In Evolution should not be taught in State Schools: A Defence of Plantinga Part I, I articulated and defended Alvin Plantinga’s proposal that evolution should not be taught as “the sober truth” in state schools. In this post I will address what should be taught in state schools and look at Robert Pennock’s objections to this argument.
Part II. Plantinga’s Proposal: What should be taught in State Schools?
After drawing the above conclusion, Plantinga asks what should be taught regarding origins in state schools? He suggests two answers; the first is to teach nothing on matters of origins,
One answer is to say: in a pluralistic society like ours, there is no fair way to teach anything about origins; hence public schools ought not to teach anything on that subject. They should instead stick to subjects where there isn’t disagreement at the level of religious or comprehensive beliefs. This would be just a reflection of a more general difficulty in having public schools of our sort in a pluralistic society. Perhaps, when the citizens get together to found a system of education, what they discover is that there is too much diversity of opinion to make it feasible.
The second, and perhaps more interesting answer, is to teach both evolution and creationism “conditionally,” Plantinga labels this as his “modest proposal.” To explain this idea of teaching conditionally Plantinga introduces the technical notion of an epistemic base, “for each person P there is an epistemic base, EBP, with respect to which the probability or acceptability of proposed beliefs is to be evaluated.” A person’s epistemic base contains at least four things. First it contains their “current beliefs;” second, as “some beliefs are held more strongly than others,” it includes, “an index of degree of belief.” Third, an epistemic base will include, “prescriptions as to how to conduct inquiry,” how to learn about world, revise beliefs, etc. Fourth, it will include their comprehensive beliefs. Plantinga emphasises that a persons epistemic base is not set in stone but revisable in light of argument.
Plantinga notes that science, as currently practiced, respects a procedure known as methodological naturalism, “the policy of avoiding hypotheses that mention or refer to God or special acts on the part of God, or other supernatural phenomena, or hypotheses whose only support is the Bible, or some other alleged divine revelation.” While there is dispute over whether science should do this, as currently practised, science does involve commitment to methodological naturalism. This means that science operates with a particular epistemic base; while the epistemic base of science will include things such as logic, mathematics, various common-sense beliefs, there will be certain beliefs that will not go into the epistemic base for science (EBS) at least as currently practised, “Among these would be the belief that there is such a person as God, that God has created the world, and that God has created certain forms of life specially–human beings, perhaps, or the original forms of life, or for that matter sparrows and horses.”
Plantinga’s claim that evolution be taught conditionally then amounts to this: Evolution can be taught as the most probable theory relative to the current scientific epistemic base. This, he thinks, is uncontroversial and not likely to contradict anyone’s comprehensive beliefs; even a creationist, for example, can grant that, if one brackets various theological claims and operates on methodological naturalism then evolution is likely. What schools cannot do is teach that any particular epistemic base is the correct one to start from or that what follows from a particular epistemic base is true. Plantinga thinks that creationism could be taught in a similar conditional way in state schools.
Pennock’s Critique of Plantinga
Robert Pennock offers a critique of Plantinga’s position. Pennock contends that a rational person would not grant parents do not have the sort of prima facie rights Plantinga attributes to them. Instead, a rational person would advocate that evolution be taught as true and creationism or any other theological view be excluded from being taught in state schools. He offers two arguments for this conclusion; the first is that,
we all know parents who are bigots or ideologues and others who are simply narrow-minded or ignorant. … A good education may be a child’s only window to a clear picture of the world and to an open future. To agree to a basic right would be to close that window. This would be a serious harm for the children of such parents.
This is a bad argument; it is true that some parents are narrow minded. It is also true that some parents do not feed their children or neglect to clothe them or give them poor medical care; however, it would be grossly unjust to infer from this that no parent has even a prima facie right to clothe and feed their child or make medical decisions for them. Moreover, a parallel line of argument would entail that teachers, schools and governments cannot make education choices either. We are all familiar with teachers and government officials who are bigoted, corrupt and abuse their power. Taken consistently, Pennock’s views would entail that no one could make educational choices for children.
