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.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Science's Claim to Truth

Here's a common trope: science is not warranted in claiming that its deliverances are true. Science doesn't "get at" the truth; rather, it "gets at" what the evidence most supports. So scientists shouldn't claim that their theories are true; rather, they should claim that their theories are what the evidence most supports.

I see this on blogs now and again (I got on someone's case just the other day for saying it), and I think here's a place where a little simple philosophy can help the non-philosopher out.

1. First objection. If anyone's warranted in asserting certain matters of empirical fact, such as that chiropractic is bogus, scientists are. Some people are warranted in asserting such matters; therefore, scientists are. Anyone warranted in asserting that p is warranted in asserting that "p" is true, because "p" is true when and only when p. Therefore, scientists are warranted in asserting, for example, that it is true that chiropractic is bogus.

2. Second objection. To be warranted in asserting that p, one must know that p. This is why it is infelicitous to say "p, but I don't know whether p" (for example: "it's raining, but I don't know whether it is or not"). So if a scientist is ever warranted in asserting anything, she must know it. But scientists are sometimes warranted in asserting things; therefore scientists sometimes know things. But knowledge is factive: if S knows p, then "p" is true. So to be warranted in asserting something, it must be true; provided scientists know this (and if they didn't before, now they do), they may infer from the fact that their assertions are warranted that what they say is true.

3. Third objection. A standard scientific reasoning pattern is abduction. Thus, we argue from the correlation between a rise in man-made greenhouse gasses and a rise in global temperatures, to the best explanation: the conclusion that humans are causing global warming. But on equally good footing is the inference from "the evidence supports p" to "'p' is true"-- for what better explanation could there be of the evidence supporting p, than "p"s truth?

So there it is, blogospheric soldiers of science: lay your claims to truth.

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!