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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Jerry Coyne on Nisbet and framing

On his Why Evolution Is True blog, Jerry Coyne discusses my recent comments about the framing of science and the supposedly unethical behaviour of Richard Dawkins and other atheistic scientists.

Coyne concludes:

"Faith, as it is practiced by many, many people, is simply incompatible with science. It doesn’t solve the problem to tell them to put their beliefs in line with science."

The core of the problem is this. We have a situation where Matt Nisbet defends - indeed, praises - the stance of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, which attempts, for public relations reasons, to paint the picture that science and religion are compatible. At the same time, he attacks those scientists (Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and unnamed others) who see an incompatibility between science and religion. In his most recent post, Nisbet has gone beyond saying that the language of these individuals is politically imprudent and inexpedient, and that they should shut up. That was bad enough, but he's now escalated the debate by accusing these "maverick communicators" of acting unethically.

The claim that Dawkins, Myers, and whoever else Nisbet has in mind, have acted unethically is just ridiculous. I hope that Nisbet will step back from this and realise just how crazy that appears to anyone with a sense of proportion and perspective. He's merely damaging his own credibility by taking such a line.

What I find more interesting, however, is his defence of the ethically suspect behaviour of the NAS in taking a public stance on such a controversial philosophical issue as the compatibility of religion and science. Perhaps the NAS's actions could be defended by saying that its words have been very carefully chosen so that, in some technical sense, they are not incorrect. We could dissect the precise words ad nauseam to decide whether the NAS has tried to avoid stepping over some line that would take it into outright falsehood. But even if it's sought to do that, and even if it's succeeded, its approach is simplistic, misleading, and one-sided.

If we are going to stick to facts, one important fact is that many Americans believe religious doctrines that are plainly incompatible with well-corroborated findings in biology, geology, astrophysics, and other areas of science. Beyond this, there is a serious controversy as to how far it is possible to reconcile the worldview of moderate forms of traditional Abrahamic theism with the image of the world that arises from science. Many scientists are able to accept both, but that may be because of compartmentalisation in their own thinking, or because they are making logical errors, or because they accept one or the other only with qualifications, or because whatever incompatibility exists is indirect (in the sense that it arises only if you also accept certain commonsense intuitions that some religionists actually do reject .. so it appears).

My point here is not that religion and science are definitely incompatible, merely that the alleged compatibility cannot be taken as uncontroversial and it is certainly not established by the observable fact that some scientists, such as Francisco Ayala, are also practising Christians. In Ayala's case, the attempted reconciliation of science and religion is philosophically dubious. As I observed elsewhere:

"Ayala's attempt to defend God's ways has an obvious weakness, one that he never addresses or even acknowledges. It's one thing to blame various natural evils on the clumsy processes of mutation, survival and adaptation, which produce imperfect, often cruel results, rather than attributing the evils to a deity's specific design. Fine. But an all-powerful, all-knowing deity need not use such clumsy methods, and would foresee the dire consequences. If this being were also benevolent, would it not prefer to imagine and create a universe specifically designed to be free of such evils?"

Matt Nisbet's main response, so far, to me and to Jerry Coyne is simply to observe that the NAS has not adopted the stance that science and religion are compatible only recently. That's true, but whenever the NAS first did this does not really matter. It is wrong for it to take a stance on such a controversial issue that would (as is becoming increasingly apparent) divide its constituency. What it has done recently is take a decision to go to greater lengths than ever to emphasise, elaborate, and market its accommodationist stance. That it has now done this, based on the findings of "audience research" severely compounds an existing problem.

I have replied to Nisbet at some length in a comment on my earlier post, and PZ Myers has replied to at still greater length and more thoroughly. Myers' analysis is well worth reading. He hammers the point that the NAS used market research (or whatever Nisbet wants to call it) to make the recent decision to rewrite whole sections of its booklet; steer away from the legitimate points it could make about separation of church and state and the Dover decision on Intelligent Design; and to give a one-sided accommodationist account of the relationship between religion and science. This is exactly what Nisbet has been praising the NAS for, and it is exactly what I was complaining about. It is a large part of my reason for thinking that Nisbet's sense of the ethics of the situation is 180 degrees wrong. If anyone has behaved unethically in all of this, it is certainly not Dawkins or Myers; it is more likely to be the NAS.

But enough already. Jerry Coyne makes the essential point more concisely. In a comment on his own post on the subject - following Nisbet's lame response - Coyne says:

"I’d say that this is a distinction without a difference. Accommodationism is not just a tweak to improve rapport with the audience, it is a PHILOSOPHICAL POSITION that, in fact, is not adhered to by many members of those scientific organizations. To frame this as a 'matter of listening to the audience' is to trivialize what is a very serious debate."

Exactly so.


Blake Stacey said...

I don't see why the NAS has to take a position on this at all. Let them publicize the evidence for evolution; let them expose the perennial habits of creationism, including the really sleazy ones, from quote mining to the Holocaust gambit; let them make engaging books with clear expositions and gorgeous pictures.

They can leave the argument about accomodationism versus antagonism to private individuals.

The Jules said...

It's that compartmentalization of their 'professional' and 'personal' minds that must, in my opinion, be responsible for the apparent belief of a deity by some presumbaly intelligent scientists.

Is it ethically okay for me to say that?

Steve Zara said...

I am not sure I would agree that Accommodationism is a philosophical position. I would say that it is a political position. To fudge and trivialise is, as has been said by others, to consider that political spin needs to be applied to scientific ideas and principles. It is deeply patronising, suggesting that people generally can't understand the principles of science, and (as Blake suggests) be allowed to make their own personal accommodations with religious beliefs.

Russell Blackford said...

Steve, I agree that the decision to make the claim has a political or public relations motivation, and I also agree that the decision to pursue an accommodationist "line" has such a motivation. Nonetheless the proposition, "Religion (in some sense) and science are compatible" is a philosophical claim.