On the need for grownups [Thoughts from Kansas]

Josh Rosenau has a sermon on the perils of attacking those who think science and religion can coexist at On the need for grownups [at Thoughts from Kansas]. It’s a pretty damned good sermon. He points out that the claim that science and religion are incompatible is itself an untested, and hence unscientific claim. It’s a point I would like to discuss a bit.

Back when a philosophy known now as logical positivism was fashionable, the claim was made that whatever was not scientifically verifiable was metaphysical rubbish. This was known as the Verification Principle. Karl Popper, among others, noted that the Verification Principle was not scientifically verifiable and was therefore, on its own account, metaphysical rubbish. That put an end to that version of logical positivism (although no philosophical position ever really dies). It was self-defeating.

What Jerry Coyne and the anti-accommodationists are doing, as Josh points out, is a version of logical positivism (Josh does not use that example – that’s me). They are saying that those who attempt to argue that religion and science are compatible or might coexist are being unscientific, are themselves being unscientific. In fact, the data is that science and religion coexist nearly all the time – most of those who support scientific views are religious. This is because most of everyone is religious, of course, but the fact remains: if one approaches this as a scientific matter, science and religion just are coexistent, that’s the fact of the matter.

What Coyne and others seem to want to argue is that religion and science should not be coherently expressed by a single person. That is a philosophical position one might argue for, philosophically. It is not a fact of science, though, nor, it seems, a fact of logic. So argue for it. Others, as is the way of debates, will argue the contrary, or some other view. As an accommodationist, I think that whether or not science and religion should be treated as compatible, in fact they are, or as compatible as any potentially competing set of beliefs may be, such as the belief that science is the only way to gain justifiable beliefs, which is not, itself, scientifically justifiable.

There is a facet of religion I greatly despise. It is the idea that we should use beliefs as tribal markers to identify those who are worthy and good, and to thereby exclude others as unworthy or bad. Like most tribal markers, such as ritual behaviours, accents, clothing, vocabulary, profession, ethnicity and the like, these are arbitrary markers. They have to be arbitrary, to act as honest advertisements of in-group and out-group identity. So it comes as a great disappointment, a facet of irreligion I greatly despise as much as I do when the religious do it, that this happens in reverse.

This is why I made my snide cheap shot about the split in Dawkins’ website. Dawkins, Coyne, and many others (but not all those who happen to agree with them substantially, I hasten to add) are in the business of building an exclusionary group. Ken Miller and Francis Collins believe in religion? Exclude them from science, and damn them to the outer hell of irrationality. The irony that this is itself an irrational behaviour (or, better understood, is an act of strategic rationality rather than conceptual, to keep allies close and enemies away) escapes them, as our own sins always do.

For example, Coyne’s term “faithiest” is a term of opprobrium and abuse, just as Josh points out, other racial or sexual epithets are. While one may not identify the exclusion of non-“Caucasians” or LGBT’s in American society with that of accommodationists (or, for that matter of atheists in theist America), they are of the same kind if nowhere near the same degree. Dawkins’ claim that accommodationists “like the idea that someone has faith” or that we “have faith in faith” is a similar act of abuse. But they are rational, of course. No self-defeating behaviour for them, no sir.

Look, I don’t care if atheists are aggressive or not. Certainly being excluded themselves, they have the right to be loud and proud. I think they should speak out at every turn. But does that require that they must denigrate and belittle those who don’t entirely agree with them? Must they turn into what they themselves despise? It seems, sadly, this is the human condition. But don’t pretend to be the vanguard of rationality when you are just as irrational and tribal as everyone else. The term for that is not “rational”, but “hypocritical”.

49 thoughts on “On the need for grownups [Thoughts from Kansas]

  1. John Wilkins:

    Ken Miller and Francis Collins believe in religion? Exclude them from science, and damn them to the outer hell of irrationality.

    Larry Moran:

    [John Pieret:]

    Hold on! Are/were Francisco Ayala and Theodosius Dobzhansky good scientists? Are they just “claiming” to be good scientists? For that matter, is Ken Miller? Are we going to have to compare credentials?

    I think they’re all good scientists. But when they pretend that they are still doing good science when they offer scientific evidence for God, that’s when they are not doing good science. I actually think that Scott Minnich is a pretty good scientist even though he believes in Intelligent Design Creationism. All of us slip up from time to time.

    In other words, when you claim Moran (or, for that matter, Meyers or Dawkins) wish to exclude religious people from science, and “damn them to the outer hell of irrationality”, you are making a strawman argument.
    PS, please fix preview.


  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged that some religions promote beliefs which are controverted by some branches of science. Young earth creationism, which is a matter of faith among many evangelical Christians, contests many of the findings of biology, geology and astronomy. It’s clearly not the case that all religious beliefs are compatible with all scientific knowledge.

