More on Mooney and accommodationism (with a note on Rosenhouse)

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has again taken on Chris Mooney’s critique of accommodationism.   Jason has done such a good job that I have little to add.  However, lest Mooney accuse me of hiding behind Rosenhouse, or of avoiding debate, let me briefly respond.

Mooney’s latest beef is that I have somehow confused methodological naturalism (the use of naturalistic techniques in investigating questions about the world) with philosophical naturalism (the view that there is nothing beyond nature).  Because of my supposed confusion, says Mooney, my claim that religion and science are incompatible is flatly wrong.

I don’t get it. To channel the captain in Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. I clearly set out what I thought about this issue in my article in The New Republic, and Rosenhouse, who has apparently read that article, gets it right.  Mooney, who also says he has read the article, gets it wrong.

I am a methodological naturalist, but I don’t think that all supernatural claims defy scientific analysis.  Moreover, I don’t see that the methodological/philosophical distinction has a lot to do with the dissonance between faith and science.  The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable.  These are two fundamentally different and incompatible ways of ascertaining “truth.” In fact, I don’t see that religion has any way at all of ascertaining “truth,” since its claims cannot be falsified.  The fact that the major “truths” of different religions are in permanent and irresolvable conflict testifies to this difference between science and faith.

o.k.  Let’s go over what Mooney claimed.  He relies heavily on Rob Pennock’s superb book Tower of Babel when claiming that science cannot test the supernatural.

The Jerry Coyne debate reached temporary hiatus late last week with Coyne invoking Rosenhouse to defend himself against my charge that he has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction. Coyne doesn’t appear to think he commits this foul; and yet he writes in The New Republic, in a line not quoted by Rosenhouse, that “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.”

Say what?

If you accept the MN/PN distinction as I have outlined it, or as Robert Pennock does in Tower of Babel, it is hard see how one can claim this. As Pennock writes:

The first and most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers, of course, is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. They are not constrained by natural laws…. (p. 289)

And again:

Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)

It is hard to see how Coyne thinks he can include supernatural phenomena within the purview of science without directly addressing the whole MN/PN matter, and indeed, wholly rejecting the MN/PN distinction as outlined by someone like Pennock. Let’s face it: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” is a pretty extraordinary assertion. Indeed, as far as I can tell it is a contradiction in terms.

Yet in what I have read so far (I have not read his book, so it may be there), Coyne doesn’t directly address the MN/PN matter. Certainly, given that he is dealing with these topics in some detail in the lengthy New Republic article, that would have been an ideal place to take on this philosophical point. But it isn’t there.

Let’s remember why this is important. I have argued that science and religion are at least theoretically reconcilable due to the MN/PN distinction. You can accept all the realities that science reveals through MN, and yet also have supernatural beliefs (not PN), so long as you don’t confuse the two.

This debate about PN vs MN didn’t really interest me.  What did interest me was the notion about whether claims about the supernatural can be tested with science.  And some of them can. The crucial passages of my piece (recognized by Jason but not Mooney) are these:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. . .

. . .In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

What is so hard to grasp about all this?  Clearly some claims about the supernatural  can be tested (and rejected) by science.  One deals with the efficacy of prayer.  People claim that God answers prayers.  This can be, and has been, tested by scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer.  These studies have failed to show any effect. Now you can argue about whether those studies were done properly, but the fact is that they can be.  And, as noted above, there are other ways to scientifically document supernatural phenomena. One that Jason mentions is observing a talking Mount Rushmore.

Does anybody doubt that some claims about the supernatural can be tested with science? Mooney seems to doubt this.

Well, maybe you can claim that any phenomenon amenable to scientific study must by definition not be supernatural.   This is a philosophical/semantic argument that I don’t want to get into.  It doesn’t seem important.  Clearly, the claim that prayer works (or that moral people get cancer less often than immoral people) is a claim that science can study.  Clearly, the claim that the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’s burial cloth can be investigated scientifically.  Clearly, the claim that some religious icons weep blood, water, or milk, can be studied scientifically.  And believe me, if the Shroud of Turin were shown to have been made around 30 AD, religious people would have trumpeted it to the skies.  When it was shown to be a forgery, the faithful claimed that their faith didn’t depend on such claims. Ditto with the efficacy of prayer. Does anybody doubt that if the intercessory study had shown a significant effect of prayer, it would have been trumpeted from pulpits the following Sunday?

