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The accommodationists’ best case (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 1 and Part 2)

Continuing with the case for accommodationism as made by the NAS, on page 37 they describe the other group of believers, those who think that science should conform to revealed religion and their holy books. This group is hostile to science but people who believe these things are politically powerful in the US and need to be placated in some way.

Advocates of the ideas collectively known as “creationism” and, recently, “intelligent design creationism” hold a wide variety of views. Most broadly, a “creationist” is someone who rejects natural scientific explanations of the known universe in favor of special creation by a supernatural entity. Creationism in its various forms is not the same thing as belief in God because, as was discussed earlier, many believers as well as many mainstream religious groups accept the findings of science, including evolution. Nor is creationism necessarily tied to Christians who interpret the Bible literally. Some non-Christian religious believers also want to replace scientific explanations with their own religion’s supernatural accounts of physical phenomena.

On page 39 of the NAS statement, they do not come out and flatly say that these people are wrong. What is done is to say that their claims are outside the realm that science can investigate and thus they can believe them if they want to. The NAS statement even finds ways to treat the claim that the Earth is 6,000 years or so old with deference!

Creationists reject such scientific facts in part because they do not accept evidence drawn from natural processes that they consider to be at odds with the Bible. But science cannot test supernatural possibilities. To young Earth creationists, no amount of empirical evidence that the Earth is billions of years old is likely to refute their claim that the world is actually young but that God simply made it appear to be old. Because such appeals to the supernatural are not testable using the rules and processes of scientific inquiry, they cannot be a part of science.

On page 49, they address the key question of whether evolution and religion are opposing ideas. And of course, their answer is ‘no’. They repeat the non-argument that since many scientists are religious and many theologians accept evolution, they must be compatible. They throw in the obligatory criticisms of ‘extremists’ on both sides, i.e., people who disagree with the accommodationist case.

Newspaper and television stories sometimes make it seem as though evolution and religion are incompatible, but that is not true. Many scientists and theologians have written about how one can accept both faith and the validity of biological evolution. Many past and current scientists who have made major contributions to our understanding of the world have been devoutly religious. At the same time, many religious people accept the reality of evolution, and many religious denominations have issued emphatic statements reflecting this acceptance. (For more information, see http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/1028_statements_from_religious_org_12_19_2002.asp.)

To be sure, disagreements do exist. Some people reject any science that contains the word “evolution”; others reject all forms of religion. The range of beliefs about science and about religion is very broad. Regrettably, those who occupy the extremes of this range often have set the tone of public discussions. Evolution is science, however, and only science should be taught and learned in science classes.

On page 54, they address the question of whether science disproves religion. Again, their answer is ‘no’. They try to support this answer by trying to carve out areas of knowledge that they claim are outside the realm of science, though tellingly, they do not specify what those areas are. They have to leave that vague because as soon as they specify any area of knowledge (say consciousness or the origin of the universe) as being outside the bounds of science, there would be howls of protest from within their own body from scientists who are working on those very questions. (See Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times on what they are learning about consciousness as integrated information that can be described in terms of bits.)

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings.

As science continues to advance, it will produce more complete and more accurate explanations for natural phenomena, including a deeper understanding of biological evolution. Both science and religion are weakened by claims that something not yet explained scientifically must be attributed to a supernatural deity. Theologians have pointed out that as scientific knowledge about phenomena that had been previously attributed to supernatural causes increases, a “god of the gaps” approach can undermine faith. Furthermore, it confuses the roles of science and religion by attributing explanations to one that belong in the domain of the other.

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator… The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith.

To summarize, the NAS’s accommodationist argument is as follows:

  1. Divide up religious believers into two groups, those who adapt their religious beliefs to conform to established science and those who try to adapt science to conform to their religious beliefs and texts.

  2. Claim that there is clearly no conflict between the first group and science, since the assumption is that the first group’s beliefs are infinitely malleable and able to accommodate all present established science all and future scientific discoveries.
  3. Assert that there is no way to refute any of the claims of the second group either since those beliefs can always be reformulated in ways that involve the actions of ‘supernatural’ agencies and are thus declared, by fiat, to be outside the realm of scientific investigation which deals with the purely material.

Hence science and religion are supposedly compatible. The problem is, of course, that there are limits to the malleability of the first group. They cannot allow everything to be explained by science since that would make god totally useless. This group is, as we have seen, already balking at the idea that the creation of the universe itself does not require god or that consciousness (and particularly the idea of the soul) has a purely material basis in the brain.

With regards to accommodating the interests of the second group, the NAS has taken a somewhat condescending approach, essentially telling them, “We cannot prove the non-existence of god or any supernatural entity, so you can go ahead and believe in it.” It is like allowing little children to believe in Santa Claus, thinking that no harm will come of it. The catch is that these religious beliefs are not harmless. They are anti-science and anti-reason and when such thinking is allowed to propagate unchallenged, they infect everything and result in policies and actions that are harmful.

So the NAS case for accommodationism, which I believe is the best there is, boils down to saying that there are some things science cannot talk about (but does not say what those things are) or that if you bring in god or the supernatural as an explanation for anything, science cannot say you are wrong. That’s it.

Comments

  1. says

    Mano:

    First, let me say thank you for a thoughtful, eclectic, and amusing blog. Since I found it I’ve been spending too much time here!

    Before I serve the meat and gravy, a couple of small potatoes. It seems astonishing that the NAS lacked the courage to stamp out the preposterous notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old, but God made it look older. I almost wonder if they did this deliberately, as a nod and a wink to the scientific community, letting them know that they are only saying these things to appease their paymasters in government. I am surprised, Mano, that you characterize the NAS statement as the best case put forth by the accommodationists, given their obvious inability to be genuinely impartial arbiters between the various camps. What else would you expect the poor sods to say?

