Accommodationism and the nature of our world

April 30, 2009 • 3:57 pm

Earlier I posted about dancing birds and centenarian Nobelists, but accommodationism still dogs my heels.  It comes at me today in two forms: Francis’s Collins’s  execrable Biologos website, funded by our old friends the Templeton Foundation, and an article in the Guardian by Kenneth Miller about transitional fossils.   Both of these items offer a faith/science accommodationist viewpoint, either explicitly (Collins) or implicitly (Miller).  And both suffer from the big problem inherent in that viewpoint: when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers.  (As a working scientist and a naturalist, I’m not all that concerned with what it does to faith.)

The more I peruse Collins’s site, the more embarrassed I am for him and his cronies.  On the first page, with the “Mission Statement,” appears the following proclamation (see comments below):

Faith and science both lead us to truth about God and creation.

Oh, really?  In what ways does science lead us to truth about God and creation?  This sounds not like the statement of a scientist, but of a religious person with an a priori and unfalsifiable belief that learning about the universe will affirm the existence of God and tell us how He/She/It worked.  I’ve never heard a scientist assert this so blatantly.  It is, of course, a completely unscientific statement.

And, P. Z. Myers pointed out yesterday, BioLogos repeatedly and erroneously suggests that a sense of morality that can resolve ethical dilemmas can come only from religion:

Furthermore, religion has not only served to advance scientific discovery, but it also exerts a positive and significant influence on the practical application of scientific discoveries. With the constant advance of technology and medicine, new questions are continually raised as to what applications should be deemed ethically acceptable.6 (See Collins’s Appendix in The Language of God.) The scientific method alone does not provide a way of answering these ethical questions but can only help in mapping out the possible alternatives. Such ethical concerns are only resolved by standards of morality that find grounding and authority through faith in a higher being.

As anybody with two neurons to rub together knows, this statement is simply wrong.  Even the ancient Greeks realized that our morality is innate and not derivable from God.  I won’t belabor this elementary error, for all of us know about it.  Except, apparently, Collins and his collaborators.   But on to the naturalism.  I can mention only a few ways in which science is debased on this website.  First, it asserts that although God can and does affect the world in tangible ways (a scientific claim), this intervention is scientifically undetectable:

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles. Given the impossibility of absolute prediction or explanation, the laws of nature no longer preclude God’s action in the world. Our perception of the world opens once again to the possibility of divine interaction. . . . Regardless of the irregularity of tiny,quantum mechanical, or complex, chaos theoretical, systems, the sun stills rises and sets, the tides ebb and flow, and objects fall to the ground. Nature is reliable enough to reflect God’s faithfulness yet flexible enough to permit God’s involvement.

We’re not told what this “flexibility” is, except that it’s not detectable (perhaps through revelation?).  And then we come to teleology.  Evolution is not, we learn, a naturalistic process, but has been planned by God to cough up Homo sapiens with all its godly characteristics:

Question 18: At what point in the evolutionary process did humans attain the “Image of God?”

In order to answer this question, “image of God” must be defined.1 In the account of man’s creation, found in Genesis 1, God declares, “Let Us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26). The multifaceted debate over the meaning of the image of God has gone on for centuries in the Christian community. Most theologians argue that the image of God is not reflected upon humans as a physical image, related to the way we look. Rather, the fundamental qualities of the image of God are characteristics of the mind and soul, however we understand those: the ability to love selflessly; engage in meaningful relationships; exercise rationality; maintain dominion over the Earth; and embrace moral responsibility.

From the BioLogos perspective, God planned for humans to evolve to the point of attaining these characteristics. (See Question 30 about the Evolution of Religion.) For example, in order to reflect God’s Image by engaging in meaningful relationships, the human brain had to evolve to the point where an understanding of love and relationship could be grasped and lived out. God’s intention for humans to have relationships is illustrated in the opening chapters of Genesis, where many fundamental truths about God and humankind are communicated through the imagery of a creation story.

