The science/religion compatibility debate continues. . . .

Over on Edge, scientists continue to weigh in on my New Republic piece on the compatibility of science and faith. Steve Pinker and Sam Harris have just contributed, both taking the “non-accommodationist” stance.  Sam’s article,  a brilliant piece of sarcasm, has been widely misunderstood on the web, with many thinking he has seen the light and become a man of faith!  Yet how is it possible to mistake the following for anything other than sarcasm?

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

A second-order debate on the Edge debate has sprung up on Richard Dawkins’s website as well–there are nearly 800 comments!  Clearly this issue continues to attract a lot of attention, and generates a lot of heat as well as light.

Whoops!  Just informed that The Atlantic has taken up the debate in a column by Ross Doubthat.  Also, two pieces on The American Scene, one by Jim Manzi, and the other by Alan Jacobs.

22 Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Douthat’s position is very strange; that the diversity of religions, with their varying truth claims, somehow protects it from criticism. It seems to me he is confusing epistemology with aesthetics.

  2. Posted February 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Hello,

    I just wanted to let you know that there seems to be a glitch in the feed for this blog. When I just subscribed to it using Google Reader, the blog title is listed as “undefined”. This seems to be a problem with wordpress blogs and I’ve encountered it before, but those bloggers then waved magic pixie dust on their settings which fixed it. I hope you can too!

    Delighted that you’ve started blogging, and looking forward to reading!

    Cheers,

    Margaret

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the heads up. I’ll try to get this fixed.

  3. Posted February 6, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    My biggest beef with your article was that you suggested that Miller & Giberson met 3 of 4 “creationist traits”.

    Mainly, the third criterion as you originally formulated it is a creationist mistake – that God miraculously created humans because they could not evolve from ape-like ancestors. But you accuse M & G of meeting this criterion because they believe God had a “special role” in the *evolution of humans from ape-like ancestors* – which is just a theological proposition tacked on top of what we all know really happened.

    And, in fact, the special role they claim for God is that he created nature so that human(oid)s could evolve naturalistically, without supernatural interference.

    Like all of us, Giberson & Miller have some traits in common with creationists. However, they do seem to mostly steer clear of any form of science denialism or pseudoscience.

    Their philosophical ideas aren’t always defensible on “secular reason” – but it is quite possible to compartmentalize science and theology, just as we compartmentalize science and art.

  4. ggab
    Posted February 6, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Loved your piece, and can’t believe anyone took Sams reply for anything but sarcasm.
    I’m so thrilled to find out that you have a blog.
    I’ll be around often.

  5. 386sx
    Posted February 6, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Miller says: Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. Unfortunately, Coyne does not seem to appreciate this point.

    Well, how come creating a universe isn’t fixing the game? Why isn’t creating a universe, a universe which is designed specifically for the purpose of supporting life, bribing the referee? How’s come the “virgin birth” isn’t tricking natural selection?

    I realize the reason Miller makes excuses for why God doesn’t influence evolution is because he needs to explain why it looks like there ain’t no God, but why does he think that if God would tinker with evolution it would somehow make God dishonest or a cheater or something? Maybe God just didn’t feel like it! Look at all the other miracles his God does all the time.

  6. Lotharloo
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    While I really like Miller and the work he does to promote evolution, it is sad to see how he clearly misses or even twists your words.

    For instance, he writes, “So, despite his frank admission that “convergences are striking features of evolution,” he rules any possibility that human-like intelligence could also be a convergent feature.”

    Anyone can clearly see that your point (that I completely agree with) is that there is very little evidence to suggest human-like intelligence is a convergent feature. Thus, the default position should be lack of belief or skepticism. Unfortunately, religion demands certainty for yet another phenomenon where no reasonable amount of evidence has been produced.

  7. 386sx
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Anyone can clearly see that your point (that I completely agree with) is that there is very little evidence to suggest human-like intelligence is a convergent feature.

    What about monkey-like intelligence? Is that a convergent feature? I guess there’s human intelligence, and then there’s every other animal’s intelligence.

