Michael Ruse: Proud to be an accommodationist

May 31, 2015 • 10:30 am

It’s been a while since we discussed the philosopher Michael Ruse, but he’s suddenly surfaced in the pages of Zygon, “The Journal of Religion and Science,” with a very strange article called “Why I am an accommodationist and proud of it” (reference and possible free link below).

I found this article because Jason Rosenhouse sent it to me, and emailed me yesterday that he had posted about it at his site EvolutionBlog. At first I decided to not to post about Ruse’s paper, as I’m sure Jason did his usual terrific job, but then I thought it would be fun to read and react to the paper without first reading Jason’s review. So I’ll do that now, and then at the end I’ll go read Jason’s take and give you the link.

Ruse’s article has one aim, something he’s been pursuing ever since he wrote his book Can A Darwinian be a Christian? (the answer was “yes!”).  As you can tell from the title, he wants to show why religion and science are compatible, and he prides himself on doing it through philosophy, though his tactic is simply a recasting of Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) hypothesis. The infusion of philosophy, though, seems pretty weak, as you’ll see. Further, the magisteria that are non-overlapping—or at least three of the four areas identified by Ruse—are at least partly overlapping, for science can make inroads into most of the questions that Ruse deems off limits to science. He is, then, making god-of-the-gaps arguments in at least three cases. Finally, Ruse, for some reason I can’t fathom, has taken it upon himself to tell Christians how they can retain their faith in the face of science, even though he himself doesn’t believe in God.

But let’s look at his thesis.

First, Ruse takes the usual swipes at New Atheists, for he’s clearly offended that they’ve gone after him for his accommodationism. Ruses’s butthurt is a constant theme in his accommodationism. In this case he’s particularly upset that Dawkins “slapped the Neville Chamberlain label” on him in The God Delusion. , though, as I recall, Dawkins didn’t call Ruse that directly, but simply characterized the NOMA hypothesis as a failed “peace in our time” approach.

But we needn’t tarry over Ruse licking his wounds. He proceeds to his philosophical thesis, which is pretty thin. He claims that science has incorporated the idea of “metaphor” into its argot, and that this automatically leads to a NOMA result. The first claim is true; the second doubtful.

Certainly science has used metaphors as a way of explaining things: Ruse especially emphasizes the “organism as machine” metaphor, which isn’t that much of a metaphor (we are, in fact, molecular machines). But there are tropes like talking about the “purpose” of an organ, the “design” of features, and the brain as a “meat machine.” He also mentions phrases like the “big bang,” “cell suicide,” “genetic code,” the “spin” of electrons, and so on.

So far so good. Where Ruse goes off the rails is his subsequent claim that the very use of metaphors, simply because they focus on one thing, automatically sets some areas of inquiry off limits. He says this, for instance:

And, one thing that Kuhn always stressed about paradigms/metaphors is that they work successfully because they make you focus. They throw new light on areas of inquiry and interest and they do this in part by cutting off questions in other areas. A paradigm/metaphor simply is silent about things outside its domain. I say my love is a rose. I am telling you that she is beautiful and fresh and much else. If I am being funny, I might also mean that she is a little bit prickly. I am not telling you whether she is an atheist or an evangelical, whether she is good at mathematics or has trouble with simple arithmetic. It is not that the metaphor is saying she isn’t an atheist or an evangelical. It is not saying that this is not an important question. It is just that it is not asking about this at all.

This is how Ruse drags philosophy into his thesis, for he then claims that by using metaphors, science rules some questions either unanswerable or off limits. How he goes from metaphor to NOMA is unclear to me. The use of a metaphor doesn’t rule other questions out of court. It does ignore them, but so what? A scientific metaphor doesn’t mean that science can’t answer other questions, it just means that the writer is concentrating on only one. But here’s Ruse’s segue from metaphor into god-of-the-gaps:

QUESTIONS NOT ASKED; ANSWERS NOT GIVEN

Apply this all-important fact about metaphor to the root metaphor of the machine. What we expect is that modern science, that is science since the Scientific Revolution, will simply not ask certain questions. It is not that the questions are unimportant. They may be very significant. It is just that science under the machine metaphor will remain silent on these questions. So now the philosophical question becomes: What questions do I suggest that science under the machine metaphor will not ask?

Ruse then gives four questions that science supposedly can’t answer, and, as he shows subsequently, Christianity can, or at least can try to. I quote:

1. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Heidegger (1959) speaks of this as the fundamental question of philosophy. Whether this be so or not, it is not one answered by the machine metaphor. Of course you can ask questions about what came before the Big Bang and that sort of thing. But that is not quite what the fundamental question is asking. It wants to know the answer to the very fact of existence. The machine metaphor takes this for granted. You take your plastic and your steel and your copper and your aluminum and you build your automobile.

Well, to some extent that question has been answered, at least for a quantum vacuum, which is unstable and can produce “something.” Or, we could say that the question is meaningless because there has always been something, which can at least be partly tested by science investigating whether universes can produce other universes, and so on.

Further, the question can be thrown back in the laps of theists by asking, “Why is there God rather than nothing?” The answer, “Because God is eternal” is no more satisfying than saying “Because the universe is eternal.” At any rate, this question is not completely off limits to science, though later Ruse tells Christians that they can simply insert “God” as an answer. This is a god-of-the-gaps argument.

2. What are the foundations of morality?

This is the Humean (Hume [1739] 1940) problem that you cannot go from an “is” to an “ought.” You cannot go from the way that the world is—which is what science under the machine metaphor tries to describe and understand—to the way that the world ought to be—which is the moral question. An automobile takes me quickly to the restaurant for lunch. Should I drive it or not? I will save my time but cause pollution. What is the right decision? Science cannot tell me.