    It’s that simple: not all religion is compatible with all science. Anyone who accepts Gould’s NOMA has implicitly accepted the point.

    No one is contending that you can’t be a religious scientist or a chocoholic philatelist, so why should it be considered harmful to point out that stamps are nearly never made of chocolate?


    1. I have often said that if a religion contradicts science, so much the worse for that religion. But it is assumed in this debate that the relevant aspect of religion is that which does not directly contradict science. We presume that Miller does not, for example, reject the second law. If he accepts miracles, he must see this as a suspension of the second law, not as the denial of it.

      And actually a great many people in this debate are less than careful and do deny that one can be a religious scientist, although I am quite sure that Coyne, Myers and others who are the public face do not. They are simply saying that one cannot be a consistent religious scientist, I think.


  3. It’s that simple: not all religion [e.g., YEC] is compatible with all science.

    True enough. By the same simple reasoning, though, nor is all science compatible with all science. For example, String Theory is not compatible with Quantum Loop Gravity. There is a “NOMA” within science itself.


  4. Sorry, I thought I had a chance to preview. Obviously the first sentence in my previous comment was a quote from bad Jim’s comment, directly above.


  5. It seems to me that it’s the compatibilists who are being philosophically naive, invoking simplistic demarcation criteria for science, such as methodological naturalism and falsifiability/testability. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought philosophers of science had largely abandoned such criteria.

    I think your presentation of Coyne’s arguments against compatibilism is a straw man, though I would at least agree that his arguments could benefit from greater clarity. FWIW there are professional philosophers making similar arguments more clearly. See Russell Blackford for example.

    To repeat what others have said, it seems very peculiar to describe Coyne as telling Miller to shut up. He is merely defending his right to criticise Miller against those who tell him not to do so because it hurts the cause (of defeating creationism). To say “If you continue saying those things I will continue criticising them” is not the same as saying “don’t say those things”.

    We need to make a distinction between:
    A. Your arguments are fallacious; and
    B. Don’t make those arguments, regardless of whether they’re fallacious, because doing so has harmful effects.

    Of course, the person saying A hopes he will persuade the other person of the fallacy of his arguments, so that person will stop making them. But that’s not the same as telling him to shut up.

    Finally, I do agree with your criticism of such unhelpful terms as “faithiest”, but I’d add that many on the other side are just as bad (or worse) with their use of terms like “fundamentalist atheist”.


    1. Maybe I have set up a strawman. I am far from being concerned to do a proper analysis of Coyne as I don’t have time or interest. But I did read the comment that I quoted, that Miller should shut up about his religion, as being a requirement that – well – Miller should shut up about his religion. Is there another interpretation of that?

      I hate the term “fundamentalist atheist”. It is prejudicial, and I don’t think I have used it. To be honest, I’m not even all that happy with “new atheist”, since it doesn’t seem to be all that new to me. Pretty well every argument and trope was used by Russell and the “old” atheists a century ago.

      But it isn’t news that tribalism occurs on the opposition team – that is pretty much the definition of religion in my view. What I am trying to say in my own limited fashion is that atheists ought to hold themselves to a higher standard. If they reject religion, why behave the way religion typically and definitionally behaves?


  6. Back when a philosophy known now as logical positivism was fashionable, the claim was made that whatever was not scientifically verifiable was metaphysical rubbish. This was known as the Verification Principle. Karl Popper, among others, noted that the Verification Principle was not scientifically verifiable and was therefore, on its own account, metaphysical rubbish.

    OK, suppose I don’t insist in verifiability. What else do religious “ways of knowing” offer to justify their claims of knowledge? What is it that differentiates these “ways of knowing” from “ways of making shit up”?


    1. That’s not for me to say, since I am not of that opinion – let others defend it. But I can’t rule it out as a position that deserves to at least be discussed without begging the question.


  7. Bayesian,

    “Knowing” is a very broad and imprecise term, and it does not easily reduce to the more constrained function of calculating propositional truth values. (Also: JW did not use the phrase “ways of knowing”–he wrote of “having justifiable beliefs,” which may amount to the same, but sounds a little less wishy-washy.)

    It remains to be shown that the only ways of having “justifiable beliefs” are those afforded by science. How would we defend such a position except by tautologically defining “justified” as verifiable? And what would this do to political discussion (to name the most obvious example of something we all have strong opinions about that we cannot apply the verification principle to)?

    The point is not that religious claims, in particular, deserve to be granted equal footing with scientific ones. The point is that this way of carving things up (so that only verifiable beliefs are justified) also cuts away many other things that are essential to us.

    Note that JW allows that we might oppose theistic metaphysics on philosophical grounds. But that is not what Coyne is doing. Coyne is drawing his circle much tighter, so that the only philosophical arguments that pertain are positivist ones. (At least in regard to religion he does this; I doubt he would apply the same argument to aesthetic theory).


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