Category Archives: Epistemology

Book review: Understanding Evolution

I posted this on Panda’s Thumb, but I thought I would repeat it here.

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.

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Kampourakis, a philosopher at Geneva, has compiled and discussed sensibly a range of topics concerning evolution. He begins with the conceptual difficulties people have in understanding the evolutionary process, and why. In chapter 1, he discusses how we know about evolution, what questions it answers, and considers two cases that are close to home: domestication and epidemiology, the evolution of disease.

The evolutionary questions are about why living things evolved the way they did, about speciation, the process of evolving new species, and the hypotheses that these require. He talks about explanation (especially “inference to the best explanation“) and the use of scientific method in evolutionary biology. The sections on domestication of animals and on epidemiology are satisfyingly complete.

Chapter 2 covers religious objections to evolution, including, of course, creationism and intelligent design. He discusses the arguments made by ID, especially in the context of atheism and agnosticism. Arguments from design in nature are expounded and given a thorough treatment, including “artifact thinking” and complexity.

The he discusses world views in conflict, especially relating to Richard Dawkins’ views, and then more widely the views of both theist and atheist scientists. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” and Simon Conway Morris’ inevitability thesis are also reviewed. There is a nice discussion of the differences between knowing and believing and various kinds of methodological and metaphysical naturalisms.

Chapter 3 is titled “Conceptual difficulties to understanding evolution”. Here he discusses psychological essentialism in detail, and the “design stance” that Dennett identified. The problems of conceptual change, which I have published on myself, are then discussed. An example he uses is the shift from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking, and it is a good case study. The discussion on essentialism and design thinking, especially of artifacts, appeals to the psychological literature in detail.

Chapter 4 gives a complete and up to date account of how Darwin himself came to his theories. In particular he discusses how Darwin thought varieties became species, and gives a nice timeline of Darwin’s intellectual development. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how scientists and the religious reacted to the Origin.

Chapter 5 is about common ancestry. Usually books of this type focus upon natural selection, as if that were where Darwin’s originality lay. Kampourakis knows that Darwin’s true novelty lay in this idea instead. He explains how genealogical thinking allows us to reconstruct and classify the history of nature, and how thinking in terms of a historical tree of life made all the difference (and was Darwin’s first and main problem to solve). There’s a good discussion of molecular evolutionary biology here.

He gives an account of an often misunderstood notion in biology: homology. This is followed by phylogenetic classification and construction, and a discussion of the question of apparent similarities in biology: convergences (analogy, or homoplasy). Many clear and useful diagrams make the chapter even easier to follow. Then he considers the role of developmental thinking, and how evolution often modifies the timing of development.

Chapter 6 is titled “Evolutionary change”. It discusses “deep time” and dating of taxa and their divergence. Here he notes that while selectionist accounts are important, much evolution is stochastic, that is, chance. He discusses the difference of within-species evolution (microevolution) and between-species evolution (macroevolution) and gives a good summary of scientific ideas about these, especially the “major transitions” literature. The “selection-against” and “selection-for” distinction is explained here. Speciation and extinction are also explained. Then he returns to the question of inference, in a historical science like evolution.

Finally, in his concluding remarks, he discusses what evolution does, and does not explain, especially with respect to ethical and religious questions.

Each chapter has a good reading list, and the material is up to date in both science, and philosophy and history. He takes stances throughout but does so explicitly, allowing the reader to decide what to think for themselves.

This is an excellent, and long-needed book. The education of evolution in schools is now so poor in many countries, that this can act as both a primer and as an invitation to think further, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know what evolution really is and means. It is not cheap, but neither is it as expensive as many books of its kind. Buy a copy.

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Accommodating Science overview

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

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Accommodating Science: the backfire effect, and conclusion

[This is the final section of the book. I will return to the section on neurobiology and religion later.]

The backfire effect

If science is to be communicated to the wider community in a way that will change how people think, then it would seem an obvious idea to look at the actual science of communication itself. A type of psychological research is into motivated reasoning, which seeks to understand how it is that people respond to challenges to their beliefs, and it has some surprising and counterintuitive results for us here.

When people are reasoning about things they are motivated strongly to defend, it turns out that evidence to the contrary will typically not reduce their confidence in these beliefs, but in fact cause them to strengthen their beliefs against the evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect”. This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement. It is why when study after study shows that vaccines do not cause autism, or that humans are causing global warming, those who are motivated to defend these ideas increase, rather than decrease, their certitude in those claims. It is why, when no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda shown to exist, supporters of the Bush administration still think that Bush was right to invade and there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. As philosopher Jonathon Haidt noted (2001),

Research in social cognition also indicates that people often behave like “intuitive lawyers” rather than “intuitive scientists”

who argue in favour of their previously-chosen position rather than investigating it to find out what is right.

It cannot be that people will never change their minds, so what is going on? The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that the function of reasoning is not to find the truth, but to give reasons for what it is that we otherwise want to believe (Mooney 2011). It implies that what really matters is how people feel about beliefs, not what they critically think. In short, the rationalist is wrong. That is, they are wrong about why people use reason, not about the importance of good reasoning.

A recent paper by Mercier and Sperber (2010) argues that the “function” (I always air quote the word function, because there are a multitude of functions for anything, and which one you are most interested in tells the hearer more about you than about the thing you are talking about) of reason is to convince people, not to find the right things to believe. In short, the rhetorical aspect of reasoning is what we first evolved to employ, not the rational and logical aspect.

This must affect how we communicate science to the wider community, and how the community receives that message. Let me use an analogy: suppose you have a criminal element in your neighbourhood. You seek to remove or otherwise deal with that criminal element, so you enact through your local legislative body some harsh anticrime laws. You might expect that crime would drop, but instead it rises, and the criminal acts become more violent and extreme. It turns out that “law and order” campaigns are counterproductive, because all they do it strengthen the motivations of both law and crime doers. It effectively ramps up the tension and hence the violence (Beckett 1999). This is sometimes called the Untouchables Effect:

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! [The Untouchables, 1987]

Now the reasonable response would be to remove the tension and deflate the intensity of the game, for example by disarming the police so that the criminals no longer need to carry weapons. Instead, our tendency is to up the ante each time, ramping up the cost of the game until it becomes very serious indeed, and a kind of war breaks out between gangs and the police. It would also be reasonable to address the underlying social reasons for crime, such as a lack of access to basic resources and fair treatment, but again, in law and order arms races, the exact opposite happens.

This is exactly analogous to the ways in which those who are proscience and those who are anti-science, whether for religious or other reasons, behave. Instead of taking a slow, measured and agreeable approach, our initial tendency is to confront aggressively, and the outcome is not that one side or the other gives way in the face of force majeure but that they both entrench themselves in increasingly malign positions. That is the Chicago way.

This leads to a tragedy of the commons. Each individual actor in this struggle seeks to maximise their own return on cognitive investment (and the reasons have to do with social status), but when all act this way, we end up with a highly polarised negative-sum outcome. Everybody loses when science and political and religious motives are at odds. We end up with anti-science becoming a test of moral purity in some quarters, and thus we stop vaccinating, dealing with the environment, and going into space. A reasonable mind would see this as a problem to be solved, not a mere fact of life.

When communicating to somebody, it is obvious that we must take the audience with us, rather than force feed them at a speed they cannot absorb, and when the audience has prior expectations that run counter to the message, you must gently deconstruct those expectations. Otherwise, you end up reinforcing the motivated reasoning that got you into this mess.

Science communication is not, I believe, the solution to our anti-science social problem. This has to do with the nature of mass media, rather than any failings of science communicators, so let me discuss this a little.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and then failed to give that any real definition or sense. Here is my take on it. Broadcast media, meaning any kind of “publishing abroad”, as they used to call it, where something is written, said or done once, and then sent to many readers or viewers simultaneously, as a medium has some limitations. Since the audience is targeted at the lowest common denominator for the size of audience that is sought, it follows that broadcast media are generally quite information poor. This is equally if not more true of the internet media. A common tag is “tl;dr” – “too long; didn’t read”. Quite apart from the (questionable) claim that reading on a screen is less effective than reading on a physical copy, there is simply so much on the internet that if you want a large audience, you have to make the material bite-size and straightforward.

Yet, there is a lot of content even if there is not much information in broadcast media, so what is it all doing? I believe it is doing one thing only: manipulating attitudes. Broadcast media makes you feel good or bad about things. So the best outcome of good science communication in broadcast media has to do with manipulating the attitudes of the readers and viewers to feel positively disposed towards science. And if you can make people feel good about it, you can make people feel bad about it, as the anti-vaccination and global warming “skeptics” demonstrate. The techniques of manipulation are the message, even when the topic is science.

