Russell Blackford on The National Academy of Sciences and its accommodationism

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford (owner of Felix) has a nice analysis of the National Academy of Sciences’ policy on reconciling religion and science, decrying their accommodationism.  Part of the NAS’s statement is below (these are NOT Russell’s words); you can hear the same tired old bromides falling into line.  When are we going to stop hearing that religion finds “another kind of truth” or enables us to “understand the world”?  It just ain’t so!

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

Russell handily eviscerates this accommodationism in his post, which I’ll let you read yourself. Just a couple of snippets to whet your appetite:

It is not so much that there is more than one way of knowing. Rather, there are different techniques for investigating different aspects or parts of reality. Not all aspects lend themselves to investigation through distinctively scientific techniques, and some lend themselves to investigation through other techniques (examining historical records, etc.). Still, we expect that knowledge and understanding obtained through different techniques will be consistent. Where lines of evidence obtained from different techniques show a convergence, we can be confident that we’re getting at the truth. . .

As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false. Unfortunately, the NAS statement doesn’t nail down what is involved here beyond saying that religious faith typically involves “supernatural forces or entities”. It is trivially and unhelpfully true that science cannot investigate such forces or entities if “supernatural” is defined to mean “that which science cannot investigate” (or in some other way that amounts to the same thing).

But it is false if it means that science is, in principle, unable to investigate claims about such paradigmatically “supernatural” things as ancestor spirits, water nymphs, fire demons, magic dragons, or astrological influences. If these things exist and behave in fairly regular ways – like lions, elephants, kangaroos, crocodiles, and the flow of water – then science can investigate them. Of course, if they did exist we might come to think of them as part of “nature”, but that’s just the point. There is no clear and meaningful line between “natural” and “supernatural”, such that science cannot investigate beyond that line. It is simply that certain kinds of things, notably disembodied intelligences, don’t actually seem to exist; in any event, hypotheses involving these things have had a lousy track record over centuries. It is usually good practice for scientists to avoid those kinds of hypotheses if they can (this is the grain of truth in “methodological naturalism”).

Nonetheless, there is no reason, in principle, why science cannot investigate claims about, say, ancestor spirits as long as the spirits in question are alleged to behave in ways that are reasonably regular and affect things that can be detected by our senses (possibly via scientific instruments). . .


  1. Dave
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    It’s so strange to see in these discussions where I primarily agree with the atheistic view that such astounding idiotic things are being forwarded by the atheist.

    Jerry, you’re guilty of this and so is Dawkins. You guys have really mucked up the works and its spilled over into bizarre defenses like we see with Russell above.

    Russell says: “As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false.”

    It is simply a mistake to think that science studies the “supernatural”. It’s insane that it’s often put in ways where it’s either obvious that science does study the supernatural in some way, as in your statement of: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” or put out with the idea it’s trivially true or false. Of course, Russell is simply back to describing what are potentially mysteries found in nature (what there is is nature and the mysteries of nature – would be better if atheistic scientist would just state the fact instead of playing into the same game as the creationist). What we are dealing with as far as the supernatural is belief systems. Of course, there is concern, that you seem to have, that we can’t hold that “supernatural phenomena” do not exist, but then argue that if some claim to nature is held to be true that was thought to be “supernatural” it is then within nature (your example of scientist convinced and saying their Hosanna’s is simply ridiculous – a scientist convinced does not automatically mean their belief is a true reflective of reality – you are making a distinct philosophical mistake to think science is studying the “supernatural” – you are just contributing to the confusion and in the imaginary “war between naturalism and “supernaturalism” where it seems playing this game provides some kind of adherence to the arguments and there’s any “any means possible” attitude – it is to me just dishonest and meaningless).

    This crap just adds to the problem because you continuously reinforce the idea that we are testing more than the claims regarding nature. The claims about nature made by the “believers” are said to have “supernatural” causation or acts of a “supernatural force”, but that idea is not being tested, it can’t be test by science (hence why creationism is all its guises is not a scientific theory, science makes no use of a “supernatural” – gods – hypothesis). Playing this game as you have – for no better reason than to argue strangely against noma, which you appear to not fully understand, since many of your actions support the fundamental framework,you have turned it in to a scapegoat to use as a dirty word in a false correlation to arguments about accomodationism – you have essentially made false claims regarding the nature of science.

