The great accommodationism debate

I’ve stayed away from the current round of accusations and counteraccusations about accomodationism between religion and science. This is because I am a wishy washy Chamberlainist fencesitting Laodicean. But I am impressed by a few bloggers’ posts on the matter. First, what’s the background?

For many years there has been a divide between those who are not religious but think that promoting science should not exclude the religious, and those who are not religious and think that no defence of science should ever admit a religious believer at all. That is not quite the way they would put it of course, but the divide is between “accommodationists” and “exclusivists”.

Accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that science and religion are incompatible, and that to defend science one must, perforce, assert this incompatibility.

Each has a story about the motives of the other. Accommodationists think that exclusivists are being, variously, aggressive, militant, fundamentalist or just strategically stupid. Exclusivists think that accommodationists are being, diversely, incoherent, cowardly, stupid, or dishonest.

Much fun all round. So before I list the posts that I think approach the matter sensibly, a few points from moi:

  1. It is not the task of those who are not religious to find ways for the religious to harmonise their religion with science. That is the task of any religious adherent who wishes to live in the real world. But one may discuss whether it is possible, and if it is, conceptually, point out how, without thereby taking an advocacy role for religion. This is something that exclusivists think is just wrong. If I, as a non-religious person, think there is no evidence for some religious belief, I must therefore, on pain of self-contradiction (or self-immolation, or something) insist that nobody else can make the claim that their religious belief is consistent with science. Accusations of being a “religion lover” are uncomfortable echoes of previous intolerance.
  2. This is not just about strategy, but it is in part about strategy. The fact is that most people in society – whose taxes fund science, and whose governments decide on what science to fund – are religious or favourably disposed towards religion. A religious milieu is part of the ecology of science, so to speak. Making science the enemy of religion is going to have a single outcome, one that we can all predict. It won’t be the death of religion.
  3. As a point of fact, many people who are scientists are, actually and honestly, religious. Many religious are in favour of science. Why, then, should I insist that they give up one or the other? If I am trying to convert them to my way of thinking, that might be the way to go, but converting people to or from religious positions is not science; at best it’s philosophy, and at worst it is religious proselytising. Sure, atheism is not-pro-religion, but that doesn’t mean it is automatically not a religious position, and science, so far as I can tell, can only talk about empirical matters and their implications. So if to be religious means one admits of miracles, and science cannot either disprove miracles or accept them, one exceeds the bounds of science to insist that no miracles ever happen.
  4. All that notwithstanding, I fully concur with those who think that a science-defending institution or professional association, should make no assertions that science is compatible with religion either. That is, as I said in point 1, for the religious to sort out. Coincidentally, many religious bodies have done exactly that.
  5. Science and religion are not both seeking knowledge of the same things. The religious often make that assertion, that they are different epistemes or ways of knowing. If religion knows anything qua religion, it is nothing that can be investigated empirically, and when religion and science coincide on a view, it is an accident on religion’s part (or just common sense). In every case when a religious authority has asserted something about the physical world that is testable and novel, it is wrong. I know of no contrary examples. So what religion knows, if anything, is its own domain and topics, not those of science.
  6. Science and religion have never had “non-overlapping magisteria”. I know why Gould invented this, as a pluralist trying to effect a rapprochement, but it is just false. But likewise, there has never been a “warfare of religion against science”. The fact is, religion and science are like dancers on a crowded floor; sometimes they jostle each other for space, sometimes they are aware of the other and try to avoid conflict, and sometimes there’s just a bar brawl. Scientists often make religious pronouncements that are well outside the domain of their competence qua scientists, and theologians and clergy much more often make claims about science that are so silly they are funny, or would be if religion didn’t have the kind of political power that it usually has.

So, what’s set off the current round of claim, accusation and abuse? Jerry Coyne, a noted evolutionary biologist, wrote a piece in the New Republic and Chris Mooney, a science journalist who I like even if I don’t fully agree with everything he says, responded. Coyne is an exclusivist. Mooney a strategic accommodationist. The toing and froing can be found at their respective blogs (Coyne is a rare bird – a leading scientist who blogs). Mooney has been criticised by PZ Mashedpotato, Larry Moran at Sandwalk*, and various others.

What strikes me as regrettable is that this got personal very quickly. I’m not pointing fingers, but it does seem to me that exclusivists attack at the drop of a hat, calling people unscientific, ignorant, stupid and the like very quickly, for no more reason than that the person concerned disagrees with them! Okay, that’s perhaps what passes as debate these days – I blame debating rules as taught in schools – but such punditry does nobody any credit.

It is my opinion, for what it’s worth, that those who are accommodationists are not being cynical. I say this as an obvious accommodationist; it’s something I have argued for for years. We hold that it is better to not try to make science do what philosophy cannot, and eliminate all possible arationality from public debate by force majeure. And we hold that many good people, who think as well as the best of us and better than most, honestly think there is no conflict between science and religion. Sure, it is also the case that we should not alienate voters/funders/possible allies, but that’s not the main point.

Only those who are completely without self-knowledge think they are entirely rational on every subject, and that this licenses attacking others for their perceived failings in that respect. I know I won’t change their mind either.

Finally, let me say that the answer to the problem is not to shut anyone up. Exclusivists should put their case forcefully. Accommodationists should likewise. As I once said about public atheists, they should say as much as they can. I’m a Millian liberal, and free exchange of ideas is the best solution for society, not the suppression of any view. So when accommodationists or exclusivists insist the “other side” should be quiet, I demur. The more voices, the better.

Some good posts:

Coyne lists the posts to that time here.

Mooney lays out his creed here.

Josh Rosenau gets all sensible here and here.

Quodlibeta likewise.

Lawrence Krauss lays out the exclusivist argument well here.

* Yes, he who thinks I am an asportist, when in reality I am an anexercisist. I wish people would get the distinction straight…

176 thoughts on “The great accommodationism debate”

  1. I wish that every debate on this subject didn’t turn into a debate about individuals.

    I haven’t participated in the discussions about accommodation, as I don’t really think that there is such a great difference between the two stances. People are mostly talking past each other, but when we break it all down, it really only comes to a difference in opinion on whether scientific organizations should openly state that science and religion are compatible (the accommodation stance) or not (the anti-accommodation stance).

    In reality this is a minor point, as the fundamentalist/literalists will never agree with the compatibility between science and religion anyway, and they are the ones leading the assault on science.

    When fully 1/3 of the US population believe in a literal reading of the Bible (whatever that might mean to them), there are much more fundamental issues than whether NCSE endorses a stance which the opponents will never accept anyway.

    Personally, I feel that NCSE and other science organizations should stay out of endorsing one viewpoint or another on an issue which is fundamentally religious in nature, and instead should keep working for better science education.

    Other groups, such as religious groups or atheist organizations, can debate the compatibility of science and religion, but without a proper science education, it won’t matter anyway.

  2. Chris’ Wills wrote:

    Well Ockham’s razor doesn’t not assume the existence of a creator, I suspect the good friar believed in God; it simply says use the simplest explanation consistent with the facts (i.e. don’t invoke God or miracles, also don’t invoke superfluous ideas, simplest is best).

    It is common usage but I think we should be wary of saying that the Razor recommends the “simplest” explanation because that can be misleading. Intelligent Design Creationists have argued, for example, that invoking the concept of a designer to account for the human eye is a simpler explanation than some convoluted, incredibly complex and unproven evolutionary process taking place over unimaginable tracts of time. By the common usage of “simple” that argument has some rhetorical force.