So when we engage in public debate about science, we are either trying to manipulate attitudes, or we are shouting into the wind. And I think that it is not a virtue to manipulate anyone. Instead, you should express yourself so that a reasonable and honest hearer can follow where your argument leads, even if they end up not agreeing with you. Motivated reasoning is deflated when you treat people with respect and civility, or at least, more so than with any other technique of public debate. It is not infallible.

When motivated reasoning backfires, though, and civility fails, then the strategic issue moves from “convincing others about science” to “preventing others from blocking science and science education”. And this means that one need not be so civil (although I would suggest civility is always the right starting point). However, when we are considering advocacy roles, I do not see why those who are pro-science, even when they are religious believers, must be excluded from active engagement in science. Those who are anti-science may very well be treated in a hostile manner if civility fails, but why treat the pro-science religious believers that way?

So I think that the prohibitive advocacy form of non-accommodationism is a bad strategy, and that we should encourage rather than discourage the involvement of religious believers in science advocacy. And this is purely a political decision. There are few if any philosophical aspects to this: we know that religions that are not empirically testable are compatible with science, and we know that one can believe in scientific ideas and religious ideas when there is no conflict. Our decision to encourage the religious to advocate for science is about raising the knowledge temperature of a society so that decisions are made upon good rather than bad ideas.

Consequently, adopting the exclusionary view that some of the more extreme new atheists have advocated indirectly is counterproductive. If you exclude religious belief from inside the scientific arena, you will find this backfires, and makes science less, not more, influential in society, while at the same time setting up conditions in which anti-science becomes identified with religious belief. And given that religious belief in never going to disappear, this is just stupid behaviour.

Conclusion

Throughout this book I have argued for a kind of accommodationist perspective. Let me summarise it now.

It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion. It is also my view that religions have always done this to some extent. It is not my concern to suggest how this may be done, since that is for believers to decide. It will not be all that easy, but it can be done, so long as the religion manages to make their beliefs independent of empirical data.

I do not think that science and religion are at war, and in my historical survey, I find that what happens is that science battles science, with some sides being represented by religious figures and institutions. I note some exceptions to this, particularly with respect to the brain and the mind. Here, more than anywhere else, I think religion has trouble with science.

I argue that if we exclude religious believers from science advocacy, we run the risk of increasing the motivated reasoning that will exclude science from general social policy and the community, to our combined detriment.

Arguments against religion in science do not depend upon scientific arguments or evidence, as no such arguments of evidence against religion exist. Only by adopting a philosophical stance, such as the belief that religion must function like a scientific theory of explanation, or that the probabilities of science favour philosophical positions like atheism, can this be made out. When atheists argue against religion on scientific grounds, either they are arguing against empirically sensitive beliefs, which ought to be science in any case, or they are arguing in a philosophical, and thus unscientific, manner. I don’t mean by this that their conclusions are unscientific, but that the arguments are. They aren’t scientific arguments, but rather they are philosophical arguments that use science as the context in which they are delivered.

Science is neither atheistic nor religious. It is neither an apology for a socioeconomic status quo, nor an argument for a revolution. Consider the scientific claim that global warming is human-caused. This, if established (and I think that it has been established), doesn’t give us a course of action. For that to be derived, we also need the ethical value that we should avoid global warming because of its consequences for us and the environment. This ethical value is not itself scientific. It is a philosophical value.

While some like Dawkins may argue that science makes religion ridiculous, or like Stenger that it shows that it is false, this is neither the implication of science alone, nor is it historically sustainable. What is being argued for in such cases is not science as such, but atheism or positivism. This is of course fine, and within the rights of those who argue, but it is misleading to call this arguing for science. These are philosophical arguments for a philosophical position regarding science. And to say they are implied by science is disingenuous and at best bad philosophy.

On the other hand, the attempts by religious writers to claim science for themselves is equally disingenuous. Ranging from the complete disavowal of any and all science that does not match the prior conclusions drawn (often with great straining) from scripture, to the surreptitious view that a certain philosophical reading of science will support some religious metaphysics, this is the abuse of reason and science. Science doesn’t support Buddhism, nor does it support Christianity, nor the Kabbalah, nor any other fashionable religious view.

A more sophisticated attack upon the philosophical autonomy of science is that of Alvin Plantinga and others, who argue that there is a special kind of science where human reason is subjugated to religion, and so only that sort of science (Plantinga calls it “Augustinian” science) is acceptable to Christians. In this approach, one can use miraculous explanations in science when theology dictates it. I hope I don’t have to argue here against this. The onus is on the theist to justify in a secular context whatever they wish to do under the rubric of “science”; and in ways non- believers can accept, or else it isn’t science; it is theology and only theology. They can think whatever they wish to think as Christians; if it isn’t secular, it isn’t science. If they believe faith supervises reason, that is fine. Nobody else has to. And yet science works very well – just as well as for believers – in the absence of that belief, so perhaps that belief is of no consequence when doing science.

To return to the atheist critics of religion in science, the same argument applies to them. They may believe that faith is excluded by reason and science, and yet science works very well – just as well as for nonbelievers – in the absence of that belief too. In short, science is philosophically neutral.

And this is the take-home message of this book. Science isn’t religion or anti- religion. Religion isn’t science, nor is atheism. All these conceptual entities and social groups are what they are, and they aren’t science. Nothing useful is served by mixing them.

In the end, science matters because the more we know about the world we all inhabit, religious or not, the better we can make our way through it. If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.

I have not been a friend to religion in this book; but neither have I been a friend to exclusivism. I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so. Nor have I tried to show that religion must be excluded from science, because it is my view that this is just wrong. Instead, I have argued for a principled accommodation of religion to science: believe whatever you like, but don’t believe that science is anything else but the best way to know the world around us.

Bibliography

Beckett, K. (1999). Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

Mercier, H. and D. Sperber (2010). “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.

Mooney, C. (2011). The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones.

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Accommodating science: Faith and reason

[This is the penultimate chapter. I can’t be bothered trying to get the references or footnotes included in the posts, so you’ll have to wait for the book. Some of this has appeared on the blog before in less well written form, so don’t worry about the deja vu]

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable resource. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, VIII]

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Carroll v. Craig – a telling comment

Sean Carroll just debated William Lane Craig. In his summing up, Sean wrote

In terms of style, from my perspective things got a bit frustrating, because the following pattern repeated multiple times: Craig would make an argument, I would reply, and Craig would just repeat the original argument. For example, he said that Boltzmann Brains were a problem for the multiverse; I said that they were a problem for certain multiverse models but not others, which is actually good because they help us to distinguish viable from non-viable models; and his response was the multiverse was not a viable theory because of the Boltzmann Brain problem. Or, he said that if the universe began to exist there must be a transcendent cause; I said that everyday notions of causation don’t apply to the beginning of the universe and explained why the might apply inside the universe but not to it; and his response was that if the universe could just pop into existence, why not bicycles?

This is a common technique used by Craig: he simply repeats his arguments as if you haven’t spoken. It’s the intellectual’s version of the Gish Gallop. I think Sean did okay, but it is not a forum that lends itself to reasoned argument.

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Accommodating Science: What is the problem?

[As I write the first draft of my accommodationism book, I will post chapters here under the Category "Accommodationism". Here is the latest – which comes before Undefining Religion]

The religion-versus-science debate took a special turn in the West because of the existence not only of doctrinal religion but of a monopolistic doctrinal religion that made the crucial mistake of meddling in statements of fact, providing us with a long list of particularly precise, official and officially compelling statements about the cosmos and biology, supposedly guaranteed by Revelation, that we now know to be false. In every instance where the Church has tried to offer its own description of what happens in the world and there was some scientific alternative on the very same topic, the latter has proved better. Every battle has been lost and conclusively so. (Boyer 2001, 320)

In 2009, a blog war erupted among those who saw themselves as defending science, and in particular evolution, from attacks by religious activists in the public sphere, especially in education. There is an excellent, if underfunded, nonprofit organisation in San Francisco, the National Center for Science Education, which for several decades now has been providing information about and to the defenders of science education in schools. One of the main targets until recently has been the unending tide of bills in state legislatures, quite contrary to the United States Constitution separation of church and state, to enforce the teaching of creationism or its stalking horse intelligent design in state schools. The NCSE has provided comparative evidence about the motivation of these bills, which is always based upon a religious (or in the case of intelligent design, quasi religious) foundation.

