More accommodationism at “The Conversation”

January 25, 2018 • 11:00 am

I think it’s time I contributed an article to The Conversation showing why science and religion are incompatible, as that site appears to be very soft on faith. As I wrote last year in a piece called “The Conversation kisses the rump of religion again“:

I thought that The Conversation was largely a news and scholarly opinion website, but every once in a while they slip in some religious nonsense that baffles and saddens me. (For one example, see this risible argument for religiously based brain/mind dualism, and this ridiculous slice of tripe explaining why morality requires God). And now we have a piece from yesterday brought to my attention by reader RJC: “Five rational arguments why God (very probably) exists“.

Well, here’s another slice of accommodationist tripe that reader Alex brought to my attention:

It’s by Tom McLeish, a professor of physics at Durham University, but more on him later.

McLeish’s argument is that by insisting that science and religion are enemies, we’re turning religious people away from science—an argument that, as far as I know, has no empirical support. As I’ve said before, there are hundreds of people who have turned toward science by arguments for atheism—arguments that denigrate religion as a “way of knowing”. Dawkins’s old site “Convert’s Corner” attests to that. But I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’d be willing to accept evolution, the Big Bang, or global warming, which I now reject, if those nasty nonbelievers just stopped saying that science and religion are incompatible.” From the very outset, then, McLeish is making a claim that lacks empirical support.

His arguments are familiar, but even dumber than usual. I’m willing to accept that, at the beginning of science, the discipline of natural theology did indeed promote science—by arguing that understanding the universe helped glorifying God by revealing His Big Plan. But those days are over now: scientists are no longer motivated to do science as a way of understanding God and His Ways, and most good scientists in the US and UK are atheists. Religion no longer inspires science, and in some cases, as with cosmology and evolution, it’s a positive impediment. Do remember that the Catholic Church, while saying that it fully accepts the truth of evolution, states out of the other side of its gob that Adam and Eve were real people, and the literal ancestors of us all, and, by the way, we also have souls, too, but animals don’t. There’s no evidence for souls, and good evidence that all humans didn’t descend from just two people in the last few hundred thousand years. (Our minimum “species size” numbered at least 12,500.)

By pretending that religion has any content beyond wish-thinking and superstition, or by showing unwarranted respect for religious tenets and ideas, accommodationists are in fact enabling religion and promoting the most invidious “way of knowing” I can think of—faith.  “A person of faith” is not someone to be admired. Such a person should be criticized for being delusional, and accepting truths on the basis of no good evidence.

But McLeish makes some pretty weird arguments for compatibilism. Instead of saying that religion inspired pure scientific endeavor, he says that religious thought led directly to scientific thought: that pondering the mysteries of the divine somehow inspired pondering the mysteries of things like evolution. (If you know Darwin’s life, you’ll realize that’s bunk.)

Here are two examples of McLeish’s argument:

When Aristotle was reintroduced to Europe in the 12th century, his scientific work had a great influence on medieval scholars, who were invariably thinkers within a church, synagogue or mosque. A key example is the 13th-century Oxford theologian and later Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, who was also a pioneering early scientist. He presented a vision for how we might obtain new knowledge of the universe, the dawning of the first notions of experiment, and even a “big bang” theory of the cosmos and a concept of multiple universes.

Yet underneath Grosseteste’s work lies a much deeper and developing philosophy of nature. In a commentary on Aristotle’s Posteria Analytics, he describes a uniquely human propensity he calls (in Latin) “sollertia”. By this he means a sort of intense and perceptive ability to look beyond the surface of the material world into its inner structure.

This is remarkably similar to our approach to science today. Isaac Newton described his science as “seeing further than others”. For Grosseteste, our sollertia comes in turn from being created in the image of God. It is a theologically motivated task that contributes to the fulfilment of being human.

Well, of course most scholars in the Middle Ages were “thinkers within a church, synagogue, or mosque” because virtually all intellectuals were. There was no other outlet for the intellect than to install yourself within a religious institution or a university deeply connected with religion. And of course everyone was religious. As for the sollertia, all McLeish is saying is this: “religious thinkers think hard about the divine, and scientists think hard about nature. Therefore the scientific mindset derived from the religious mindset.”