    Russell said: “There is no clear and meaningful line between “natural” and “supernatural”, such that science cannot investigate beyond that line.”

    Science does not study the “supernatural”, and yes the definition of the supernatural is not very clear, it is fairly meaningless because it is not reality, you can not make the “supernatural” into the natural, which he is nearly attempting to do – this is the attempt to say that science can somehow refute, falsify and test the “superantural”. It is simply a false claim about the nature of science. We would be better to accept that what science can tell us about “supernaturalism” is within the scope of belief and belief systems. By playing this mindless game we only delay the appropriate approaches to understanding and possibly changing irrational beliefs about the “supernatural”.

    Again, this all may be useful for imaginary wars and arguments against noma, but they are more meaningless than even how Russell attempts to portray it. He is doing what you and Richard have which is to cross into the fuzzy zone of crazy metaphor and silly argument to make a meaningless claim about science.

    You and Dawkins have influenced people to make false claims about the nature of science (mainly Richard on this). I support your attempts to get religion out of science, including your decision on the Festival (and I hope you stay above board and not play a game of labeling and feeding into name calling while raising unnecessary suspicion towards some good scientist).

    In Russell’s last sentence he is just saying we are testing the aspects that science can and does test, which is naturalistic, but we are not scientifically testing a “spirit” that is said to exist outside of nature while influencing nature (or already said to not be explainable by natural means). Again, we are dealing with belief systems, and you may to say that scientist do not have a philosophical commitment with regards to materialistic explanations of nature, but stop making the philosophical mistake of claiming “supernatural phenomena” are within the realm of science (thereby testable – the final sentence in the quote by Dawkins should be stamped on head when you do that: “But, this is childish writing”).

    I mean, in his response to the other statement (which I feel like giving a good drubbing also), look how ridiculous Russell sounds, how he is twisting himself in knots to say that science concerns itself with natural phenomena.

  2. Dave
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I posted this comment on Russell’s blog. I cleaned it a little. I apologize for the misspelling and sloppy sentence structure in places.

    I also meant to say; in Darwin’s (not Dawkins’) final sentence in the quote you used in the “Seeing and Believing” essay, where he says; “But, this is childish writing.”

  3. Posted May 8, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    It’s tiresome when I write something careful, and as clear as I can make it, on a conceptually difficult topic, and someone responds by flinging about words such as “idiotic”, “insane”, “crap”, “childish”, etc. I’m not sure why that is expected to be impressive. It merely suggests that we are dealing with someone so emotionally invested as to be unwilling to think carefully about what the other side is actually saying.

    Sometimes it’s good to express outrage or disgust, or whatever, but it’s not helpful when you’re dealing with an ally trying to get to the bottom of a difficult problem.

    Dave’s language is such that I don’t see any point in trying to persuade him. It suggests that he’s not open to changing his mind. He’d rather burn bridges than build them.

    But I’d better say something brief here for the benefit of other readers. I’ll say more about the issue over at my own blog, rather than posting a very long comment here.

    So, I should emphasise that there is much misunderstanding (in the whole debate, not just in Dave’s comment) of the crucial point that the word “supernatural” is commonly used in more than one sense, and sometimes in vague senses, and that the equivocation and vagueness cause confusion. Dave has, as he’d put it, mucked things up yet again by failing to show a consistent understanding of that point. I’d love the world to be such that the terms “natural” and “supernatural” have a single clear meaning, but they don’t – as Dave notices in passing but then seems to forget – so we are left to wrestle with the different meanings, in order to try think about this whole issue clearly.

    Thus, there are senses in which it’s ridiculous to say that science can study supernatural phenomena. But there are other senses in which it’s not ridiculous at all. We need to know, at each point, which sense of the word “supernatural” is being employed.

    Unfortunately, the NAS statement, which was what my original post was about, throws the words around with no definitions attached. That’s a very dangerous thing to do.

