One minute and forty seconds of accommodationist fail

February 7, 2014 • 7:06 am

The video below was posted by, of all venues, the World Science Festival. It’s run by physicist Brian Greene and his spouse Tracy Day, but of course it’s partly funded by the Templeton Foundation. And because of that Templeton dosh, they always include a completely irrelevant, non-sciencey but accommodationist event, just to let people know that All That Science doesn’t mean that their religion is wrong.

Here’s Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology in California. That site identifies him as “a panentheist [who] defends a form of process theology that is hypothetical, dialogical and pluralistic.”  Notice that it’s “panentheist”, not pantheist. The latter sees God as the cosmos, the former, as Wikipedia notes, differs a bit:

Panentheism (from Greek πᾶν (pân) “all”; ἐν (en) “in”; and θεός (theós) “God”; “all-in-God”) is a belief system which posits that the divine (be it a monotheisticGod, polytheisticgods, or an eternal cosmic animating force) interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it. Panentheism differentiates itself from pantheism, which holds that the divine is synonymous with the universe.

In process thelogy, of course, that all-pervasive God is affected by the world. Good luck in defending that “hypothetical” theology which, I suppose is no more bizarre, and no more supported by evidence, than any other theology.

Clayton has also written a number of accommodationist pieces for PuffHo The video belong has the YouTube caption:

Theologian Philip Clayton explains what science and theology can learn from each other. Watch more on this topic at

The message is one of comity and mutual supportiveness of science and theology. “There’s a lot that science has to learn from theology.” What do we have to learn? “That humans have multiple ways of intuiting and grasping the world around us.” We can learn, he says, about areas such as theology, philosophy, and poetry.

That’s pretty much malarkey, of course. While philosophers can contribute to science by instilling in us rigor of thought, and helping catch our logical errors, that’s a way of “thinking,” not of “knowing.” As for poetry, it’s great to read, but show me a scientific advance promoted by Yeats or Milton. And forget theology: it adds nothing to science and, in fact, has acted as a brake on its acceptance (think creationism).

The Big Question (to borrow a Templeton trope) is why this kind of stuff is in the World Science Festival. It’s not science—not in the least. It’s there because Templeton wants it there, and because somehow this kind of theobabble is supposed to make people science-friendly.  I really wish Greene and Day would stop this kind of stuff: it’s embarrassing and demeaning to stick theology into a festival supposedly devoted to “science.” If they’re going to do that, why not add discussions of homeopathy, astrology, and spiritual healing?

h/t: Michael

68 thoughts on “One minute and forty seconds of accommodationist fail

    1. He granted that humility was part of the scientific approach. Theology is humble enough to “draw from the humility of learning data and being wrong.”

      But then he avoided the implication that theology was therefore arrogant by going on and on about what each field could learn from the other. An arrogant theology wouldn’t be doing that, right? Trying to bridge the divide? Reaching out and trading tips?

      Actually, yes it would. It would try to do exactly that because the “humility” it borrows from science is only supposed to apply to what it accepts about the natural world: don’t contradict scientific well-established scientific theories lest ye look stupid and wrong.

      Theology doesn’t learn anything from the ‘humility’ of science when it comes to forming or testing its “hypothetical, dialogical, and pluralistic” form of panentheism, does it? No, that is “testimony to the human pursuit of knowledge of God.”

      If you are pursuing knowledge of God you have to skip over the part where you first address whether there is anything to be known. Cue appeals to intuitions which do NOT draw from the humility of learning to be wrong.

      1. Love how theology “can” learn from science, but that science “needs” to learn from theology. Ace!

    1. I object to the string trolling, especially on a science blog.

      [“String theory” is at the very least a mathematical theory, as is implied by its name. Mathematicians accept it.

      But it is more than that, in the same way that particle theory is more than the mathematical description of ideal billiard. Particle physicist Matt Strassler is currently running a series on what exactly string theory can help with, at the moment, over on his blog Of Particular Significance. If anyone is really interested in how much, or how little, a theoretical physicist can “believe” in string theory.]

      1. +1 – It’s a consistent mathematical theory that isn’t in conflict with other established theories, so it remains a viable hypothesis. And just because we can’t yet find a way to test/verify it doesn’t imply that it’s false. There are no low hanging fruit in fundamental physics these days.