    How about goldfish? Is goldfish-like intelligence a convergent feature?

  8. skeptic griggsy
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, my on-line friende, thanks for the expose! You confirm what Amiel Rossow2 Ta;lk Reason maintaints about Miller and thus others that he takes ID out the front door, onlly to put it back through the back one. Yea, Miller supports a kind of ID- readinng God behind the Universe, the argument from pareidoia, the opening for teleological and cosmoligical arguments. The former beg the question in assuming the supernatural mind had us in mind when natural forcess had no pre-conceived notions. Teleology contradicts natural selection thus.
    Lmberth’s atelic argument is that as the weight of evidence [ Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson; Dr. Weisz in the ‘Science of Biology,’ notes that teleology ‘put the event before the cause, the future before the present, negating time.” That is backwards causation!], reveals no cosmic teleology and contradicts such, then God need not apply for work.
    All this accompanies the presumption of naturalism, which like its Humean corrollary about miracles, theists must overcome with evidence. And one should discard God as the ignosic-Ockhah reveals that either He is fatuous or else He is hopelessly redundant, contrary to the shallow Alister McGrath.
    Jerry, please rebut those three writers @ the Atlantic and the American Scene. I’ll try anon.
    Yea, I am a new atheist, an anti-theist as my threads and posts around the world so reveal. I prefer the terms rationalist and naturalist as the one urges reason and the other that presumption, and both reject the supernatural and the paranormal and other weird notions.
    What is interesting is that, albeit I have schizotypy, no aliens abducted me!
    I hope that you and others can use my comments.
    We naturalists get so tired of the haughty Haughts such as John Haught himself, Miller, Keith Ward, Glberson and Eugenie C. Scott and Michael Ruse.[ In her book on creationism she flays us naturalists for using the weight of evidence as being philosophical but as my on-line friend Paul Draper points out to me, she overlooks the problem of demarcation. Please rebut her nonsense. Selah!
    Your on-line friend, Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth [ Google folks world wide – skeptic griggsy and griggs i947 and sceptique griggsy and esceptico griggsy. ]
    Thanks Jerry and the commentators here and @ Dawkins’s.

  9. skeptic griggsy
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the typos. sk.

  10. Chris Rijk
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks you. That was a good read.

    Regarding the fine-tuning argument, I think a bit more push-back is in order against the Divine Knob Twiddler:
    http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.3697
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19926673.900

  11. skeptic griggsy
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, my on-line friende, thanks for the expose! You confirm what Amiel Rossow @ Talk Reason maintains about Miller, and thus others, that he takes ID out the front door, onlly to put it back through the back one. Yea, Miller supports a kind of ID- reading God behind the Universe, the argument from pareidoia, the opening for teleological and cosmoligical arguments. The former beg the question in assuming the supernatural mind had us in mind when natural forcess had no pre-conceived notions. Teleology contradicts natural selection thus.
    Lmberth’s atelic argument is that as the weight of evidence [ Ernst Mayr, George Gaylord Simpson; Dr. Weisz in the ‘Science of Biology,’ notes that teleology ‘put the event before the cause, the future before the present, negating time.” That is backwards causation!], reveals no cosmic teleology and contradicts such, then God need not apply for work.
    All this accompanies the presumption of naturalism, which like its Humean corollary about miracles, theists must overcome with evidence. And one should discard God as the ignostic-Ockham reveals that either He is fatuous or else He is hopelessly redundant, contrary to the shallow Alister McGrath.
    Jerry, please rebut those three writers @ the Atlantic and the American Scene. I’ll try anon.
    Yea, I am a new atheist, an anti-theist as my threads and posts around the world so reveal. I prefer the terms rationalist and naturalist as the one urges reason and the other that presumption, and both reject the supernatural and the paranormal and other weird notions.
    What is interesting is that, albeit I have schizotypy, no aliens abducted me!
    I hope that you and others can use my comments.
    We naturalists get so tired of the haughty Haughts such as John Haught himself, Miller, Keith Ward, Glberson and Eugenie C. Scott and Michael Ruse.[ In her book on creationism she flays us naturalists for using the weight of evidence as being philosophical but as my on-line friend Paul Draper points out to me, she overlooks the problem of demarcation. Please rebut her nonsense. Selah!
    Your on-line friend, Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth [ Google folks world wide – skeptic griggsy and griggs i947 and sceptique griggsy and esceptico griggsy.]
    Thanks Jerry and the commentators here and @ Dawkins’s.
    Revised.