  4. Dave
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Russell’s most recent blog post furthers this discussion.

    Saturday, May 09, 2009
    Natural and supernatural again

    He furthers his argument on definitional grounds and vagueness.

    Here is my response which includes a quote from Russell’s post.

    Russell Blackford,

    —-“When we say that science deals with the “natural”, while religion deals with the “supernatural” we need to define our terms (reasonably) clearly, then use them consistently. If we define the “natural” so that it means “everything” then it will turn out to be the case that science can deal with whatever turns out to exist, but that tells us nothing about what sorts of things actually do exist. It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example. If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them.”—-

    Since you say this a few different ways, I just picked this quote from near the end. Also, anyone interested can see my most recent post in the – NAS on the compatibility of science and religion – blog post in response to Russell’s response to me.

    Science concerns itself only with the natural. By definition it’s true something can be defined out of existence and this tells us nothing of the fact of whether it exist or not (you have twisted yourself in knots again to say a very simple and understood point). In the scientific sense, you can say we are defining “God” out of existence, it is not science that has defined God out of nature, that has been the doing of “believers”, science makes has NO use for the God hypothesis. One can say it’s a ploy for “believers” to define God out of nature and not knowable because they fail to reveal God in nature, however true that may be, what science is concerned with is studying the naturalistic claims (claims with regards to nature that are scientifically testable). What has been refuted is the claims to nature, not “supernaturalims”. It doesn’t matter that the “believers” claim that their God is acting within nature as long as they make their claims testable, falsifiable, i.e. scientifically verifiable.

    Again, as far as we know we are dealing with belief systems when it comes to Gods and “supernatural forces”. You are simply playing the same game as the creationist in nearly redefining science to accept an idea that the “supernatural” is falsifiable and therefore scientifically testable (yet their theories are NOT scientific for this exact problem “God did it” is not a scientific theory). The facts we have on the table are that people believe in the “supernatural” that is defined outside of nature while claiming it is interacting with nature.

    You’re just playing the game of vagueness to allow for what is defined outside of nature to possibly exist. However, in a very real sense, there is no vagueness to the fact that science is naturalistic (naturalism) and it is you that is creating unnecessary vagueness.

  5. Posted May 9, 2009 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    I’m not playing games, though I certainly am doing what I do: trying to make important distinctions and to get concepts clear. I have more to say on my own blog where “Dave” is also commenting.

    For the record, though, the idea that I am trying to allow for the existence of something outside of nature is very odd. If anything, my motivation is closer to the opposite.

  6. Dave
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Russell Blackford

    —“For the record, though, the idea that I am trying to allow for the existence of something outside of nature is very odd. If anything, my motivation is closer to the opposite.”—

    Right, well, what it comes down to really are your motivations, which is exactly what I am saying is at the bottom of this nonsense. But, in your earnestness to create the illusion (as I see it, and I’m sure others do as well, you are just a victim) that science study’s the “supernatural” or can refute “supernaturalism” you are dredging up the dead to play ghost of debates past to take part in your imaginary “war between “supernaturalism” and naturalism”. You are in essence playing the same game as the creationist to justify a claim that Gods and “supernatural forces” are scientifically testable.

  7. Dave
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Russell Blackford has continued the dialogue on his blog that I would like to post here since it deals specifically with what is being argued and I want this properly aired.

    My response below:

    Russell Blackford

    —“Either way, his comments don’t deal with the argument at all. He just repeats the same simplistic, dogmatic claims over and over”.—

    Of course, this is what creationist argue as well concerning my position (and that of science as well as accepted today by most of philosophy), that is why they would like to redefine science or shift the burden of evidence.

    I made my point very clear and in doing so you have chosen to argue this is dogmatic. Science does NOT concern itself with “supernatural phenomena”. I keep repeating the obvious because it is clear that you would like to hedge the facts in order to argue that science can somehow falsify “supernaturalism”.

    You offer yet another example that I can use to demonstrate where you are going wrong. This is the most common defense of your position and illustrates you are reading past me, or choosing to ignore the nature of science to make false claims.

