Category Archives: Religion

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.


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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Filed under Biology, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, Genetics, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Systematics

Closet Darwinism, and definitions

Every so often, somebody makes the case that “Darwinism”, “Darwinist” and “Darwinian”, being the generic noun, the individual term, and the adjective of Darwin’s name and therefore (supposedly) theory, are dead terms that cause nothing but harm (see Scott and Branch 2009). Larry Moran has just made this very argument, refusing to be called a “Darwinist” in the face of the fluffy-lapdog-bite challenge of the Intelligent Designists who want to put every one into the white hat/black hat category. We can ignore them here.

Larry’s argument is roughly this: modern evolutionary theory includes a host of ideas that do not rely upon the ubiquity of natural selection. “Darwinism” and cognates is basically a focus upon natural selection (and hence adaptationist views of biology). Ergo, modern evolutionary theory is not “Darwinian” in the main. I would say both of these premises are correct (of course – Larry is a very clever and erudite man), but that the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Scientific theories are not like, to pick a random example out of my hat,* a religious doctrine or philosophical idea, which remains constant and is defined clearly.** A theory is not a body of ideas; it is a research program as Imre Lakatos called it. It is lines of investigation, based on ideas that are continually refined and revised, often without anyone being aware that is what is happening. And it is a formalisation, usually in mathematics and techniques of analysis, of what start out as verbal formulations.

Consider modern physics. It began with some rough and ready ideas of Galileo on how bodies move, together with some mathematical formulations by Kepler of planetary orbits. When Newton came along and gave a general mathematical account of physics in the Principia, physics did not stop there. In fact, Laplace solved some puzzles (why orbits are stable) as much as 90 years later. And of course, Newton’s work, and the cumulative work of all the physicists in between, like Euler, Lagrange, and many others, occurred before Mach and Einstein came up with our present theories.

It would be hard to “define” Newtonian physics, although there would be some constant simple equations. Likewise, when Darwin proposed “my theory” as he called it, there were many elements to it, some of which did not survive Darwin himself for long (his theory of pangenesis, a theory of inheritance, was effectively dead in the water by 1910, 20 years or so after his death). It is clear that natural selection was one of his major theories, along with sexual selection, but the real novelty of his views was common descent, or as he called it, descent with modification. Natural selection was a refined version of ideas of elimination of the unfit that had a century long history before his own book. Darwin’s novelty was to include natural variation in populations, so that variations that happened to confer some advantage to their bearers would come to predominate the population, ratcheting up the fitness of the group overall.

This idea was not formalised until William Castle in the 1900s combined Mendelian inheritance with selection formally. Later, R. A. Fisher published The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930. Almost immediately, Sewall Wright introduced the notion of “genetic drift”, whereby populations would “wander” around the “adaptive landscape” due to what he called “sampling error”, where genes could be represented unequally in subsequent populations because of population size and the statistical vagaries of mating. In the 1960s and 1970s, this was further developed as “neutral theory”, whereby most mutations would be “silent” concerning fitness, and through drift could come to be dominant in a population.

All this is often subsumed under the general umbrella of “population genetics”, which was the main evolutionary research program in the 20th century. It culminated in the theoretical work of many, such as Sergey Gavrilets, showing that based on what we know about genetics, genes can evolve just as Darwin saw in nature.

So let’s ask, what counts as “Darwinism”? Sure, a great many philosophically inclined thinkers, like Dawkins, Mayr and others have treated natural selection as the be-all and end-all of “Darwinism”, but in fact the field has always been wider than that. In the 1980s, this got recast as a battle between followers of Dawkins (and indirectly, John Maynard Smith) and Gould (and indirectly, Richard Lewontin), or between “adaptationists” (Gould’s term) and “contingency theorists” (my term).

The point though, is that this is an internecine debate within evolutionary biology, and even more, that both sides claim to be “Darwinians”. I think that from the outside, it appears that evolutionary biology (which certainly derives from Darwin) is like a religion, in that these schisms and schools are all Darwinian. Just as Christianity has a slew of sects, so too does Darwinian biology. The difference is that in the end, biology is determined by empirical evidence, whereas in religion the battles are won by the use of the sword or gun, or more rarely, persuasion based on rhetorical skill.

