Demarcation; defending Larry Laudan

by Neil Rickert

Since John Pieret informed us about an issue of Synthese on topics related to the evolution vs. creation debate, there have been several blog posts commenting on the article by Robert T. Pennock, and critical of Larry Laudan for what he has said about the McLean v. Arkansas case.  In particular, there are posts at Thoughts in a Haystack and at Panda’s Thumb.

I have never met nor communicated with Larry Laudan, though I have read some of his work.  I am guessing that I probably disagree with him more than I would agree.  One of the reasons that I setup this blog was to express disagreement with much of philosophy of science.  But, that said, in this case Laudan appears to be the victim of a bum rap.  According to the Panda’s Thumb critique:

After that case, a fairly famous philosopher of science, Larry Laudan, criticized the court, and one of the experts who testified, Michael Ruse, for (allegedly) relying on naive and long-discredited attempts to “demarcate” science from pseudoscience and from religion.

I am not seeing that in what Laudan wrote.  I see him criticizing the arguments used, but I don’t see him criticizing the decision itself.  His disagreement is with how the conclusion was reached, not with the conclusion.  Laudan sums up in his last paragraph, with:

We can raise that question anew, with the added irony that, this time, the pro-science forces are defending a philosophy of science which is, in its way, every bit as outmoded as the “science” of the creationists.

And Laudan has that right.

Pennock frames the issue as one of demarcation, with his title “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited.”  But that is not the issue that Laudan raised.  I often see evolutionists asserting that creationism is not science because it is not falsifiable.  The point Laudan was making was that not only is creationism falsifiable, but it has indeed been falsified.  And therefore evolutionists should not be making that kind of argument.  I agree with Laudan.

When you look at the question, as Pennock worded it, then it at first looks easy to distinguish between science and religion.  For example, the difference between a scientific theory and a theology is huge.  But Pennock’s title expresses the question very broadly.  Science and religion are both very broad phenomena.  If there is any overlap at all, then it will be hard to distinguish science from religion in those areas of overlap.  Take the study of human cognition as an example.  There are hypotheses of quantum consciousness, and there are computationalist hypotheses based on the AI assumption that the brain is a computer. They can’t both be right.  Both are usually considered to be part of science.  Neither one of them has sufficient supporting empirical evidence to settle the case.  There’s a long tradition of such speculative hypothesizing in science.  It won’t be easy to distinguish that from some of the speculative hypothesizing by creationists and ID proponents?

It shouldn’t matter that there are parts of science that are hard to objectively characterize in a way that distinguishes them from parts of theology.  Those parts of science don’t belong in the classroom either, except perhaps as a special topics class at graduate school.  The distinctions that should matter are those that are significant for government mandated classes in the public schools.  And at that level, the distinction is clear enough.  We don’t have to solve the most general demarcation problem in order to decide what belongs in the school curriculum.  And we should make those curriculum distinctions on clear unambiguous criteria (which falsification is not).  I see Laudan as standing for exactly that point, that we should stick to clear unambiguous criteria that are appropriate for the curricula issues, and not muddy the question by calling on outdated ideas from philosophy of science.

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