    Russell Wrote:

    —“But of course some claims about supernatural events (in a perfectly familiar sense of the word “supernatural”), e.g. the claim that the world was created by God 6000 years ago, are not only falsifiable but actually falsified. This claim only becomes unfalsifiable if you add the additional claim that God created the world in a pre-aged state so that it looks billions of years old, but not all religionists do that.”—

    The claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is a claim concerning nature. It doesn’t matter how the God argument is used with regards to how it interacts with nature, in this case creation, it is not a falsifiable scientific theory (unless the God is defined in purely naturalistic terms). “God did it” is not a falsifiable scientific theory (science makes NO use for the God hypothesis). The claim to nature is what is refuted, not the supposed theory used to explain nature. This does not say that the “theory” (i.e. “god did it”) is a reasonable assumption regarding anything concerning nature, in fact, the claims concerning nature that “believers” often make to indicate the existence or action of the God are often false (and demonstrably so).

    You are simply confusing claims to mean that what is tested involves something defined as outside of nature. I can claim that prayer works to heal and this is an action of a God, we can test the claim scientifically, but what we are testing is what is in nature. The fact that these claims about the action of a “supernatural force” come up refuted, does not mean that science is studying the “supernatural”. All you are doing is leapfrogging over the nature of science to claim that we can view “supernatual” and natural definitions as vague enough to allow for the existence of what is defined outside of nature to exist. However, the the fact is that science in naturalistic (naturalism) and does not test “supernatural forces” (again, you are confusing the claims with what science actually does).

    As the comments here by RichardW and Russell reveal, their arguments are identical in many ways to the creationist (and many “believers” in general). They are claiming that to state science concerns itself with only the natural (that it is naturalism) is somehow dogmatic and crazy.

    One final note, since this seems to be the motivator for the arguments presented by Russell and others.

    Again, we are primarily faced with the fact that when it comes to claims regarding the action of a God or “supernatural force” we are dealing with belief systems. By getting the basic facts straight regarding science we can then better deal with the facts as we know them. Science can and is telling us something about “supernaturalism” with regards to belief and belief systems and we should pay attention and use that knowledge. That there are those that want to play games with what is commonly understood as science today in order to use it in an ideological war is unfortunate but yet it is the same old tiresome maneuver.

    How science operates has been refined over time and is by its nature progressive and amendable to change in certain regards (though it’s doing a damn fine job right now). In fact, it is largely due to people wanting to shift burdens of evidences, use bias both intentionally and ignorantly and play games of definition that refinement and clarification as has been needed. What we are witnessing now with a subset of atheist and most creationist (creationist being the most offensive and longer term) is the old game of shifting to make false claims regarding the nature of science.

    Russell’s continuation of remarks regarding my character are only part of the tactics used to defend what is today, indefensible.

  8. Posted May 9, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Science is indeed tending to tell us something about claims involving supernatural entities and forces. The tendency is to tell us that those claims are FALSE. The claim that “God created the world 6000 years ago” is, indeed, a claim about a supernatural entity. It is a claim about an action attributed to God (pretty much a paradigm supernatural entity; if God doesn’t count as a supernatural entity then nothing does). The claim has been falsified.

    That’s not to say that all claims involving entities such as God (or gods or ghosts or vampires) can be falsified, but many can. Others can be rendered highly implausible. The long-run effect is to make philosophical naturalism – the idea that there simply are no gods, ghosts, or similar entities or associated forces) – the most plausible worldview.

    It’s really as simple as that. The only reason that it’s necessary to do a lot of analysis to defend philosophical naturalism is that so many people (including the NAS) create confusion when they attempt to resist philosophicasl naturalism’s lure (for whatever reasons).

    Let’s get back to where we started. Organisations such as the NAS don’t have to promote philosophical naturalism. It would be objectionable if they did. But nor should they be going out of their way to argue against it by trying to insulate the claims of religion from rational critique. I don’t know what’s so hard to understand about that, or why it’s so hard to understand that the NAS and other bodies are doing this for political reasons.

  9. Dave
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    Russell Blackford,

    –“The claim that “God created the world 6000 years ago” is, indeed, a claim about a supernatural entity. It is a claim about an action attributed to God (pretty much a paradigm supernatural entity; if God doesn’t count as a supernatural entity then nothing does). The claim has been falsified.

