Seriously, Man

god rockA couple of posts ago I mentioned the accommodationism debate, and I wrote then that I had said pretty much everything I had to say about it for while, so I skipped talking about my ideas on the subject. Well, now I’m going to say something about it again. This is not a response to one of the usual suspects, e.g. Chris Mooney, the many contributors to HuffPo, or anyone over at BioLogos. This is aimed at some clearly on “my side” in general, a couple of people for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’m talking here about Massimo Pigliucci and Eugenie Scott.

Pigliucci, along with Julia Galef, does a very good podcast called Rationally Speaking.  The episode from a couple of weeks ago, number 11, had Eugenie Scott from the NCSE discussing the usual NCSE stuff, mostly how creationists are still a problem when it comes to teaching good science in public schools.  Everything was fine right up to the end where the discussion briefly shifted to whether or not science could say anything about the supernatural.  The question is relevant as, if it is “no,” then there is good reason to accommodate believers in the supernatural as their beliefs are perfectly in line with scientific inquiry (or not, but this seems to be the suggestion).  This is the position that both Pigliucci and Scott take, and it strikes me as both weird and, well, a little intellectually dishonest.  If it’s not dishonest, then it’s naïve.  Very naïve. (EDIT:  I should have been more clear about this,  so I’ll do so now.  I do not personally think dishonesty is the issue here.  Rather, I think the issue stems from a naivety that results from not taking the beliefs of the groups in question seriously, hence the title of the post.  That said, it is the case that intellectual dishonesty is a charge regularly leveled at accommodationists, and the charge is at least plausible.  That’s why I mentioned it, but, rereading what I wrote, it looks like I’m offering that as what I think to be most likely, and this is not the case.  My bad.)

Before I go further, let me put out the usual disclaimer here.  I support the mission of the NCSE, I have huge respect for Scott, and I greatly admire Pigliucci.  I own books by both, and I would recommend them without hesitation to others.  Really, I can’t say enough good things about both individuals.

That said, this position they take here is just wrong, and it’s wrong for a very simple reason.  Toward the end of the podcast, Pigliucci says, “The supernatural essentially means that anything goes. You have no reliability, no repeatability, because it can do whatever the hell it wants for whatever reason.”  Scott immediately agrees saying that the supernatural is “not constrained.”  The point that both are trying to express is that, in order to perform a scientific experiment, one must be able to hold variables fixed.  The concern here is that because the supernatural is not natural, because it does not follow natural law, it can do anything.  As such, there is no way to effectively study it in any empirical way as it doesn’t allow for holding specific variables fixed as a way of determining what’s happening elsewhere.  And, indeed, there might be some way of conceptualizing the “supernatural” such that this is an apt description.  The problem here is that it just isn’t a good description for the beliefs of any of the opponents of things like evolutionary biology that this accommodating position is supposed to address.

As the dominant opponents of the teaching of evolution in the classroom here in the US are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, those are the people at whom such concerns are most properly directed.  The question, then, is whether or not it is appropriate to describe this Christian notion of the supernatural as a case where “anything goes,” and the answer there is a very, very clear and resounding “No!”  Christians may believe that God is all-powerful, and, as such, it is technically possible for Him to do anything, but this is not the way they believe He handles His affairs (Affairs?).  On the contrary, God has made several covenants with humanity, and, as He is perfectly Good, He will never betray those covenants.  In fact, for Christians, God is the only thing that can be counted on to always act the same way.  Things here on Earth might change, but God does not.  He is the only one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV).  He is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 NIV).  Etc, etc; I could list lots of verses saying something similar.  The point is that it is simply not the case that the Christian god, God, is conceived of as an entity who is constantly changing with “no reliability.”  On the contrary, ask these Christians, and I am certain they will tell that God is the only thing that is completely reliable.

This, then, is exactly why it is possible for science to examine the claims about the world made by these Christians.  What’s weird about this is that this should never have been in question, and Eugenie Scott knows this all too well.  The creationists think science is on their side!  The don’t go around saying that science can’t say anything about the many, many empirical claims their religion makes.  On the contrary, they are explicit that science is a fantastic means of discovering exactly what God has done, and that fact is exactly my point here.