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    More on what I mean about confusing epistemology with aesthetics.

    Douthat: Indeed, if you took the two paragraphs quoted above, which dismiss the truth claims of religion, and substituted, say, “political philosophy” for “faith and “religon” throughout, the critique would make just as much sense (and just as little). Political philosophies vary from person to person and sect to sect; there are clear contradictions between the “truth claims” of, say, Locke and Hobbes, let alone Rawls and Plato; assertions about the nature of man differ wildly from philosopher to philosopher; and there’s no empirical test one could devise, so far as I know, to disprove the arguments of The Genealogy of Morals.

    Political philosophy involves both truth claims (epistemology) and values (aesthetics). What makes for the best political system involves some value choices right from the start: best for whom? (the general populace, a ruling class, only the ruler..?) What is the criterion for deciding which is best? (maximize security, maximize liberty, maximize economic well-being, etc.) Then there are truth claims as to which political systems might do better under the different rating systems. These truth claims are, in principle, testable. Therefore, even if all the truth claims of political philosophy could be tested, there might be legitimate differences in political philosophy based on the differing value systems.

    Religion also involves both truth claims and values. However, the truth claims as to the supernatural, (e.g. the existence and nature of gods and their relationship to the natural world, the existence of souls, the reality of an afterlife or reincarnation) generally come first, and the values are built on top of them. So, not only are the truth claims a) open to scientific investigation or b) open to criticism because they are not; but the value systems are also open to criticism because they are based on false or unverifiable truth claims.

  13. Posted February 7, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    There is a major issue which bothers me about the “science versus religion” debate. I and others in the “spiritual centrist” category get tired of putting it all up as this false two-ways system of science v. religion and whether they can be compatible. It reminds me of how libertarians are sick of the liberal/conservative face off as if they didn’t exist. But ultimate questions are also dealt with by philosophy, which does what it can with issues not directly open to empirical study. (The argument that something has to be empirically knowable to be worth believing or meaningful etc. is itself philosophy, there’s no getting away from big P. It is philosophical reasoning which frames what our epistemic givens are, how “shared” etc, to get science off the ground.) Legitimate philosophy by definition is not derived from cultural traditions (other than necessary entanglement with “intellectual history” but that is unavoidable …) or claimed revelations. It works on whatever good knowledge there is and various reasoning processes to try and find answers.

    Hence philosophy has to be compatible with science – meaning no contradiction – but it deals with questions that may not be part of science (and of course, the question of whether there are such issues and what to do about them if anything.) Questions like, is the universe necessary or contingent, is there a necessary being and what is it, is it all that exists, is (drum roll ….) modal realism a cogent answer to the question of why one or some possible worlds exist and not others; etc., are not “religion” even though they deal with the same issues that religions do.

    So are there good philosophical arguments about God? I think so. Some of the best were put forth by physicist Paul Davies in his excellent book, The Mind of God, which focused on the possible implications of anthropic fine-tuning.

    One of my own arguments, roughly: We don’t know why those original dimensions (anything, actually) existed. If we accept that there is no logical reason for some “possible worlds” to exist and not others, we have to say that they all “exist.” (Modal realism.) Yet if we accept that trendy but rigorous argument against distinguishing substantive from conceptual worlds, then every “possible world” has to exist anyway with equal standing. Hence all PWs with describable but “bad” (incongruent, motley, time-varying etc.) laws or constituents will “exist” too. Hence, self-selection in such a wide-open multiverse is tainted: observers may have a tiny Bayesian probability of finding themselves in any universe other than a type just lawful enough – and then only until their present moment – for the observers to have arisen. That is apparently not our situation, which implies to me that some “Manager” is at work. Issues of “measure” make this entire topic debatable.