We might take a term of religion here: “Darwinism” is a big tent. It can include these “non-Darwinian” or “post-Darwinian” ideas because that is exactly how science proceeds. Just as Newtonian physics came to include ideas very unlike what Newton himself had held, so too has Darwinian biology.

Given that Larry is a constant advocate for processes and ideas other than natural selection in evolutionary biology, he might well be seen as not Darwinian in the manner that the adaptationists (whether they think that only natural selection matters, or simply ignore or run roughshod over other processes) are, but historically, he is well within the Darwinian research program, and I suspect he would agree to this. The broad version of “Darwinism”, not the simplistic version of popular science. Larry is Darwinian.

A large part of the problem lies in the way some (for example, Daniel Dennett) have made natural selection the only thing that matters, in any arena let alone biology. Natural selection certainly does matter, but so too do the other implications of a population genetical approach to biology, drift and neutral evolution. Gavrilets has even shown how populations under strong selection can “drift” in high dimensional fitness landscapes of thousands of genes. All this is coming together in ways nobody had thought possible decades before. “Darwinism” is evolving. I take Larry to be a Darwinist, Darwinian in his ideas, and promoting the broad sense of “Darwinism”.

As to the ID folk, basically they do no science, and think very simply. We should ignore what they say as warmed over creationism (creationism also evolves, in this case into ID).

* Not.

** In fact, neither are religious doctrines or philosophical positions, if you ever actually read any history of these fields. Ideas are protean and, dare I say it, evolve.


Castle, William E. 1903. “The laws of Galton and Mendel and some laws governing race improvement by selection.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 39:233–242.

Castle, William E. 1910. “The effect of selection upon Mendelian characters manifested in one sex only.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 8 (2):185-192.

Castle, William E. 1911. Heredity: In Relation to Evolution and Animal Breeding. New York, London: D. Appleton and Company

Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fisher, Ronald Aylmer. 1930. The genetical theory of natural selection. Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, (rev. ed. Dover, New York, 1958).

Gavrilets, Sergey. 1997. “Evolution and speciation on holey adaptive landscapes.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 12 (8):307-312.

Gavrilets, Sergey. 2004. Fitness landscapes and the origin of species, Monographs in population biology; v. 41. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford, England: Princeton University Press.

Lakatos, Imre. 1970. “Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes.” In Criticism and the growth of knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 91-196. London: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, Eugenie C., and Glenn Branch. 2009. “Don’t Call it “Darwinism”.” Evolution: Education and Outreach 2 (1):90-94.

Wright, Sewall. 1931. “Evolution in Mendelian populations.” Genetics 16 (2):97-159.

Wright, Sewall. 1932. “The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in evolution.” In Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics, edited by Donald F. Jones, 356-366. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


Filed under Creationism and Intelligent Design, Evolution, History, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Theories

Accommodating Science: Neurobiology and the mind 1

[This is part of the as yet unfinished section of the “Which Science? chapter.]

The argument over evolution versus intelligent design … is a relatively small-stakes theological issue compared with the potential eruption in neuroscience over the material nature of the mind. Siding with evolution does not really pose a serious problem for many deeply religious people, because one can easily accept evolution without doubting the existence of a non-material being. (Kosik 2006)

It has always been the opinion of western religion that a person is responsible for their own actions. So when Marshall Hall in the 1830s tried to demonstrate an involuntary action, in the form of what is now called the “reflex arc”, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, it was considered by some on the Council that this was too radical an idea, despite similar proposals having been published in France (Manuel 1996). In particular, Peter Mark Roget, author of the famous Thesaurus, and an author of one of the Bridgewater Treatises, was secretary to the Society, and seems to have held animosity against Hall. His ideas were later published by the newly formed British Association. After his death, he was lauded for having discovered that some reaction of organisms was due neither to the operations of a soul, nor in response to sensory stimulation (Manuel 1980).