And, predictably, the “fine-tuning of physical constants” argument appears, with the more-than-strong suggestion that this is a “pointer to God”:

Fine-tuning refers to the surprising precision of nature’s physical constants and the beginning state of the universe. Both of these features come together as potential pointers to God. To explain the present state of the universe, even the best scientific theories require that the physical constants of nature — like the strength of gravity — and the beginning state of the Universe — like its density — have extremely precise values. The slightest variation from their actual values results in a lifeless universe. For this reason, the universe seems finely-tuned for life. This observation is referred to as the anthropic principle, a term whose definition has taken many variations over the years.3 Dr. Francis Collins has addressed both aspects of fine-tuning in the third chapter of his book, The Language of God.

This is creationism, pure and simple:  it is a “God of the gaps” argument.  Because physicists haven’t yet told us why these laws are as they are, they must reflect God’s miraculous handiwork.  Here Collins, as did Kenneth Miller in his book Only a Theory, approaches creationism, or what A. C. Grayling prefers to call “supernaturalism.”

I  wrote yesterday about Collins’s unscientific assertion that humans were an inevitable outcome of evolution.  I’ve taken this argument apart in an article in The New Republic, and won’t repeat it here.  The reason why people like Collins (and Miller) see the appearance of humans as inevitable is, of course, that their theology requires it.  Any honest scientist, faced with the question, “Was the appearance of humans or humanlike creatures inevitable?”, would have to answer “I don’t know.” (And I would add: “Considering how evolution works, it does seem somewhat unlikely”.)

I won’t go on: the BioLogos website provides hours of fun (and frustration!) for the bored naturalist.  But Collins should consider the effect of giving his scientific imprimatur to this kind of nonsense.  It confuses people about what science really knows, using creationist God-of-the-Gaps arguments (“I guess God must have made the laws of the universe, since physicists don’t have an explanation for them”). And it employs a nonscientific teleology by stating that physical and biological evolution are not contingent processes, but were designed by God to achieve a completely predictable end: that one species of mammal would arise on one of the gazillion existing planets 14 billion years after He set His plan in motion.


On the “comment is free” section of The Guardian, biologist Kenneth Miller has a piece on the implications of the “missing link to seals,” Puijila darwini, that I discussed in an earlier post.  It’s all pretty good, but then the accommodationism begins to emerge when he talks about why evolution is anathema to many people in the US and UK:

What bugs them is that evolution carries with it a message they just don’t want to hear. That message is that we not only live in a natural world, but we are part of it, we emerged from it. Or more accurately, we emerged with it.

To them, that means we are just animals. Our lives are an accident, and our existence is without purpose, meaning or value.

My concern for those who hold that view isn’t just that they are wrong on science, wrong about the nature of the evidence, and mistaken on a fundamental point of biology. It’s that they are missing something grand and beautiful and personally enriching.

Evolution isn’t just a take-it-or-leave-it story about where we came from. It’s an epic at the centre of life itself. It tells us we are part of nature in every respect. Far from robbing our lives of meaning, it instils an appreciation for the beautiful, enduring, and ultimately triumphant phenomenon of life.

Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe. What evolution tells us is that we are part of a grand, dynamic, and ever-changing fabric of life that covers our planet. Even to a person of faith, in fact especially to a person of faith, an understanding of the evolutionary process should only deepen their appreciation of the scope and wisdom of the creator’s work.

Let me get this straight: a biologist, speaking ex cathedra on an issue of biology, says that the idea we are “just animals” and “our lives are an accident” is “wrong on science, wrong about the nature of the evidence, and mistaken on a fundamental point of biology.”  Yes, anti-evolutionists are missing the beauty and wonder of evolution, but the last time I looked we were still primates, descended from apelike ancestors.  And to say that our lives are anything other than an accident (including, of course, the accidents of meiosis and of which sperm makes it to the egg), buys into the idea — one that Miller has promulgated –that the appearance of humans or something like us was inevitable.   Indeed, he explicitly stresses this inevitability when he says our lives are “a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe.”  Well, yes, and so are the lives of squirrels and redwoods.  But what Miller really means here –and we can have no doubt about this given the content of his talks and writings –is that the laws of the universe are fine-tuned for the appearance of humans, and that, given the nature of evolution and Earth, the appearance of higher intellectual capabilities (ones that could apprehend and worship their Creator) is inevitable.