And despite my admiration for Pennock’s book, which I still think is the best analysis of intelligent-design creationism around, I think he’s dead wrong when he says, “But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied.” Just because we can’t control God and how he responds to prayer doesn’t mean that we can’t study whether prayer works.

Mooney ends his piece in this way:

I will add that I am not a philosopher, and without having read and studied Pennock, probably wouldn’t wade into these waters. But at the same time, it seems to me that MN/PN is a pretty basic distinction, as are the definitions of “natural” and “supernatural.” Furthermore, I suspect most scientists would agree that their work and their methodology does not allow them to make claims about alleged supernatural agents.

I will make this claim about supernatural agents based on scientific methodology: prayer doesn’t help cardiac patients recover faster.  I will also claim, based on observations of the world, that if a god exists, he is not simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent.

I reiterate: the incompatibility between faith and science rests on how they determine “truth.”  To quote from my New Republic article:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

Let me pose this question to Mr. Mooney.  The “truth” claims of many faiths are flatly incompatible.  Christians, for example, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God.  Muslims claim that this is not only untrue, but that anyone who believes it will burn in hell.  At most, only one of these claims can be true. Who is right? How do you decide?  And whatever method you use (whether you were born in Kansas or Kabul; whether you get a personal revelation), doesn’t it differ from the way that science finds out things?

36 Comments

  1. Posted June 10, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Cross-post from Mooney’s blog:

    Mooney wrote:

    But at the same time, it seems to me that MN/PN is a pretty basic distinction, as are the definitions of “natural” and “supernatural.”

    Really, they are not. Many philosophers pay no heed to such notions at all, and especially the continental philosophers do not, as they typically deal with phenomena and ignore what is not “phenomena.” It isn’t just the continentalists that care little about claims of the “supernatural,” though, Quine, just as an example of the analytic philosophers, largely leaves such artificial distinctions alone as well (at least in my reading of him).

    No, the MN/PN notions come from religious and metaphysical claims that existed in the Middle Ages and earlier. Mind was thought to transcend the “natural,” indeed it was a kind of evidence for known phenomena going beyond what we see happening around us. Needless to say, science (and much of philosophy) no longer believe in such fictions, both because of empirical observations and because of evolutionary explanations.

    But religion (and many non-religious ideas as well) clung to the idea that there was a “supernatural” that exists beyond the “natural,” when for most of us who have learned and thought about these things, the distinction utterly falls apart. And this despite the fact that the “evidences” for what went beyond the “natural” no longer were credible.

    And I would say that Coyne does address issues that are supposed to be involved in the “MN/PN distinction,” namely, he points out that theists do tend to claim evidence in the “natural world” for supernatural causation. I agree with Coyne on that issue, too, that it is a misuse of science to do so. What’s interesting is that Collins does so outside of his own area of expertise, mainly, while adhering to causal mechanisms within evolution. He does break even those when he tries to argue for altruism being beyond evolution, but again, that specific issue isn’t really his area of expertise. I think it interesting how they tend to foist god off into other science, yet as Coyne states, this is not legitimate.

    I’m not saying that all theistic scientists do this, and, as I noted previously in comments on this blog, I haven’t seen Ken Miller explicitly move beyond science in his own work and statements (other than where he and I deem it legitimate), nor seek to cordon off any areas to keep them from being touched. The tendency of theists to start “seeing god” in nature that Coyne pointed to does exist, however, and he is right to say that it does.

    Coyne does appear to be well aware that many theists claim that the supernatural does not affect science, he just brings up examples of where this apparently is not so. While it is true that one could keep to making religious claims that really do not affect science at all–no claims of free will, or that consciousness is somehow “magical”–practically, theistic scientists haven’t shown themselves to be above that collectively. Those who don’t appear to be the exceptions, not the rule.

    Note how Coyne addressed some of Mooney’s concerns in this brief passage:

    Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful–those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths–fall into the “incompatible” category.

    tnr.com/story_print.html?id=1e3851a3-bdf7-438a-ac2a-a5e381a70472

    Coyne wins this one, I believe.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  2. Posted June 10, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. Believe it or not, we are really getting somewhere I think.

    I will write more but in response to your last question, I am in agreement with you. Religions make incompatible truth claims and there is no intersubjective way for us to decide which, if any, of them are true. That’s why I reject all of them. That’s why I’m an atheist, a philosophical naturalist, etc.

    But I still disagree with you on compatibilism and much else above….

    • Matti K
      Posted June 11, 2009 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      I’m not telling Chris to shut up, but would it not be wise for him to tune down his rhetoric about the incompatibility of different religions? For the sake of World peace?

