of what design theory claims, other than stating that the evolution of life couldn't have happened naturally and therefore must have been designed in some unknown way by some unknown designer. The designer is God for virtually all the main proponents of ID, and the mechanisms by which God implements his design are unknowable. There are no published papers, other then philosophical ones in the popular press, that describe ID in relation to scientific research, and there are no research results which support the ID hypothesis.

4) The "credentialed and highly respected scientists" to which Calvert refers are almost all members of the Discovery Institute, a privately-funded conservative think-tank in Seattle. They write books and give conferences, to which they invite themselves and their friends to be the speakers, and then claim to be a "growing movement." They have the publicly stated goal of "overthrowing materialism" and correcting its "devastating cultural consequences," and a well-developed strategy called the Wedge for creating public support for their goals. They want to "renew science and culture" by merging religious thought into all branches of public life. Their goal is to start with science, and especially evolution, and then expand their conceptions of God-given design into law, education, and government.

Calvert writes, "The issue of Naturalism is not a scientific issue. It is a philosophical one that has major legal, logical, cultural and scientific consequences." Since he is battling "Naturalism," and what he sees as its negative cultural consequences, he is waging a culture war. The ID Network, the Discovery Institute, and other ID proponents mistakenly believe that atheistic naturalism now dominates our world, and that science is its foundation. "Intelligent design" as an alternative to the theory of evolution is the sharp edge of the Wedge that is meant to separate "us from them." Their goal is to transform first science, and then society, to reflect their theistic views.

Many would agree that society would benefit from a renewal of concern about moral and spiritual matters. The ID proponents have a right to call for a theistic renewal of culture. However, they ought to be clear about that and be arguing for such on its own merits, not trying to use science as the means to objectively validate their cause. Science is not the culprit, and in science we will not find the cure.

The "censorship" issue

Calvert has this conspiratorial picture of the scientific establishment, and continually claims that it is "censoring" evidence and arguments which might establish that evolution is wrong and ID is right. In reality, the world of scientific knowledge is open to all who wish to attempt to add to it. Part of the power of the processes by which scientific knowledge grows is that ideas must prove themselves - they must have something to offer and they must be convincing enough to make their way into the mainstream body of knowledge. ID ideas have made no such progress because in fact no substantial, testable hypotheses have been offered, much less supported by data. The rejection of bad ideas is not censorship. There are all sorts of claims in many fields, from physics to medicine to biology, that are offered and rejected. This is how science proceeds.

Calvert agrees that ID is trying to make an "end-run" around these normal channels when he writes, "Much of the evidence critical of Darwinism is having to be published in non peer reviewed journals because peer reviewed journals will not accept design explanations that are outlawed by naturalistic philosophy of the science establishment. The "end run" is being made because the "normal way" through the process has been blocked."

Design explanations are not "outlawed." Design explanations are rejected because they don't contribute to scientific knowledge. At this point, no scientific papers (as opposed to works in the popular press) have even been produced which articulate a portion of the ID hypothesis and present or propose research based on ID. The work is just not there.

Conclusion

Yes, there are common understandings of what is and is not science. These understandings are not a conspiratorial wall defending atheistic naturalism from all who believe that the world has moral or spiritual significance. These understandings are instead the product of 400 years of productive work, where people have found it useful, both for science and for religion, to separate the enterprise of investigating natural causes in the world from other ways and other topics of knowledge.

The ID movement wants to change the definition of science in order to add philosophical and religious ideas to it. Separating these from natural investigations was the liberating idea of Galileo's time. The ID movement has the right to call for a return to a time when the study of the natural world was entangled with beliefs and their ultimate moral and spiritual nature if they wish, but they don't have the right to call it "censorship" if people don't agree with them.

Calvert says the real enemy is philosophical naturalism, and that science is its standard bearer. I say that Calvert is wrong about this. First, few people are actually philosophical naturalists, and philosophical naturalism is not the cause of the world's social ailments. Second, science correctly limits itself to investigating natural causes without addressing issues of meaning and value. Countless people integrate their understanding of the physical world into their larger belief system, and many find their sense of religious meaning enhanced tremendously by their understanding of the natural world.

There are genuine scientific and religious issues in all of this. The adult scientific community is the proper place to address the scientific issues. The science community has good reason to support the continued use of common understandings about what constitutes science. The ID movement has the right to question those, but it is not "censorship" if people aren't convinced by their arguments. The religious community also has a right and a responsibility to address the moral and spiritual state of our world, to understand what science says about the physical world, and to reflect upon how to integrate that understanding with our religious beliefs.

Neither of these projects require an "end-run" around normal channels, and they certainly don't require using the school system, science curricula, and local school Boards to advance. They are important and legitimate topics for society to deal with. However it is wrong to disguise religious beliefs and the desire for cultural change as being primarily scientific matters, it is wrong to try to accomplish this by foisting a false charge of philosophical Naturalism on science, and it is wrong to try to divide us into two warring camps based on our positions about the nature of science.

Jack Krebs
Lawrence, KS
December 11, 2000

Edited December 13, 2000