Russell Blackford on The National Academy of Sciences and its accommodationism

May 8, 2009 • 5:53 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford (owner of Felix) has a nice analysis of the National Academy of Sciences’ policy on reconciling religion and science, decrying their accommodationism.  Part of the NAS’s statement is below (these are NOT Russell’s words); you can hear the same tired old bromides falling into line.  When are we going to stop hearing that religion finds “another kind of truth” or enables us to “understand the world”?  It just ain’t so!

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

Russell handily eviscerates this accommodationism in his post, which I’ll let you read yourself. Just a couple of snippets to whet your appetite:

It is not so much that there is more than one way of knowing. Rather, there are different techniques for investigating different aspects or parts of reality. Not all aspects lend themselves to investigation through distinctively scientific techniques, and some lend themselves to investigation through other techniques (examining historical records, etc.). Still, we expect that knowledge and understanding obtained through different techniques will be consistent. Where lines of evidence obtained from different techniques show a convergence, we can be confident that we’re getting at the truth. . .

As for the inability of science to investigate the supernatural, this is either trivially (and unhelpfully) true or false. Unfortunately, the NAS statement doesn’t nail down what is involved here beyond saying that religious faith typically involves “supernatural forces or entities”. It is trivially and unhelpfully true that science cannot investigate such forces or entities if “supernatural” is defined to mean “that which science cannot investigate” (or in some other way that amounts to the same thing).

But it is false if it means that science is, in principle, unable to investigate claims about such paradigmatically “supernatural” things as ancestor spirits, water nymphs, fire demons, magic dragons, or astrological influences. If these things exist and behave in fairly regular ways – like lions, elephants, kangaroos, crocodiles, and the flow of water – then science can investigate them. Of course, if they did exist we might come to think of them as part of “nature”, but that’s just the point. There is no clear and meaningful line between “natural” and “supernatural”, such that science cannot investigate beyond that line. It is simply that certain kinds of things, notably disembodied intelligences, don’t actually seem to exist; in any event, hypotheses involving these things have had a lousy track record over centuries. It is usually good practice for scientists to avoid those kinds of hypotheses if they can (this is the grain of truth in “methodological naturalism”).

Nonetheless, there is no reason, in principle, why science cannot investigate claims about, say, ancestor spirits as long as the spirits in question are alleged to behave in ways that are reasonably regular and affect things that can be detected by our senses (possibly via scientific instruments). . .

Truckling to the Faithful: A Spoonful of Jesus Helps Darwin Go Down

April 22, 2009 • 7:10 am

For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.
–Stephen Jay Gould

If you’re a regular at this website, you’ve heard me complain about scientific organizations that sell evolution by insisting that it’s perfectly consistent with religion.   Evolution, they say, threatens many peoples’ religious views — not just the literalism of Genesis, but also the morality that supposedly emanates from scripture.   Professional societies like the National Academy of Sciences — the most elite organization of American scientists — have concluded that to make evolution palatable to Americans, you must show that it is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.  (And so much the better if, as theologians like John Haught assert, evolution actually deepens our faith.)  Given that many members of such organizations are atheists, their stance of accommodationism appears to be a pragmatic one.

Here I argue that the accommodationist position of the National Academy of Sciences, and especially that of the National Center for Science Education, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend.  By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one.  By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist.  Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

Let’s begin with  a typical accommodationist statement—this one from the National Academy of Sciences:

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

This at least recognizes some conflict between evolution and fundamentalist faiths, but downplays it.  The National Academy website also includes three statements by religious scientists, Kenneth Miller, Father George Coyne of the Vatican, and Francis Collins, averring no conflict between the Gouldian magisteria.

There are no statements by anyone who sees faith and science as in conflict.  This is not because those people don’t exist: after all, there are plenty of scientists and philosophers, including myself, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, P. Z. Myers, Dan Dennett, A. C. Grayling, and Peter Atkins, who feel strongly that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world.  Several of these people have written books to that effect.  Apparently the NAS prefers to ignore this dissent.

When a professional organization makes such strong statements about the compatibility of science and faith, and ignores or gives but a polite nod to the opposing view, that organization is endorsing a philosophy.  This goes beyond saying that evolution is true.  The NAS is saying that most religious people and scientists have no problem with evolution and faith.  Given that 40% of Americans reject evolution outright (almost entirely on religious grounds), while 92% of NAS scientists reject the idea a personal god, the National Academy is clearly pushing its agenda in defiance of evidence.

Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education.  Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue.  Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.

In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.

Let me first affirm that I enormously admire the work of the NCSE and of its director, Eugenie Scott and its president, Kevin Padian.  They have worked tirelessly to keep evolution in the schools and creationism out, most visibly in the Dover trial.  But they’re also active at school-board hearings and other venues throughout the country, as well as providing extensive resources for the rest of us in the battle for Darwin.   They are the good guys.

