A 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.