Russell Blackford goes after faith/science compatibility

In a really nice essay on his blog “Metamagician and the Hellfire Club”, Australian writer Russell Blackford discusses the issue of the compatibility between science and faith and how that has become the official position of bodies like The National Academy of Sciences (a tip of the hat to PZ at Pharyngula for calling this to our attention). Blackford’s essay is a sarcastic take on an earlier post by Matt Nisbet (a professor of communication at American University who writes the blog “Framing Science”); Nisbet went after Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists for needlessly placing science and religion in opposition.

Blackford puts Nisbet in a full nelson:

. . . Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.

Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That’s obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?

You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that – silly us – we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we’d say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we’d be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included “a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible.” Yay!

This is how to settle a philosophical debate! . . .

So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don’t worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, “that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda”. Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.

Another post critical of Nisbet’s stance can be found at the blog Entertaining Research.

Religious scientists and liberal theologians can tout the compatibility of faith and science until they’re blue in the faith [typo: I meant “blue in the face” but I’ll leave the Freudian slip], but in so doing they are seeing a world that they would like to inhabit, not the world they do inhabit. As I said in my New Republic essay on compatibility,

a true harmony between science and religion requireseither doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.. . . The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Faith, as it is practiced by many, many people, is simply incompatible with science. It doesn’t solve the problem to tell them to put their beliefs in line with science.

22 Comments

  1. Matthew C. Nisbet
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Jerry,
    A correction is in order on Blackford’s post. Contrary to his framing, market research was not used to decide the position of the NAS, nor the 20 professional scientific organizations in the editorial at FASEB that endorsed the themes in the booklet. These organizations have had a long standing position on science and religion that has emphasized compatibility. The audience research indicated that emphasizing this long standing position was an effective way to communicate about evolution.

    I suggest taking a look at what NAS staffers wrote in an article at Life Sciences Education about how they used public opinion data and evidence–actually listening to their audience–before trying to communicate with them about a complex and sometimes controversial area of science.

    http://www.lifescied.org/cgi/content/full/7/1/20?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&author1=Pope&andorexactfulltext=and&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&resourcetype=HWCIT

  2. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    In response to Mr. Nisbet, I’d say that this is a distinction without a difference. Accommodationism is not just a tweak to improve rapport with the audience, it is a PHILOSOPHICAL POSITION that, in fact, is not adhered to by many members of those scientific organizations. To frame this as a “matter of listening to the audience” is to trivialize what is a very serious debate. –JAC

  3. Posted March 31, 2009 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    ‘How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?’

    Hmmmmm. So it was no problem for the doctrine of divine omni-beneficence for God to drown the entire population of the world (as he did on an inerrant reading of the bible), but it’s suddenly a problem for literalists that he allows his creatures to undergo a slow process of biological evolution.

  4. Posted March 31, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I usually ask faith heads to give an example of a theory that religion has improved. I’m still waiting.

    Another problem concerning evolution is the fact that there was no fall. That means no rebellion against god, and no need for god crucifying himself to satisfy himself. Natural selection shaped our morality. This means that if (the christian) god existed, he has invented the whole idea of hell and punishment to punish people for the way he let them evolve. Mind you, if you actually read genesis, god created Adam and Eve without the knowledge of good and evil. They only get that when they eat the fruit and god punishes everything for it. Even taken metaphorically, it is still a story of gross injustice and stupidity. This mush is not even compatible with itself, let alone science.

  5. Posted March 31, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Jerry, your recent posts give the impression that the “official positions” are various agencies are more sweeping and absolute than they are.

    From the National Academy of Science evolution resources page at http://www.nationalacademies.org/evolution/Compatibility.html: “Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith.”

    The operative phrase is, “can be.” It’s not “must be.”

    Similarly, the NCSE page on this topic, http://ncseweb.org/religion: “This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.”

    Again, the claim is for “many” religions, not “all.”

    These seem to be simple empirical statements. Your recent posts imply (intentionally or not) that these statements are waving the conflict away and saying it never happens, or that it should not happen.