As for Newton’s statement, McLeish takes that way out of context. You may remember that what Newton is supposed to have said is this:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Newton is explaining here why he gained scientific fame, not describing the actual process by which he did science. Regardless, it has nothing to do with religion.  And to imply that our own ability to think about science is “theologically motivated” is simply a lie.

As if that wasn’t ludicrous enough, McLeish godsplains that the scientific method—indeed, scientific questions themselves—came from the Book of Job. Get a load of this:

In fact, science also has roots in ancient Jewish history that are as influential as the ancient Greek precedents. Philosopher Susan Neiman recently argued that the Biblical Book of Job should be understood as a foundation pillar of modern philosophy alongside Plato. This is because Job deals head-on with the problem of an apparently chaotic and fitful world, alien to the human predicament and unmoved in the face of suffering. And this, Neiman claims, is the starting point for philosophy.

It might also be the starting point for science, for Job also contains at its pivotal point the most profound nature poem of all ancient writings. Its verse form of questions is also striking to scientists from all ages, who know that asking the right creative questions – rather than always having the correct answer – is what unlocks progress.

So God asks Job:

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea?… Where is the way to the abode of light?… From whose womb comes the ice?… Do you know the laws of the heavens? And can you apply them to the earth?

In all, the book contains as many as 160 questions from the fields we now know as meteorology, astronomy, geology and zoology. The content of this timeless text has clearly steered the story of science for centuries.

This is madness. Read that part of the Book of Job. McLeish has eliminated a lot of questions that aren’t in the least scientific, and what is going on here is that God is trying to impress Job with his (God’s power) in contrast to Job’s own impotence, not posing real questions to be answered.

Are these questions from Job “scientific”?

Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart? Who can number the clouds in wisdom? or who can stay the bottles of heaven, When the dust groweth into hardness, and the clods cleave fast together? Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion?

But enough.  McLeish is simply making stuff up to try to comport science and religion. But why is he doing this? The biography attached to the piece gives the answer:

Yes, Templeton again! Did you guess it? I find it very odd that there would be a “disclosure statement” in an article, but I’ve recently seen this with Templeton. I wonder whether this is normal procedure at The Conversation, or has something to do with Templeton’s sordid blending of science and religion, and deep pockets for funding that.

Sadly, religion and science are enemies, for the former touts faith, revelation, and dogma as the way to discern truth about the Universe, while the latter rejects faith absolutely, depending on empirical methods, doubt, confirmation, and consensus. This is all laid out in Faith Versus Fact, and I won’t repeat it here.  One more thing: science has repeatedly disproved the truth claims of religion, while religion has never done that to science. And there is not a single truth about the universe accepted by science that has been overturned by religion. They are indeed enemies, for though they both make claims about the nature of reality, one area has methods to adjudicate those truth claims, while the other (religion, of course), doesn’t. If religion did, we wouldn’t have thousands of religions making different and often incompatible claims about reality.

McLeish is being a good horse in the Templeton stable, for he says and writes exactly what The Organization wants to hear. Sadly, Britain’s Royal Society has been gulled as well, for there’s an announcement at the end of McLeish’s execrable piece:

Tom McLeish is speaking at an event entitled The Science of Belief, organised with the Royal Society at the British Museum on January 26, 2018.

That’s tomorrow! And if you go to the link, you’ll find that Templeton’s Termites have dined all the way into the British Museum and the Royal Society:

In this discussion, chaired by award-winning journalist, writer and BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed, scientists Colin Blakemore and Tom McLeish examine how the cognitive impetus that drove the emergence of science might be considered to be the same impetus that fostered religion and other metaphysical beliefs.

They will discuss how science is itself at the heart of being human, and can be traced back through art, philosophy and ancient stories, including those in religious traditions.

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Society.

This sounds like mutual back-patting, not a debate.

53 thoughts on “More accommodationism at “The Conversation”

  1. I clicked over to the “Five rational Arguments for God” and was amazed. They are were all “Blah, blah, blah, therefore God.” Once could have replaced God with “magic” and all of the arguments would have held up equally well.

    It has been noted … by scientists … that the conformation of math and science is “unreasonable.” Yet, not all of math conforms to reality, some of it is unconnectable to reality it seems (at least so far). Could it be that math is based upon patterns and patterns are woven into reality because it is made up of pieces? Could be, but I do not know this? I do know that our minds are pattern seeking functions.

