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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

NOMA no more - the great accommodationism debate

Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere has been alive with a passionate debate about the extent to which science should accommodate religion, leaving it an area in which it has authority - whether it be in respect of truths about morality or truths about a supernatural realm - while denying it authority over empirical claims.

One of the difficulties with all this is that no one has ever distinguished convincingly and sharply between the world of nature and the supposed supernatural realm. After all, if we routinely encountered ancestor spirits that were capable of affecting the world available to us through our senses, and if they behaved in reasonably consistent ways (like human beings and other animals) we would be able to investigate their activities systematically. Their activities would fall into the realm of science, and we might come to think of them as part of "nature". There is no reason why science cannot investigate claims relating to "supernatural" (by commonsense definitions) entities so long as they actually exist, have the power to affect the material world that we can observe, and behave with some consistency.

Over the centuries, science has abandoned explanations that rely on, say, the actions of disembodied intelligences, since those kinds of explanations have been fruitless. But this is not because science is prevented, in principle, from investigating claims about such things if they exist. It has taken this attitude based on its experience of what constitutes a fruitful approach. So-called methodological naturalism - avoiding the use of supernatural hypotheses - is a relatively recent component of the scientific method, resulting from historical experience. It is not that science rules out supernatural things a priori or that it has no capacity to investigate them if it turns out that some do exist.

By now, the reasonable assumption is that such things as ancestor spirits, gods, angels, and demons really do not exist. It is not that they exist in a separate sphere that can be known through religious experience - but is beyond the methods of science. More likely, they don't exist at all.

There is more to be said about this, but I'd like to spend more time on another claim, the idea, popularised by Stephen Jay Gould, that science deals with the empirical world, where it has authority, while religion deals with questions of how we ought to live, essentially the realm of morality, where it has authority. Thus, science and religion have separate spheres of authority that do not overlap. According to this view, we are entitled to tell religious leaders to keep out of such matters as the age of the Earth and whether Homo sapiens evolved from earlier forms of life. However, so the idea goes, scientists should not challenge the authority of religion in the moral realm.

In my view, this is comprehensively wrong.

Gould called his idea "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", or "NOMA"; if it is correct, it gives an extremely important sphere of authority in teaching to religious doctrine, religious organisations, and religious leaders, while holding that religion has no role, even in principle, in offering truths about the empirical world (e.g. truths about the age of the Earth, how it came into existence, or where human beings as a species came from). But Gould is wrong on this in every possible way.

First, religions have, historically, claimed authority to tell us about such matters as the age and origin of the Earth, the origin of humanity, and so on. Religions have acted as encyclopedic explanatory systems. It is not part of the concept of religion that it keep out of such matters. Moreover, if a religion's more general claims were true, there is no reason why it should not have authority in this sphere. After all, if a god or angel or similar being has inspired the religion's poets and prophets, or dictated actual text for inclusion in its holy books, the god or angel (or whatever) could easily reveal such facts as the true age of the Earth, the fact that it revolves around the Sun, the fact that it is spherical and rotates on its axis, and the evolutionary origin of human beings. There is no reason in principle why a true religion with genuinely supernatural origins could not have authoritative teachings on all these things.

Religion is not, in its essence or its very concept, confined to matters of morality. One or more religions could have had authority on empirical matters, and a religion still could if a true one came along (its prophet genuinely interacting with a superhuman intelligence). It’s just that, historically, religion has done a poor job when it has offered information about (for example) the age of the Earth or human origins. Empirical investigation, supported by huge amounts of converging evidence, has reached different conclusions.

Supporters of NOMA want to give religion authority over matters of morality while denying that science has any such authority, but again this gets things totally wrong. It is true that science cannot tell us the ultimate point of morality, but neither can religion. The ultimate point of morality, as opposed to the historical origin of morality, is something we decide rather than something we discover, and neither religion nor science can tell us authoritatively what we should decide.

Certainly, the ultimate point of morality cannot be obedience to the will of a god or a group of gods. This would raise the notorious Euthyphro problem: does conduct become morally correct because it is in accordance with a god's commands, or should we obey the god's commands because they track the independent requirements of morality? If the former, we seem to be stuck with the idea that murder and rape are wrong only because of the arbitrary commands of a powerful being (this being could have made murder morally right simply by commanding it). If the latter, then why not find out what the independent requirements of morality actually are, i.e. the requirements that are independent of the god's will?

It may be, however, that a god could be a reliable advice-giver about morality. This makes more conceptual sense.

Before I come to that, however, note again that neither science nor religion can decide what the ultimate point of morality should be. Should it be individual flourishing? social survival? reduction of suffering? some combination? something else? We can reach a conclusion on this kind of question only by rational reflection on our values, the realm of secular ethical philosophy. When we so do, we can never step entirely out of all our values at once, so there always remains an irreducible element of what we really do most deeply desire the world to be like. "Oughts" can not ultimately be derived from reason alone without that element, as Hume argued in his great Treatise of Human Nature.

However, once we know what we want morality to achieve we are, in practice, at least as likely to get good advice on how to achieve it from science as from religion.

It didn't have to be like this. If prophets were genuinely receiving information from a god, it might have included reliable information on what best conduces to, say, individual and collective human flourishing. But the holy books seem no more reliable about that than they are about empirical matters such as the age of the Earth. Sophisticated religious adherents tend to interpret the holy books more in keeping with what they know from elsewhere about what conduces to flourishing (or social survival, reduction of suffering, and other such goals). Far from being authoritative, holy books end up needing to be interpreted in the light of secular wisdom about what actually conduces to such goals as flourishing or happiness.

At this point I should concede that science is also limited in this realm. Given the current state of sciences such as psychology, the quality of the advice coming from science may leave something, perhaps much, to be desired. We do not yet have an exact science of what best contributes to, say, individual and collective human flourishing. But science can certainly study this. In principle, it can draw reliable conclusions - at least as reliable as any in the holy books. Science, as it develops, has at least as much, perhaps far more, authority in this area. Unlike the authors of the holy books, science can investigate the issues methodically, discard bad hypotheses, and draw increasingly robust conclusions.

