Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chris Mooney Asks a Hard Question

 
Chris Mooney was at the AAAS meeting in Washington and he attended the session on Re-Envisioning the Science and Religion Dialogue. Most of you are familiar with what went on at that session—a bunch of religious people declared that science and religion are perfectly compatible.1

Chris wrote up something on his blog ... [Science and Religion Dialogue at the AAAS].
At the close of the session, I rose and posed a question. One can never remember exact words, but in essence, it was this: “I’m glad you’re trying to foster dialogue between scientists and the religious community, and I’m sure you’ll succeed. But here is a harder question–how will you foster dialogue with the New Atheists?”
I can understand why Chris wants to know the answer to this question. After several years of trying to have an intelligent discussion with New Atheists he is no closer to succeeding than when he first started. It's a tough problem for him.

Allow me to suggest an answer. The first thing you have to realize is that atheists do not accept the premise that supernatural beings actually exist. You aren't going to get anywhere in a discussion with an atheist if you base your arguments on that premise.

Let's say you're a religious person—like those on the panel—and you want to have a productive dialogue with an atheist about whether science and religion are compatible. The first thing you do is admit up front that most religions have beliefs that are in direct conflict with science. The second thing you do is either admit that you hold those beliefs, and therefore your religion is in conflict with science, or that you disavow all those beliefs, in which case your version of non-conflicting religion that's left needs to be explained.

At that point you can have a dialogue by describing your remaining religious beliefs and explaining why they don't conflict with science.

William Phillips, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, answered the question.
Phillips, the Methodist Nobel Laureate, had a very interesting answer. He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people–people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked–they could no longer maintain their point of view.
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Nonsense. That's extremely insulting and it's no way to have a dialogue with people who disagree with you. I know lots of serious religious people and I've read lots of books and articles by "serious" religious people like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Keith Ward, and Alister McGrath. I've also read a great deal of literature by accommodationsts (atheists) like Michael Ruse and Eugenie Scott. My point of view remains the same: aside from strict deism, all other religious viewpoints conflict with science.

My question to William Phillips would be based on his description of himself as a Methodist. What are the basic tenets of Methodism that you subscribe to and how are they compatible with science as a way of knowing? We could then have a productive dialogue.

Mooney continues ...
I’m not so sure, though. I think the New Atheists have a ready and built-in answer to this appeal to the significance of so-called “religious moderates.” They claim–in an argument that I for one find weak–that the moderates enable extremists, and so are part of the problem. (Even, I suppose, if they are perfectly lovely human beings.)
I can see why Chris Mooney is having so much difficulty engaging in productive dialogue with atheists. It's because he doesn't listen.

I'm perfectly happy to discuss the compatibility of science and religion with any religious moderate. All I ask is that they stop pointing the finger at Christian fundamentalists and start describing what they, themselves, actually believe. They may have fooled Chris Mooney by employing this diversionary tactic but they don't fool most other atheists.
Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people’s lives–which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists.
What nonsense! People believe all kinds of things that play an important role in their lives. If those beliefs provide them with a great deal of comfort then, of course, they are going to be reluctant to abandon them. What does that prove?

It proves that we have a lot of work to do if we want people to abandon superstition and base their lives on evidence, rationality, and skepticism. That applies to homeopathy, astrology, the belief that climate change isn't happening, and the belief that universal health care is a communist plot. Would Chris prefer that we simply abandon those efforts because it's going to be difficult?2

I, for one, do expect societies to abandon religion in spite of the fact that many individuals will find this extremely difficult. It's working in Europe and in other nations throughout the world. Chris' point, I think, is that we should avoid talking about the possible conflict between science and religion because it makes religious people very nervous. Since religion plays such an important role in their lives, we should tip-toe around the topic and pretend that science and religion aren't in conflict, especially with "religious moderates." This is no way to have a productive dialogue. It's the exact opposite of a productive dialogue.


1. Imagine that!

2. The conservative mindset is extremely important in the lives of many Americans. Would Chris avoid criticizing Republicans because it might hurt their feelings? Or is it because he isn't likely to change their minds?

24 comments :

  1. It's good that you brought up the fact that conservatism is also an important belief for many people, and it's one that Chris apparently has no qualms criticizing. Unfortunately, many religious people want their beliefs to be considered a special category of belief -- one that is more important than all others and therefore should not be challenged. These beliefs are sacred and the taboo against examining them must remain intact.