Whoever the believers that are addressed by Pigliucci’s and Scott’s claims about the supernatural are, they are not the evangelical Christians who have fought tooth and nail to keep evolution out of the schools.  As such, this approach of attempting to accommodate and placate them by invoking a NOMA-like division is doomed to failure.  It is doomed because it does not take the believers seriously! At some point the bulk of the science community is going to have to get this.  Sure, lots of Christians accept that evolutionary biology is an accurate science, but they are not the problem.  They are already on the side of science, so the attempt to accommodate as a means of placation so as to get them on board with a genuine science curriculum cannot be directed at them.  Clearly, it is directed at those who oppose the teaching of evolution, and those people do not believe in a god who changes with the wind.  Their god, God, is exactly the opposite of that characterization.  He is Constant.

We need to take people seriously in their claims if we hope to get anywhere.  I feel like I’ve run this point into the ground on this blog, but it’s a huge point.  Funny enough, the skeptic community understands this about most the other paranormal claims.  Science-based paranormal investigators try to investigate in good faith.  The various skeptic publications are full of such investigations, and they almost always try to approach the issue without a preconceived conclusion.  They don’t approach a haunting or UFO sighting presuming they outcome.  They take the case seriously. But when it comes to religion, so many are willing to not look closely at the actual beliefs of the people in question.  That’s especially true for these accommodationists.  They want to point to people who already agree with them on the science stuff, like the BioLogos crew, and rely on their theology as a basis for what is believed generally.  But it could not be more obvious that this is an absolutely terrible approach.  Again, those people are not the ones fighting the NCSE.  If you want to figure out how to address those people, you need to look at their beliefs, and you need to take those beliefs seriously.

Until we get serious about taking people seriously, all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.

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14 Responses to “Seriously, Man”

  1. Jason Says:

    Thanks for the post Jim. I couldn’t agree with you more. Pigliucci and Scott love to play the same card over and over about science saying nothing about supernaturalism, while being philosophically defensible, has zero relation to how actual believers around the world understand their religion/god.

    I remember a post a while back on Steve Novella’s blog where you had an exchange in the comments discussing the same issue. I think you did a great job there too. Any chance you can remember the link? I tried to find it but couldn’t. I’d like to re-read those comments.

  2. Massimo Pigliucci Says:

    Jim,

    thanks for the respectful criticism and for the appreciation of the work we do over at Rationally Speaking. Of course, I take exception with your characterization of my position as either intellectually dishonest (come on, man) or naive. On the contrary, I am trying to be honest to the point of alienating some of my fellow skeptics, and my position is informed by my professional understanding of the epistemic limits of science as articulated in philosophy of science. If your readers are interested in my take on it, they can check out this link: http://bit.ly/babNiQ

    • Jim Says:

      Massimo,
      First, thanks for the response. I appreciate it. As to the characterization of the position you’ve espoused, it does appear to me to be either dishonest or naive. I personally suspect it’s the latter, but I guess I feel I must allow for the former as I am certain that you have been told before why the particular slant on the supernatural you’re taking just doesn’t jibe with what the believers with whom this issue is concerned actually believe. Still, I think that the issue is that you don’t realize the depth of conviction that such believers have to their theological position, so I’m sticking with the idea that you’re just a little naive about this. Really, I don’t know what other option is available. Since the believers in question are adamant that their god, God, is constant and unchanging, and thus science does, in fact, provide insight into His Works (their assertions), I don’t see how to allow for your claim that the supernatural, at least in terms of this particular group’s take on it, can do whatever it wants and is thus unreliable to simply be something on which we happen to disagree.
      I understand your position about the epistemic limits of science, and your assertion that science can’t say anything when someone is willing to constantly change the rules is dead on. I agree wholeheartedly. But that just isn’t the case for the vast majority of the people in question. In particular, since the context of this has to do with those opposed to teaching evolution in public schools, ICR, AIG, and the DI all hold that their positions are absolutely scientific, that science can and does provide evidence for either God or merely some designer. With those individuals in mind, the groups that are actually causing problems (as opposed to more liberal proponents of the supernatural as they generally don’t have some issue with teaching evolution in public schools), I don’t see how to reasonably justify the position you espouse. Your criticism seems to hit a very different target, and, as I said in the post, I suspect that comes from not taking these people seriously when they say that God is a rock.