Few scientists assert that science can tell us what is right or wrong (Sam Harris is one exception), but all scientists realize that empirical investigation can inform many moral questions (i.e., when can fetuses be viable outside the womb?). But the foundations of morality can certainly be studied by science, just as the foundations of religion can be studied by psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and anthropology (See Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Boyer’s Religion Explained for game tries). Ruse is mistaking the origin of morality with normative morality, i.e., what is the best way to act? And he should at least admit that science has something to say about what one should do, for it can help us discern the consequences of one action versus another.

Again, Ruse will later claim that for many religionists God tells them what is right and wrong, even though we’ve known since Plato that this can’t be true. This, too, is a kind of god-of-the-gaps argument, for of course there is a long history of secular ethics (the ancient Greeks, Mill, Hume, Singer, Grayling) which guides us in thinking about morality without any reference to religious beliefs or God’s will.

3. What is the nature of consciousness?

. . . A machine is a material object and that almost by definition is not a thinking entity. This is not to say that machines cannot think. If the cognitive scientists are correct, they can. It is rather that thinking in machine terms alone does not explain thinking. To put the matter another way, the only satisfactory solution to the mind–body problem is Cartesian dualism—res extensa and res cogitans—and that has to be false. I don’t think the problem can be solved, and I am certain it cannot be solved by science.

This is clearly a god-of-the-gaps problem, for at least the mechanism and evolutionary origin of consciousness are surely the purview of science, though there’s a reason it’s called a “hard problem.” But later Ruse will claim that religion can successfully address this problem. Depending on how you define the question, though, religion doesn’t necessarily even have the ability to answer it. If it’s construed as “how does consciousness work?”, religion is impotent. And “thinking” isn’t the same thing as “consciousness”, so this part is not well phrased.

Finally, Ruse gets to the one problem where science truly is impotent, for it’s a question that has no objective answer. But religion doesn’t give one, either.

4. What is the purpose of it all?

The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (1992) says that the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. Why am I not surprised? We have seen that the way that the machine metaphor is used eschews any answer to this question. So on it, science remains silent.

Different religions have different “answers”, and even within a faith people diverge in their answers. But this question can’t even be asked without evidence of a god, for without a god there is no sense in trying to divine a “purpose”. Purposes come from agents, and you must demonstrate a supernatural agent before you can even say this question becomes meaningful. Ruse doesn’t do that, but simply assumes that the faithful know that there is indeed a god.  The funny thing is that Ruse himself doesn’t accept gods.

What Ruse has done here is ask questions that science can’t answer, and will later claim to show that religion can. One can add others: “Is Tolstoy better than Dostoyevsky?” “Should I have steak or chicken?”, and so on. And indeed, religion can address the four questions given above, but it cannot provide widely-agreed-on answers, not like science can about questions like “How does DNA lead to the manufacture of proteins?”

Finally, Ruse shows how Christianity (why does he ignore other faiths?) answers these questions. I won’t go into the answers, as those who were previously Christians, or who want to take issue with the answers, can weigh in below:

CHRISTIAN ANSWERS

There is no great secret about what I am going to say next. I did not choose my four questions deliberately with the next move in mind. But obviously, as I was choosing them, I realized what the next move would be. The questions are questions that go right to the heart of the Christian religion (McGrath 1997; Davies 2004). They do not cover all of the religion, obviously. They say nothing about the Trinity. But they do ask about matters central to the life and thought of the believer. And moreover, thanks to Christianity, they are questions to which the believer thinks that he or she has the answer. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God, a being who exists necessarily, created heaven and earth as an act of divine goodness. For no other reason, nor is other reason needed. What are the foundations of morality? They are grounded in the will of God. They are that which He had decreed we should do. What is the nature of mind? Being created in the image of God. What is the point of it all? That we should enjoy eternal life with God, our Father.

Well, Christians may or may not be satisfied by these answers, but they surely will differ among Christians, and especially among different believers. (Will fundamentalists answer them the same way David Bentley Hart would?) More important, what about those other religions? Ruse completely neglects them in favor of Christianity, yet those other religions will answer the questions differently! How, then, is any believer to be satisfied with his or her answers? Who is right? I suppose to Ruse, it doesn’t matter, for he’s forged some kind of phony concordat by simply bringing up hard or unanswerable questions and saying, “See, religion has answers!” It does offer “answers”, but we don’t know if they’re the right ones.

The note of triumphalism at the end of Ruse’s essay is galling, for he seems to think that he’s really come up with a form of accommodationism that is better and more robust than anyone else’s (he calls it an exercise in “tough-minded” rather than “tender-minded” thinking):

So despite the worries and sneers of the New Atheists, the position I am putting forward is far from one that gives way cravenly to the religious. I am fully prepared to criticize religion, and I do, but not on inadequate grounds. And, thinking that science unaided refutes religion is on inadequate grounds. Conversely, I think I have opened the door for the religious person—the very traditional Christian—to argue for his or her God and the implications without fear that I am allowing only a fairy story to get us to be nice to each other. Were I arguing that way, I would not be promoting accommodationism. I would be cheating.

What I don’t get is Ruse’s claim that he’s “opened the door for the religious person—the very traditional Christian—to argue for his or her God and the implications without fear that I am allowing only a fairy story to get us to be nice to each other.” Without a demonstration of a God to begin with, he hasn’t done that at all, for his tactic is to simply say that if you accept that there is a certain kind of God—the Christian one—some of the unanswered questions suddenly become answerable. If that’s not what he’s saying, then he’s simply saying that the existence of unanswered questions (which somehow derive from science’s use of metaphor) are themselves evidence for a god. But that is a god-of-the-gaps argument, and I don’t think Ruse is going there.