    I also find that Chris's position is peculiarly American -- religion has been in a long decline elsewhere, so obviously people can abandon religious beliefs in large numbers. It is far from a fruitless task to try to get people to question their religious belief systems.

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  2. It's good to see CM asking these questions and I hope that this will be reflected in his POI podcast. I did find one thing very strange about his post:

    They claim–in an argument that I for one find weak–that the moderates enable extremists, and so are part of the problem.

    Really? I know that many people have made that argument but not as a means of avoiding discussion but rather to encourage dialogue, to prevent these wishy-washy moderates from being let off the hook. If you look back through the archives of Sandwalk, WEIT and OB's Butterflies blogs you'll find plenty of attempts to deal directly with these "sophisticated" theologians. Indeed, after LM spent a couple months at this, I feel compelled to place sophisticated in scare quotes because he so thoroughly demonstrated the vacuity of their writing.

    At the end of the piece, Mooney talks about a family dealing with emotional turmoil who say religion brings comfort. Hmm... Am I being too cynical when I refuse to accept at face value the claim that religion brings comfort? We've heard the same claims from people wearing magnetic bracelets to comfort them and while we listen to what they say, we don't automatically believe them. Why should we believe this claim? It seems to me that religious belief is complex and can easily be creating guilt, fear and insecurity in people as comfort. And when religious folk go through tragedies like death, they don't seem to mourn any less than atheists so just how much comfort does it really provide? I'm a little tired of people parroting this line without even a hint of scepticism.

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  3. Is Mooney painfully unaware of the irony of claiming that moderates enabling extremists is a weak argument when he just quoted Phillips no-true-Scotsmanning away the extremists by declaring his own version of Christianity to be the serious one?

    This is precisely the sort of thing many atheists note. There really are genuinely crazy, batshit religious people out there in large numbers, but criticizing them, we are told by the moderates, is missing the point and not productive. But if we don't criticize them, who will? Certainly not the moderates.

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  4. The accommodationists seem to be saying that religious truths are of a different sort than scientific truths, more like the truths of music or literature. John Wilkins linked to a post that quotes Muriel Rukeyser saying that "the world is made of stories, not atoms".

    It would be interesting to know whether the moderate religious types actually agree.

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  5. Tyro says, referring to the argument that religious moderates enable fundamentalists:

    Really? I know that many people have made that argument but not as a means of avoiding discussion but rather to encourage dialogue, to prevent these wishy-washy moderates from being let off the hook.

    This is an excellent point. I have expressed my sympathies to this same argument, and I do believe there are pretty clear-cut cases of it happening (e.g. gov't support of the Haredim in Israeli) -- but I have never used it to avoid dialog. In fact, quite the opposite, I have used this premise to engage in dialog with a religious friend of mine.

    Maybe the accomodationists are just confused on the definition of "dialog"...

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  6. "This is precisely the sort of thing many atheists note. There really are genuinely crazy, batshit religious people out there in large numbers, but criticizing them, we are told by the moderates, is missing the point and not productive. But if we don't criticize them, who will? Certainly not the moderates."

    You misunderstand the moderates position. It is entirely productive to criticise the extremists, but completely missing the point if you criticise both groups for the actions and beliefs of the extremists.

    What evidence do you have that moderates are not criticising extremists? What moderate blogs do you read? Moderate forums? Magasines? Journals? Local moderate meetings you attend?

    I suspect the answer to that is 'none' otherwise you wouldn't feel that atheists are the only critics of religious extremists.

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  7. Ed says,

    You misunderstand the moderates position. It is entirely productive to criticise the extremists, but completely missing the point if you criticise both groups for the actions and beliefs of the extremists.

    That's certainly part of what they're saying. But it's not very important because there are very few atheists who make this mistake.

    A better way of characterizing the position of the moderates is that they use this excuse to avoid having to actually defend their own position. They're very fond of telling us that they're not fundamentalists. They love describing themselves as "sophisticated" Christians. They delight in reminding us that Christians believe so many different things that they can't all be lumped together.

    What they consistently fail to do is describe those things they believe in that might conflict with science. They want us to guess, so that when we guess wrong they can make fun of us.

    Here's my question for all "moderates" and those who subscribe to The Courtier's Reply. If you aren't a deist, then how does your belief differ from deism? What specific things do you believe to be true that a deist or an atheist won't accept?

