Message Board Academics or The Intellectual Collapse of Naturalism

Today the New York Times has brought to the populace a debate that was essentially happening behind the academic curtain. Barbara Forrest published an article critical of Francis Beckwith’s work concerning the Constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. Now, Beckwith is a philosophical critic of ID, going so far as to say that he rejects ID, but still believes there might be constitutional ground to allow it to be taught in school (even if he thinks this is ultimately a bad idea).

Forrest’s response was less than academic, which is fine for a blog or an article in a popular magazine; though uncivil, it would hardly warrant an outcry or any second-guessing. The problem, however, is that Forrest was writing in an academic journal concerning the philosophy of science, one where ad hominem and genetic fallacies ought to be avoided. Sadly, Forrest’s article primarily consisted of attacking Beckwith’s Catholic background in order to prove her point that ID isn’t Constitutionally protected; in other words, she went after both the academic and personal character of Beckwith to establish ground for tossing out his claims.

Rather than argue for the validity of ID or debate the Constitutional merits of allowing ID into the classroom, I think there are bigger issues going on here that people have ignored (and one that is ignored in the NYT article). First, that the guest editors and editor in chief didn’t catch the ad hominem prior to releasing the article online betrays either a massive bias or inability to spot faulty reasoning. Secondly, while many in Forrest’s camp are arguing that Synthese was wrong for issuing an apology, none are acknowledging that she was wrong for writing the article in the first place. Third, someone who is a critic of ID was still targeted for simply defending the possible legality of teaching it, which amounts to a closing off of the debate. Finally, and most importantly, we’re finally beginning to see the intellectual credibility for naturalism erodes, which is both good and bad.

Barbara Forrest

On the first point, that there must have been a bias within the editing board or an inability to spot faulty reasoning, almost goes without saying. For instance, if they saw no problem with what was essentially a character assassination of Beckwith then how can they claim to be true academics, which means they’re open to listening to alternative points of view? Alternatively, if they were unable to catch blatant ad hominem attacks, attacks that don’t belong in an academic journal, then wouldn’t this ruin the credibility of the journal? While I understand that there were guest editors for this particular issue, the editor in chief still has a say over what goes in and what doesn’t go in.

The second point is more serious. That people in Forrest’s camp aren’t chastising her or admitting that she was simply wrong in her approach to Beckwith’s arguments betrays the fact that tribalism runs strong within the naturalist movement. What it shows is an unwillingness to even evaluate arguments that challenge the validity of their philosophical core (naturalism), which in turn harms the academic process. How can new ideas be discovered if we are unwilling to challenge and explore our own presuppositions? But more importantly, how can we hope to be civil if we cannot admit that one of our own is wrong when it comes to a heated issue?

Intelligent debates require a sense of proper decorum, that is, that you show respect to those who disagree with you, especially if they are your peers. If Forrest cannot accomplish this, then it is a fault on her part; but if the entire camp of naturalists defend her, then we are forced to wonder if naturalism is truly philosophically grounded, or if it is merely emotionally grounded and cowering behind a veiled attempt at rationality.

Francis Beckwith

Third, in Forrest’s article we see an overly emotional response to someone merely suggesting the idea that ID might be Constitutionally acceptable. Rather than arguing against the point – which would be perfectly acceptable – she instead chose to attack both the academic and personal credibility of Beckwith, who isn’t even a proponent of ID. This certainly sends the message that not only can one not support ID, one cannot even hold the slightest bit of sympathy towards the views of ID without being a target for personal attacks.

The final point is possibly the most revealing one in that Forrest’s critique and the naturalist camp’s subsequent defense of her position reveals that naturalism simply has nothing to offer. The emotional reactions, the character assassinations, the strong-arming of those who would even think to show sympathy towards ID, or the multiple threats to boycott Synthese for issuing an apology for publishing Forrest’s article is essentially the naturalist camp acting like a good defense lawyer.

When a defense lawyer realizes that all the witness testimony and evidence points against his client, he will begin to attack the character of the witnesses. He won’t address the hard facts of the case (e.g. that his client’s DNA was found at the scene of the crime, that his fingerprints are everywhere, that they found the stolen merchandise in the accused’s home, etc.), but instead will question every witness involved; did the police officer tamper with the evidence, does the person who saw the accused break in have a history of lying, etc.? Without addressing the facts of the case, a good defense lawyer can cause a reasonable doubt simply by assassinating the character of the witnesses.

While such a tactic might be legitimate in court at times, it’s hardly ever legitimate in the world of academia. Rather, if one wishes to prove one’s point, the one will offer a multitude of evidence or reasonable arguments without ever addressing the character or academic credibility of those in opposition (though there are times where it is necessary, these times are few and far between). This is done so that one might discover the truth, even if one discovers the wrongness of a held belief. The purpose of academia is not to prove that we’re right, but to discover truth; how can we discover truth if we’re willing to disagree with anyone who would challenge us?

Certainly there are naturalists out there who would agree that Forrest’s tactics were less than academic (or amicable) and are willing to question their own presuppositions while entering into dialogue with those who disagree. Yet, such naturalists seem to be fewer and fewer (or at least more silent) than the naturalists who desire to snuff out all debate about their basic metaphysical presuppositions. Rather, what we are left with are “message board” naturalists; those who have ever been on a message board understand that people rarely think through the arguments they’re making and would rather attack the person posting the argument than deal with the actual argument. And of course, nothing is ever accomplished in a message board debate because one side or both sides simply refuse to think. Sadly, this is what “academic” naturalism seems to be devolving into.

If one of the top philosophical naturalists in the United States is incapable of being civil, rational, and showing a proper level of decorum in an academic article, then what are we to think of the intellectual credibility behind modern academic naturalism? Could it be that naturalism, as a philosophy, is in its last throws before finally dying out, thus it is lashing out as it slowly drowns in the sea of irrelevancy? Or could this merely be temporary frustration towards the incredulity of supernaturalists, of those unwilling to embrace the tenets of naturalism? I would contend that naturalism is dying, but that this is both good and bad for supernaturalists, or those critical of naturalism.

The slow death of naturalism is good in that it will hopefully free up our society to re-evaluate moral commitments and religious commitments. Naturalism as a philosophy has worked against science, often times providing for epistemic skepticism when it comes to knowledge claims or preventing us from considering a supernatural explanation (not just with ID, but also in cosmological arguments or in explaining the anthropic principle). Naturalism has been a philosophy that has choked the soft sciences, essentially making them entirely subjective and irrelevant. The death of naturalism allows for the possibility that the soft sciences and the liberal arts as a whole will experience a renascence.

At the same time, the death of naturalism is bad because as it is dying, it will continue to lash out against all who oppose it. Rather than contending with theists in a rational manner, naturalists will simply resort to attacking the credibility of theists or even those friendly towards theism and labeling such attacks as rational and intelligent. If the attacks become severe enough, good men and women could lose faculty positions for simply questioning the validity of naturalism while those bold enough to claim theism could be removed completely from the academic community. In other words, though naturalism is dying and will eventually die out (at least as a majority belief among academics), it could claim many careers along the way.

Either way, it will be up to theistic philosophers to defend against such attacks and hope that academic decorum remains strong rather than collapsing into a series of character assassinations. The only thing that is certain is that Forrest’s hit piece on Beckwith only confirms the suspicion of many philosophers; naturalism has no more content to stand on, no reasoning behind it, and is suffering from an intellectual collapse.