The Big Accommodationism Debate: all relevant posts

June 12, 2009 • 7:12 am

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

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

“Accommodation” debate posts  in  order:

1. Coyne (original New Republic piece)

2. Coyne

3. Mooney

4. Mooney

5. Coyne

6. Mooney

7. Coyne

8. Rosenhouse

9.  Coyne

10. “Erratic synapse” at Daily Kos

11. Mooney

12. Rosenhouse

13. Coyne

14. Mooney

15. Ken Miller

16. P. Z. Myers

17.  Rosenhouse

18.  Blackford

19.  Blackford

20.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 1)

21.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 2)

22.  Sean Carroll

Darwin Day, Philadelphia. 1. I meet Ken Miller

February 14, 2009 • 6:00 am

Last night’s keynote talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Darwin Symposium was given by Ken Miller, and had the same title as his book: “Only A Theory, Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.” Ken is undoubtedly the most tireless and effective opponent of creationism in America, a star witness for the prosecution in the Dover trial, and he also co-wrote our country’s most popular high school biology textbook, so I have always admired him a great deal. But the admiration is not unmixed. Ken is also an observant Catholic as well as an author and cell biologist, and his books, starting with “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientists’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” have always tried to alloy religion and science, endorsing the idea that science and faith are compatible.

I have been uncomfortable with this view, and finally criticized it in a book review in The New Republic, “Seeing and Believing.” Miller responded in a piece on We are both ardent defenders of (excuse the term) Darwinism, but definitely part ways when it comes to faith.

So I was quite excited (and a bit nervous) about sharing a platform with Ken. I knew he’d be a good speaker, because I’ve seen his talks on YouTube and, of course, his famous appearances (twice) on The Colbert Report. His evening talk didn’t disappoint. Miller is a lively, humorous, and humane speaker, and develops a great rapport with the audience.

Miller’s talk was a pastiche, covering the Dover Trial, the morphing of creationism into intelligent design, and the evidence for evolution from fossils (Tiktaalik featured prominently) and from the fusion of two chromosomes present in our common ancestor with other apes into the single second chromosome of humans. All good stuff, and extremely enjoyable.

It was in the last ten minutes that Miller took up the issue of evolution and God, and that is where I had to part company with him once again. Over the years Miller has tried several ways to reconcile these two areas, including positing God’s direct intrustion into evolution (in Finding Darwin’s God), and suggesting that the laws of physics were devised by God (in Only A Theory). Miller has also said he is a theist, so that God intrudes directly in the real world.

This time he used a different angle, saying that there was indeed design in nature, but it was not the same kind of God-mandated design proposed by ID-creationists. Rather, it was “design” wrought by natural selection. He hammered home this idea again and again, and I began to realize that a kind of subliminal inculcation of the audience was going on. After all, natural selection does not produce “design”—it produces apparent design. Why not just say that? It was the use of the un-adjectivized “design” that seemed to be sneaking God’s hand into Miller’s view. (He also stated unequivocally his certainty that evolution would yield creatures with high, human-like intelligence if the process were to begin all over again, a view that I criticize in “Seeing and Believing.”)

It seemed to me, and several others with whom I spoke, that Miller was trying to get some teleology into nature by using the term “design”. My friend Rick Grosberg opined that the term “design” was a semantic “wedge” that Miller was using to make biologists more open to the idea that God might have played a role in evolution. Regardless, this part of the talk made me quite uncomfortable. I actually Googled “design” during this part of the talk and found the following definition in Merriam-Webster’s website:

1de·sign           Listen to the pronunciation of 1design
1 a: a particular purpose held in view by an individual or group : he has ambitious designs for his son b: deliberate purposive planning <more by accident than design 2: a mental project or scheme in which means to an end are laid down. 3 a: a deliberate undercover project or scheme : plot b plural : aggressive or evil intent —used with on or against he has designs on the money. 4: a preliminary sketch or outline showing the main features of something to be executed the design for the new stadium. 5 a: an underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or unfolding : pattern , motif the general design of the epic. b: a plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something (as a scientific experiment) ; also : the process of preparing this6: the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art 7: a decorative pattern a floral design.

All of these definitions have one thing in common: purpose and intent. To say that natural selection produces “design” is in effect saying that it yields something that is planned: that there is some foresight in the process. Why would anybody use such a word? I’ve heard evolutionists use “apparent design” or “the appearance of design” as results of selection, but never “design” by itself. If this is not intentional teleology, I’d urge Miller to stop saying this, as it clearly plays into peoples’ idea that there is some intentional design in evolution.

At any rate, after dinner I met Ken and we chatted about things. The first thing he said to me was that one of his friends advised him to break a beer bottle over my head, which was more than a little intimidating when imparted to me by a guy well over six feet tall looking down on my puny five-foot-eight self! But we discussed our differences, tried to iron out misunderstandings on both of our parts, and amiably shook hands. We will never agree on the science-versus-faith thing, but on most issues we are on the same side, and I admire him in many ways. I was glad that we met.

The science/religion compatibility debate continues. . . .

February 6, 2009 • 11:51 am

Over on Edge, scientists continue to weigh in on my New Republic piece on the compatibility of science and faith. Steve Pinker and Sam Harris have just contributed, both taking the “non-accommodationist” stance.  Sam’s article,  a brilliant piece of sarcasm, has been widely misunderstood on the web, with many thinking he has seen the light and become a man of faith!  Yet how is it possible to mistake the following for anything other than sarcasm?

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

A second-order debate on the Edge debate has sprung up on Richard Dawkins’s website as well–there are nearly 800 comments!  Clearly this issue continues to attract a lot of attention, and generates a lot of heat as well as light.

Whoops!  Just informed that The Atlantic has taken up the debate in a column by Ross Doubthat.  Also, two pieces on The American Scene, one by Jim Manzi, and the other by Alan Jacobs.