Now, I’ll post this and then go over and look at what Jason said, adding a link after I read his piece.

UPDATE: I see Jason has written a longish reponse to Ruse, and then another post in which he describes how he first decided to publish a rebuttal to Ruse’s piece, but found out that someone had done it. Jason’s response, I’m glad to see, is complementary to mine in a good way, though we agree that Ruse is making god-of-the-gaps arguments. Jason highlights Ruse’s unintended contempt for religion’s inability to answer its questions, which I do allude to above. Jason thinks that, like Gould, Ruse will get his major pushback from religionists rather than scientists, for Ruse appears to say in the piece that religion has nothing to say about realities of the universe.

________

Ruse, M. 2015. Why I am an accommodationist and proud of it. Zygon 50:361-375.

106 thoughts on “Michael Ruse: Proud to be an accommodationist

  1. “The Journal of Religion and Science” Are these the same people who publish “The Journal of Mountain Climbing and Embroidery” and “The Journal of Car Maintenance and Things Which Have Absolutely Nothing to do With Car Maintenance”?

    1. Yes, very reminiscent of those scam journals that are forever soliciting papers, or even asking me to help edit. They often have titles like “J. of Astrophysics, Neurobiology and Linguistics”

      1. It’s been around for 40 years. It’s not a scam journal, but it does publish a lot of accommodationist crap.

    2. I was in a comment section on Amazon the other day, and someone invoked the “Journal of Near-Death Studies”. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear it has an impact factor of 0.0.

  2. On the question, “Why is there anything rather than nothing?”, Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, pointed out that the modern model of the atom consists largely of empty space or nothing. So the real question is, “Why is there some stuff and some nothing or non-stuff?” Isn’t the natural world amazing enough? Why do we need to go to the super-natural? I guess that it comforts some people.

    John J. Fitzgerald

    1. That question should be countered with a question: “Why should there be nothing ? There is exactly 1 way of there being nothing, but gazillions of ways of there being something. Thus the state of ‘nothing’ is extremely improbable”.

      1. In the past day, the odds of there being something or there being nothing are 50/50 each second. Thus, the odds that there would’ve been something for each of those 86,400 seconds is 1/2^86400, which is so small it may as well be 0.

        That means only the Ground of Being could have sustained it, specifically the Ground of Being who manifested himself as his son to sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself. You atheists really need to open your minds a bit more. 😉

      2. Better still:
        Show that there *could have been* nothing. Since conservation laws are not dated, we have good reason to suspect, as has been held by materialists and naturalists since Democrtius, that the universe is eternal. (Even a form of conservation law is in Aristotle, and he’s not exactly a materialist, so there’s lots of precident.)

  3. This seems pretty sophomoric to me. Just because a particular metaphor is used to characterize something, does not mean that that metaphor is either the total extent of its object, or that it is the only metaphor that could be used. Metaphors are not definitions. Ruse seems to proceed on the basis that, since science has used machines as a metaphor, that is the totality of the explanation. Because he describes his love as being like a rose, does not mean that she/he cannot have a hamburger, because roses don’t eat hamburgers (and she probably wouldn’t appreciate manure either). No, this seems like a variety of equivocation to me. I am also guessing that it is aimed at an audience that is satisfied with platitudes.

    1. Perhaps religion is a machine for generating satisfaction in the absence of fact? And by Ruse’s metaphor argument (which I agree is a poor argument) religion cannot provide factual answers.

      1. That actually is the point of religion. “Why” questions appeal to the human psyche by supply “emotional” or social truths regardless of there connection to the facts of the real world. Their main purpose is bind a social group together. They give us the answers we want to be true and that feel good, but there is one problem with that. It can stop us from answering the much more important question of how things happen. That is the very real question that only the scientific method can answer.

        1. “…supply “emotional” or social truths regardless…”

          Those aren’t “truths”. Those are “responses”.

  4. Seems to me he is trying to distract rationalists and their promulgation of reason and allow evangelists to steal the minds of the sheep we are trying to reach.

  5. In this case he’s particularly upset that Dawkins “slapped the Neville Chamberlain label” on him in The God Delusion, though, as I recall, Dawkins didn’t call Ruse that directly …

    He did actually. “Another prominent luminary of what we might call the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists is the philosopher Michael Ruse.” (page 67).

  6. I’ve grown so bored with Ruse over the years. He never says anything new or interesting. It’s like he’s gotten lazy and isn’t even trying anymore. Maybe if we ignore him he’ll go away.

    1. He seems to be repeating the same tired argument without adding anything new or addressing criticism. It is to the shame of the journal that this passes their peer review.

    2. To be fair to Ruse, the problem isn’t that he’s lazy. The problem is that there simply aren’t any new theistic arguments. It’s the same old dreck, the same unanswerable and rhetorically asked “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and the same “problem” of morality. One would think we’d gotten past this nonsense two millennia ago with Plato’s Euthyphro, but no, people still think the foundation of ethics constitutes some kind of divine mystery.

      By the way, is anyone else tired of the is-ought distinction, i.e. Hume’s guillotine? For my money this is the most pernicious myth of philosophy–the idea that words like “is” and “ought” actually represent metaphysically distinct categories. Bewitched by language indeed…

      1. Reminds me of a prof back when who demanded that I write my essays in E’ eschewing any form of the verb “to be”. It cuts through the nonsense pretty quickly.

      2. The is-ought thing has never bothered me, and that’s still true. What do you see as the problem? “Bill is only 5’2″ tall, but he ought to have been much taller — if only his folks have not raised him on a diet of pop tarts and chicken nuggets.”

        1. The first problem is that this is the most common refrain for arguing against objective, consequential ethics. People like Ruse are desperate to retain any sphere in which they can ignore the inroads of science, and repeatedly claiming that science is in the business of pure description (and therefore has no bearing on morality) is one way to do this.