      • Posted June 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        You mean he should couch his views to avoid infuriating the beliefs of the religious? That sounds like a hostage situation to me.

        Perhaps the religious should tone down their rhetoric (about things like who God hates, what land God gave to whom, how God tells women to dress, etc.) for the sake of world peace.

  3. Jeremy
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    The idea that the supernatural is permanently out of range of scientific testing is tosh.

    In so far as a supernatural agent has an effect on the (natural) world, this effect can be measured, defined and quantified as well as anything in science. (e.g. the famous prayer experiments.)

    In so far as a supernatural agent has no effect on the (natural) world, one might very well inquire as to how one can be so sure it exists. My opinion would be that you have no right to claim it exists, since you have not a shred of evidence.

  4. Robocop
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne — I don’t see where you’re trying to go with your alleged dissonance between falsifiable and unfalsifiable truth claims and their supposed incompatibility beyond your apparent view that one is good and the other bad. What about other kinds of truth claims which cannot be adjudicated by empirical means? Is it somehow incoherent, for example, to assert that torturing infants is wrong, that Obama is better than Bush, that Bach was/is superior to Milli Vanilli, or that huge deficits are dangerous?

    • newenglandbob
      Posted June 11, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      Robocop – why are you trying to mix personal preferences with truth/falsehood? It has no relevance here whatsoever, just like the preference of vanilla or chocolate.

      • Robocop
        Posted June 11, 2009 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Bob – I don’t see the bright line distinction you do. Some matters that aren’t verifiable today may become so in the future (like string theory). Some matters are pure preference (your vanilla v. chocolate). Many are in the middle and more or less informed both by the empirical and by our values (like the dangers of deficits). Indeed, most of the really important stuff in life isn’t subject to conclusive demonstration — morals, ethics, politics, economics, policy, love, etc. I wouldn’t trivialize such matters by suggesting that our choices in those areas are mere preference.

    • Stan Pak
      Posted June 11, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Robocop:
      There exists distinction between facts and values.
      Just briefly – facts are empirically confirmed depiction of natural phenomena. And of course they are falsifiable claims. Values belong to different category and do lack such attribute. They are just expressions of preference, judgment, and are necessarily dependent on the subject who expresses them. Without subject expressing values they do not have any meaning. “I like cats more than dogs” just do not exists in the independent reality (even if we just consider reality of ideas).

      • Robocop
        Posted June 12, 2009 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Besides the obvious — that even “confirmed facts” are subject to revision in light of additional evidence — the process of confirming facts requires interpretation and values. It’s how Prof. Coyne can determine that “evolution is true,” after all.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted June 12, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        Yes. You are right. Facts are not 100% sure piece of information. They are just like google maps – they can be just gradually better with time, more precise but never exact depiction of reality as the reality itself.

        But facts are just distinct from values.

        I hope this example will help. I have a catholic friend. He is intelligent and he honestly admits that religion is bunk (“irrational” in his words), but he just likes it so much and sticks to it! He just do not value facts (or truth) as I do for example. He is intellectually honest but just holds different values.

        For atheists or scientists values are important but we do not allow to dictate of our values over the facts (i.e. we do not adjust facts as creationists do, rather we try to refine them and influence our values, and make them better).

      • Robocop
        Posted June 12, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        “For atheists or scientists values are important but we do not allow to dictate of our values over the facts (i.e. we do not adjust facts as creationists do, rather we try to refine them and influence our values, and make them better).”

        I take it you haven’t had much experience with the grant process, then?

      • newenglandbob
        Posted June 12, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        I take it you haven’t had much experience with the grant process, then?

        Chalk a big win for Robocop for that one – It gave me a smile and a laugh.

      • Stan Pak
        Posted June 12, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Robocop:
        I was not referring to particular political choices of people corrupted by perspective of private gains and favoritism (scientists are humans too) and I cannot tell much about grants. I am not a scientist and indeed I do not have experience. I can only guess that this process looks similar wherever pile of money is dropped on the table in crowded room. But this is maybe just sin of my wild imagination.

        Regarding Coyne’s claim that “evolution is true” – it is matter of fact and not much of the value judgment. While scientists interpret the data through the window of our animal perception and fight other similar limitations of our human nature, – yes they use judgments (i.e. they find something interesting and other things boring in the data, which they omit, or just do not see) and this affects the quality of outcome (because they can miss something important or over-emphasize). But while that process can seem to be erratic and inefficient – sticking to empirical scientific method corrects the course.
        This however does not say that “evolution is true” is less true (the lowercase “true”).

