Sunday, June 28, 2009

Accommodationism II

Joshua Rosenau over at Thoughts from Kansas has a new post up about the accommodationist debate.

It’s typical of the accommodationist genre: reinterpret Coyne so that he’s saying something he repeatedly says he’s not saying, and then have an irrelevant and one-sided debate. Here’s a taste. First, the old (old, old, getting very old) canard that: look! there are religious scientists, so science and faith are compatible:

“Fr. George Coyne is an astronomer. He was, for many years, the director of the Vatican Observatory, and was a Jesuit priest for even longer. Does he see any conflict between his study of the heavens and his belief in heaven? Not at all

[Note: this is confusing. JERRY Coyne is the anti-accommodationist; GEORGE Coyne is the catholic astronomer.]

Yes, yes, we get it. One and the same person can say both “I believe in the divinity of Jesus” and “I believe in contemporary evolutionary biology.” That was news, like, never and a half ago. So what’s supposed to be the upshot of Fr. G. Coyne-style accommodationism?

“Theology responds to new scientific discoveries, just as it reacts to cultural shifts. Claims about theology are tested in a different way than scientific claims, indeed cannot be tested as scientific claims, but that does not mean they are invalid. He sees science and religion as connected, as informing one another in certain ways, and as rooted in the same reality, therefore incapable of contradiction. Apparent contradictions must be addressed by further study.”

What does it mean for science and religion to be “incapable of contradiction”? And what is an “apparent contradiction”? I take it the view is this: suppose current science supports theory T1, which entails that p; and current theology supports theory T2, which entails that not-p. Then science and religion are in “apparent contradiction.” But the contradiction is only apparent, because “further study” ultimately resolves the contradiction, by replacing either T1 with another theory that doesn’t entail p; or by replacing T2 with another theory that doesn’t entail not-p; or by replacing both theories in such a way to bring them into consistency.

But here’s where things get interesting. Forget whether science and religion are capable of contradiction, and focus on the question of whether they can be in conflict. I take it that some method of inquiry is in conflict with science if when science supports T1 and the other method T2, where T1 and T2 are inconsistent, it is (always or sometimes) science (that is, T1) that must be abandoned or revised. Surely we cannot tolerate methods of inquiry that conflict with science, so the real question is not whether apparent contradictions can always be resolved, but whether they are always resolved in such a way that science wins, and religion loses.

But this isn’t what we actually see from accommodationists:

“If Jesus lived, he walked the same world I do. If he was divine, the words he spoke struck ears like mine. His miracles were either sleight of hand, embellishments by later storytellers, or suspensions of natural laws. If I could take James Randi back a couple thousand years, I could figure that out, but as it is, all I can do is believe what I believe and let Christians believe what they do.”

Please, for the love of God, can’t one single accommodationist read Jerry Coyne’s New Republic piece? Let me state the argument. Among the basic principles of science is the uniformity principle (UP) as articulated by, among others, Harlequin, Emperor of the Moon: things are always and everywhere exactly as they are here*. That is, if the universal law of gravitation holds on Earth, it holds on the Moon, and the superlunary realm, and a million years ago, and a billion years ago, and a billion years hence. The assumption that nature is uniform is just the assumption that induction works, or that science is possible. And we use UP all the time to argue against creationist nonsense. We say, for instance, that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, because we know (for instance) that radioisotope carbon-14 decays at a certain rate now and thus must always have done so, and thus some things have been around far longer than 6,000 years. Coyne’s argument, if anyone would bother to read it, is that one must reject UP to hold on to statements like “Jesus came back from the dead,” and “Mary was a virgin when she gave birth.” But if you abandon UP when it suits you, you have no principled grounds for rejecting the young Earth creationist’s claim that carbon-14 used to decay at a much faster rate. So accommodationism is on a par with young Earth creationism, at least so far as it rejects, without principle, fundamental aspects of scientific methodology.

Now, I don’t want to weigh in in favor of Jerry Coyne’s argument (here, at any rate). It certainly excited me when I first read it, and that’s what I hoped to get out of the accommodation debate: whether J. Coyne was right. But it seems that literally no-one has read the argument, or no-one has the intellectual honesty to reply to it. You can’t just baldly assert, in the face of compelling counterarguments, that there’s just nothing one ought to believe in these cases, and that accommodationist Christians are just as rational as atheists. That’s precisely the claim at issue! At least say something about the counterarguments.

Rosenau does try to place some religious doctrines even beyond the bounds of the UP:

“Randi and I could surely figure out what the score is with the loaves and the fishes and the wine. I don't know any way that we could test Jesus' divinity, or whether Mary was born with or without original sin.”

I’m thoroughly unconvinced. It’s like saying we can never know whether there are ionizing particles in a cloud chamber, because we can’t see tiny little particles. Yes, but physical theory predicts a mist around such particles, if present, and we can see the mist. Similarly, divine people can, I don’t know, perform miracles; or their predictions are never false; or they never lie, cheat, or steal. Can’t I observe Jesus to see whether he fits the bill? Does ‘divine’ mean so little nowadays? I’ll readily admit that some claims can’t be tested—e.g. “Mr. X has special property Y, which is in principle undetectable by anyone in anyway”—but most religious claims don’t seem to be of this form.

