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. “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.

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  2. “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.

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    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.

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      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.

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      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?

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      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.

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      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.

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  3. 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.

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    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).

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  4. 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?

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    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.

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

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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    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.

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  7. 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.

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    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.

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  8. 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.

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    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.

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  9. 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?

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  10. 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.

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    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.

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      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.

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  11. 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.

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    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.

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  12. 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.

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  13. Coyne is a rare bird – a leading scientist who blogs…

    I love it. I guess that makes PZ a leading blogger who occasionally does some science?

    🙂

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  14. 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.

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

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