For the moment, however, we must rely to a large degree on such things as historical experience, folk understandings of what makes people happy, our own experience as individuals, and so on. Moral philosophers need to reflect on all of these things. They can also reflect on religious texts from various traditions, of course, since these may contain some wisdom, but no more than on great literature or insightful classics of philosophy. Religion has no special authority in the realm of how we should act and live.

Fortunately, a great deal of our morality is not contentious – we all know (or at least it seems very plausible) that it advances social survival and individual flourishing and reduction of suffering, for example, if children are trained in virtues such as honesty, reasonableness (in the sense of willingness to compromise), kindness, and courage. But where morality is actually contentious - as when we consider such issues as stem-cell research or gay marriage - religion provides a poor guide. It is all too likely to make recommendations that do not conduce to individual flourishing, social survival, reduction of suffering, or any other plausible goal that morality might have.

In short, there is no reason to defer to any specifically or distinctively religious morality. On the contrary, we should emphasise that religion's claims to possess a special moral authority are entirely without merit.

I conclude that NOMA is comprehensively false. Religion is not confined by its very nature to the moral sphere and in principle it has as much authority in the empirical sphere as anywhere else. I.e., it could have made accurate empirical claims if really in receipt of knowledge from an angel or a god.

Conversely, science has at least as much authority as religion in the moral sphere: science cannot determine the ultimate point that morality should be aiming at, but neither can religion. Once we know what we want to achieve from morality, science is at least as well placed as religion to tell us how to achieve it, though we also need to rely on personal and historical experience, etc., since the most relevant sciences (such as psychology) are relatively imprecise and at an early stage of development.

However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!

Of course, NOMA is a contentious doctrine. While I have put the case that it is false, that does not entail that, for example, science organisations should say that it is false, or that school students should be taught that it is false. Nor, however, should it be promulgated to students and the public as true. While I'm convinced that religion has no special authority in matters of morality (or in matters involving a supposed supernatural realm if it comes to that), other intelligent and reasonable people may disagree with this assessment.

All I ask from science organisations and school curricula is neutrality on the point, but I am personally convinced that NOMA is a completely specious philosophical doctrine. Those of who are not already convinced of the claims of religion should not buy it, and we should in no way be convinced by its proponents that we ought to back away from our critique of religion. Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.

64 comments:

Aaron said...

Well done. I was hoping you'd get around to writing about this here.

BTW. "Those of who" should be "Those who"

Steve Zara said...

A much needed article - I hope it gets wide readership. The Gouldian approach seems widespread.

But, Russell, I would go even further than you do at the end of this article:

Religion possesses no special authority in the moral sphere, and no one should persuade us to stop saying so.

Because of the lack of any solid foundation for its claims, shouldn't we not just say that religion possesses no special authority, but no authority of the kind that we should take seriously as rationalists?

RichardW said...

Well said, Russell.

I'd just like to quibble on one point. You wrote: "But where morality is actually contentious - as when we consider such issues as stem-cell research or gay marriage - religion provides a poor guide. It is all too likely to make recommendations that do not conduce to individual flourishing, social survival, reduction of suffering, or any other plausible goal that morality might have."

We don't select our basic moral values in accordance with our goals. Our goals arise (in part) from our moral values. If a particular moral value (say the wrongness of gay marriage) is held as basic, there can be no entirely rational grounds for criticising it, except that it is inconsistent with other moral values held by the same person. Any other criticism must be relative to some alternative set of moral values, which must have at its root some unjustifiable basic values of its own.

Brian said...

Excellent post Russell. I must say that your sketchy philosophical views rock. :)

Blake Stacey said...

Well said and much appreciated. I would only add a few points:

1. Those who claim to have reconciled science with their faith in accord with the NOMA quarantine are often less successful than they think. They may have accepted evolution while maintaining a steady faith, for example, but they make statements about quantum mechanics which few people who have actually studied the subject would support, or they make claims about history which few archaeologists or even Biblical scholars would endorse. Specialization is a great aid to compartmentalization.

2. Science as a body of knowledge is a database of "is" statements. As a human endeavour, however, the scientific enterprise comes with its own "ought" baggage. Becoming a scientist comes with certain ethical desiderata, which may vary from country to country and culture to culture. (In the United States, the professors abhor word-for-word plagiarism; in China, or so I've been told, a dose of it is sometimes encouraged, as appropriating someone else's words can help make up for a lack of English fluency.) Still, ideals of "scientific integrity" and the like are widely aspired to.

"We are scientists, you and I, Dr. Floyd. Our governments are enemies. We are not."

— Dmitri Moisevitch, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

3. Claiming that religion should be granted dominion in the Magisterium of "Ought" Questions because religion was historically the source of "ought" answers is like conflating trade with barter or labour with slavery. Indeed, since religions have historically been the go-to source for "is" answers, too, this argument boils down to another denial of what religions are and have been.

Eamon Knight said...

Excellent essay (as usual). One quibble: it's been some years since I read Rocks of Ages, but IIRC Gould intended NOMA to be prescriptive, not descriptive. As a veteran of one of the American evo/cre court cases, he was very much aware that religion as an institution frequently did not respect the quarantine re empirical assertions.

However, I think you've pointed out well that religion doesn't even really deserve ownership over the moral domain either: w.r.t. means, science is (ultimately) the way to go; and w.r.t. ultimate goals it has no special insight that can't also be derived from secular sources. At best, it's a source of apt aphorisms (eg. the Golden Rule) and inspiring stories (eg. the Good Samaritan).

I think NOMA has, at most, a very limited applicability: a religion can wield moral authority over its own members (who in an open society are free to leave if they object), but should harbour no expectation of influence over the wider world.

Athena Andreadis said...

Well said, Russ. As a working scientist and a student of religions (due to my cultural background), I couldn't agree more. I recently had reason to discuss NOMA and the appropriation of science by religion: Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.

יאיר רזק said...

Excellent as always, but I (too) have a minor quibble: You say

"...neither science nor religion can decide what the ultimate point of morality should be. Should it be individual flourishing? social survival? reduction of suffering? some combination? something else? We can reach a conclusion on this kind of question only by rational reflection on our values, the realm of secular ethical philosophy."

