Evolution should not be taught in State Schools: A Defence of Plantinga Part I

In this two-part series I will sketch and defend Alvin Plantinga’s proposal that evolution should not be taught as “the sober truth” in state schools. In Part I, I will sketch Plantinga’s position and the arguments he provides for it; in Part II, I will look at what should be taught and then I’ll defend this position against the most significant critique offered of it by Robert Pennock. I have developed this position partly out of reading and reflecting on the published debate between these two men but also through correspondence with Alvin Plantinga over the issue.

Part I. The Argument against Teaching Evolution in State Schools
Arguably the most sophisticated argument against teaching evolution in state schools has been made by Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga begins by offering a couple of qualifications; first, Plantinga’s inquiry is limited to whether evolution should be taught in the state schools of countries that display significant pluralism and diversity of opinion.[1] This would include, not just Plantinga’s own country, the United States of America but also New Zealand. Second, Plantinga limits his inquiry to whether “evolution should be taught as the sober truth of the matter” [Emphasis mine][2] as opposed to “the best current scientific hypothesis, or what accords best or is most probable (epistemically probable) with respect to the appropriate scientific evidence base.”[3] Plantinga’s conclusion is that it is unjust to teach evolution in this way. His argument proceeds in three stages.

First Plantinga notes that American (and the same is true of New Zealand) society is “radically pluralistic; and here I am thinking in particular of the plurality of religious and quasi-religious views.”[4] Following John Rawls, he calls these religious and quasi-religious views “’comprehensive’ beliefs… deep ways of understanding ourselves and our world, other deep ways of interpreting ourselves and our world to ourselves.”[5]

Second, Plantinga suggests that with state schools, “It is as if we are all party to a sort of implicit contract: we recognize the need to train and educate our children, but don’t have the time or competence to do it individually. We therefore get together to hire teachers to help instruct and educate our children, and together we pay for this service by way of tax money.”[6] However, given that “[for] most citizens, these comprehensive beliefs are of enormous importance… some even thinking that one’s eternal welfare is tied up with accepting them, parents will typically want their children to be educated into what they take to be the true and correct comprehensive beliefs;”[7] This, however, raises an immediate question of fairness,

It would clearly be unfair, unjust, for the school, which we all support, to teach one set of religious beliefs as opposed to another–to teach that evangelical Christianity, for example, is the truth. This would be unfair to those citizens who are party to the contract and whose comprehensive beliefs–Judaism, naturalism, Islam, whatever–are incompatible with evangelical Christianity.[8]

From these points Plantinga argues that parents possess what he calls a basic right that, “each of the citizen’s party to the contract has the right to not have comprehensive beliefs taught to their children that contradict their own comprehensive beliefs.”[9] A basic right expresses a prima facie right not an absolute right; that is, it is a right which can be overridden by other considerations. Teaching evolution clearly violates a basic right; a significant proportion of people hold comprehensive religious views, views that contradict evolution. Hence, their rights are being violated if evolution is taught as true in state schools. It follows then, that in the absence of other considerations, teaching evolution in state schools is unjust.

The final step in Plantinga’s argument is to contend that, in the case of evolution, there are no other considerations that override this prima facie right. Commenting on a defence of the teaching of evolution made by Robert Pennock, Plantinga identifies two considerations made in favour of teaching evolution. The first is that evolutionary theory is true; the second is that it is an empirically supported theory, the best supported theory of origins in the biological sciences.

In response to the first consideration Plantinga notes that even if evolution is true, it does not follow that it is just to teach it as true in a pluralistic society.

Suppose Christianity is in fact true, as indeed I believe it is, would that mean that it is fair to teach it in public schools where most of the citizens, citizens who support those schools, are not Christians and reject Christian comprehensive beliefs? I should think not; that would clearly be unfair, and the fact that the system of beliefs in question is true would not override the unfairness.[10]

Plantinga’s response to the second consideration is more nuanced. Plantinga has not claimed that evolution cannot be taught as “the best current scientific hypothesis, or what accords best or is most probable (epistemically probable) with respect to the appropriate scientific evidence base,”[11] his claim is that it should not be taught as true. The fact that evolution is the best scientific theory does not, by itself, entail that it is true. To get the conclusion that evolution is true one needs to conjoin the claim that evolution is the best scientific theory of origins with an epistemological claim that Plantinga labels PC,

(PC) The right way to answer questions of empirical fact–for example questions about the origin of life, the age of the earth, whether human beings have evolved from earlier forms of life–is by way of science, or scientific method.[12]

Plantinga notes that PC is not an empirical or scientific claim; it is rather a claim of philosophy or epistemology. Second, PC is a claim that contradicts the comprehensive beliefs of many parents. Hence, to justify teaching evolution as true, as opposed to just the best scientific hypothesis, educators would have to go beyond the mere scientific empirical evidence and teach substantive philosophical views that contradict the comprehensive views of parents.[13]

Plantinga concludes that the considerations put forward to override the prima facie rights of parents do not override these rights, hence, “is that it is improper, unfair, to teach either creationism or evolution in the schools–that is so, at any rate for areas where a substantial proportion of the parents hold religious or comprehensive beliefs incompatible with either.”[14]

In my next post I will look at what should be taught in state schools and I’ll address Robert Pennock’s criticisms of the position.

[1] Alvin Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” in Robert Pennock Ed Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives (Cambridge, The MIT Press – Bradford Books, 2001) 779.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid 780.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 781.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid, 780.
[10] Ibid, 784.
[11] Ibid, 779.
[12] Ibid, 786.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.

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