Accommodation vs. appeasement

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford has a useful classification of the forms of what I call “accommodationism” between science and faith.  A brief excerpt from his post:

. . . there seem to be a few ways that people try to make a truce between religion and science.

1. The NOMA theory – science is authoritative about empirical issues, while religion is authoritative about issues of morality, “meaning”, “purpose” and so on.

2. Natural and supernatural – science examines the “natural” world, while religion reports on a supposed “supernatural” realm involving gods, spooks, and so on.

3. God at work in the gaps – there is room for God to work in nature in ways that we can’t detect. Science is authoritative about the natural world, but not in a way that excludes the providence of God. . . .

. . . Of these, 3. is the one that is most likely to be damaging to science. Because it wants to locate a space for certain kinds of divine activities to be carried on in certain kinds of gaps, it could have some tendency to discourage research that aims to plug those gaps. Accordingly, it’s at least worthwhile drawing attention to the highly speculative nature of specific hypotheses about how God acts in the gaps (such as by using some sort of interference in quantum-level events in order to guide the process of evolution). Even if we can’t disprove such claims, we can emphasise that they are contrivances with no scientific backing. They are transparent attempts to preserve pet religious dogmas, and should in no sense be viewed as science. Their only basis is reasoning that: “Something like X or Y must be true or else religious doctrine R will be falsified. But I can’t admit that R is falsified, so something like X or Y must be true.”

But, while I can see why hard-pressed scientists get annoyed by this sort of thing, I actually have more sympathy for theists such as Francis Collins than I do for non-believers (atheists, agnostics, sceptics, whatever) who adopt a position such as 1. or 2. in order to grant authority to a religion whose doctrines they don’t actually believe. This is appeasement – it’s ceding important territory to religion without a fight. Religion does not deserve any grant of authority in the moral sphere – it has no such authority, and that should be the end of it. Nor does it have any plausible claim to reveal supernatural truths about such entities as gods and spooks. But it’s as if some non-believers are prepared to give religion whatever authority it wants as long as they are allowed to teach evolution.

I agree with Russell that #3 is the most dangerous to the integrity of science.  This is what I object to about BioLogos and all the forms of accommodationism in which a theistic God is supposed to interfere in nature (and evolution) in some unspecified way.  It pollutes the pure science by giving the public impression that scientists agree that is room for the supernatural in the evolutionary process and, indeed, that the supernatural has operated.  In this sense Collins is not a good scientist, for he’s accepting the existence of magic.  Darwin explicitly rejected this kind of pollution in a letter to Charles Lyell about natural selection:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement’, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

I again recommend reading Sam Harris’s review of Francis Collins’s book (“The Language of God”) to see the extent that Collins mixes science with faith.  And read Larry Moran’s post on Sandwalk about how Collins mixed science with God when announcing the sequence of the human genome.  Collins just can’t keep his yap shut about God when he’s talking about science to the public.  If you’re not offended by what Moran reports, imagine instead that Collins was an atheist, and pronounced that the human genome demonstrated at last that “there is no God.”

5 Comments

  1. Dave
    Posted May 28, 2009 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Hah. Here we go again, only moderately however.

    Russell Wrote:

    -“I actually have more sympathy for theists such as Francis Collins than I do for non-believers (atheists, agnostics, sceptics, whatever) who adopt a position such as 1. or 2. in order to grant authority to a religion whose doctrines they don’t actually believe. This is appeasement – it’s ceding important territory to religion without a fight.”-

    This is a common misunderstanding and rather strange when taken in perspective of what is actually being said by those such as Jerry and Russell. Both of whom have argued that science can study the “supernatural” (using what is primarily the same line of argument – though at times with Russell it’s hard to tell if he actually understands this fact).

    Of course, going by (1.) then following say it’s given without a fight is to characteristic the situation wrongly. With morality, if we were to use Gould’s words when forwarding noma, then he adopted his “cold bath” theory, which I know Russell is aware of since he has indeed written a review on Gould’s book, ‘Rocks of Ages’. Obviously, he isn’t granting religion authority on morality and “meaning”, since he thinks his argument should win in debate (Stephen being a progressive atheistic liberal). The demacation is simply that religion believes its morality stems from a divine “truth”, however, as Russell is fully aware, this “divine” nature according to noma is granted NO authority, in fact it is stripped of any actually meaning in the real world sense (“supernaturalim” is simply NOT reality – it tells us nothing of what is true about nature).

    However, this concept of how to appraoch the issue is lost on those atheist like Russell and Jerry who treat the “supernatural” realm as potentially real, beyond belief systems (in fact advocate the idea that science can indeed study the “supernatural” while being unbelievers in he “supernatural” – of course for certain others, such as myself – that is where you find true paradox when someone like Russell tries to paint a picture of “appeasement”).