    I agree that it’s not our job as professional scientists to tell people that how to sort out any conflicts between scientific evidence and other beliefs they have. And it it’s also not our job as professionals to say that NOBODY ever reconciles these things.

    Talking about what we think about such reconcilations that can be our hobby, though. ;)

  6. Posted March 31, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    ‘I usually ask faith heads to give an example of a theory that religion has improved. I’m still waiting.’

    Wait no longer. Descartes for example, expressed motion as follows:

    ‘From the mere fact that God gave pieces of matter various movements at their first creation, and that he now preserves all this matter in being in the same way as he first created it, he must likely always preserve in it the same quantity of motion’.

    So what we now recognize as a scientific principle was therefore formulated through a theological concept of divine immutability.

    Do we need a literal fall?. We clearly have an evolved moral instinct which allows us to choose between right and wrong (except in cases of diminished responsibility). Despite having this ability we usually make the wrong choices.

    In the 17th century ‘the fall’ was taken to mean that our senses themselves were corrupted. One find this in the thought of Hooke and Francis Bacon who used it to justify their experimental philosophy. I would say that the literal reading is gross and injust but taken metaphorically it can be good to remind us of our tendency to become arrogant, overestimate our own intellectual abilities and ‘sin’ against others. It remains a far more realistic portrayal of human nature than that found in say Marx or Rousseau.

  7. Posted March 31, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    RE: Lord Kitchner:

    The question that Billy asked was about any theory that religion has improved – not whether there were any religious versions of or interpretations of a theory.

  8. Matthew Ackerman
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’m not well versed on my history of science, but I believe Descartes discovers the conservation of momentum.

    It may be the case that theological considerations lead him to this idea, or that experimental data lead him to the idea and then he had some theological post hoc justification. We would need more context to decide whether this is a good answer to Billy’s question.

    However, I think we should expect that there are some examples where scientist were ‘inspired’ to their hypothesis by theological considerations. This doesn’t mean that their theology is necessary for good science, or even particularly useful for good science, it simply means that the creative inspiration necessary to solve problems can come from almost anywhere.

  9. Michael
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Matthew C. Nesbit wrote:

    “The audience research indicated that emphasizing this long standing position was an effective way to communicate about evolution.”

    So the NAS didn’t use market research, they used audience research. Thanks for explaining this vital difference.

  10. Posted March 31, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Lord Kitchener, That starts with an unargued for premise and therefore does not improve a *scientific* theory.

    As Karl points out, my question was about improving a theory. How does religious faith help us understand how evolution works? How does it improve our understanding of how atoms behave etc?

    Again, with the fall, it just does not make sense metaphorically either. I dont see how you get the lesson about arrogance. It is very clearly about rebellion against god and punishment. It is fundamental to the concept of propitiation. Evolution explains human nature so much better.
    If you disagree, then it just highlights the fact that faith has no means of choosing which of several options is more likely to be correct – unlike science

    Matthew, I’m not sure about the discovery of the conservation of momentum, but it was science, not faith that gave us it. Inspiration is somewhat different to the tools that you use to investigate a problem and formulate a scientific theory.

  11. Gotchaye
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s been a while since I read Descartes, but he wasn’t talking about conservation of momentum. It wasn’t terribly well thought out, but I remember thinking that it was ambiguous as to whether he was saying that mass*speed (not velocity) is conserved or whether just speed was conserved. He certainly influenced Newton, but one might almost argue that Descartes’ religious views led him to ignore the obvious – that speed is not actually conserved. I think he says at one point that a smaller object cannot possibly move a larger object which is at rest, no matter how fast it’s going when it collides with the larger object.

    Regardless, it’s not really apparent how religion led Descartes to his core physical principles, though, once he had them, he explained them in religious terms.