The then-director of the NCSE, Dr Eugenie Scott (“Genie” to her friends, who are numerous) has always insisted that the task of the NCSE is not to attack religion, but to promote science education and knowledge in the broader community. In fact, the NCSE has, as part of its mission statement, the following passage:

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.[1]

This innocuous statement is inclusive. In short, it doesn’t matter what religious affiliation an NCSE supporter has, so long as they are advocates for good science education and policy. It would seem a fairly agreeable view to take. But some find this highly objectionable. Professor Jerry Coyne, a well known evolutionary biologist who specialises in speciation, took the NCSE to task. He wrote on his blog:

Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education.  Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue.  Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.

In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.[2]

Coyne argues the following:

… my main beef is this: the NCSE touts, shelters, or gives its imprimatur to intellectuals and scientists who are either “supernaturalists” (the word that A. C. Grayling uses for those who see supernatural incursions into the universe) or who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief”—the idea that while religion may be based on false beliefs, those beliefs are themselves good for society. (Among the former are Kenneth Miller and John Haught, the latter Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala).  Both of these attitudes draw the NCSE away from its primary mission of promoting evolutionary biology, and push it into the hinterlands of philosophy and theology.

If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.

According to Coyne, evolutionary biology is nonteleological: it offers no support for the idea there is purpose in the world. This, however, is not how many (not the majority by any means) philosophers of science and biologists see things. They interpret evolution by natural selection as a purpose maker. In a view called teleosemantics (Macdonald and Papineau 2006), purpose is what you get when something is the result of selection for a trait or property (Sober 1984). Hence, one outcome of evolution, they say, is that natural selection (henceforth just “selection”) gives things purpose. Could this offer a hook on which to hang God? The answer to that varies according to who gives one. Theologically inclined writers think it does. Others, known in the philosophical trade as naturalists, say that it merely gives the illusion of purpose. But it is far from clear that selection, and evolution itself, in nonteleological. We will return to this later. For now, let’s ask this question: does evolution preclude belief in a providential deity? On this one example, among many such scientific challenges to religious belief, hangs a deep issue, about knowledge, belief, rationality, and social policy. It’s not an abstract philosophical issue, but one which has wide ramifications and urgency in the modern world. In what follows, I will attempt to get at the heart of this issue.

Science is one of the best and probably most enduring of all human activities, if not the best. Where once we widely believed that the world was made of an undifferentiated “substance” to which “form” was applied, now we are dealing with the most fundamental aspects of reality, creating physical conditions in our laboratories and supercolliders that haven’t been seen since the Big Bang. We can explain why physical bits of stuff behave the way they do to a very high degree of accuracy and precision. We explain why stars form, why planets orbit stars, and why some bits of stuff on the surface of at least one of those planets reproduces and evolves. We know more now than we ever have, and perhaps more than will be known anywhere else in the universe. That ain’t hay.

And there is no apparent contender to the pre-eminence of science. If there is a way to correct or revise the ideas that science has produced, it is only by science that we can do this. Science, or something that is very like it, is the sole way to know about the universe. The role of religion, often in the past and in pre-scientific cultures, has been deprecated to being an observer of knowledge creation, rather than a source of it. I won’t go into the history of this. There are many very good introductions to it from a historical and philosophical perspective, and we do not need it for what follows. All I will say here is that if we know something about the world, we do so through science.

So the religious are left with a quandary: either religious traditions are not sources of knowledge, or they conflict with the knowledge we get from scientific investigation. So they either have to say that religion doesn’t actually help you understand how the world is, and reduce their scope of authority, or they must challenge the belief that science does help you understand how the world is. Both strategies have been employed, sometimes simultaneously. I take it that we have no better metric of knowledge than that something has been properly investigated scientifically. I will not challenge the role of science in this book, but take it as a provisional given.[3] Of course, there are deeper philosophical questions about whether that is true, or warranted. Some of these will come up later. But we will start, as Coyne does, with the view that science is how we know things about the world, and that if we teach our children and advise our policy makers, we must do so based on that knowledge, and not some other claimant to know.

Thus far, we agree with Coyne and those who he makes common cause with. But they take it a step farther. Only science is relevant when we know the world. Since religion has beliefs that are either contrary to science or unnecessary for doing it (science is a verb as well as a noun), we must eliminate these from consideration in formulating education and policy. This is a much more restricted claim.

The term “accomodationism” has been used to label the idea that science and religion are compatible, although there are some wrinkles we’ll get to shortly.[4] The contrary view is sometimes called “anti-accommodationism”, which is cumbersome and defines a position solely in terms of it not being what another view is. I will therefore divide these views up in another fashion.

The argument goes roughly like this (for instance, as given in the Boyer epigram at the head of this post):

  • Science acquires knowledge through observation and experiment, and is subject to revision in the light of new evidence.
  • Religion acquires its beliefs through the process of supposed revelation, and is not revisable except through further revelation.
  • Science believes in testable entities and processes.
  • Religion believes in things that are either not testable, or have been tested and found not to exist.
  • Therefore religion is not compatible with science.

Now many religious beliefs are not based upon revelation – for example, the Protestant doctrine of sola scripture is not to be found in the Bible or any personal revelations,[5] but then neither is it revisable in the light of experience and evidence. So incompatibilist critiques of religion often focus on the implications of these beliefs. For instance, if the Bible teaches that mental illness is due to demons (Luke 8: 26-39), and we have learned scientifically that mental illness always has a physiological basis, then belief in the Bible must be abandoned. However, not only do religions not abandon those beliefs, they often double down and assert that science is false, or incomplete (which amounts to the same thing; an idea cannot be only a bit true. It is either true or false[6]).

The accommodationism debate, however, has several aspects. One is whether or not religion can be made compatible with science. It can. All that has to happen is to change the religious beliefs. That this is not a popular choice among the religious is obvious. What it does not imply, however, is that we could reach a rapprochement by changing the science. Many so-called compatibilists try to do this, and we’ll look at that later. The problem with doing it, though, is clear: by what criteria would religion evaluate the knowledge claims of science? If they are religious criteria alone, then they deny that science is, in fact, our best way of knowing the world, and deny the facts one way or another. Nobody seriously considering this issue can accept that. If they are experiential, by which I mean based on observation and experiment, then those criteria are properly scientific anyway. It is just possible that a religion encodes in its doctrines the outcomes of some protoscientific investigations that science has not yet studied or attempted independently, in which case that religion would be contributing to science, but the historical evidence is against it. I suppose William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (James 1902) comes close, but James was a scientist and religion merely the subject of his psychological investigations.

The harder problem here is whether the changes that need to be made to religion to accommodate science could be made without destroying the basic core tenets of that religion. There is no real answer to this. For a start, the core beliefs of religions change over time anyway as they adapt to differing social, economic, and political circumstances. At one point, the God of the Tanakh, El[7], was one among many gods who “owned” as it were the tribes of Israel (see Psalm 82 for an example). Later, Judaism evolved after the Israelites were exiled in Babylon and they encountered Zoroastrian dualism, and when they returned to Palestine, their deity was the only one in existence, although there was a demigod, Satan, who gave him a run for his money. The very core belief of modern “Abrahamic” religions was once a revision to the religion itself (Smith 2001). What core beliefs change and how they do so is not something one can speak of in general terms. It really is up to the believers of a religion to decide what they can revise without damage, not anyone else.

Another issue, often mixed in uncritically with the former question, is how to promote peaceful coexistence of religion with science. The so-called “warfare hypothesis” first promoted by Draper (1875) and White (1896) in the nineteenth century, that science and religion are and always have been at war with each other, was constructed in the context of debates over the secularisation of education (Brooke 1991), and is widely regarded as at best overstated and at worst, quite false. And yet, there are enough cases of actual conflict to raise the issue for us. Critics on both sides take from history what they need: accommodationists find cases of affable cooperation and scientists who were devout, and anti-accommodationists find cases of religion impeding or even blocking entirely avenues of scientific work.

A counter argument presented by many religious believers and some scholars (see the overblown case made by Stark 2005) is that religion caused science. Usually this is the more specific claim that Christianity caused science. There is both truth and falsity in that claim. It is true that the religion in which science developed, and the cultural tools of which were used to do so, was Christianity. Most if not all scientists in the western tradition prior to, say, 1900 were Christians of one kind or another (but as we shall see in the next chapter, it pays to attend to the kind of believers they were). Some go so far as to say that Christianity is a rational religion and so it is a prerequisite for science to develop, or even (as we shall see later) to do science at all!