    I would argue the the “unnecessary multiplication entities” gets closer to both the original intent and the current usage, noting that not invoking some entity in a particular case does not necessarily mean that is excluded in perpetuity.

    On the annoying Idiots, possibly correct. But if so, deliberately creating/upholding a falsehood for short term laughs isn’t very sensible in the long term.

    If we’re going to be sensible then, yes, science should not be seen to be perpetuating falsehoods for the sake of a cheap laugh.

  3. Ian H Spedding FCD
    It is common usage but I think we should be wary of saying that the Razor recommends the “simplest” explanation because that can be misleading. Intelligent Design Creationists have argued, for example, that invoking the concept of a designer to account for the human eye is a simpler explanation than some convoluted, incredibly complex and unproven evolutionary process taking place over unimaginable tracts of time. By the common usage of “simple” that argument has some rhetorical force.

    Agreed, my bad for not including the bit simplest using natural explanations. I tend to assume this when science is being dicussed which, as you point out, is allowing a wedge for IDists.

    I would argue the the “unnecessary multiplication entities” gets closer to both the original intent and the current usage, noting that not invoking some entity in a particular case does not necessarily mean that is excluded in perpetuity.

    Probably my upbringing but; that is implicit in simplest isn’t it?
    Though we could, of course, argue about what is and isn’t unnecessary; but that is best left to those developing their model.

  4. Ian H Spedding FCD
    If we’re going to be sensible then, yes, science should not be seen to be perpetuating falsehoods for the sake of a cheap laugh.

    Shouldn’t that be scientists rather than science?

    As we know science isn’t noted for her sense of humour :o)

  5. The reason for the debate is that some scientists (I am one) challenge the veracity of those religious denominations who make statements like that.

    Larry, what are your reasons for believing this, I must wonder, and do you hold this same standard for truth statements generally? Where is the secret private truth you suspect to exist actually conveyed to the faithful? The Catholic Church (to chose one prominent example) is an extremely porous and visible institution. If they held publicly that evolution was true, but privately that it was not, do you suppose they could really keep this a secret?

  6. The Catholic Church (to chose one prominent example) is an extremely porous and visible institution.

    They reject science whenever it contradicts their religion and it isn’t obviously true that rejecting science is just stupid.

    Dead people don’t get up and walk around after being dead three days, frex.

    1. NME,

      I think we should draw a distinction between positing miracles, and denying science.

      Catholics say the laws of nature are precisely what scientists say they are, and that God occasionally breaks them for compelling (to them) reasons. It is the rarity and the extreme contingency of miracles that make them miracles. The fact that dead people don’t come back to life is precisely the point.

      They don’t assert that there are additional laws of nature that explain resurrection (or faces in tortillas). That is, atheists and Catholics are in complete agreement on what the set of natural laws contains.

  7. The basic difference between accomodationists and ‘exclusivists’ is one of goals, not of methods. Exclusivists want to defend all true claims about reality as well as the method by which truth is discovered. Accomodationists are only interested in defending a weirdly limited subset of all true claims about reality. For example, both would agree that the germ theory of disease is a true claim about reality and that a competing theory stating that it’s undetectable elves who really cause most diseases while making it look as though microorganisms are the real cause, is a false claim about reality. In this case, exclusivists and accomodationists would defend truth against falsity with equal vigor. However, when the topic becomes evolution vs evolution that is guided by an undetectable ‘god’, the accomodationists strangely diverge. They’ll start mumbling about how ‘science’ can only talk about empirical matters, or that it can’t say anything about the supernatural, or that those who believe in divinely guided evolution are seeking a different way of knowing. All things that could be said just as easily about the elvish theory of disease and its believers… but you’d never hear an accomodationist say this kind of stuff about any beliefs except religious ones.

  8. John Wrote:

    Allow me: the usual miracles used in canonisation cases are the recovery of individuals from parlous conditions…

    I beg to differ. This is not a case that cannot be debunked on evidence, depending of course on what is meant by debunking. There are many well documented case of unexpected recovery, spontaneuos remission etc. that did not involve the intervention of a potential saint therefore making it unlikely that the cases under investigation for canonisation were actually a result of some sort of action by the putative holy man or woman.

  9. Matt C’mon Rob. You say

    Twasn’t I, but the author of this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page and Ockham. I mistakenly left off the cite and added it in a subsequent comment. I didn’t see your comment inbetween the two last night (stuck in moderation or something maybe?)

    Matt: “Ockham’s Razor, in the senses in which it can be found in Ockham himself, never allows us to deny putative entities; at best it allows us to refrain from positing them”

    Ian only said “[science] does not assume the existence of a creator per the Demon Barber of Ockham.” I don’t see a word about denying a creator. Just that we aren’t allowed to assume one. Just like Ockham says, it allows us to refrain from positing them.

    Per the quote from Ockham I posted/linked to [Sent. I, dist. 30, q. 1] he did, infact, posit Him (based, as he wrote, on the “authority of Sacred Scripture”)

    “[N]othing ought to be posited” and “unless” being the key words there (in my bestSnagglepuss voice: emphasized already even.)

    According to the good friar, of course… which is all I was [just] sayin’.

    No biggie.

  10. Accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

    Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that science and religion are incompatible, and that to defend science one must, perforce, assert this incompatibility.

    This is the wrong way to put it. The whole point about the accommodists is that they do MORE than “merely defend science”, they feel the need to ADD, to every other sentence that “Jesus could still be a resurrected man-God” when such myths have nothing to do with science, the understanding of science, the scientific method, or anything even remotely science-related. MOST scientists feel that bronze-age myths like that are, for all intends and purposes, incompatible with a scientific worldview, others dont, and thats FINE, but there is no need for what Coyne called a “spoonful of Jesus” to make the science go down. infact, such tactics, (and tactics is all it is..) undermine the science because it is dishonest, unrepresentative and plain silly. it is a tactic that at its very core represents the opposite of what science is all about: Relentless honesty and self-examination, a determination to stick to the point and think clearly and not be sidetracked by irrelevant nonsense.

    1. …what science is all about: Relentless honesty and self-examination, a determination to stick to the point and think clearly and not be sidetracked by irrelevant nonsense.

      An “interesting” view of what science is all about.

      1. An “interesting” view of what science is all about. Ok. it wasnt a perfect definition of science. My point was that the tactic of accommodation is basically dishonest. Science, in a way, can be described as the most honest way of knowing that we know about, because its about actually testing your beliefs on every level, and only if the belief/idea survives every single test we can think of, it is allowed to live on. Scientist dont even trust themselves, that is why they gather independent, objective evidence, and test their predictions. Science is therefore the most brutally honest enterprise that I can think of.

        Accommodation is the opposite: it is a transparently false and dishonest attempt not to rock the boat of religious believers, by constantly telling them “there is no conflict, and noone has any problem at all squaring iron age mythology with modern science” It is a lie because many, (probably most scientists) DO have that exact problem, and Miller and Collins are among the few exceptions, and even they have to write books with titles like “Finding Darwin’s God” which implies that even they have had to do some searching to find that god.

      2. Yes, that was a bit snarky, and all of those values (honesty, self-examination, persistence, focus, etc.) are important to science. Nevertheless, they are also important to other philosophical approaches to “truth” (including religious ones). What science has is a method and assumptions (“methodological naturalism” or, in some cases “philosophical naturalism”) which separate it from other ways of knowing. But, in my opinion, scientists should not arrogate to themselves exclusivity in ways of knowing – just keep the other ways out of science class (i.e. don’t try to square iron age mythology with modern science).