I think there is a subtlety here, in that science can elaborate on the ultimate point, although it is left for philosophy to identify it. For example, under individualistic subjectivism the ultimate good is what the individual desires, and science (a fully developed psychology) can certainly pour content into that general concept. So the role of philosophy may be ultimately confined to meta-ethics, at least on some meta-ethical theories.

Ophelia Benson said...

"One quibble: it's been some years since I read Rocks of Ages, but IIRC Gould intended NOMA to be prescriptive, not descriptive. As a veteran of one of the American evo/cre court cases, he was very much aware that religion as an institution frequently did not respect the quarantine re empirical assertions."

I would say that you don't RC: Gould entirely failed to make that clear, if that is what he was saying. I muttered at him on nearly every page, 'But religion does make truth-claims about the world...'

I think he was being at the very least evasive about that point, in some sort of misguided effort to reach out to the blah blah blah

Anonymous said...

However we look at it, religion is neither conceptually confined to the moral sphere nor authoritative within that (or any other) sphere. NOMA is a false doctrine. NOMA no more!

The point you all seem to be missing is that without religion, a belief in God and a belief in the existence of the human Soul, there can be no morality or moral sphere in the first place as atheism inevitably degenerates into nihilism.

Science has nothing to say about morality, only behavior. Science has nothing to say about meaning and purpose (teleos) as it is exclusively focused on mechanism. It's not so much that science cannot answere "why" questions so much as these musings are unscientific in the first place and meaningless in a Popperian sense. For science to even attempt to answer questions of meaning, purpose and "why" is to make the same mistake (in the opposite direction) as religion does when it tries to make materialistic claims.

Science that tries to answer "why" questions is nothing but the mirror image of the Fundy making "how" claims. Which is why the kind of atheism promoted here at this site, coupled with scientific triumphalism, is just a different species of Fundamentalism.

Steve Zara said...

Anonymous-

You express a common point of view - that atheism results in nihilism. Fortunately, this is testable.

I'm an atheist, and I am a pretty cheery bloke much of the time. So, atheism clearly need not necessarily lead to nihilism.

How about some kind of survey of atheists? There are plenty of atheists around, and I don't see much nihilism.

I would love to see how you back your claim.

Anonymous said...

You need to define your terms better as nihilism has nothing to do with anyone's cheerinees.

First, one must distinguish between existential nihilism and moral nihilism. As for atheism inevtibaly resulting in existential nihilism the argument is in four parts:

1. Without a God, existence is but a meaningless (if fortunate) accident. Accidents by definition can have no meaning or purpose, they just happen. Only a deliberate act of Creation done with forethought and with an ultimate aim in mind can give Existence an inherent meaning or purpose. Lacking such a Creator, Existence is pointless.

2. Without a soul, consciousness and the Self are merely illusions incapable of the free will or volition necessary to create meaning. Therefore it is impossible to really create meaning as even the most sophisticated of us are merely products of our brain chemistry and genetic programming. For a more detailed argument see: http://www.arn.org/docs/johnson/pj_robotrebellion.htm

Stronger medicine is required if Darwinism is to avoid the obloquy that now attaches to "social Darwinism," and so Dawkins desperately tries to square his gene theory with some acceptable morality by proposing a robot rebellion. He writes: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to." (TSG, p. 3) This is not only absurd but embarrassingly naive. If human nature is actually constructed by genes whose predominant quality is a ruthless selfishness, then pious lectures advocating qualities like generosity and altruism are probably just another strategy for furthering selfish interests. Ruthless predators are often moralistic in appearance, because that is how they disarm their intended victims. The genes who teach their robot vehicles not to take morality seriously, but to take advantage of fools who do, will have a decisive advantage in the Darwinian competition. If a man is preparing his son for a career with the Chicago mafia, he'd better not teach him to be loving and trusting. But he might teach him to feign loyalty while he is planning treachery! There is an even more fundamental problem with the robot rebellion, however. Just who is this "we" that is supposed to do the rebelling? Like other Darwinian reductionists, Dawkins does not believe that there is a single, central self which utilizes the machinery of the brain for its own purposes. The central self that makes choices and then acts upon them is fundamentally a creationist notion, which reductionists ridicule as "the ghost in the machine." Selfish genes would produce not a free-acting self, but rather a set of mental reactions that compete with each other in the brain before a winner emerges to produce a bodily reaction that serves the overall interests of the genes. In a recent joint lecture, Dawkins asked his colleague Steven Pinker: "Am I right to think that the feeling I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a society of mind?" Pinker answered affirmatively that "the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit . . . that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction." That hypothetical circuit is all that remains of the illusion of a free-acting self.

(cont.)

Anonymous said...

3. Furthermore, all actions in an inherently meaningless universe, no matter how devoted or passionate, are themselves meaningless gestures in a cold indifferent universe.

"In the twentieth century, it's the atheistic existentialist movement, popularized in France in the 1940s and 50s, that is responsible for the currency of existential nihilism in the popular consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) defining preposition for the movement, "existence precedes essence," rules out any ground or foundation for establishing an essential self or a human nature. When we abandon illusions, life is revealed as nothing; and for the existentialists, nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as an isolated being "thrown" into an alien and unresponsive universe, barred forever from knowing why yet required to invent meaning. It's a situation that's nothing short of absurd. Writing from the enlightened perspective of the absurd, Albert Camus (1913-1960) observed that Sisyphus' plight, condemned to eternal, useless struggle, was a superb metaphor for human existence (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942). The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible. Their answer was a ualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism. In retrospect, it was an anecdote tinged with desperation because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism."

4. Atheism provides no basis for universal, inherent human dignity and is indeed corrosive of the very concept. Where in Selfish Gene theory is the mandate for me to treat a Black man as my equal? Where does materialism require me to accept all men as my brothers? In addition to the philosophy of Prof. Singer of Princeton, an example of an honest summary of this situation comes from HBO's Bill Mahar:

"But I've often said that if I had — I have two dogs — if I had two retarded children, I'd be a hero. And yet the dogs, which are pretty much the same thing. What? They're sweet. They're loving. They're kind, but they don't mentally advance at all.... Dogs are like retarded children." When another guest told him that her nephew was retarded and that she didn't think of him as a dog, he responded with "Maybe you should."

