Monday, April 05, 2010

Here We Go Again

 
You've been following the battles in the Accommodationist Wars for several years. If you've been paying attention you will by now have acquired a good understanding of the main arguments on both sides. You should be able to recognize which arguments are valid and which ones are false—in terms of their logic.

Now it's time for the test.

Read the following passage by Michael Zimmerman1 on The Huffington Post. He is defending the proposition that the evolution/creation controversy is not a conflict between science and religion [Redefining The Creation/Evolution Controversy]. Your task is to identify the logical flaw(s) in this argument. For the purposes of this test, we're not interested in who's right and who's wrong in the Accommodationist Wars. I'm just interested in knowing whether you can recognize a good argument and a bad one.
The mere existence of the Clergy Letter Project, an international organization I founded that is comprised of thousands of clergy members and scientists, demonstrates that religious leaders and scientists are not inherently at odds. After all, more than 12,400 Christian clergy members from all across the United States have signed the Christian Clergy Letter, a powerful, two-paragraph statement promoting a shared understanding and acceptance of evolution and Christianity.

What could be clearer than these sentences from that Letter? "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts[...]. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth."


1. Michael Zimmerman is an ecologist at Butler University in Indiana (USA). He started The Clergy Letter Project.

21 comments :

  1. Well, the first thing that strikes me is to wonder whether we're talking about a conflict between religious leaders and scientists, or between religion and science, and who gets to decide the what's and who's of all four.

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  2. Fallacy 1: That some number of clergy and scientists have achieved a reconciliation that works for them does not prove that their reconciliation is coherent and correct. There's a subtle Argument From Authority going on.

    Fallacy 2: "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth."
    Exactly what is "religious truth", or to put it a different way: how do we know that theological statements contain truth?

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  3. Religion's "purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts"

    1) According to who? That is not the chief aim of most religions I've heard of. His argument doesn't hold up when we take into consideration the actual aims of religions and how religious people actually behave.

    2) Religion makes truth claims that are subject to scientific study or at least to critical examination grounded in scientific knowledge. If we take away all the fantasy and nonsense in religion that is invalidated by science and reason, what is left?

    3) "Transformation of hearts" does not require religion. Poetry, art, theater, cinema, literature, and secular organizations of all kinds can encourage a more compassionate society. A look at certain European countries suggests that society can be happy and stable without much religion at all.

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  4. The existence of people who think evolution and Christianity are compatible doesn't make it true (fallacy of composition, he infers that something that's true of some religious people is true of religion in general--it's being ministers sounds like a bit of argument from authority in the mix too).

    Just because some religious people accept a finding of science doesn't mean the fundamental approach to belief formation of science isn't at odds with those of religion. He's changed the topic from the compatibility of religion and science to the compatibility of a particular scientific finding, evolution, with SOME people's religious beliefs--a non sequitur.

    Religion, in fact, almost always DOES make factual claims about the world. Only the barest fraction of religious people actually practice a form of religion that restricts it to a separate "magisteria" from science.

    He may believe religion OUGHT to operate in a separate magisteria from science but that doesn't make it so. Not sure what name to give to the fallacious thinking there.

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  5. The is/ought problem of Hume?

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  6. In addition to what else has already been mentioned, the wording in the extract conflates 'religion' with 'Christianity'. I'm pretty sure that there are other religious beliefs besides Christianity.

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  7. Late to the fray, so let me just say...

    What could be clearer than these sentences from that Letter? "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth."

    Clearer? How about "Religious truth, defined as whatever makes the individual all snug and comfy, is of a different order from scientific truth, which is about knowledge of real things."

    (Otherwise, argument from authority, strawman, non sequitur, and moralistic fallacy.)

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  8. We should compile a list of scientists who believe science and religion are NOT compatible. That should acceptably prove to the accomodationists that they are wrong, by their own standards of proof.

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  9. "We should compile a list of scientists who believe science and religion are NOT compatible. That should acceptably prove to the accomodationists that they are wrong, by their own standards of proof."

    I'll be the first data point. However, there is no standard of proof for a politically expedient argument.

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  10. I read this post after reading your later one on the Afghan War. There is a connection: in the Afghan War post you are saying (I think) that the battle is not worth fighting, and I suspect that some of "accommodationists" (when the term is used as an insult) are perhaps scientists thinking the same about the religion/science spat: that there is no point in having a bitter battle with the nicer religious folk with its associated cost and collateral damage in loss of good relations.