      3. But, in my opinion, scientists should not arrogate to themselves exclusivity in ways of knowing – just keep the other ways out of science class

        I’m not that sure about these elusive “other ways of knowing”, they seem never to be defined in any detail, which leads me to believe its basically smoke and mirrors. It seems the people who mention these “ways” go out of their way to keep a murky, mysterious glow around the “knowing” they speak of. You want to have it both ways: this kind of knowing is all the important aspects of scientific knowledge is also important, but at the same time there is no need to get all scientific and demand any details of these methods.. it is rather confusing. Either these “Ways of knowing truths” should come up with some truths, show how they came up with this truth, how that method was different from a scientific method, or simply acknowledge that it is not a very good way to find truths at all.

        Nevertheless , lets say I accept your premise that religion is a separate, honest method of truth-seeking, then yes, I agree 100% that it should be kept out of science education. Which is exactly the point of the criticism from people like Coyne and Myers. Sometimes, it seems accommodationists seems more interested in defending religion from science than the other way around. As Coyne points out, you can have religion without creationism, but you cant have creationism without religion. Science should be about science and thats it, there is no point in trying to comfort the religious with the misleading idea that modern science poses no problems to an avid biblethumper, it does. We dont have to point out that it does at every opportunity either, but mincing words and pretending differently is profoundly unscientific.

      4. Correction: this sentence “You want to have it both ways: this kind of knowing is all the important aspects of scientific knowledge is also important(…)”

        Should have been: “You want to have it both ways: inthis kind of knowing, all the important aspects of scientific knowledge is also supposedly important(….)”

        I edited it while I wrote it, and saw too late that it made no sense grammatically.

  11. Wilkins goes out of his way to miss the point. All we ask is that science be allowed to treat religious superstitions the way we treat all superstitions–the way that believers would want us to treat the beliefs that conflict with theirs.

    This may be the very best way to encourage believers to keep their faith private so that it stops infecting the masses with it’s promises of salvation for “believing” the “right” unbelievable story. This is possibly the kindest way to lead humanity forward out of their “demon haunted” imaginary worlds. Without the masses declaring how fabulous it is to be able to see the Emperor’s new clothes, more people will finally admit to themselves that they’ve been fooled by a naked guy and their imagination.

    The religious lie is a delusion which inspires discrimination against atheists. The atheist makes the theist realize that their beliefs are no more tenable than the beliefs they readily dismiss and so their minds are desperate to find a reason to vilify the messenger and miss the message. Wilkins sounds like he is asking scientists to be part of this enabling without giving a coherent reason as to why. This is the meme that Dennett refers to as “belief in belief”.

    I want no part of the lie that faith is a means of knowledge. It isn’t. It’s just a mind trick so that people feel ennobled for believing unbelievable things.

    1. Science treats superstition as it treats everything outside its purview – it ignores it. (Not so all scientists as scientists, unfortunately, in my opinion.) How “believers want us to treat the beliefs that conflict with theirs” is really no concern of science, unless there are attempts to introduce these beliefs into science (through peer reviewed literature or science education). The former is a robust process; the latter may need some legal protection, sadly.

      1. (Of course, some scientists believe that there is nothing outside the purview of science, which is a valid position – which I do not (currently) hold.)

    2. This may be the very best way to encourage believers to keep their faith private so that it stops infecting the masses with it’s promises of salvation for “believing” the “right” unbelievable story.

      In the US, we have this thing called “the Constitution” that explicitly guarantees freedom of religious expression, as well as freedom of speech. You certainly have the right to express your personal beliefs as well, including ridicule or mockery if you like. However, if any government agency or employer were to discriminate against, mock, or attempt to silence a scientist who openly expressed his religious views, they might very well find themselves on the losing side of a lawsuit.

  12. So, no reply, John? I think a good faith dialogue must at the very least acknowledge my replies after how you fumbled the ball by accusing me of “attacking” (I did no such thing, I merely asked for clarification) and suggesting I didn’t read your post.

    1. I suppose you don’t sleep. I have to, sometimes. Don’t forget, I am (i) on the other side of the world from you, and (ii) not at your beck and call 24/7.

      1. For what it’s worth, I’m GMT+8. So, yeah, you were probably still asleep as you are 2 hours ahead of me, but I noted bracketing posts at different times.

        This isn’t a dis, but I find it puzzling how quick you were to pull the American timezone trigger. Don’t Australians and Kiwis read your blog as well? (I am coincidentally American, but I’ve lived abroad for 3 years.)

      2. The bulk of my respondents are American, especially after a Pharyngula deluge. I should not have assumed you were. But as it happens I sleep rather oddly, right now, as I have no set timetable. So I am awake through much of the Australian night, and I’m never entirely sure who I am chatting to, or where they are.

      3. My brain is fried. That you were 2 hours ahead makes it less likely for you to be asleep, but the fact that I woke up at 5 am this morning (for special reasons, I’m not a massochist usually) makes it likely that any normal person wouldn’t be replying to a blog at that un-godly hour. In any event, sorry for the presumption. I get excited sometimes.

  13. I understand the constitution quite well, Jeff…

    It seems that theists are very fond of using it to promote their “freedom of speech” and discrimination against those who don’t share their beliefs– while screaming “hate speech” and “intolerance” when someone expresses their opposing viewpoint similarly– particularly atheists.

    For this reason, religionists ought to be encouraged to keep their beliefs as private as their fetishes and what people do and don’t believe should not be part of public discussion. A science should never have to worry about hurting feelings for relaying facts or doubting faith as a means of knowledge.

  14. …while screaming “hate speech” and “intolerance” when someone expresses their opposing viewpoint similarly– particularly atheists.

    …A science[sic] should never have to worry about hurting feelings for relaying facts doubting faith as a means of knowledge.

    I think you’re confusing (or conflating) atheists and scientists. As a scientist, I never worry about hurting feelings when I present my work (faith doesn’t arise).

    It’s not that science (or its knowledge) doesn’t conflict with “popular” viewpoints, and stimulate screaming (in addition to creationists, there are anti-vax, anti-GMO, anti-pesticide, etc., etc.) It’s that the screaming is a not a scientific issue, but a political/social/legal one. Fight, but don’t fight a scientific battle (that’s not what your opponents are fighting – and science doesn’t care.)

  15. I agree with most of your points, especially 2, but I fear your asymmetrical assignments of accommodation duties is politically self-defeating. You seem to think that the burden of making religion and science compatible falls squarely on the shoulders of the religious. Why shouldn’t secularists also share responsibility? Unless you think religionists and secularists are not ceteris paribus epistemically on a par. But if you don’t think that, why the concession of cognitive territory to religion at all? Why allow religion to have its own domain and methods? Why not just bite the bullet and hold that religion has no place?

    It seems to me that, as the ultimate concerns of religion are also the ultimate concerns of life, sometimes the conflicts between religion and science indicate deeper conflicts between science and ultimate concern.

    1. “Accommodation” is basically a misnomer. Science accommodates only science – but if others have have other ways of “knowing”, they are welcome to use them and encourage their use (and that includes scientists, in a non-professional capacity) – just don’t call it science. Epistemic parity is fun (!) to argue, but ultimately, the influence of any particular “way of knowing” is a political decision. As to the ultimate concerns of life, I know what mine are (details on request), but I suspect that that’s another whole argument.

  16. I agree with Darth Happyface. I don’t think religion has a place at the knowledge table. It belongs in the “magisteria” of the other “woo”– superstitions, bigfoot believers, new age thought, etc.