    A more honest approach would be to try to come up with multiple reasons why this might be the case (an accident, a happenstance, the influence of an advanced alien culture in this part of the galaxy, a manifestation that our universe was designed (by whom is not indicated), etc.) Then the pros and cons of each of these could be addressed. But no, the answer that all of these charlatans come up with is “… therefore God.”

    Disgraceful and literally un-reasonable.

    1. One way to see it is that our *ideas* are structured based on various patterns we make up that correspond formally to some in nature, at best. So there’s a *two level* relationship between (some) math and the world.

  2. Sounds to me as though he’s something of a Francis Collins. This from his staff profile

    “In 2014 OUP published his book Faith and Wisdom in Science. He has been a Reader in the Anglican Church since 1993, in the dioceses of Ripon and York.”

  3. This sounds like mutual back-patting, not a debate.

    Though Colin Blakemore is an atheist and can be expected to take the opposite line to Tom McLeish, and Samira Ahmed is also (I think??) non religious and fairly sound in her views.

  4. I sense an even lower than usual tolerance for bullshit in this article. Fits with my mood at the moment perfectly.

  5. The article is primed with historical references, which it relies on exclusively, i.e., people, long ago, believed in X, therefore X could be true or, at least, inspire people to do other things maybe or maybe not related to X.

    My cats got tuna last night. Maybe they will get tuna tonight (actually not, since I am presently out of tuna). Still, they could be inspired by Tuna-God.

  6. One could make a case that Job is an interesting “proto-existentialist” writing. But is not science friendly (a lot of existentialism is iffy that way after all), because the attitude towards inquiry into nature is basically just “you don’t know, god does, screw you”.

    1. Galileo wrote a naturalistic interpretation of biblical miracles (now lost).

      Some people think that a lot of what Descartes is doing is that too – like showing where rainbows come from. Certainly his _Le Monde_ is an attempt to do a naturalistic cosmology – suppressed, of course, when he heard what happened to Galileo.

      Spinoza wasn’t exactly in the “scientist” camp, but his *entire work* is arguably an attempt to show that the bible is special but still human, that miracles don’t happen, that humans are a part of nature as much as any other animal, etc.

  7. I’m unconvinced that even a compatibilist would have to be committed to the notion that science comes out of theology.

    Surely simple scientific tasks like the classification of insects, tracing the pathways of stars, etc. have no dependence on theology of any kind.

    One section of Job is indeed an engaging nature poem, but so are the works of Greek Bucolic poets.
    “Job deals head-on with the problem of an apparently chaotic and fitful world, alien to the human predicament and unmoved in the face of suffering.”
    So does Heraclitus!!

    1. In short, no compatibilism can give religion any adjudication over science. If you want to say that nature reflects the wisdom of God, okey-dokey, but science has to be viewed as an autonomous fully independent exercise.

  8. Early scientists were inspired by religious attitudes, therefore…religion deserves special indulgence as a way of knowing etc. etc.. Today’s scientists all, without exception, received potty training as infants. Therefore….fill in the blank.

    Or, another parallel. Religious thinking was “advanced” in the days of Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, therefore People of Faith deserve special indulgence etc etc. A few hundred million years before Friar Bacon’s time, Ammonoidea were “advanced” forms of life. Therefore, we should go to other surviving molluscs for their wisdom, perhaps thinking of them as People of Shell.

  9. I think PCC should be on the next plane to London to crash this event at the British Museum. It annoys me that they never present opposing viewpoints in these sorts of discussions. I think the audience would very much enjoy the clash of viewpoints but perhaps the organizers realize that the discussion in invariably end in a rout.

  10. Jerry, I admire your patience and stamina in debunking Mr McLeish. Kudos to you.
    I found a pearl there too: ““A person of faith” is not someone to be admired. Such a person should be criticized for being delusional, and accepting truths on the basis of no good evidence.”
    Maybe that should be hewn in stone and hung in US courthouses? 🙂

  11. I’d like to respond to this: “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You know, I’d be willing to accept evolution, the Big Bang, or global warming, which I now reject, if those nasty nonbelievers just stopped saying that science and religion are incompatible.'”