    1. I went further and I regret it. That man is deluded and unconvincing on so many levels I am not sure I would trust him to fetch me my socks if he knew which drawer to find them in.

  1. Re “show me a scientific advance promoted by Yeats or Milton”

    Are forgetting the Milton-Yeats conjectures?

    It is better to rule by the fire, than to be slave to a book

    It is better to love moments of glad grace, than to love sorrows of a changing face

    It is better to pace upon the mountains overhead, than to murmur how love fled

    1. As to scientific advances, Milton did provide the data for the distance of heaven above the Earth:

      … from morn to noon he fell,
      from Noon to dewy Eve,
      a summers day; and with the setting Sun
      Dropt from the Zenith like a falling star

      Given that air resistance wouldn’t be a major factor (since most of the journey would be through space), we can assume an acceleration of g, throughout. So how high is heaven?

      I remember being somewhat intrigued by this problem when I came across it in A.P. French’s “Newtonian Mechanics”.

      1. Just to be nit-picky, the acceleration wouldn’t be g the whole time. It would initially be much less, and would increase as the distance decreases. That turns the problem into something more like rocket science.

        1. Mea Culpa – you are right, of course, if we weren’t assuming a constant g, it would make a big difference. Guess heaven is closer than I thought.

      2. Figuring out the distance to heaven would be HUGE!

        This would mean that Club Mediterranee could offer Vacation Deals to get us to Heaven without that catholic guilt thing; we could check out heaven for a non-binding Weekend Special, see whether we’d like to spend eternity there or elsewhere

  2. Maybe he’s seen the Star Wars movies a little too often. Sounds a lot like “The Force” to me.

    May The Farce be with him.

  3. “There’s a lot that science has to learn from theology.” What do we have to learn? “That humans have multiple ways of intuiting and grasping the world around us.” We can learn, he says, about areas such as theology, philosophy, and poetry.

    Ooh, what a clever little strategy. Lump “theology” in with “philosophy” and “poetry” and act as if they’re all in the same category, they’re all the same type of thing. That means that a science which ignores theology is ALSO ignoring philosophy and poetry.

    Hey, why not add “emotion” and “ethics” and “love” to the Not-Science category where you’ve stuck theology? Or is that in the next video.

    Here is the question I would ask Clayton: What does theology have to offer which is NOT in either philosophy or poetry?

    And — second part — if God does not actually exist, is that all now irrelevant?

  4. “Other ways of knowing.” (roll-eyes)

    Granted that it is philosophically possible that there are other “ways of knowing” besides science – any religion still must bear the burden of proof in establishing that it is such a “way of knowing.” And without either falsification or verification to assist, good luck in establishing that.

    1. “Other ways of knowing” is a deepity.

      The true but trivial interpretation mostly deals with either direct experience, emotions, or combinations thereof. If you learn all about Mozart and his work without ever listening to any of his music then you’re missing an important element. You don’t know what it is like to have the experience of listening and responding to Mozart’s musical composition. You can only learn that through having the experience yourself.

      Okay. Nothing paradigm-shifting there. A scientist or atheist wouldn’t argue with that if it’s really just that simple.

      But we know damn well it’s not going to STAY “just that simple,” is it?

      The extraordinary but false meaning of “other ways of knowing” is that through our intuitions or personal mental experiences we can learn things about the universe — facts, not feelings. ESP, mysticism, God, or that “an eternal cosmic animating force interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it.” You just know such things through some “other way of knowing” — one which makes such facts immune to open critique.

      I’ve noticed that the Spiritual love to switch back and forth between these very different meanings, confusing first themselves and then others. It works to their advantage. When atheists or scientists deny that mystics learn anything about the nature of the cosmos when they meditate, they can slyly imply that we’re also saying that nobody ever experiences anything when they listen to Mozart. Same sort of thing.

      Let the extraordinary but false interpretation ride on the back of the true but trivial one in order to gain credibility, all the while managing to insult the Other Side’s capacity to experience anything.

      Sneaky bastards.

      1. Standard postmodernist dodge. Use material that has two interpretations, one true but obvious to the point of banality and the other radical and manifestly false. Use the latter to appear hip and get attention; retreat to the former when challenged.

  5. Philip Clayton is absolutly correct. There were are ways of thinking other than science. With science one learns about the world through the collection and analysis of evidence and accepts it on it’s own terms whether inspirational or unsettling. With religion one learns about the world by accepting ancient inspirational stories as fact no matter how ridiculous they may be and denying the unsettling aspects of reality.