    It should be treated with the same respect (or dismissal) as we treat other supernatural notions. It is not worthy of deference or special respect–no more so than it gives to conflicting supernatural claims. If believers don’t want to hear the scientific opinion of their beliefs, they should really keep it to themselves.

    Science cannot really support the proposition that “faith” is a way of knowing something without opening the door to all “woo”.

    As a science teacher, I’d like to be able to teach the fact that my students share a common ancestor with their pets (and other awesome tidbits) without having to worry about whose religious toes I might step on.

    I despise those who would hijack young minds with threats of hell and promises of salvation in exchange for their allegiance to a belief.

    1. Oh, I am not an exclusivist. On the contrary, I think religions has much to offer, though I resist efforts to make it out to have its own methodology or aims as if it were just another research program.

      My point was basically that the political implications of the science-religion conflict are important enough to warrant resolution attempts by both religionists and secularists alike and that secularists should not simply ignore religion. That doesn’t mean, though, that scientists need to worry about or “respect” the religious convictions of their audiences, trying to sugar-coat their claims and stepping gingerly in the classroom, nor does it mean that the institutional behaviors of science need to change. It only means that effort should be made all throughout the sphere of public discourse to assimilate the conclusions of science into the concerns of religion.

  17. John, I posted much of the following over at PZ Merriwether’s. I just wanted to say I got a lot out of your comments, which I read as largely dispassionate. Given that I’m a theist, I probably can’t achieve the same level of objectivity, but here goes:

    Where you and some of the ‘exclusivists’ are concerned, it seems to me that the chief point of disagreement seems to be as follows: when one says ‘so-and-so shouldn’t say or do this’, the other replies ‘I never said such-and-such, what are you talking about?’ It’s all about perceptions. A lot of the ‘accomodationists’ react very poorly to criticism, it seems, to the point where they interpret it as a ‘demand’ or an ‘insistence.’ But this is not much different, it seems to me, from an atheist who behaves in a knee-jerk manner to any mention of religion or faith. One might as well argue over the taste of broccoli.

    To me, what it comes down to is this: the culture tends to privilege religion, but the practice of science does not. NOMA fails as soon as the consequences of religious claims are subjected to scientific inquiry. Attempts to privilege religion within science clearly threaten the integrity of the scientific enterprise. If that’s what is meant by ‘accommodation’, count me out.

    On the other hand, attempts to privilege science and the use of reason within the culture, however, are not obviously harmful to the culture as a whole…though they will definitely make it more difficult for any outfit that it attempting to privilege its views with arguments not based on reason. Again, if that’s what is meant by ‘the practice of science’, count me in.

    It should be obvious that there is no need to privilege atheism either within the practice of science or in the larger culture. I don’t see that either of those are happening for the most part, and I don’t see anyone I read regularly arguing for either position. Instead, what I hear is over-the-top rhetoric about who should be privileged and who shouldn’t. If that’s all we really mean by ‘exclusivism’, count me disinterested rather than aggrieved.

    Again, though, enjoyed the post.

  18. Science gives us the how, religion tries to answer that trickier more nebulous question of why. This is why religions are so fancifully diverse and science is so “literally” diverse. It often clashes with religion because of this when it attempts to find the “literal” in their cryptic texts. This is a big mistake. Religion functions differently than science because it has to.

    1. So do sports. And they answer the “why” question in much the same way: “for the team!”

      Personally, I prefer the sporting approach, because fewer people die.

      1. For Pete’s sake, not the “wars of religion” canard. Unless you are simply saying that religion adds a powerful motivation to people fighting a war, which leads to particular wars being fiercer than if they were only fought for the other reasons. But I would say that this is one of the reasons for the success, historically, of the big monotheisms: they make their followers fight harder. But for example, would the Hugenots not have had their fights with and massacres at the hands of the majority Catholic French if there had been no Catholicism and Protestantism? Or the tensions between the coastal, industrial, external-oriented Hugenots and the internal, land-wealth oriented power centre have led to blood in any case?
        And speaking of sport, I think there’s quite enough violence over football as it is.

      2. Sure, but religious wars do occur, and in cases where religion is not the sole cause, it is at least a contributor to the overall dynamics. Nobody could suggest, for example, that the Muslim/Crusader conflicts were purely economic. So given that the headcount of most sports is much lower than the headcount of most religious engagements, I will stick by my comment.

      3. Fair enough. I just wanted to say that 1) I doubt any religious wars are all about the religion, and very few are even mainly about the religion per se; 2) religion does make for nastier wars, however; but 3) barring religion, the powers that be would simply find another motivator.

  19. Being my self a exclusivist, for some years now I wonder what would happen if we bring this issue onto our own research agenda (“assert it”). It would be probably another kind of religion.

  20. “Only those who are completely without self-knowledge think they are entirely rational on every subject …”

    That’s a really weird opinion. How do you define “self-knowledge”? How can someone be “completely without self-knowledge”?

    “…and that this licenses attacking others for their perceived failings in that respect.”

    That’s crazy. I don’t need a “license” to “attack others” for not being rational.

    1. Most civil societies expect there to be some license (justification) for attacking others. If you don’t feel that need, so be it.

      1. Well, sure, we might need license to attack, but we don’t need license to “attack,” if by “attack” we mean criticize. And besides, I think his point was that being irrational is sufficient license.

        Although I hope he doesn’t mean that he starts arguments with people for, like, enjoying music…but I think he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt on that one.

  21. “Making science the enemy of religion is going to have a single outcome, one that we can all predict.”

    I find your opinion to be irrational and I hereby attack it.

    But, of course, if you have simply put up a strawman, (certain Islamic countries excepted), then your opinion is not irrational, just silly.

    So the question becomes – do you really think that there is any chance that it could happen in the West that science becomes “the enemy of religion” for a significant fraction of the population? Well, would we then get what we deserve? A return to the Dark Ages where “nasty, brutish, and short” was accurate? Religion would “win” and science would “lose”?

  22. “Accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.”

    Why not?

    Do you expect law-abiding citizens, for example, to only defend civilized behavior, and not condemn, for example, vandalism?

    When religion stops assailing science, such a request would be worthy of consideration. Otherwise it is foolish to only defend science, because, in such case, we will never be rid of the dogma and the doleful influences of religion.

    Religion has enjoyed the unearned privilege of being above ridicule, when far more benign endeavors like palmistry, astrology, and numerology have been persecuted by religious people.

    Wake the f*** up!

  23. Shame on you, Dr. Wilkins.
    You really should know better than this
    Taking your points in order:
    1
    But far far too many religious followers are not interested in living in the real world.
    They demand that the world accomodste to their fantasies.
    Menawhile it is the DUTY of scientists to point out inconsistencies and falsehoods in the beliefs of the religious when it DOES come to the real world.
    2
    Tha’s because the legislators themselves have been brainwashed.
    And Wrong.
    The last time science was killed by religion, we had the dark ages – we just have to point this out to the politicos …..
    3
    This is called shilly-shallying.
    Unfortunately, given the recent damands for “respect” (like mafia gangsters) on the part of the religious, the only HONEST answer is: get lost.
    4
    Bullshit.
    Religious bodies have done so, only by either going for a god-of-the-gaps, or by redefining “god” to the point of nothingness.
    5
    And WHAT, precisely IS religion’s way of knowing?
    Mysticism?
    Bronze-Age Goathereder’s Myths?
    Dark-Ages Camelherders’ Myths?
    How and where and by what controllable measuring-stick is religion’s so-called “knowledge” arrived at?
    6

    Correct – AND –
    Not even wrong.
    Ther IS a war of religion against science, and the scientists are accused of aggression when they defend themselves.

