Philip Kitcher

British philosopher (born 1947)

Philip Stuart Kitcher (born 20 February 1947) is a British philosophy professor who specializes in the philosophy of science, the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of literature, and more recently pragmatism.

Philip Kitcher, 2004


All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by MIT Press ISBN 0-262-61037-X (1984), 2nd printing
Italics as in the book
  • Even if Creationists continue to lose in the courts, they may still succeed in wreaking havoc upon science education (and, ultimately, upon American science). By lobbying local school administrators, the Creationist minions can affect the books that are chosen and the curriculum that is designed. Because textbooks are published to make a profit, the special-interest pressure will change the character of the books that are produced. While Creationist laws fail, the cause may triumph, as science education relapses into its post-Scopes, pre-Sputnik condition.
    • Introduction, “The Creationist Crusade” (p. 3)
  • Creationist strategy is often to run entirely different issues together, to concoct a muddy paste out of distinct allegations about the evils of evolution and the glories of Creationism.
    • Introduction, “The Creationist Crusade” (p. 4)
  • The book that follows is a chase. The Creationist is allowed to choose one battleground after another. Given each choice of battleground, I insist that the battle be fight on that ground. In every case, “scientific” Creationism is defeated. When all the distortions have been removed, all the attempts to flaunt credentials examined, all the misleading quotations returned to their contexts, all the fallacies laid bare, we shall see Creation “science” for what it is—an abuse of science.
    • Introduction, “The Creationist Crusade” (p. 4)
  • Creationists are actually criticizing methods that are used throughout science. As I shall argue extensively, there is no basis for separating the procedures and practices of evolutionary biology from those that are fundamental to all sciences. If we let the creationists have their way, we may as well go whole hog. Let us reintroduce the flat-earth theory, the chemistry of the four elements, and mediaeval astrology. For these outworn doctrines have just as much claim to rival current scientific views as Creationism does to challenge evolutionary biology.
    • Introduction, “The Creationist Crusade” (p. 5)
  • Ironically, philosophers of science owe the Creationists a debt. For the “scientific” Creationists have constructed a glorious fake, which we can use to illustrate the differences between science and pseudoscience. By examining their scientific pretensions, I have tried to convey a sense of the nature and methods of science.
    • Introduction, “The Creationist Crusade” (p. 5)
  • In almost any natural population of organisms, more offspring will be produced than are able to survive. The offspring will vary—in particular, they will vary with respect to characteristics that affect their abilities to survive and reproduce. Some organisms will survive longer and reproduce more frequently. If the advantageous characteristics are inheritable, then they will be transferred to descendants. As a result, they will become more prevalent in later generations. Over a large number of generations the common features of the population may be radically changed.
    • Chapter 1, “Evolution for Everyone” (p. 8)
  • Evolutionary change is change in the genetic constitution of a population. This type of change can come about as a result of a number of factors. Immigration and emigration of organisms will bring new alleles and new allelic combinations into the population and will cause others to disappear. Mutation will lead to the formation of new alleles. The major claim of a Darwinian theory of evolution is that the principal factor of change is natural selection: The most important evolutionary changes come about because some allelic pairs are fitter than others, and these obtain greater representation for their constituents alleles in subsequent generations.
    • Chapter 1, “Evolution for Everyone” (p. 20)
  • Do the doctrine’s problem-solving strategies encounter recurrent difficulties in a significant range of cases? Are the problem-solving strategies an opportunistic collection of unmotivated and unrelated methods? Does the doctrine have too cozy a relationship with auxiliary hypotheses, applying its strategies with claims that can be “tested” only in their applications? Does the doctrine refuse to follow up on unresolved problems, airily dismissing them as “exceptional cases”? Does the doctrine restrict the domain of its methods, forswearing excursions into new areas of investigation where embarrassing questions might arise? If all, or many, of these tests are positive, then the doctrine is not a poor scientific theory. It is not a scientific theory at all.
    • Chapter 2, “Believing Where We Cannot Prove” (pp. 48-49)
  • Consistency is not the hobgoblin of the Creationist mind.
    • Chapter 3, “Darwin Redux” (p. 55)
  • The road to Creationism is paved with bad philosophy.
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (p. 82)
  • The formulation that I have given accords with those found in textbooks on physics. But it does not coincide with the statements of the second law offered by some Creationists.
    Creationists like to present the second law either by omitting any mention of its restriction to closed systems or by choosing a statement that does not make this restriction clear.
