Joshua Rosenau over at Thoughts from
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.