What bothers me is that Miller can’t resist slipping in, under the guise of his expertise as a biologist, the idea that it is scientific to assert that the laws of physics are fine-tuned for our appearance, as is the nature of the evolutionary process itself.  But those are NOT scientific statements; they are philosophy born of religion.  That’s why I don’t think people who represent the public face of evolution should mix their magisteria.   It gives the authority of science to statements for which we have either no evidence, or counterevidence.

Of these two items, Collins’s website is by far the most injurious to science.  After all, most of Miller’s post is on the mark, interesting, and scientific.  But somehow he simply can’t keep himself from sliding into theology, either in this article or in the talk I heard him give on Darwin Day in Philadelphia.  This may reflect his view, which is also that of the NCSE, AAAS, and NAS, that you can’t effectively sell evolution without bringing in God.

* * * * * * * * * *

Miller and Collins have raised a question in my mind.  Both of them assert that the world — indeed, the Universe –clearly reflects God’s handiwork.  And both affirm that accepting the truth of evolution only deepens our understanding and appreciation of the divine.  Isn’t it curious that every scientific finding that at first appears injurious to faith (a heliocentric solar system, evolution, the 14-billion-year age of the universe) always manages, after the theologians put it through their sausage grinder, ending up as supportive of faith?  But what else can they do?  Indeed, one could define the task of theology as making virtues of necessities. It is a superfluous field, if, indeed, it’s a field at all.  The same goes for the problem of evil, such as the Holocaust, and of natural catastrophes, such as the tsunamis that killed thousands in southeast Asia.  No problem for theology — they have many answers. (BioLogos has a whole page of possible explanations.)  But any rational person looking at the world would conclude, as did Darwin, that it was not designed by a beneficent God.

It will repay us to consider the words of Epicurus written 2300 years ago:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

I have never seen a satisfactory theological answer to this question, despite centuries of theodicy.  Any proposed answer always smacks of rationalization.  (I know somebody’s going to tell me that I’m neglecting some “sophisticated” theological lucubrations here.)

As Richard Dawkins has noted, the world and universe look precisely as if they reflect not a caring designer, but “blind, pitiless, indifference.”  So I pose these questions to those who find signs of a celestial designer in our universe:

If our universe simply reflected the action of pure naturalistic laws rather than the intentions of God, how would it differ from the universe we have today?

In other words, what conceivable observation about the universe could convince you that God does not exist?

I can think of plenty of observations that would convince me that God does exist. (I mention several of them in my New Republic piece. For example, only bad people might get cancer.  Or prayers might be answered in a scientifically verifiable way.)  But I’ve never heard a religious person –at least not one on the verge of defecting to apostasy — tell me what evidence would make him/her give up their belief.  This asymmetry tells us something about the difference between scientific truth and religious “truth.”

The dust settles (a little) at Panda’s Thumb

April 28, 2009 • 6:33 am

Over at Panda’s Thumb, Richard Hoppe has had second thoughts about his rather strong post attacking P. Z. Myers and myself for criticizing scientific organiations like the AAAS and NCSE for their accommodationist stance toward faith and science.  (See also P. Z.’s reply.)  Hoppe still asserts that the NCSE is acting appropriately when pointing out that many religious people and ministers see no conflict between the two magisteria:

That is, NCSE is not an association of scientists, but of an array of people with different professions and beliefs. Moreover, it is not a science advocacy group as such, but rather is a group that has as its goal the defense of the teaching of evolution in the public schools. And that defense is necessarily heavily political.

That means that its tactics are in part determined by those of the opposition, the creationists who would turn public school science classes into an opportunity to teach religiously-based creation stories. As a consequence, it has to take into account that opposition and its main arguments, so as to appropriately arm those “parents and concerned citizens.”

The creationist assault on public education has two main prongs. One is to attack, misrepresent, and distort the science, and NCSE has a wealth of resources for blunting that attack. To give but one example, it has an excellent counter to Jonathan Wells’ “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution.” The responses are brief, to the point, and effective: I’ve used them.

