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Sep 22 2010

The accommodationists’ best case (Part 1 of 3)

I have written quite a lot about the conflict between those who say that science and religion are incompatible worldviews (referred to as unapologetic or new atheists) and those who say they are compatible (known as accommodationists).

I definitely belong to the first group. On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences, the most elite body of scientists in the US, that has gone out of its way to make the accommodationist case. This is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that a whopping 93% of NAS members express “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God.” The NAS lays out its accommodationist case most clearly in a 2008 publication called Science, Evolution, and Creationism that is free and online.

Why would people whose own deep study of science has clearly resulted in disbelief go out of their way to assure religious believers that science does not exclude god? I suspect that they fear that if the public concludes that science is inherently atheistic, this will result in reduced financial support for science. Science in the US is heavily dependent on public financing allocated by the Congress and the White House, both or which are fearful of religious voters. He who pays the piper calls the tune and some scientists do not want to alienate those upon whom they depend for support of research.

That does not mean that I think these scientists are cynically saying things they don’t believe. There are many skeptics and unbelievers in both the scientific community and the general public who genuinely do believe that the case for some form of compatibility between science and religion can be made, and the NAS has them too. I think they are mistaken in this belief but the case they make for accommodationism is as good as anything you are likely to get anywhere. My point is that there was no imperative for the NAS to take a stand on either side of this issue. It could have simply advocated for good science and left this particular debate to its individual members to participate in. The fact that they felt obliged, as an organization, to weigh in on the accommodationist side is what I think reflects a political calculation.

I believe that the best case for accommodationism is that made by the NAS, because it consists purely of scientists. What you don’t want to do in these discussions is include theologians and other religious believers because they end up saying absurd things like ‘god exists outside of space and time’ or that ‘god works through the uncertainty principle’ or that ‘god must exist in order to produce something out of nothing’ or to ‘god is necessary to provide meaning to the universe and our existence’. Scientists generally cringe at such arguments, rightly seeing them as relics of outdated philosophical thinking that have no relevance in the light of modern science.

As examples of the woolly thinking that emerges when theologians get into the discussion, consider these statements by current Pope Ratzinger and his predecessor Pope John Paul II on the science-religion conflict. Popes don’t usually issue formal statements on such controversial topics until they have been thoroughly vetted by their top theologians, so these usually represent their most sophisticated thinking.

Pope Ratzinger, at a meeting on Monday, January 28, 2008 of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences tried to put limits to science by saying that it cannot address the ‘mystery’ of human existence.

Pope Benedict warned Monday of the “seductive” powers of science that overpower man’s spirituality, reviving the science-versus-religion debate which recently forced him to cancel a speech after student protests.

“In an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it’s more important than ever to educate our contemporaries’ consciences so that science does not become the criterion for goodness,” he told scientists.

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by “research into anthropology, philosophy and theology” to give insight into “man’s own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going”, the Pope said.

“Man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions,” he told a meeting of academics of different disciplines sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Even earlier Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996, titled Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, also tried to put on limits to science by saying pretty much the same thing, invoking the mystery of human consciousness.

In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.

The conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. It recalled that man is “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake”… It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God… Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.

The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans. (my emphasis)

What these popes and other religious apologists are trying to do is shift the discussion away from empirical evidence and back to philosophy, where they think they have a chance of holding their own. They do not realize that while philosophy is undoubtedly invaluable in helping us think clearly and use language more precisely, it has become marginal to the study of scientific and empirical questions, even big ones such as the origin of the universe.

Next: What does the NAS actually say?

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