Evolutionism Versus Creationism: Post-scriptum with Thomas Christiano

with 11 comments

In Bled (Slovenia) I had the great honor to meet and discuss with Tom Christiano. In my talk (“Does Liberal Neutrality Require Epistemic Abstinence?”), I advocated a Rawlsian version of the “epistemic abstinence” theory, according to which we should not build the basic institutions of a liberal democratic society on “the truth” promoted by one of the competing comprehensive views of the good, but on an “overlapping consensus” over the basic political (not metaphysical) values. Now, Tom Christiano advocates the opposite view, according to which a decision is authoritative if it is the outcome of a fair, democratic decision making (the decision-making procedure must be publicly recognized as being fair, and it must take into consideration the interests of everyone involved) [of course, the outcome is limited by the constitutional provisions regarding the basic liberal rights].

But take the following example. In some modern, liberal democratic states there is pervasive disagreement regarding the teaching of evolutionism and creationism in public schools. The evolutionists want to take religion off the textbooks, whereas the creationists want the same thing in what concerns evolutionism. How can a liberal democratic state solve this problem? Let’s apply the two theories to this example.

According to my “soft epistemic abstinence” theory, the state should say to the contending parties: “I am a liberal democratic state, and I have to further equally the interests of both of you. My political concern is not the ‘truth’ each of you advocates, but the way in which you can all live peacefully, and the way in which you can all have the possibility to further your own interests. According to this goal, the solution is the following: evolutionism is to be taught in biology classes, and creationism is to be taught in religion (and history of religion) classes. In this way, you can all further your own interests, while respecting the others’ constitutional rights of furthering their own interests”.

According to Tom Christiano’s view, there should be public discussions about evolutionism and creationism. Everyone interested in this debate should have the right to say her own point of view. Then individuals are required to vote one of these three possibilities: a) only evolutionism should be taught in public schools; b) only creationism should be taught in public schools; c) both evolutionism and creationism should be taught in public schools. If the decision-making process is fair, publicly known and democratic, then the decision is authoritative.

Now, my problem with this view is the following. Suppose that, in a particular state (say, Romania) people vote that evolutionism must NOT be taught in public schools. According to Tom Christiano, if all the democratic requirements have been met, then this decision is authoritative. But I feel uneasy with this solution.

Tom (who thinks that creationism is a stupidity) had several answers. First, he said that in a liberal democratic state many of us feel uneasy with many decisions – but we still have to accept them, as long as they are the outcome of a democratic decision-making process. Then he thought again, and he asked me why the teaching of evolutionism in public schools, in a democratic state, should be regarded as necessary, as long as the citizens rejected it through a fair and democratic process. And then he thought again. His final answer was that the only way to save evolutionism in such a case is to declare that some basic scientific education (evolutionism included) is necessary for citizenship.

Moreover, He told me that my solution is not exactly neutral – but it is a triumph for evolutionism. This is so because my solution accepts the teaching of evolutionism in biology classes, but it sends creationism from scientific to religious textbooks – and this is not quite a neutral answer. On the contrary, it safeguards evolutionism, while at the same time it diminishes the importance of creationism.

The discussion was long enough and it was late – we didn’t finish it. But I have two answers to Tom Christiano’s ideas.

First, to declare some basic scientific knowledge as necessary for citizenship seems a very controversial idea. I’m not saying that it is impossible to defend it – I’m just saying that there is much to be said in its favor. Moreover, if we accept this proposal, I do not see any reason to reject other proposed requirements for citizenship – for example, some basic knowledge in religious matters, or some basic moral knowledge, and so on. There are good arguments for supporting such requirements, but I will not discuss them here. I would rather say that it seems to me hard to defend some basic scientific knowledge as a requirement for citizenship, while rejecting the same status to basic moral or religious knowledge. And if we accept all these requirements for citizenship – then Christiano’s outcome is the same with my proposal’s outcome: evolutionism and creationism should both be taught in public schools.