    Explain how those things are compatible with science as a way of knowing.

    You might want to start with miracles, if you believe in them. Or perhaps you could explain how belief in a personal God is compatible. What about life after death? Do you believe in that? Do you believe in a soul? Do you believe in Moral Law? Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Do you believe that prayer is effective?

    These are all positions that moderates could hold without being fundamentalists.

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  8. Ed,

    If you pay attention to what many prominent moderates write, what do they say? We've seen the pope defended faith and blame modern problems on secularists; Ayala attack science to prop up faith; Prince Charles again attacking secularism, consumerism and Galileo (!) while defending Woo (and Islam); Karen Armstrong again defending faith and attacking atheism; and on and on. These aren't merely moderates, they're practically pinko liberals yet they unite to defend faith and undermine naturalism, secularism and atheism. They do NOT unite to attack fundamentalism.

    Take a look at the discussion over the BioLogos article (again, written by very liberal/moderate Christians) which tries to argue there's scientific support for Adam & Eve and a literal interpretation of Genesis! If there's ever a place to come out and say unambiguously that Genesis is a myth and did not happen, this would be it and yet they could not, they couldn't even do it in a second article about the subject.

    Time and time again, 'moderates' have the choice to decide where their loyalties lie and when pressed, they show they would rather side with fundamentalists and undermine science than say anything negative about faith in any form.

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  9. aside from strict deism, all other religious viewpoints conflict with science.


    There is a limited theism that is consistent with science. Due to the chaotic nature of the universe, infinitesimal, unobservable fluctuations grow to have measurable consequences. The science of chaotic systems deals with probabilities, not individual events. Yet our universe is an individual event. A deity limited to creating unobservably small fluctuations could steer the path of the universe to some degree and remain invisible and irrelevant to science.

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  10. jbw,

    A deity limited to creating unobservably small fluctuations could steer the path of the universe to some degree and remain invisible and irrelevant to science.

    This is where the conversation descends into Wonderland.

    Do you know anybody who believes in a supernatural being that's completely undetectable? Why would they? How could they possibly know of its existence?

    It's true that undetectable gods will not conflict directly with science. As a matter of fact, they don't conflict with anything. They are indistinguishable from figments of the imagination.

    If you're going to practice science as a way of knowing then one of the criteria that you must follow is not to base your actions on possible figments of your imagination. That's not going to prove productive in the long run.

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  11. It seems that people of faith want to have some sort of deity they can believe in. In some sense, "faith" and "figment of your imagination" mean the same thing.

    As I thought about the implications of chaos, I was surprised to realize you could happily believe in an undetectable, unobservable theistic deity that was completely consistent with modern science. Such belief requires faith. This belief wouldn't change your actions, as long as you didn't attach other nonsense to this belief, so this deity is also irrelevant for modern science.

    Perhaps more seriously, it is interesting to me at least to think about the boundaries of what science can tell us.

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  12. jbw says,

    Perhaps more seriously, it is interesting to me at least to think about the boundaries of what science can tell us.

    Forget about science. It just takes plain rationality to realize that you don't believe in figments of your imagination.

    It's not compatible with science, either. Your example defines the boundary between science and nonsense. Believing in nonsense may tell you something but that "something" doesn't qualify as knowledge.

    Science still seems to be the only way of knowing.

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  13. Your example defines the boundary between science and nonsense.

    What about scientific questions where we don't have enough data to determine the answer? Are those questions nonsense? What if we can foresee obtaining the data in the near future? What if obtaining enough data would take longer than the age of the Universe?

    Suppose someone is flipping coins. Theism is the hypothesis that the coins are not fair, that some unknown effect is influencing the flips. You can quite precisely calculate how much data is needed to eliminate the possibility that the coins are not fair to any confidence level you like.

    If you flip lots of coins at once then you need a lot of coin flips to determine if the coins are independent and fair. With enough coins, and slow enough flips, you need more time than the age of the Universe. In this case there is no experiment you can practically do that will rule out unfair coins. Is the question "are the coins fair" then nonsense?

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  14. jbw says,

    If you flip lots of coins at once then you need a lot of coin flips to determine if the coins are independent and fair. With enough coins, and slow enough flips, you need more time than the age of the Universe. In this case there is no experiment you can practically do that will rule out unfair coins. Is the question "are the coins fair" then nonsense?