Maher later apologized for his hateful and hurtful remarks. The trouble is, from a purely materialistic point of view — where there is no God to give existence an inherent meaning and purpose, no soul to provide an inherent human dignity , no objective morality to govern behavior outside of utilitarian convenenience — we really should treat the mentally handicapped as if they were dogs.

In fact, from a purely materialistic point of view, dogs are far more valuable.

Anonymous said...

Do any of you really think that there is anything "new" about the New Atheism? Do you really believe that yours is the first generation to discover atheism or to reject religion? Your arguments are old and sophmoric in ancient Greece and just another turn in the weary cycle of history:

"Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a "conflict between science and religion." Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and-after some hesitation- the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization."(historian and atheist Will Durant)

Atheism is a symptom of a decaying society and always preceedes the fall of a civilization:

"Civilizations begin with religion and stoicism: they end with scepticism and unbelief, and the undisciplined pursuit of individual pleasure.(Will Durant)

Steve Zara said...

No, didn't work. I am still cheery.

I know all about nihilism. It is about wearing black, having more than the normal number of piercings and ensuring that a lick of black hair flops over one eye.

But I shall shut up now, as I should concentrate on my own humble blogging efforts about NOMA. It is a far broader area than just the interface between science and religion.

Good for Jerry Coyne for having started all this off again.

Anonymous said...

I know all about nihilism. It is about wearing black, having more than the normal number of piercings and ensuring that a lick of black hair flops over one eye.

Though nihilism is the inevitable and inescapable result of atheism, your remarks inidicate that a certain amount of pseudo-intellectual shallowness is a pre-requisite.

Atheism is quite simply a post-hoc rationalization for a negative emotional state, one that is typically adopted by adolescent nerds in an attempted to achieve a faux-sophisticated pose. It also provides a sense of superiority over those rubes who have made their lives miserable. I have to admit that it is hard to believe in a kind and loving God when bullies give you wedgies and girls tell you they just want to be friends.

phonytician said...

Well done, finally someone who has to guts to speak out against religion.
But hang on, the point of this post is allegedly not to criticise those fools who believe that the world was created by an old man with beard about 4000 something years ago, but to tell us that NOMA is a particular bad idea. What is that about? If there are some religious believers who try to embrace science and argue that science and religion could be perfectly compatible by surrendering all those claims that science wants to make about the objective world to science, and only say that they would like to keep religion for those things on which science hasn't that much to argue like for example ethics, why shouldn't we be glad and encourage those friendly people (I mean the thing is, once they start believing in Darwinism and left the objective world to science, god knows how long they will feel that foolish need for religious ponderings of subjective questions).
So NOMA could actually be seen a brilliant thing, more than a mere peace offering, but rather like an attempt at a surrender while keeping a bit of dignity. The ideal way to slowly ween all people off of religion one object fact at the time, till they run out of things to believe. Why does NOMA seem to be such a dangerous undertaking that it draws all that FLAK from those righteuous science columnists.

In the end nobody would argue we have to outlaw science fiction because it makes outrages claims like the existence of ominous death stars, time travel or the foolish insisting on having space ships explode with an audible bang in empty space. We are fine with that because we know that science fiction belongs in to the world of fiction. So if we can live with NOMA when it comes to art and science, why should it be so evil to have NOMA when it comes to religion and science.
I can't help having the feeling that what happens here is unfortunately quite unscientific, and has nothing to do with alleged arguments against bad religion. Isn't it NOMA feels bad because it seems to let religion of the hook, people shouldn't be allowed to make up their mind about these things, they should be forced to believe what is right and that is obviously only science! Sorry, but playing thought police has nothing to do with science, it rather smacks of childish fundamentalism.

Btw.:
I am an atheist and a scientist (as in someone who actually does scientific things, not some idiot who believes that science is the answer to everything) that doesn't keep me from keeping an open mind though, and interestingly however open you mind is the brain can't fall out! Get grip people.

Nichole said...

@ annie:

Trust no quote that starts off with the term "Darwinism" or calls Dr. Dawkins "desperate."

Rule o' thumb.

It is a "cold indifferent universe." Less than .000000000001% of it is even habitable by humans, the species you think it was created for. If it was created, the creator is clearly not benevolent. QED.

Science would definitely do a better job of informing morality in society than religion could. See, when you approach things logically and methodically, you get better results than when you just throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks around the longest.

PerceptionManagement said...

While it is true that science doesn't give us any answers to "should" questions regarding morality, it definitely tells us (or is beginning to tell us) how morality came about--through evolution of the mind in the context of a unique social species and developmental pyschology. Once we acquire this context, it is much easier (I think) from a prudential standpoint to make the "should" decisions on a personal basis. Once we realize that our own personal feelings are extremely fallible as a matter of biology/psychology, it is much easier to embrace a liberal view of the world where, per Johnathan Haidt's categories, fairness and justice are the psychological themes embraced. Obviously not a scientific claim, but it leads me to believe that fairness/justice are far more rational psychological considerations than authority, "ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity". Then again, this could just be because I interpret information to coincide with my own psychological predispositions.

יאיר רזק said...

Anonymous - have you noticed that even if all of what you say is true, this doesn't address the point that religion has no epistemic authority on morality and fails despite having possible a priori epistemic authority in empirical matters?

Of course, your "deductions" are entirely false, and you should know they are rejected by the adherents of the beliefs you denigrate. A thing that is truly good is good onto itself, not by virtue of supporting some other good. Existentialism is about finding the worthy in our lives, such as they are, and this good is unrelated to the ultimate meaningless of existence. Nor do we need magical "volition" to create meaning and make choices.

As even the ancient Greeks new, morality is unrelated to gods, and religion corrupts morality. It's not an accident that Socrates was put on trial for, essentially, atheism.

And the new atheism is new as a social movement, yes. Not unpralleled entirely in the past, certainly, nothing ever is; but nevertheless substantially new. It's not since the French Revolution that atheism was this militant.