So why am I using this space to criticize the organization?  I suppose it’s because I feel that in its battle against creationism, the NCSE should represent all evolutionary biologists.  But they are not representing a lot of us when they nuzzle up to theologians and vigorously push the harmony of science and religion. In effect, they’re pretending that the many people who disagree with their philosophical message don’t exist. Yet they can afford to ignore us because, in the end, where else can we atheists go for support against creationists?

The pro-religion stance of the NCSE is offensive and unnecessary — a form of misguided pragmatism.  First, it dilutes their mission of spreading Darwinism, by giving credibility to the views of scientists and theologians who are de facto creationists, whether they admit it or not.  Second, it departs from their avowed mission to be philosophically neutral.  Third, it disingenuously pretends that evolution poses absolutely no threat to faith, or conflicts with faith in any way.

None of this would be a problem if the NCSE would just stick to its avowed mission and “neutral” stance toward religion.

What is this mission?   As stated on one of its webpages:

What does NCSE do?

The National Center for Science Education, founded in 1981, engages in a number of activities advancing two primary goals: improving and supporting education in evolution and the nature of science, and increasing public understanding of these subjects.

If they just did this, there would be no problem.  So do they have to engage with faith to advance the teaching of evolution?  Apparently not, at least if you look at their religious position on the same page:

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.

This stance of religious—and philosophical!–neutrality is underscored by a speech given by Eugenie Scott:

I think we make a grave error when we confuse philosophical views derived from science — even those we support — with science itself. . . .

I must say, though, that over the last several months I have presented lectures at several universities and two meetings of professional scientists in which I have argued that a clear distinction must be drawn between science as a way of knowing about the natural world and science as a foundation for philosophical views. One should be taught to our children in school, and the other can optionally be taught to our children at home.

But despite their avowed commitment to not mixing philosophy with science, an important part of the NCSE’s activities is its “Faith Project,” whose director is the theologically trained Peter M. J. Hess.  This project appears to be devoted entirely to the philosophical position that evolution need not conflict with “proper” faith.   Among the pages of this project is Hess’s statement, in “Science and Religion”:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

You can’t get much more explicit than this.  To those of us who hold contrary views, including the idea that religion is dangerous, this logic sounds like this:

We are sometimes told that we must choose between smoking two packs a day and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.  Many cigarette companies, however, hold unequivocally that no such choice is necessary.

More accommodationism rears its head in the section called “How Do I read the Bible? Let Me Count the Ways”:

Contrary to what biblical literalists argue, the Bible was not intended by its authors to teach us about science — which did not exist at the time the Hebrew oral traditions were set in writing as the Book of Genesis. The Bible does not teach us the literal truths that the earth is flat, or that a global flood once covered Mt. Everest, or that we inhabit a geocentric cosmos, or that the world was created as we now observe it in six solar days, or that species were specially created in their present form and have not changed since the days of creation.

Rather, the Bible can be read as a record of one particular people’s developing moral relationship with the God in whom they placed their trust. As such, it enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation and human responsibility within that creation. For biblical believers, part of that responsibility is using the gift of human rationality to discover the exciting story of how life ― including human life ― has developed on the earth.

Well, the Bible wasn’t intended to teach us about science, but it was intended to be an account of where life came from, and it is still read that way by a huge number of Americans.   What gives the NCSE the right, or the authority, to suggest how people interpret the Bible?

The “recommended books” page of the NCSE’s religion section gives the same one-sided view.  The section on “Theology, Evolution, and Creation” lists 36 books.  Every one of them appears to offer an accommodationist viewpoint.  Another 38 books appear (on the same page) in a “related themes in science and religion” section on the same page.  In both section we find all the familiar names: Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Simon Conway Morris, John Polkinghorne, Joan Roughgarden, and so on — accommodationists all.  There are no books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and all those who have criticized the science-faith concordat.

As is usual in accommodationist literature, when the neo-atheist evolutionists are mentioned, they are done so dismissively, and held partially responsible for arousing anti-evolution sentiment:

When scientists such as William Provine and Richard Dawkins present philosophical materialism as the inevitable outgrowth of science or evolution (Dawkins 1987; Provine 1989) they reinforce the view encouraged by Morris and other antievolutionists that “one cannot be an evolutionist and a Christian.”

Perhaps most telling, the NCSE markets, as “staff publications,” some books that apparently show how religion and science can live happily together.   Take a look at the page on which you’re supposed to sign up as an NCSE member. There you’ll find the “staff publication” Catholicism and Science, by  Peter M. J. Hess (director of the “Faith Project”). By advertising the book in this way the NCSE is saying, “here’s our point of view.”  What is the point of view of Catholicism and Science? The book is so new that I haven’t seen it, but here’s the description on Amazon:

When most people think about Catholicism and science, they will automatically think of one of the famous events in the history of science — the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church. But the interaction of Catholics with science has been — and is — far more complex and positive than that depicted in the legend of the Galileo affair. Understanding the natural world has always been a strength of Catholic thought and research — from the great theologians of the Middle Ages to the present day — and science has been a hallmark of Catholic education for centuries.

