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A letter from a reader about Debating philosophy, not data

August 10, 2006

In response to Lance James ’76’s April 5 letter concerning President Tilghman and her remarks on intelligent design, it is worth keeping in mind that intelligent design and scientific naturalism both have more to do with the broader philosophical concerns of their proponents than with any rightful apprehension of data. Both are positions that only make sense in our post-Enlightenment era, where science and theology have developed separate vocabularies, each claiming to better represent the “truth.” In this sense, Mr. James is right that teenagers should not be taught that science has proven “human life is the result of purposeless, random, natural processes,” just as they should not be taught that the available evidence of the world strongly suggests an “intelligent design” or a “creator.” Both statements are simply part and parcel of different vocabularies humans have developed to describe their world. As such, they are naturally confirmed in the language they arose from and seen as “unfounded” in the other. Neither is more “provable” or “objective” than the other.

This is not to say that descriptions of the world don’t matter because there is no truth, but it is to say that “truth” already comes framed in the language that talks about it, and that therefore the argument over the primacy of faith vs. that of reason should cede to a more useful discussion about why we care about such philosophical clashes, and how we can shift the terms of disagreement to get around them.   


Pasadena, Calif.

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