It might be thought that this is a great case of religious sensibilities interfering with science, but in fact Hall was a Christian of some piety, and was discriminated against for a position as a result. The objection to the idea of an involuntary reflex was in fact a widely-held view that people act only when they are moved to do so by their inner nature. We might call this “secular Calvinism”, a very judgemental attitude often shared by members of the medical profession, that patients are responsible for their illnesses, whether through insufficient self-care, or through some internal flaw of character.

Science since Hall has added natural mechanism upon natural mechanism to the explanation of human behaviour, to the point where some philosophers are doubting the existence of any kind of freely chosen action at all. This is called the “free will” or “determinism” debate. It arises out of theological debates about God’s foreknowledge and our moral culpability: Luther denied the will was free, and Calvin agreed. But the determination was made by God, not natural law.

In 1848, an unfortunate fellow by the the name of Phineas Gage was tamping, that is, compressing, dynamite in a hole for blasting for the railroad being built in Vermont. It exploded, sending the seven foot long tamping rod through his cheek and up through the top of his head. Gage survived without apparent mental damage, but his personality changed. Prior to the accident he had been a sober and righteous man with great care for his money and no tendency to swear. Afterwards he was careless with money, given to fits of anger, swearing and occasional violence. To us it is obvious he suffered brain damage, but to his contemporaries, this was shocking. How could a physical cause affect someone’s personality, which was held to be a moral entity, not a physical one? Gage’s experience made it obvious that the brain made the personality, and moreover, that it determined how we behaved. [1]  A school of psychology known as “behaviorism” arose, in which it was felt that the inner workings of the mind mattered little – mind was all about its behaviour.

All this raised red flags for the religious. Most western religion was founded upon the idea that what you did was your fault or virtue, and that you chose to be the way you were; that is, you might have chosen differently. Echoes of this attitude can be found in the view that drug addiction or homosexuality are a “lifestyle choice”. The alternative, that people are what they are innately or by their physical nature, was unacceptable. It would have meant that choices are not culpable, that you cannot blame the perpetrator of a moral wrong for their action.

Behaviourism eventually gave way to a more sensible approach, in which what happens inside one’s mind affects actions as much as a stimulus and response reflex. And real progress was occurring in neurobiology. The ways in which brains work, from the very small level of how one neuron signals the next, through to the large scale in which certain regions of the brain are seen to be critical for thinking, feeling and perceiving, were uncovered and refined. It now looked as if science allowed no room whatsoever for moral responsibility (Damasio 2005).

Neuroscience doesn’t usually make the mistake often made by science journalists: your behaviour is not explained by your genes. Instead, as all biologists know, your genes provide an influence upon how you develop in a given environment. You may have the “gene for” a particular mental illness, but never be exposed to the environmental conditions of stress, poor nutrition, or lack of social support which will issue forth in that illness. Genes dispose you to respond to environments in particular ways, but the environments are just as crucial for those ways as the genes.

What genetic underpinnings do with the brain and therefore the mind, is they set up your dispositions: that is, the ways you are likely to respond to environmental cues. If you have the right dispositions then in the right context you may become a creative person (but the avenue for your creativity is going to be socially determined), or an intellectual (but whether or not you become a theologian or a scientist will depend also upon what social context you grow up in), and so on.

That this is problematic for theology should be obvious. Islam, Christianity and Judaism all rely upon moral culpability as the foundation for their religious duties and rituals. And all societies, no matter the religion upon which they are based, punish those who break the moral and cultural rules. Punishment, it may be thought, supposes that one has a choice to break of keep those rules.

Genetic determinism was for a long time the scientific equivalent of Nazism. In fact, those who argued for it were literally called fascists or nazis (Segerstråle 2000). So there is a strong political element to the results of neuroscience. Is there a religious element? It seems to me that religious criticisms of neuroscience are embedded in a wider objection to determinism in science. In order to make room for “spirit” or “soul”, religious thinkers are obliged to reject the idea that we are determined by genes, the nature of our body, and our environment. And not only religious thinkers reject this: it is the default opinion in philosophy that some aspects of mind are not reducible to the biophysical. Even if it is only intension (the “aboutness” of sentences) or qualia (the what-it-is-like to be me, or a bat, or seeing blue), most philosophers think there is a problem with a simple physical account of nature and of mind.