    That’s not to say that all claims involving entities such as God (or gods or ghosts or vampires) can be falsified, but many can. Others can be rendered highly implausible.”–

    One more time. The claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is a claim regarding nature. The reason it is falsifiable is because it is a claim regarding natural phenomena. The claim is made by those that think it is absolute, unquestionable truth that is revealed by a God. The “theory” then is that a God created the world 6,000 years ago. The “theory” is not a scientific theory, it is unfalsifiable, what we are dealing with is a belief (the “theory” was never scientific – even if it could have ‘reasonably’ been believed at one time). Again, you are confusing the claims regarding nature that are attributed to a “supernatural force”, i.e. God, with what science does, which is to study natural phenomena. Science is naturalistic (this doesn’t ignore the fact it is a truth seeking method of inquiry etc.). Also, again, science makes no use for a “God” or “supernatural force” hypothesis. Philosophical naturalism is a position which does not posit a “supernatural” explanation.

    It is your position that creates the greatest confusion.

    It is that simple…

  10. Dave
    Posted May 9, 2009 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Russell Blackford has posted this on his site:

    “Jerry Coyne has already removed one or more of your posts for incivility (at my request, he also removed one of mine replying to it).”

  11. Posted May 10, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Yes, what I actually told Dave was that Jerry removed one of MY OWN COMMENTS at my request. I had nothing to do with the removal of Dave’s post, but once it had gone my reply to it ceased to be relevant and was unnecessarily snarky in any event. So I asked Jerry if he would delete it, too, which he kindly did.

  12. Dave
    Posted May 10, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Well, I’ll just make a final comment on this, since I am dealing with a true believer with Russell and his views on “supernaturalism” (and keep doing what the creationist are doing Russell – prolonging meaningless debate always works to retain adherence to an ideology).

    I stick by what I wrote in the deleted post (that is linked above), and all of my post. I am attacking the ideas, the argument presented by Russell is one that has largely been dealt with and is understood. All that is happening is dredging up stories that only work to obfuscate. It is the ARGUMENT and BELIEFS that Russell is forwarding that I am attacking. They are a unnecessary and pointless distraction that the sooner we get past the better able we will be equipped to take on the challenge of dealing with belief systems and their consequences. I submit the reason why Russell’s argument is so appealing to a subset of atheist is because it is viewed as a necessary component is a “war between naturalism and supernaturalism” (which again, in the scientific sense is meaningless today).

  13. Dave
    Posted May 10, 2009 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Ha! Very nice…

    And here we are, this is what we can expect if…

  14. Crapsquire
    Posted June 12, 2009 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    To begin with I am sure I am writing this only for my pleasure as the debate seems to have ended about a month ago, however, I can’t resist; my response cannot be any more futile than the exchange between Dave and Russell.

    This is a clear example of an argument being reduced to mere semantics. Dave, think of it this way; Russell clearly stated what he meant by supernatural and that it included the natural claims that follow from supernatural beliefs — that these can be tested. You understood that and yet you object because you feel it confuses the issue or that somehow he is playing into the hands of the enemy.

    Well, to my way of thinking it is the faith-heads and dogmatists who refuse to deal with subtlety of thought and language. We should not emulate them in this but instead we should set an example. We should as a first principle try to understand what someone means and argue against that, not against what someone ‘says’. As you surely know we all use language with our own idiosyncrasies let alone the slight differences that accrue from region to region.

    I sympathize with your desire to be exact in your choice of words; I hate it when Sam Harris speaks about spirituality and I, like you do about this issue, feel that it confuses people. I wish that Einstein had never spoken approvingly of religion and god for the same reason but the fact is we all have our own peccadilloes when it comes to language.

    The unassailable fact is that Russell was clear about what he meant. In another context it might have been worth your while to demand that he be more forthright. He might even be deserving of a mild one sentence rebuke for his heresy but please let us not lose sight of the larger picture. It appears that we are all on the same side in the fight against acceptable insanity. Let us leave literalism to our opponents. It is their weakness but it should not be ours.

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