  12. Posted April 1, 2009 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    I agree that this is a ‘history of science question’ with absolutely no apologetic merit. The question was, ‘has religion improved a scientific theory?’ (obviously we have to ask, ‘what type of religion?’). Descartes, – which was the example I gave – provides proofs of the laws of motion and these are based on what he calls ‘deductions’ founded on ‘intuitions’. He says at the beginning of part three of the principles:

    ‘we have thus discovered certain principles as regards material objects, derived not from the prejudices of our senses, but from the light of reason’.

    According to Descartes method of reason, the existence of god is self evident (which he argues for via his ontological argument) and must be the cause of the motion in the universe.

    Since, Descartes reasons, God’s essence involves immutability, immutability must apply for his operations. God not only causes the motion in the universe but he also sustains the total amount of motion in the universe, even if the individual motions of bodies vary. This is the ancestor of the principle of ‘conservation of motion’ and you can see it is derived as a deduction from intuition regarding God and motion. Descartes three laws follow from this. For instance, when Descartes wrote to Mersenne regarding the first law he said:

    ‘I prove this through metaphysics. For since God, who is the creator of all things, is entirely perfect and immutable, it seems repugnant to me that any simple thing that exists and, consequently, of which God was the creator, has in itself the principle of its own destruction’

    In a few of them he gives examples of experimental confirmation, but he always regards them as primarily derivable from the immutability of God and the divine simplicity of the operation by which God preserves motion. For Descartes, empirical ‘confirmation’ does not establish the truth of a proposition with the certainty he demands (it’s not true that he distained experiment, he just didn’t regard it that highly). He therefore goes above and beyond experiment via deduction.

    This is all part of the early modern idea of laws of nature which is grounded in a particular conception of divine activity and theological considerations common to both Protestantism and Catholicism. For Descartes and indeed for people like Newton and Isaac Barrow, these are nothing less than God directly moving things in the world according to mathematical, regular principles.

    Of course the problem with the original question is the subjective term ‘improve’. Since I’m assuming you chaps are devout atheists, it hard to see how you can regard a theory invoking a ‘sky fairy’ as an ‘improvement’. However the measure of a theory’s success its success in obtaining truth; not whether it agrees with your metaphysics.

  13. Posted April 1, 2009 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    The lesson about arrogance comes from the legend about Cain, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ and the tower of Babel. The fall narrative of Genesis makes more sense when you consider it against the background of the Mesopotamian myths that it was written in opposition to. These considered that human beings were created as slaves by the Gods in order that they might offer sacrifices and build temples to them. Genesis turns this on its head by saying that humans are actually God’s representatives on earth, created in the spiritual image of God. The fall is a Hebrew interpretation of ‘The Gilgamesh Epic’ in which Gilgamesh goes searching for immortality. He finds ‘the plant of life’ but as he travels home is robbed of it by a snake. In the Hebrew version a moral dimension is added, man seeks to be like God but this desire results in spiritual death, the break between him and his creator. In the Mesopotamian flood story, the chief God sends the flood because the land is overpopulated and the humans are disturbing his sleep. As a result he decides to nuke them all. The Hebrews seem to have taken this story and made it a moral judgement on human sinfulness; In other words he actually cares about what human do morally. Evolution shows that we have an evolved moral sense which has emerged steadily through co-operation. We also have a dark side too, but we have the ability to choose between these two facets of our humanity.

  14. Posted April 1, 2009 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Lord Kitchener,

    thanks for the response. However, Descartes deductions about god and his disgust at the alternative were not based on any form of scientific thinking. God is not scientifically represented in any theory. As some christians (maybe not YECs) will point out god is (conveniently) non testable.

    One can reach the right conclusion from the wrong starting assumption – or even by chance. However, to incorporate that into a scientific theory needs something more sound than a “hunch” or presupposition that god started everything off.

    I agree that much of Genesis was ripped off. However, as it stands in the bible, it is still cruel injust and illogical. We still have this concept of punishment before the knowledge of sin. How is any of this compatible with science? That at sometime in our evolution we became seperate from god? How is this testable? How is it supportable by evidence?

