Religious politics vs. Hegelian “philosophy of right” in the courtroom

Friday, February 10th, 2012 Politics

Thanks to the Indiana Senate (and their tactical regrouping over “creationism-in-all-but-name,” last month) I ended up “wasting” a spectacular amount of time poring over the actual court transcripts of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (the famous 2005 “Intelligent Design” Federal Case). (The rest of that site,, is worth exploring in penetrating—or, time-wasting—detail.)

And the thing is, it’s tremendously satisfying to read this sort of thing, because so many “reason vs. faith” debates (nearly all of them) fail to move the needle in either direction in any public or private forum…and yet it in this instance it turns out that “reason’s” victorious battleground isn’t the laboratory (or the university) but the courtroom. In the context of this famous “Of Pandas and People” proceeding (as in the Scopes trial) the abstracted armature of the debate is removed from labs and pulpits and retro-fitted into much broader questions of civil society (i.e. “the good”), which sounds like a recipe for disaster but actually works. As I sat there combing through direct, cross, redirect, re-cross (and a particular instance where the judge took over questioning himself) it was like I could feel the frustration of so many years of politically-fraught “issues” being reduced to meaningless caricature in the public sphere melting away.

The best part (and I know this is my most incendiary point) is the absence of a jury. Nobody even tries to pull any Johnnie Cochran tricks (not that there’s anything wrong with “jury nullification” techniques during criminal trials). There wouldn’t be any point: the discussion is as logically clean and pure as you can get, because it’s all for the benefit of a single judge—who was appointed by George W. Bush and Rick Santorum (!), and yet gets it right in his decision, because he has no other choice—the only alternative would invalidate the foundations of proceeding itself (like, you might as well tear the courtroom down).

So why can’t everything be decided like this? Why couldn’t (for example) the “Laffer curve” have been subjected to the same kind of merciless forensic examination as Of Pandas and People? Why couldn’t Sarah Palin be forced to defend her “positions” as rigorously as Michael Behe? Of course, you can’t run the world that way (or even run a trial that way)…at a certain point you have to let the jury and the voters back in, and watch the signal-to-noise ratio plummet. But, just like it’s fun (for a couple of hours in a movie theater) to imagine a world where superheroes can solve our problems, it’s fun to imagine a world where Hegelian debate actually gets used to figure out what should happen next.