The second main prong of the creationist assault is to equate evolution with atheism. That is a ubiquitous theme from the whole range of creationists, from Kent Hovind’s ravings to the Disco ‘Tute’s anti-naturalism Wedge document. I hear it, every one of us working with local and state boards of education hears it. It’s in the creationist mailers, it’s in their pamphlets, and it’s in their public statements to school boards.

And NCSE completely appropriately provides information to “parents and concerned citizens” about that issue. It completely appropriately points out that there are believers – self identified Christians – who accept that evolution has occurred (it’s a fact) and that the modern theory of evolution is the best available naturalistic explanation of that fact. Moreover, NCSE completely appropriately points to religious organizations that have stated that they accept that.

One cannot argue that pointing to the existence of people and organizations that contradict a main prong of the creationist attack on public school education constitutes an “endorsement.” It’s merely pointing to a fact. This is what NCSE says about it in the introduction to its Science and Religion section:

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.

That’s true, a plain fact, and useful for folks in the field to be able to support via the religious organizations and individuals identified by NCSE.

Agreed, but it’s also a plain fact that many “theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, NO.”  But you won’t find this “plain fact” anywhere in the NCSE’s literature.  And although evolution doesn’t lead straight to atheism for everybody, we ALL know that many people have lost their faith after studying evolutionary biology. And there are good reasons for this.  It is simply disingenuous, in my opinion, to pretend that this isn’t true.  I get emails from people every day telling me how they lost their faith after studying evolution (and it doesn’t bother them).  What a breath of fresh air it would be to have somebody admit this hidden truth!

Anyway, Hoppe, after rumination, decides that P. Z. and I were right on one issue:

NOMA is a mistake

Coyne is right in one respect, and I withdraw my wholesale rejection of his argument. I think (writing now as a Life Member) that NCSE has recently made a mistake in going beyond simply pointing to individuals and organizations who have somehow reconciled their science and religious beliefs to counter the creationist equation of evolution with atheism. In the essays by Peter M. J. Hess that apparently are the basis of the NCSE Faith Project, there is an endorsement of a particular view of the relationship, an adaptation of Gould’s Nonoverlapping magisteria with a dose of complementarian thinking. Hess writes

Theologians from many traditions hold that science and religion occupy different spheres of knowledge. Science asks questions such as “What is it?” “How does it happen?” “By what processes?” In contrast, religion asks questions such as “What is life’s meaning?” “What is my purpose?” “Is the world of value?” These are complementary       rather than conflicting perspectives.

And later, in a linked section titled “God and Religion,” he writes

The question “Do you believe in creation or evolution?” has the same problem. Like color and shape, “creation” and “evolution” do not occupy competing categories, but are complementary ways of looking at the universe.

And later in that same section:

Can I accept evolution as the most compelling explanation for biological diversity, and yet also accept the idea that God works through evolution? Certainly.

Hess has here argued for a complementarian view of the relation between religious belief and evolution that is very similar to Gould’s NOMA, which is also a view that is clearly visible in the writings of people like Denis Lamoureax, a self-identified evangelical Christian and “evolutionary creationist.” Lamoureax writes

In understanding origins, evolutionary creation proposes a mutually exclusive yet complementary relationship between science and Scripture. This position asserts that God reveals through both nature and the Bible, and it respects the limits and differences of each revelation. Science discovers how the Creator made the world, while    Scripture offers the ultimate meaning of the creation. Together these revelations from God’s Works and Words complement each other in providing a complete view of origins.

NOMA redux.

In its Faith Project, then, I think that NCSE has gone beyond its remit and past where it can be effective. I now think – in agreement with Coyne, PZ, and others – that it should back off from describing particular ways of reconciling science and religion. Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake. NCSE ought not wade into theological swamps.

So yeah, I was wrong to overstate my case. Sorry, folks. 🙂

Well, Mr. Hoppe, you are a gentleman and a scholar.  Thanks for the clarification.

My view on the NCSE, AAAS, and NAS remains the same:  leave all religion, atheism, and issues of compatibility out of it (except to show how the facts of evolution are incompatible with creationism).  When dealing with issues of compatibility, this simple statement should suffice:

If you want to know how to reconcile the fact of evolution with your religious faith (or the faith of others), please consult your minister, rabbi, or spiritual counselor.