    Of course science can inform us on morality, “meaning” etc. Science in fact does not grant authority on such matters in so far as nature did not have forethought of developing a “moral sense”, it is no more planned by nature than the rise of the human animal as found today. Another paradox to some of this debate of course, is that if someone such as David Sloan Wilson or E.O. Wilson argue that there is not only a certain level of “human nature” with a granted evolutionary cooperation (‘altruism’) sense (hard wired perhaps, genetic) and this in fact translates over into other living organism (even ants), there is much riotous disagreement (with primarily the argument that there is what is mentioned and it has evolutionary advantage). However, those doing the disagreement will often argue that we find altruism in the animal kingdom when arguing with theist on subjects such as you “can’t be moral without god” (or morality is somehow a proof of god). But, as seen with Sam Harris who speaks of his “moral realism” which grants “moral truths”, there is nary a hint of objection raised by certain atheist, in fact making debating points about claims by Harris and Dawkins are normally frowned upon, this fact was made clear by Russell Blackford himself (though he said to Matt Nisbet he can be critical of claims made by Dawkins, he non-the-less has said publicly restraint was needed, unless the claims were large, such as Harris arguments against the word ‘atheism’). One point of this of course is that religion does deal in absolutism, dogma, which is certainly not the way of science, so even in “moral” debate, the scientifically informed approach would be provision in nature primarily.

    The idea of granting authority, while taking away what is said to give the authority in the first place is a point not understood by Russell. He is vacant of the deeper implications, only seeing any thing that appears to grant authority to religion as misguided and dangerous. Of course, when in debate you are also saying you wish you would win, then it’s either revolt against the authority, or (taking in now the idea you stripped away any claim to truth by divine fiat) it is authority in name only, and recognized through the stories and metaphor of the belief system (even with its grotesque accounts of human behavior and surreal proclamations – most of us see these things as creations of the human imagination for sometimes other purposes, but mostly as part of the human animals story).

    Part II later….

  2. Posted May 28, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Because it wants to locate a space for certain kinds of divine activities to be carried on in certain kinds of gaps, it could have some tendency to discourage research that aims to plug those gaps.

    How much has this actually slowed down Francis Collins’s scientific activity? How much did it hinder Maxwell or Faraday, or Kepler or Newton? Or Buridan, or Pascal? Boyle, Bayes Priestley, Mendel, Gray, Pasteur, Kelvin, Fleming, Planck, von Braun, Townes, Dobzhansky, or Gingerich?

    This idea that belief in God might reduce natural curiosity and scientific research needs to be subjected to more natural curiosity and empirical research.

  3. Dave
    Posted May 28, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I apologize for the misspellings in my last post, as well as a couple poorly formed sentences, I again wrote it out without the intention of going on at much length using these little comment boxes and not proof reading. Oh well, like it matters… (I seem to do more good for those apposing my views then I do in supporting mine).

    Blackford Wrote:

    -“3. God at work in the gaps – there is room for God to work in nature in ways that we can’t detect. Science is authoritative about the natural world, but not in a way that excludes the providence of God…”-

    This is what Russell argues is the worst of the 3 (I’m not necessarily disagreeing here). I just want to mention that it is mainly because of 3 that atheist such as Jerry and Russell will argue that “supernaturalism” is within the realm of science. Of course, neither side has any justification for their argument, only to go by definitional boundary or what may ‘convince’ others. The line obviously is if it happens we can test it, this extends to the idea that “supernaturalism” is being falsified simply if the claims rest on “supernatural” causation, thereby, as Russell has done repeatedly now, missing the fact that what science is refuting is the claim regarding nature (science does not test the “supernatural” – there is no reason to hold that the “god hypothesis” is being formulated scientifically – of course in the bizarre ways used in culture war terms the nature of science is lost and Russel simply will show his disrespect for science and scientific rationalism – also showing a view of philosophical naturalism which appears uninformed – seemingly not to realize it is a position not to posit the “supernaturalism” to begin with, and why is this Russell, come on, think, yes because it does not follow the science to do so). So, even though I agree with the basic idea that 3 is wrong, Russell approaches the subject with the mind of someone tuned to only one way of thinking, without any hint of being able to take in the fuller context of the discussion. 3, when properly formulated and put in context with other areas (a good look at this may be Shermer’s brief Scientific American essay), is useful to understand beyond Russell’s one trick pony approach to advocacy.

  4. Anthony McCarthy
    Posted May 28, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Dave, you can write your comments on a word processor, copy them and paste them in. That way you can organize them, though often the heat of the argument takes over. I wish you well in arguing your points, though it won’t make any difference. Ignorantia invinciblis, don’t you know.

  5. Posted May 29, 2009 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    This review from Harris is highly entertaining:

    “Consider the following fact: Ninety-nine percent of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.”

    Well….so what?. I mean that might sound a little harsh but would he rather they were still around?. Woolly mammoths strolling through the streets of London. Herds of Brontosaurus chewing on the trees in Central Park next to flocks of Dodos?. Trilobites meandering across the beaches. I mean it might be a bit entertaining for about a couple of days but we would inevitably have to hunt them back into extinction again. This is a mess of an argument.

    “In his role as Christian apologist, Collins also makes the repellent claim that the traditional lore about Galileo’s persecutions by the Church is overblown.”

    Good lord. I had no idea that the modern historical interpretation – which claims that the affair did “not embody a conflict between science and religion” but rather a conflict between conservatives and progressives in both areas (Finocchiaro) – is actually a ‘pious glossing of the centuries of religious barbarism’.

    Wow that Sam Harris sure is a smart guy.


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