Loren said...

There's another option -- being like a "cultural Jew" or a "cultural Hindu", what some Jewish and Hindu atheists consider themselves. So why is it necessary to consider a theology to be literally true?

Anonymous, did Will Durant have even the tiniest speck of evidence for that? In any case, the most that it supports is Plato's royal-lie theory of religion -- and supports it without Plato's honesty.

Also, Anonymous, does the creator lead a purposeless, meaningless existence?

MosesZD said...

I agree with your conclusion. Religion has been wrong (if only by degrees in come cases) about most, if not all, of it's claims. Acting as if religion has some special "pipeline to ultimate truth" in issues of morality...

I don't think so...

RichardW said...

Phonytician, the question we're considering here is whether the claims of NOMA are true. We conclude that they are not. Perhaps it would be more expedient or polite to keep quiet about it, but some of us balk at the idea of letting false claims go unchallenged.

phonytician said...

RichardW - I am glad you balk at letting false claims go unchallenged, I do as well. My point is that the claim that NOMA is proven to be false is indeed itself false. So if truth is so important to you, think about this:

a) shooting down straw men proves no point

b) NOMA can be interpreted in different ways, showing that one way of interpreting it would be bad doesn't prove anything.

finally
c)the history of religions shows that it is pretty dangerous to rely on the infallible authority of a god, the problem is science isn't infallible either. It is the best process known to us to gain an objective picture of the world, to conclude from that that science is infallible is just as much out of touch with reality as the belief in an infallible god.

Steve Zara said...

phonytician-

A point I like to make in these discussions (and one that Jerry Coyne has mentioned very briefly) is that NOMA is contrary to the evidence.

Statements that science and faith are compatible contract the considerable evidence that learning the methodologies of science and developing a scientific understanding of reality is corrosive to faith.

No amount of claiming that in principle science and religion may perhaps be compatible will deal with the fact that the majority of scientists don't have religious faith.

phonytician said...

The thing with evidence is that people find it often surpisingly difficult to handle it.

For example, regardless of how many white swans you see, the only evidence intersting when it comes to claiming the case that being a swan and being let's say black is incompatible would be: are there any black swans.

Are there people who consider themselves scientist and still adhere to a religious faith? On the basis of which rule would you make the decision that they don't count as evidence?

Steve Zara said...

phonytician-

Jerry Coyne argues usefully against accommodationism on a philosophical basis.

My point is different, and it does not require the absence of theistic scientists.

The question of whether accommodation is true in any useful practical sense can be determined by looking at the beliefs of scientists. This is in itself a scientific question, just like a question about how many scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming, or the link between tobacco and cancer. It isn't honest not to report the consensus.

Nichole said...

@ phonytician:

"the history of religions shows that it is pretty dangerous to rely on the infallible authority of a god, the problem is science isn't infallible either."

Complaining about straw men, then standing up some of your own?

phonytician said...

Steve - I get your point. I don't entirely agree that a question like is NOMA false or true can be decided by looking at the beliefs of scientist, but let's assume it would be that simple. Even in that case your logic simply doesn't work. The question whether science and religion are compatible or not has nothing to do with what the majority believes, but is a question of is it possible to believe in both, if yes then it is obviously compatible. Like the sighting of a single black swan is enough to prove that being a swan and being black is compatible.

Obviously, this doesn't say anything about whether it is better for a Swan to be black or white, but that is a different question.

Also, are you seriously suggesting that the truth of global warming or a cancer-smoking link is dependent on what the majority of scientists believe? I personally would trust the arguments of the experts in the field of climatolgy or oncology even if they should turn out to be in the minority ;-)

phonytician said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
phonytician said...

Nichole - which straw men? Are you suggesting RichardW and Steve Zara are not real?

Steve Zara said...

phonytician-

I probably haven't made my position clear. I am letting others deal with the philosophical question of the truth or falsehood of NOMA (although I happen to agree with Russell and Jerry).

My position is that to state the truth of NOMA is simply not an honest representation of the views of scientists.

This is clearly not proof as to the falsehood of NOMA, but it does address what I think the the justification for accommodationism - the supposed calming of fears of religious people.

Accommodationism is supposed to allow religious people to believe that their theistic views of the world need not be challenged by science. Well, I am afraid this just isn't the case. It is very likely that their views will be challenged, and to state otherwise is misleading.

Accommodationism is not just philosophically dodgy, it is factually dodgy too. It is a misrepresentation of the evidence.

phonytician said...

Steve - I think I understand your position, and if you put it like you did in your last post there isn't anything I would want to say against it.

The problem I do see unfortunately with this whole new excitement about rejecting NOMA (since Jerry Coyne started banging on about it), it seems like some scientifically minded people, seem to think the big end battle has started and the time has come where we can finally tell all those religious nutter to shut up. This seems to be silly for very many reasons. Science just isn't in the position to replace religion (and I think it is rather misguided to think it should). Good old fashioned philosophy might be able to replace religion, but not science, because religion simply is about a lot of things science has nothing to say about. We are usually not really aware of these things but they are in the cultural narrative all around us. Science can't just replace that narrative with the objective truth, because a) science doesn't know it all yet, b) there are a lot of question which don't require an objective answer but still need to be answered. Silly example maybe but what are we doing with dead people, should we collect them with garbage trucks and convert into compost, soap and soylent green? Scientifically speaking that wouldn't be a bad idea, still I have a feeling people will prefer burying their dead. In this simple sense of us all being engulfed in a cultural narrative, which is full of religious ideas and being dependent on it, my guess is for simple practical reasons some sort of NOMA solution is the only practical thing.

What we should focus on is to prevent religious nutters to interpret this as encouragement to claim authority in moral questions. That sort of NOMA is bad. But science shouldn't make the mistake of thinking itself a better moral authority. No one has a right to dictate anyone what he is or is not allowed to believe. Actions is a different matter, but beliefs just as thoughts should be free.

Robert Byers said...

