The Big Accommodationism Debate: all relevant posts

June 12, 2009 • 7:12 am

The Big Debate continues about whether faith and science are compatible and whether scientists should criticize those religious people who agree with them about matters like evolution.  Several people, however,  have complained that discussion is spread out among so many places — and people — that it’s confusing to follow, especially now that Jason Rosenhouse, Kenneth Miller, “Erratic synapse” (somebody please tell me who he/she is),  and the indefatigable P. Z. Myers have weighed in.   I believe that John Brockman is going to post all this stuff on the Edge website, but until then here are the links in chronological (and philosphical) order.  I think I’ve gotten them all.

Ken Miller has posted a robust riposte to my critique of accommodation (link below), which is cited in a new post by Mooney; I will respond to both of these in due time. In the meantime, P. Z. has written an equally robust response to Miller, and Jason has weighed in again.  I swear, folks, I’m not paying anybody to defend me!  I wouldn’t want to be in league with anybody, for example,  who shaves his cat.

“Accommodation” debate posts  in  order:

1. Coyne (original New Republic piece)

2. Coyne

3. Mooney

4. Mooney

5. Coyne

6. Mooney

7. Coyne

8. Rosenhouse

9.  Coyne

10. “Erratic synapse” at Daily Kos

11. Mooney

12. Rosenhouse

13. Coyne

14. Mooney

15. Ken Miller

16. P. Z. Myers

17.  Rosenhouse

18.  Blackford

19.  Blackford

20.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 1)

21.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 2)

22.  Sean Carroll

55 thoughts on “The Big Accommodationism Debate: all relevant posts

  1. Thanks for this! It’s just what I needed, a written conformation from you. Now I can win my bet that this business would soon exceed the number of sequels in the Rocky movie.

  2. Eesh.

    What we really need is for the main debaters to list their major points, perhaps including what they may prefer to retract or delete from what they’vee said.

    There’s no way that I’m reading more than a tiny bit of those, although that’s partly because I’ve almost certainly read half or more already. But either way, it’s too much, not too little.

    My sense is that a lot of it is going to come down to “methodological naturalism,” a fairly poorly thought-out position that is mostly adequate for court decisions, but which exists primarily to cover up the fact that religion doesn’t follow proper epistemological standards and processes.

    So watch out, Dr. Coyne, if you’re willing to keep the debate up you may have to deal with a lot of bunkum about how religion has the right to be exempt from the intellectual standards demanded most everywhere else.

    Glen Davidson

    1. My sense is that a lot of it is going to come down to “methodological naturalism,” a fairly poorly thought-out position that is mostly adequate for court decisions, but which exists primarily to cover up the fact that religion doesn’t follow proper epistemological standards and processes.

      I disagree with your assessment of methodological naturalism, Glen. It’s actually the one philosophy common to both sides of the debate, and ultimately what I hope would unite them (and the sooner the better, if there’s to be internecine squabbling something constructive should come of it). As a neutral philosophy, it sums up exactly how science should be practiced and taught. AronRa once said it was identical to the scientific method – not quite, but it is the philosophy that accompanies it.

  3. Glen Davidson said: “So watch out, Dr. Coyne, if you’re willing to keep the debate up you may have to deal with a lot of bunkum about how religion has the right to be exempt from the intellectual standards demanded most everywhere else.”

    I think that’s exactly part of the problem. I just can’t get around the cognitive dissonance associated with holding science to those standards, but exempting religion. The faithful always seem to want special treatment when it comes to their faith.

  4. Glenn D.:

    What we really need is for the main debaters to list their major points.

    Better yet, we need a clever comic-strip summary of the debate (preferably from someone more clever than I). Here’s my take, FWIW:


    It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict.

    Mooney: But what you don’t understand is that it’s in our interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. Further, you fail to recognize that we want our grants funded by the government, and don’t you realize that we want our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism?! Look, Coyne, religious liberals have been important allies in our struggle against creationism; why do you take such delight in alienating them? Clearly you don’t understand that there are tactical reasons for the NAS to claim that religion and science don’t conflict.

    Coyne: Huh? What are you talking about.

    Mooney: I’ll spend a half dozen posts clearing my throat and getting ready to maybe support my claims, and then I might actually make an argument (if the commenters don’t get too mean before I get around to it).

    Coyne: Great . . . Let me know when you get there, OK?


    [M]illions of America believe, incorrectly, that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept [evolution].