      As I said in my post, I respect your work quite a bit. I think you’re almost always right and, more importantly, that you’re right for the right reasons. On this, though, I think you’ve made a mistake. I think yours is naivety, though, to be honest, I think Scott’s has more to do with being what she thinks is practical, and that, unfortunately, smacks of dishonesty to me, even if it is well-meaning.

  3. Massimo Pigliucci Says:

    Jim,

    I really wish you didn’t use the term intellectual dishonesty. That implies that Genie and I (and many others) know that we are wrong, and yet for some ulterior motive insist in our misguided position. I assure you that is not the case.

    As for what many believers believe, I really think you guys are being the naive ones. My point is not that science cannot refute, say, the notion that the earth is young. Of course it can. But that in no ways amounts to refuting “the god hypothesis” for the simple reason that god isn’t a hypothesis in anything like the epistemological sense of “hypothesis” in science. Sure enough, plenty of Christians believe in god even though they accept an old earth. Vice versa, even former fundamentalists who come to occasionally recognize that the earth is in fact old do not necessarily become atheists. Science is a great enterprise, but we do it a disservice by pretending that it applies to everything and that it is essentially coextensive with rational thinking. The latter is much broader than just science.

    • Jim Says:

      The dishonesty thing is a tough issue, and it is such because it seems to me, along with many others, that there’s some intentional obfuscation happening when this issue is brought up by the so-called accommodationists. I’ll make an edit to my post noting that I don’t genuinely think you are being dishonest in this case, but I hope you see why it’s listed as a plausible explanation, especially given how often this issue has been discussed.

      The second part of your comment really hits upon the problem I’m highlighting. It does not seem like a response to my criticism at all, and it’s hard to see why you would think it is considering how clear I have been about the issue at hand. Neither I nor anyone here has ever suggested anything like science “applies to everything and that it is essentially coextensive with rational thinking.” Lest there is any confusion, let me say, again, explicitly that I do not think any such thing to be the case. On the contrary, I have been explicit that I agree with you that you can’t refute supernatural claims that allow for a trickster entity with magical powers or a god who hides its work by supernatural means. I don’t know how I can be any more clear about that, so there just is no disservice to science of the type you have mentioned in anything said here.
      No, my point is, as I have repeatedly said, that the primary groups behind the opposition to teaching evolution in public schools in the US do not believe in the kind of deities as described above. Rather, they believe in a god who makes its actions and will known, and they believe science is a means of detecting such. They are explicit about this. Taking about some other kind of entity fails to take the beliefs of these people about the deity in question seriously. As such, the attempt to accommodate such beliefs by suggesting that those beliefs are outside of the epistemic bounds of science hits a very different target. By making such assertions you are not talking about their god; you’re talking about some other hypothetical entity. For these reasons, when dealing with the ICR and AIG (the groups specifically mentioned by Scott), as well as the ever-prominent DI, the attempt to pacify them by allowing for a NOMA-like coexistence fails completely.
      Also, since you wrote “even former fundamentalists who come to occasionally recognize that the earth is in fact old do not necessarily become atheists,” I feel the need to point out that I have never said, nor do I believe, that atheism and acceptance of evolution are necessarily coextensive. I don’t know if you think I’m fighting for some kind of atheism here, but I’m not. That has nothing at all to do with my position, and that’s why it was never mentioned in my post in any way. If you weren’t suggesting that I think something like that, then I don’t know why such a comment would be relevant to this discussion at all.

      I understand your position, and you’re absolutely right when talking about a group like BioLogos. But those guys aren’t fighting to teach bad science, so they’re not the issue here. They have no problem with the teaching of evolution, so attempting to pacify them just seems like a pointless endeavor, and those guys are the target you hit with the characterization of the supernatural that you’ve put forward.

  4. Massimo Pigliucci Says:

    Jim,

    thanks for the clarification, but where did you get the idea that Genie or I or anyone else wishes to accommodate or pacify the ICR or similar organizations? We keep telling them publicly that both creation science and ID are bunk and not science, and that they fail miserably on empirical (creation science) and conceptual (ID) grounds.