Alright, final quote:

“[Fr. G. Coyne] believes what he believes, he doesn't impose it on others, and it would be as wrong for others to impose their beliefs about science and religion on him as it would be for him to impose his beliefs on me.”

Arg! Since when did anyone advocate imposing atheism on anyone? Let me just make this very clear: as far as I see the accommadationist debate, there are two fundamental issues: (a) are science and religion in conflict? (b) ought we to say so, if that’s true? No anti-accommodationist has ever asked the question “Ought we to force others to be atheists?” and certainly none has or would answer it affirmatively. So STOP PRETENDING THEY DO.

I leave you with Hume, from the end of On Miracles (in the Enquiries):

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish… When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”

*Check Leibniz, New Essays, for the reference.


  1. "Surely we cannot tolerate methods of inquiry that conflict with science"

    I don't know whether this is true, but it's beside the point, which was about "apparent conflicts". (What does 'science' refer to here?) First, here is something I take to be true, and take to be the content of the "apparent conflicts" claim: surely there is nothing wrong with rejecting a scientific theory because it entails something (say, that p) we know to be false, even if we know p on the basis of something other than science (perception, mathematical proof, divine revelation, etc. - note, this is a conditional claim, compatible with nothing being known on the basis of perception etc.). Do you deny this? If so, why?

    Second, the point of saying that the conflicts are apparent is that perhaps they are illusory: perhaps our current science does not in fact entail that no one is altruistic (as Dawkins and Ridley claim). If it does, then it entails something that I know to be false (on the basis of observation). But, as far as I can tell, the conflict that Dawkins and Ridley think they see is merely apparent.

    There are lots of apparent conflicts - this isn't some weird notion that theists cooked up at a bible study. Russell showed, for example, that 'Pegasus does not exist' only apparently entails 'Pegasus is': (and hence is only apparently in conflict with those who would deny Pegasus any sort of being whatsoever). Many nominalists argue that '2 is prime' only apparently entails that abstract entities exist, etc.

  2. Continued...As for Coyne's argument (as you presented it, at least):

    "Among the basic principles of science is the uniformity principle (UP)...Coyne’s argument, if anyone would bother to read it, is that one must reject UP to hold on to statements like “Jesus came back from the dead,” and “Mary was a virgin when she gave birth.” But if you abandon UP when it suits you, you have no principled grounds for rejecting the young Earth creationist’s claim that carbon-14 used to decay at a much faster rate. So accommodationism is on a par with young Earth creationism, at least so far as it rejects, without principle, fundamental aspects of scientific methodology."

    I'm unmoved by this. Would you accept this gloss on the argument: science is incompatible with a belief in miracles (violations of the laws of nature)? If not, it would be helpful to say why.

    In any case, I get lost when we use weird nouns that don't really refer to anything (or are ambiguous in important ways) like 'science' in context like this. A lot of the very best science (the activity) that has ever been conducted was conducted by people who believed in miracles. (e.g., all the great scientists of the enlightenment) So that is obviously possible - someone who believes in miracles (and hence rejects UT, I take it) can conduct very good science. As far as I can see, UT is neither a scientific theory itself not presupposed by any scientific theory that I know of. So rejecting UT seems to be compatible with accepting the results of science, at least.

    But the claim, I take it, is that scientific methodology is inconsistent with the existence of miracles. This obviously won't be the conception of scientific methodology that triumphed in the scientific revolution (since that methodology was both developed and applied by theists), but who cares. The question is, what does this new conception of proper scientific methodology have to offer us? Why should we accept it. One might argue that, once you believe in miracles, you'll never be able to tell whether some scientific hypothesis has been falsified or whether a miracle occurred. But that's not true, any more than the fact that one's measuring devices can make mistakes means that no theory is ever falsified. Most religious people do not think that miracles happen all the time for no apparent reason. Indeed, that view is incompatible with orthodox theology. So there is a very strong presumption against some event being miraculous, except in very special circumstances. I say that the claim that someone (God or the Devil) has been miraculously tinkering with the rate of radioactive decay isn't plausible (on theological or other grounds), just as the claim that all our measuring instruments have been acting up when we measure rates of radioactive decay isn't very plausible. I think that both these things are possible, strictly speaking. But so what? These admissions do not chance me level of confidence in the results of carbon dating one whit. The reason it is irrational to think that rates of radioactive decay have been miraculously changing is that there is very good reason to think that this is false, not that it would violate UT. Or at least, so say I.

  3. Continued...Anyhow, what I want to know is why I have to accept UT if I'm going to be a "real" scientist (Newton), or a real fan of science or whatever. Actually, what I want to know most of all is how to properly write the last sentence. What, specifically, is the conflict between religion and science between? It looks like you admit that there can be theist scientists. I assume that you don't believe that there is a mature and successful scientific theory that shows that, say, Christianity is false. It seems like you're arguing that there is an inconsistency between methods of inquiry: accepting a scientific methodology commits one to UT, which is inconsistent with a belief in miracles. If I'm understanding you correctly, I think much more argumentation is needed in order to show that the correct method of inquiry is committed to UT.

    The only argument I can think of is that if we believe miracles are possible, science would be inductive: I could never prove a theory false because I could never prove that a miracle hadn't occurred. But this isn't much of an objection, since science IS inductive. So I need to hear more about why I (or scientists/science fans) should accept UT (in a strong form that rules out miracles).