Mr Blackford
There is no getting around this.
Creationists, like me, insist on a historical and well accepted present day idea called belief in Christianity and in its foundations in biblical inerrancy.
We insist that genesis is true and take on very well any critics calling themselves science.
God/Genesis is true and there is no 'science" that shows it wrong in any way.
Show us wrong.
Anything that origin subjects try to explain that conflicts with the bible must prove itself with evidence.
The 'evidence" brought up we take on and today are gaining and growing in persuading or confirming great chunks of North Americans

Just accommodate the freedom of seeking truth in origin matters and all thinking men will see the truth as she is.

phonytician said...

Well, there you go. Thanks Mr. Byers for the nice demonstration.

I guess most of you think that the problem with NOMA is that it encourages people like Mr. Byers to hold on strongly to their creationist beliefs. But that is actually nonsense (I am sure he would believe that rubbish whatever scientist say, anyway). I think it is the very fact of rejecting something like NOMA, i.e. the confusion of the difference between cultural narrative (in which Religion has a role to play, and theories about the actual world, in which science is our only hope). Only by insisting that NOMA is bad and that the religious believers have to address the real world facts of science, you actually encourage them to think that the stories in bible have to be taken as serious hypotheses about the natural world.

It is this childish insisting on "you have to believe in the Easter Bunny, otherwise you're not allowed to celebrate Easter", which forces confused minds to the conclusion they have to believe the Easter Bunny is real, because otherwise they might lose their cultural identity.

Rejecting NOMA is fostering fundamentalism, on both sides of the fence, people insisting to hang on to their childhood believes, and people being deluded into the idea a scientifically organised, purely fact based society would be possible, let alone some sort of utopian paradise.

Steve Zara said...

phonytician-

You need to get away from the idea that the alternatives are religion or a 'scientifically organised society'. No-one I know supports the latter.

You should re-read Russell's excellent post. The point is that religion has no special authority in the area of understanding allocated to it by NOMA. That is not to say that science does either.

There are clear rational alternatives to religion when dealing with issues of morality and meaning - philosophy for example.

The real conflict is between rationalism and religion, not between science and religion. I see no problem with a society where rational approaches to matters of public morality are considered appropriate, rather than asking preachers what their opinions are.

phonytician said...

Steve

Excellent, I think you hit the nail right on the head there.

"The real conflict is between rationalism and religion"

Why, though? The whole point of NOMA is that it is an attempt to accomodate rationalism with religion, and vice versa. So, real question is obviously, why should it be impossible to be rational and still hold certain religious beliefs? I would say the problem lies in the assumption that all religious ideas have to be necessarily irrational. Well of course it is irrational to think that a 2000 year old book could teach us anything relevant about astrophysics, but it isn't irrational to assume that teachings like don't kill people, be kind to your neighbour etc, are also irrational. Wrapping these kinds of teachings into stories about god still doesn't make them irrational.

Where does this irrational fear of religion come from? Why would you not allow yourself to distinguish between the rational and irrational aspects of religion (and isn't that all that NOMA really want, let's forget the irrational and focus on the rational parts). The problem I have with this whole discussion is that it is essentially saying, either you let go of everything that is religious or you disqualify yourself being considered rational, that seems just a bit narrow minded.
If on the other hand you say ok rational stuff is fine, nice traditions are fine, how is that than different from saying, there is a domain of thoughts where religious ideas are ok. Which to me would be what NOMA is about.

Sinbad said...

"Science would definitely do a better job of informing morality in society than religion could. See, when you approach things logically and methodically, you get better results than when you just throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks around the longest."

The problem with this delightfully triumphalistic and naive assertion (as should be numbingly obvious to anyone with even a breath of historical knowledge and experience) is that it isn't remotely supported by the evidence. Societies which purport to have been built upon the altar of science have an unfortunate and disproportionate propensity to slaughter their citizens.

Nichole said...

@ phonytician:

No, your straw man argument was against the infallibility of science, a claim that was never made. Go ahead and disprove something that nobody said.

@ sinbad:

Evidence, pls. (Recall first that the plural of anecdote is not evidence.) Or continue with your ad homs.

Most of the Western world consists of societies built on the ideal of objective fairness, which I guess you can call "the altar of science." I would call it "democracy," or "representative republic," but to each his own. And we seem to be mostly interested in killing brown people, so excuse me if I don't understand where you're coming from. It's just not "numbingly obvious" to me.

Sinbad said...

"Evidence, pls."

You've never heard of "scientific materialism"? Or, at the level of cultural movements, how about "social Darwinism"?

Science's track record is at least as bad as religion's.

"(Recall first that the plural of anecdote is not evidence.) Or continue with your ad homs."

What are they teaching in schools these days? You might want to read up on what the ad hominem fallacy actually is before misusing the concept.

"Most of the Western world consists of societies built on the ideal of objective fairness, which I guess you can call 'the altar of science.' I would call it 'democracy,' or 'representative republic,' but to each his own."

The American experiment (at least -- it's the nation I know best) is built upon the ideas (and ideals) of inalienable rights and human equality. There is no scientific evidence supporting the truth of these great assertions (indeed, the manifest evidence of our inequality suggests otherwise), but they endure anyway. Thank God.

"And we seem to be mostly interested in killing brown people, so excuse me if I don't understand where you're coming from. It's just not 'numbingly obvious' to me."

You don't speak for me so please keep that "we" to yourself. With respect to your inability (or unwillingness) to see the obvious, I can only repeat: What are they teaching in schools these days?

Ryan said...

"The problem with this delightfully triumphalistic and naive assertion (as should be numbingly obvious to anyone with even a breath of historical knowledge and experience) is that it isn't remotely supported by the evidence. Societies which purport to have been built upon the altar of science have an unfortunate and disproportionate propensity to slaughter their citizens."

To what evidence are you referring? I'm just going through my mental checklist of slaughter-happy societies, and I can't pinpoint even one that "purports to have been built upon the altar of science." What the hell is "the altar of science," anyway? Are you actually trying to argue that science is a bad thing?

Sinbad said...

"To what evidence are you referring? I'm just going through my mental checklist of slaughter-happy societies, and I can't pinpoint even one that "purports to have been built upon the altar of science." What the hell is "the altar of science," anyway? Are you actually trying to argue that science is a bad thing?"

