The accommodationists’ best case (Part 2 of 3)

(See part 1 here.)

The problem with the attempts by theologians to argue that understanding the ‘mystery’ of human experience lies outside the realm of science is that tools to better understand how the brain works are already at hand, with ambitious plans to map out all the brain synapses. (Thanks to Machines Like Us for the link.) Since the brain is what creates consciousness, understanding how the brain works is the precursor to understanding how we think and experience. (Those who think that consciousness or the ‘soul’ exist independently of the brain are of course resorting to Cartesian dualism, that there is a mind-body split, an idea which no serious scientist takes seriously and which even Descartes found difficult to justify.)

Harvard scientists have embarked upon an ambitious program to create a circuit diagram of the human brain, with the help of new machines that automatically turn brain tissue into high-resolution neural maps.

By mapping every synapse in the brain, researchers hope to create a “connectome” — a diagram that would elucidate the brain’s activity at a level of detail far outstripping today’s most advanced brain-monitoring tools like fMRI.

“You’re going to see things you didn’t expect,” said Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology. “It gives us an opportunity to witness this vast complicated universe that has been largely inaccessible until now.”

A map of the mind’s circuitry would allow researchers to see the wiring problems that might underpin disorders like autism and schizophrenia.

“The ‘wiring diagram’ of the brain could help us understand how the brain computes, how it wires itself up during development and rewires itself in adulthood,” said Sebastian Seung, a computational-neuroscience professor at MIT.

Because the scientists of the NAS are well aware of what science is capable of, even the most accommodationist among them are likely to roll their eyes at the kind of arguments that popes and theologians roll out because they know that this is nothing but shameless special pleading. This is why I think the NAS statement is probably the best argument you are likely to get for accommodationism. You can read the full statement here but I will highlight the main excerpts that lays out the case, along with brief commentary on my part.

On page 10, they first explain how science works, highlight its successes, and why it progresses so well:

Scientific knowledge and understanding accumulate from the interplay of observation and explanation. Scientists gather information by observing the natural world and conducting experiments. They then propose how the systems being studied behave in general, basing their explanations on the data provided through their experiments and other observations. They test their explanations by conducting additional observations and experiments under different conditions. Other scientists confirm the observations independently and carry out additional studies that may lead to more sophisticated explanations and predictions about future observations and experiments. In these ways, scientists continually arrive at more accurate and more comprehensive explanations of particular aspects of nature…. In this way, the sophistication and scope of scientific explanations improve over time, as subsequent generations of scientists, often using technological innovations, work to correct, refine, and extend the work done by their predecessors.

On page 12, they begin the delicate, but necessary, task for accommodationists, of separating religious believers into two groups: those sophisticated believers who try and make their religious beliefs conform to established science (especially evolution) and those so-called ‘fundamentalists’ who try to make science conform to their religious beliefs and texts. The first group is seen as important political allies for science. They also bring in the idea that there exist scientists and theologians who believe there is no conflict between science and religion which, although true, is not really an argument for the compatibility of the two worldviews.

Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

In order to accommodate the interests of this group, the NAS needs to find some space for religion to maneuver while not interfering with science. So they resurrect the tired and untenable ‘two worlds’ model in which science and religion are supposed to provide answers to different questions.

Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

On page 15 they trot out a quote by Francis Collins, head of the NIH and former director of the Human Genome Project and perhaps the most high-profile scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, who says in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (p. 6): “In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.”

You can see immediately the kind of wooly language and thinking that occurs when religious people enter the discussion. What exactly does Collins mean when he says that some things must be ‘examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul’? What I think he means is that you should leave out reason and stop using your brain, because he knows that reason is incompatible with religious belief. (I provided a detailed critique of Collins’s truly awful book some time ago.)

Next in this series: Continuing the examination of the NAS’s case.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    Everything claimed for religion by these people is properly the domain of art, on which religion is only a kind of parasitic growth.

    Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.

    If taken literally, this kind of blather can only be interpreted as saying that the concept “supernatural” is utterly vacuous, or even incoherent. Who am I to disagree?

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