          However, the second problem is that prescriptive (“ought”) statements always entail consequences, and therefore ultimately rely on descriptive (“is”) statements to justify their ethical worth. The line between these two types of statements is therefore an illusion.

          To adapt your example, we could talk about the ethics of nutrition. Take the statement, “One’s diet ought to consist of real food instead of paper.” To my mind, there is no way to defend this claim without reference to facts about human biology and health, i.e. to “is” statements. The only way out of this predicament is to question foundational values: “Well, what if someone wants to slowly die of malnourishment while eating nothing but paper? Who’s to say he’s wrong for wanting this?”

          At this point I would claim that being a human naturally entails certain values, and that slowly dying of malnourishment is not one of them. And while it is of course anyone’s prerogative to do as they please with their own health, such exceptions are in no way normative. If a guardian enforced such nutritional values on a child, we would have good reason to call it neglect.

          TLDR version: it’s “is” statements all the way down.

          1. Zado,

            I don’t quite understand what you are getting at in the end. Yes, it is “is” statements all the way down, and that is just the problem: where do you get the “should” from?

            Your second problem is true but not a problem; somebody arguing that the is-ought gap is real doesn’t usually argue that there is no empirical dimension to moral claims, instead their point is the converse: there is no moral dimension to empirical facts, on their own. You can always ask another “and why should I care about this?”, precisely because it is “is” statements all the way down.

            Your first problem is no argument at all. If the is-ought gap blows consequentialism out of the water, then too bad for consequentialism. You can’t just assume that we should all be consequentialists and use that alone to reject arguments showing it to be incoherent.

            Yes, there are things that every sane human finds desirable. But that is not the same as every human should find them desirable. Sez who? And that’s the gap right there.

            1. “Yes, there are things that every sane human finds desirable. But that is not the same as every human should find them desirable.”

              Ethics is not concerned with telling people what they should desire. That’s religion’s forte.

              1. Hey, maybe you are right, but if so then I have so far been severely mistaken about what moral and ethical reasoning is about. I really kind of assumed it was supposed to inform us about what we should and should not do, not merely about what we happen to be doing. Because I thought the latter is more, like, sociology and history. Hm.

      3. Agreed that Hume’s dichotomy is overblown. The hypothesis that there are two separate domains there – or for that matter, one real (ises) and one illusory domain (oughts) – has been tried and found wanting.

      4. “By the way, is anyone else tired of the is-ought distinction, i.e. Hume’s guillotine?”

        Oh, I’ve been sick of that forever. I’m amazed at how widely accepted & respected it is!

        How the hell else are you going to derive an ought if not by using the is-es?

        1. How the hell else are you going to derive an ought if not by using the is-es?

          Perhaps the answer is that there is no way of deriving oughts full stop? It doesn’t help to say that a problem can’t be a problem because it would be inconvenient for the derivation of oughts.

          1. This seems to be partially why Philip Kitcher in his recent tome _The Ethical Project_ actually denies that ethical language is propositional! (Now *that’s* something revisionary, and I’m not sure I buy it, but …)

          2. But you can’t derive statements about any subject matter S, from statements not about S. For example, you can’t derive statements about temperature from in-temperate (pun!) statements alone. So what? This doesn’t make oughts special.

            1. No it doesn’t. But as far as I understand, Hume merely pointed out that this is a mistake that is made particularly often in ethical reasoning. And honestly, if I look over the reactions of consequentialists just around here in this thread I think he must have been on to something.

              1. The problem is that any worthwhile ethics has to take into account “what can be done” by the agents under evaluation. For example, we don’t normally expect the same from a child as from an adult.

                Consequently (:)) there *is* an “is” involved in many ethical evaluations, especially consequentialistic ones.

  7. As you say, the big bang might have been the result of a quantum fluctuation from within the vacuum energy that existed locally before the big bang. This view of the origin of our universe in effect means that we are in an immense ‘engine‘ for spawning universes in a multiverse, and that seems very much like a super-duper machine metaphor. The mother of all machines that followed, actually!
    So scientists have certainly not shied away from overlapping that magisteria.

  8. it seems that the nonsense that science can’t answer certain questions is more that people don’t like to think of the answers they might get from science, than that science can’t answer them.

    The answers may indeed be

    1) Why is there something rather than nothing?

    that’s just the way it is

    (2) What are the foundations of morality?

    biology

    3) What is the nature of consciousness?

    Define “consciousness” and we’ll get back to you.

    (4) What is the purpose of it all?

    Nothing.

    it sure makes those special snowflakes have nothing to make them special anymore.

  9. Jesus Christ. That Ruse article was so bad I got a little cranky. Ruse really looks like an idiot here. I am embarrassed for him. This is precisely the kind of philosophy that gives philosophy a bad name. My 11 year old kids would roll their eyes at all the right places and accurately tell you why it is ridiculous.

  10. Okay, Dr Ruse, repeat after me: “Religious freedom is a civil and human right, and no goddam scientist would be justified in taking it away, which is (I expect) why none of them try to. Religions and religious believers that don’t respect this need to be named and shamed.”

    There, that wasn’t too difficult was it?

  11. People (by that I mean atheists) tend to become way too defensive when the questions about morality and purpose come up.

    One can sometimes see it being openly said that there is no purpose of it all. But the concept of morality is almost invariably given much more respect that it should, when the truth is that as far as we can tell, there is no such thing beyond some behavioral constraints in social animals that are not that hard to explain by evolution. So why not just say it openly?

