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  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:
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.