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (p. 91)
  • Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Although they do not refer to closed systems in stating the second law, Creationists have heard that the law only applies to such systems. So they are ready for the response I have just given. Morris even calls it “an exceedingly naive argument.” There are two popular Creationist rejoinders. The first is to pooh-pooh the concept of a closed system. The second is to change the subject.
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (pp. 92-93)
  • This response gets high marks for low cunning.
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (p. 99)
  • It is hard to resist the impression that all these computations are designed to bamboozle those who become weak at the knees at the sight of numbers.
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (p. 106)
  • This is purely a figment of Gish’s imagination. He speculates about the character of transitional forms, and then chides paleontologists because they do not find what he demands.
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (p. 111)
  • All the Creationists’ major objections have now been examined. What appear, at first glance, to be imposing obstacles turn out, on closer inspection, to be conjuring tricks employing inaccuracy, misrepresentation, dazzling numbers, and layers of confusion. As a teacher, I sometimes wonder after an exam why some students became confused on a particular point, and I try to understand how my presentation or the formulation in a book could have misled them. In the case of the Creationist authors we have studied, there is no great difficulty in seeing how muddles arise. They want to use scientific data and scientific principles to attack evolutionary theory. So they skim, searching for ammunition. When they find a claim that seems to be at variance with evolution, they seize it as a trophy to bring back to the Institute for Creation Research for public display. If they actually tried to understand the terrain they scavenge, they would have learned some interesting science. Instead, they seem to acquire only the most tenuous grasp of complex theories and then offer their muddled caricatures of important scientific works to as wide an (inexpert) audience as they can reach. (It is possible, of course, that their understanding is greater than that revealed in their confused discussions. But I am loath to accuse them of perverting ideas that they actually comprehend.)
    • Chapter 4, “Mountains, Molehills, and Misunderstandings” (p. 120)
  • People who live in Creationist houses should not throw methodological stones.
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (p. 124)
  • For Creation “scientists” data has only one function; it is a potential source of problems for evolution. Counterexamples to the “theory” of Creation “science” do not count.
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (p. 133)
  • Much of the discussion consists in ignoring the main point. Thus Morris mentions recent discoveries of biochemical similarities among organisms. This is a striking new success for evolutionary theory. Animals that share a recent ancestor turn out to have proteins with similar structures. (For example the α chains of globin molecules are identical in humans and chimpanzees; human α globin chains differ from those of horses by 18 amino acids, and from those of carp by 68 amino acids.) Evolutionary theory provides clear explanations of the numerous relationships unearthed by molecular techniques. What does Morris have to say about this? Nothing relevant.
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (p. 136)
  • So we encounter the strategy exemplified by Morris: Talk generally about design, pattern, purpose, and beauty in nature. There are many examples of adaptations that can be used—the wings of bats or “the amazing circulatory system,” for example. But what happens if we press some more difficult cases? Well, if there seems to be no design or purpose to a feature (and if its presence cannot be understood as a modification of ancestral characters), one can always point out that some parts of the Creator’s plan may be too vast for human understanding. We do not see what the design is, but there is design, nonetheless.
    Since no plan of design has been specified, Creationists have available another all-purpose escape clause. But it is precisely this feature of Creation “science” that impugns its scientific credentials. To mumble that “the ways of the creator are many and mysterious” may excuse one from identifying design in unlikely places. It is not to do science.
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (p. 138)
  • To provide scientific explanations, a creationist would have to identify the plan implemented in the creation. The trouble is that there are countless examples of properties of organisms that are hard to integrate into a coherent theory of design. There are two main types of difficulty, stemming from the frequent tinkerings of evolution in the equally common nastiness of nature. Let us begin with evolutionary tinkering. Structures already present or modified to answer to the organisms current needs. The result may be clumsy and inefficient, but it gets the job done.… (examples of the panda’s thumb, orchid self-fertilization, and the ruminant digestive system elided)
    The second class of cases cover those in which, to put it bluntly, nature’s ways are rather repulsive. There is nothing intrinsically beautiful about the scavenging of vultures, the copulatory behavior of the female praying mantis (who tries to bite off the head of the “lucky” male), or the ways in which some insects paralyze their prey.… (example of coprophagy elided)
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (pp. 138-139)
  • I now turn to the last gasp of the Creationists’ “scientific” defense of their theory. We have looked at a “theory” that has no detailed problem solutions to its credit (except those it borrows from its rival), that has no clearly defined problem-solving strategies, that encounters anomalies whenever it becomes at all definite, but that typically relapses into vagueness whenever clear-cut refutations threaten. Why should we take this “theory” to be worthy of any consideration?
