Saturday, June 13, 2009


The atheist blogs are abuzz with the accommodationist debate: are science and religion compatible, and if we think that they aren’t, ought we to say so? Jerry Coyne has a listing of all the main posts here:

Right now I just want to consider this one post by Chris Mooney:

In it, Mooney outlines 3 reasons he attributes to Barbara Forrest for why we should not criticize the accommodationists:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

[Note, all three reasons are copied directly, and are not summaries of mine.]

I want to take these reasons in turn.

1. Etiquette. I don’t feel the force of this reason at all. Suppose I believe that accommodationism is false, and I base my belief on a certain array of reasons and evidence. If I write up my position and give my defenses, I will have criticized the accommodationists, because any criticism of accommodationism is ipso facto a criticism of accommodationists. So the “etiquette” principle entails I must shut up. But why should I have to shut up, while the accommodationists run around presenting their reasons and their evidence for the truth of accommodationism? That’s a sorry state for a public debate to be in, where one side is allowed to marshal its defenses and the other has to just be quiet and put up with it.

Maybe the alternative is that I’m allowed to present my case, but I must do it far away from where any accommodationist is, to avoid offense. But why? We’re told that “religion is a very private matter.” I don’t really know what that’s supposed to mean, but I imagine it’s something like: people cherish their religious beliefs, and are very upset when those beliefs are taken to task. If that’s what it means, then I can think of some other things that are very private matters: morality and well-being. But surely no-one thinks that we should just let the anti-abortionists, or the vaccine denialists and conspiracy theorists have the only say on those issues, because morality and well-being are “private matters.” And if religion is so freaking private and Ken Miller is after a “personal way of making meaning in the world” why does he have so many high profile books on accommodationism? This seems like nonsense.

Elsewhere Mooney & Co. argue that we need accommodationists like Miller as allies in the battle against religious fundie anti-science wackaloonery. I agree, and I’m all for accommodationist allies. But I say this: no-one is an ally of mine who is so afraid of any reasons or evidence that runs contrary to their view, that if presented with such would turn tail and run to the other side. That’s not an ally, that’s a passive-aggressive control freak with reality issues. Anybody who actually has respect for science and the scientific method will not be turned off but rather invigorated by critical scrutiny of their positions.

2. Diversity. I find the claims under the “diversity” heading staggeringly silly. If you read Coyne’s New Republic piece, here:

You’ll find that Coyne’s charge is precisely that the accommodationists do sacrifice scientific accuracy. He presents three specific charges (probably more, I haven’t read the piece for months): Miller-style accommodationism violates (a) the law of biology that says dead people don’t come back to life (b) the law of biology that says virgin births in mammals are impossible and (c) the (admittedly contestable) claim that human-like intelligent creatures are not inevitable products of evolution by natural selection. (a) is presumably necessary for natural selection at all, because death is the method of selection precisely because of its finality; (b) is a precondition of Fischer’s demonstration of the sex ratios; and (c), though it could be false, is certainly worth looking into and it would be absurd to suppress arguments for it on the grounds that otherwise Ken Miller is going to cry.

In fact, I don’t even know what Forrest and Mooney are thinking here. How could there be a scientific critique of accommodationism that wasn’t of the form: accommodationism sacrifices scientific accuracy?

3. Humility. Allow me to me non-humble for a moment, but what Forrest/ Mooney says here is literally stupid. Of course science can prove negatives. Here’s a go: it’s not the case that vaccines cause autism. Or, if negative existentials are your bag: it’s not the case that there exists matter at the top of a mercury barometer. Does Forrest think that it’s impossible to prove the existence of vacuums? Who is she, the Catholic Church circa 1200? What’s more, even in intuitionistic logic, you get the theorem: p → not-not-p, so a proof of anything is a proof of a negative. Suck on that!

I suspect the heart of the issue is that it’s not possible to prove the non-existence of God. But again, I think Forrest/ Mooney is trotting out methodological claims without thinking about them. It’s impossible to prove the non-existence of a deistic God; but one can certainly prove the non-existence of the accommodationist God. The accommodationist God by definition has causal traffickings with the physical world. He’s a watered down Christian God. I mean, Coyne’s whole point, again, is that science (in his opinion) tells against accommodationism. If it tells against accommodationism, it tells against the accommodationist God. Now, Coyne may be wrong in the end, but you don’t get that result for free by saying “humility.”