    Nope, the question isn't nonsense. It's the answer we're concerned about.

    The correct scientific answer is that the coins seem to be extremely but we can't rule out some miniscule level of unfairness.

    The incorrect scientific answer is that God is controlling the result but we just can't detect it. That's the nonsense answer.

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  15. The incorrect scientific answer is that God is controlling the result but we just can't detect it. That's the nonsense answer.

    I disagree with the last point. The correct scientific answer is that we can't determine if the coins are unfair, end of story.

    Humans have intuition and intuition, while often wrong, is not nonsense. Some/many/most/all? scientific advances start from intuition. Science is the process of turning intuition into knowledge. But here we have a case where we can scientifically determine that the question is unanswerable. Does that make intuition nonsense?

    For all scientific questions, you get the same result for all possible experiments whether you believe the coins are fair, or that the manufacturing plant is faulty or corrupt, or that Thor throws lightning bolts to influence the flips. These beliefs are scientifically irrelevant. There is no reason to pick one over the other. They all are consistent with science.

    I guess you are free to equate irrelevance with nonsense, it becomes a matter of semantics. But I see them as different. To me, nonsense is a patently false idea, like the idea the Earth is 6000 years old.

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  16. If an entity exists that can, e.g., feed the hungry, or provide knowledge of how to act morally, and the entity is sufficiently vain to respond to propitiation including "faith," then by all means propitiate. Of course it is then up to those who say faith is a good thing to establish the premise (prove the existence of such an entity).

    OTOH, if the entity exists and acts only at undetectable levels amongst quantum "fluctuations," what then is the value of belief?

    Saying first that an undetectable entity exists, then that we should have faith due to the value of the things the entity can do, is attempted sleight-of-hand, not serious argument.

    Thus any deity worth believing in is one that can have its existence at least provisionally disproved, as a coin may have its fairness at least provisionally established.

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  17. jbw writes:

    I disagree with the last point. The correct scientific answer is that we can't determine if the coins are unfair, end of story.

    The only thing being determined in your colloquy with Larry on this point is the level of proof you personally are willing to accept, not "the answer" to any scientific inquiry.

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  18. The only thing being determined in your colloquy with Larry on this point is the level of proof you personally are willing to accept, not "the answer" to any scientific inquiry.

    That's not my point. For these kind of simple probabilistic questions we can quantify uncertainty and confidence levels quite nicely. The issue is not whether 90% confidence is better than 99%. Pick any confidence level you like, the same issue arises. There are valid questions that no experiment in a finite universe can answer.

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  19. jbw writes: The correct scientific answer is that we can't determine if the coins are unfair, end of story.

    * * *

    There are valid questions that no experiment in a finite universe can answer.

    I'll readily grant the point made by your second statement, but I am questioning your conflation of "valid questions" with scientific questions.

    Your first statement uses the phrase "scientific answer" regarding whether a coin is fair. The trivial scientific answer to the question of whether a coin is "fair" (or whether any process is perfectly random) is that nothing is perfect. Unless one sees consistent or increasing divergence from the 50/50 mark as the number of trials increases, the only remaining question is, how close to 50/50 is satisfactory for your own particular purposes, and this is not a scientific question.

    If the point you want to make is that science cannot with certainty rule out a "ghost in the machine" with a scope of action so slight as not to be detectable with available methods, then of course you're correct, and so what? As I said in a previous comment, what is the value of belief in such an entity?

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  20. how close to 50/50 is satisfactory for your own particular purposes

    A point to emphasize is that it doesn't take much to come up with a sample size that is enormous, and to render the uncertainty in the probabilities very large. And small fluctuations can give very large results.

    As I said in a previous comment, what is the value of belief in such an entity?

    Value to science and scientific knowledge? None whatsoever. But it doesn't conflict with science either. Most religious beliefs are inconsistent with science. The question is, are any consistent with science? Larry said only strict deism is consistent.

    My point is that our modern probabilistic understanding of dynamical systems leaves a window for limited theism. It is a theism that people on both sides of the debate probably find unsatisfying, but so what? Science says what it says, satisfying or not.

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  21. jbw said...

    There is a limited theism that is consistent with science... A deity limited to creating unobservably small fluctuations could steer the path of the universe to some degree and remain invisible and irrelevant to science.