This borders on the inane. The tools used to develop science were the tools developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, along with a large dose of Islamic philosophy mediated to the Christian West around the 12th century. Science had to develop somewhere if it did at all; it happened to develop in a quickly industrialising and capitalising society, and that was the Christian west, but prior to that science was being done by Greek “pagans” and philosophers of all kinds, Romans, Muslims, Chinese, Indians and so on. What happened in the west was largely a socio-political change: science was being done in the open, publicly, due to trade links between competing societies.

Christians can be proud of their heritage, however. When all is said and done, it was scholars within the Christian tradition who discovered or established heliocentrism, chemistry (out of another Christian tradition – alchemy), taxonomy, anatomy, physics (by that mystic unitarian, Newton), and so on. But there is a curious pattern in each case. While Christians were the ones who, on the whole, did the work, the religious institutions were often cautious or even hostile to these novelties. Copernicus’ views were represented contrary to his own position as a hypothetical method for computation of the positions of the planets by his Lutheran “editor” Osiander. Galileo was banned from teaching his version of heliocentrism as fact by the Catholic Church authorities who tried him. Chemistry and anatomy were constantly resisted by various church figures. The record is not unequivocal.

The Warfare Thesis has some bite then. Again and again it depends upon who you count as “religious”.

A history of accommodationism

The view known as “accommodationism” has a past history of some note, and we had better get that out of the way before we consider the modern debate.

The word accommodationism has two prior meanings, tangential to this question. One is: the accommodation of religious practices and beliefs within a secular society. This is a legal use, and refers to states either permitting or assisting the religious in carrying out things that are either regulated or prohibited for the non-religious (Brady 1999).

The other, which is more relevant, has to do with how to read the Bible. In the Christian period before the modern age, science was often discovering facts that contradicted the literal meaning of the Bible. This goes right back to the beginnings of Christianity; it isn’t new. As science fluttered into existence during the late medieval period, this posed a problem for theologians and Christian scientists,[8] who adopted what they called the “accommodatory language” view. God spoke the truth, but in terms that people of the day could understand, and so He used words that implied falsehoods in strict scientific terms. Thus, the words that have the earth fixed, with pillars rest in the waters, and a fixed and hard heavens, used in various places in the Bible, were of no more account than the vernacular use of “the Sun rises in the East” means that we think the Sun, not the earth, revolves.

Notice that this latter meaning is relevant to our topic. When facts (science) contradict the Biblical passages, then our interpretation of the language used in the Bible must give way to them. This approach was adopted by Galileo, Copernicus and others all the way back to Augustine (Moran 2003). In fact, the default view of the Catholic tradition has always been to do this. A parallel tradition that took a hard literalist approach, known as the Antiochan tradition, never got that much traction in the broader Christian tradition, and those who took scripture to be literally true, like Lactantius (third century) or Cosmas Indicopleustes (sixth century) and so asserted a flat earth, were few and generally ignored by educated Christians, who had read their Aristotle or their Plutarch (Toulmin and Goodfield 1962). But when Christian theologians began to engage with the best science of their day, they did not trim science to suit doctrine, but reinterpreted doctrine to not conflict with science. And the means by which they did this was called allegory: finding the hidden meaning in the stories told in the Bible that led to a theological or deeper truth. However, the default view was also that if there are no reasons not to take the scripture as literally true, especially in claims of the events and people described, like Noah or Moses, then you must do. It reminds one of the passage from T. H. White’s Once and Future King, where the Wart is transformed into an ant, and as he enters the nest sees a sign “Everything not forbidden is compulsory”.[9]

As science began to infringe upon some of the more treasured core doctrines of religion, however, the tensions began to rack up. When Galileo, naively thinking that he was well within the usual practice of the Church, wrote his Dialogues, he expected that the Church authorities would reinterpret doctrine once again. His timing was awful. The Church was in the midst of dealing with the Lutheran schism as they saw it, and Galileo unfortunately tried to lecture the Church on how to interpret scripture, which was their and only their domain of expertise in Christendom at the time (which of course the Lutherans challenged). He got roundly slapped down. It took the Church over 500 years to “apologise”, although how good an apology is to a man 500 years dead is disputable.

Tensions continued as the pace of scientific discovery increased. One of the more significant challenges to doctrine was the discovery of chemical elements. According to the key issue, apart from the authority of the pope, that separated the Catholic Church from the Lutherans, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the physical aspect of the Host (the consecrated bread and wine) was replaced when the bell was rung in the consecration with the physical substance of Jesus’ body and blood. This relied upon the Aristotelian distinction between substance and form: the outward properties of a thing were given by its form, and the substance was a propertyless gunk that only bore the form. In Catholic doctrine, the outward form, called the “accidents” or “species”, of the bread and wine remained at consecration, but the gunk was now fully Jesus.

When Dalton proposed his atomic elemental theory of chemistry in 1802, the properties of things were now the result of the inherent properties of the elemental particles and how they were arranged. So the doctrine of transubstantiation no longer made any sense. Change the elemental particles, and instead of bread-like stuff, you would now have something that literally looked like it had been carved off a living organism. The wine would taste of blood. It was no longer possible to be scientific and Catholic. For a little while, that was. In the 1870s, when Catholics began an attempt to become relevant in intellectual life, they quietly redefined “substance” and “accident” so that the former was some kind of metaphysical stuff, and the accidents now included the physical stuff bread and wine were made of (Artigas, Glick et al. 2006). Ironically, Catholic doctrine did not settle on a response to Darwin for some time later.

Magisteria

Stephen Jay Gould was a pluralist in many things. He was a palaeontologist who wrote wonderfully literate and humanistic essays in Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Shortly before his death, he gathered some of these together and published and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998) and then Rock of Ages (1999) in which he argued that science and religion each had what he called “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated by him as NOMA). A magisterium is a domain of appropriate authority in which one may speak as a specialist or teach. While he did not deny that science and religion did fall into conflict, historically, he characterised this as “bump[ing] right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border” (Gould 1998). In short, they were politely passing each other on a crowded sidewalk. This view, he thought, resolved the question of the compatibility of science and religion. So long as each cobbler stuck to his last, there was no professional dispute to be had.

Now this view was widely applauded by many religious thinkers, but it was not at all liked by incompatibilists. Religion has forbad science to investigate some things, and instructed scientists in what to teach or think. Buffon, who did the first empirical experiments on the age of the earth, was forced to recant by the theologians of the Sorbonne. Richard Owen, sadly remembered today only for being anti-Darwin, in fact proposed a kind of evolutionary theory before Darwin (there were many pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories) only to be severely chastised by Adam Sidgwick, a devout Christian and geologist, and his patrons at Cambridge University for heterodoxy bordering on heresy (Rupke 1994 chapter 4). Ironically, when the Origin came out, he anonymously reviewed it, saying that it was wrong, and anyway he had come up with the theory first (he hadn’t, not really).

The idea of magisteria is a kind of epistemic division of labor. It assumes that we do not all have the time, inclination or capacity to investigate each and every domain by ourselves. We have instead specialists who do the work on our behalf (and who we fund, some of the time, from the common purse), and whose results we rely upon when they are needed. This applies to science in spades. Specialists can be so narrow as to spend their lives cataloguing, describing and studying a single group of organisms, or even just the one. Or they can be specialists at a higher level of abstraction than even most scientists would be willing to consider. We alway must appeal to some specialists when we are doing or learning science.

This is sometimes cast as a religious decision: you have your authorities and I have mine. However it is more like the idealised notion of an economic market in which there are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and each sticks to their own task and makes their products available for sale. We have to trust each specialist that they will make a good product, since we cannot make all the things we need ourselves. Likewise, specialists in science produce what we expect will be good science. Sometimes it isn’t, either because of fraud or because there is a broad problem with the techniques used. As an example, the very nature of statistics in science is presently the subject of much criticism, especially in the biomedical sciences (Cumming, Fidler et al. 2007). But there is still nothing that we can replace the specialists’ work with that is any better.

The notion of magisteria gets murkier when we move outside science. It is obvious that a theologian of some sophistication and note is a better source of religious ideas than a tent preacher, if by that we think there is some specialty they better express. However, the notion that the theologian has his domain and it does not intersect with the domain of the scientific community is at best wishful thinking and question begging, and at worst ignorant and contrary to the historical record. Many of the key issues in science (how did this get here? What is its importance?) are also key issues in theological debate, and it is inevitable that in these cases when both sides offer solutions, they will come into conflict.