    Then the question “What should one do?” becomes entirely scientific – as long as we agree on what we want to achieve, how we get there is a purely scientific question,

  12. “Molecular Machines”

    If humans (“molecular organisms”) created “machines,” then to call humans “molecular machines” is to parallel the process religion/theology has historically embraced, namely, “god” created “humans;” therefore “god is human” and all the other anthropomorphic images splashed on “god” over the centuries. I recommend letting go of the “machine” metaphor or its literalization completely, but I realize it’s now well established in the public’s consciousness; it’s commonly used on science programs on PBS.

    1. What makes you think a creator, or act of creation, is implied by the concept of ‘machine’ any more than that of ‘organism’ (which is only science-speak for what the common folk call a ‘creature’ anyway)?

  13. Well, if you want science to answer a question, then the question must use scientific terminology. The first question, “Why is there something instead of nothing” fails in this regard, as the word “nothing” is not a scientific term – there is no valid, useful scientific definition of the word, as far as I can tell. And I want to say “bite me, Lawrence Krauss”, but I haven’t read his book yet.

      1. Eviscerates? Um, no. The word “nothing” has no useful practical application in science, at least not in any science textbooks of which I’m aware.

        To understand why science can’t answer that question, you have to realize that it isn’t a scientific question. That’s all I’m trying to say.

        To my knowledge, Krauss’ ideas are not yet accepted in mainstream science, so whether I’ve read his book or not is beside the point.

          1. Yes, agreed! It was a cheap shot on the title of his book, but… it was all I could come up with to draw attention to the fact that he wrote something pertinent. Think of it as plugging his book for him.

    1. If you want, you can watch him describe much of the idea in this talk. It is very good and entertaining, but here I think he kind of glosses over clearly explaining why we can get a universe from ‘nothing’. It is much like the book on this point, really. I have read it at least twice. I enjoyed it. But I could not quite grasp that all essential point.

      1. It seems to me (no credentials of my own) that Krauss is reluctant to specify that the bubbling broth of subatomic particles that pervades empty space is, in fact, the eternal universe out of which springs one or more local efflorescences. People want to know if the universe had a beginning or not and he says yes, as I recall. This sounds like equivocation, but, then he always parenthetically adds that we really don’t yet know all there is to know on the subject. I think many expect science on the bleeding edge to be more definitive, but its not. So we are left in dissonance.
        The point he makes most effectively is that a simple “God did it!” answer is every bit as good as “42”.

        1. Maybe I am projecting my own thoughts in here, but it seems to me a common view that this local universe began ~ 13.8 bya. So it did have a beginning. However, there should be other universes that began outside of our own before and after that.

  14. I think the scientific way of knowing CAN contribute to the question, “Is there a purpose to the universe?”

    The answer seems to be “no.” There’s no evidence of purpose in the history of life or the history of the universe. It all looks pretty accidental to me.

    If theists think they have a better answer then they must arrive at this answer by faith and not by evidence. Thus, science conflicts with religion on this vital question because science requires evidence.

    There are millions of atheists all around the world. Does Ruse really think they all carry a little card in their pocket with a list of questions they are never allowed to ask?

    1. I think the scientific way of knowing CAN contribute to the question, “Is there a purpose to the universe?”

      But that is not the question that the religious ask. Instead, they ask: “What is the purpose of the universe?”

  15. When I first became aware of Ruse many years ago, it was all “Ruse this” and “Ruse that.” So, I checked out one of his books then watched some YouTube videos of him on various panels. The more I heard from Ruse himself the less impressed I became until now I look upon him as a comedian. If this is “serious philosophy” I’d hate to see laughable philosophy.

    Ruse is far beyond his sell-by date as an intellectual.

  16. It appears that Michael Ruse is the poster child for Feynman’s quote, Philosophy is as useful to physics as ornithology is to birds., although some have attributed this to Steven Weinberg.

  17. I fully support all the comments above. Ruse’s statements (I hesitate to use the term ‘arguments’) are astonishingly weak. And Jason’s comments are very valuable: not just where he points out that Ruse is saying ‘nothing he hasn’t been saying for years…nothing more than God of the gaps stuff’ but that the implications of Ruse’s position is that ‘when Christians make assertions…is there any reason for non-Christians to take any notice of them?’ As he says, this is likely to annoy Christians almost as much as the rest of the article annoys the rest of us.

  18. So much wrong with this:

    “What we expect is that modern science, that is science since the Scientific Revolution, will simply not ask certain questions.”

    Wrong. We expect that Science will question everything. Nothing is, or can be, off limits to scientific enquiry.

    “2. What are the foundations of morality?”

    Answer -social and cultural norms. The aztecs thought that human sacrifice was moral; we do not.

    “This is not to say that machines cannot think. If the cognitive scientists are correct, they can. ” I know of no cognitive scientist who says machines can think. If there are any they are wrong. Wrong. Machines are machines. They are not designed to think but to obey instructions. In computers these instructions are provided by software which does not itself think. A computer executing software cannot do anything that is not within the bounds of that software’s capability. The instructions may form highly complex sequences but the computer is still only executing instructions.

    “4. What is the purpose of it all?”. So because science has not answered this therefore doG? This is simply more doG of the spag! But why does there have to be a purpose? And why is Ruse so obviously uncomfortable with not knowing. I do think he’s just a closet christian.

    1. “I know of no cognitive scientist who says machines can think. If there are any they are wrong. Wrong. Machines are machines.”

      I am not a cognitive scientist but… first you need to define “think.” And to reach the conclusion you reach, you need to do it very carefully so that humans qualify as “thinkers” while machines do not. Good luck with that.

      1. Exactly. Daniel Dennett (philosopher) proposes that machines can be thought of as conscious in some sense. The idea being that what we humans do is only different in degree.