    What properties would this deity have and by what methods would it create unobservably small fluctuations? Is the deity an immaterial entity, a disembodied mind? Because that's problematic. Most scientists would agree that minds need material brains in which to reside. And if the deity is immaterial, how can it interact with our material universe? What's the process there? You just can't leave it as "magic" or you'll end up conflicting with science again.

    As I thought about the implications of chaos, I was surprised to realize you could happily believe in an undetectable, unobservable theistic deity that was completely consistent with modern science. Such belief requires faith.

    Ah, but faith itself--when considered a valid way of knowing--most definitely conflicts with science. Science is applied skepticism. Richard Feynman said "The first rule of science is that you must never fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

    Humans have intuition and intuition, while often wrong, is not nonsense. Some/many/most/all? scientific advances start from intuition. Science is the process of turning intuition into knowledge.

    I agree with you here. Science is the tool we use for unpacking our intuitions/assumptions and discovering which hold up under scrutiny. Intuitions which pass the scientific method can then be given the label knowledge (tentative truths).

    But here we have a case where we can scientifically determine that the question is unanswerable. Does that make intuition nonsense?

    It means that particular intuition is doomed to be forever indistinguishable from nonsense and can never attain the status of knowledge.

    For all scientific questions, you get the same result for all possible experiments whether you believe the coins are fair, or that the manufacturing plant is faulty or corrupt, or that Thor throws lightning bolts to influence the flips. These beliefs are scientifically irrelevant. There is no reason to pick one over the other. They all are consistent with science.

    No, science actively employs Occam's razor to slice out irrelevant details. That's how intuitions become knowledge, by passing through the refining fire of scientific skepticism. Therefore the only intuitions "consistent" with science are those that became knowledge, devoid of any irrelevant details.

    I guess you are free to equate irrelevance with nonsense, it becomes a matter of semantics. But I see them as different. To me, nonsense is a patently false idea, like the idea the Earth is 6000 years old.

    Irrelevance becomes nonsense the second a person considers it to be knowledge, done by circumventing science and choosing to believe in it on the basis of faith.

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  22. jbw said...

    There is a limited theism that is consistent with science... A deity limited to creating unobservably small fluctuations could steer the path of the universe to some degree and remain invisible and irrelevant to science.

    What properties would this deity have and by what methods would it create unobservably small fluctuations? Is the deity an immaterial entity, a disembodied mind? Because that's problematic. Most scientists would agree that minds need material brains in which to reside. And if the deity is immaterial, how can it interact with our material universe? What's the process there? You just can't leave it as "magic" or you'll end up conflicting with science again.

    As I thought about the implications of chaos, I was surprised to realize you could happily believe in an undetectable, unobservable theistic deity that was completely consistent with modern science. Such belief requires faith.

    Ah, but faith itself--when considered a valid way of knowing--most definitely conflicts with science. Science is applied skepticism. Richard Feynman said "The first rule of science is that you must never fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

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  23. Humans have intuition and intuition, while often wrong, is not nonsense. Some/many/most/all? scientific advances start from intuition. Science is the process of turning intuition into knowledge.

    I agree with you here. Science is the tool we use for unpacking our intuitions/assumptions and discovering which hold up under scrutiny. Intuitions which pass the scientific method can then be given the label knowledge (tentative truths).

    But here we have a case where we can scientifically determine that the question is unanswerable. Does that make intuition nonsense?

    It means that particular intuition is doomed to be forever indistinguishable from nonsense and can never attain the status of knowledge.

    For all scientific questions, you get the same result for all possible experiments whether you believe the coins are fair, or that the manufacturing plant is faulty or corrupt, or that Thor throws lightning bolts to influence the flips. These beliefs are scientifically irrelevant. There is no reason to pick one over the other. They all are consistent with science.

    No, science actively employs Occam's razor to slice out irrelevant details. That's how intuitions become knowledge, by passing through the refining fire of scientific skepticism. Therefore the only intuitions "consistent" with science are those that became knowledge, devoid of any irrelevant details.

    I guess you are free to equate irrelevance with nonsense, it becomes a matter of semantics. But I see them as different. To me, nonsense is a patently false idea, like the idea the Earth is 6000 years old.

    Irrelevance becomes nonsense the second a person considers it to be knowledge, done by circumventing science and choosing to believe in it on the basis of faith.

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  24. Sorry about the triple post. Originally I got an error message saying my post was too large, so I split it into two smaller segments. But for some reason all three got posted. Feel free to delete duplicated sections.

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