    What we are reacting against is the intellectual arrogance that some new atheists display (Coyne, for instance?) when they make epistemologically naive claims about the power of science to reject “the” supernatural. Notice that Dawkins’ book is called “The” god hypothesis, not the young-earth creationism based concept of god hypothesis…

    By the way, I am not an accommodationist, if you mean someone who thinks religious belief of any kind are rational. I do, however, welcome people like Ken Miller under our tent because of pragmatic reasons. I am interested in the winnable battle against teaching bad science in public classrooms, not in the unwinnable battle of turning the world population to atheism.

    • Jim Says:

      The idea of “accommodation” comes in here in light of the claim you made on the podcast which I quoted, the kind of position that allows for the god of the opponents of the teaching of evolution to do “whatever the hell it wants.” By allowing for that entity to hide you remove any deep criticism of those beliefs from the table. That’s perfectly fair when it comes to a deity who is believed to actually do that kind of thing. It just does not work when considering the entity endorsed by the groups opposing the teaching of evolution here in the US. That entity is explicitly said to make itself known, and, as such, is refutable by scientific means, at least so far as the individuals in question claim that this entity demonstrably affects changes in the world.
      In the context of your podcast with Scott, the proponents of the supernatural were all groups of individuals who hold that we can empirically detect the Hand of God in the world. In that case, they have made those claims fair game for science. So when you try to rule out those claims from scientific consideration, it sure looks like you’re trying to accommodate or pacify those people, especially in the context of the larger debates that have happened.

      To be clear, by “accommodationist,” I never meant “someone who thinks religious belief of any kind are rational,” nor do I think that’s what most who use the term mean. Rather, I think they mean someone who wants to accommodate religious beliefs by walling them off from scrutiny, at least in terms of this particular discussion, that being whether or not science can say anything about the truth of those beliefs. Whether or not an “accommodationist” thinks those beliefs are actually rational seems to be irrelevant to the issue.

      In terms of Ken Miller, I have no problem with him. I like him a lot (in as much as I can like someone I don’t personally know). I don’t personally care about his religious beliefs. I’m not that guy. I also don’t care about “turning the world population to atheism,” and I tried to make that completely clear in my last comment. To quote myself, “I don’t know if you think I’m fighting for some kind of atheism here, but I’m not.” Atheism has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand.
      Truth be told, I don’t care that much about “the winnable battle against teaching bad science in public classrooms,” at least not at the cost of being dishonest. My concern is about truth. I’m interested in teaching good science only because of that larger concern. As such, winning a battle about teaching good science at the cost of, even tacitly, popularizing an untruth, like the idea that science can’t touch a god who is believed to often and clearly affects the world in easily detectable ways, is not a “win” to me at all. My concerns are much more principled that pragmatic, even to a fault, something I’ve written about on here a couple of times.

      • SkiffytheAndroidKangaroo Says:

        There appears to be some abiguity about the definition of “accommodationism” here.
        I often see those opposed to accomodationism suggest that those they disagree with wish to accommodate all religion, or protect religion from criticism/give it special protection, or as you suggest that they wish to accommodate the fundamentalists. I don’t about the accomodationists you refer to in this article, but I have never seen any accomodationist say any of these things. What they tend to say is:
        “Religion and science are not fundamentally incompatible. While there are religious beliefs that are incompatible with science as we currently understand it, and there is plenty of room for scientific discoveries that will be incompatible with further religious beliefs, there are also plenty of religious beliefs that are compatible with science and it is therefore a) totally incorrect to say that they are not compatible, an intellectual error that needs to be avoided if we are to be our best, to pursue the truth. and b) misguided and untactical to reject potential allies in moderate religion, especially given the rise of fundamentalist religion and the relative numerical superiority of moderate religous believers vs atheists.

        Now, as I say, I don’t know these guys, so I can’t speak for what they’re advocating, but you say that they are disrespecting the beliefs of the fundamentalist Creationists by saying that the supernatural is untestable/always changing etc, which is not what the fundamentalists believe. That by saying that they’re not taking the fundamentalists seriously whilst supposedly defending them. But given my above point about the aims of accomodationists they’re definitely not.