The second and more substantial argument is that accepting parental rights would “gut the curriculum of state schools.”Pennock notes,
… there are thousands of special interests groups that would use such a right to prohibit the teaching of specific facts or even whole subjects they objected to. One does not have to look far to find parents who would object to teaching about racial equality, the facts of reproductive health, or that even that the earth is round. Only the utterly trivial could have a chance of escaping the gag of basic rights. No rational person would agree to such a policy.
Pennock here suggests Plantinga’s position would prevent anything being taught at state schools and he takes this as a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that parents have the kind of rights Plantinga contends they do. Three points can be made in response to this.
First, Pennock misconstrues Plantinga’s position. Plantinga’s view 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.” [Emphasis added] Consequently, it applies locally not globally. In a Native Indian reserve, for example, it would be unjust for state teaching of things that were contrary to the comprehensive beliefs of Native Indians. It would not follow, however, that one could not teach these things in a school in New York, for example, where there are hardly any Native Indians who continue to believe these cultural practices. Hence, the fact that almost everything is incompatible with someone’s comprehensive beliefs is irrelevant. Schools do not have to accommodate the views of everyone; they only need to accommodate the views in their area.
Second, Plantinga stresses that parental rights are prima facie rights not absolute rights; they can be overridden in certain circumstances. Interestingly Plantinga alludes to one such circumstance in the very paper Pennock critiques,
Of course a basic right is a prima facie right… The majority might also insist on teaching the denial of certain comprehensive views, Nazism, for example, in which case the fair thing to do would be to exclude the Nazis from the contract (and also exclude them from the tax liability).
Here Plantinga considers the very examples Pennock raised; situations where a minority has bizarre or repugnant views which the majority feel compelled to warn their own children about and it is clear that in such situations one does not need to adopt a gag rule for all state schools. One simply establishes a state school based on the views of the majority in the area in question and grants the minority freedom to opt out of these schools and an exemption from education taxation.
Third, suppose that Pennock is correct and there is too much disagreement over comprehensive views to have a state school system and also respect the rights Plantinga attributes to parents, does it follow that we should not respect parental rights? Not at all, an alternative is to not have state schools; Plantinga notes, “Perhaps, when the citizens get together to found a system of education, what they discover is that there is too much diversity of opinion to make it feasible.” An alternative could be to establish a network of private schools where parents could choose which school meets the needs of their children, basing their decisions in part on their comprehensive beliefs. Some private schools could teach evolution and others could choose not to and parents could choose which ones to send their children to.
In other words, if it is true that it is impossible to have a centralised state education system and accord parents prima facie rights of the sort Plantinga suggests, then that is an argument against having a centralised state education system. It is not, as Pennock suggests, a compelling argument against parental rights.
I conclude then that Plantinga’s position is defensible. Regardless of whether evolution is true or empirically founded it is unjust to teach the children of parents who have theological objections to evolution that it is true. State schools which have a sizeable clientele who hold such views should teach it only conditionally or not at all. Alternatively, the government should allow these people to opt out of state education and grant them a tax rebate.
 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) 787.
 Ibid 789.
 Ibid 787.
 Ibid, 788.
 Alvin Plantinga “Methodological Naturalism?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith49 (1997) 143-154; M Ruse “Methodological Naturalism Under Fire” South African Journal of Philosophy 24(1)(2005) 44-60.
 Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” 788.
 Robert Pennock “Should Creationism Be Taught in Public Schools?” Science & Education 11(2) (2002) 111-133.
 Ibid 129.
 Ibid 128.
 Ibid 127.
 I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for his helpful comments here.
 Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” 786.
 Ibid 782.
 Alvin Plantinga suggested this example in correspondence
 Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” 782.
 Ibid 787.
 Here again I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for confirming this suggestion.