    Rosenhouse: No, millions of Americans are correct that they’d have to give up their faith. Of course, they could substitute Miller’s faith for their own, but that’s a different matter.

    Mooney: Coyne conflates methodological and metaphysical naturalism.

    Rosenhouse: WTF? No he doesn’t!

    (Coyne: Rosenhouse is right, I don’t. WTF?
    Mooney: Coyne’s hiding behind Rosenhouse’s skirt.
    Coyne: Look Mooney, I said I’d get around to replying to you if and when you ever finish up with your argument, OK? So far all we’ve got nothing that addresses my claims.)

    Mooney: Let’s all be excited because I’m starting to understand something I didn’t before, and hopefully someday I’ll be able to tell you about it.

    Us: OK, Chris . . .

    Prediction: Coyne will reiterate the above blockquote (from the conclusion of the article that started this), and Mooney will be relieved that we all now agree.

  5. Picking up from Glen’s post, how about a spreadsheet (as with comparing different car models etc.) on key points of disagreement. Then the various players could argue whether a given box should have a check or not (or yes/no). It might just streamline things.

  6. Dr. Miller said:

    The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and whether existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering. To me, those answers lie in faith. Others find their answers elsewhere, but our science is the same.

    Herein lies the problem. Dr. Miller assumes that his faith is on par with the way other people come to conclusions about “deeper questions.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Miller excludes the mentioning that Christianity answers these deeper questions with absolutism. They not only answer them, in a irrational way by definition, but with demanding a level of authenticity that is not warranted.

  7. Mitch Hedberg said it best:

    # I order a club sandwich all the time. And I’m not even a member, I don’t know how I get away with it. “I like my sandwiches with three pieces of bread.” “So do I.” “Lets form a club then.” “Okay, but we’re gonna need more stipulations.” “Yes we do.” “OK… Instead of cutting it once, lets cut it again.” “Yeah, four triangles.” “And we will position them in a circle. And in the middle we will dump chips. Or potato salad.” “Let me ask you a question, how do you feel about frilly toothpicks?” “I’m for ’em!” “Well, this club is formed. Spread the news on menus nationwide. “I like alfalfa sprouts on mine.” “Well you aren’t in the ^*(k!n’ club.”

  8. Some of what I suspect and hope will emerge as common ground from this debate, much of which has been discussed in these exchanges but not summarized:

    ~ Science doesn’t presume metaphysical or philosophical naturalism; it’s a way of investigating the world that makes no ontological presuppositions, it only wants transparent, evidentially warranted explanations and theories. Science is worldview neutral.

    ~ Science is more reliable than faith, revelation, intuition and arbitrary authority in representing reality. Those wanting an objective understanding of the world should stick with science and other intersubjective empirical disciplines.

    ~ Science can investigate supernatural hypotheses if they have any specified, testable content. It need not and should not remain silent about the existence of the supernatural.

    ~ Supernatural religion has no special authority in either the moral or empirical domains. In particular, it has no special epistemic competence to decide questions about the existence of the supernatural, including God. NCSE, NSTA and NSA seem to suggest it does, and this needs to be corrected, see

    ~ Science-promoting organizations such as NCSE, NSTA and NSA should be in the business of showing why science and other empirical disciplines are better at representing reality than their non-empirical rivals.

    ~ So long as supernaturalists like Miller and Collins do good science, they should be welcome in the scientific community. Naturalists and supernaturalists can get along just fine so long as they agree on goals, such as doing good science and defending free inquiry and the open society.

    1. Points I see Miller as right on:

      * He doesn’t hold that humans are inevitable.
      * His position that their niche is inevitable is due to scientific, not religious, thinking, regardless of whether he’s wrong.
      * It is not unreasonable for science-promoting organizations to note that there are accomodationalists, and to refer interested readers to them.

      The points I think he’s wrong:
      * Coyne does not suggest science-promoting organizations should promote atheism.
      * It is not unreasonable to expect science-promoting organizations to not push a particular brand of theism. Referals to accomodationists should not become endorsements of them. There is a difference between saying “some scientists believe they are compatible, such as X, Y, and Z”, and saying “Science and religion are compatible, as shown by X,Y, and Z”. Scientific organizations should not endorse any theological position.
      * Miller’s wrong about religion and about the idea that it doesn’t corrupt science. I don’t know enough of his works to quote it in his case, but I’m sure it corrupts his own science too; it inherently corrupts.

