Accommodation vs. appeasement

May 28, 2009 • 6:19 am

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford has a useful classification of the forms of what I call “accommodationism” between science and faith.  A brief excerpt from his post:

. . . there seem to be a few ways that people try to make a truce between religion and science.

1. The NOMA theory – science is authoritative about empirical issues, while religion is authoritative about issues of morality, “meaning”, “purpose” and so on.

2. Natural and supernatural – science examines the “natural” world, while religion reports on a supposed “supernatural” realm involving gods, spooks, and so on.

3. God at work in the gaps – there is room for God to work in nature in ways that we can’t detect. Science is authoritative about the natural world, but not in a way that excludes the providence of God. . . .

. . . Of these, 3. is the one that is most likely to be damaging to science. Because it wants to locate a space for certain kinds of divine activities to be carried on in certain kinds of gaps, it could have some tendency to discourage research that aims to plug those gaps. Accordingly, it’s at least worthwhile drawing attention to the highly speculative nature of specific hypotheses about how God acts in the gaps (such as by using some sort of interference in quantum-level events in order to guide the process of evolution). Even if we can’t disprove such claims, we can emphasise that they are contrivances with no scientific backing. They are transparent attempts to preserve pet religious dogmas, and should in no sense be viewed as science. Their only basis is reasoning that: “Something like X or Y must be true or else religious doctrine R will be falsified. But I can’t admit that R is falsified, so something like X or Y must be true.”

But, while I can see why hard-pressed scientists get annoyed by this sort of thing, I actually have more sympathy for theists such as Francis Collins than I do for non-believers (atheists, agnostics, sceptics, whatever) who adopt a position such as 1. or 2. in order to grant authority to a religion whose doctrines they don’t actually believe. This is appeasement – it’s ceding important territory to religion without a fight. Religion does not deserve any grant of authority in the moral sphere – it has no such authority, and that should be the end of it. Nor does it have any plausible claim to reveal supernatural truths about such entities as gods and spooks. But it’s as if some non-believers are prepared to give religion whatever authority it wants as long as they are allowed to teach evolution.

I agree with Russell that #3 is the most dangerous to the integrity of science.  This is what I object to about BioLogos and all the forms of accommodationism in which a theistic God is supposed to interfere in nature (and evolution) in some unspecified way.  It pollutes the pure science by giving the public impression that scientists agree that is room for the supernatural in the evolutionary process and, indeed, that the supernatural has operated.  In this sense Collins is not a good scientist, for he’s accepting the existence of magic.  Darwin explicitly rejected this kind of pollution in a letter to Charles Lyell about natural selection:

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.

I again recommend reading Sam Harris’s review of Francis Collins’s book (“The Language of God”) to see the extent that Collins mixes science with faith.  And read Larry Moran’s post on Sandwalk about how Collins mixed science with God when announcing the sequence of the human genome.  Collins just can’t keep his yap shut about God when he’s talking about science to the public.  If you’re not offended by what Moran reports, imagine instead that Collins was an atheist, and pronounced that the human genome demonstrated at last that “there is no God.”

Francis Collins sees God in quantum mechanics

May 7, 2009 • 2:32 pm

Over at New Scientist, Andy Coghlan takes on BioLogos (Francis Collins’s new accommodationist website), and its theistic assertion that God can act through the “uncertainties” in quantum mechanics. (This is also an argument made by Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin’s God.) Coghlan quotes BioLogos and then dismantles the argument:

“With quantum mechanical uncertainty and the chaotic unpredictability of complex systems,” Collins writes, “the world is now understood to have a certain freedom in its future development.”

This means, he goes on:

“It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognisable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law-breaking miracles,” says Collins.

“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.”

So, because God somehow tinkers in a quantumy type way, it’s worth praying for divine guidance and intervention. To me, and to other scientists and commentators, Collins is straying into pseudo-scientific speculation simply to keep God in the earthly frame. Believing in God in the first place is by definition a leap of faith, and one that many scientists and many non-scientists are, after careful and reasonable thought, unwilling to take. For those who have trouble accepting that we’re a product of pure chance, there is the option of believing that God set everything in motion.

Larry Moran brings up the same issue over at Sandwalk. This is precisely the problem of strenuous accommodationism as typified by Collins’s website. It just can’t help insinuating itself into real science.  It is embarrassing to see a scientist straying into this kind of territory, and it smacks of desperation.