  19. Ruse is as weak as always. Unlike creationists playing ‘science chess’ he isn’t even scattering the pieces and crapping on the board, he is traipsing over it and picking on some pieces to see if they are noms. Then Ruse proudly declares victory.

    one thing that Kuhn always stressed about paradigms/metaphors is that they work successfully because they make you focus.

    Kuhn’s paradigm/metaphor was “paradigms/metaphors”, but if anyone has put it as a testable hypothesis and showed that it applies on science I am unaware of it.

    Philosophy is uninterested in its subjects, and that is why it lost to science as “an alternative way of knowing”. If Ruse wanted to make a point out of him being a philosopher, he lost it.

    But that is not quite what the fundamental question is asking. It wants to know the answer to the very fact of existence. The machine metaphor takes this for granted.

    Of course we can take the existence of reality for granted.

    Religion on the other hand do bear the burden of evidence if it wants to claim “the existence of ‘nothing'”. Which sounds like an oxymoron, by the way.

    The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (1992) says that the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. Why am I not surprised? We have seen that the way that the machine metaphor is used eschews any answer to this question. So on it, science remains silent.

    Here we see that Ruse chose to remain ignorant of the very answer Weinberg described, the answer to the question if there is purpose is “no”.

    No wonder if Ruse like a pigeon finds science of little nutrient value. Blind, deaf, but unfortunately not mute.

  20. I do not understand the accommodationists.
    I like to think that I understand the religious. They had been either indoctrinated or are impressionable, or both. They have fallen for the inner voice, thinking it is an external voice speaking to them.
    But the accommodationists like M. Ruse or Chris Mooney have supposedly swallowed the red pill. They have seen the true form of the Matrix, and yet they really really really do not like those who know the same truth and are (gasp)comfortable with it.

    1. They had been either indoctrinated or are impressionable, or both. They have fallen for the inner voice, thinking it is an external voice speaking to them.

      Yes, but… I suspect that there are people who prioritise their feelings over their rationality. It is not a moral(!) failing on their part, it is merely that they have a satisfactory (to them) way of living.

      As a consequence rational arguments are not important enough to overcome their desires for certainty, feeling loved, even spirituality. Which means that science and philosophy which are primarily rational are not going to make much headway.

      There are, of course, some atheists who promote celebrations of spirituality, recognising that for many such feelings are very important.

      There’s still no magic though.

    2. A cynic might suggest that they realize that there’s a large audience out there just itching for this sort of reassurance; a paying audience.

  21. That is clearly not the main point here, but I am actually a bit uncomfortable with the biological machine metaphor. I get the analogy of interacting parts all serving specialised purposes, but when I try to come up with a definition of machine then I can only arrive at “something of several parts that has been built by an intelligent agent to do some work for them”.

    To our general understanding, a windmill or a crane are machines, but a plow-horse and a watchtower are not (in the first case for lack of createdness by an agent, in the second because it isn’t doing any work). I thus find it very hard to think of ourselves as machines unless the existence of a creator god is assumed, and this metaphor leads to some problematic misunderstandings.

    1. I know. But of course it is simply a matter of defining what we mean by ‘machine’ in a broad enough way. I once used the term in a biology class and a smarty-pants creationist pounced on that and claimed I was admitting that nature was purposefully created.
      I suppose terms that are more ready-made to fit both nature and man-made things would be ‘contrivances’, or ‘algorithms’.

    2. “To our general understanding, a windmill or a crane are machines, but a plow-horse and a watchtower are not (in the first case for lack of createdness by an agent, in the second because it isn’t doing any work).”

      Of course a watchtower is doing work – it is providing support for things, keeping them aloft instead of falling to the ground (and Google tells me regarding the origin of the term machine: “mid 16th century (originally denoting a structure of any kind)”).

      You have built into your definition of machine an intelligent agent as builder/creator of it, but the first definition Googling “define machine” provides doesn’t have anything to do with the machine’s source: “an apparatus using or applying mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task.” Under this definition, yes, a plow horse is a machine (it performs the task of gene replication and protection), as is a watchtower.

      In checking multiple dictionaries online, very few define the word in relation to how it came about as you do.

      1. Yes, I was talking about how people generally understand those words. If you lead a hundred random people from the street into a room where you show them a cat and a computer and ask them to point out all machines, I am fairly sure that no significant number will think of pointing at the cat.

        I just want to get across that the we are a machine metaphor has some serious weaknesses in what it leads people to conclude from that. It is not even just the createdness, it is also the teleology and purpose-having, for example.

        1. A fair concern. I suppose I prefer to broaden people’s ideas regarding the word “machine” rather than to find another term to use.

  22. Jerry wrote: Further, the question can be thrown back in the laps of theists by asking, “Why is there God rather than nothing?” The answer, “Because God is eternal” is no more satisfying than saying “Because the universe is eternal.”

    Forgive me my trespasses Prof Ceiling Cat, but I think this part could be accused of somewhat strawmaning the Christian response. Certainly many pew-sitting Christians may give a question-begging response like “Because God is eternal” as if it answered the question.

    But the “sophisticated” Christians will more likely answer not “because God is eternal” but rather “because God is NECESSARY.”

    In other words, they don’t simply assume an eternal God and say “so there.” That would be special pleading for an eternal God over an eternal universe. Instead, they present arguments for why the universe is contingent but that God would have to exist “necessarily.” (e.g. Anselm-type arguments, Prime Mover arguments, etc).

    Whether the arguments are sound or not (we’d all agree here they aren’t) the point is they don’t just assume God has properties that put him in a different category than the universe, they have arguments, not mere assumptions, in support of that conclusion.

    (I just shrink from giving Christians ammunition for claims they are being misrepresented or straw manned by atheists).

