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‘Shock and Chagrin’ Over Intelligent Design’s Designs

The philosopher Brian Leiter, whose “Leiter Reports” blog on philosophical matters is interesting even to amateurs like me, reported this week that the editors-in-chief of the journal Synthese, which specializes in philosophy intersecting with science, recently did something downright peculiar. Without any prior notice to the guest editors of a special issue on “Evolution and Its Rivals,” they inserted in the print edition a prefatory disclaimer to the effect that

tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. … We regret any deviation from our usual standards.

The editors-in-chief implied, in the words of the guest editors, that they “and their contributors have not maintained the standards of the journal.” They seem to have been speaking about the author of one particular article. Previously, without notifying the guest editors, they had taken it upon themselves to urge her to revise that article, which had already been published online. According to the guest editors, these intrusions resulted from “lobbying by a handful of ideologues”—supporters of intelligent design, or ID.

Having failed to address Leiter’s request that they identify a second article that set them to this denunciation, let’s stipulate that the editors-in-chief were interposing their judgment on the one article alone: “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy,” by the philosopher Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Forrest wrote in her article that supporters of ID “lack…both a methodology and a epistemology that would enable believers not only to demonstrate to other knowers the existence of the supernatural object of their commitment, but also to reach consensus among themselves concerning the doctrinal corollaries of their belief.” This follows since “there is no way to address questions arising from beliefs that cannot be buttressed by common cognitive access to the object of belief.”

Accordingly, in this article (and others), Forrest harshly criticizes Francis J. Beckwith, a conservative Christian philosopher who defends the legality of teaching “intelligent design” in public-school science classes. One of her chief points is epistemological: that (to quote her co-author, Paul Gross), “there has never been an objective, repeatable demonstration that supernatural and extrasensory phenomena exist.” Therefore, she insists, unexceptionably, that any ID view has—must have—a different epistemological standing than a scientific one. Forrest argues that

not only do ID proponents assert the logical and temporal priority of the supernatural, they also contend that supernatural knowledge claims can override natural ones.

She makes a powerful case that “ID is all metaphysics and no epistemology.” She accuses them of imputing scientism to philosophers who argue that scientific explanations deserve to be treated as such in science classes. She considers it relevant to Beckwith’s error that he is in many venues “a dedicated publicizer of the central claims of ID,” and that he has long defended the belief that miracles take place. She sums up that she is objecting not to Beckwith’s religious views but to his distortion of the place they occupy in forming his policy views:

My criticism is directed at ID proponents’ shirking their intellectual responsibility as scholars by elevating faith to an epistemic status it does not truly have, a move that prompts legitimate public concern given their efforts to translate personal conviction into public policy.

The guest editors say they’re “shocked and chagrined” at the editors-in-chiefs’ “insults.” Reasonably so. Having read the article in question, Beckwith’s reply, and the exchanges among the editors, I’m appalled too to learn that the tender sensibilities of ID supporters have been permitted to deform scholarly circles.

If such interventions had taken place in a journal of the humanities and social sciences, everyone in the academy would be, ought to be, up in arms. Same here. Sauce, goose, gander, QED.

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