Science is a fabulous thing, but still only a tool. Whenever it has been elevated above that status (e.g., Marxism; social Darwinism), the results have been disasterous. Thus the claim that "[s]cience would definitely do a better job of informing morality in society than religion could" is monumentally ridiculous in the extreme (which is not to say that religion has done a good job either).

Nichole said...

@ Sinbad:

you: "The problem with this delightfully triumphalistic and naive assertion (as should be numbingly obvious to anyone with even a breath of historical knowledge and experience)"

er, you were referring to me there, right? Rather heavily implying that I'm an idiot, right? You continued on to refer to "the evidence," which you've yet to present, of sciencey types committing genocide. I did not misuse the term.

John Wilkins does a nice evisceration of "social Darwinism" here:

http://evolvingthoughts.net/2009/06/16/the-demon-spencer/

And I've yet to see anything terribly offensive with Marxism, either. I'm pretty sure Karl never killed anybody. Or are you referring to communism? Because a) that's widely considered something that Karl would have disapproved of and b) doesn't serve to illustrate your point. It's not "science v. religion: the ultimate smackdown." Just because an organization is irreligious doesn't mean it's scientific.

What they are teaching in schools these days is not relevant. You still fail to answer the question: Why is it numbingly obvious that societies built upon the principles of scientific rigor and reasoning and logic will necessarily disintegrate into genocide, as you implied? Why would it be worse to think about things before doing them, rather than just acting on "gut instinct?" Why is nobody pissed about Cheney admitting that he knew Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11? Estimated that over a million Iraqi civilians died because of this, good thing brown people don't count, huh? Woulda been a real black eye for ol' Dick there if brown people were real people. Science will tell you that they are, in fact, real people. Religion will tell you "don't worry, this will all lead to the rapture and the subsequent apocalypse anyways." A million people dead, from "gut thinkin'." I say we stick with "brain thinking."

Sinbad said...

"John Wilkins does a nice evisceration of "social Darwinism" here...."

But he has nothing to say in contradiction to my point. People who purported to be basing their values on science have advocated and done horrendous things on a shockingly consistent basis.

"And I've yet to see anything terribly offensive with Marxism, either. I'm pretty sure Karl never killed anybody."

Do I hear bagpipes?

"Or are you referring to communism? Because a) that's widely considered something that Karl would have disapproved of...."

I do hear bagpipes.

"...and b) doesn't serve to illustrate your point. It's not 'science v. religion: the ultimate smackdown.' Just because an organization is irreligious doesn't mean it's scientific."

Which spectacularly misses the point -- the issue is whether the basis for the (horrible) action was purported to be scientific or not.

"Why is it numbingly obvious that societies built upon the principles of scientific rigor and reasoning and logic will necessarily disintegrate into genocide, as you implied?"

We know only that officially atheist and purportedly scientifically-based nation-states (Communist or otherwise) and high body counts of citizens correlate extremely highly. Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but the link is strong enough to raise the question, surely.

"Why would it be worse to think about things before doing them, rather than just acting on 'gut instinct?'"

You're preaching to the choir here.

Nichole said...

"But he has nothing to say in contradiction to my point."

Did you actually read it? It was all about how people make a boogie man out of "social Darwinism," which never existed outside of the ruminations of a few philosophers, who were grossly demonized and misrepresented. Your point was that social Darwinists are teh evil, right?

"People who purported to be basing their values on science have advocated and done horrendous things on a shockingly consistent basis."

Who? When? Where? Why? It wasn't social Darwinists. Or Marxists. Bagpipes? wtf?

"Which spectacularly misses the point -- the issue is whether the basis for the (horrible) action was purported to be scientific or not."

...WHICH...horrible action are we speaking of here? You're spectacularly dodging the question.

The cult of personality in North Korea, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism in Vietnam, Ancestor worship and Buddhism in China traditionally Catholic Cuba. These are your communists states. They can, as a whole, be described as secular. Not really religious (excepting Cuba) but superstitious nonetheless. There hasn't been enforced state atheism anywhere since the fall of the Soviet Union. You're labeling Leninism as Marxism. They are different. Which is irrelevant to the fact that I previously stated: Not being religious doesn't make you scientific.

So who, exactly, is this big bad science nation?

Nichole said...

alright, like meta-quote:

me: "Science would definitely do a better job of informing morality in society than religion could. See, when you approach things logically and methodically, you get better results than when you just throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks around the longest.

you: The problem with this delightfully triumphalistic and naive assertion (as should be numbingly obvious to anyone with even a breath of historical knowledge and experience) is that it isn't remotely supported by the evidence. Societies which purport to have been built upon the altar of science have an unfortunate and disproportionate propensity to slaughter their citizens."

and later,

me: "Why would it be worse to think about things before doing them, rather than just acting on 'gut instinct?'

you: You're preaching to the choir here."

I don't need a choir full of assholes who call me ignorant and naive when they agree with what I'm saying. Stop shitting where my brain eats.

Sinbad said...

"It was all about how people make a boogie man out of "social Darwinism," which never existed outside of the ruminations of a few philosophers, who were grossly demonized and misrepresented. Your point was that social Darwinists are teh evil, right?"

That Spencer might not have been as bad as advertised (and that argument is a decent one) doesn't deny that the eugenics movement was a reality and that it was based upon what it claimed to be science. It doesn't deny the Marxist slaughters or the robber-barons or the Reign of Terror either.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that science leads to these ends necessarily or even that science was properly used in these instances. My point is a simple one. Science can be and has been used to justify all kinds of evil. Thus, there is no reason to believe that "[s]cience would definitely do a better job of informing morality in society than religion could."

Nichole said...

So, you've been around the internet long enough to know better than to cry "Nazi!" or "Hitler!" but you think you can get away with "Eugenics!"? The difference between "actually" and "ostensibly" based on science clearly eludes you.

Sinbad said...