  24. Accomodationists are clearly willful liars**,
    either by omission, or direct commission.

    Some may choose that as an acceptable price to pay for the “progress” that has not happened in living memory, nor will ever occur whilst dealing with the purposefully ignorant.

    I choose to not even start down that path.
    I prefer the unvarnished truth.

    ___________
    ** The only “out” to this accusation is to plead either abject ignorance, or insanity.

    1. I have to say, for someone sympathetic to an anti-accommodationist perspective, even I find this a bit much. Accommodationists are wrong in my opinion. But over much more clearcut (ie well-defined) cases in science, I see many of my colleagues with much more at stake refuse to accept being wrong on more or less honest (but misguided) grounds when it would be better to cut their losses. I don’t think it takes abject ignorance and it certainly doesn’t take insanity to be on the wrong side of an issue, especially when there are sunk costs involved. Just modal human psychology.

      Wow. One might even think this comment was written to discredit anti-accommodationists or something.

  25. John

    The best part of this post is your statement “I am a wishy-washy Chamberlainist fencesitting Laodicean.”

    I suspect and your replies in the comments section indicate that this is not an accurate description of you.

    I would like your permission to use this expression (giving you proper credit of course). I know many people for whom this sentence is bang on.

  26. Not a bad idea to try to keep things concrete. Here’s what I consider to be a gross example of institutional accommodationism. Let’s remember that there is no scientific controversy about the fact of evolution. The normal kinds of dispute amongst scientists who work to improve our theoretical understanding of nature do exist; without them science would not be science. There is a religious controversy regarding evolution and there are serious questions regarding the compatibility of science with supernaturalist religion. The NAS appear to have cast in their lot with those religious who don’t reject evolution wholesale.

    “Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding. But science is a way of knowing that differs from other ways in its dependence on empirical evidence and testable explanations. Because biological evolution accounts for events that are also central concerns of religion — including the origins of biological diversity and especially the origins of humans — evolution has been a contentious idea within society since it was first articulated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858.

    Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

    Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”

    The first two paragraphs are unobjectionable apart from what sounds very much like an endorsement or even a declamation of the view that evolution can be compatible with religious faith, rather than a neutral observation of the fact that many religious people believe that evolution is compatible with their faith. The third paragraph needs close attention. Without realising it the NAS has wandered into a philosophical quagmire by introducing the nature-supernature dichotomy.

    “Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world.”

    Science and religion often address different kinds of questions in different kinds of ways from one another. Sometimes they can address the same or similar kinds of question, but do so in different kinds of ways. In science, explanations must be based on empirical evidence. The effect of talking about science drawing on evidence from the natural world may be to unconsciously legitimise the notion that there is, or may be, or can be a supernatural world. Many people question or deny the existence of the supernatural exists and one could question the whether the notion of the interaction of the natural with the supernatural is epistemologically coherent.

    “Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities.”

    Again, insufficient care with words has been taken. This could be read as the assumption or even assertion by the NAS of the existence of the supernatural.

    “Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.”

    Yet again, this reads literally as an acceptance of the existence of the supernatural. The supernatural cannot be investigated by anyone if it does not exist. In this sense science addresses what is known to exist and religion addresses something whose existence has not been demonstrated. Supernaturalist religion does not investigate the existence of the supernatural: it asserts the existence of the supernatural.
    Science has found no evidence to substantiate supernatural beliefs or claims but has found explanations for many phenomena once attributed to supernatural forces or entities. Science and religion are clearly distinct from one another today in a way which they were not in the past. Scientists once had to serve the interests of faith and not challenge the authority of the Church.

    “Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”

    Controversy is part of human life. Attempts to pretend that there is nothing in the very different natures of science and supernaturalist religion which can possibly give rise to controversy between them is ridiculous accommodationism. At the very least the compatibility of science and supernaturalist religion is a wide open and inviting question.

    A non-accommodationist (neutral) rewrite of the last paragraph would look something like this:

    Science and religion often address different kinds of questions in different kinds of way from one another. Sometimes they address the same or similar kinds of question but do so in different ways. In science, explanations must be based on empirical evidence. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves beliefs or claims about supernatural forces or entities. Science has found no evidence to substantiate supernatural beliefs or claims but has found explanations for many phenomena once attributed to supernatural forces or entities.

    Science and religion have a very different relationship today than they have shared in the past. Scientists once had to serve the interests of faith as well as reason and were not allowed to challenge the authority of the Church to decide on the theological implications of what scientists said. Scientists were censored by the Church if they did not exercise sufficient self-censorship.

    The compatibility of science and supernaturalist religion today is an open question.

    1. ” “Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.”

      Yet again, this reads literally as an acceptance of the existence of the supernatural. ”

      That’s not how I read this at all. It is actually quite consistent with the testimony given by Robert Pennock at the Dover trial:

      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dover/day3am.html

      It simply takes no position on the matter of whether the supernatural exists or not. It is not scientific.

      But, your position seems entirely consistent of those pushing for philosophical naturalism instead of methodological naturalism being the minimum requirement for all things scientific.

  27. Greg. Tingey posted the following mind bogglingly stupid comment:

    The last time science was killed by religion, we had the dark ages – we just have to point this out to the politicos …..

    I have posted a somewhat longer reply to this inanity on my own blog.

  28. TB, the mere act of talking in this manner – by expounding on the supernatural as if it exists in any shape or form sufficient for science to have any thought whatsoever about – is for science to give the notion basic street cred. Against all the evidence of science which has time and time again found testable explanations for phenomena which have been deemed inexplicable and in need of an invisible intelligent cause. My point is this: science should religiously avoid the G and S words. There is no need to say a word about the subject. From the point of view of science we should act not as if there is no supernatural, we should act on the basis that to think or talk in terms of the supernatural is to talk gibberish. We should not allow the word supernatural into scientific discourse.

    I wish also that accomodationsists would relinquish their fetish for philosophic jargon amounting to the fixed and untouchable doctrine of MN v PN. Let’s talk about science in a way which eschews all religious and philosophic doctrines. I am not pushing any “ism”. I want science to defend science by means of science. I don’t want science pushing “isms”.

    We know that ID is shit science. Full stop. We only need to explain why it is shit science: there isn’t a scrap of evidence for it – it’s consists entirely of being evolution-negative rather than being ID positive. For example it cannot show how it’s better at explaining the whole of biology than evolution. Or better at explaining the fossil recored and genetics; or more productive or predictive etc etc. It can’t do sweet scientific FA, as we all know. No need to talk about the supernatural or methodological naturalism at all. Only have to talk about science.

    What science should avoid is any talk about anything metaphysical or anything philosophical at all. Just don’t talk about it. To get involved in talking about metaphysics is to be diverted from talking about science. Not philosophy of science but science.

    Individual scientists can talk as much as they like about religion and philosophy, cookery, football and anything else; but scientific institutions should not go there.

    Darwin said it best “I am not sure whether it would not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion.” Darwin to Hooker, 8-10 September 1868.

  29. …we should act on the basis that to think or talk in terms of the supernatural is to talk gibberish

    …yeah, that’ll do the trick.

    What science should avoid is any talk about anything metaphysical or anything philosophical at all.

    “Science” doesn’t talk about anything – scientists do. Good luck in keeping scientists from talking about anything metaphysical or philosophical. Such a boycott might protect science in the short run, but the real (human) world will force its way in sooner or later (they’re paying for the science, to be perfectly blunt about it).