  5. Wes
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Supernatural claims become “beyond the reach of science” precisely at the moment that someone attempts to use science to refute them.

    However, people have always tried to back up supernatural claims with empirical evidence, and anything vaguely scientific which even remotely seems to fit their supernatural claims (“anthropic principle”, anyone?) is readily mustered as evidence.

    It’s whenever such empirical claims fail that the old “Supernatural claims are beyond evidence” trope comes out. A good example comes from the Gospel of John:

    John 20
    24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
    But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

    26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

    28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

    29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

    In other words: “Yeah, sure, we’ve got empirical evidence. But even when we don’t, you should believe us anyways.”

  6. Thanny
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Any phenomenon, whether natural or “supernatural” in origin, either has detectable effects, or it does not.

    If it has no detectable effects, it is not a phenomenon, but a figment of someone’s imagination.

    If it does have detectable effects, then the detection of said effects is a matter open to scientific investigation.

    • Lurker111
      Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. Anything supernatural that is, in any sense, detectable or measurable, is, by definition, no longer supernatural.

      • Physicalist
        Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

        Seems to me that you’ve got a pretty funny notion of the definition of ‘natural.’

      • Posted June 11, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        No, if there are supernatural causes to earthly phenomena, then that phenomena can be measured, but if the source really is supernatural, then it cannot, by definition, be understood by a naturalist explanation.

        In other words, you can test for the alleged effect of the supernatural, but not understand the cause.

        Alleged supernatural causes that have no effects, or are ‘epiphenomenal’ are simply not worth discussing, because per Occam’s Razor there is no need to hypothesize their existence.

  7. Dave
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    “As Pennock writes:

    ” ‘The first and most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers, of course, is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. They are not constrained by natural laws….’ (p. 289)

    Answer me this, please: If the supernatural is “above and beyond” natural reality, how do these people know it’s there in the first place??

    In other words, if something is immeasurable, how can anyone say something is there *not* to be measured? Because if anyone knows the supernatural exists, following their logic it means there was some way of interacting with it. And if that’s the case, it can be studied scientifically.

    To digress, I just want to thank Dr. Coyne for the continual insights provided by this blog. Checking-in to this site is part of my daily routine.

  8. Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    (xposted from Rosenhouse’s place)

    Coyne wrote

    The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable.

    This is where Coyne confuses the issue by referring to apples and kumquats. The first alternative (“scientific acceptance … by empirical investigation”) is phrased in terms of how knowledge claims are justified, whereas the second clause (“‘truth’ claims that are discovered by revelation’) in phrased in terms of the source of the alleged claim. Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification is useful to keep in mind here.

  9. mk
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Jesus. This is getting terribly embarrassing. Mooney is doing his reputation no good with all of this. Painful to watch.

  10. Posted June 10, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    The distinctions between MN and PN and between natural and supernatural are well known, of course, but they are far from being basic or simple, and they are not actually all that relevant to the debate. Chris still doesn’t seem to understand the nuances of these concepts – and the difficulties surounding them – so he accuses others of not understanding them when they say something nuanced.

    Still, it’s good to see him begin to explain why he is himself an atheist and a philosophical naturalist. I’d like to see him elaborate a bit further on that.

  11. Physicalist
    Posted June 10, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Surely everyone (including Mooney) agrees that philosophical naturalism could be false. It’s logically possible that there could be supernatural spirits or whatnot.

    Now, IF philosophical naturalism were false, and were known to be false, then obviously it would not be rational to adopt methodological naturalism when trying to understand supernatural processes.

    Does this mean that such processes would definitely be outside the realm of science? I don’t see why it should.

    Surely we can imagine scenarios in which using the hypothetico-deductive method would reveal the the nature of supernatural processes, and there’s no reason to think that some supernatural claims couldn’t be falsifiable.

    Consider a world in which the Aztecs’ religious beliefs were true. There might be a quite rigorous science about which human sacrifices would allow Spring to follow Winter, and which sacrifices would fail to do so (leaving the people in Winter until the priest-scientists got it right).

    There would be no natural explanation of this (by any reasonable definition of “natural”), but this is no reason to suppose that the scientific method — observation, reason, & experimentation — couldn’t reveal the relevant supernatural truths.

    The upshot of this is that methodological naturalism is not essential to science. However, in our world, it has been so successful that it has become part of the actual practice of science. (I take it that this is just what Coyne has been saying all along.)