Another issue is when the scientists make claims that the philosophers and theologians properly consider to be their domain. For example, Victor Stenger, a physicist, has published a number of books in which he claims that the “God hypothesis” has failed and science has shown this (2007; 2009; 2009). However, he does this by evaluating the “God Hypothesis” as a scientific hypothesis. That this is question begging is obvious, although it is true that a number of theological writers do treat religion as a kind of scientific hypothesis. Another example is Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, in which he makes the case that morality is just human flourishing, a view that goes back to Aristotle, and that science can determine what that means. Philosophers rightly object that showing that something contributes to human flourishing is quite distinct from establishing that it is good or moral. As a final example, consider the physicist Lawrence Krauss (2012), who argues against philosophy being necessary on the grounds that science tells us how something comes from nothing (where “nothing” means quantum fields, which is not nothing to a philosopher). Similarly Hawking and Mlodinow (2010) claim that philosophy is dead because science has answered all the philosophical questions. Philosophers consider this arrogance borne of ignorance of their field. Theologians often make the same point about scientists who criticise theology. We will return to this later.

Trimming science

One oft-made claim is that accommodationism requires trimming science to fit religion, not the other way around. And if you read some of the popular books on how science confirms this or that religion (often eastern style religion) that is a fair claim to make. Ranging from “physics confirms Buddhism” to “science is fine except for evolution”, religious thinkers (rarely scientists themselves) have argued that religious belief sets a limit on science and what it may assert. This is not so much an accommodationist thesis as it is religious exceptionalism. If that is how religious believers have to go in order to deal with science, that’s their business, but it has no weight whatsoever to those who are not within the theological tradition and community concerned. It is, in other words, special pleading.

The problem with this was pithily dealt with in another context (morality) by Bishop Joseph Butler (Butler 1749 Sermon VII):

Things and actions are what they are, and consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?

If Christians or any other believer must deny what things are in order to believe, then they have a real problem, and one we do not need to attend to unless we are also of the same mind. Few if any accommodationists in the present debate would allow religion the right to deny facts or our best theories in order to include religious believers among the pro-science group, for in doing so, this deprecates the very idea of science. And to that we now turn.

What is “science”?

As much as religion is a confusing and heterogeneous category, so too is science. It has numerous meanings and supposed shared properties and methods. Much of the accommodationism debate relies upon these ambiguities and different interpretations.

Often one will read, in a textbook or popular treatment, that science has a “method”, usually capitalised to show its importance: The Scientific Method. However, when you start to look at the flowcharts, decision diagrams, and other such representations, it becomes very clear that there is no single pathway to doing science accepted by everyone who calls themselves “scientific”. This is a widely discussed topic in the philosophy of science.

If science were done by recipe, that is if there were a Scientific Method, then there would be an easy test whether a claim was scientific or not. But science, it turns out, is not so easily demarcated from nonscience; this is called the Demarcation Problem (see the introduction to Pigliucci and Boudry 2013 for a summary of the issues). A commonly appealed to Demarcation Criterion was proposed by Karl Popper, who said that something is science if it is open to empirical falsification (Popper 1965). The trouble with this was immediately noted by other philosophers and scientists. As the nineteenth century physicist Pierre Duhem (1954[1991]) had already noted, when you test a hypothesis, and get a negative result, you are onto just testing the hypothesis by itself but all the other hypotheses used in the test: how the equipment works, other theoretical assumptions, and any methodological assumptions (like the use of statistical inference) that are employed in the research. You know that something must be wrong, but what it is, is not immediately clear.

Popper applied his Criterion to psychoanalysis and Marxian economics, and saw it as a simple way to show these were false. He wanted to isolate science from the boundary “sciences” popular in the 1930s when he came up with it. Since then, many scientists have exhibited a kind of multiple personality disorder: when they do science, they do not behave the way they criticise nonscience. Popper, for example, argued that science is not inductive: that it did not do lots of observations and then draw general rules or laws from the observations (I include the making of formal models as induction here). Instead it came up with hypotheses (any old how) and tried to falsify them, that is to show they are false by counterexamples. This is referred to as falsificationism in the philosophical literature.

Now when those who adopted a sociohistorical approach to actual “science” considered Popper’s view, they discovered that this Criterion was in fact not often, if at all, applied, even within physics, which Popper took to be the very exemplar of scientific investigation. Instead, as Paul Feyerabend, an Austrian philosopher who moved to America after the second world war and saw himself as a gadfly among the philosophers, wrote, if there is a Method in science, it can only be the rule that “anything goes” (Feyerabend 1975). Of course, Feyerabend qualified this claim with the more nuanced view that in fact there were scientific methods, but that they formed a cluster of approaches, and not a single Method. Moreover, he rejected the idea that these methods were subject to any central ruling principle. The science historian Thomas Kuhn (1962) went even further: what rules the rules is a worldview, which he called a “paradigm” (one of the most abused of all philosophical terms ever). A paradigm set what counted as evidence, what counted as confirmation or disconfirmation of a theory, and even what the very terms used in a theory meant.

Duhem’s point was taken up by the American philosopher Willard Van Ormand Quine (Van to his friends), who generalised it to the point that we test entire sets of beliefs when we test a hypothesis, not the one hypothesis (Quine 1953). Consequently, science was like a genetic complement being subjected to natural selection, tested as a whole and rejected when it failed to work out. He explicitly drew the parallel with natural selection (not original to him, though. Thomas Henry Huxley had made exactly the same point shortly after Darwin had published). Science evolves, not through revolutions as Kuhn had asserted, but by gradual adaptation of the entire set of beliefs and techniques.

What this meant was that there is no point at which a proponent of a theory can be said to have become irrational or unscientific, even though there are clear cases, like phlogiston, phrenology and land bridges in geology, where they have clearly ceased to be good science. Like pornography, we can’t define bad science or nonscience, but we know it when we see it.

This is significant in the case of science versus religion, because all the positions taken by, say, the Catholic Church, in such disputes were previously accepted as good science. What was at issue was a host of hard-to-define issues like whether a novel approach solved more problems than it raised, and the promise of the new theory being fruitful in future research, a set of issues that are very much alive within science itself. There were also questions of doctrinal or philosophical concern, but often, the “religious” were also well educated in the science of the day, and saw themselves carrying out a scientific debate, only with the authority and power of the ruling elite.

When opponents of accommodationism criticise the religious for their failure to accept science, there are therefore many things to keep in mind. What exactly counts as science in this case? Is it the best theories of today (as determined by whom)? Is it what experts put into textbooks (and who are the experts)? Is it something like a consensus of those who work in the particular field? When does an idea cease to be acceptable within the science?

Generally, curricula for schools are determined by specialists in the field being taught. In the United States, however, this is reviewed by elected nonspecialists, often with no scientific training at all (or if they have a “science” degree, it is likely to be in medicine or dentistry or some other vocational field that claims scientific foundation). This unique system is not shared by any other western democracy of which I am aware, and it causes massive downstream effects in those other nations, since the current curriculum publishing business model tends to begin with American sources and modify them to suit local needs. Often textbooks are given a light editing by a local specialist and published as the “Australian” edition or the like. The School Board system if the United States thus influences, subtly or overtly, how science is taught elsewhere in the world. For this reason, the battles over what is included in the textbooks approved in Texas or California are of global importance.

Scientists also have their regional differences in emphasis or subject matter. Since scientists are typically educated into their specialty in one nation, they are very likely to adopt as a given whatever ruling views are adopted by authoritative scientists in their country. So for a long time, French biologists tended to downplay Darwinian evolution in favour of their countryman Lamarck’s notion of evolution (Burian, Gayon et al. 1988), until the molecular biologists Jacques Monod (1972) and François Jacob (1973) promoted the Darwinian synthesis extensively.

Given all this, what is the “science” that the religious believer must accommodate to? It is not so clear when a scientific field is in a state of flux, either because the progress of discovery in that field is rapid, or because there are within the scientific field itself multiple interpretations and theories in play. Especially in highly abstract general theories like modern quantum physics, it is not clear what must be taught at schools, or what the import of a theory is for religious believers. But the real conflict lies at a much lower level, usually. This is why it is not quantum mechanics that causes real problems for believers, but theories of psychology, biology and environment, which are areas that affect everyone. Do we have free will? Is there a purpose in the living world? Is our environment going to remain stable or change? How old is the world? Such questions raise problems for believers in a way that quantum foam and entanglement, as fun as they may be to think about when one is a teenager (or the equivalent in later life), do not.