  6. There’s a bit of a disconnect between a God that you define as some kind of mutating field and the kind of God who might run an engaging afterlife. So, if that is that is the best he can do, I reckon Clayton needs to go back to the drawing board.

    1. Perhaps, but a divine eternal cosmic animating force is more than just a “mutating field.” That term could apply to a mindless series of cosmic strings — or natural processes — which wouldn’t be called either “divine” or “animating.” Those special terms carry a serious implication of something mental or life-like about them, a hint of choice or caring.

      It’s still god-like enough to be God. Clayton may not be — doesn’t have to be — a Christian in order to be wrong, or worthy of disagreement.

      If someone is an atheist because they hate the controlling nature of religion and the vicious character of the Abrahamic God then they aren’t going to be following the same lines of reasoning as a science-based New Atheist critique. Their objection to Clayton’s theology is less likely to be “it’s wrong” and more likely to be “that’s fine but it’s not what a lot of other theology says.”

      1. It seems to me that it is a reasonable hypothesis to propose that the fundamental structure of the universe is some kind of mutating substance, since we see stuff, when we look out of the window, and it behaves dynamically. But, immediately you then add anything that has no explanatory power you have to ask the question “but how do you know that?”. For instance, if I said “God is a mutating field and he wears a red hat”, then the discontinuity is obvious. So, the problem with arguments, such as Craig’s and Clayton’s is that whilst they may start out as appearing to be quite reasonable, they need to slip in a red hat somewhere, otherwise their concept of God doesn’t equate to anything anyone would recognize. And, if these arguments are presented skillfully it’s not always easy to see the moment when they pull the rabbit out of the hat.

        1. Agreed. A lot of what they start out with seems to be appeals to the existence of reality, or the existence of existence, or the existence of the obvious. But it can’t stay there or they’ve included atheism into God.

          I like your “red hat” analogy. It covers a Mind.

  7. Templeton is starting to get on my nerves. It seems wherever I turn these days I see that foundation.

    My favorite science news “aggregator” website – Real Clear Science – now has a “Science and the Big Questions” section, sponsored by…that’s right, John Templeton Foundation.

    Are they going to swallow up all the science outlets eventually?

  8. “Scientific spirit”! He said the word! Ahhhhh! He’s saying the word! 😉

    Either Philip Clayton is trying to trick us or he doesn’t realize his own fallacy and that fallacy is conflating exposure to different experiences or the way the brain processes information with the way of finding truth.

    I often find I can be more productive, think more clearly and see patterns faster if I move away from my evidence based, highly analytical, very scientific method work that I do for a living and augment it with creative tasks like writing and reading fiction. This does not mean if I read Wolf Hall (shout out because I’m reading it now) that I’m going to derive truth about the nature of the universe from it. It means, it might appeal to a part of my brain that I don’t normally listen to & knock some ideas loose. I suspect Clayton is taking this type of experience and twisting it to fit his “other ways of knowing” trope and he’s doing this because most people can relate to what I’ve written above and they can take the extra step and follow Clayton into his illogical rabbit hole.

    1. Oh, that’s a very good example and yes, I think it fits into the “true but trivial” part of the Other Ways of Knowing deepity. Spiritual thinking is sloppy thinking and trades in on the superficial resemblance to familiar experiences we all have.

    2. Exactly. The fact that inspiration might be jarred loose by taking a shower, exercising, meditating, listening to music, etc. is not another way of replicably, predictably knowing HOW the universe works…and occasional subjective, personal inspiration does not earn an equal spot at the table with scientifically demonstrable knowledge that can (at least in principle) be replicated by any of us wiling to invest the time and money.

    3. I have the oracle card set Oblique Strategies which was created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, which, unlike Tarot, provide alternative approaches to creative dilemmas. Instead of telling a fortune or providing an image for symbolic interpretation, the OS cards contain suggestions for alternative approaches to problem solving. I keep my deck where I can find it easily, and just drew a card at random; it reads,

      “Which elements can be grouped?”

      Whether you’re working on writing, music, art science or anything else, the card nudges you into considering a new approach when you’re stumped. I’ve used them many times, mostly successfully. My next two card draws read,

      “Listen to your body.”


