Update: Sullivan battles back in two posts on The Daily Dish (see links and my response in the comments to this post). But, like a hooked fish, he’s getting weaker as he fights. And Jason has sunk another hook here.
Update: Sullivan battles back in two posts on The Daily Dish (see links and my response in the comments to this post). But, like a hooked fish, he’s getting weaker as he fights. And Jason has sunk another hook here.
. . . at Richard Dawkins, who caused the big tee-shirt kerfuffle in Sedalia, Missouri.
Jason Rosenhouse has many talents, but he’s particularly good at reviewing books. He takes hold of a book like a dog grabs the postman’s leg: he worries it, chews on it, and doesn’t let go until he’s gotten everything he can from his mastication. Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason has just posted part I of his review of Why There Almost Certainly is a God, Keith Ward’s response to recent atheist attacks on faith.
I’ve read several of the anti-new-atheist books that Jason mentions, including the execrable God and the New Atheists, by John Haught. And, like Jason, I haven’t found much substance in them. While uniformly decrying atheists’ lack of theological sophistication, they offer no substantive response to our most trenchant critique: there is no evidence for any divine being, or for the fact claims of any faith. Absent that evidence, theologians and faitheists can argue until they’re blue in the face, but we still won’t consider that a “response.”
According to Rosenhouse, Ward doesn’t succeed any more than the others, although he gives it a game try:
Ward’s book is the best I have seen on this subject, and he is worth reading if just for the clarity of hs prose (not something you can count on from either philosophers or theologians). Surely if there were a convincing case to be made on behalf of the reasonableness of traditional religious belief Ward would be the one to present it. That he did not do so is telling us something about the hopelessness of the enterprise. . . .
[much critique snipped]
. . . Throughout the book Ward tries very hard to pretend that he is just building a purely logical case for God based on what we know of the world and on some reasonable extrapolations and assumptions. But the more you read the more you realize he is just rationalizing ideas he wants dearly to believe. There is no sound basis for going from, “Something must exist eternally and necessarily,” to “That something must be an omnipotent being.” Having made that leap, there is absolutely no basis for thinking that being is omnibenevolent. Having made both leaps, he then dutifully tries to explain why the sheer relentless awfulness of human and animal existence does not pose a challenge for his theory. He wants to create room for religious revelations, so he invents a lot of argle-bargle about what God would or would not do, and simply ignores the enormous harm that has been done by God’s unwillingness to communicate clearly what He wants from us.
In short, he is making it up as he goes along.
Part II is forthcoming (Jason is not an exponent of short reviews!)
Jason Rosenhouse is attending the North American Paleontological Convention in Cinncinnati, and reports on his side trip to the creation museum (I won’t dignify it with capital letters) in Kentucky. He also reports on a symposium on science education and literacy at the NAPC. Sadly, the symposium, at a major meeting of professional scientists, involved a lot of atheist-bashing and defenses of theistic evolution. Once again, a scientific organization presents the misleading idea that science and faith are perfectly compatible, and attacks those who think otherwise:
On Thursday afternoon there was a session entitled, “The Nature of Science and Public-Science Literacy” Most of the talks were defenses of theistic evolution, complete with lots of mandatory bashing of “The New Atheists.” The organization of the session was highly annoying. Each talk was fifteen minutes long with no Q and A’s between them. There wasn’t even a break between the talks. After eight straight talks (!!) there was a very brief Q and A session, but it was nowhere near adequate to the task of challenging all the nonsense that was spewed during the session.
The whole thing was rather frustrating. Several of the talks were devoted to taking atheists to task for, in the view of the speakers, improperly mixing science with religion. My understanding is that all of the talks were invited, but apparently no one thought it would be worthwhile to invite someone of a different perspective, if just to make the session more interesting. The speakers were keen to stress their own Christian faith and their dismay that so many feel they must choose between science and religion. This, mind you, at a paleontology conference. Who’s mixing science and religion, again? . . .
To a surprising degree it was the same frustration I felt arguing with the creationists. At one point Murphy [George Murphy, a theologian from Akron] told me that God is the ground of all being, not a being Himself. That is a phrase you often see in high-brow Christian theology, but I haven’t the faintest idea what it means. I asked Murphy what it meant. Words came out of his mouth in reply, but I still have no idea what it means.
The recent debates about accommodating scientific with religious views have been scattered across several websites. The whole megillah began with a post on Chris Mooney’s site, arguing that the atheist attack on accommodationism was inimical to our joint interest in promoting the understanding of evolution. Mooney also characterized anti-accommodationists as “uncivil.” Since then, the arguments have bounced between this site and those of Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, Russell Blackford, “Erratic Synapse,” and others; I’ve assembled the posts in chronological order here.
In his last post, Mooney called my attention to a recent posting by Kenneth Miller at Brown University responding to my critiques of accommodationism and especially my piece in The New Republic discussing two books, one by Miller and the other by Karl Giberson. I have promised to respond to Miller, although both P. Z. Myers and Jason Rosenhouse have already published critiques of Miller’s posting. Indeed, they did such a good job of refuting Miller’s claims that I’m not sure I have much to add. However, I promised to respond and so I will, though with an increasing sense of languor and futility.
Miller’s piece is in six parts: an introduction and five sections, each of the latter having a bold heading. I propose to respond to each section in turn. Today I’ll make a few introductory comments, and will tackle Miller’s own introduction tomorrow. Bear with me: this will take a few days, and I have a day job.
Revisiting Miler’s prose from his first book, Finding Darwin’s God, through his most recent posting, I observe what others like P.Z. have noticed: Miller is increasingly backing off from the theism he previously espoused. (Indeed, P.Z.’s response is called “Theistic evolution beats a hasty retreat.”)
My theses are these:
1. While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views. I’ve argued this ad nauseum (as in the New Republic piece) and so won’t go into all the details again.
2. Miller, as a scientist and a theist, is guilty of diluting (indeed, distorting) science by claiming that God interferes in nature in certain specified ways, and that these ways are in principle detectable. Some of his assertions, such as that of the inevitability of humanoid evolution, are scientifically insupportable.
3. Miller denies #2, but the evidence is against him. In particular, he has suggested a). that God might tweak nature through events on the quantum level; b). that God arranged things so that evolution would arrive at certain “inevitable” ends (e.g., the evolution of our own species), a view that cannot be defended as scientific; c). that the physical constants of the world were constructed by God, or “fine tuned,” to permit life to exist in the Universe; and d.) the fact that there are “laws” (regularities, really) in the Universe can be understood only as an act of God. The last claim is in fact a God-of-the-gaps argument, since it asserts that the best answer to the question, “Why are there scientific laws at all?” is “God made them.” Here Miller merely swaps ignorance for “God,” just as creationist Michael Behe swaps ignorance of biochemical evolution for God.
4. When confronted with #3, Miller says that he is only suggesting these as possibilities. I counter that this claim is disingenuous, and that Miller either believes these things himself, or is offering them for serious consideration by fellow theists. I further argue that since Miller has made his theism a centerpiece of this debate, he must do more than obliquely suggest “possibilities” for the theist. He must state publicly what he actually believes vis-a-vis #3, and tell us what reasons he has for his beliefs. It is my opinion that his failure to ever have done this reflects more than a desire for privacy of faith — after all, Miller is the one who wrote a book called Finding Darwin’s God and has made much of his own reconciliation of Catholicism with science. I believe it also reflects an understanding that if he publicly revealed what he believed, he would lose stature, for his beliefs would be seen as not only unscientific, but embarrassingly superstitious.
5. The behavior seen in #4 constitutes what I call “wink wink nudge nudge” theism. Without ever defending his beliefs — or indeed, telling us what they are — Miller nevertheless offers a kind of coded succor to his fellow theists. This is manifest in his recent string of lectures, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the universe shows “design,” but then backs off, claiming that “I didn’t really mean, folks, that God actually did anything.” Let me repeat — I think this is disingenuous, and that Miller knows exactly what he’s doing. I suggest that such behavior promotes public confusion about what science does and does not tell us about the universe. Miller’s “suggestions” for fellow theists involve pointing out ways that nature attests to God. And, in the end, this is nothing more than a form of creationism.
I have stated many times before that I have enormous admiration for Miller’s accomplishments: he has not only written several excellent biology textbooks (no mean feat, believe me!), but has vociferously defended evolution in the classroom, the courtroom, and other public venues. I gladly join him in opposing those creationists who want to take good science out of the classroom and replace it with medieval theology. But we differ in how we view this battle. Ultimately, I don’t think it will be won until religion’s hold on America loosens. As a theist, he obviously feels otherwise.
Now that the throat is cleared, more discussion tomorrow.
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)
15. Ken Miller
16. P. Z. Myers
20. Coyne (Response to Miller, part 1)
21. Coyne (Response to Miller, part 2)
22. Sean Carroll
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.”
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)
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?
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.
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.
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.