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Contentious issues at philosophy conference

Robert Audi is the David E. Gallo Professor of Business Ethics

by David Williard
Publication: W&M News

October 11, 2006


Whether or not intelligent design theory should be taught in conjunction with standard courses in evolutionary biology within the nation’s public schools formed the crux of an argument debated by the two internationally-recognized philosophers during the opening session of The Future of Democracy conference hosted by the College’s philosophy department on Oct. 6 and 7.

Robert Audi, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, suggested that
methodological naturalism, “the view that scientific inquiry should seek causes and
explanations of natural phenomenon in the natural world,” is not anathema to theology.
“Methodological naturalism is metaphysically neutral,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about the ultimate constitution of reality.” Insofar as it refrains from moving into the realm of what he called philosophical naturalism, or “the view that science is epistemologically sovereign,” Audi suggested that proponents of intelligent design have no complaint with methodological naturalism forming the backbone of science courses in public schools. At the same time, and for the same reasons, those who employ that method should have no qualms about introducing intelligent design arguments into their science courses, he said.

In terms of introducing “religion” into public schools—a problem that would be encountered if the state were to mandate the teaching of an intelligent design that assumed the Judeo-Christian God was the creator—Audi proposed three “principles of church-state separation”: the liberty principle, which says that a democracy must protect religious liberty; the equality principle, which says that preference should not be given to one religious denomination over another; and the neutrality principle, which calls upon government to neither favor nor disfavor religion. Concentrating his remarks on the neutrality principle, he said he doubted whether under current structures either intelligent design or creationism could be handled by those who teach science. A great challenge for teachers, he said, is how to deal with “religious” questions while displaying an “appropriate respect that preserves neutrality.”

Audi, in making a case that theology has contributions to make, emphasized his belief that science does not hold all knowledge within its domain. He offered logic, mathematics and ethics as examples of domains that provide knowledge outside the scientific realm. “What about ethics,” Audi asked. “Is the view that cruelty to children is wrong—one that we don’t know is the case or that we can’t reasonably assert? I think we can reasonably assert it, and I don’t think the main grounds for it are empirical.” At the end of his remarks, he suggested that “education for teaching science should be enhanced. It should include a certain quantity of philosophy of science and epistemology taught in appropriate ways,” he said. “One has to have a sense of what scientific method is, how testability and observation figure in it [and] how it compares with other methods of intellectual inquiry.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus at Yale University, commenting on Audi’s presentation, agreed with the bulk of Audi’s assertions, including Audi’s concerns about neutrality. However, whereas Audi proposed that the government could keep creationism from being taught in science courses, Wolterstorff objected, saying to do so would violate neutrality.

“There are people in present-day American society who hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis, and the teaching of evolutionary theory in our public schools is not neutral with respect to their religion,” he said. “It may be that their religion is not reasonable, though I think it is going to be very difficult to make that case, but the neutrality required of a liberal democracy
is not in respect to the reasonable religions within our society but neutrality with respect to the religions in our society.”

Wolterstorff proposed three options for teaching science in public schools. One would be to allow
“public schools to teach as the whole truth of the matter the sciences of nature as we find them in the contemporary world,” which would violate the principle of neutrality. A second way would be to have standard science taught while incorporating religious objections. “Of course, instructing the public schools to teach science along the generous ecumenical lines would stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy within the scientific community,” he said. The third way, which was favored by Wolterstorff—although he realized “there is not a ghost of a chance that it will come about”—would be for the government to fund equally all schools that meet appropriate educational standards. “The public schools enjoy a monopoly on state funding,” he explained. “Some schools teach creation science, but the fact that such schools forego state funding implies that the state is not neutral with respect to the religion of such parents.”

Subsequent sessions featured presentations of papers by other leading philosophers in the nation. Among the presenters were Michael Perry, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University, who contributed “Religious Faith, Liberal Democracy and Human Rights,” Pippa Norris, director of the Democratic Governance Group at the United Nations and a professor at Harvard University who offered “How Security Drives Religious Values: Issues and Evidence,” George Sher, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Philosophy at Rice University, who presented “Perfectionism and Democracy,” and Philip Pettit, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton University, who presented “The Democratic Body Corporate.” Sandra Day O’Connor, the chancellor of the College and a former associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, delivered a keynote address to close the conference.

Perry’s presentation seemed to generate the most intense discussion. Several people attempted to refute his claim that liberal democracy, because it is founded on the notion of inviolable human dignity, requires a religious basis in order to make sense of it. Norris’ presentation included data showing how religiosity declines in Western liberal democracies as citizens enjoy greater security. The United States seems to be the exception, a condition that Norris speculated was due to the religiosity of immigrants and the fact that the U.S. social net provides relatively less security than those of nations in Western Europe.

Concluding the conference, O’Connor spoke primarily about the need to maintain an independent judiciary in order to ensure that judges are not pressured to align with political ideologies. Some decisions may not be popular, she said, providing the Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed segregation in public schools as an example. “I think judicial independence is not an end to itself but a means to and end,” she said.

George Harris, Chancellor Professor of Philosophy at William and Mary and a key organizer of the conference, considered the event highly successful. “It was a very warm and cordial atmosphere,” he said. “People told me that they made connections at the conference that they looked forward to keeping for a long time. The audience was especially receptive toward Chancellor O’Connor,” he said.

The conference was made possible with funds from the Rachel and E.W. Thompson Philosophy Endowment, the Foradas Philosophy Department Speaker’s Series Endowment, the office of the dean of arts and sciences and the president’s office at the College.

Harris, remarking on the stature of the presenters, said “the conference was a good start toward our goal of establishing a series such that it is a marked distinction to be on the program.”

Noah Lemos, chair of the College’s department of philosophy, agreed that the conference was extremely successful. “We purposefully raised the bar very high with this event, knowing that we hope to establish a series of conferences that will be considered premier events within the philosophical community,” he said.

Plans already are being made for the next conference to be held in 2008. Although a topic has not been decided upon, it promises to deal with philosophical issues that are important to the broader culture.