But the fact remains that over the past 180 years since Hall, we have explained more and more about our minds in terms of our neural bodies. And mind, like the explanatory God of natural theology, is increasingly to be found in the gaps of what we have not yet explained physically. But this is not a religious problem as much as it is a problem for the late western dualist metaphysics that is contingently that of religion. This is a bit of a novel claim, so let me explain.

It is often said that dualism – the mind-body dichotomy of Descartes – is the “default” view of humans, but in fact I believe the default view is that humans are just bodies. The dualism of Descartes was the result of the adoption of Augustinian neo-Platonic metaphysics. Before this dualism was made famous by Plato, in the ancient world (the Mediterranean and surrounding areas) defaulted to the view that when you died, your shade was not you, because it had no life, and that it was just a shadow of the real you. In the Hebrew tradition preserved in Ezekiel, the sixth century BCE prophet, resurrection was a bodily thing:

With the hand of Adonai upon me, Adonai carried me out by his Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley, and it was full of bones. He had me pass by all around them — there were so many bones lying in the valley, and they were so dry! He asked me, “Human being, can these bones live?” I answered, “Adonai Elohim! Only you know that!” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones! Say to them, ‘Dry bones! Hear what Adonai has to say! To these bones Adonai Elohim says, “I will make breath enter you, and you will live. I will attach ligaments to you, make flesh grow on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you. You will live, and you will know that I am Adonai.” [Ezekiel 37:1–6, Complete Jewish Bible]

Although this is a metaphor for the situation of Israel, it indicates how living things were bodies with breath (ruach), and this included human beings. The notion of ruach has been interpreted by later Christian and some Platonist Judaic theologians as being “spirit” or “soul”, but this is not the case: instead it is the motivating force of living things, akin more to Aristotle’s notion of psuche than to Aquinas’ notion of a soul. [2]

Prior to certain dualistic religions like Christianity, some forms of Buddhism, Hinduism and their offshoots, the default assumption, and a very reasonable one it is too, is that we are just bodies. To be sure, we are bodies with special properties, but we are physical things. Most folk magic relies on this: we have certain substances that make us ill or evil, which can be removed with the appropriate techniques.

So the notion that we are brains in bodies, and nothing much else, while it provides a real problem for theologians, is not exactly new. How theologians deal with it depends on the theological metaphysics they are committed to. Some argue that in addition to the human physical structure, there is also a “soul” that is not physical – this is official Catholic doctrine. Others argue that though we may be physical, we still have moral properties that are not physical. Still others wander off into “humans are co-creators of the universe” territory (see Barbour 2000: for details of these moves).

The physical nature of the mind is perhaps the greatest challenge by science to the “manifest image” of ordinary thought. It is not helpful that many authors claim that “mind is an illusion” or “there is no self” when reporting these results in popular science. If there is anything like a self, and there is, then it is something made not from a single simple substance, but from multiple less complex parts – modules, as they are sometimes called – in the brain. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; just that we understand it better. If there is no homunculus sitting in my head directing things, it doesn’t therefore mean I am not a unity or behave in a deliberate fashion. It means that older metaphor was wrong. I think, and I am; the rest is detail.

But this is not comfortable for many religious believers. The manifest image is taken to be the truth, as folk ideas are taken by ordinary folk in psychology, physics, biology and history. This is hardly a surprise, but is there something more worrisome, even to elite thinkers in a religion?

Clearly there is. A slew of books under the general rubric of “neurotheology” has been published since the mid-1990s to deal with the results and theories of modern cognitive neuroscience. Some of these are obvious: for instance, the supposed results of Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, that we “decide” to take an action long (several hundred milliseconds, which is long to a neuroscientist) after our brain starts the action (Libet 1985; 1999). Theologians who believe in free will find this physiological determinism highly offensive. So do some scientists, however, so this means nothing until we consider why the theologians are objecting.