Of course this doesn’t mention that the Catholic church itself has gone back and forth on the veracity of evolution.  Pope John Paul II, for example, declared that God inserted a soul somewhere in the lineage between Australopithecus and Homo. (Scott mentions this view, albeit only in passing, in an essay “Creationists and the Pope’s Statement.” But Dr. Scott’s long discussion of the position of the Catholic Church is celebratory, completely ignoring how the views of many Catholic contravene everything we know about human evolution.

Digging deeper into the NCSE site, one finds it riddled with strange lucubrations about religion.  For example, in an essay by Phila Borgeson called “Is There Two-Way Traffic on the Bridge? Why ‘Intelligent Design’ is not Fruitful Theologically,” one finds this:

The little we know about God from “intelligent design” is not congruent with an understanding of God that takes Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously.  . . In Christian scripture, the central way in which God is related to his creation is, of course, through Christ’s redemption of the suffering of the world. Out of this emerges a theodicy that embraces as the price of the freedom God has bestowed on creation what we often read as the cruelty and caprice of nature. A designer God, though, must also be the designer of pain and death. In theological terms, “intelligent design” offers no articulation of how salvation is accomplished and constructs a God that is hard to square with the God who is steadfast love and suffering servant. George Murphy, working within his Lutheran tradition, has placed much emphasis on a theology of the cross as central to an understanding of God’s interaction with creation (Murphy 2002, 2003). Jürgen Moltmann stresses God’s suffering with God’s people, drawing on the Hebrew concept of shekinah and the kabbalistic concept of zimzum along with the Christian understanding of the kenosis (self-emptying) of God (Moltmann 2001). WH Vanstone pointed out in prose and hymn that the image of God as a creator, omnipotently, serenely, and detachedly presiding, then occasionally condescending to manipulate things to his will, is totally incongruent with what Christians know in the divine self-emptying of Christ (Vanstone 1977).

Zimzum?  Can somebody please tell me what on earth this tedious exegesis has to do with science education?

But my main beef is this: the NCSE touts, shelters, or gives its imprimatur to intellectuals and scientists who are either “supernaturalists” (the word that A. C. Grayling uses for those who see supernatural incursions into the universe) or who have what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief”—the idea that while religion may be based on false beliefs, those beliefs are themselves good for society. (Among the former are Kenneth Miller and John Haught, the latter Michael Ruse and Francisco Ayala).  Both of these attitudes draw the NCSE away from its primary mission of promoting evolutionary biology, and push it into the hinterlands of philosophy and theology.

I have discussed Kenneth Miller’s views on evolution before, in particular his explicit Catholic theism  (i.e., God interacts directly with the world), and his speculation that these interactions may occur through perturbations in subatomic particles. He has also floated the idea that God set up the laws of physics so that they were particularly propitious for the appearance of life on Earth, and so made inevitable the appearance of highly intelligent beings who could apprehend and worship their creator.  Miller’s theism is also reflected in his published statements such as the following:

In reality, the potential for human existence is woven into every fiber of that universe, from the starry furnaces that forged the carbon upon which life is based, to the chemical bonds that fashioned our DNA from the muck and dust of this rocky planet. Seems like a plan to me.

And this:

. . . . .the God that we know through Christianity is not someone who acts like an ordinary human being, who simply happens to be endowed with supernatural powers. We are talking about a being whose intelligence is transcendent; we’re talking about a being who brought the universe into existence, who set up the rules of existence, and uses those rules and that universe and the natural world in which we live to bring about his will.

As both Massimo Pigliucci (a biologist and philosopher at Stony Book) and I have noted, this kind of talk comes perilously close to intelligent design; indeed, it may well be a form of intelligent design.  If God “uses rules” to bring about his will, then evolution cannot be undirected.

John Haught, another person who appears frequently on the NCSE website (and was also a religious witness in the Dover trial), has an equally teleological view of evolution.   In his accommodationist books God After Darwin and the more recent Deeper than Darwin, he espouses a teleology in which evolution is ineluctably drawn by God to some future point of perfection.  In God after Darwin, he approvingly cites (p. 83) the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s suggestion:

. . . . that a metaphysically adequate explanation of any universe in which evolution occurs requires — at some point beyond the limits that science has set for itself — a transcendent force of attraction to explain the overarching tendency of matter to evolve toward life, mind, and spirit.