Second, I do not agree with Tom’s critique, according to which my proposal is not neutral – because it favors evolutionism, by making it the single theory taught in biology classes. First, I think that I can explain to creationists that they don’t really want to see their theory taught in biology classes: they don’t accept this kind of science, so they shouldn’t care about it. They can teach evolutionism in religious classes – however these classes might be called (why not a distinct class, of “creationist biology” – indeed, “what’s in a name?”). There is, of course, the problem of the status of these classes. But I think there could be ways of solving this problem. We can device different combinations between “obligatory”, “optional” and “facultative” classes for both biology and religion. So the problem of neutrality could be in principle solved.

I am happy to see that me and Tom Christiano both agree with the outcome (evolutionism and religion should be both taught in schools). It is true that we have different ways of reaching this conclusion. But the debate is not over yet – or so I hope.

Written by Andrei Stavilă

Iunie 10, 2008 la 11:09 pm

11 Răspunsuri

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  1. As you might have expected, I disagree with you on a number of your points…

    Re: the second paragraph. I hope you mean it as a philosophical SciFi, contrary-to-fact, thought experiment. A „pervasive disagreement” over the teaching of creationism is found only in some of the U.S. of A., but these are hardly „liberal and democratic” (democratic, yes, liberal—c’mon…). Also, „evolutionists” (those mighty, fearsome, mythical beasts) want to take creationism out of the biology textbooks alone, which kinda defeats the purpose of your fable. But that’s nitpicking…

    On the more important issue: I’ll be happy to take sides with the one who requires informed, knowledgeable, reflective decision-making or consensus. Democratic vote from „epistemically abstinent” citizens seems to me useless, and a caricature of democracy (did you vote for mayor back home? did you try your best to get to know things about the candidates? I pretty much suspect you did; but I also suspect that a lot of people—perhaps most of them—didn’t do their homework before getting into the cubicles). I do not claim any expertise in political philosophy, but this seems to me quite a traditional, Enlightenment-inspired tenet of liberalism.

    Quite obviously, this is not a neutral solution, because the decision on the curriculum will not be required from all citizens (on pain of having them go through high-school biology again). Instead, scientists (biologists and education scientists) will get to design the curriculum, and the question will not be whether evolution or creationism should be taught at all, but how much (quantity, detail, abstraction level, etc) evolutionary biology is going to be taught, period. No mention of teaching creation science, intelligent design, or their ilk in the science classes, because the overwhelming majority of biologists think that evolutionary theory pretty much has the answers, and it’s a huge step in the right direction at least.

    Your solution to Tom Christiano’s second idea seems ad hoc to me, and a waste of resources for the sake of an utopic notion of neutrality. Solutions „in principle” are no solutions at all, when we care about the real world. Science classes cannot and should not waste time on refuted theories & hypotheses of the past. There is no room for an astrology class, no room for „Vedic mathematics”, no room for alchemy or phlogiston chemistry, no room for creationism except maybe in the history class—and even there, there’s SO little room that, in my opinion, warrants outright exclusion.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 10:11 am

  2. I like your discussion! First, please receive my congratulations, Andruska, for your great performance at the conference. Second, let me pour some more gas on the fire.

    Stefan, you assume that citizens are (or should act as) kind of „ideal epistemical agents.” Hence, it makes sense for you to contend that they should make „informed, knowledgeable, reflective” decisions (I quote from you).

    Well, I am afraid that, epistemically speaking, individuals are more „bounded,” than „ideal.” It’s a fact that people have limited education, limited information, limited knowledge, and limited time to dedicate to reading. Thus, it’s only fair NOT to ask them to act on the strongest reasons THERE ARE FOR them, because they can’t and, obviously, they won’t.

    Let me take an example. In the ongoing US elections, people have a number of concerns, probably more serious than in the last 2 decades (job loss, health care insurance, tuition costs, the mortgage crisis, the Iraq war, and a few more). We may expect that, given their personal situation, as well as their limited information resources, they make a judgment and cast their ballot for one of the two candidates. According to you, this decision will be as „informed, knowledgeable, reflective” as possible, but it is more plausible to say that it is severely bounded.

    For instance, McCain and Obama have different (and deliberately loose) suggestions as to the best health policy for the country. They have their reasons to support their claims. Having listened to both proposals, I personally am not sure which one will/would work (ideally, we would need to implement each of them and then see what happens). I am more inclined towards Obama (based on distributive justice concerns I have, but I have to admit that I do not understand the technicalities involved in the implementation of such a policy). McCain himself has his point, no doubt. Add to that the fact that both candidates come with a package of numerous policy proposals, and you will understand why it is so difficult for the American citizen to decide, even though they are able to rank the issues according to their importance for their families. In the end, it is likely that he or she will vote based on his or her affiliation, or based on some deep fears such as: „Obama is too liberal (i.e., too much prone to help immigrants and sexual minorities),” „McCain is too old or testy,” and so on.