    Have you watched Todd Wood’s lecture, “Why I’m still a creationist”? In that video, Wood basically acknowledges that evolution and an old earth are better-supported empirically than young-Earth creationism, but he says that he’s still a young-Earth creationist because he believes that old-Earth views are incompatible with Christianity. I’ve personally known a lot of creationists who held a similar viewpoint.

    Now, granted, I think the arguments that convinced these people that evolution and Christianity are incompatible came from the creationist movement and not from the New Atheism movement. But you seem to be arguing that the viewpoint that science and religion are incompatible doesn’t dissuade anyone from accepting scientific ideas, and I think that’s demonstrably not true.

    1. What you’re arguing here doesn’t, I think, rebut what I said. I haven’t seen the video, but Wood is not rejecting old-Earthism because somebody told him that science and religion are incompatible. He’s rejecting it because HE REALIZES that his faith and the facts are somewhat at odds.

      My argument (and McLeish’s) was that people who aren’t religious and point out this incompatibility are harming religious understanding and acceptance of science. If religious people themselves are rejecting science because of their own doctrines, that’s not the fault of people like me or other incompatibilists. I trust you’ll see the difference here.

      Yes, a lot of people are creationists because they accept the literal truth of the Old Testament, but that has nothing to do with either my argument or McLeish’s.

      1. Yes, I see the difference. The point I’m making is different from the one that McLeish did.

        What I’m saying is that creationists have concluded that evolution is incompatible with their faith, and have presented arguments for why it is. We can either concede that point, or try to argue against it. If we concede it, I’m sure that purely scientific arguments against creationism will still have some effect, but they’ll never have an effect on people who are already aware of the empirical evidence for evolution and who reject the theory on entirely religious grounds. On the other hand if we don’t concede the point, and argue that the Bible can potentially be interpreted in a way that’s compatible with evolution, I think that can make our arguments more effective with respect to people like that.

        Since I’m not religious, I don’t personally care whether people who accept evolution are able to do so without abandoning their faith, but I do care about arguing against creationism in a way that’s as effective as possible. That’s why I think letting creationists win this particular argument is strategically unwise.

  12. It’s quite true that, hundreds of years ago when not much science was known, religion inspired many scientist. Newton seems a good example. That started changing over time, accelerating after 1859. As we learn more science it conflicts more and more with religion, and I bet religion now inspires more opposition to science than examples of it.

    1. I take a finer point out of it. It wasn’t religion” it was intelligent, inquiring minds that were stuck with religious stuff to start with and moved on. I was absolutely fascinated by reading the Bible critically, and other stuff from my dad-preacher’s library, and I combed through the Presbyterian Westminster Confession like the lawyer I became. I studied Catholic catechisms in detail. Was I “inspired” by religion? Hardly.

    2. And *heterodox* religion in many cases to boot.

      Just to continue the thought above: Newton denied the trinity, had his own take on standard biblical prophecies, and seems to have taken the bit about us living in god literally.

  13. If Christianity hadn’t almost destroyed ancient learnings of the Greeks, Romans, etc and done its best to suppress what did survive then science wouldn’t have been moribund for centuries (quaintly known as the Dark Ages).

  14. Well said Jerry.

    The control of the Church over intellectual enquiry in the Middle Ages was huge.

    I will restrict my comments to England as that’s what I know best, but much applies to most of Europe too.

    The universities weren’t just closely associated with the Church, they were all but part of it. To teach at a university, you had to take minor orders. That’s why professors etc didn’t marry – they couldn’t as officers of the Church.

    Theology was a compulsory part of every degree.

    The Church also had great control in other ways. There were Church courts. They could and often did bring charges of heresy against anyone, including professors, who asked questions that challenged orthodoxy. Questioning the Trinity, or transubstantiation, which make no sense of course, was a no-no. You had to accept it and shut up. If a transgression was serious enough, Church courts could and did give the death penalty. They couldn’t sully their own hands with actually carrying this out. The condemned were handed over to the local authorities who hanged the person on their behalf.