    1. If the claim is “the supernatural talk is gibberish”, that is a metaphysical claim (or more properly, a claim about metaphysical talk). So avoiding “any talk about anything metaphysical or anything philosophical at all” means one must avoid the claim “supernatural talk is gibberish”.

      It’s called a “self-defeating claim” in philosophy, and it’s what killed logical positivism c1935.

  30. “TB, the mere act of talking in this manner – by expounding on the supernatural as if it exists in any shape or form sufficient for science to have any thought whatsoever about – is for science to give the notion basic street cred.”

    Science advocacy is not science. It is a political process and it’s important to engage with potential constituents. To not do so would actually be counterproductive.

    What they’re doing is acknowledging that people’s belief in the supernatural is real, not that the supernatural is real.

    “I wish also that accomodationsists would relinquish their fetish for philosophic jargon amounting to the fixed and untouchable doctrine of MN v PN. Let’s talk about science in a way which eschews all religious and philosophic doctrines.”

    That would be through the prism of Methodological naturalism. That you’re describing it as a fetish does not refute it.
    I have a deep respect for the philosophy that separates religion AND the belief that only the natural exists from the methodology of science. I have yet to hear anything to refute it or that is more useful in the political arena.

    What practical replacement would you propose for addressing constituencies that could accept methodological naturalism, and so strengthen science education?

    “What science should avoid is any talk about anything metaphysical or anything philosophical at all. Just don’t talk about it. To get involved in talking about metaphysics is to be diverted from talking about science. Not philosophy of science but science.”

    I don’t disagree with this. But, again, forcing science advocacy to not talk to potential constituents is, IMHO, avoiding a huge elephant in the room.

    From the NAS website: “In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world.” and “Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.”

    To me that walks a very fine line but it is also unequivocal about what science is.

    Not necessarily directed at you, Leigh, but one reason to oppose this approach is to instead replace it with the notion that all there is, is the natural – philosophical naturalism. To embroil science in a culture war. I think that would be a terrible waste. It’s bad enough that many people’s beliefs keep them in the dark, but to exclude those who – while able to be methodologically consistent with science – would otherwise disagree with the philosophy of atheism, I can’t endorse that approach.

  31. “Science advocacy is not science. It is a political process and it’s important to engage with potential constituents. To not do so would actually be counterproductive.”

    I agree. The question is what strategy to follow. I believe the accomodationist strategy is misguided and compromises the integrity of science.

    “What they’re doing is acknowledging that people’s belief in the supernatural is real, not that the supernatural is real.”

    That may be what they intend but my point was the NAS’s wording is far too sloppy. In fact, I think it betrays PN v MN thinking – part of the natural-supernatural quagmire.

    “That would be through the prism of Methodological naturalism. That you’re describing it as a fetish does not refute it. I have a deep respect for the philosophy that separates religion AND the belief that only the natural exists from the methodology of science. I have yet to hear anything to refute it or that is more useful in the political arena.”

    Your prism, not mine. I want to avoid this prism entirely. It represents a particular philosophical view of what science is and isn’t. As such it is not the be all and end all of how to understand what science is. It is a view which is open to criticism.

    “What practical replacement would you propose for addressing constituencies that could accept methodological naturalism, and so strengthen science education?”

    Stop thinking in these terms, if you can. Look at the alternative final paragraph which I gave. I am using another language which is not predicated on natural-supernatural, PN v MN criteria.

    “For science advocacy to not talk to potential constituents is, IMHO, avoiding a huge elephant in the room.”

    The NAS statement that no controversy need exist shows they want to pretend or want people to believe that there is no elephant in the room.

    “From the NAS website: “In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world.” and “Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.”
    To me that walks a very fine line but it is also unequivocal about what science is.”

    I hope you now understood that I feel this model (mantra) is not a productive one.

    “Not necessarily directed at you, Leigh, but one reason to oppose this approach is to instead replace it with the notion that all there is, is the natural – philosophical naturalism. To embroil science in a culture war. I think that would be a terrible waste. It’s bad enough that many people’s beliefs keep them in the dark, but to exclude those who – while able to be methodologically consistent with science – would otherwise disagree with the philosophy of atheism, I can’t endorse that approach.”

    Stop it; please stop it. Drop the language of the false dichotomy. Nowhere have I said anything about atheism or “the natural” being all there is. I don’t like “isms” and I don’t like the natural-supernatural dichotomy. There’s no need for it – worse, it confuses things horribly. Think of it like this: science doesn’t study “nature” – it studies whatever it can get its teeth into.

    1. … science doesn’t study “nature” – it studies whatever it can get its teeth into…
      “Nature” is by definition whatever science can get its teeth into. The birth of science by the Milesians was not a definition of the physical or of the natural as opposed to the supernatural, but a recognition that things that had “natures” could be studied, because they would behave the same way every time, while the acts of the gods were whimsical and unpredictable, and hence uninvestigable.

      1. “Your prism, not mine. I want to avoid this prism entirely. It represents a particular philosophical view of what science is and isn’t. As such it is not the be all and end all of how to understand what science is. It is a view which is open to criticism.”

        Oh, no, I would not claim that as MY prism. This is the work of other, far more qualified people than me.

        Anything is open to criticism – I’m certainly not blindly appealing to authority. Rather, I’m DEFERING to more authoritative people than myself. And as misguided as you think it might be, it was certainly useful in Dover and mentioned in the final opinion. And, useful in the court of public opinion, both in Dover and in personal conversations I’ve had.
        I need to hear far more than just personal incredulity and assertions before discarding it. I would need to hear about something that is more useful, and why.

      2. John, I like that. I am saying let’s not use “nature” in a metaphysical sense but use it in a pragmatically epistemological sense. I’m with the Milesians on this one. If we make it clear that’s how we are using the word, let’s use it.

        TB, to win a court case do whatever it takes. A lot of evidence was presented by the plaintiffs to show that ID is empty of science content and full of religious content. The weight of evidence and the testimony of the defense witnesses themselves helped Judge Jones to his decision.

        I ask you once again to consider my proposed alternative statement to that of the NAS. Do you not think that my statement is less proscriptive and more descriptive of the relationship between science and religion?

      3. John, to me this implies an undue broadening of science to match your widening of nature, since subjective phenomena are every bit as “natural” as objective ones. I’m happy to call psychoanalysis a science, for example, but a lot of scientists in the traditional sense are going to complain this is a debauching and diluting of the term.

      4. Subjective phenomena are natural, IMO. If you think that implies “qualia”, though, I’d deny it. For my money, “subjective” = “perspective”, and nobody thinks a perspective has to be non-physical.

        So far as psychoanalysis goes, the problem was not that it dealt with subjective experience, but that it did so in a highly culturally prejudicial manner, and without any methodological rigor.

  32. It’s trivially true that science cannot investigate those things that it cannot investigate. No one denies this.

    A more interesting issue is whether there are any claims about the actions of powerful disembodied beings (ghosts, gods, goblins, and so on) that science can investigate – either by corroborating them or by falsifying them.

    Obviously it can. It someone says: “A powerful disembodied being created the earth 6000 years ago” then science can falsify it by demonstrating that the earth is more than 6000 years old.

    However, if someone says: “A powerful disembodied being created the earth 6000 years ago in a pre-aged form so that it appears to scientific investigation to be more than 6000 years old” then there’s an obvious sense in which science can’t falsify this. The claim is, by its nature, sealed off from investigation. However, there’s then a question as to whether it’s rational to accept any claims that are sealed off in that way.

    Similarly, someone might say: “A powerful disembodied being turns pigs into frogs if it encounters them at place X on the night of a full moon.”

