Though it has been going on for a while, there is a tension in the skeptical community that seems to have captured a lot of interest lately over the question of whether or not science has anything to say about religious claims. In as much as we can say there are sides, the divide is often described as the accommodationists vs. the purists. I doubt either side is entirely comfortable with those titles, but those are the ones being used, so I will use them here as well.
To me, the question of whether or not science has anything to say about religious claims seems to be, in almost all cases, an obvious “yes.” Are there some claims that are out of the reach of science and reason? I don’t think so. How about just science? Well, sure, but, as it turns out, I think the overwhelming majority of religious claims just happen to eventually have some kinds of empirical implications as they involve the supernatural acting upon the physical world in some way. Looking at the various types of claims science can address: any story having to do with the origin of humanity is fair game; any story about the origin of the world in general is fair game; any story about the nature of the mind is fair game; any claim about historical figures or events is fair game; any claim about any physical process at all is fair game.
So what kinds of religious claims are left? Mostly those that never touch the world. For example, science cannot say anything about the various kinds of angels that might exist in a purely non-physical world that never touches or interacts with the physical. The problem is that very few of the people described as purists worry about that kind of stuff. So far as I can tell, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, nor any of the other “new atheists” are griping about those kinds of claims. Rather, the issues over which they worry are things that affect the world. And this, I think, begins to get to what I find so odd about this debate.
The accommodationists seem to want to privilege religious claims as beyond the reach of science. How do they do this? Let’s look at a couple of specifics. Recently, Massimo Pigliucci (whose blog that you should be reading has long been linked in the blogroll in the sidebar) addressed this issue on his blog and podcast, both entitled “Rationally Speaking.” In the podcast Pigliucci is concerned that purists are wrong when they suggest that "science is sufficient to debunk or disprove or reject religious claims." He allows that science can reject specific empirical claims that come out of religion, but he does not think that this is the issue at hand. To demonstrate the insufficiency of science to address religious claims he leans on the idea of “Last Thursdayism.” Last Thursdayism is the hypothetical belief that the entire world was created last Thursday to look as if it were the result of wholly natural processes identical to the ones science posits now. He also says he’s heard Creationists actually making this claim. I’d like to see that referenced as I personally know lots of Creationists, and none of them would say anything of the sort. Further, I have never heard any of the prominent Creationists say anything like this. Indeed, it seems to be explicitly contrary to any of the well-discussed notions of Creationism, all of which require that the world was created as laid out in some religious text. Now, they might well concede that their god could do such a thing, but they don’t actually think that such is the way it was done. In fact, it is the assertion of all the prominent Creationist that the world looks exactly as one would expect if God created it. This, of course, is absolutely something science can address.
But let’s allow that someone does believe such a thing as Last Thursdayism. That puts them in the strange position believing something that is indistinguishable from its not being true. Pigliucci correctly points out that such a position is unfalsifiable, but he then claims that this moves such a question beyond the realm of any kind of scientific reasoning. I do not think this is right. While Last Thursdayism may not technically be falsifiable, the notion of parsimony is still active in scientific reasoning. That gives one good scientific reason to reject the unnecessarily complicated hypothesis of Last Thursdayism, even if it is, technically, unfalsifiable. An analogy would be useful here. Let us imagine that some scientist claims that, contrary to the understanding of carbon we have now, something else is happening. In fact, there is some other element that is completely undetectable by any instrument, and, moreover, it has the uncanny property of doing everything carbon is thought to do. The scientists further asserts that, as it happens, carbon has some set of properties that allow it to look like it has the properties of this newly posited element, but it really has none of the properties we now think it to have. Further, this new element is always connected to carbon in some way such that it is always present when carbon is but never when carbon is not. The result of all this is that it is that everything looks exactly as it does now, but it is actually the case that there is some undetectable element doing everything carbon is thought to do while carbon does something completely different.