    However, if anyone associated with the Church was convicted of any crime in the secular courts, up to and including murder, they could demand to be handed over to the Church courts. Church courts never gave a sentence of death against their own people who were convicted in a secular court. In the case of minor crimes, reciting a passage of the Bible by heart (in Latin) could be enough to save you from the noose. (Remember, hanging was the punishment for crimes like poaching and theft, except for very minor theft, back then.)

    The Bible was always read in Latin (Vulgate) and church services conducted in that language. All university education was in Latin too. (Though from c. early 1100s priests began to do sermons in English.) Most people had no idea what was going on. It was a magic chant that brought God into the building, or Jesus’ body into the bread and wine. The Church insisted they had to be the ones to interpret the meaning of the Bible for ordinary people. There was no direct path to God for ordinary people. Even reading a book of the Bible in the vernacular was a guaranteed death sentence. Translating it was the worst of crimes.

    Professors had to stick to accepted Church interpretations or risk their job. A charge of heresy pretty much doomed their ability to ever get gsinful employment. They ended up doing stuff like selling indulgences at best if they lost their job. Intellectual enquiry had strict limits.

    1. “The Bible was always read in Latin (Vulgate) and church services conducted in that language. All university education was in Latin too. (Though from c. early 1100s priests began to do sermons in English.) Most people had no idea what was going on. ”

      I’m about halfway through Mantel’s Wolf Hall* and she recounts how it was routine in the 16th century to torture and put to the stake people who dared read the babble in anything other than Latin. It was obvious that the reason for this is that it would have taken power away from the church. One simply couldn’t refuse to adhere to church doctrines, which included (no doubt) proto-scientists going along with it despite what they learned about the natural world, without risking the rack.

      *I read Bring Up the Bodies first, so I figured I probably should read the first part of the story. Helps figuring out who’s who and what’s what. Derp.

      1. Exactly. It was about the Church retaining power and control. It was in the Middle Ages that the Church invented Purgatory too, which was also, obviously, about keeping people scared etc and the the Church having power and control.

    2. Marius J. Sirks and Conway Zirkle in their “The Evolution of Biology” (1964) are very clear that the Church shut down practically all biological advance in the West between the years 500 and 1400. The 13th century was especially bad for science because an upswing in organized heresy, such as the Waldensians and Albigensians, objects of Crusades of extermination, made it dangerous to make original scientific claims that might be taken as an affront to Catholic doctrine. An authoritative book by Henry Charles Lea, “A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages” (1888), documents the Medieval Church’s general hate of knowledge and its use of torture, beginning about the 12th century, to undermine reasonable views by making proponents confess to blasphemy or demonic practices. The book, in 3 volumes (>> 1000 pages), is available as a searchable pdf at archive-org.

      1. Yes. One example is that university trained doctors were not allowed to do surgery that involved blood. They were also not allowed to do any anatomy whatsoever. They had to rely on the Greeks for their anatomy, which was often wrong. Arabic medicine was more advanced than Christian medicine at the time – they recommended hand-washing for example – but to admit you were using Muslim practices in preference to Christian ones was heresy.

        1. Yes, I acknowledge the alignment but those only familiar with the meaning in social media will receive a mild shock when they run into its more original, more general meaning. Of course, this is simply how people learn about words.

  15. I check The Conversation occasionally for many reasons.

    It includes “conversations” in arts/culture, economy/business, education, ethics/religion, health/medicine, science/technology and more.

    McLeish’s piece was under s/t.

    Disclosure statements are standard for all essays published there and I’ve found some of them useful.

    I did quickly read responses to your entry and didn’t find that this had been mentioned. I hope I’m not repeating anyone.

    About writing an essay for it: why not?

  16. Hilariously shameless to characterize God’s Trumpian rhetorical questions from Job as if they were scientific challenges.

    As an aside, my favorite thing about the Book of Job is that it’s all based on a bet with Satan at the beginning. God could have just told Job that at the end but instead used the opportunity to self-aggrandize.

    1. I talked about Job with an orthodox Jew once and how horrible the story is. She said the usual “reasons” bit and tried to excuse it with the “but he got everything back” bit. I said, “You have a family – a sister, parents, right?” And she looked crestfallen.

      Appeal to emotions is *not* always a fallacy, particularly in ethics.

      The South Park guys did an episode which makes similar points (“Cartmanland”, I think.)