Just to head off one bit of criticism: yes, I know, I’ve been using “scientific proof” as a standard that delivers less than 100% credence, so it is always conceivable that accommodationism is true. But (a) if Coyne is right about the evidence, then this conceivability is on a par with, say, the conceivable propositions that the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Unicorn created the world; and (b) if Forrest/ Mooney is really saying we shouldn’t make scientific cases for claims we can’t establish beyond any doubt whatsoever, then they’re saying we shouldn’t make scientific cases at all.

OK, that’s the end. I’m sure all of these points have been made by posters and commenters elsewhere. But I plan to post more on accommodationism as the debate develops, and I thought a good first start was deconstructing this Forrest/ Mooney crap in detail.

P.S. Sorry I never got around to posting every Friday. This is difficult!


  1. Hi Michael,

    It's probably no shocker that I agree with most of what you say about this matter. So I'll just add a couple of points.

    1. Etiquette: Even someone who values etiquette as much as I do has to draw a line somewhere. Criticizing accommodationism is indeed ipso facto criticizing accommodationists. Were we to conclude that critical examination of that worldview is therefore off limits, that would have been bad enough. But simply to present positive reasons in favor of an irreligious, naturalistic worldview, even if one doesn't refer to accommodationism explicitly, is ipso facto to criticize the accommodationist, religious worldview. (Well, at least if one's reasons are supported by the facts available to all sides.) And to conclude that presenting views that are in conflict with someone else's is inherently "not nice" is doubly absurd.

    (Etiquette, at its best, is about not hurting people needlessly. Ken Miller is a tenured Ivy League professor and a significant public intellectual. I'm sure he'll be just fine if people publicly disagree with him. But this just makes the etiquette point more of a non-sequitur.)

    2. Diversity: I think the main reason this is a puzzling claim is that most criticisms we could direct at accommodationists apply to other religious views as well, in many cases a fortiori. If I criticize an accommodationist's theistic views as baseless, for example, I don't really need to repeat myself from the beginning when I turn my attention to a Young Earth Creationist.

    I do think it might be rash to say, as you do, that no life after death is a prerequisite for natural selection. Two counter-considerations: (i) if dead people come back to life very infrequently, or in a very small fraction of cases, then natural selection could proceed unimpeded; (ii) if coming back to life was only an option for sexually inactive individuals (like Jesus!), then natural selection could, again, proceed largely unimpeded. None of this is to mitigate the epistemic shortcomings of those who believe Christian myths.

    3. Humility: Um... yeah, I got nothing... That point sort of strains to merit a response... In addition to what you say, isn't refutation and revision of existing theories an essential part of scientific progress? One doesn't have to be a Popperian to agree that without demonstrating negatives science would have come to a stand-still.

    The problem is that these people see science (perhaps tacitly) as the process of observing and cataloging natural phenomena. But the God of accommodationism is too ethereal and New Age for that, and so almost by definition outside the purview of science on this naive conception of it.

    "Etiquette, Diversity, Humility!" - that's not a slogan that inspires revolutionary fervor...


  2. Pavel,

    A couple things:

    Diversity: you're right that I'm too rash here. There's little predictive difference between a law that says "dead people don't come back to life" and one that says "dead people don't come back to life-- except Jesus!" It's also not even clear if Jesus is made of people or not.

    I didn't get into this in the post, cuz it's a whole nother can of worms in the accommodationist debate, but I think the thing to say here is something like: but science chooses the stronger, exceptionless law rather than the weaker law, at least until credible counterevidence is produced, so science STILL tells against accommodationism. But I think this would get me labeled a "philosophical naturalist" which is somehow supposed to be outside the bounds of scientific practice (I dunno; see Mooney some more. I'll tackle this issue lataz.)

    Humility: there's one more thing to say that neither you nor I thought of: it had better not be the case that Forrest or Mooney can *prove* that it's not the case that science can prove negative theses, on pain of contradiction. So they can't deduce it, say, from the basic principles of scientific inquiry; thus it must be an empirical position. But I've yet to see the evidence, to say the least! (OK, again, maybe that's too rash: they might think that non-science shows that science can't prove negatives. But show me the non-science.)

  3. Jesus is made of 50% people and 50% love.