More on Mooney and accommodationism (with a note on Rosenhouse)

June 10, 2009 • 2:01 pm

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has again taken on Chris Mooney’s critique of accommodationism.   Jason has done such a good job that I have little to add.  However, lest Mooney accuse me of hiding behind Rosenhouse, or of avoiding debate, let me briefly respond.

Mooney’s latest beef is that I have somehow confused methodological naturalism (the use of naturalistic techniques in investigating questions about the world) with philosophical naturalism (the view that there is nothing beyond nature).  Because of my supposed confusion, says Mooney, my claim that religion and science are incompatible is flatly wrong.

I don’t get it. To channel the captain in Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate. I clearly set out what I thought about this issue in my article in The New Republic, and Rosenhouse, who has apparently read that article, gets it right.  Mooney, who also says he has read the article, gets it wrong.

I am a methodological naturalist, but I don’t think that all supernatural claims defy scientific analysis.  Moreover, I don’t see that the methodological/philosophical distinction has a lot to do with the dissonance between faith and science.  The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable.  These are two fundamentally different and incompatible ways of ascertaining “truth.” In fact, I don’t see that religion has any way at all of ascertaining “truth,” since its claims cannot be falsified.  The fact that the major “truths” of different religions are in permanent and irresolvable conflict testifies to this difference between science and faith.

o.k.  Let’s go over what Mooney claimed.  He relies heavily on Rob Pennock’s superb book Tower of Babel when claiming that science cannot test the supernatural.

The Jerry Coyne debate reached temporary hiatus late last week with Coyne invoking Rosenhouse to defend himself against my charge that he has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction. Coyne doesn’t appear to think he commits this foul; and yet he writes in The New Republic, in a line not quoted by Rosenhouse, that “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science.”

Say what?

If you accept the MN/PN distinction as I have outlined it, or as Robert Pennock does in Tower of Babel, it is hard see how one can claim this. As Pennock writes:

The first and most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers, of course, is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. They are not constrained by natural laws…. (p. 289)

And again:

Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the hypothesized independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant so that we can observe the effect on the dependent variable. But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied. (p. 292)

It is hard to see how Coyne thinks he can include supernatural phenomena within the purview of science without directly addressing the whole MN/PN matter, and indeed, wholly rejecting the MN/PN distinction as outlined by someone like Pennock. Let’s face it: “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” is a pretty extraordinary assertion. Indeed, as far as I can tell it is a contradiction in terms.

Yet in what I have read so far (I have not read his book, so it may be there), Coyne doesn’t directly address the MN/PN matter. Certainly, given that he is dealing with these topics in some detail in the lengthy New Republic article, that would have been an ideal place to take on this philosophical point. But it isn’t there.

Let’s remember why this is important. I have argued that science and religion are at least theoretically reconcilable due to the MN/PN distinction. You can accept all the realities that science reveals through MN, and yet also have supernatural beliefs (not PN), so long as you don’t confuse the two.

This debate about PN vs MN didn’t really interest me.  What did interest me was the notion about whether claims about the supernatural can be tested with science.  And some of them can. The crucial passages of my piece (recognized by Jason but not Mooney) are these:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. . .

. . .In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that “if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God’s name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics.” Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

What is so hard to grasp about all this?  Clearly some claims about the supernatural  can be tested (and rejected) by science.  One deals with the efficacy of prayer.  People claim that God answers prayers.  This can be, and has been, tested by scientific studies of the efficacy of prayer.  These studies have failed to show any effect. Now you can argue about whether those studies were done properly, but the fact is that they can be.  And, as noted above, there are other ways to scientifically document supernatural phenomena. One that Jason mentions is observing a talking Mount Rushmore.

Does anybody doubt that some claims about the supernatural can be tested with science? Mooney seems to doubt this.