  17. I think sometimes we are expecting too much of religious people in expecting them to embrace science and reject religion as one overall conversion. A more certain path to this happy ending is first the acceptance of science alone. Science provides the acid of reality that will burn away (or at least severely challenge) the religious conviction – first in seeing that things attributed to god’s creation are explainable solely by science and secondly by exposing the believer to the critical truth-seeking process of the scientific method.
    Science needs all the allies it can muster, especially these days. A perfect example was exhibited in the Dover school board court case. The scientists we berate, like Collins, were principle witnesses in order to make the case for Evolution NOT an attack on a fundamental belief system. It was, dare I say it, politically expedient. It subsequently got local religious believers, for the sake of good science education, to throw out the creationist school board in Dover. We face similar political issues in the case of global warming where belief in science is ENOUGH. As Lincoln said during the Civil War “One war at a time is enough”.

  18. [1] 2005: Approx $150,000? As a share of $2.8M grant split 18 ways
    Prof Richard Sear & Prof Tom McLeish.
    Department of Physics, University of Surrey

    The award was from Templeton via the “Cambridge Templeton Consortium” [ no longer exists]. One of the consortium directors was of course. Prof. Simon Conway Morris FRS, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.

    [2] 2013: $2,114,705
    Robin Hendry, Tom McLeish

    Blurb from Templeton.
    ** 1st Bolded part: Templeton implies that the view of reality as ‘physics plus supernatural’ is given equal billing to the view reality is ‘physics only’
    ** 2nd Bolded part: Bollocks – that wasn’t the intent at all. I’m certain the ‘public’ is unaware of this project. The object is to corrupt academic departments by dangling big bags of filthy lucre

    Emergence, or dependent novelty, is once again a major focus of interest in science and philosophy. In weak emergence, the novelty concerns knowledge, or description of the world: emergence is unpredictability, or the applicability of new concepts. The existence of weak emergence is uncontroversial. Strong emergence is novelty in the world itself: new properties or objects, new laws or causal powers. Strong emergence is controversial. Some philosophers and physicists are sceptical because they think the world is ultimately physical, governed only by physical laws. Others question whether, in fact, science tells us this. Through interdisciplinary research, workshops and conferences, we hope this project will bring together recent work from across philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and physics to assess the evidence for and against strong emergence. Through a research funding competition and summer schools, it could provide early-career philosophers and physicists with opportunities to contribute to the debate. Through a website and other electronic media, our hope is to bring scientific and philosophical thinking on emergence to the wider public.

    1. There’s two kinds of strong emergence, and I’d bet they’ll be equivocated on.

      One is where the “new stuff” is not at all connected to what it came out of – the British Emergentists (Broad, early 20c) and the like were like that. Bunge, and I think modern science supports him, is another kind.

      An interesting exercise: one contemporary anti-emergentist (when it comes to psychological matters, anyway) is Jaegwon Kim, so go through his work and see how implausible even (say) sophomore organic chemistry sounds if he’s right. (Replace all discussions of “mind” with relevant chemistry.)

  19. I’m struck by the softness of McLeish’s writing. It reads like obscure, adolescent, poetry. He sites no factual evidence only suppositions, hints, and suggestions. He seems to be saying, some person said something that suggests my thesis might make sense…if you squint. I can’t read more than a paragraph or two before I scream – “Where’s the beef?!”

  20. Religion isn’t the enemy of science: it’s been inspiring scientists for centuries

    And so did astrology and alchemy but this is usually completely ignored by accommodationists.

  21. I think PCC-E should have said that there is evidence against souls rather than there being no evidence for them. We don’t see nerves firing from some unseen source, so there are no external interactions with nerves. Given that something has to interact to have an effect, that would mean nothing outside the brain interacts with the stuff inside. Which means there can’t be a soul like the one theists posit.

    “Godsplaining”. I’ll be using that.

    1. Ah, but are we tracking every electron in every neuron? If not, how can we be sure that the soul doesn’t occasionally tweak the wavefunction?

      1. I think it isn’t actually electrons moving down the nerve. It’s sodium or potassium ions moving into the nerve fiber as a wave. I think we can track nerve impulses very accurately, but I’m not entirely sure of the resolution.

Leave a Reply