    The creationist-evolutionist debate looks to me very much like the liberal-republican debate on health care. Both debates involve particular ideals/commitments AND facts (concerning needs, implementation, viability, etc.). Now, Christiano (and Stefan?) require voting in both cases. And here I am a little bit worried with this solution.
    (1) It is one thing to accept the result of a popular vote on the health care policy. After all, people contribute to the social security fund and they have the right to decide how their money are used for health care purposes, among other things. I may not be happy with, say, universal health care, but I have to accept it, in the end. And Christiano notices this discontentment point very well.
    (2) But it is a totally different matter to expect popular vote to determine/influence MY FAITH, MY RELIGIOUS BELIEFS (even in the form of the content of the courses I take). THE VOTE SHOULD CONCERN ONLY THE FORM OF THE EDUCATION (PUBLIC or PRIVATE), but NOT THE CONTENT OF IT.

    From this point of view, I think Andruska’s solution is better than that offered by Christiano: teach both evolutionism AND creationism (or rather the basics of faith), if you like.

    As a side note, you probably recall one of my previous posts, in which I presented my point of view on the issue. I summarize it here: children should be made aware of the differences between science and faith, between the verificationist approach in science and the essence of faith. They should understand that both are important for the development of a human being, but that they should not interfere with each other. Obviously, faith concerns my relation to the transcendent (impersonal or personal), it is a fundamental aspect of my identity, it attempts to answer questions that science can never dream of even thinking about. A public system of education should be able to provide me with the opportunity of going into more depth in this area, in spite of the popular vote.

    As a second side note, I don’t think creationism has a chance of being credible, if it pretends to compete science.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 1:43 pm

  3. Iuli, I did not mean that people doing the decision should try and approximate some „ideal epistemic agent”, just to get some basic education on the subject (hence my allusion to high school). Maybe my mentioning of the Enlightenment was confusing.

    I agree with you that our rationality is, as they say, „bounded”, perhaps even severely so. That’s why I tried to suggest that decision on curricula should not be a fully democratic procedure, but restricted to those in the know (scientists and educators). I don’t want my children to be taught what the community thinks they should be taught, but what scientists (including social scientists and humanists) think best for them. So when it comes to educational policies, I’m not really a liberal democrat. Creationism should not be taught in school, but creation myths, definitely. As to whether one or other creation myth should be included in the curriculum, that’s for historians to decide, not for me; I can only suggest my children additional readings.

    On the matter of faith, I can only agree with you that it’s a private matter; I, being a robot that can perform addition and subtraction of 7-digit numbers in the head, should pass judgment on such human concerns, that remain, alas, inscrutable to my fleshy mechanisms.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 2:15 pm

  4. Stef, I agree with you that creationism is problematic, if it claims to be „science.” However, let’s face it, „teaching creation myths” is under-cover science. And, though legitimate as a scientific practice, clothing myths in a scientific robe is certainly not going to foster the sense of mystery that is so closely connected to faith.

    I also agree that „experts” should have a say in building a curriculum (though there is always the risk of epistemic paternalism), but I want this to be an ongoing process, involving as many different voices as possible, instead of a „once and for all” decision. However, we should be aware of the fact that it is easier to change the FORM of the education (more public vs. more private), than the CONTENT of it, because people can vote for the former every 4 years or so (when they elect new policy makers). But we ought not to change the content of education too often, lest we bring generations of students to confusion. See, it’s not that easy…

    PS: I think you meant „should NOT pass judgment on such human concerns,”right? 🙂


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 2:57 pm

  5. Iuli, I don’t understand what you mean by this:

    “teaching creation myths” is under-cover science

    The building of curricula will most probably be an ongoing process and not a „once for all” decision; I only require that experts have the word. Likewise, this would not determine often changes of content, since new and important scientific results take some time before they make the textbooks; on the other hand, the decision to teach evolutionary theory only „implicitly”—whatever that means— was not an expert decision, but entirely the work of bureaucrats (I won’t go into conspiracy theory here).