      “Where is the edge? Where does the frame start?”

      I think we have more to learn from artists and musicians than from religionists.

        1. I forgot that there’s an app – I prefer handling the deck myself. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me. Oracles like Tarot and I Ching are interesting, but more for what they say about the people who use them than anything else. They remind me of one of Piet Hein’s Grooks:


          Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
          and you’re hampered by not having any,
          the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
          is simply by spinning a penny.
          No — not so that chance shall decide the affair
          while you’re passively standing there moping;
          but the moment the penny is up in the air,
          you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

          1. It’s handy as an app as you have it with you. I have one for Planning Poker when I’m running or participating in Agile projects and doing user story estimation.

    4. Clayton needs to understand a really bright physicists may follow her intuition that suggests that we need to think about measurements a,b, and c because they logically follow from theory X. But another, maybe more creative, or lucky, but less intelligent physicists thinks of experiments d and e and they lead to new areas of research that theory X could not have predicted. He may be so naive to think that creativity is just another way of knowing. In which case, he is mislabeling what he is talking about. The fact that he throws theology in as the other way of knowing is repellant.

      1. It sometimes seems like intuition tells us what should be obvious but that religion tells us to accept while science tells us to test. If we make an intuitive leap, science tells us to recreate the logic that leads to the conclusion – eventually, we find the answer (I’m thinking here of the story of how August Kekulé imagined the structure of benzene. Of course the big difference is that the religious mind would have merely accepted the revelation while the rational mind did the right thing and used the inspiration to guide investigation – and did not accept the results until investigation caught up with the image.

  9. That’s telling them! And ironically, astrology would be closer to the facts. =D

    While philosophers can contribute to science by instilling in us rigor of thought, and helping catch our logical errors, that’s a way of “thinking,” not of “knowing.”

    Thinking possibly, but I fail to see the rigor except as in rigor mortis.

    Dallying with “truths”, “epistemology”, ontology”, “metaphysics”, “naturalism”, “materialism”, “qualia”, “zombies”, “philosophy of science” [yikes!], and other stuff that seems borrowed from theology, philosophy is decidedly flirting with unwarranted dualism. And these concepts are embedded into a subject with no method of catching errors except in logic. Tellingly [sic!] it never arose from a state of story telling.

    As all story telling, as anything really, it can inspire theory. How could it not? And its tool for logical analysis are generically helpful. But the rest is, what I can see, fuzzifying rather than clarifying. (Say, the implied dualism of qualia. Or the unwarranted, untestable idea that philosophical analysis can apply on science.)

    What science can contribute to philosophy would be the science of philosophy (e.g. philosophy can’t say anything on nature, including itself, due to lack of empirical testing; and that is why it is ever splintered into fictive stories), the history of philosophy and the sociology of making stuff up. And yet it seems to me science got the short stick here.

    1. All disagreements on the internet between otherwise reasonable people are semantic (to a reasonable approximation). Perhaps it would be good idea to drop the contentious term “philosophy” and substitute “reason”. Reasoning is something we all do (if we are reasonable) to extend and clarify basic information or axioms, just as we are all embryonic scientists when we answer questions, such as “Is it raining?”, by looking out of the window rather than consulting a priest. There is no real conflict between science and reason, they both interact to produce knowledge. Science without reason is lame, reason without science is blind.

      1. All disagreements on the internet between otherwise reasonable people are semantic (to a reasonable approximation.)

        Roqoco’s Law.

        And I think it’s true (to a reasonable approximation.)

        1. It really all comes down to the evidence. In other words, no matter how reasonable your reasoning may seem, the evidence will always trump it.

          1. No. Roqoco is pointing out that sometimes it just comes down to arguing about the meaning of words.

            Unless by “evidence” you mean “semantics.” 😉

          2. If someone wants to argue about the meaning of words he or she should consult the dictionary.

            My point is that the only way to settle disagreements is through the scientific process.

          3. Depends on what the disagreement is about. Semantic arguments are usually going to be much too serious and subtle to be resolved by a simple look at the dictionary, which gives general popular usage.

            Consider roqoco’s original suggestion that the word ‘reason’ be substituted for ‘philosophy’ when dealing with the latter’s relationship to science. It’s more about underlying ideas being similar enough, not whether the dictionary is going to agree that they’re the same thing.