Well, maybe you can claim that any phenomenon amenable to scientific study must by definition not be supernatural.   This is a philosophical/semantic argument that I don’t want to get into.  It doesn’t seem important.  Clearly, the claim that prayer works (or that moral people get cancer less often than immoral people) is a claim that science can study.  Clearly, the claim that the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’s burial cloth can be investigated scientifically.  Clearly, the claim that some religious icons weep blood, water, or milk, can be studied scientifically.  And believe me, if the Shroud of Turin were shown to have been made around 30 AD, religious people would have trumpeted it to the skies.  When it was shown to be a forgery, the faithful claimed that their faith didn’t depend on such claims. Ditto with the efficacy of prayer. Does anybody doubt that if the intercessory study had shown a significant effect of prayer, it would have been trumpeted from pulpits the following Sunday?

And despite my admiration for Pennock’s book, which I still think is the best analysis of intelligent-design creationism around, I think he’s dead wrong when he says, “But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied.” Just because we can’t control God and how he responds to prayer doesn’t mean that we can’t study whether prayer works.

Mooney ends his piece in this way:

I will add that I am not a philosopher, and without having read and studied Pennock, probably wouldn’t wade into these waters. But at the same time, it seems to me that MN/PN is a pretty basic distinction, as are the definitions of “natural” and “supernatural.” Furthermore, I suspect most scientists would agree that their work and their methodology does not allow them to make claims about alleged supernatural agents.

I will make this claim about supernatural agents based on scientific methodology: prayer doesn’t help cardiac patients recover faster.  I will also claim, based on observations of the world, that if a god exists, he is not simultaneously omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent.

I reiterate: the incompatibility between faith and science rests on how they determine “truth.”  To quote from my New Republic article:

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

Let me pose this question to Mr. Mooney.  The “truth” claims of many faiths are flatly incompatible.  Christians, for example, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God.  Muslims claim that this is not only untrue, but that anyone who believes it will burn in hell.  At most, only one of these claims can be true. Who is right? How do you decide?  And whatever method you use (whether you were born in Kansas or Kabul; whether you get a personal revelation), doesn’t it differ from the way that science finds out things?

Rosenhouse vs. Mooney

June 6, 2009 • 6:03 am

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has responded to Mooney’s “part two” critique of my views on accommodationism.  It’s a superb analysis, and, as before, I couldn’t have written it better myself.  If you’ve been following these debates, this is required reading.

As I said yesterday, I’ll wait until Mooney finishes his posts before I reply in one final salvo.  But just a note or two in passing.

First, it’s refreshing to see someone who’s actually read what I had to say about accommodationism.  Mooney says he’s read my New Republic screed on this, but he doesn’t seem to have grasped it.  He gets my views on philosophical vs. methodological naturalism completely wrong; Rosenhouse gets them right.  Likewise, as I’ve said ad nauseum, not every form of faith is incompatible with science.  In my New Republic article, I claim that pure deism (which accepts a hands-off God who doesn’t intrude into the workings of the Universe) is absolutely compatible with science.  The problem is that hardly anybody is a pure deist.  It’s when you get into theistic faiths — those in which Gods tweaks the world from time to time — that we find the incompatibilities.  Rosenhouse understands this; Mooney apparently does not.

About court cases:  yes, judges can state that evolution is compatible with some faiths, but they needn’t accept this to ban the teaching of creationism.  Perhaps the most cogent legal decision ever levied against creationism was that of Judge William R. Overton in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, the famous 1982 decision in which Overton threw out a “balanced treatment” law promoted by creationists.  As far as I can see, Overton says exactly nothing about accommodationism. His decision was made, as legal decisions have always been made in the last several decades, on the basis of the Lemon test of whether a law or statute violates the First Amendment.   As Overton notes, a law that threatens the Establishment Clause is constitutional only under the following conditions:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion …; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” [ Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. at 40.]

This says nothing about whether religion and science have to be compatible before creationism is thrown out.  On the contrary:  if creationism violates the above statutes, it’s unconstititional, period.

By the way, the peroration of Overton’s decision still moves me every time I read it:

The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.