If we cannot identify “the science” that must be accommodated, can we at least identify the issues that are controversial to a believer? That will be the subject of later posts.

Bibliography

Artigas, M., et al. (2006). Negotiating Darwin: the Vatican confronts evolution, 1877-1902. Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). And man creates God: religion explained. New York, Basic Books.

Brady, K. A. (1999). “Fostering Harmony Among the Justices: How Contemporary Debates in Theology Can Help to Reconcile the Divisions on the Court Regarding Religious Expression by the State.” Notre Dame Law Review 75: 433-577.

Brooke, J. H. (1991). Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge University Press.

Burian, R. M., et al. (1988). “The singular fate of genetics in the history of French biology, 1900-1940.” J Hist Biol 21(3): 357-402.

Butler, J. (1749). Fifteen Sermons … To which are added Six Sermons preached on public occasions. The fourth edition, pp. xxxiv. 480. Knapton: London.

Cumming, G., et al. (2007). “Error bars in experimental biology.” J. Cell Biol. 177(1): 7-11.

Draper, J. W. (1875). History of the conflict between religion and science. New York, D. Appleton and company.

Duhem, P. M. M. (1954[1991]). The aim and structure of physical theory. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Feyerabend, P. K. (1975). Against Method. New York, Verso Editions.

Gould, S. J. (1998). Leonardo’s mountain of clams and the Diet of Worms: essays on natural history. New York, Harmony Books.

Gould, S. J. (1999). Rocks of ages: Science and religion in the fullness of life. New York, Ballantine.

Hawking, S. W. and L. Mlodinow (2010). The grand design. London, Bantam Press.

Jacob, F. (1973). The logic of life: a history of heredity. New York, Pantheon Books.

James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience; a study in human nature. New York, London, Longmans, Green.

Krauss, L. M. (2012). A universe from nothing: why there is something rather than nothing. New York, Free Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, G. and D. Papineau (2006). Teleosemantics: new philosophical essays. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Monod, J. and A. Wainhouse (1972). Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, HarperCollins Publishers Limited.

Moran, B. T. (2003). “God’s Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (review).” The Catholic Historical Review 89(2): 302–304.

Pigliucci, M. and M. Boudry (2013). Philosophy of pseudoscience : reconsidering the demarcation problem. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Popper, K. R. (1965). Conjectures and refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge. New York, Basic Books.

Quine, W. V. O. (1953). From a logical point of view: 9 logico-philosophical essays. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Rupke, N. A. (1994). Richard Owen: Victorian naturalist. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

Smith, M. S. (2001). The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel’s polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts. New York, Oxford University Press.

Sober, E. (1984). The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Stark, R. (2005). The victory of reason: how Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success. New York, NY, Random House.

Stenger, V. J. (2007). God: the failed hypothesis: how science shows that God does not exist. Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books.

Stenger, V. J. (2009). The new Atheism: standing up for science and reason. Amherst, N.Y., Prometheus Books.

Stenger, V. J. (2009). Quantum gods: creation, chaos, and the search for cosmic consciousness. Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books.

Toulmin, S. and J. Goodfield (1962). The Fabric of the Heavens: the development of astronomy and dynamics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

White, A. D. (1896). A history of the warfare of science with theology in christendom. New York,, D. Appleton & Company.


[1] http://ncse.com/about/faq accessed 16 February 2014.

[3] Science is, in the end, a human activity, and so it has fashions, failures and fictions. However, given that it is our best source of knowledge, there is no other standard we can apply to claim of knowledge about the world. Hence we should rationally accept science, in a provisional fashion, as being true. If there were some other standard source of knowledge, we might be able to assess science by that. But this is not to say we think all our science is correct or true, nor that we need to take it on, one might say, faith.

[4] The term was introduced, as far as I can tell, by Professor Lawrence Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, on his blog Sandwalk <http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/05/neville-chamberlain-atheists.html>. He informs me that he chose it to replace the term “Chamberlainists” introduced by Richard Dawkins in his God Delusion, which he felt was unfair on Neville Chamberlain. Thanks to Josh Rosenau for help tracking this down.

[5] Claims to the contrary, based, for instance upon 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” which cannot refer to itself, are based on a prior belief in the inspiration of the canon chosen at the Synod of Hippo Regius in the fourth century, which was ratified in subsequent councils with variation. Early Christians used the “Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as “scripture, along with a choice of gospels and letters.

[6] Of course, philosophers spend a lot of ink on that very question. A belief can be held with a degree of confidence, or to cover a part of a statistical sample, or perhaps the Law of the Excluded Middle in logic, which says that either the sentence A is true or A is false, is itself wrong, and there can be sentences that are neither true nor false. Have fun with that. It doesn’t affect us here.

[7] There were a number of gods who were folded into the final God of the Bible (I use Tanakh to denote what Christians call the Old Testament, since the Jewish view is that it is not old or superseded). El was the generic term for “god”, and was usually given a place or tribal name such as “El Yeshrun” or “El Yisrael”, or some power, such as “El Shaddai” (the mighty god) or “El Tsaddik” (the righteous god). In the west semitic religions in which the Bible writers wrote, El Elyon was the “most high god”, the supreme deity of the pantheon. YHWH was the southern tribal deity. These and the plural form of El, Elohim (the gods), were collapsed into a single entity after the Exile. Female gods like Ishtar or Asheroth were dropped or reinterpreted as “wisdom”. See Smith 2001 for a summary of these developments.

[8] Although they were not then called “scientists”, as that term wasn’t invented until 1834. The two fields of what we would now call science were then natural philosophy, which broadly covered physics and astronomy, and natural history, which broadly covered biology, geology and geography. Sometimes the former were referred to as “mathematicians”, although that could also mean “astrologer”.

[9] Even as a kid I knew that ants recognise nest mates by their smell, so the Wart should have immediately been torn apart by the soldier caste guarding the nest. But if you are going to accept that a human can be made into an ant and retain all his cognitive abilities, why not that Merlin could simulate the pheromones of that particular nest?

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Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, Logic and philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, Science

Undefining religion

[This will be a series of posts based on a book I am writing – see last post]

When anthropologists began to study religions in cultures other than the European context, which itself was based upon Roman jurisprudence, they encountered a difficulty. Until this time, in the mid-nineteenth century, “religion” had meant Christianity, with a sidelong glance at Islam and Judaism, religions which shared a number of common features (so they thought): a single deity, doctrines, rituals, and religious authorities. But some time earlier Europeans had begun to encounter eastern “religions” like Buddhism, Confucianism, and the Hindu Vedic traditions. These “religions” either had many deities, or none, a plethora or absence of doctrine, at least in the sense that failure to accept them excluded one from orthodoxy, and occasionally highly local and variable rituals.

The “solution” was to either classify these traditions and communities in terms that were developed for Christianity, forcing them into the European Procrustean Bed, or to set up a typology of religions. One who presented the most widely used, subsequently, was Edward Burnett Tylor (Tylor 1871). He noted that while some writers of his day asserted that religion was a late development in human societies, in fact it was the opposite of the truth:

It is not unusual for the very writer who declares in general terms the absence of religious phenomena among some savage people, himself to give evidence that shows his expressions to be misleading. Thus Dr. Lang not only declares that the aborigines of Australia have no idea of a supreme divinity, creator, and judge, no object of worship, ‘no idol, temple, or sacrifice, but that in short, they have nothing whatever of the character of religion, or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish.’

He instead suggests that the “natural religion” of humanity is what he calls animism:

I propose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy.

… Animism in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in deities and subordinate controlling spirits, these doctrines practically resulting in some kind of active worship. One great element of religion, that moral element which among the higher nations forms its most vital part, is indeed little represented in the religion of the lower races.

Tylor here sets up a contrast between “lower” religion and “higher” religion, which, clearly, is based on Christianity. He includes within animism Hindu religions.

This – dare one say – imperialistic notion of religion is common within Christianity, and to an extent other so-called “world religions”. Adherents are so immersed in their own world view and community that they often cannot even conceive of other ways to see the world than their own, and must make all others as similar to theirs as they can.