The above description is completely unfalsifiable, and it is completely consistent with all possible observations. That being the case, would it be appropriate for other scientists to rule out such a claim? I imagine that most of you are thinking to yourself, “Of course.” But this is exactly the same kind of claim as Last Thursdayism. It is a difference that makes no difference, is completely superfluous, and for which there is no good reason to believe it at all. In such a case, there is nothing that prohibits science from tossing this claim. Parsimony is as much a part of science as anything else, and in this case it dictates that the Non-Carbon theory be discarded along with Last Thursayism.
Let us now turn to a recent post by Steven Novella (who writes for several of the blogs linked in the blogroll). Here Novella says that religious claims cannot be examined as they fall outside the bounds of methodological naturalism, the process assumed for scientific activity. He writes,
Any belief which is structured in such a way that it is positioned outside the realm of methodological naturalism by definition cannot be examined by the methods of science. In short, this usually means that the beliefs cannot be empirically tested in any conceivable way. One can therefore not have scientific knowledge of such claims, and science can only be agnostic toward them. Any belief in untestable claims is therefore by definition faith.
Now, he does say that some religious claims are, in fact, testable. He further says, “They intrude upon science on a regular basis, and whenever they step into the arena of science, they are absolutely fair game.” It just turns out that, according to Novella, very few of the claims of religion are of this type.
Here is where I am deeply puzzled. What are these claims that are being made that never touch the physical world, that are, in principle, untestable? As I said above, I can imagine some class of claims that fall into this category, but they make up almost none of the actual claims made by believers of various stripes. Almost all claims of genuine interest to believers have to do with things that touch the world science examines. And this gets to the title of this post. Who are these people being accommodated? They are not the overwhelming majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or even Buddhists. The overwhelming majority of the claims made by these religions, and certainly the ones that are of interest to the overwhelming majority of adherents, end up being testable in some way. In fact, the only group that seems to genuinely make the kinds of claims that really make no difference are deists. While it is certainly not the case that there are no deists in the world, it certainly is the case that there are very few, and none of the purists seem to care at all about them. Rather, the purists are concerned about the majority of religious believers, those who believe that the supernatural interacts in detectable ways with the natural world. But, as both Pigliucci and Novella explicitly say, those kinds of claims are fair game for science to examine. In which case it appears that everyone is on the same side. Except, of course, they aren’t, because the accommodationists keep chastising the purists by telling them that religious claims are out of bounds.
So what are the accommodationists really doing? In the end, it is hard for me to think that accommodationism is not merely a political move. Its advocates all concede that science can address religious claims that have a discernable effect, but those are the only kinds of claims about which the purists cared anyway. Questions about the ranks of wholly non-material angels were simply never a concern. That makes it look like the accommodationists are simply trying to avoid offending theists as a way of keeping their assistance in terms of fighting other issues they believe to be more problematic, like science education. And this might be a very practical concern. I am not sure about that, but it might be, and that too is an empirical claim that we could test. However, if that is the case, they should be explicit about it and not couch their arguments for accommodation in arguments about the limits of scientific reasoning. The most such arguments can do is “protect” articles of faith that cannot possibly affect the world in any way. But, of course, those beliefs were never under any serious attack, so that kind of move is a dead end.
I want to say here at the end that it seems some people have misunderstood some of the things I’ve said on here before even though I tried to be clear. I’m not trying to convince everyone that they should be attacking theists. I’m not making a case for atheism at all. All I’m doing is addressing this issue of various people saying that religious claims are somehow off limits for discussion. That seems both perplexing and worrying. I don’t think anything should be off limits. That’s my whole point. It is not that atheists rule and theists drool. If that’s what you got out of my posts, you have seriously misread me.
Oh, and before someone feels the need to address the grammar of the title, I am well aware that it should be ‘whom’. However, colloquially, that sounds odd, and I’m not the kind of pedantic bastard who feels the need to correct colloquial phrasing.
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