The Court closes this opinion with a thought expressed eloquently by the great Justice Frankfurter:

We renew our conviction that “we have stake the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.” Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. at 59. If nowhere else, in the relation between Church and State, “good fences make good neighbors.” [McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 232 (1948)]An injunction will be entered permanently prohibiting enforcement of Act 590.

Finally, in case you missed it, Joshua Slocum posted the following on both my site and Richard Dawkins’s.  It’s worth repeating here.

Posted June 5, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Cross-posted from Richard Dawkin’s site. For context, I’m responding to a commentor who noted that years of accomodationism simply haven’t worked, but robust confrontation of the positions of the religious is actually opening up the conversation.

I wrote:

All this nervous nellie simpering over people being “rude” or “confrontational” to the intellectually deluded (I’m talking to you, Ken Miller) reminds me of the years I spent listening to this same argument over gay rights:

“Well, see, some people, um, just can’t accept you, so, um, it’s so much better not to push them. I mean, if you’re deferent enough, they won’t feel threatened, and they won’t vote against you having equal rights. Just don’t be too flamboyant, mm’kay? And, really, don’t push your points too hard – even though you’re logically and ethically correct, they just can’t handle it, and they’ll shut down.

Isn’t it so much nicer just to get along quietly, and accept their largesse for allowing you to exist, without forcing them to be grown-ups who face the intellectual and moral consequences of their public pronouncements?”

Hell no it isn’t.

And you’re absolutely right, [commentor]: it’s *precisely* about short-term political expediency. Mooney knows that, and if he doesn’t, he’s fooling himself and compartmentalizing his views so he doesn’t have to face them. Maybe because it’s easier to get along with his friends on the accomodationist end of the spectrum, who make their bread and butter splitting the baby.

This whole issue is so baffling. How can so many very intelligent people (Mooney is among them, you can’t take that away from him) blithely go along acting as if there’s something so peculiar, so special, about American discourse that we cannot, ever, ever, ever, get over our special pleading for religion? Why do they think America, as a society, is incapable of moving on the way most of Europe has? Why are they so content with – so insistent on maintaining – the pessimistic view that America will always be burdened with this intellectual handicap?

One could say something similar about the civil rights movement of the sixties.  I was there, and clearly remember people telling activists not to make a lot of noise because it would be counterproductive, alienating those who were sympathetic.  Now accommodationists like Mooney tell us the same thing about religion. Bosh.  I am absolutely confident that some time in the distant future, we will put away our childish things and religion will disappear in America.  To those like Mooney who say that this is ridiculous, I point to Europe, where religion in all but the formal sense is almost gone.  Have a look at Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman — a sociological study of how Denmark and Sweden have become almost atheistic countries, but retain their social conscience, morality, and many good things we don’t have in the US.

There have been so many cogent replies to Mooney — on this site, on Richard Dawkins’s site, on Mooney’s own site, and on Jason’s site — that I hardly need to reply personally.  It’s good to know there is a lot of clear thinking out there.

Did Chris Mooney tell me to shut up?

June 5, 2009 • 6:49 am

Well, Chris Mooney has decided to continue the discussion about the compatibility of science and faith that he and Barbara Forrest began on his Discover blog.  If you’ve followed all this, they criticized me for my “divisiveness” in going after the idea that science and faith are compatible.  I responded to this, saying that since Forrest and Mooney apparently agreed with my views (and my atheism), they were in effect telling me to shut up — imposing upon me (and some of my colleagues) a form of intellectual censorship.  I also pointed out that in 2001 Mooney published a pretty strong piece criticizing faith/science accommodation — a piece diametrically opposed to the views he espouses now.

Mooney responded that he had indeed changed his mind, and has become much more of an accommodationist:

…indeed, I find my work from 2001 on this topic pretty unsatisfying. I guess you could say I’ve changed my view; certainly I’ve changed my emphasis. A lot more reading in philosophy and history has moved me toward a more accomodationist position. So has simple pragmatism; I don’t see what is to be gained by flailing indiscriminately against religion, other than a continuation of the culture wars. That’s especially so when those who flail against religion do so in philosophically or historically unsophisticated ways, or (worse still) with the bile, negativity, and even occasional intolerance that I have encountered in such discussions.