Ironically, this Christian centric notion of religion has been transferred to those who have left Christianity, or who were raised non-Christian in a Christian-dominated society. When discussions of what counts as religion in the context of scientific belief are held, it is generally agreed upon by all sides that what is true of Christian religious traditions, is true of Islam, Hinduism, and such recent sectarian divisions as Mormonism. And yet, all ethnological investigators know that there is no such shared essence to religion. So when, for instance, Richard Dawkins writes

My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament

and then argues against that version, in order to conclude in the final chapter

Religion has at one time or another been thought to fill four main roles in human life: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. Historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. In this role it is now completely superseded by science…

he is clearly gerrymandering the argument. First, he says, he will only deal with supernatural religion, but then, he concludes, religion (without the qualifier) is superseded by science. Clearly, then, we should abandon religion, as he goes on to say, in favour of a clear-headed scientific view of the world. But what he should have argued is that supernatural religion, akin to Tylor’s animism, is superseded by science and should be abandoned. I think you would find a great many religious thinkers agree.

When we argue about whether “religion” is compatible with science, it pays to be very careful about what we might be asking, for this reason. “Religion” covers a multitude of sins, so to speak. What we want to ask is instead this: Is there some ordinary sense of “religion” that is neither the animistic or “supernatural” religion, nor the abstract, rarefied religion of philosophers and scientists, that is compatible with science? Somewhere between the God of the folk, and the God of the philosophers, lies the medium position that is interesting.

The God of the philosophers

As Dawkins discusses, many scientists have had a sense of “God” and “religion” which bears little resemblance to the ordinary religion of the societies around us. Sometimes this is just a metaphor for a sense of awe about the physical universe. Dawkins calls this “Einsteinian religion”, but it is better thought of as the religion of the Enlightenment, that period of thinkers that responded to the scientific revolution by removing as much in the way of animistic supernaturalism as possible. It is the religion of deists, who believed that all revelation had to be excised – thinkers such as the fathers of the American Revolution like Jefferson and Paine. But, philosophically speaking, it is the religion of the Enlightenment philosopher Leibniz, whose view has both been incredibly influential amongst the philosophically inclined, and also the subject of withering parody by Voltaire, in his novel Candide.

Leibniz was not, despite Voltaire, ignorant of the problems of his view. He held that God was, by definition (whose definition? Well, philosophers since Epicurus in the fourth century before our common era) perfectly good and ultimately powerful. This meant that we had to account for a world in which things were less than optimal. Leibniz argued that since God was good and powerful, this must, contrary to appearances, be the best world any God was capable of making. It was, he said, the best logically possible world. This was what Voltaire parodied with his portrait of Doctor Pangloss, who disaster after disaster, insisted this was for the best because “all is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds”.

Leibniz’s point was rather different to Voltaire’s parody (after all a good parody must take some view to the extreme). He knew the world was messy and had suboptimal events, individually. What he argued is that this collection of optimal and suboptimal outcomes was the best any God could do, in order to achieve whatever goals a God should have. Evil is evil, but it is the least amount of evil a good powerful God can get away with, logically. We might appeal to the economists’ theorem, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which states that when you have a number of competing goods, there is no perfect outcome, just the best trade-off compromise. God has his own Arrow’s dilemma. No nicely ranked set of outcomes is possible, even for a deity.

No church of Leibniz was ever formed, although some of what are often called “liberal” or “modernist” churches approach it. So while it remains only a philosophical speculation, it hardly represents what most people call “religion”. Unfortunately, when philosophers ask questions like “is religion compatible with science?” the kind of God they assume is more like Leibniz’s, a god of the philosophers, than the pope’s.

The God of the folk

Ethologists of religion distinguish between what they call folk religion and elite religion. Elite religion is the religion of educated elites, of the theologians and philosophically inclined. Folk religion is the religion that finds its way to preachers and pastors, in sermons and letters to the editor about the declined moral standards of the secular world. Elite religion is usually mostly free of supernatural beings and spirits in things, while folk religion can range from the simple literal reading of sacred texts to a borderline animism. For example, Catholicism has a wealth of theological works to draw upon, but the folk version often includes supernatural powers of the saints, or even a mixture of African or folk cults such as is found in Caribbean voodoo or Peruvian worship of dead heroes or even criminals.

Clearly the folk religions have the greater social sway. This can be simple superstition, like crossing yourself when you pass a graveyard, or it can be more malignant, like searching out those who are “witches” and burning them, something that unfortunately still occurs in places like Nigeria and Papua New Guinea to women and even children. To take these as the exemplar of religion, the way Dawkins does, however, is to gerrymander the issue. Of course such religious beliefs are incompatible with science; that is not the issue. Likewise, the parallel case of folk beliefs about psychology, or even economics (“voodoo economics” as George H. W. Bush called it, which remains an article of faith among certain kinds of conservatives the world over), are incompatible with our best knowledge about these fields. It is not an argument against “psychology” or “economics” to say that these folk beliefs are incompatible with science, and neither should it be about religion. Science does rule out some sorts of beliefs.

For example, the religious beliefs based on folk tales of Thor causing thunder and Woden causing lightning are ruled out by a knowledge of meteorology and physics. All sides in the debate agree upon this. But let us suppose that Thorologians (the Scandanavian equivalent of theologians) become acquainted with modern science. They might decide to reinterpret Thor’s powers in a more philosophically sophisticated manner, something like how the catholic tradition interprets the Bible allegorically. This form of Thorism is not contrary to science, because, as happened with Galileo’s heliocentrism, the tradition reinterprets what had previously been a literal world view as a theologically charged story or allegory. So does modern science rule out Thor-worship? The question turns on whether or not the religious traditions are those of the pre-Christian folk or those of the post-scientific thinkers within the Thor community.

Likewise, we cannot infer from, say, young earth creationists within the Christian tradition to the view that science has ruled out Christianity, since the term “Christian” is as slippery and malleable as “religion” itself. One person’s “Christian” is another person’s heretic or even unbeliever. So we have to understand the social and intellectual structure of religions.

Elite religion, on the other hand, is not the same as philosophical religion. Where Leibniz evades the question of God’s direct intervention in the physical world, allowing for it but presuming that science holds sway in explaining mundane events, elite religions can often adopt a realism towards miracles, revelations and interaction with spirits, angels and demons. That is, elite religion can include supernatural events and powers. The difference with folk religion is that it attempts to reconcile in a cohesive structure of ideas and beliefs both the core beliefs and doctrines of the tradition, as well as the best of our knowledge about the natural world. Nobody who is concerned that their religion be, to some extent, realistic, wants science to conflict with their tradition. That would be equivalent to saying there are two truths about the world and that they are in conflict. Believers usually hold the beliefs they do because they are intended to provide insight into how things really are, not into how we wish them to be.

Anthropomorphism

Critics of religion often accuse it of wishful thinking. A recent popular “new age” movement, called The Secret, invented by an Australian television producer, Rhonda Byrne and promoted by Oprah Winfrey, is a perfect example of this (Byrne 2006). According to the Secret, if you have a positive attitude to life and wish hard for what you need, the Universe will deliver it. Consider what the Universe would need to be like for this to be true: it would need to be run by some power – a Universal Law of Attraction – that attends to the every desire of those who are properly positively thinking, and to intervene in what would otherwise have occurred to bring about what they desire. Clearly this is magical thinking, as the title of a later book, The Magic (2012) makes bleedingly obvious.

But if folk religions are often rife with magical thinking, elite religion is more sophisticated in its approach. The view that the universe must act like humans do, with intentions, agency, and responsibility, and that it can be bargained with, is called anthropomorphism, literally, taking things to be like humans. It is a form of projection, and according to a dominant view in the study of religions, in what has come to be known as the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), gods are the ultimate anthropomorphism. As Voltaire famously said, if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, surreptitiously implying that in fact we did.

Elite thinkers attempt to dehumanise gods and divine powers. There are two ways to do this: either deny that deities act in the same manner as human agents do (by raising their agency to a higher form that bears no resemblance to human agency) or deny that we can recognise their agency when it occurs. The former approach can take several forms. In those religions where all that is not God is created by God, one can say that God created the universe so that it would result in the outcomes God desires without meddling, through foreknowledge of what would occur if, in fact, he created that universe. This view makes God’s agency a much more rarified kind than humans. He made the world and the world made us. In theology, this is called the distinction between primary cause or creation of all things, and secondary causes, the laws of that which God created, according to which the creation behaves. We shall return to this [see here].

The latter kind of elite religion supposes that God somehow orders things (in a mysterious fashion) so that things turn out according to his plan. This is not deism, which tends to presume that God does not intervene in physical affairs,but instead a managerial notion of God who orders things to behave according to his business plan, or as religious terminology has it, Providence. How that occurs is left open. It contrasts with the non-interventionist notion of God as a clock maker who builds and winds up the universe, and then lets it run. A modern version would see God as the computer builder and programmer, who then lets the program run as it was programmed to do.