      Points I think both are wrong about:
      * They underestimate the vastness of the universe. This leads them to nonsensical sentences like “humans won’t evolve in another place”, where current physics describes a universe so vast that not only humans but even us are out there, somewhere; there are just THAT MANY reruns of the lottery of initial conditions. I think this is due to a confusion between the visible and the whole universe; the visible universe is 14 billion light years across, the whole universe is at least 10^100 larger, an unfathomably huge volume. I think they mean to say that “humans won’t evolve again anywhere in the visible universe”, which is probably correct.

  9. This debate has been very strong for Jerry, I specifically admire PZ’s dissection of Miller’s latest article. In a different way, this is similar to what happened to Stephen Jay Gould ‘ punc eq.

    Miller is definitely mistaken under objective scrutiny, but again “faith” is definitely not objective, so most likely he will not notice this, and continued slogging on his way.

    Come to think of it, Miller is the last thing you want to ‘destroy’ in this debate of theistic science.

    He indeed destroyed, in any case …

    1. I’ve been on the road for the past 10 days and not able to comment on this debate – or even follow it – in the way that I’d like. However, Tom Clark’s brief summary is something that I could sign on to.

      I’m going to be delivering a paper about NOMA at the forthcoming Australasian Association of Philosopy conference in early July, and will try to deal with some of these issues, but they are getting harder to pin down as more and more points are raised.

      As for NOMA, though, there is no reason in principle why a supernatural intelligence could not reveal facts about the empirical world, so religion could have had authority on such matters. It is not essentially confined to matters of morality – it’s just that historically it’s done a lousy job when it has offered information about (for example) the age of the earth.

      Science cannot tell us the ultimate point of morality, but neither can religion. We can only decide what the ultimate point of morality should be – individual flourishing? social survival? reduction of suffering? some combination? something else? – via rational reflection on our values.

      However, once we know what we want morality to achieve we are at least as likely to get good advice on how to achieve it from science as from religion. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of the advice coming from science may be limited. But there are many reasons to think that the quality of what comes from religion is even more limited. Religion has no special authority in the area of morality. Science has more authority in this area, though rational reflection on human experience, as recorded in history, also has authority.

      Fortunately, a great deal of what happens in morality is not contentious – we all know that it advances social survival AND individual flourishing AND reduction of suffering, for example, if children are trained in virtues such as honesty. But where morality is actually contentious, religion provides a poor guide. There is no reason to defer to any SPECIFICALLY religious morality.

      I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its nature to the moral sphere and has no more authority there than in the empirical sphere. Science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere. Science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at … but neither can religion.

  10. We at the Center for Inquiry have watched with interest this fresh “accommodation” debate. Jerry Coyne has helpfully assembled blog posts on this controversy. Can science and religion be compatible? Can they sometimes cooperate? Where might secular humanists be positioned on such issues?

    For years scientific organizations have told people they can have their science and piety too. Political appeasement should shock no one—this is politics—and compromises and coalitions should be watched carefully in their natural habitat. Nor should it be surprising that religious people who like science, or scientific people who like their religious friends, are happy to see prominent science organizations indirectly encouraging religion. “That’s accommodation we can believe in!”

    Questioning whether such political coalitions are wise shouldn’t be confused with other questions, such as whether science and religion are factually compatible. There has long been political value for science promoters to appease religious believers, going back to science’s infancy when religion nearly killed it in its cradle. Fearful of its older sibling (for both are born of wonder, like philosophy), science has long experience with bowing and cringing and accepting compromise anytime religion erupts into a fit over some new discovery about the world or humanity. For its part, liberal religion has gradually accommodated science. But science has never accommodated religion, except in a limited political sense, and every “compromise” has been forced on science. Let’s review the history.

    A 17th century “compromise” granted permission to science to discern God’s design of direct creation. Science directly supports natural evidentialist theology.

    A 18th century “compromise” was primarily a deistic notion that science learns how God’s creation has been lawfully working (perfectly) since The Beginning. Science indirectly supports the Creator hypothesis.

    A 19th century “compromise” was the Two Magisteria notion, perpetuating the dualistic separation of spirit and matter. Science knows nothing of God, the soul, or morality, and stays out of the way of religion.

    Darwinian evolution by natural selection soon threatened the reigning compromise, by explaining how humans are entirely natural, and no souls or direct creation needed. Astronomy then indicated the universe’s vast age and size. All design arguments weaken dramatically.

