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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Francisco Ayala Wins Templeton Prize

Francisco Ayala has won this year's Templeton Prize. It's a very wise political choice on the part of the Templeton Foundation since Ayala is a top notch evolutionary biologist and a vocal opponent of Intelligent Design Creationism.

The announcement was made at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. A few year ago, Ayala chaired the committee that product the NAS booklet on Science, Evolution, and Creationism. That book made the case for science and it also made the case for accommodationism—something that NAS should have avoided.

Here's a repeat of a posting I made on January 4, 2008. It explains why science organizations get into trouble when they try to support some religions and not others. They should be neutral.

The National Academies (Science, Engineering, Medicine) (USA) have just published their latest book on the evolution/creationism controversy. You can download it for free on their website [Science, Evolution and Creationism].

Like the previous versions, this one is quite well done. It explains evolutionary concepts correctly and gives clear examples of the evidence supporting the fact of evolution. The book—actually a large pamphlet—describes the various forms of creationism and why they are rejected by science.

I was troubled by one part of the book describing the compatibility of science and religion. It's only two paragraphs plus three pages of quotations but it promotes the fallacy of the Doctrine of Joint Belief. This fallacy makes a virtue out of compartmentalization. It says that because scientist X is religious, it follows that religion and science are compatible. Similarly, because religious leader Y, accepts evolution, it follows that science and religion are not in conflict.

While preparing to blog about this fallacy, my daughter Jane alerted me to a piece in today's New York Times [Evolution Book Sees No Science-Religion Gap]. The article in the New York Times is written by Cornelia Dean who has previously written about the compatibility of science and religion [Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science].

In today's article, Cornelia Dean briefly reviews Science, Evolution and Creationism. She says,
But this volume is unusual, people who worked on it say, because it is intended specifically for the lay public and because it devotes much of its space to explaining the differences between science and religion, and asserting that acceptance of evolution does not require abandoning belief in God.


The 70-page book, “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” says, among other things, that “attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.” And it offers statements from several eminent biologists and members of the clergy to support the view.
I think it's unfortunate that the New York Times article places so much emphasis on this part of the book but the authors of the book1 must have known what they were doing. Too bad they were misguided.

Here's what they wrote in Science, Evolution and Creationism,
Acceptance of the evidence for evolution
can be compatible with religious faith.

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.

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.
There are two fallacies here. The first one is the one I already alluded to (the Doctrine of Joint Belief). Just because you can find scientists and theologians who proclaim that evolution is compatible with religious faith doesn't make it so. You need to examine their understanding of evolution and also what they mean by "religious faith."

As you might have guessed, the book trots out quotations from the usual suspects, Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller2. Their words of wisdom appear on a page with the title "Excerpts of Statements by Scientists Who See No Conflict Between Their Faith and Science." The book makes some amends, in my opinion, by including the following statement on that page.
Scientists, like people in other professions, hold a wide range of positions about religion and the role of supernatural forces or entities in the universe. Some adhere to a position known as scientism, which holds that the methods of science alone are sufficient for discovering everything there is to know about the universe. Others ascribe to an idea known as deism, which posits that God created all things and set the universe in motion but no longer actively directs physical phenomena. Others are theists, who believe that God actively intervenes in the world. Many scientists who believe in God, either as a prime mover or as an active force in the universe, have written eloquently about their beliefs.
The good part about that statement is that it mentions deism, which is a form of religion where the conflict between science and religion really is minimized. The bad parts are that theists who promote interventionist Gods are touted as examples of those who see no conflict between science and religion. (The reason why Theistic Evolutionists don't "see" a conflict is because they choose to look the other way [Theistic Evolution: The Fallacy of the Middle Ground].)

The other bad part is that atheists are equated with the philosophical position of scientism. That's an unnecessary complication. It would have been sufficient, and preferable, to state that many scientists do not believe in supernatural beings. They could have gone on to state that many of those non-believers see a conflict between science and the supernatural.

The second fallacy in the two paragraphs quoted above is something I call the Fallacy of the Undetectable Supernatural. The authors of Science, Evolution and Creationism repeat the silly argument that "supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science." Why not? The only kind of supernatural beings that could never be investigated by science are those that exist entirely as figments of the imagination and have absolutely no effect on the real world as we know it. As soon as your God intervenes in the real world his actions become amenable to scientific investigation.

In this, I agree with Stephen Jay Gould's description of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). He states very clearly that religion violates NOMA as soon as it makes a claim for an interventionist God (Gould, 1999). In that case religion is no longer compatible with science.
The first commandment for all versions of NOMA might be summarized by stating: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science." In common parlance, we refer to such special interference as "miracle"—operationally defined as a unique and temporary suspension of natural law to reorder the facts of nature by divine fiat.

                                    Stephen Jay Gould (1999) pp. 85-85
The National Academies are violating NOMA unless they specifically refer to belief in Gods that do not perform miracles of any kind. There are very few religions that believe in non-interventionist Gods who never perform miracles. Therefore, it is much more scientifically accurate to say that science conflicts directly with almost all religious beliefs, including those of Ken Miller and Francis Collins.

This is an important error in Science, Evolution and Creationism since Americans have a right to expect that the National Academies can define the proper magisterium of science. Instead, the National Academies, like NCSE, has taken the easy way out by redefining science as that field of study that is not in conflict with the religious views of Francis Collins and Ken Miller.

1. The books was produced by a committee headed by Fancisco Ayala.

2. Who appointed Collins and Miller to be the flame carriers for evolution?

Gould, S.J. (1999) Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the fullness of Life The Ballantine Publishing Group, New York (USA).

[Photo Credit: The University of California, Irvine]


John Pieret said...

My response.

lee_merrill said...

"Therefore, it is much more scientifically accurate to say that science conflicts directly with almost all religious beliefs, including those of Ken Miller and Francis Collins."

Certainly some have a position where evolution does not conflict with their religious beliefs, but that is another matter. But we need not say that science conflicts with religious beliefs, unless atheism is part of science. I think not.

Many early modern scientists were in fact Christians, and saw no incompatibility.

"As soon as your God intervenes in the real world his actions become amenable to scientific investigation."

Quite so--I think that's what they thought they were doing in various instances, tracing the hand of God.

Anonymous said...

I'd ask Ayala, Collins and Miller a simple question:

Do you believe Jesus resurrected?

If they believe it, then their beliefs aren't compatible with science: As far as we can tell, people don't come back to life after three days of being dead. This is an example of magical thinking based on superstition as opposed to critical thinking based on evidence.

On the other hand, if they don't believe that very thing exactly (it's a dogma--you got to believe just as it is. You're not allowed to rationalize it away with metaphorical interpretations), then they simply aren't Christians.

Anonymous said...

err, I forgot-- Ayala is an atheist. Ok, just Miller and Collins then.