    Anyway, for me, science disproves religion (I'm happy with "disproves" but any weasel word version will do!) and I am sure that they are not intellectually, logically or theologically compatible. But (a) I would prefer to live on a world of happy people who rub along together even when they have different views than a world of bitter wars, be they wars fought with words or wars fought with weapons, (b) it's not a winnable war (not this way anyway, time will give us victory), and (c) if people want to have rubbish ideas in their heads, that's their right, up until they start harming other people.

    Interesting that religious folk use the word "truth" in an unusual way: a religious "truth" is something that makes you feel warm and more knowing, not something that is cold fact; it's almost the opposite of fact. I heard a religious correspondent on the BBC say something along the lines of how difficult religous thought is and what wonderful truths it produces, which (he said in a tone of wonder) are often contradictory. To a rationalist, contradictory truths make the light on the Bolloxometer (get one from your irony meter supplier) flash brightly, but a certain sort of religious mind thinks that this sort of contradiction suggests a higher, hidden "truth" waiting to be found.

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  11. Sam C. says,

    But (a) I would prefer to live on a world of happy people who rub along together even when they have different views than a world of bitter wars, be they wars fought with words or wars fought with weapons, (b) it's not a winnable war (not this way anyway, time will give us victory), and (c) if people want to have rubbish ideas in their heads, that's their right, up until they start harming other people.

    Sam, I disagree with your analysis and your conclusion.

    (a) You are being very selective in your choice of which different views you are wiling to ignore. Clearly you can't make the argument that it's always better to "get along" than to challenge views you disagree with. What you mean to say, I think, is that belief in superstition is one of the different views that you don't want to challenge. There are many others that I'm sure you would challenge. This is one of the problems. Religious views, no matter how silly, get a special pass. Racism and homophobia don't get a special pass, neither do Republicans and Democrats.

    (b) The "war" between rationality and superstition is winnable.

    (c) People have a "right" to have silly ideas but our society would be much better off if they didn't. Besides, there are few examples of such silly ideas that are completely harmless.

    Regarding the compatibility of science and religion, let's assume that we take your advice and keep our opinions to ourselves. How should we respond when religious people don't heed that advice and make very public announcements that religion and science are perfectly compatible?

    Are you suggesting that we just ignore them even though we know they're wrong? We don't do that for other disagreement, why should this be any different?

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  12. Regarding the compatibility of science and religion,

    Yes, regarding the incompatibility of science and religion, can you point to an "accomodationinst" who argues that science and religion are in fact compatible?

    Most of the criticisms of "accomodationism" and "accomdationsts" that you have posted in the last three months have been criticisms and non-overlapping magisteria and methodlogical naturalism. As far as I understand them both, are statements aboput the fundamental incompatibility of science and religion.

    In brief, NOMA and methodological nature, as far as I understand them, are statements that science and religion cover different domains of human experience. In particular science covers the domain in which knowledge gained through empirical obsevation of the universe can only be described through natural causes, whereas religion covers the domain in which knowledge gained through empirical observation can sometimes be explained by causes that ultimately violate all sets of natural causes. Thus, science by its very definition, is incompatible with religion in so far as NOMA and methodological naturlism are concerned.

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  13. "Most of the criticisms of "accomodationism" and "accomdationsts" that you have posted in the last three months have been criticisms and non-overlapping magisteria and methodlogical naturalism."

    Actually, Larry has posted plenty of many examples of the type of accommodationist nonsense that proclaims religious scientists exist therefore science and religion are compatible.

    Much of the Xian apologetics that accommodationists take their cues from hold that not only can religion and science be compatible BECAUSE they are distinct "ways of knowing" (only the most moderate or sophisticated beliefs make the cut) but the two are also complimentary to one another: science addresses "how" questions, religion "why" questions.

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  14. Michael M says,

    Thus, science by its very definition, is incompatible with religion in so far as NOMA and methodological naturalism are concerned.

    I see your point but you need to look at the problem from another direction. Those who want to wall off science and religion are primarily concerned with avoiding conflict. They want to set up a situation where science and religion can never conflict; thus, it would be possible to be a very religious person and a scientist without having to compromise one or the other.

    In this sense, they are trying to make science and religion compatible by allowing them to coexist in a rational mind.