    One of the big problems between evolution and faith is the required suffering inherent in the struggle to survive. God is supposedly omnibenevolent. This concept just does not square with the facts. I suggest you look up how Trypannosoma brucei evades the immune system. Omnibenevolence can not apply here. Some christians claim that this is the best possible world that god could allow, but that then means that he is not omnipotent (well, he cant make square circles). Anyway, we’re getting a bit off topic here.

    I’m not sure we often have that much of a choice as to how we behave. If you were a starving African, would you not steal or do worse to survive?
    Again, most religions have a problem with homosexuality. Most homosexuals would say they have no choice – just like I could not choose to be homosexual. Could you change your orientation?

  15. Posted April 1, 2009 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Well I have to be clear and say I disagree with ‘original sin’ in it’s strict form, justification by faith alone and the idea that homosexuality is immoral which I think fails on both natural law and scriptural terms. I’m happy to elaborate on my reasons for upholding either of those.

    As regards evolutionary evil, I suppose the question could be reformulated as ‘is life evil?’. My life could be reduced to a long struggle to pass my genes on to the next generation (still working on it) and I will of course die like every other creature that has lived on this planet; possibly in great pain.

    How does one reconcile this?. Well firstly is the mechanism evil?. Natural selection does not require death. All natural selection requires is differential reproduction of genotypes; in other words that some genotypes leave more offspring than others. Death is the inevitable consequence of a finite world. But in an evolutionary view of life death is not the last word, instead it is the key to replacement with new life.

    There is the issue of competition but often evolution occurs through a co-operative synergy. Indeed some such as Martin Nowak have suggested the that co-operation should be considered one of the motors of evolution along with mutation and natural selection.

    Evolution shows us that there must be a mixture of order and disorder if there is to be autonomy, freedom, adventure, success, achievement, emergence and surprise. In a world without chance there can be no creatures taking risks and the skills of life would be very different. All advances in evolution come in contexts of problem solving with a central preoccupation for sentient life being the prospect of getting hurt. There does not appear to be a coherent alternate model by which a painless world could give rise anything like the dramas of nature that have happened on this planet. Creativity requires the context of conflict and resolution. All of our features arise as solutions to problems.

    Evolution is therefore a much wider process which has produced sociality, generating love and altruism just as much as competition. If it had not done so, there would be no such thing as a human ethical process.

    I find that to be satisfying, until of course we get on to things like Aids, Cancer and bubonic plague. These are all part of the genuine problem of natural evil and there is no easy solution to it. There is plenty of literature on the subject but in my view the main point is that we have to confront it, in particular we should be stopping people dying needlessly from preventable diseases.

  16. David Weidner
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Nisbit seems to be oblivious to the blight religion poses to society at a fundamental level. We do not tolerate flat earthers, or heliocentrists. Why should we coddle anti-evolutionists? It is not a debate, it is a matter of education vs. miseducation. JAC makes very valid points. Religion cannot be put on an equal footing as science. Not when it comes to SCIENCE!

  17. Posted April 1, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Lord Kitchener,

    Homosexuality does of course divide many theologians – even though the bible does call it an abomination. I’m not really interested in that debate though, but it does highlight the difference between science and faith here. Science can test alternative hypotheses. Faith has no such tools at its diposal.

    As for the concept of sin, I dont believe it has any meaning – unless you can demonstrate the existence of absolute moral laws.

    To ask is life evil? you will have to define evil and then show that such evil actually exists.

    I agree up to a point that NS does not require death – in some instances. However, when a predator needs to adapt to catch its prey, it does. It reminds me a bit of a question one of my lecturers used to ask: “Does sex necessitate death?”

    I am unclear what you mean about creatures taking risks. I dont think they do.

    I would also disagree that all of our features are a result of problem solving – particularly at the genome level where we see a lot of junk. I would also say that changes allow problem solving, not that problem solving allows changes.

    Are you saying that you are comfortable with evolution until it comes to diseases? Surely our bodies are just another ecological niche for other organisms to adapt to and exploit?