          4. Roqoco’s original suggestion was that “all disagreements on the internet between otherwise reasonable people are semantic (to a reasonable approximation.)”

            I just can’t agree with this empty statement.

          5. Definitely does not come down to only evidence. I need no evidence to suggest that I think there is life somewhere else in the universe. It is possible and I believe it. I know it might not be true and I have no evidence for it.

            Also, aesthetics. A lot comes down to aesthetics. I think some musical pieces provide the deepest meaning to life. How does evidence play a role there? The music I choose to like may be abhorrently disliked by others. What about food, or physical attraction, or movies, etc. On most accounts aesthetics is what most things come down to. Some people love playing a yo-yo all day long…makes them happy, or crossword puzzles, ugh, I can think of few things less pleasureful, but to them that’s what everything can come down to. Not evidence based. Aesthetic based.

          6. “Definitely does not come down to only evidence. I need no evidence to suggest that I think there is life somewhere else in the universe. It is possible and I believe it. I know it might not be true and I have no evidence for it.”

            You don’t need evidence to suggest what you think, but you need evidence to settle the disagreement with the person who thinks otherwise.

          7. “Also, aesthetics. A lot comes down to aesthetics.”

            True, a lot comes down to the aesthetics, but we do not discuss arts right now.

      2. Perhaps it would be good idea to drop the contentious term “philosophy” and substitute “reason”.

        Works for me!

        Philosophy as a discipline has no method of self-correction. Reason and logic, on the other hand, naturally emerge from empirical observation and are continually reaffirmed and modified with subsequent observations and discoveries.

        For example, reason told us for a long time that parallel lines never meet and that a single object can’t be two distinct things at the same time. But then Einstein showed us that parallel lines really do meet and the double-slit experiment with electrons shows that they really are both particles and waves. Empiricism — science — beat out reason, but the new, modified reason born from the ashes is even more useful than ever.



        1. Well, I’m glad we have come to some grounds on which we can agree. But, of course Einstein was using Reimannian geometry which is based on a different set of axioms. That doesn’t invalidate Euclidean geometry, which is still valid in solving many other types of problems, to which it is applicable. There are no errors in reasoning, given the axioms Euclid was using. When we have some firm information on how the world is, through empirical measurement, we can reason from there and come up with ideas we can be confident in such as TOE. But, when we don’t (most of the time for interesting, unresolved problems), we have to make guesses based on what we do know and reason from there. That’s the cutting edge of science and where, I think, it is most interesting.

        2. I’d be willing to dismiss a lot of philosophy were it not for Martin Gardiner (B.A. Philosophy, 1936, University of Chicago)

          1. I’m a fan of Gardiner’s work countering pseudo science, but unaccountably he accepted a god based on a “leap of faith” (sigh). So… Don’t base your beliefs on authority, reason stuff out based on evidence and reason, preferably after getting eddicated first.

    2. I may be misquoting Douglas Adams’ characters Vroomfondel and Majikthise, but didn’t the philosopers demand rigidly defined areas of uncertainty? (I don’t have time to reread the book.)

    3. My take is that in any discipline where there can be “corrected” “errors” there can be knowledge and knowing. Else how could you “know” there was an error in logic. Logic therefore must be a way of knowing not just a way of thinking.

  10. There it is! One of the greatest words one can use when talking about religious beliefs: “Malarkey!”


  11. What do we have to learn? “That humans have multiple ways of intuiting and grasping the world around us.”

    Religious believers insisting the potent joys, grounding pleasures, and quick problem-solving aspects of non-rationality are prodigious benefits to be gotten as an outgrowth of god belief are being silly, ignorant, and dense. All religion does is dull that magnificent capacity of the human brain. Mindfulness is secular and is based in science; religion need not apply.

  12. The complacency of saying, “You could learn more, you could be more powerful with your thoughts and truth, if you give theology a chance.” puts these thinking types at an intellectual low. They are not revealing anything by saying this. There are no next steps to take. Nothing to broadcast as useful to existence or knowledge about existence.

    Why don’t these people see that they say nothing when the say ‘other ways of knowing’. It’s crappy thinking and and extraordinarily sloppy philosophy.

  13. Consider a man on a beach holding a bucket. From time to time he fills it with sea water, counts to ten, and then empties his bucket in the surf.

    This man is doing something more meaningful than the theologian in the video.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *