Rosenhouse, Benson and Blackford on Sullivan on evil

September 23, 2009 • 12:05 pm

Jason Rosenhouse, Ophelia Benson, and Russell Blackford have chimed in on the discussion (which Russell actually started) of Andrew Sullivan’s theodicy.

________

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.

Rosenhouse on Ward on God

August 28, 2009 • 10:09 am

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 goes to the creation museum and a symposium on theistic evolution

June 29, 2009 • 7:02 am

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.

Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part I: Throat-clearing

June 16, 2009 • 12:35 pm

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 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

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.

More on Dick Lewontin and WEIT: what’s the deal with natural selection?

May 12, 2009 • 6:58 am

Several days ago I called attention to Richard Lewontin’s review of WEIT and several other books in The New York Review of Books.  In it, Dick (excuse the informality, but he was my Ph.D advisor) praises the book but takes me to task for implying that the evidence for natural selection is as strong as the evidence for evolutionary change per se:

Where he is less successful, as all other commentators have been, is in his insistence that the evidence for natural selection as the driving force of evolution is of the same inferential strength as the evidence that evolution has occurred. So, for example, he gives the game away by writing that when we examine a sequence of changes in the fossil record, we can

“determine whether the sequences of changes at least conform to a step-by-step adaptive process. And in every case, we can find at least a feasible Darwinian explanation.”

But to say that some example is not falsification of a theory because we can always “find” (invent) a feasible explanation says more about the flexibility of the theory and the ingenuity of its supporters than it says about physical nature. Indeed in his later discussion of theories of behavioral evolution he becomes appropriately skeptical when he writes that

“imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories.”

While this is a perfectly good argument against those who claim that there are things that are so complex that evolutionary biology cannot explain them, it allows evolutionary “theory” to fall back into the category of being reasonable but not an incontrovertible material fact.

There is, of course, nothing that Coyne can do about the situation. There are different modes of “knowing,” and we “know” that evolution has, in fact, occurred in a stronger sense than we “know” that some sequence of evolutionary change has been the result of natural selection. Despite these misgivings, it is the case that Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.

This “critique” has been picked up by several bloggers (see below), and I want to respond in a bit more detail.

First of all, yes, it’s true that the evidence for natural selection as the cause of most evolutionary change in the past is not as strong as the evidence that evolutionary change occurred.  It cannot be otherwise.  We can see evolution happening in the fossil record, but it is infinitely harder to parse out the causes of that change.   We weren’t around when it occurred, so we must rely on inference.  This difficulty is one reason why it took biologists much longer to accept natural selection than to accept evolution.   But to say that the evidence for selection is weaker than for evolution does not mean that the evidence for natural selection is weak, a conclusion I fear that creationists will extract from Lewontin’s comment.

Here is why selection still seems the best hypothesis for the origin of adaptive features of organisms.

1.  It is the only scientific theory, among all of those that have been adumbrated, that currently makes sense.  Failed explanations include teleology, intelligent design, and Lamarckism.  Some of these were once valid scientific alternatives to natural selection, but have failed either because they are untestable or because they were testable and shown to be wrong. If Lewontin and others want to say that some process other than selection is responsible for the limbs of tetrapods, the fins of whales, and the white color of polar bears, they must say what they envision.  Yes, Lewontin and Gould showed that many things for which we can concoct adaptive stories may be “spandrels” — nonadaptive traits hitchhiking on other adaptations — but this does not mean, as Lewontin seems to imply, that selection may not play a major role in creating adaptations.

2.  In cases where we can actually investigate whether selection is responsible for an adaptive change in a species, it is.  I give several examples in WEIT, including coat colors in mice and the famous work of Rosemary and Peter Grant on Darwin’s finches. And of course there are those dozens of cases of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, insecticide resistance in arthropods, and herbicide resistance in weeds.  In bacteria, for instance, we can show that the genetic variation for resistance preexisted in the population and not invoked by the selective agent, precisely as the theory of natural selection posits.

3.   In tests where we envision that selection was responsible for an adaptation, we can do laboratory tests to see if the adaptation at least gives a fitness advantage to those individuals possessing it.  One example of this is the Browers’ work on Batesian mimicry in the viceroy butterfly.  It was shown that exposure to a toxic monarch made naive bluejays sick, and that later these bluejays avoided the nontoxic viceroys, giving a survial advantage to mimics.  This is precisely what has to happen for that mimicry to evolve by natural selection.  Likewise with color in guppies:  brightly colored guppies get eaten more often in Trinidadian streams than do their duller confreres.  This explains why guppies are less colorful in predator-filled streams.

4.  The prerequisites for selection — the heritability of traits, the fact that there is competition between individuals, and that there are fitness differences between individuals with different traits — have all been demonstrated in living organisms in nature.  If few traits showed any heritable genetic variation, we’d be justified in rejecting selection as a major cause of evolution. Guppy coloration is heritable.

5.   Even in ancient species we can test the likelihood that selection caused evolutionary change.  Horses lost their toes right about the time when the forests were disappearing on the Great Plains.  We know that hooves are more effective adaptations for running in open grassland than are multi-toed feet. Likewise, horse teeth become higher and more robust precisely when silicon-rich grasses were replacing the leafy forests.  We know that herbivores need higher and more robust teeth to deal with grass. It is a good inference that the appearance of grassland was the selective factor promoting the loss of horse toes and the change in horse teeth.

6.  As discussed in previous posts, selection as we envision it has certainly been adequate to explain the evolution of complex adaptations like the eye, and in geologically reasonable periods of time.  Therefore it remains a viable hypothesis for adaptive change. This didn’t have to be the way it turned out.

What about my supposed double standard about accepting natural selection for many traits but being skeptical when it comes to evolutionary psychology?  This is a reasonable tactic for one important reason: we have many more alternative theories for the appearance of human behavioral traits than we do for morphological adaptations in other species.  How many alternative theories do we have for the appearance of flippers in proto-whales, or for the movement of their nasal passages to the top of their heads?  In contrast, there are many alternative theories for the appearance of traits like human rape, depression, music, art, religion, etc.  Blowholes aren’t likely to be spandrels; the appearance of music and poetry might well be.  Humans have culture and rationality to a degree possessed by no other animal, and can learn many things not permitted in species having smaller (or no) brains.   That’s why we need to be more cautious about imputing selection to human behaviors than to blowholes.

Now I think Dick did have a point: I should have pointed out (though I might have; I can’t remember!) that it is a lot easier to come up with evidence for evolution than for selection.  But I think Lewontin’s own anti-selectionist biases are intruding here. As I mentioned in an earlier post on ideological grounds neither he nor Gould were ever very strong promoters of selection. I’m not sure what the connection is between selection and politics (it may be the misuse of selectionism that Gould and Lewontin saw among sociobiologists), but neither of these chaps were avid promoters of selection.  They preferred to emphasize other processes, including pleiotropy, spandrels, genetic drift and the like. I think this was a deliberate strategy.

Over on EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse analyzes Dick’s review and has some good comments:

I don’t understand what it means to say that “natural selection is the driving force of evolution.” Given Lewontin’s past writing (most notably his spandrels paper with Stephen Jay Gould) I would guess that his point is that some biologists are too quick to attribute some anatomical feature of some organism to the prolonged working of natural selection.

That may be true, but when we are talking about adaptations the evidence for natural selection seems to me to be very strong. For one thing, it is the only natural mechanism known that can account for complex structures (like bird wings or vertebrate blood clotting systems). For another, every complex structure studied to date shows clear evidence of being a cobbled together Rube Goldberg machine, which is exactly what we would expect if they were crafted by natural selection.

On top of this, biologists routinely use adaptive reasoning to generate testable hypotheses about the creatures they are studying. Lewontin would know better than I whether biologists engaging in flights of fancy is a genuine problem in the field, but it is undeniable that “the adaptationist program” has yielded great dividends over the years . . .

. . In fairness, I think Stephen Jay Gould was pretty clear on this point [the ubiquity and importance of selection] in several of his essays. I compiled some of his statements on the matter in this essay. But I share Coyne’s frustration. I’ve never really understood what it is exactly that anti-selectionists are complaining about. If they agree that complex adapations arise as the result of gradual accretion mediated by natural selection, then I fail to see how they are really so different from people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett (two people often described as being beknighted uber-selectionists). If they do not agree then I would like to hear their proposed alternative mechanism.

Now I have great affection for Lewontin (as all of his students say, “I love that man”), but I would like to see him make an explicit statement about what aspects of nature he imputes to natural selection.  We’re not just talking about rape, male domination, and music here, but coat colors, physiology, feathers, gills, flowers, toxins, and the like.  Like Jason, I think the anti-selectionists have gone way, way overboard, and have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  (These people also include the “structuralists,” and those who attribute adaptations to the self-organizing properties of biological matter.)