    I haven’t seen you reconcile evolution with the idea of an omnibenevolent god and the concept of sin – if that’s what you believe in.

  18. Posted April 1, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    ‘I haven’t seen you reconcile evolution with the idea of an omnibenevolent god and the concept of sin – if that’s what you believe in.’

    As I’m sure you can appreciate its not an easy question to answer as its part of the general problem of evil. For myself I think the concept of omnibenevolence entails certain requirements, the commitment to produce good, but also the need to create meaning, value and purpose. These last three necessitate the existence of the interplay between good and evil we see both in our evolutionary history and also in our day to day lives. The natural world is full of struggling, suffering and death. It is also orderly, prolific, efficient, complex and diverse. I think the logic of creation ultimately requires destruction as well as construction, the replacement of old life with new and the evils involved with predation, accident and catastrophe. The world isn’t some pastoral Eden whose creatures are shielded from disaster, it’s a theatre where life is learned and earned by labour and the evils drive us to action and to make sense of things.

    As regards sin, once we reach a certain level of complexity and transfer from nature to culture we rise and fall in a moral process. It’s hard to see history dispassionately, ‘a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing’, and not as the interplay between good and evil, the acquiring of value only through lapses and falls. The tale of humanity is one of unbelievable evil, but it is also one replete with humbling examples of moral accomplishment which appear to have lasting significance. The ultimate good, it seems to me is redemption. Prior to evolution death was something that simply happened to organisms. In the light of evolutionary theory we now see that out of the life and death of living organisms come sensory awareness, behavioural flexibility and consciousness. If nature has a message it is out of death does come good, that contingency can deliver the astonishingly unlikely but ultimately reliable redemption of tragedy.

  19. Posted April 1, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “For myself I think the concept of omnibenevolence entails certain requirements, the commitment to produce good, but also the need to create meaning, value and purpose.”

    Why should omnibenevolence entail these? How does meaning necessitate suffering?

    “The natural world is full of struggling, suffering and death. It is also orderly, prolific, efficient, complex and diverse.”

    It’s not efficient. Scickle cell haemoglobin is effective but not efficient. It demands that some die. You still need to define evil before we can discuss it meaningfully.

    “As regards sin, once we reach a certain level of complexity and transfer from nature to culture we rise and fall in a moral process.”

    This does not demonstrate sin exists. Are nature and culture that different? What evidence do you have that morality is rooted in culture? If morality evolved, then surely it can be traced back further than that. Is a vervet or a meerkat that warns its troop of danger not displaying a form or morality based on reciprocal altruism/ kin selection?

    “Prior to evolution death was something that simply happened to organisms.”

    Not sure what you mean here, can you explain and provide evidence.

    “The ultimate good, it seems to me is redemption. ”

    What’s the evidence that I need redeemed? How is that compatible with evolution?

    “If nature has a message it is out of death does come good, that contingency can deliver the astonishingly unlikely but ultimately reliable redemption of tragedy.”

    This is a non sequitir

  20. Posted April 3, 2009 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Billy

    First of all, apologies for the delay in getting back to you (assuming you are still checking this) I have been busy with other things. I don’t have the space to pick up on everything you said but here goes.

    ‘Why should omnibenevolence entail these? How does meaning necessitate suffering?’

    Meaning and value are the preserve of concious, purpose driven intelligence which has evolved from a complex environment and requires one to thrive. Such environments will contain hazards, we require a nervous system and pain to be able to function and this entails the capacity to suffer. It is simply part of being human and drives so much of our activity.

    ‘As for the concept of sin, I don’t believe it has any meaning – unless you can demonstrate the existence of absolute moral laws.’

    It is impossible to demonstrate the existence of absolute moral laws scientifically. It doesn’t then follow that morality has no meaning as a component of our subjective experience. Of course it is pointless arguing this is you believe that our subjective experience is a mere epiphenomenon.