    Science can place some pigs at place X on the night of a full moon and see what happens. If the pigs do, in fact, transform into frogs I’m going to say that there’s evidence for the claim.

    If it’s also claimed that the same powerful disembodied being turns cats into rats at place Y whenever there is a solar eclipse, we can check when the next solar eclipse is due, then take along some cats to see what happens. If the cats are transformed into rats, then we have some further evidence for the existence and activity of this being – and that its priests and prophets are onto something.

    If we find enough predictions coming true about pigs being transformed into frogs, cats into rats, elephants into snakes, grasshoppers into ostriches and so on, then I don’t see why we couldn’t include conclude, at least provisionally, that this disembodied being exists. Of course, we can also try testing alternative hypotheses.

    But if it’s said that the powerful disembodied being does these things only if no human beings are conducting the sorts of experiments I’ve described above, then once again we have a sealed-off claim that, in a sense, science can’t investigate.

    The problem with claims about the supernatural is not so much that they are about disembodied beings or even that they are about beings that act capriciously. Specific claims about how capricious beings have acted in the past can sometimes be investigated, even if claims about regularities in how they act cannot be (since there are no such claims, since these beings are said to act capriciously).

    All sorts of claims about disembodied beings can be studied, as long as these beings are alleged to interact with the world in a way that we can look for, or it is alleged that they have acted on historical occasions in ways that would leave traces, or would be inconsistent with traces of other events.

    Yes, a disembodied being that just behaves capriciously and leaves no traces of its actions can’t be investigated by any means that ultimately relies on the use of our senses (if only to real dials, etc.). But there are many claims about disembodied beings that could be investigated if the people making the claims were not so determined to protect the claims from investigation as to dream up ways to seal them off.

    One problem is that some of these claims are believed so fervently that the believers will go on generating protective auxiliary claims as far as needed in order to protect them from empirical falsification. But when we see that happening with a particular claim about something unobserved, it’s a very good reason not to accept the claim.

    1. Russell,

      This won’t apply to the miracles of Jesus, obviously, but rabbinical scholars have gone to great lengths to show the natural underpinnings of miracles, since the Talmud states that the laws of nature can’t be broken. Their explanation is that God, being omniscient, planned natural events in advance that would bring about the effects He wanted. A dodge, perhaps, but one that obviates the direct intercession into nature you are arguing against.

      In a similar way, many of the lesser “miracles” we read about today, like Mary’s face appearing in a tortilla, or in salt drippings under an overpass, aren’t contraventions of the laws of nature, but signs of God’s connection to his children. The fact that Mary’s likeness can be explained by mundane physical mechanisms doesn’t mean, to a believer, that God didn’t intend or oversee it. It sounds to me like you are employing here a slightly misdirected sense of what a miracle indicates; something more like what a powerful magician would do, than what a deity would do to communicate with his flock. (The point about the wine at Cana, for example, wasn’t that Jesus thought that weddings shouldn’t run out of wine, but “to reveal his glory.” Miracles’ main function in the NT is to signify, not to bring material gain or harm to believers or infidels).

  33. Leigh, this may surprise you, but this theist agrees with you in that I think the NAS account could stand a rewrite similar to what you commend. Here’s how I would tweak it:

    “The relationship between science and religion is complex. While scientists themselves privately hold all manner of beliefs where religion is concerned, scientific practice excludes religion as a formal matter. This is because science and religion can differ in the sort of questions they ask, and even when they ask similar questions they will often address them in different ways.”

    “In particular, science attempts to explain phenomena purely in terms of natural causes, and bases these explanations on empirical evidence gathered through observation and experiment. Scientific claims are always held provisionally: they can be modified or rejected based on new findings.”

    “In contrast, religion often makes supernatural claims that are based on faith, and not subject to review based on empirical evidence. History shows that science is most effective when it is not subject to such constraints. ”

    Whaddaya think?

    1. Thanks Scott, I am pleased but not surprised. I would hope that anyone who is passionate about defending science from the vandals would look hard at this statement of the NAS and ask if it stands up to scrutiny.

      I would be a lot happier with your version than the existing one. My quibble is that I would prefer to talk about testable rather than “natural” causes.

      1. Also it’s empirical constraints which make science so fruitful. Not “natural” constraints.

  34. Scott, no wording is perfect. I could quibble about aspects of yours. You might be able to work out what some of my quibbles would be, based on my earlier comments.

    However, language something like that would be an improvement on the current wording. It does sound more neutral about whether there is any philosophical incompatibility between science and religion, and less obsequious towards religion. It wouldn’t have caused me any great concern if it had been used. If it were adopted tomorrow, I’d quibble about it but I could live with it.

  35. Leigh: “to win a court case do whatever it takes. ”

    No, saying one thing in court and another in public or private is what gets the fundamentalists in trouble.

    And, actually, if you have no objections to Pennock’s testimony in a courtroom, why object to it elsewhere?

    Again, we’re not talking about science making any compromises. We’re talking about science advocacy groups engaging in the political sphere.

    I don’t have too much difficulty with Scott’s rewrite, but I don’t have much of a problem with the wording on the NAS site either.

    1. Throw everything you have got into the ring. I have no objection to anyone involved in a court case calling anyone they want. Pennock was not the only witness for the plaintiffs and the defense witnesses did their case no good at all.

      I don’t accept that the PN v MN thesis is the final word in the religion-science compatibility question. I think that it causes problems which could be avoided by taking a more straightforward approach.

      Science absolutely must engage in the political sphere. I want a different strategy to the present one. One which I feel would be more honest and therefore ultimately more effective.

  36. I appreciate the feedback. I can see that my wording is still loaded in the sense that it refers to ‘natural’. I’m not sure that I would want to drop it, though, Leigh…and not because as a theist I want to retain a beachhead for religious belief. I think if you remove the natural/supernatural distinction, you open the door for what some people might consider ‘evidence’ for supernatural claims. I have met quite a few creationists who seem to think so, and criticize me for pointing out the obvious fact that some scientists who accept evolution harbor religious beliefs. They would LOVE to remove the natural/supernatural distinction for their own reasons.

    Also—I’m not a philosopher, but it’s not clear to me that empiricism on its own eliminates all the sort of claims that I think should be cleaved from science. Maybe one of you sub-geniuses who knows more about that could persuade me on that point, I don’t know.

    But the more general point, that I think there is merit in getting scientific bodies to use more neutral formulations where religious belief is concerned, still stands.

    1. Evidence for supernatural claims? Great let’s see it. Let’s test it. James Randi has a lot of money for anyone who has such evidence.

      All right he’s not a scientist but he believes in empiricism because of its perfect track record. He knows the odds are vastly on his side. He wins for as long as his challenge stands.

      If someone has evidence of a kind that cannot be subjected to empirical testing then let’s have a look at that too. Let’s look at whatever kind of evidence people can put forward and treat each according to its merits. Let’s not absolutely rule out any kind of evidence in advance of seeing it.

  37. Chris Schoen, I’m not actually arguing against God’s direct, one-off intervention in nature. I’m afraid I’m on the record as not actually having a great problem with the idea, if there is such a God. I think a lot of people on my “side” of the argument get too hung about that issue (and I now expect some of them to look at me aghast).

    My point isn’t that such direct interventions are all somehow proved to be false. It’s that SOME can be proved to be false … and some could have been (where “could have been” refers to epistemic possibity at a time in the past) supported by rational investigation. E.g. it could have turned out, back in the 19th century, that diluvian geology did everything demanded of it, including explaining the nature of the fossil record. That didn’t happen, but diluvian geology was actually falsified. It wasn’t ruled out a priori.