    We might compare this to the status of atomism in science. Atomism isn’t part of the definition of science, but it is (now) assumed by nearly all scientists. A biological theory that was inconsistent with atomism wouldn’t be taken seriously. Science now adopts methodological atomism, but obviously such methodological atomism doesn’t guarantee “philosophical atomism.”

    Bottom line: Mooney’s focus on methodological naturalism vs. philosophical naturalism is a red herring.

  12. Posted June 11, 2009 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    The incompatibility between faith and science rests on how they determine “truth.”

    But they’re typically not talking about the same thing when they’re talking about “truth”. Science doesn’t try to answer the question “How do I get into heaven?”, while it’s pretty much the whole point of most Christian teaching.

    Obviously, anyone who reads their own creation stories literally is going to come into conflict with science. But religious scientists don’t (which is why they see no conflict between their research and their beliefs) and neither do most major religious institutions.

    I also disagree with your comment that “Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts”. Nobody is going to be accused of heresy for arguing that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe these days and only the most fundamentalist sects estimate the age of the Earth by the number of begats in the bible.

  13. RichardW
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Russell, at the risk of appearing sycophantic and repetitive, I’m going to once again post links to your two excellent blog entries on this subject, as they make the case far more clearly and effectively than anything else I’ve read:
    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/nas-on-compatibility-of-science-and.html
    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/natural-and-supernatural-again.html
    I recommend them to everyone interested in this subject, but particularly to Chris Mooney.

  14. RichardW
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m confused now about your position. There appears to be an inconsistency between these two passages of yours (the first from an earlier blog entry):

    Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations.

    The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable.

    Which set of claims are you objecting to, those which “flatly contradict scientific observations” or those which are “unfalsifiable” (or both)? If your “flatly contradict” means “are falsified by”, then the two sets (falsified and unfalsifiable) are disjoint. Even if your “flatly contradict” means something weaker, the two sets are very different.

    In your TNR article, you claimed that belief in the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus is not “consistent with science”. I would certainly agree that it is inconsistent with rational thinking (whether it is inconsistent with science is a little more tricky). But I don’t think such inconsistency can be established by any such simplistic criterion as falsification or unfalsifiability. I would say, roughly speaking, that it is a matter of parsimony.

    In any case, the natural/supernatural distinction is not relevant. Note how Miller does not invoke such a criterion in arguing why some religious claims are inconsistent with science while others are not:

    He’s right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work.

    Although Miller mentions the word “miracle”, he doesn’t give this as a reason. His reason is “there are no data from which to work”. But such a reason (valid or not) would also apply to the non-”supernatural” claim that such events were engineered by extraterrestrial intelligent organisms using advanced technologies (which may be based on a more advanced understanding of the laws of physics that makes possible things that seem impossible according to our current understanding of physics). In short, whatever criteria we use for deciding whether a claim can be considered “scientific”, a natural/supernatural criterion need not be one of them.

  15. MadScientist
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
    So long as I got my plastic Jesus …

    Sorry, couldn’t resist since Cool Hand Luke was mentioned. :)

    So, basically the original assertion was that some supernatural claims can be tested (efficacy of prayer, etc) then a claim was made that such an assertion is wrong because ‘supernatural’ by definition is immune to study? I wonder what Epicurus would have said about such a play on words.

  16. newenglandbob
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    A big question that I can not find any answer to:

    Does a supernatural agent get a percentage of the gross?

    /end-of-humor-attempt

  17. SLC
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Is Prof. Coyne planning to respond to Prof. Millers’ shot across the bow?

    http://www.millerandlevine.com/evolution/Coyne-Accommodation.htm

  18. Notruck
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Oddly, Dr. Coyne and Dr. Forrest seem to be in agreement:

    Abstract: In response to the charge that methodological naturalism in science logically requires the a priori adoption of a naturalistic metaphysics, I examine the question whether methodological naturalism entails philosophical (ontological or metaphysical) naturalism. I conclude that the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility. – Barbara Forrest

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/barbara_forrest/naturalism.html

  19. Posted June 11, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as a scientist used to dealing with data and information the direction Mooney has taken this debate is altogether frustrating and increasingly distracting.

    Would someone please come up with something substantial–something we can work with–about the supernatural besides the non-answer of whatever exists outside the natural world. What a cop-out.

  20. Leigh Jackson
    Posted June 12, 2009 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you are wrong on the question of science vis a vis the supernatural but right about accommodationism.