But any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required.   In a letter to his mentor Charles Lyell, Darwin explicitly decried the idea of divine intervention in evolution:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement’, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

If we’re to defend evolutionary biology, we must defend it as a science: a nonteleological theory in which the panoply of life results from the action of natural selection and genetic drift acting on random mutations.

The directors of the NCSE are smart people.  They know perfectly well — as did Darwin himself — that evolutionary biology is and always has been a serious threat to faith.  But try to find one acknowledgment of this incompatibility on their website.  No, all you’ll find there is sweetness and light. Indeed, far from being a threat to faith, evolution seems to reinforce it!  Is it disingenuous to be a personal atheist, as some NCSE officials are, and yet tell others that their faith is compatible with science? I don’t know.  But the NCSE’s pragmatism has taken it far outside its mandate. Their guiding strategy seems to be keep Darwin in the schools by all means necessary.

Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE?  Not at all.  I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint.  I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.  If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended.  Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education.  Leave theology to the theologians.

A bit more about catering to the faithful

March 25, 2009 • 11:18 am

While going through the Berkeley website Understanding Science (discussed yesterday), I found something more of interest.  It’s a page called “Astrology: Is it Scientific?”, which sets out a checklist of questions that the student should answer to see if astrology is indeed a science.  Here’s part of the checklist:

Here we’ll use the Science Checklist to evaluate one way in which astrology is commonly used. See if you think it qualifies as scientific!

Focuses on the natural world?
Astrology’s basic premise is that heavenly bodies — the sun, moon, planets, and constellations — have influence over or are correlated with earthly events.

Aims to explain the natural world?
Astrology uses a set of rules about the relative positions and movements of heavenly bodies to generate predictions and explanations for events on Earth and human personality traits. For example, some forms of astrology predict that a person born just after the spring equinox is particularly likely to become an entrepreneur.
Uses testable ideas?
Some expectations generated by astrology are so general that any outcome could be interpreted as fitting the expectations; if treated this way, astrology is not testable. However, some have used astrology to generate very specific expectations that could be verified against outcomes in the natural world. For example, according to astrology, one’s zodiac sign impacts one’s ability to command respect and authority. Since these traits are important in politics, we might expect that if astrology really explained people’s personalities, scientists would be more likely to have zodiac signs that astrologers describe as “favorable” towards science.1 If used to generate specific expectations like this one, astrological ideas are testable.
Relies on evidence?
In the few cases where astrology has been used to generate testable expectations and the results were examined in a careful study, the evidence did not support the validity of astrological ideas.2 This experience is common in science — scientists often test ideas that turn out to be wrong. However, one of the hallmarks of science is that ideas are modified when warranted by the evidence. Astrology has not changed its ideas in response to contradictory evidence.

The page concludes by saying:

Astrology is not a very scientific way to answer questions. Although astrologers seek to explain the natural world, they don’t usually attempt to critically evaluate whether those explanations are valid — and this is a key part of science. The community of scientists evaluates its ideas against evidence from the natural world and rejects or modifies those ideas when evidence doesn’t support them. Astrologers do not take the same critical perspective on their own astrological ideas.

It seems to me that some of the claims of many faiths are similar to those of astrology–the four ideas given above.  Religion focusses on the natural world (at least some of the time), purports to explain it, uses testable ideas (e.g., efficacy of prayer), and relies on evidence (Scripture, archaeological findings, etc.)  Like astrology, religion fails all of these tests.

I’m not trying to say anything portentous, except that scientists are really keen to denigrate astrology while at the same time bending over backwards to respect religion, even though there is the same amount of evidence supporting each.  This is a point that science writer Natalie Angier makes in her wonderful essay, “My God Problem.”

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.

A couple more points of clarification about the last post:

1.  I am by no means denigrating the worthwhile achievements of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education in pushing back the tide of creationism.  Their effects (especially the NCSE’s) in court cases and school-board hearings have had a real and positive effect on keeping evolution in the schools.  My beef is that these effects are temporary ones.  Creationism is like herpes: it keeps coming back again and again until you extirpate the root cause.  The court cases and school board hearings are outbreaks of herpes, which are stanched by our colleagues.  But until the underlying virus is extirpated (that is, the kind of faith that is incompatible with evolution), the outbreaks will continue to occur.

2.  The NAS and NCSE seem to always trot out the “religious scientists” or “scientific theologians” when they need to sell evolution: John Haught, Ken Miller, Michael Ruse, etc.  I would feel better about the whole issue if they’d also trot out Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the many other evolutionists who represent a non-accommodationist point of view.

3.   By saying that we should leave the reconciliation of faith and science to theologians, I am not endorsing the idea that they can or should be reconciled.  Personally, I don’t think they can be. I’m saying only that that reconciliation is not the job of scientists or pro-evolution organizations.