    ‘This is a non sequitir’

    No it isn’t. There are two important threads in the Abrahamic religions 1) that God uses evil to do good and 2) the idea that evil exists but it is ultimately redeemed. There is much in nature that is repugnant to us because it offends our sense of perfection. But the way to ultimately reconcile natural evil and theism is to follow Darwin and say, “From death, famine, rapine, and the concealed war of nature we can see that the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals has directly come…there is grandeur in this view of life”.

    ‘If morality evolved, then surely it can be traced back further than that. Is a vervet or a meerkat that warns its troop of danger not displaying a form or morality based on reciprocal altruism/ kin selection?’

    There has been much interesting work in this area and its clear that our moral senses are evolved, along with apparently altruistic behaviour. I would tend to think that these are the hardware for certain of our moral beliefs. The ‘software’ (i.e concepts such as human rights, the equality of men and woman) have come through religious reflection and moral philosophy; if you like they are values we ‘discover’ by using our senses. For me the idea of Sin conforms to the ‘ought’ in morality, our sense of falling short of an ultimate perfect standard. If there is no ultimate perfect standard then there is no ‘ought’.

    ‘I would also disagree that all of our features are a result of problem solving – particularly at the genome level where we see a lot of junk.’

    Junk DNA is a somewhat pejorative term. Much of it is being found to have a function. Much of it is obviously an evolutionary artefact, but the storing up of such material is often used for new possible new purposes. A lot of our features (hands, feet, brains) are for problem solving, although some are presumably spandrels.

    ‘Homosexuality does of course divide many theologians – even though the bible does call it an abomination’

    Yeah, that bit comes from Leviticus which also suggests that my wife should be regarded as ‘unclean’ when she is on her period; and should be sent outside the city walls. I’m sure she would be delighted if I told her that. Really the condemnation historically was based on natural law; i.e homosexuality being ‘against nature’, which of course it isn’t.

    I you are interested in continuing this conversation I would suggest we move it somewhere else as its getting hard to keep up with.

    Regs

    H

  21. Posted April 3, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Hi Lord Kitchener,

    “Meaning and value are the preserve of concious, purpose driven intelligence which has evolved from a complex environment and requires one to thrive. Such environments will contain hazards, we require a nervous system and pain to be able to function and this entails the capacity to suffer.”

    This doesn’t really show that omnibenevolence requires suffering. If you also think of the classical idea of heaven – a place of no suffering, then omnibenevolence does not require suffering. A god could have created a world without suffering too, yet suffering is allowed. As an aside, we could argue that the world was created by an onmimalevolent god – faith has no way of choosing between these two options.

    “It is impossible to demonstrate the existence of absolute moral laws scientifically”

    I totally agree, but you still need absolutes for christianity. This is therefore not compatible with a scientific view.

    “It doesn’t then follow that morality has no meaning as a component of our subjective experience.”

    It has a purpose – not sure about a meaning other than one we tag it with ourselves. It still does not argue for unbendable moral absolutes eminating from the nature of a deity.

    “No it isn’t. There are two important threads in the Abrahamic religions 1) that God uses ……there is grandeur in this view of life”.

    This paragraph seems to play on personal concepts of perfection. Again, you have the problem of having to demonstrate what perfection is. This again is a non scientific question. Why for example is the arrival of higher animals actually good? One thing Darwinism makes clear is that man is just part of nature.

    “I would tend to think that these are the hardware for certain of our moral beliefs.”

    Agreed

    “The ’software’ (i.e concepts such as human rights, the equality of men and woman) have come through religious reflection and moral philosophy; if you like they are values we ‘discover’ by using our senses.”

    Disagree – religion can define things as good or bad. Whether they are or not is a different matter. I would say that it is natural selection that has made oue morality essentially pro social – within our immediate groups.

    “For me the idea of Sin conforms to the ‘ought’ in morality, our sense of falling short of an ultimate perfect standard. If there is no ultimate perfect standard then there is no ‘ought’.”

    This does not follow. Why can “ought” not be a function of NS shaped morality?