    1. the point is they don’t just assume God has properties that put him in a different category than the universe, they have arguments, not mere assumptions, in support of that conclusion.

      I have always considered those arguments to be fairly circular, and thus very close to just being assumption of what they’re trying to prove. Why is God necessary? Because if he wasn’t, we could conceive of a greater being (i.e. one which is necessary), and God must be the greatest being to be God; necessary = greatest. So what makes God greatest? Well, in part its because unlike any other entity we can conceive of, he’s necessary. Or we just presume/assume that greatest includes necessary. Either way, you aren’t really concluding anything based on putting together independent and disparate premises; you’re just tautologically connecting necessity to greatness.

      1. In the worst cases, they are circular. The Universe is contingent because it was created. This proves a Creator. In the best cases, they say it is contigent and that nothing contingent can come into existence without something that is necessary (not contigent). Of course, as you point out, this is simply an unfounded assertion. You can’t just stick adjectives onto words and then not support the premise.

        These fact that so many consider these the best arguments for God shows a couple of things: 1) There’s not much in the way of solid arguments; 2) There’s not any empirical evidence, for why else would the claims be attached only to philosophical arguments?

        Regarding 2), I’m with Sean Carroll, our metaphysics must follow our physics. Our logic must also follow our evidence. Logical absolutes have been around a long time and have been used to do wonders in mathematics, abstracting it away from empiricism. But, that’s still where it’s grounded. We know 1 + 1 = 2 by definition, but we derived that definition from observing that’s what it is. These arguments detached from observation are pretty meaningless and even more so when they don’t even have a conceivable way of defining observations that would support them. How does one observe a necessary thing and know that it has the quality of necessity? It would seem that we could simply say everything that exists is necessary and have one less step, which ironically is the simple dismissal the theists try to run away from by introducing necessary and contingent beings to begin with.

          1. Well, that definitely conflicts with the classic cosmological argument about pure act versus pure potential. A changing god can’t be either of those, which, IIRC is a main point in the whole argument that God is necessary.

            However, one thing this clearly demonstrates once again is the lack of ability for theology to make progress. Process theology can’t fit with an unchanging god and there’s no way to resolve it purely by argument because, without evidence, both cases can be made logically sound when premises are simply assumed. (And the cosmological argument assumes a whole lot of bad Physics.) I would agree that for the Yahweh in the old testament to comport with current Christian theology, you’d more likely need a changing god; but, at this point, we may as well be arguing whether Spiderman would defeat Batman in battle. Logical arguments can be made in that debate too; but it doesn’t make the subject or the participants real entities.

  23. So Ruse tries to find questions outside the purview of science, to suggest that religious answers to these questions are therefore not incompatible with science.

    And yet one of the Christian answers he gives is:

    “What are the foundations of morality? They are grounded in the will of God. They are that which He had decreed we should do.

    (Emphasis mine).

    Wha?

    How would we have known what God has “decreed” us to do? Clearly this is an appeal to revelation, e.g. Christian scripture, in which we’d find the decrees (no doubt both new and old testament moralizing).

    The point Ruse misses like a Jumbo Jet flying over his head is that in order to BELIEVE the claims of a book like The Bible, you will have violated all the normal standards of evidence, reason, consistency, skepticism, and epistemic responsibility that
    leads to the acceptance of the scientific method!

    On one hand you have to acknowledge it’s reasonable to demand years and years of repeated experiments and studies, controlling for bias and error, simply to justify belief that a new blood pressure drug has any effect…(when doing science)

    ….but for the claim that The Creator Of The Universe gave an ancient man a stone tablet of commands, or that an ancient Jew ROSE FROM THE DEAD…well then taking second and third hand purported accounts from a 2,000 year old book is good enough!

    Yes, Ruse certainly has found the compatibility of science and religious answers there!

  24. Ruse’s position is especially surprising since he is surely aware that a secular approach to morality existed in ancient Greece !*before the rise of Christianity*!

    The humanist movement in the 16th century was partly founded on the rediscovery of these ancient philosophers.

    It is true that Christianity answers questions of meaning that science does not, but if this involves conceiving God as a celestial hall monitor, it is not all that satisfactory.

    1. A secular approach to morality does not refute Ruse’s argument. He isn’t arguing against secular morality, but arguing that science cannot answer the question “What are the foundations of morality?”

      Secular morality can answer that question as easily as religious morality does, but neither can claim a scientific basis for the answer to the question posed.

  25. “Why is there something rather than nothing? … Well, to some extent that question has been answered, at least for a quantum vacuum, which is unstable and can produce ‘something.'” – J. Coyne

    Now you’ve committed the fallacy of equivocation because “nothing” in the physical sense doesn’t mean “nothing” in the metaphysical sense. A physical nothing is something, and the metaphysical question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” does not mean “Why is there something else in addition to something called nothing?” A quantum vacuum can be called a nothing, but it is certainly not (a) nothing in the metaphysical sense, since it is an entity.

    “Or, we could say that the question is meaningless because there has always been something…” – J. Coyne

    There has always been something no matter whether or not the temporal dimension of spacetime is infinite toward the past, because all times are necessarily part of spacetime, so that it is impossible for there to be a time when spacetime doesn’t exist. And no matter whether or not spacetime is temporally infinite, one can still ask why there is a spacetime rather than nothing.

    1. Thank you for explaining what EVERYONE who is religious means by “nothing.” I’m sorry, but you are not the universal arbiter of what “nothing” is, and some people do conceive of it as a quantuum vacuum.

    2. Although we can’t directly observe the existence of the quantum vacuum, it effects what we can observe. In particular, the interaction of observable particles like electrons with the quantum vacuum can be observed. In particular, the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron is observable and computations via quantum electrodynamics (e.g.Feynman diagrams)give results that agree with the observed value to 10 significant digits. As Feynman said, that is equivalent to measuring the distance between the
      Empire State Building in New York City and City Hall in downtown Los Angeles to the nearest inch.