    A 20th century “compromise” by liberal religion declared that science is fine while faith is not irrational (note the shrinking of “faith is rational” to just “hey, we’re not crazy!”). Pantheism perks up (but by ‘religion’ we here intend supernaturalism). Fundamentalists promptly reject all compromise, clinging to their Bibles.

    A 21st century “compromise” by very liberal religion so far sounds like, “We’re just as mystified by God as any nonbeliever, but that’s the fun of faith, and wow Jesus was a great guy.” Fundamentalists build Creationist museums and fantasies of hell instead.

    Keeping this historical timeline in mind, how could anyone argue that science and religion are incompatible, when history displays such fine compromises?

    Science and religion are belief systems, relying on two distinct methods of knowing: empirical experiment and submissive conviction. If science were to try to accommodate religion, it would surrender its method of knowledge by permitting untested dogma or arbitrary authority to control its conclusions. Religion, by contrast, can accommodate science without surrendering its own method through some combination of (a) faithfully holding beliefs about matters immune from empirical inquiry; (b) adopting science’s conclusions by simply appending the conviction “and God made it so”; or (c) adapting science’s conclusions to fit spiritual intuitions and inspirations.

    It is unnecessary to judge, at this point, which side has the better claim to “knowledge”—my point is only that their methods are asymmetrically incompatible. Science must be incompatible with religion’s distinctive method of knowing.

    By the way, this methodological incompatibility is not due to any dogmatic faith in a naturalistic/atheistic worldview. Naturalism is an additional conclusion from science, not a premise of science. Science rejects things like “the soul” because that hypothesis enjoys no verifiable evidence and contradicts well-established knowledge about things like brains. While naturalism does assert that science’s method and knowledge is superior, this claim is a philosophical claim requiring separate defenses, not a scientific principle or hypothesis. A brief account of philosophical naturalism is offered here . Science simply is scientific method and its conclusions. Complaining that science dogmatically excludes religious methods is like complaining that sculpting excludes photography techniques. Put another way, science needs religion like art needs astrology. On the other hand, many religions have continually incorporated the best of science, after long delay. What would medieval theology have been without Aristotle and Ptolemy? We presently hear a few theologians spotting signs of divinity in quantum mechanics and multiverses.

    Science is incompatible with religion’s distinctive method of knowing. Science is also incompatible with many of religion’s distinctive conclusions. Leaving goings-on in some supernatural realm aside, many religions claim to have knowledge of entities and events showing up in our world which ought to occasionally be experimentally confirmable by scientific method. Consider religious claims about divine creation of humans, miracles, faith healing, angelic visitations, demonic forces, etc. When scientifically investigated, science concludes that these claims lack merit, about as impressive as horoscopes, Big Foot, and ESP. Sophisticated theology quickly covers for religion by ad-hoc hypothesizing how science must be blind to these matters (hence we get transubstantiation, ectoplasm, God’s gene-tweaking, etc.) Very liberal religion wisely refrains from claims about matters that ought to be scientifically detectable and confirmable (that’s the privilege of broad accommodation). But when a religion continues to make anti-scientific claims, do not be surprised when science declares its incompatibility.

    Can Big Brother religion creatively accommodate science, and offer “generous” compromises with science? Obviously. But science cannot return the favor, sorry, if science must compromise its method or betray its conclusions. Any genuinely pro-science organization, government or not, can clearly drawn the line here. If it can’t, then it has no business claiming to defend science. Has the younger brother grown up? Is it time for the appeasement to stop?

    1. The only way this argument can be relevant is if you believe that a scientist who has a personal belief in the divine will be unethical and try to hide or sabotage research that would somehow invalidate something that isn’t falsifiable in the first place.

      Which is a pretty big accusation to make, and requires that you either show this to be the case consistently with all of the historical individuals who helped to create what science is today or to show that they were all closet atheists or deists when they were not openly so.

  11. Science and Religion… Oil and Water, but in the same container. And the place where they meet is that liminal state that gives rise to imagination. And when one of those quantum leaps or catastrophic planetary or interplanetary events(like we’ve taken before) occurs we get a shake-up that creates an entirely new dispensation of consciousness. How do I know? How do we know anything? We wait for things to settle and then try to put them in relationship to everything else… somehow. We like it when it pleases our sensibilities.

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