    We strongly feel revulsion at the idea of snogging someone with bad breath – this however lets us know a potential mate may have bad genes.

    “Junk DNA is a somewhat pejorative term. Much of it is being found to have a function. Much of it is obviously an evolutionary artefact, but the storing up of such material is often used for new possible new purposes. A lot of our features (hands, feet, brains) are for problem solving, although some are presumably spandrels.

    I agree, but it is largely and in many cases demonstably junk. It’s just not efficient and requires needless energy to maintain/replicate. It is the mutations that allow problem solving (like the duplication and mutatiom of a green to red sensitive opsin gene). Not the otherway round.

    “I you are interested in continuing this conversation I would suggest we move it somewhere else as its getting hard to keep up with.

    I’ll get back in a day or two on that as I’m off climbing for a couple of days

    Cheers

    Billy

  22. Posted April 3, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    ‘If you also think of the classical idea of heaven – a place of no suffering, then omnibenevolence does not require suffering. A god could have created a world without suffering too, yet suffering is allowed.’

    This is a very good point. My speculative answer would be that the two worlds are for different purposes one of the purposes of our world is to generate a landscape of moral possibilities and build mind and character; this would entail a certain amount of suffering. Heaven is presumably some sort of eternal bliss in the presence of God, and presumably involves a lot of hymn singing as well. Sounds terrible.

    ‘As an aside, we could argue that the world was created by an onmimalevolent god’

    Yes, one possible theodicy open to me is to argue that certain of our most cherished moral qualities have immoral preconditions (I think it was Nietzsche who pointed this out). For instance forgiveness entails that certain wrongs have been committed, caring for the sick and needy has the onset of disease as its precondition. Once can say that the evils in this world are necessary for the emergence of certain types of good. Of course the counter to this is to say that the goods in the world are there to allow certain types of evil to emerge. It is better for mothers to love their children because when they die it causes more misery. I think the only way to distinguish between the two is to die and see what happens, and I’m not in a hurry to do that. Bottom line is there is not answer to the problem of evil this side of the grave, its a mystery one can only scratch the surface of.

    ‘One thing Darwinism makes clear is that man is just part of nature.’

    Yes, that is probably the most valuable insight of evolution. The interconnectedness of creation and our common descent. It’s a wonderful vision, but I wouldn’t say that we were ‘just part of nature’ anymore than I would say we were ‘just made of stardust’. In the 19th century Asa Gray was of the opinion that no longer could you argue, as many at the time did, that there were separate primordial races, which could justify slavery and racism. Sadly he was to be proved wrong in the next century.

    ‘We strongly feel revulsion at the idea of snogging someone with bad breath’

    Not after a few Stellas you don’t

    ‘I would say that it is natural selection that has made oue morality essentially pro social – within our immediate groups.’

    To be clear I think evolution does a very good job of explaining co-operation. Martin Nowak has done some interesting work in game theory showing that indirect reciprocity is the key mechanism for the evolution of
    social intelligence and human language. However, such co-operation is limited to the group, and resistant to extension outside the group. Religion does have the effect of extend our natural sensibilities over a considerably larger group, in fact that’s probably why it has appeared in our species. Of course all this is moral hardware. the fact we naturally co-operate doesn’t explain why slavery is wrong. I would want to say that it is, but it’s impossible to demonstrate by reason.

    ‘I’ll get back in a day or two on that as I’m off climbing for a couple of days’

    Cool. I used to do that down on Portland Bill with me chalk and climbing boots. Probably got too high a BMI these days (bloody beer belly).

    I frequent this forum if you fancy continuing the argument

    http://jameshannam.proboards.com/index.cgi


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] by focus group position. Nisbet has himself responded on the comments section of that blog and Jerry Coyne’s blog. Blackford has already written a comment response to Nisbet’s that is definitely worth […]

  2. […] comments on Nisbet’s “framing” article: Praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet Russell Blackford goes after faith/science compatibility Godless scientists have an ethical imperative to sit down and shut up Richard Dawkins: Unethical? […]

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