    PS: For background context, I am Unitarian Universalist and an independent “seeker” who isn’t buying anyone’s simple-minded, hand-me-down religion or disreligion.

  14. Posted February 8, 2009 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Don’t accommodate – mock. The time of reasoned debate is over.

  15. John Cozijn
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    The problem with the strong incompatibility argument is politico-strategic: it is precisely the line pushed by creationists and their ilk to maintain their flocks’ rejection of evolution. A better strategy might be to just deal with the specific arguments, such as the convergence nonsense (how can you apply the convergence paradigm to feature that has arisen only once?), and let people make their own minds.

    Dawkins has oft-repeated that he is not so interested in the “battle” against creationism/ID as the “war” against religion per se. But this is both a false dichotomy and politically naive. There is no high road to enlightenment, the only path leads through the trenches. And giving evangelicals a free kick by pushing the incompatibility of science and religion seems to me a very poor idea.

    Meanwhile, we seem to be making heavy weather of the “fine-tuning” argument. It’s simple really:
    1. Science cannot tell us (yet!) why the constants have the values they do.
    2. But hypothesising a cosmic knob-twiddler is no answer at all, falling victim to the same infinite regress as all cosmological arguments for the deity. In this case, who twiddled the Deity’s knobs?

    Speculation by some scientists does not equal science, so let’s keep multiverses and similar science fiction out of the argument and stick to the facts.

  16. Stagyar zil Doggo
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Your TNR article quotes Miller as saying:

    But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.

    I would argue that this is actually correct, but only in the trivial sense that a random (or semi-random) walk over a finite set will traverse every point given enough time.

    As you point out, human intelligence has evolved only once. Its also been around for less than a million years, which is just a minuscule fraction of evolutionary time.

    “Convergent Evolution” implies the existence of some kind of ‘local attractor’ or ‘sticky zone’ in your ‘fitness landscape’. So its not enough to just reach that point once in your traverse (before perhaps quickly leaving). For an argument of “Convergent Evolution” to hold up, the point/zone should attract multiple paths traveling in its vicinity and then hold them there in the absence of catastrophic changes in the fitness landscape.

    These arguments for the inevitability of Humans will seem really silly if we wink out of existence in another million years or less. 🙂

  17. Stagyar zil Doggo
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    On the issue of whether intelligence is helpful or harmful in the fight for survival, I’m wondering if anyone has made a list of the most intelligent forms at each point in the evolutionary time scape and seen how they fared in comparison to their competitors …

  18. John Cozijn
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think intelligence as such is the issue for theists, but the capacity for symbolic thought – and on that level only the genus Homo (and perhaps only us) exhibits the required capacity. There are a wide array of species that are highly intelligent: dolphins, corvids, apes and perhaps some cephalopods, but none has a consciousness that even remotely seems capable of, for instance, inventing and culturally transmitting religion, let alone art or mathematics.

    Indeed, the required trait is not only not a convergence point in the fitness landscape but is probably a spandrel.

  19. Stagyar zil Doggo
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I don’t think intelligence as such is the issue for theists …

    Of course not. Its just the currently convenient crutch to support their apriori conclusion that Humans are uniquely special. So of course the only distinction of consequence is the one between Human Intelligence/consciousness/symbolic ability/etc. and its absence.

    But the question I raised seems interesting in its own right and I was wondering if anyone had worked on it yet. Or even a theoretical comparison of the physiological costs of carrying X number of neurons versus their benefit.

  20. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    The problem with the strong incompatibility argument is politico-strategic…

    But it isn’t a politically motivated strategy, it is a putative truth statement.

  21. Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    I found your article and the subsequent replies really fascinating. One curiosity though is your treatment of the Strong Anthropic Principle: do you feel it’s a valid point of concern that needs answering? My thinking is along the lines that once the Weak Anthropic Principle is dismissed, the theistic explanation for the SAP is marginalised. That at best a deist god could satisfy the SAP but without satisfying the WAP a personal god is absurd.


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