The reference class problem

Now, which version of religion – elite or folk, interventionist or non-interventionist – is it that we must compare and contrast to science? The fact is, there are no generalisations that cover all bases; it depends very much on the particular form of religion that is in conflict with science in a time and place. In one place and time it might be fundamentalist Protestantism that is the problem, as it is in North America. In another it might be some kind of Hindu extremism, and in another, although I cannot envisage this happening, the kind of Anglicanism that is more concerned with tea than metaphysics.

Claims such as the one made by the late Christopher Hitchens, that Religion Poisons Everything (the subtitle of his 2007 book) are therefore incredibly ambiguous and rely upon vagueness for their impact. Some religion poisons some things, and no religion poisons everything. For example, no religion has poisoned my Apple MacBook, unless you believe that Apple itself is a religion. To say that religion poisons everything is rhetoric and little else.

Yes, Dawkins does try to argue that “religious moderation” allows religious fanaticism to exist, and that religious indoctrination is child abuse, but these are not factual claims. Extremism is largely the end product of social factors such as frustration with social exclusion and resistance to the rate of social change. As such it arises not because there are religions, but because of general human tendencies to react when in those conditions of frustration and confusion. In short, religion doesn’t cause extremism, being human does. And all children are indoctrinated, although in polite company we call it socialisation or even education. It is no more child abuse to teach a religion to your child than it is to inculcate a love of the local football team – indeed there are some very close parallels between support for religions and support for political and sporting affiliations. One might almost think that there is a common underlying cause, and that it is not religion itself that is at fault.

If we are going to apportion blame to religion – and I certainly think there are things some religions can correctly be blamed for – we must ensure that we do not shepherd into the class being blamed anyone who even vaguely is connected to it. For example, Muslims are often asked why they do not criticise bombers and other forms of terror in the name of Islam; as if every Muslim is responsible for the actions of every other person who self-identifies as Muslim. And yet, we do see Muslim leaders decrying such actions, both in the Western countries where there is an increasing (and generally benign) Muslim presence, and in the countries where the terror is taking place. This is conveniently overlooked by those who wish to paint all Islam as a terror religion. It is a form of a well-known fallacy: of taking the parts to stand for the whole, which goes by the name fallacy of composition. I would like to call this the reference class problem.

A reference class in statistics is the baseline group against which some outlier is measured. For example, western nations are generally not very religious, which makes the United States stand out as an exception. “Western nations” forms the reference class because they are intertwined in their cultural and socioeconomic histories. But does “religion” form a reference class? Arguably not. Religion scholars are in that respect like economists: they are studying a heterogeneous set of things under a constructed category. It is quite widely understood by scholars of religion that there is no single thing that is religion and not also applicable to other phenomena in human culture and society (see, for instance, Bulbulia 2005).

We are subject to what psychologists call confirmation bias, where any single instance of something that we find important stands for the entire class of phenomena (see Kahneman 2011 for a good discussion of this and other cognitive biases we are prone to). A person commits an act of terror who is Muslim, and we will infer that Muslims are criminals or at least the religion is. A Catholic or Baptist commits an act of terror, and we assign them to other reference classes than their religion (working class, Southerner, gun-nut, etc.), because we expect Muslims to be terrorists. The imputation is not based upon facts, but upon our constructed classes of people.

So it is far from clear that religion is, in fact, the problem here. Even the so-called religious wars, such as The Troubles in Ireland or the Crusades, were the outcome of social, economic and political processes, for which religion stood, not as a cause, but as a proxy for the opposing sides. This is not to say that religion never causes problems of this kind – of course it does. But often enough it is not the cause so much as the banner under which other issues are being resolved. The Irish Catholics and the imported Protestants were representative of ethnic groups with different social status and power, and so being Catholic was not so much the root of the Troubles as the honest signal of group identity. I shall return to this, also. [See here]

How to speak about religion

In order to avoid the reference class problem, it would be better to use more specific terms when discussing religion. These are called index terms and act like a database record ID to prevent putting the wrong data in the wrong record. In ordinary language, we often use adjectives and names to identify what we are talking about: instead of talking about “religion”, an index term like “fundamentalist religion” is better, and “Southern Baptist religion” better still. The reason for this is that while “fundamentalist” has a set of connotations (socially conservative, etc.) the use of “fundamentalist” as an adjective is pretty ambiguous. For example, we have seen the use of “fundamentalist Muslim” or worse, “fundamentalist atheist”, when in fact the term’s origin and proper meaning is “Christian in the Protestant tradition whose beliefs trace back to the series of books entitled The Fundamentals in the early twentieth century (Dixon, Torrey et al. 1910–1915, Numbers 2006). For a historian, that is what “fundamentalist” means. Applying it to Darwinists, atheists, Muslims or any other group is at best analogical and at worst merely deprecating. This would mean that if “fundamentalist religion”, or “Southern Baptist”, is the reference class being blamed for some social outcome, or assigned to an argument, there is little to no confusion about what that means, and it blocks overgeneralisation through a fallacy of composition.

I have found this a very difficult point to get across to critics of religion. They, like everyone else, look around them and see a certain group of vocal proponents of this or that scientific idea speaking in the name of “religion” (and not, say, Southern Baptist fundamentalism) and generalise from this to the view that all religious are like those people. But this is not true. There are religious people who are generally pro-science and pro-reason (as they understand it; they might be mistaken) but who don’t get the press the fundamentalist Baptists or Wahabist imams do. This is hard to avoid: we typically take our categories from prime examples around us, as we learn the language and societal norms of our community, a technique known as prototyping in linguistics and psychology. As we mature we will revise many of these simple examples but not all. There isn’t time to do this, and unless you are exposed to the reflective investigations of specialists through education (or well written popular books), you probably maintain most prototypes without much revision. But this is not a scientific or rational approach to a problem.

Religions are not monolithic blocks of belief, contrary to the way it is presented within religions themselves. There are usually multiple interpretations, attitudes to the secular, and sub communities of ideas and specialisms within any religion. Consider the Church of England. It has roughly three different communities: low church, broad church and high church (roughly, those influenced by evangelicalism, those who take a “middle way”, and those who are Catholic in all but allegiance to the See of Rome). Each of these has theologians, who specialise in doctrinal matters from an abstract perspective, the clergy, who are ordained and given a basic training in theology, pastoral care, and liturgy, among other topics, and the laity, who may be well or poorly educated in their own church traditions. if you were to criticise, say, evangelical Anglicanism, you would be best to look at what their theologians and biblical scholars say, and not their twice-a-year worshippers. So who should we ask the question about science in that community?

Who should we ask can accommodate science?

There is a standard principle of debating and reasoning known as the “principle of charity” (see Davidson 1973), according to which the argument you should combat in your opponent may not be the one they express, but the best possible and strongest version of it you can construct. This is so that if you can succeed in knocking it down, your opponent has no way to turn.

We could, of course, measure the effect that folk religion has had on the acceptance of science. This is a useful and important thing to do (see Numbers 2006). But that is a sociological investigation. Accommodating science within religion is a philosophical issue, not a sociological one (consider a reverse argument: science is not determined by what the majority think acceptable). So perhaps we should ask the following questions:

  • Which religion or form of religion should we ask whether it can accommodate science?
  • What represents the best (most charitable version of) that form of religion’s beliefs about the relation between science and [their] religion?
  • What are the solutions offered in that faith community’s traditions for dealing with science?

and finally

  • How well do these resources cope with science and the modern world?

We will address these points in subsequent posts.

Bibliography

Bulbulia, J. (2005). “Are there any religions? An evolutionary exploration.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 17: 71-100.

Byrne, R. (2006). The secret. London, Simon & Schuster.

Byrne, R. (2012). The magic. London, Simon & Schuster.

Davidson, D. (1973). “Radical Interpretation.” Dialectica 27: 314–328.

Dixon, A. C., R. A. Torrey and Others, Eds. (1910–1915). The fundamentals – a testimony to the truth. Chicago IL, Testimony Publishing Co. (Bible Institute of Los Angeles).

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: how religion poisons everything. New York, Twelve.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London, Allen Lane.

Numbers, R. L. (2006). The creationists: from scientific creationism to intelligent design. Cambridge, MA; London, Harvard University Press.

Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom. London, Murray.

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