    Now on to bigger things. I’m beginning to wonder, Mano, if your war against religion is being fought on too many fronts. You could just content yourself with the question of the existence or non-existence of “God”, whatever “God” is. But you also want to eradicate any similarly superstitious concepts to the extent that they are psychological ancillaries of the God concept.

    I am thinking in particular of the idea of the soul and of non-materialistic conceptions of consciousness (human and otherwise). It seems to me that you feel it necessary to attack these ideas as irrational and inconsistent with sound scientific principles, seeing them as aiding and abetting the God concept you most despise. Is it possible that you would be better served, purely as a matter of ideological tactics, to concentrate your formidable firepower on the primary target? Is your campaign against the soul as unnecessary and ill-advised as President Bush’s campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, justified as part of a larger “War on Terror” (or “War of Terror, as Borat called it!)? Sure, Saddam was evil, but so were (and are) any number of other regimes; fighting him diverted resources from the primary objective of Bin Laden, who has never been captured. In my (perhaps absurd) analogy, the soul may seem like a dangerously irrational concept (to you) but is it worth railing against when you could (and arguably should) be focusing solely on the ultimate irrationality of God?

    To look at this another way, there is something about your campaign that reminds me of the conservative Republicans’ constant bleating about judicial restraint in constitutional law. They say they want the Supreme Court to adhere to an absolute, concrete set of rules, assuming that everything we would ever need to know about the Constitution – applicable as it is to so many areas of a vast, complex society – can be discovered in the text itself and in the writings of the men who created it in the late 18th century. The idea of a “living Constitution” – one which can be construed in the light of changing circumstances in the real world – is anathema to them because this flexibility creates the potential for judicial discretion. (Of course, they often simply dislike the results, but that’s a whole other thread.)

    It seems to me, then, that the position of the scientific atheist is analogous to that of the judicial restraintist, insisting that all of reality conform to a set of concrete principles – namely, verifiable scientific laws. Any protest from other actors in the real world that these laws are too rigid, unrealistic, and fail to address multiple situations of everyday life, is deemed unacceptable because of the ideological imperative to follow the known laws. Anything outside the scope of those laws is irrational, potentially destructive, and needs to be suppressed.

    The recent discussion of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements illustrates that the scientists have found the ultimate, unanswerable weapon against non-scientific thinking. Science, we are told, can explain how we get something from nothing. It makes God “unnecessary.” Presumably, it makes the “soul” unnecessary as well. What we seem to have here is a “science of the gaps.” Science will explain everything, even if it hasn’t got there yet. (What will we do, by the way, when we have attained such omniscience? Read the Bible just for laughs? That will get old in a hurry.) I hate to say it, but there is more than a little “faith” invested in this prospect – belief that the scientific method will conquer all uncertainty given enough time. You may not call this confidence faith when it proceeds from a large body of experience, so perhaps your faith is a little more “reasonable” than others. But it remains, I humbly submit, somewhat arrogant to dismiss anything outside your mode of thought as prima facie illegitimate.

    Allow me to conclude by explaining what provoked this little rant. The NY Times article on consciousness, to which you linked, was followed by numerous, intelligent reader comments. I would side with those who discount the proposition that consciousness is an “emergent property”, a result of “integrated information.” I am not religious in any conventional sense. I do not believe in God. But nor do I believe that science is anywhere near explaining the most remarkable phenomenon we know, consciousness itself. That doesn’t mean I will be hanging on the Pope’s every word, sticking pins in voodoo dolls, or waiting for tomorrow’s horoscope. I just won’t give science complete dominion over ontology or epistemology. I remain open to the possibility that neither science nor religion offer an adequate frame of reference.

  2. Steve LaBonne says

    So many words, so little substance, Richard.

    Now, as for simple-minded me, I just use good old induction. Everybody who has ever postulated limits to what science can successfully investigate has so far turned out to be wrong. You’ll have to forgive me if I have zero expectation that you’ll turn out to be the exception.

  3. says

    Richard,

    You have captured quite accurately my general world view. I am a thoroughgoing materialist but that is because I have yet to see any evidence for any non-material phenomena.

    It is quite true that science has not explained everything but I am not sure why that is relevant. I have discussed before, perhaps long before you started visiting here, where the burden of proof lies when it comes to existence and universal claims.

    When people make an existence claim, such as that an independent entity like a god or soul or consciousness exists that does not have a material basis, then the burden is on them to provide evidence for it. In the absence of such evidence, the default assumption is that they do not exist.

    The other issue you raise seems to be tactical. By taking on so many fronts am I weakening my efforts? But consistency requires me to do so. If I deny the existence of god because there is no evidence for it, why should I not do the same thing for a nonmaterial source of consciousness? I think it is significant that the number of people who are declaring themselves to be unbelievers has risen recently, coinciding with the frontal assault by the new atheists on all forms of irrational thinking.

    By the way, next week I will be posting a detailed review of Hawking’s book.

  4. says

    Mano:

    I appreciate the tone of your response. I will keep reading your blog and, who knows, I may come around to your way of thinking. We have a lot of common ground, especially in politics.

    Steve:

    Here’s something more succinct for you, from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s first chapter of The Common Law: “Certitude is not the test of certainty.”

  5. Steve LaBonne says

    Richard, science is not about certitude. Perhaps you should learn something about it- if your dalliance with new-age woo ever leaves you the time.

  6. says

    haha, I loved the comment of Steve, yes indeed! There are no limits to science, but indeed there is a vast area that is still not investigated by the science – the power of our beliefs and the energy of our desires – this is maybe why people try to explain this by religion, because science has not managed to search this area!

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