Libet’s claim is that the readiness potential of the brain begins activating the pathways before any conscious decision is taken. This would imply that what we think is the outcome of consciousness is in fact the cause of consciousness. Assuming what some scientists have challenged, that the timings are correct in his experiments, this would imply many things for the mind, the soul and moral responsibility, let alone a free will. If the person who is the subject of moral choices, survival after death, or possession of a soul is merely (there’s that word again – always beware words like “merely” or “just” in philosophy and science) a brain and nervous system acting according to physical processes like sodium ion exchanges between neurons, this must undercut the entire foundation for religion, so they argue. Hence either religion or science is wrong, and in this case, the religious believer may push for science being at fault.

Only, and remember the lessons we learned from the previous case studies, that seems not to be what those who work on science and religion from within the religions are doing. Instead, they write books which, you guessed it!, seek to reconcile religion with this new science (Alston 2007; Barrett 2007; Joseph 2003; Newberg 2010). Why, it is almost as if the religious traditions know they are on a bad bet if they attack the science and leave eternal verities hostage to the results of empirical research!

Of course there will be, as there are in any possible topic to do with religion, cases which can be seen as rejecting religion, but by and large the response of academic believers is to reconcile.

Let us consider what topics of neuroscience conflict with long-held religious beliefs, and why.


A commonplace statement made within the philosophy of mind is that dualism is the “default” or “native” view about minds. Dualism, of course, is the view that we are a composite of a physical body and a mental but not-physical mind. It is implicit in the Christian doctrine of the soul apart from the body (a view not shared by many Jewish thinkers, as it relies more upon Greek dualism than Hebrew thought), and of course it runs rampant through European intellectual history, due mainly to direct or indirect influences from Plato. It is also implicit within many Vedic and Buddhist writings.

In the seventeenth century, at the beginnings of the scientific revolution, of course, the French mathematician and philosopher, René Descartes suggested that the body was a form of machine, working according to physical laws, but that the mind was something unconstrained by mere mechanical powers. He held that it was separate from the body. Bodies, filled space, minds didn’t. Bodies could be doubted, but one’s own mind could not be (“I think, therefore I am”, as Descartes wrote). Bodies had objective properties only, but minds had subjective first-person perspectives and experiences.

Thus, Descartes’ [Cartesian] dualism became, for a long while, the standard philosophical view in the west, until a form of “materialism” – the view that all that existed was material stuff [3] – of mind was introduced in the nineteenth century. A theory known for a while as “Australian materialism”, which I am justly proud as an Australian was developed in Australia where the heat prevents souls from long surviving, held that the mind was nothing more than the brain itself. This is more generally known now as “monism” or “identity theory”.

The general trend of neuroscientific progress has been to confirm or agree with identity theory. What had been explained by souls and ethereal passions or ideas in the past came more and more to be explained as physiological processes in a physical system or nerves, cells and chemistry. The invention of “functional magnetic resonance imaging”, or fMRI, allowed researchers to increasingly “see” the activity of the brain as it underwent experiences, made decisions, and reasoned. Despite the rather coarse grain of such images (fMRI has been compared to trying to work out the conversations on telephones by measuring the temperatures of the telephone exchanges), it is increasingly hard to deny that the brain is where thinking happens.

This has obvious implications for some, not all, religions. Those modern religions which hold that resurrection or reincarnation involves the survival of the person as a disembodied soul or mind or spirit must find the notion that all the defining characters of those entities can be explained by neurology seriously challenging.

One “solution” might be to do with the mind what the Catholic Church  did with the “substance” of the Host, and “metaphysicalise the mind”. In fact, that is exactly how the Catholic Church dealt with the evolution of the body. Another might be to say that the “soul” is a Hellenistic notion that Abrahamic religions need not appeal to. [4]

As always, when science and religion conflict, religion, not science, adapts. And this rear guard action fought by religion about this new science of the brain is always reactive.


