Ah, the philosphy fracas continues! First Russell Blackford wrote a laudatory review of Faith versus Fact for Talking Philosophy. Then Massimo Pigliucci, who never fails to remind us that he has three—count them, three—doctorates, and is therefore more qualified than anyone to assess both philosophy and biology, took out after Russell’s review—without having read my book. That would be okay (I do it myself sometimes) if Pigliucci had not also characterized—actually, mischaracterized—what I said in my book, something that could have been avoided had he read it. Pigliucci’s piece, “In defense of accommodationism: on the proper relationship between science and religion”, was a bit on the nasty side, and in a post on this site I took issue with several of its claims (in bold):
- Religion isn’t about believing in facts about the cosmos, but about meaning, morals, and values. Here Pigliucci is just wrong. Even Sophisticated Theologians™ admit that religion is based on assumptions about “how things really are” in the universe, and they note as well that the moral and value claims rest at bottom on empirical claims. (1 Corinthians 15:14: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”) I won’t belabor these points, as I discussed them in detail in my earlier post.
- Religion and science are logically compatible. Therefore they’re compatible. End of story. Had Pigliucci read my book, he would know what I meant by “compatibility,” which has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with practice and outcomes.
- Accommodationists are almost invariably atheists. I have no idea why Massimo made that statement, but it shows that he doesn’t get out enough. Yes, many atheists are accommodationists, but the bulk of the accommodationist literature comes from religionists and theologians. I ought to know: hell, I spent two years reading the likes of John Haught, Alvin Plantinga, Alister McGrath, Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, Karl Giberson, Francis Collins. . . ad nauseam.
Well, Russell, who is a genuine credentialed philosopher, has finally responded to Massimo on his own, in a piece at the online TPM (The Philosophers’ Magazine), “On Accommodationism: A reply to Pigliucci.” As usual, Russell is more civil than I am. (I try to be, but sometimes fail.) His words:
Massimo Pigliucci is someone I normally have time for. I’ve enjoyed amicable and efficient dealings with him in the past, and I don’t doubt that his long-running critique of pseudoscience has achieved a degree of good. But on any topic related to the “New Atheism” – including the relationship between science and religion, or that between science and morality – he appears to lose all objectivity.
I don’t really care what history, or what quirks of psychology, might lie behind this – I don’t even want to speculate. The result, however, is that he does himself a disservice, since I’m surely not the only person to have noticed how these topics bring out the worst in him.
That’s about as nice as you can be before ripping apart your opponent’s arguments. At any rate, while Russell goes over some of the same ground I plowed, he also discusses other issues. Defining “accommodationism” as “the idea that there’s room for religion in a scientifically informed understanding of the world” (not a bad definition!), Blackford makes the following points—and more. Go read his piece to see for yourself:
- There are tactical and political reasons why people favor accommodationism. He doesn’t accuse Pigliucci of hewing to these tactics, but it’s useful to remember why people like Eugenie Scott and Michael Ruse (not to mention Stephen Jay Gould), atheists themselves, nevertheless vociferously defended the principle that there’s no conflict between science and religion. By claiming that science and religion are incompatible in a land of believers, you render yourself a skunk among Americans.
- Pigliucci engaged in unwarranted smears toward Blackford when Russell characterized Gould as a “celebrity scientist.”
- Pigluicci, despite implying otherwise, actually agrees with both Russell and me that Gould’s NOMA principle is untenable.
- Russell is on the fence about whether endeavors like archaeology or history can be seen as “science broadly construed,” which is how I characterize disciplines that use the toolkit of science to find truth. And, truth be told, I don’t care that much about this “demarcation problem”. The issue for me is whether a discipline claims to be finding truth, and, if so, if it uses the time-honed tools of science to ascertain those truths. The main conflict is whether religion can ascertain truth (the answer is no), and whether areas like literature have “ways of knowing” that can ascertain truth (I doubt it). Frankly, I don’t care if one sees archaeology as “science broadly construed” when it finds out about ancient civilizations; all I care is if they archaeologists draw their conclusions using methods similar to those of scientists who study historical phenomena.
I’ll finish with two quotes from Russell’s piece, the first about whether religion is in the truth business, and the second about Pigliucci’s style of argument.
Although Pigliucci does not accept the principle of NOMA, he claims, without much argument, that religion is primarily about ethical teachings and questions of meaning (whatever these really amount to; it’s not straightforward!). Thus, Pigliucci thinks, most of religion, or perhaps the most important part, cannot be contradicted by empirical findings from the sciences (or perhaps it’s just the natural sciences, exclusive of psychology). To see things otherwise is “a gross misreading of history,” so Pigliucci claims – but again, claiming this does not make it so.
As Pigliucci himself appears to acknowledge, many theologians got out of the cosmogony business precisely because they felt pushed out by the success of scientific inquiry. As a result, yes, many Catholics, such as Pigliucci’s mother, are not biblical literalists – but that is precisely an example of what I discussed in my post: religion has been forced to come to terms with challenges from science and modernity. The historical record that Pigliucci refers to supports my case, not his. (That said, plenty of mothers and others are biblical literalists – at least in the US. See the statistics provided by Coyne in his response to Pigliucci.)
Unfortunately for Pigliucci, religions are not in any measurable way “primarily” about moral claims or “ethical teachings.” Such teachings are often, though not always, important elements of religions. But they are important as elements in systems that integrate many other elements, such as (yes!) cosmogonies, eschatologies, sacred histories, epistemologies (contrary to one of Pigliucci’s ex cathedra pronouncements, religions do indeed offer methods of finding truth, such as faith, prayer, revelation, and study of holy books), and prescribed forms of ritual and worship.
Religions typically make claims that are, at least to some extent, open to empirical scrutiny by the sciences and humanities. If those claims don’t check out – or even if they are rendered explanatorily superfluous – then of course there is a tendency for the religions concerned to lose their prestige and their aura of authority. If a religion retreats to offering only allegories and moral guidance, it may then lose much of what made it psychologically attractive to adherents in the first place. Besides, we can often rationally ask why the retreat was necessary – if a religion was divinely established, as many purport to be, why were its claims not correct from the start?
Furthermore, without their pretensions to possess a wider explanatory authority, religions lose their appearance even of moral authority. Given the oppressive and miserable nature of many moral norms associated with one or another religion, that’s probably just as well.
Well said. And one of Russell’s biggest beefs with Pigliucci appears to be the latter’s style of argument:
Finally, I confess to being blindsided and annoyed by this turn of events. I don’t mind being disagreed with, but it creates an awkward situation when such a hostile and rhetorical post is lobbed my way from someone with whom I have various ongoing professional dealings. I won’t labor the point: to be sure, I’ve put up with much worse, in my time, and from far nastier people than Pigliucci, but it’s still unexpected and objectionable.
More worryingly, anyone reading Pigliucci’s post from outside the discipline of philosophy will form a poor view of the discipline. If this is the way one of its better known tenured professors chooses to engage with others, and to discuss ideas, the rest of us will struggle uphill when we try to present philosophy as a counterweight to propaganda and tribalism. I hope outsiders won’t interpret Pigliucci’s approach to “New Atheist” topics as typical of how philosophers go about their business. We usually display – I hope – a bit less belligerence and a bit more intellectual substance.
I’m really not much for back-and-forth intellectual catfights, though of course I won’t shy away from criticizing pieces that I see as misguided. I just don’t want to engage in repeated back-and-forths But in this case, it’s Massimo who was initially misguided, and so both Russell and I felt justified in writing responses. Let us now mercifully draw the curtains closed and proclaim “FIN” to this argument.