        They’re interested in ‘the truth’ not molycoddling fundamentalists. If they’re using the ‘supernatural’ as a concept in one way, it doesn’t matter that fundamentalists believe otherwise. They’re not saying “this is what fundamentalists believe, it’s untestable, so I guess whether they’re right or wrong we can’t criticise” – if they were that would be insulting to the fundamentalists who are quite clearly not saying that. Instead they’re saying “regardless of what fundamentalists say, the ‘supernatural’ as defined here is not something that can be investigated by science”. Which is an indisputable fact.

      • SkiffytheAndroidKangaroo Says:

        Sorry, some formatting and spelling fail in that last post, please ignore the errors.

        What I’m getting at here is that while I’ve seen plenty of counters to accommodationism that ride on highlighting incompatibilities with individual religious beliefs with science, but never seen an accommodationist claim that specific religious beliefs are all compatible with science.
        I’ve seen people allude to

        It seems like we’ve got one bunch of people saying “Look, there’s plenty of moderate religious people and beliefs that are compatible with science, come on!” and another bunch of people saying “What about those who aren’t compatible? You really think that they are compatible? Why pander to their incompatible beliefs?”, but I’ve yet to see any of the former group say plainly “No, those people/beliefs are not compatible with science, but we are not saying that they are. We believe that science and religion can be compatible, not that they always are. Obviously.”

        • SkiffytheAndroidKangaroo Says:

          I really need to learn to proof read. Please ignore the “while” in the second paragraph and the entire sentence fragment “I’ve seen people allude to”

  5. Alex SL Says:

    Another great post, thank you.

    I would go even further than you and say that there is no coherent religious belief that does not make claims testable by science, or to put it another way, despite having met many different believers from new agey undefinedly spiritually interested wishy-washies to orthodox muslims, I have yet to encounter somebody who actually believes in the existence of “something supernatural that can never be understood or tested or experienced in any way whatsoever and does whatever it wants”. And I doubt people like that exist because such a belief would not be of any use for anybody; heck, it is not even intelligible. Neither have I ever met anybody who seriously believes in a trickster god hiding its own existence, although there are probably a handful of those around somewhere on this planet, seeing as how diverse we humans are.

    I do not think that Massimo is an accommodationist in the way I understand the word. He is an outspoken atheist, after all. The difference to the “New Atheists” is, he has this fixation with only philosophy being allowed to slay the god dragon. I could understand that if the well-known NAs actually went around claiming they could reject trickster gods, but none of them does! Even here he brought up The God Hypothesis as a negative example, a book which in one of the first chapters explicitly defines what gods it is about and what not (forgot the number at the moment, but it is the one about Einstein’s metaphorical god and including the sentence about the god being “aggressively male”). As much as I enjoy reading his blog, it surely seems as if Massimo has gotten it stuck in his head that Dawkins et al. want to get rid of all philosophy and nothing will ever convince him otherwise.

  6. SkiffytheAndroidKangaroo Says:

    “I would go even further than you and say that there is no coherent religious belief that does not make claims testable by science”

    And you would be wrong. What a silly sweeping claim. How do you test for a Deist God? How about a ‘puts it all in motion and pushes start’ God? Hell, any God that interact all the time, but only when and where it wants based on it’s own unknown criteria, is still untestable, since you don’t know when it would interact you can’t test for whether it does interact or not.
    The only Gods that are testable for are the ones which make specific scientific claims about the material reality of the universe. Which are fewer than you seem to think.

    • Alex SL Says:

      Well, have met a lot of religious people but never a deist. And as for only interacting when I cannot see it – firstly, this is simply evasion and ad-hoccery, and I do not see why the believer in god should arbitrarily be allowed to do that but the believer in homeopathy or astrology not (in fact, the assignment of this privilege to religion is the crux of Pigliucci’s position).

      Secondly, it seems as if this would not even be an honest claim about the god people believe in, which is what this post and Jim’s previous one are about. In reality, believers expect their gods to be reliable, otherwise, what is the point? And in reality, they believe that they have evidence of a kind for their position, although usually fraught with selection bias and circular reasoning if you look closer. If you look closer, they will of course suddenly claim capriciousness, but hey, so does a crystal ball gazer if pressed. Does not mean that they do not make claims of reliability to their customers once you have your back turned to them!


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