    Science can put forward possible natural explanations (natural causes) for perplexing phenomena but not suggest that their ultimate explanation is some kind of direct or underlying supernatural cause. God is supposed to have created Nature. God is God and Nature is Nature. Natural causes are God’s way of producing natural effects – if a creator God exists and is the First Cause of all natural causes. Natural causes are God’s way of acting upon Nature after its creation. But if such a God exists who is to say whether or not She/He performs miracles – suspends natural causation sometimes? Can science say when direct supernatural causation (Creation and miracles) is the explanation for phenomena rather than the indirect supernatural causation (natural causes)? Can science say that supernatural causation – directly or indirectly – is the explanation at all?

    No. Science is limited to attempting to provide natural explanations for all the phenomena of human experience. To say that something cannot be explained by science and therefore must have a supernatural cause is simply to say that we do not understand how this thing could happen according to our current understanding of how nature works. Even if we can give convincing natural explanations for phenomena we still cannot know whether their true explanation is something of a different order entirely, hidden behind natural phenomena and natural causes and beyond our ability to comprehend.

    But none of this has any bearing on the question of whether it is right for science qua science to make statements about the compatibility or otherwise of science and religion. These are deep philosophical waters. Science should not attempt to walk on them. Individual scientists are at liberty to express personal philosophical views, of course. But Science should leave the philosophy of science and religion to philosophers. The truth is surely that the compatibility of science and religion is profoundly controversial. Science may safely say that much, but no more.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted June 12, 2009 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      God is God and Nature is Nature. Natural causes are God’s way of producing natural effects – if a creator God exists and is the First Cause of all natural causes. Natural causes are God’s way of acting upon Nature after its creation.

      Where is the evidence of this? What observations were made? Which experiments showed this result?

      But Science should leave the philosophy of science and religion to philosophers.

      Here we go again, telling some people to Shut UP! This is an argument from authority – I guess only philosophers are allowed to speak. How amusing.

    • MadScientist
      Posted June 12, 2009 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      But what god are you describing? Certainly not any descended from the judaean tradition and its numerous major cults. You are describing something more akin to a Hindu deity who creates the earth etc, then goes away.

      I also like the fact that some people want to have things both ways – on the one hand they say “the supernatural is beyond the reproach of science” but they refuse to accept the necessary corollary which is that “the supernatural is fundamentally indistinguishable from nonsense”.

  21. Leigh Jackson
    Posted June 12, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    My comments must be read in terms of the background context. Creationist challenge to the theory of evolution; more generally, as pointed out by Jerry, properly IMO, the religious challenge from the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic faiths; those faiths founded on belief in a transcendent Creator God; whether any version of these can really be said to be compatible with evolution; NAS statements to the effect that evolution and religion can be compatible

    I think Jerry is right about accommodationism and Chris Mooney is wrong. I am not telling any individual to shut up. I support Jerry when he questions whether science and religion can be mutually accommodated and whether scientific institutions ought to take a position on the question – particularly for political reasons. I support any individual’s right to argue any philosophical, social or political position he/she likes within moral and legal limitations.

    I believe it would be wise for scientific institutions like the NAS to shut up on the question of the compatibility of evolution and religion. Many scientists find science and religion compatible; many do not. This does not mean that science and religion are or can be compatible. It means that there is neither scientific consensus (science qua science) nor consensus amongst scientists (social or philosophical consensus) on this non-scientific question.

    About God; I did not have the Hindu concept of God in mind. The Brahman-Atman equivalence of the Upanishads appears closer to me to Spinoza’s “Deus sive Natura” formulation than to the transcendent God-Creation dualism of the Abrahamic faiths. I take the latter concept to be the non plus ultra of the supernatural; that beyond which anything more supernatural does not exist and from which all else – supernatural and natural – obtains its being; God alone obtaining being from itself.

    To modify what I said in my previous post. Scientists cannot reason from scientific phenomena – phenomena which it is possible for the scientific community to study – to supernatural causation. Science must admit ignorance as to how nature does it when confronted by phenomena which cannot be explained within the limits of our current understanding of how nature works. However great the evidence for a purely natural cause, it always remains possible that the true cause is yet unknown and perhaps unknowable; it may even be supernatural. By corollary, to say that supernatural causes must be responsible because we do not know of possible natural causes for some scientific phenomena is fallacious. In short, supernatural causes are logically and ontologically unfalsifiable. As for non-scientific phenomena, science cannot speak. If phenomena exist which are beyond the ability of science to study they pose very different kinds of questions to those which science attempts to answer. Do such phenomena exist? I do not believe so.


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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