I wrote on Mooney’s blog that I was certainly not flailing indiscriminately against religion, and challenged him to find one example of where I’ve done that, or been uncivil to the faithful (another comment that he implicitly levelled at me).  My criticisms of accommodation have been specific: it waters down science and gives people a mistaken view of what science says. (One of these mistaken views is the widespread claim — viz. Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, etc. — that the evolution of humans or human-like creatures was inevitable). This is hardly “flailing.”

Well, Mooney is now publishing a longer critique of what I said, and (oy vey!), he claims that it will be in two or more parts, and perhaps take several weeks.  My heart is sinking. Part I is here.

I will wait until Mooney publishes all of his several promised critiques of accommodationism before I respond, but let me take up one issue here.

Was Mooney telling me to shut up? Apparently stung by that suggestion, he denied it vehemently:

So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong.

Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.

But of course he was telling me to shut up!  Despite his denial, it’s palpably clear that Mooney (and by extension, Barbara Forrest), was advising me to lie low and let the accommodationists address the compatibility of science and faith.  (In this he joins the AAAS, the National Academies of Science, and the National Center for Science Education).  Rather than repeat what all of Mooney’s posters have agreed on, which is that he was telling me to put a sock in it because my words were “divisive”, let me just steer you to the excellent analysis by Jason Rosenhouse on his EvolutionBlog.  A sample (read the whole thing on his site because there’s a lot more):

Moving on, let’s look a bit more closely at what exactly Coyne did to bring Mooney and Forrest down upon him. He published a book review. In The New Republic. In this review he did not level a single ad hominem attack and praised certain aspects of what Miller and Giberson have done. He then went on to criticize their ideas. Mooney himself, in his follow-up post, wrote

So-I have recently reread Jerry Coyne’s lengthy New Republic piece, which is at the source of some of our debates; and let me say, it is a very good, extensive, thoughtful article.Are you seriously telling me that is poor tactics? A very good, thoughtful, extensive book review in a high-level venue like TNR is just too much for those poor, delicate liberal Christians to handle? Please. Any Christian who has genuinely made his peace with evolution is not going to be driven to the other side because Jerry Coyne offered a few contrary thoughts.

The whole thing is reminiscent of that Jerome Bixby short story “It’s a Good Life” (later made into a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone). That’s the one with the three-year old who has God-like powers, but lacks any sense of judgment or conscience. Whenever someone does something he doesn’t like, the kid simply wills something terrible to happen to that person. Everyone has to go around thinking happy thoughts all the time, because happy thoughts are relaxing to the kid. And everytime the kid throws a tantrum everyone has to say things like, “It’s very good that you did that. We’re all so happy you turned Mr. Smith into that terrible thing.”

That’s what I think of whenever I read essays like Mooney’s. Liberal Christians are playing the role of the kid. Coyne et al are in the role of those doing things the kid doesn’t like. And Mooney et al are in the role of those trying to soothe the kid. “Mr. Coyne didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s very good that you believe religious clerics and holy texts have something valuable to tell us about the workings of nature…”

In one of his follow-up posts Mooney bristled at the idea that he is telling Coyne, in effect, to shut up. Mooney writes

So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong. Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.

No, he didn’t argue that Coyne should shut up. He only argued that writing a very good, thoughtful, extensive article for The New Republic was evidence of how woefully misguided Coyne is about strategy. Which raises the question: where should Coyne have expressed his views? If even a relatively tame article in a high-level venue like TNR is too much for liberal Christians, then what could Coyne have done, short of shutting up, that would have mollified them?

I couldn’t have said it better, so I won’t.  Thanks, Jason, for saving me the trouble.

I don’t want to belabor this “he said/he said” stuff about shutting up, but Mooney’s bizarre denial of what he really said doesn’t bode well for future discourse.  And I’m a bit wary because I don’t think I have much more to say about accommodationism than what I’ve already said on this website or in my New Republic piece.