Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Postmodernism and ID

On his Sydney Morning Herald-hosted blog "The Contrarian," Andrew West draws a tendentious (though not unfamiliar) comparison between Intelligent Design and postmodernism:

The main thrust of the attack on intelligent design appears to be that it denies "rational science" -- that it sets up an alternative explanation for the origin of humanity and the world; that it offers an alternative version of natural history.

But doesn't this approach capture the whole postmodernist project? If postmodernism is supposed to encourage students to question the established record of human history, why should we accept the assumed "facts" about nature?

West is responding to the news that 3000 schools across Australia have been issued with free copies of the antievolution DVD Unlocking the Mystery of Life by the Campus Crusade for Christ. West claims to detect the faintest whiff of hypocrisy in the debate over Intelligent Design, insofar as

It deliberately contests conventional wisdom -- in this case Darwin's theory of evolution -- and isn't that what the post-modernists, who have been circling our education system for a generation, want?

As many a respondent to his post points out, West's attempt at a "gotcha!" argument falls wide of the mark. On the one hand, as the Sokal affair demonstrates, the mainstream science community has never had a great fondness for postmodernism. West either seems to have forgotten that scientists have been leading the charge against intelligent design, or he has simply decided to lump scientists into his rogue's gallery of postmodernist bogeymen who threaten our children. On the other hand--and science commentators can sometimes be just as guilty of this--the postmodernism West denigrates is a crude caricature: postmodernism as "extreme relativism." (Perhaps out of economic necessity, given that the label "postmodernism" covers a wide and diverse range of ideas and arguments. Who is he attacking? Lyotard? Rorty? Baudrillard? Deleuze and Guattari? Does he know?). Postmodernism is supposed to give oxygen to ID, so the strawman goes, because in the eyes of the postmodernists everything is "just a theory," and all theories are up for grabs--a position that would surely undermine the legitimacy of ID as much as it does anything else. Conventional wisdom and its underpinnings deserve to be subjected to the harshest scrutiny, of course, and those nasty postmodernists are doing nothing wrong, IMHO, if that is all they can be accused of. But this is not "extreme relativism." And it is not meant to be a replacement for the scientific method (which, in its own way, subjects received wisdom--as far as the physical/natural universe is concerned--to severe scrutiny).

. . .

On the news that intelligent design is currently being taught in at least 100 Australian schools, the Greens are calling for federal funding to be denied to schools that dress up pseudoscience as science in their science classrooms. Brendan Nelson should take such action out of consistency--given that he has made flag-waving faux-patriotism a condition of federal funding--but none of us should hold our breath.