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  15. gillt says,

    Much of the Xian apologetics that accommodationists take their cues from hold that not only can religion and science be compatible BECAUSE they are distinct "ways of knowing" (only the most moderate or sophisticated beliefs make the cut) but the two are also complimentary to one another: science addresses "how" questions, religion "why" questions.

    I think that's an accurate description of their position.

    There are many believers who maintain that religion is a very special way of knowing and that only religion can answer "why" questions.

    I have challenged these people to explain how atheists survive without this special access to knowledge. Are all atheists stupid because they're avoiding an important way of knowing that only believers can make use of?

    Funny, I don't feel like I'm missing anything. The believers have never responded to my challenge.

    I am a scientist and an atheist. I address "why" questions all the time and my answers seem perfectly satisfactory to me. Why do believers insist that I can't address "why" questions because I don't believe in God?

    Am I an unusual person?

    The accommodationist logic is fundamentally flawed. They are trying to defend people who are attempting to use rational arguments to support a position that's rationally indefensible. Religion relies on faith. That's why it's superstition and not science.

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  16. So I am still confused as to how partitioning science and religion into two fundamentally different and mutually exclusive domains of human experience is an admission that science is compatible with religion.

    I understand that the how/why distinction is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, wrong as far as describing the difference between science and religion. However, if science is methodologically naturalistic, science's methodological naturalism precludes it from investigating claims that violate the suppositions of methodological naturalism. In particular, this means science cannot create meaningful knowledge about the supernatural, because the supernatural is beyond explanation by natural causes and therefore outside of the purview of methodoligical naturalism. In other words, science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, because the knowledge that religion produces (in so far as religion can be said to produce any knoweldge at all*) can proceed from a source that the knowledge that science produces by sceince's own supposition cannot.

    *I realize that one of the contentions of the "anti-accomodationists" is that religion cannot be said to produce anything that might be meaningfully called "knowledge". Nonetheless, there is deifnitely a problem in that the usage of the word "knowledge" is rarely if ever precise and often blurs the lines between the ancient and postmodern notions of gnosis (i.e., knowledge-through-revelation) and episteme (i.e., knowledge-through-experience) and the modern and contemporary notion of knowledge as "justified true belief".

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  17. I think it's pretty clear that there is an incompatibility between religion and science, but if they are "non-overlapping" or "walled off from one another" then there is by definition no incompatibility in belief (or, more inclusively, acceptance) of both. I don't think most people in the debate are making that distinction, and thus are seen as insisting that the two be mixed together in one pot called "knowledge."

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  18. Michael M says,

    However, if science is methodologically naturalistic, science's methodological naturalism precludes it from investigating claims that violate the suppositions of methodological naturalism.

    I do not accept your claim that the only way to practice good science is exclude any investigation of possible supernatural events.

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  19. I do not accept your claim that the only way to practice good science is exclude any investigation of possible supernatural events.

    I don't see how you could "not accept [my] claim that the only way to practice good science is exclude any investigation of possible supernatural events", because I never made such a claim. I did, however, say that the naturalistic suppositions of science do in fact preclude science from directly falsifying supernatural modes of causation, because positing supernatural modes of causation contradict the aforementioned naturalistic suppositions of science.

    What science can, and most often does, do is posit an alternative naturalistic explanation and then test that explanation. If the naturalistic explanation is not falsified, science can reject the supernatural explanation on the grounds that parsimony does not requires an appeal to supernatural causation. If, however, the naturalistic explanation is falsified, science cannot confirm supernatural causation, because it violates the naturalistic suppositions of science.

    In sum, science cannot directly test supernatural causation, because testing supernatural causation requires that supernatural causation be posited. Science, however, can do an end-run around positing supernatural causation by positing a competing naturalistic explanation, which at least if falsified provides a stronger basis for rejecting supernatural causation on the basis of parsimony.

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  20. Isn't the main reason that religion and science are incompatible the fact that religion is composed of bare assertions which must be accepted on authority, and science requires evidence and testing before claims are accepted?

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  21. Michael M. "...the naturalistic suppositions of science do in fact preclude science from directly falsifying supernatural modes of causation, because positing supernatural modes of causation contradict the aforementioned naturalistic suppositions of science."

    Which is why religious belief is more than just about faith. Besides deism I can't think of any theism that doesn't make claims subject to scientific scrutiny.

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