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (p. 155)
  • Barnes and Morris both choose processes that we know to operate at different rates at different times, and then use the observed rates to estimate the time at which the process began. Dating the past is a complicated and technical business, and one cannot ignore the technical details simply to generate the ages one wants. Without a thorough understanding of which rates are constant overtime and which rates fluctuate wildly, Creationist dates are bound to be stabs in the dark. However, Creationists know what they want the age of the earth to be. So just as in the case of the second law of thermodynamics, important parts of science are abused. By carefully picking a process on the basis of its ability to give the desired result, without attending to the question whether it is reasonable to think that it happened at a constant rate, Creationists attempt to convince the uninitiated that their blind dates have scientific references. Nobody should be taken in.
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (pp. 163-164)
  • Creation “science” is spurious science. To treat it as science we would have to overlook its intolerable vagueness. We would have to abandon large parts of well-established sciences (physics, chemistry, and geology, as well as evolutionary biology, are all candidates for revision). We would have to trade careful technical procedures for blind guesses, unified theories for motley collections of special techniques. Exceptional cases, whose careful pursuit has so often led to important turnings in the history of science, would be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Nor would there be any gains. There is not a single scientific question to which Creationism provides its own detailed problem solution. In short, Creationism could take a place among the sciences only if the substance and methods of contemporary science were mutilated to make room for a scientifically worthless doctrine. What price Creationism?
    • Chapter 5, “What Price Creationism?” (p. 164)
  • Respect for the truth does not require one to take seriously ideas simply because they are popular or backed by influential people. Once it has become clear that a proposal makes no contribution to our understanding, we are not compelled by tolerance to give it further attention.
    • Chapter 6, “Exploiting Tolerance” (p. 168)
  • Creationism does not merit scientific discussion. As we found in the last chapter, Creation “science” is not a promising rival to evolutionary theory. It is not integrated with the rest of science, but is a hodgepodge of doctrines, lacking independent support. It offers no startling predictions, no advances in knowledge. We cannot commend it for any ability to shed light on questions that orthodox theories are unable to answer. Nor can we praise it for offering a definite alternative that might help scientists in their quest for an improved biological or geological theory. “Scientific” Creationism has no evidence that speaks in its favor, partly because Creationists are so meticulous in leaving their doctrines blurred.
    • Chapter 6, “Exploiting Tolerance” (p. 171)
  • If “scientific” Creationism merits no discussion in the community of professionals, then it does not deserve a place in the classrooms where those professionals are being educated. This is not to deny that professional education in the sciences might not benefit if it were more open to heterodoxy, if received opinion were not sometimes subjected to pressure from minority views. But the ideas in question ought to have something in their favor. They should not fail so abjectly as Creation “science” does.
    • Chapter 6, “Exploiting Tolerance” (p. 173)
  • Knowledge of science can have a great impact on social and political policy. Students need to be told, clearly and directly, what statements are supported by the available evidence. It is not the teachers function to offer instead a contrived and unresolved “debate” in which one of the parties is an ill-defined position that lacks any evidence in its favor. To represent as equal ideas of unequal merit is to mislead and confuse. Because the consequences of so deceiving the students may be their later inability to perform their duties as conscientious and informed citizens, such educational practices ought to be recognized for the irresponsible charades they are.
    • Chapter 6, “Exploiting Tolerance” (p. 173)
  • My conclusion can be summarized in a sentence. It is educationally irresponsible to pretend that an idea that is scientifically worthless deserves scientific discussion.
    • Chapter 6, “Exploiting Tolerance” (p. 174)
  • Because Creationists would like to identify themselves as members of the scientific community, scientists engaged in an internal debate with other scientists, they pounce on any remarks by eminent biologists or geologists that can be made to suggest their point of view. These remarks are wrenched out of context—whether creationists simply do not realize the importance of the context or whether they are willfully distorting the authors intentions, I do not know. In any case, for the creationists, misleading quotation has become a way of life.
    • Chapter 6, “Exploiting Tolerance” (p. 181)
  • The Creationists are by no means the first to play on fears about what scientific inquiry will disclose. Anxieties about ourselves endure. If our proper study is indeed the study of humankind, then it has seemed—and still seems—to many that the study is dangerous. Perhaps we shall find out that we were not what we took ourselves to be. But if the historical development of science has indeed sometimes pricked our vanity, it has not plunged us into an abyss of immorality. Arguably, it has liberated us from misconceptions, and thereby aided us in our moral progress.
    • Chapter 7, “The Bully Pulpit” (p. 202)
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