  26. Talk about a mere ruse.

    He strikes me as just plain silly. Not an advantageous posture for a philospopher.

  27. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God, a being whoit exists necessarily, created heaven and earth as an act of divine goodness. For no other reason, nor is other reason needed.

    There, fixed it.

  28. Christians are notorious for simply making stuff up and not following the bible. Christians cherry pick their way through the bible and choose to follow only those bible verses that won’t get them arrested for murder, or make them look too stupid. So, its not about accommodation, its about the psychology of modern Christianity…and allow Christians to create new versions of Jesus, radact the old and new testament, and just believe what they want without question. So, of course when the evidence for Evolution becomes so strong that an argument is futile…then of course a Christian will also believe in Darwinian Evolution…

  29. “What we expect is that modern science, that is science since the Scientific Revolution, will simply not ask certain questions.”

    That’s IMO post-hoc revisionism. Science asked lots of religious questions. When the answers came back negative, theologians suddenly decided those questions couldn’t been answered by testing and empirical data. But the tests are there, in our history. Religious scientists tried to weigh souls. They tested the age and properties of certain shrouds. They dug for arks. They dug for Jewish colonies in the new world. There are still (minor, somewhat rare) scientific studies of for telepathy. ESP. OOBE’s.

    I think a much more accurate description of the current situation is: “science today doesn’t retest religious questions that have failed prior testing. Since that’s most of them, science doesn’t spend much time asking those sorts of questions any more.”

  30. Not exactly on topic, but related.

    I grew up reading Gould’s books on evolution and found them very interesting – and I uncritically bought into his NOMA. Now that I’ve had the chance to grow up a little and think a little more critically, I understand some of the issues with that.

    That said, I’ve heard/read (not necessarily here) that biologists were critical of Gould’s positions, and I thought I’d throw the question to you as you have the expertise: What was wrong with Gould’s position on evolution?

    I’ve read the wikipedia entry, but I fail to understand the nuance. (e.g. Gould’s multi-level selection, versus Dawkins’ gene competition). I could go read the books/chapters mentioned, but perhaps you might have some insight that would be worth bringing forth.

    Please excuse the question if you’ve answered it in the past (I haven’t read all the archives).

    1. Jerry’s written a post about Gould that delves into this, IIRC. You might try searching the archives here.

        1. Well, it seems you’re right that there’s no Gould post per se that addresses your concerns, but you might find some relative information in posts such as these:

          https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/bob-trivers-and-my-take-on-famous-evolutionary-biologists/

          https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/more-on-dick-lewontin-natural-selection-and-weit/

          very slight mention here:
          https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/05/08/lewontin-reviews-brown-gibson-darwin-and-coyne-in-the-nyrb/

          (There are several pages of post links that come up in a search, and I didn’t look through them all.)

          I’ll butt out, now. 😉

  31. My first encounter with Ruse was in an essay of his (“A Philosophers Day in Court”) in the book Science and

    Creationism. (Ed by. Ashley Montagu & Isaac Asimov. (Oxford University Press: Oxford [Oxfordshire]; New

    York, 1984)). The book centered on the 1981 case of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education and played a big part

    in my eventual rejection of the fundamentalist creationism I had been brought up in. At that time in my life both he

    and Stephen J. Gould (who also contributed an essay to the volume) made a lot of sense to me. Sadly, Ruse has not

    had anything interesting or useful to say since then that I am aware of.

    Ironically, my current position (which I share with PCC), that religious faith and science are irreconcilable, arose

    from Ruse’s essay in that book, in which he highlighted the fact that scientific theories are falsifiable. In science,

    we sometimes find out that a result that we were very confident of turns out to be less robust than we thought. A

    recent example is that our understanding of the properties of type-1a supernovae relevant to their being used as

    “standard candles” had some gaps in it, which means that the rate of acceleration of the universe, and hence the

    amount of energy in empty space (dark-energy) may be off. As good as science is at correctly identifying the way

    the cosmos works, it is even better at telling us how it does not work. “Faith” does just the

    opposite; by denying that there could be any external test of the competing propositions of mutually exclusive sets

    of beliefs, for instance, Christianity and Islam, “faith” fosters the delusion that all answers are, or at least could

    be, epistemologically valid. Thus, ‘faith” is powerless to separate the wheat from the chaff, or in less anachronistic

    terms, to keep the riff-raff out.

    For me, the true power and glory of science is not that it is a sure guide to the “right” answers about how the

    universe works, but the even more awesome ability to reliably and definitively eliminate wrong answers–

    something that religion or “faith” can never do.

    As for the whole “Universe from Nothing” bit, I am re-reading A Universe from Nothing now, and the first

    time I heard Krauss on the subject was his awesome presentation at the Origins Symposium in 2009. The point I

    took from it then was that going some (European) middle-school trigonometry on features of the CMB (Cosmic

    Microwave Background) had shown that the universe was flat, which means it has a space-time curvature of 1.

    According to Einstein’s equations of General Relativity:

    Curvature of space = (normal & dark matter) + the energy of empty space (i.e. dark energy)

    Since the quantity on the left hand side of the equal sign (the curvature of space) has been directly measured to

    be 1, then the sum of the two quantities to the right of the equal sign must also equal 1. So what we have is 1 = 1.

    Subtracting 1 from either side of that equation yields 1-1=0. 0 sounds like “nothing” to me. Theologians and

    philosophers just need to get over it.

    1. I found your exposition well managed and interesting. The formating was not really so bad. Just
      A few extra
      CR/LF.

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