    Ooops, you got me there… silly me, when I try to think of human concerns, I get soooo confused :p


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 3:10 pm

  6. You’re right, I should’ve been more explicit: by saying that „teaching creation myths is under-cover science,” I was thinking of the difference between teaching history of religions and teaching elements of faith. In the former case, you have a scientific approach, say, à la Mircea Eliade, which doesn’t really help one go deeper into one’s faith. It just tells one that such-and-such community believes/believed in such-and-such creation story, and that, basically, all these stories have the same structure. Stuff like that. Whereas in the latter case, you need to have a different approach, which is different from the respectable methods of science.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 3:24 pm

  7. Right. But I’m not completely sure that teaching elements of faith such that the mysterium &c are preserved belongs in public schools. Or, better put: I completely dislike the current policy in Romania, of compulsory teaching EoF in the first 10 grades.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 3:40 pm

  8. My feeling is that EoF is not taught appropriately by those who are supposed to teach it. But this is another story.

    EoF should be somewhere in the curriculum, not as a compulsory, but as an elective discipline. I totally agree with you.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 4:04 pm

  9. @ Stefan (1st reply)
    First paragraph: my paper is not about evolutionism vs. creationism, but about the way we have to create the basic institutions of a liberal democratic society. The evolutionism vs. creationism thing is only an example, a thought experiment designed to show that my proposal could work better than others. So I do not think that „the purpose of my fable” is defeated
    Second paragraph: the „traditional, Enlightenment-inspired tenet of liberalism” of „informed, knowledgeable, reflective decision-making or consensus” is only an ideal – nothing more. No serious theorist takes it into account anymore. On the contrary, almost all theorists of democracy take by default the fact that people’s decisions are NOT like this. Moreover, I would say that this is not even a desirable ideal. If we all would read all politicians’ platforms, compare them, think about them… nobody would work a few weeks, right?
    Again: you say that „Democratic vote from “epistemically abstinent” citizens seems to me useless, and a caricature of democracy”. I do agree with you, but if you don’t mind, I would say that we have a misunderstanding here. Citizens cannot be „epistemic abstinent”. The requirement of „epistemic abstinence” is made to the state, not to the citizens. Exactly because citizens all hold different and divergent conceptions of the good, and exactly because they really believe in their truths, THE STATE should adopt the attitude of epistemic abstinence. This attitude implies that the state should not build the basic institutions of society according to one or the other worldview, but according to the basic political (not metaphysical) values. This is why I used the above example: here, the state must be abstinent: its mission is not to say what should be taught in schools (because it is true); its real mission is to further equally the interests of all.
    Third paragraph: I kinda agree with you, but still: there are some subjects people really care about – as if their life would depend on them. And if this is so, then I think it is ok to proceed with a democratic process. I’m not sure whether the „tyranny of technocrats” is always the best solution.
    Fourth paragraph: I agree that my second answer to Christiano is ad hoc. But I never said that this is my final answer. My ideas are still in a very rough form, and my paper is still a draft. I have to work more. But I do not think that neutrality is an utopic ideal. Again: if, say, 70 % of the Romanian population would like „Vedic mathematics” to be taught in schools, I see no problem with this. Remember, a democratic state is constituted by its citizens and is meant to further EQUALLY their interests (of course, taking into account the basic liberties of all, which are not the subject of public debate or democratic decision).
    @ Iulian (second reply):
    Thanks for your congratulations, but I do not deserve them. Really. My performance was not great at all. It was probably ok for my first performance. But this is not enough for me. Really, it was not that good and I am not satisfied at all.
    I fully agree with you in what concerns the „informed consent”. I would like here to answer to Stefan, too. I think that Christiano’s solution of requiring a „basic scientific education” for citizenship is kinda wrong. This is because there are lots of illiterate persons (even in the USA). I don’t think that we are ready to take them the privileges of citizenship (the right to vote, the right to own a passport, etc.), only because they don’t know to read, or they don’t have a „basic scientific knowledge”. So I repeat what I have already said: I think that in principle the idea of requiring a „basic scientific knowledge” seems to me defensible in principle, but there is more to be said in order to convince someone about its validity. I do know some illiterate people in Romania which are just as good citizens as the intellectuals are – so it seems that there is no direct relation between a basic scientific education and a good citizen.
    @ Stefan (the third reply):
    Please read what I said above in my reply to Iulian.
    In what concerns education policies which, according to you, should not be decided by a democratic vote. Well, Stefan, you want your children to be taught what the scientists and technocrats decide that the children should learn. And you pay taxes, and it is your right to claim this. But there are lots of other people that also pay taxes and want creationism to be taught. Again: they pay taxes, so they have the right to claim this, too. I do agree that this is not a decision to be taken by a democratic vote (Christiano thinks this, but we both disagree with him, right?). But this is exactly why I propose the „epistemic abstinence” theory: the state should further equally the interests of both you and the creationist, so both doctrines should be taught.
    Stefan, THE STATE IS NOT THE IMPLEMENTATION OF SCIENCE. The state is a cooperation between free and equal citizens, a cooperation meant to further equally the interests of all. Democratic decisions, as long as they do not infringe the basic liberal rights of an individual or a group, are authoritative, no matter how uneasy we feel about them. At least this is what Christiano says (and Kis agrees)
    @ Iuli (the fourth reply):
    The „epistemic paternalism” is best avoided by my rawlsian proposal of an „epistemic abstinence”…
    @ Stefan (the fifth reply):
    It should be clear by now that I don’t think that the experts should have the last word. Again, I rely myself on the definition of the state I offered above. Of course the experts have a strong word to say – but I pay taxes and I am deeply concerned about what my children are learning. On the other hand, of course I do not want to see that my children are taught what „my community” (if any) thinks they should learn. So I think the solution is to device a mechanism of mixing this two sides. (see, political philosophy is really interesting and captivating!)
    @ Stefan (the seventh reply):
    You say: „I’m not completely sure that teaching elements of faith such that the mysterium &c are preserved belongs in public schools”. They do, Stefan. Religious people pay taxes, too – so they have the political right to claim that some of these money should go to teaching religion in PUBLIC schools. Of course, the teaching of religion should not be compulsory. I do agree with you on this point, and I do agree with you that what is happening in Romania is bad.
    Finally, I would like to thank both of you for this discussion: it is really enlightening to me. So I hope the debate is not over.


