Russell Blackford goes after faith/science compatibility

March 31, 2009 • 5:48 am

In a really nice essay on his blog “Metamagician and the Hellfire Club”, Australian writer Russell Blackford discusses the issue of the compatibility between science and faith and how that has become the official position of bodies like The National Academy of Sciences (a tip of the hat to PZ at Pharyngula for calling this to our attention). Blackford’s essay is a sarcastic take on an earlier post by Matt Nisbet (a professor of communication at American University who writes the blog “Framing Science”); Nisbet went after Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists for needlessly placing science and religion in opposition.

Blackford puts Nisbet in a full nelson:

. . . Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.

Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That’s obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?

You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that – silly us – we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we’d say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we’d be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included “a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible.” Yay!

This is how to settle a philosophical debate! . . .

So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don’t worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, “that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda”. Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.

Another post critical of Nisbet’s stance can be found at the blog Entertaining Research.

Religious scientists and liberal theologians can tout the compatibility of faith and science until they’re blue in the faith [typo: I meant “blue in the face” but I’ll leave the Freudian slip], but in so doing they are seeing a world that they would like to inhabit, not the world they do inhabit. As I said in my New Republic essay on compatibility,

a true harmony between science and religion requireseither doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.. . . The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Faith, as it is practiced by many, many people, is simply incompatible with science. It doesn’t solve the problem to tell them to put their beliefs in line with science.

Darwin Day, Philadelphia. 1. I meet Ken Miller

February 14, 2009 • 6:00 am

Last night’s keynote talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s Darwin Symposium was given by Ken Miller, and had the same title as his book: “Only A Theory, Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.” Ken is undoubtedly the most tireless and effective opponent of creationism in America, a star witness for the prosecution in the Dover trial, and he also co-wrote our country’s most popular high school biology textbook, so I have always admired him a great deal. But the admiration is not unmixed. Ken is also an observant Catholic as well as an author and cell biologist, and his books, starting with “Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientists’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution,” have always tried to alloy religion and science, endorsing the idea that science and faith are compatible.

I have been uncomfortable with this view, and finally criticized it in a book review in The New Republic, “Seeing and Believing.” Miller responded in a piece on We are both ardent defenders of (excuse the term) Darwinism, but definitely part ways when it comes to faith.

So I was quite excited (and a bit nervous) about sharing a platform with Ken. I knew he’d be a good speaker, because I’ve seen his talks on YouTube and, of course, his famous appearances (twice) on The Colbert Report. His evening talk didn’t disappoint. Miller is a lively, humorous, and humane speaker, and develops a great rapport with the audience.

Miller’s talk was a pastiche, covering the Dover Trial, the morphing of creationism into intelligent design, and the evidence for evolution from fossils (Tiktaalik featured prominently) and from the fusion of two chromosomes present in our common ancestor with other apes into the single second chromosome of humans. All good stuff, and extremely enjoyable.

It was in the last ten minutes that Miller took up the issue of evolution and God, and that is where I had to part company with him once again. Over the years Miller has tried several ways to reconcile these two areas, including positing God’s direct intrustion into evolution (in Finding Darwin’s God), and suggesting that the laws of physics were devised by God (in Only A Theory). Miller has also said he is a theist, so that God intrudes directly in the real world.

This time he used a different angle, saying that there was indeed design in nature, but it was not the same kind of God-mandated design proposed by ID-creationists. Rather, it was “design” wrought by natural selection. He hammered home this idea again and again, and I began to realize that a kind of subliminal inculcation of the audience was going on. After all, natural selection does not produce “design”—it produces apparent design. Why not just say that? It was the use of the un-adjectivized “design” that seemed to be sneaking God’s hand into Miller’s view. (He also stated unequivocally his certainty that evolution would yield creatures with high, human-like intelligence if the process were to begin all over again, a view that I criticize in “Seeing and Believing.”)

It seemed to me, and several others with whom I spoke, that Miller was trying to get some teleology into nature by using the term “design”. My friend Rick Grosberg opined that the term “design” was a semantic “wedge” that Miller was using to make biologists more open to the idea that God might have played a role in evolution. Regardless, this part of the talk made me quite uncomfortable. I actually Googled “design” during this part of the talk and found the following definition in Merriam-Webster’s website:

1de·sign           Listen to the pronunciation of 1design
1 a: a particular purpose held in view by an individual or group : he has ambitious designs for his son b: deliberate purposive planning <more by accident than design 2: a mental project or scheme in which means to an end are laid down. 3 a: a deliberate undercover project or scheme : plot b plural : aggressive or evil intent —used with on or against he has designs on the money. 4: a preliminary sketch or outline showing the main features of something to be executed the design for the new stadium. 5 a: an underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or unfolding : pattern , motif the general design of the epic. b: a plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something (as a scientific experiment) ; also : the process of preparing this6: the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art 7: a decorative pattern a floral design.

All of these definitions have one thing in common: purpose and intent. To say that natural selection produces “design” is in effect saying that it yields something that is planned: that there is some foresight in the process. Why would anybody use such a word? I’ve heard evolutionists use “apparent design” or “the appearance of design” as results of selection, but never “design” by itself. If this is not intentional teleology, I’d urge Miller to stop saying this, as it clearly plays into peoples’ idea that there is some intentional design in evolution.

At any rate, after dinner I met Ken and we chatted about things. The first thing he said to me was that one of his friends advised him to break a beer bottle over my head, which was more than a little intimidating when imparted to me by a guy well over six feet tall looking down on my puny five-foot-eight self! But we discussed our differences, tried to iron out misunderstandings on both of our parts, and amiably shook hands. We will never agree on the science-versus-faith thing, but on most issues we are on the same side, and I admire him in many ways. I was glad that we met.

The science/religion compatibility debate continues. . . .

February 6, 2009 • 11:51 am

Over on Edge, scientists continue to weigh in on my New Republic piece on the compatibility of science and faith. Steve Pinker and Sam Harris have just contributed, both taking the “non-accommodationist” stance.  Sam’s article,  a brilliant piece of sarcasm, has been widely misunderstood on the web, with many thinking he has seen the light and become a man of faith!  Yet how is it possible to mistake the following for anything other than sarcasm?

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

A second-order debate on the Edge debate has sprung up on Richard Dawkins’s website as well–there are nearly 800 comments!  Clearly this issue continues to attract a lot of attention, and generates a lot of heat as well as light.

Whoops!  Just informed that The Atlantic has taken up the debate in a column by Ross Doubthat.  Also, two pieces on The American Scene, one by Jim Manzi, and the other by Alan Jacobs.