1. Gage most likely did not exhibit the behaviours ascribed to him by his physician, twenty years later, but managed to accommodate his brain injuries through what is called social recovery, in which social influences kept urges in check and helped the patient relearn social skills. But the way his physician described Gage’s experience did affect the common view that behaviour came from the brain. It is not coincidental that the physician, Harlow, was an advocate of phrenology (Macmillan 2010).

2. In Aristotle’s De Anima he explains living things as the result of “soul”, of which there were three kinds: the vegetative, which causes growth from nutrition, the motive, which causes organisms to be able to move, and the mental, in which class only humans exist. Each of these is some kind of force that causes the dynamic behaviour, and there is no hint he thought that they survive death.

3. When fields were introduced into physics, and energy came to be seen as transformations in fields rather than corpuscles or particles, materialism changed to become, by the middle of the twentieth century, physicalism, where all that existed was what physical theories required to exist. However, the term “materialism” survives, especially in theological writings, so it must be understood to be physicalism rather than the view that matter, which fills space, is all there is.

4. The Intelligent Design movement for example, denies dualism, but also denies that one can explain all cognition in physical terms, a position they call “nonreductive physicalism”. In the end this turns out to be Aristotlelian thinking: mind is what is made possible by body, but is more than body in some manner. The point is that this “nonreductive physicalism” has no empirical consequences whatsoever.


Alston, B. C. (2007). What Is Neurotheology?, Createspace Independent Pub.

Barbour, I. G. (2000). When science meets religion: enemies, strangers, or partners? San Francisco, HarperSan Francisco.

Barrett, J. L. (2007). “Is the spell really broken? Bio-psychological explanations of religion and theistic belief.” Theology and Science 5(1): 57 – 72.

Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes’ error : emotion, reason, and the human brain. London, New York, Penguin.

Joseph, R. (2003). NeuroTheology: brain, science, spirituality, religious experience. San Jose, Calif., University Press.

Kosik, K. S. (2006). “Neuroscience gears up for duel on the issue of brain versus deity.” Nature 439(7073): 138-138.

Libet, B. (1985). “Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action.” Behavioral and brain sciences 8(4): 529-566.

Libet, B. (1999). “Do we have free will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(8-9): 47-57.

Manuel, D. E. (1980). “Marshall Hall, F.R.S. (1790-1857): A Conspectus of His Life and Work.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 35(2): 135-166.

Manuel, D. E. (1996). Marshall Hall (1790-1857): Science and Medicine in Early Victorian Society. Atlanta GA, Rodopi.

Newberg, A. B. (2010). Principles of neurotheology. Farnham, Ashgate.

Segerstråle, U. (2000). Defenders of the truth: the sociobiology debate. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Filed under Accommodationism, Philosophy, Religion

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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Filed under Accommodationism, Book, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, History, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science

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.


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.


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.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, Journalism, Media, Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Accommodating science: Strategy

[This is part of the final chapter. It is unfinished, but I have to move on to some other activities, so it may not be completed for a while. Also, the chapter on neuroscience and religion will take a while to work up. So expect one more section soon, and then nothing for a while.]

So, at this point we need to summarise. I wish I could have given you a simple and straightforward answer to the question Is religion able to accommodate science? but it has no simple or straightforward answer. I can, however, give you my conclusions:

When a religious opinion contradicts our best science about matters of fact and explanation, science wins. That is, science should be deferred to, especially in the secular sphere (in the wider community than the religious community that rejects the facts). If you do not defer to science in these cases, you cannot fairly claim to be interested in knowing about the way things really are.

When a religious opinion has no empirical consequences, then no amount of scientific reasoning can show it to be false or unacceptable, most especially when dealing with matters of value. Consequently, claims that science has shown God to be a failed hypothesis only work when God was intended to be an explanation of some particular aspect of the natural order. Since many if not most modern versions of religion no longer make that assertion, their version of their religion is not in danger from science, and it is simply wrong to assert otherwise. And moreover, scientific results can in no way affect the claim that the reason for the existence of the universe itself is the intent or action of a deity, since that cannot be tested. While there is no empirical evidence to suggest a deity is needed (that would be another book, not this one, so take my word for it here), neither can there be any empirical evidence against such a deity, so long as nothing about that deity changes the expectation of the way the empirical world will be from a scientific one.