    Iunie 11, 2008 at 10:10 pm

  10. So, Andruska, you say that the state should be epistemically abstinent, and it should be so on all issues of public concerns. I don’t quite understand what you mean by some institution having epistemic attitudes, but, passons. What I don’t agree with is the second part of the claim. I agree that the state should defer some decisions regarding issues of public interest to the citizens. For instance, free, universal health care: I’d rather have a public vote on that, than the consensus of some well-chosen insurance specialists and hospital managers. For another instance, I’d rather have some public vote on the issue of free access to education. And you can guess the kind of examples already.

    On the other hand, I think that the state should control the content of education, just as it should control the quality of health care. Mind you, there is alarming consensus on the part of the public over the therapeutic virtues of various „oriental” techniques, such as acupuncture. Would you (the State of XYZ) have tax money go into new hospital wings, hosting acupuncturists and all sorts of witch-doctors, just because the tax payers believe that they help? Or would you listen to the friendly scientist who says that’s all crap, and most of them are frauds, and some of them are even harmful? And use the money for gloves, drugs, ORs, or palliative care? In my book, the last one is the rational course of action for that state.

    Similarly with your philosophical fiction: had there been a pervasive disagreement between „evolutionists” and „creationists”, with the former being scientists, and the latter religious fundies (again, full of crap, some of them harmful frauds), that fictional state should listen to the former when designing curricula, and turn a blind ear to the latter.

    So, I don’t want a state that embodies science. I don’t want all decisions left to experts. I think real states have to deal with real problems, and probably no uniform solution is available. I sympathize with your quest for a liberal, neutral state, I really do; but I’m still persuaded that my less-liberal solution is better.


    Iunie 12, 2008 at 5:07 pm

  11. […] Story (860). Pentru comparatie: postul strict filosofic care a acumulat cel mai mare trafic a fost Evolutionism Versus Creationism: Post-scriptum with Thomas Christiano (112). Urmatorul e Can Ethical Intuitionism Be Defended? […]

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