    I was addressing John’s point that you can’t investigate possible regularities in the conduct of beings that, ex hypothesi, do not have regularities in their conduct. That seems to me to be clearly correct. In the case of the Greek gods, even if they had underlying psychological dispositions their interactions with the world were too rare, too equivocal, etc., for anyone to have any practical hope of investigating them. Much better, in practice, to give up on that enterprise.

    But we need to be careful about what follows from John’s point. What I said, in part, was that some claims about the actions of powerful, disembodied beings can be investigated and falsified. Once again, like it or not, some people do make the claim that God created the Earth 6000 years ago … not in some symbolic sense or some post-structuralist sense or some other non-literal sense, but in the sense that God did actually (as if by magic if you want to put it that way) create the Earth & he did it it 6000 years ago.

    That claim can, indeed, be falsified. In fact, it has been.

    And if someone made the claim that a capricious Greek god created the Earth 66,000 years ago, or 666,oo0 years ago, the same would apply. We could falsify that claim without first needing to search for regularities in the god’s behaviour.

    1. Russell,

      I take your distinction between whether or not God can theoretically intervene in the workings of nature, and whether there is any evidence that He has.

      (To a creationist of course, or anyone that takes Genesis literally, creating the Cosmos is not an intervenion in nature, it is the very origin of nature.)

      Creationist beliefs like the age of the earth are a real problem for science, in part, as you mention, because where they conflict, the creationist will invoke divine obfuscation–“God put those fossils there to test our faith.” As a result, the conversation cannot move forward on scientific grounds; it must resort to theological or philosophical ones (for example, Why would He do that?”) Or it can devolve into a shouting match. Scientifically, it’s a dead end when method and evidence are rejected as inherently unreliable. There is no arbiter to appeal to.

      But I think it’s important to repeat that most world religions are in complete agreement with orthodox science on what the laws of nature are. The creationist view is held by a significant minority of Protestant fundamentalists, but they are in fact a minority, and cannot be made to stand for the phenomenon of religion generally.

  38. Scott: “I think if you remove the natural/supernatural distinction, you open the door for what some people might consider ‘evidence’ for supernatural claims. ”

    The thing is, I see absolutely nothing against this. Let them try. I am, of course highly sceptical about their prospects. But if some of these claims are true, then that’s important. If there’s evidence to show me they are true, why would I simply want to rule it out a priori?

  39. Subjective phenomena are natural, IMO. If you think that implies “qualia”, though, I’d deny it. For my money, “subjective” = “perspective”, and nobody thinks a perspective has to be non-physical.

    That’s fine by me as far as it goes, but I’d be surprised to see philosopher take the further step such that all that is natural in this definition is open to scientific inquiry. We enter the realms not only of the subjective (do I really love her, does this toothache really hurt, am I really frightened by this hallucination?) but the moral. It’s always been philosophy’s job to examine these things, but a science with true “methodological rigor” can’t embark on descriptions with no objective component.

    That’s not to say brain scans can’t indicate with some precision what a person may be feeling or experiencing, but the questions I listed were ones of meaning, not fact-finding. I don’t think even such an extreme omnicompetancist as Peter Atkins would have science cross that threshold, and yet we’re strictly talking about phenomena that arise in the”natural” world.

    1. One may tell what a person may be feeling. One can never tell, because IMO there’s nothing to tell, the “what it’s like” of feeling that feeling. So the intentional aspect of subjective experience is something science can investigate. The latter is not a topic for science, just like the properties of fairies aren’t.

      1. John, I don’t expect us to agree in this small space on qualia or what the meaning of “is” is, but my point was just that philosophy can enter realms that science cannot. Ethics being the most prominent, but not the only, example. (And yes I know there are elements within ethics that can be measured and studied scientifically).

        There are also legitimate (or at least interesting) questions that cannot be posed in a rigorous enough manner (without making them uninteresting) for science to examine. “Was Freud a Platonist?” for example. The question has at least three answers (yes, no, it depends), but none of them rely on a supernatural explanation. The natural world, in short, includes concepts.

  40. Chris, my original point was not about interventions in nature. It was about our ability to investigate claims about the actions of disembodied beings. If a disembodied being allegedly created the Earth 6000 years ago, that is an action by a disembodied being, whether “nature” already existed in some sense or not. It is an alleged action by a disembodied being that can be falsified. There are others.

    Regarding your mention of the moral, I agree that science cannot tell us what our ultimate values should be, but neither can religion. Our only hope is some kind of rational philosophical reflection. Science and religion can both purport to tell us such things, but neither can do so in a way that we must accept on pain of irrationality. They are equal in that respect.

    Science isn’t all that good at giving us advice about how to pursue our values, ultimate or otherwise, but it can obviously give us some sound advice, and there’s no reason in principle why it can’t get better and better. In that sense it can help us frame wise laws or moral norms, but so can literature, history, our individual experience, etc. Religion should be able to give us some useful advice as as well, given that there is at least some wisdom in the holy books. In principle it could give us very good advice, especially if some of the holy books had actually been dictated by angels with vast knowledge of how the world works, but it actually doesn’t do a very good job. In practice, most believers have to accept or reject stuff in the holy books (or interpret what the holy books really mean) based on other criteria.

    All in all, religion is not a good place to go for moral advice. Better to think hard about your own experience, and about literature and history. But I realise that you didn’t claim religion is a good source of moral advice.

    Gould gets all of this totally wrong in his book about NOMA, which I’ve just reread. I’ll be giving a paper about it next week, but I doubt that many of the people who read this blog will be there.

    1. I’ve actually never read Gould on NOMA. Obviously there is some overlap in practice, though there need not be (cf. The Dalai Lama’s remark that where science and Buddhism conflict, we should choose science).

      I realize that metaphysics is unfashionable, but I believe we have not overcome, and may never be able to overcome, our need for organizing myths and ideologies, which science cannot transcend by its own bootstraps. Every scientific question needs a predicate to start from. The first example that leaps to mind is how much evolutionary psychology depends on social contract theory or social atomism to make any sense. But all science is based on some set of priors. The biggest questions precede hypothesis. I’m not saying religion always gets them right; just that we can’t return to the positivists’ failed experiment of pretending they’re not vitally necessary.

  41. Well, as usual, didn’t make myself clear. I have no desire to rule out claims which can be legitimately tested in the protocols of science. Those will be vetted by the scientific community in due time regardless of what I or others might want, hopefully.

    But here’s the thing: as a practical matter, it is easier to rule out some claims a priori, rather than be drawn into evaluating such claims, especially in a court of law. Sure, we already know that supernatural claims tend to be impossible to falsify, but that not all non-falsifiable claims are supernatural in origin. But the case law in the U.S. seems pretty clear on this point: there is no law against teaching bad science, but there is a law against bringing religion into the public school science classroom. If you remove the natural/supernatural distinction as part and parcel of the definition of science, you don’t make their ‘evidence’ any more compelling, but you lose a valuable weapon from your arsenal in the courts and in the public square. Yes, it is true, emphasizing this distinction can tend to privilege some versions of religion, as in the NAS statement discussed here. I think they’ve gone too far. But I think we should retain the above distinction because it is darn useful outside the world of academia.

  42. Oh dear…
    To think that such valuable mental processing is being applied to such patently pernicious fatuous maladaptive stone-age obfuscation as the infantile concept of a “sky-daddy” is an indictment to the sheer vapidity of current ‘enlightened’ education.

      1. Wrongfully worshiping sport may well be a worse woeful waste of wonderful wisdom than I am willing to witness.

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