Religion is not a single unitary phenomenon that can be blamed or praised all at once. Like any human institution it has degrees, varieties and loose and strong interconnections, and moral culpability does not transfer without loss from one part of a religion to another. To say otherwise is to blame very human being for every bad thing any human being has ever done, by parity of reasoning. Claims that “religion poisons everything” end up as vapid as “everything is affected by everything else”, and pay little to no attention to the actual research on the function and influence of religious ideas. I will stick with my own view that religion is a banner under which socioeconomic interests gather, and almost never the direct cause of institutional processes. However, religious ideas can and do affect the beliefs and actions of individuals, and that is enough to be worrying about. It pays not to oversell the problem if we want to deal with it effectively.

So the final issue is what the right strategy should be for pro-science advocates to deal with the actual, not the imagined, religious interference in science and science education. To resolve this, let’s consider some recent research on how people do or do not change their minds in a public debate.

How to change people’s minds

When Chris Mooney wrote a piece for Mother Jones, entitled “Seven reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution”,[60] he was simply reporting the arguments made by a range of cognitive scientists of religion and psychology that certain types of belief are more “natural” for human beings than belief in some of the more arcane or distant results of science. The argument has also been made by Robert McCauley in his recent book Why religion is natural and science is not (McCauley 2011). The argument runs like this: our evolved cognitive dispositions did not evolve to understand the truths of science, but instead to adapt to social agency. Religion, which is a cultural expression of our social dispositions and cognitive biases, is therefore something very natural for us as a species to adopt (given the many meanings of “religion”, this may be overstated). Science, on the other hand, deals with large numbers, long periods, the very large and the very small, and these are things we did not evolve to deal with.

The reaction of some bloggers, such as PZ Myers, whose blog Pharyngula is one of the most widely read new atheist blogs in the US,[61] and Lawrence Moran, whose Sandwalk is a Canadian equivalent,[62] was therefore rather surprising. Mooney was accused of “selling” accommodationism, and making out that atheists were somehow mutants. It was a great over-reaction, and had an obvious agenda behind it: to denigrate any hint that accommodation is a respectable strategy. Why is this? After all, a fact is a fact, and the fact that something like religion is in general a natural default mindset for human beings doesn’t therefore mean one must accommodate religion in science.

The reason has to do with longstanding opposition to strategies that are in some fashion conciliatory to religious believers. It is thought that this “tone” debate defangs opposition to religion in science, and makes critics seem shrill when in fact aggressive argument is called for. Often, parallels are drawn with minority rights movements like the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. And there is real substance to this. To be an atheist in modern America is matched only by the costs of being an atheist in Turkey or Indonesia in the modern industrial world: atheists are less well trusted than politicians, used car salesmen and rapists! This is not the case in most of the rest of the industrial world, however. Atheists are regularly elected as leaders or representatives in other countries, including my own, although there is a worrying trend towards public religiosity among the majority parties even in Australia.

This goes right back to the origins of religious toleration in the United States. In the famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” by the philosopher John Locke, offered to the American colonists as a defence of secular government, he basically exempted atheists from all civil rights, because

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

In other words, atheists can’t be trusted since they have nobody to swear their oaths by. This is one of those “If you don’t believe what I believe, there’s something wrong with you” moments. Nonbelievers aren’t fully human, and can’t be expected to be honest.

But in a secular society, where religious exceptionalism is not established as law of the land (which one could hope were every industrialised nation, although it isn’t the case), discussion between religious and areligious interests has to be carried out without the privilege either of religion or the unquestioned authority of science, and so the debate rages either as political warfare, or as civil debate. Neither approach works well in every case, but I aim to argue that civil debate is the right starting point. 

[60] 26 November 2013 < people-deny-evolution>

[61] [<>

[62] [<>


Filed under Accommodationism, Politics, Religion, Science

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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Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science