Science gives us weapons of mass destruction and the marvels of modern medicine, but tells us nothing about when they ought to be used or withheld from use. As tools, science and religion are employed by people -- highly fallible but often heroic people. Neither exists without them. Accordingly, as long as people are involved, both science and religion will be well-used and misused. Religion was used both to justify slavery and to inspire Abolition. But as long as people are involved, there's no reason to think that Science (capital-S) will somehow provide better and purer morals or ethics. Science is used for horrendous evil and monumental good. Religion too. Science is a tool -- no more and no less. Religion too.

Nichole said...

Yep. But whereas science is corrupted for "evil," religion is what it is. One is preferable to the other. Don't go postmodernist on me. There is an obviously better answer, even if it is not perfect.

phonytician said...

Nichole - I understand now: Because religion is necessarily evil, it has to shunned, science has to be preferred, and all tolerance of any religious beliefs is strengthening the evil that is religion, so even if it seems in itself harmless and even rational, it needs to be avoided at all cost, hence NOMA is bad.

What I still don't get is what exactly guarantees the intrinsic necessary evilness of religion.

Where exactly would you draw the boundary between scientific theories and beliefs about the world and non-scientific beliefs? At which point does a belief become scientific? Is it empirical data, or something about the rationality that is used in the arguments? How can scientific rationality be distinguished from rationality used in religious arguments?

At last if someone would be a Christian, only without the belief in kind of supernatural aspect of it, i.e. say someone who is simply subscribing to Christian ideas of ethical behaviour and the traditions like celebrating Xmas etc. but without any belief in the existence of God or angels etc, simply because the ethical System seems fine, would such a person already be on the evil side of religion or could such a position be held within the non-evil sphere of science?

Steve Zara said...

phonytician-

Because religion is necessarily evil, it has to shunned

Look, no-one is saying that religion is necessarily evil. At least no-one I know of.

The problem with supernaturalistic religion as a basis for any world view is that (and I probably go further than Russell here) it has no epistemological value at all, not even in terms of morality and meaning. It is just a series of stories. It isn't even a consistent series of stories. But even if the stories were consistent, it would not mean they had any value in providing truth about the world. The only way to discover truth is to test the stories. And that is (generally speaking) science.

This is a big and complex and messy world we live in. We need to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like to dream that it is. Religion encourages people to believe dreams. Some people's dreams are other people's nightmares.

Science is nothing more than testing ideas against reality. That should not be frightening. It is the basis of Western legal systems. We require evidence in courtrooms. Yet, almost no-one complains about the tyranny of the law worshiping at the altar of science.

Nichole said...

"Where exactly would you draw the boundary between scientific theories and beliefs about the world and non-scientific beliefs?"

Some stuff is real, and some is not. The real stuff is the science stuff, and the other stuff is the non-science stuff. You know, the stuff you can't taste or smell or observe in any way? The stuff that has absolutely no effect on the physical world that we live in? If you can test it, it exists. Some stuff is still in the future for us, to be able to test it, but we can think up ways to test it that are currently beyond our technological capability. That stuff is real too, just hypothetical. In physics, that stuff seems to come from math like awesome stuff about the multi-verse and string theory and tenth dimensions. and stuff.

Rationality used in religious arguments don't draw from empirical evidence, they draw from assumptions based on their own source material. Even when they're internally consistent, they still only exist in a closed system outside of our world. They're nothing more than thought experiments about what the world would be like, given a set of assumptions (i.e., a supernatural force). And that supernatural force has yet to be found, so the thought experiment is irrelevant.

And I've got nothing against Christmas, but you shouldn't take moral advice from the Bible. Here are 940 instances of cruelty and violence from the bible:

http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/cruelty/long.html

Compared with 274 bits of good advice:

http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/good/long.html

Seems to me like the good book could use some severe editing. All that bad stuff in there kind of waters down the good stuff. Could confuse people into thinking that slavery is cool, or that homosexuals should be discriminated against, or that a holy war in Jerusalem would be a good idea. Lots of bad ideas in there.

Sinbad said...

"One is preferable to the other."

It's clear that you believe this (devoutly?). But you haven't offered any evidence for it.

"Don't go postmodernist on me."

I'm not. Different tools aren't different truths.

"There is an obviously better answer...."

Then you ought to have been able to provide lots of evidence for it. But all you've done is tell us how sure you are that you're right.

"Look, no-one is saying that religion is necessarily evil. At least no-one I know of."

Maybe people who say things like "religion poisons everything"?

"Science is nothing more than testing ideas against reality. That should not be frightening. It is the basis of Western legal systems. We require evidence in courtrooms. Yet, almost no-one complains about the tyranny of the law worshiping at the altar of science."

That's because there's no problem with science as a tool -- indeed, a wonderous tool.

"Some stuff is real, and some is not."

And some stuff, even though completely unevidenced (like string theory), you put in the "real" category because of your faith in science ultimately to find support for it or reject it. Other stuff, which you regard as unevidenced and which may or may not be (like God), you reject out of hand because, well, because you're really sure.

Steve Zara said...

That's because there's no problem with science as a tool -- indeed, a wonderous tool.

Science is simply that one knowingly tests ideas against reality. That is all it is. When neanderthals tried out different stone tools to find out which one best cut deer skin, that was science.

Look - the argument for science/rationalism is really very simple indeed.

If you are involved in a court case, do you want to be judged by evidence that comes from a good forensic team using the methods of science, or do you want it to come from the religious judgments of priests?

NOMA and accommodationism aren't abstract. They impact our everyday lives. We can either go for a fair society based on public rationalism, or we can privilege the emotions of certain groups by backing religion.

That is the choice.

Sinbad said...

"If you are involved in a court case, do you want to be judged by evidence that comes from a good forensic team using the methods of science, or do you want it to come from the religious judgments of priests?"

But that isn't the issue I'm concerned about. Your court case is governed by laws and rules which reflect choices relating to morals, ethics and values. Science has no better track record on deciding these issues than anyone or anything else. Probably worse.

phonytician said...

Steve - I think we basically agree anyway about how the world is, I only think that it is better to keep an open communication channel with religious people who are basically willing to enter a rational discourse about what questions should be addressed by science and which they can address based on whatever they believe in. Also I would say that Dreams are in general a good thing, science is based on so many dreams (fly to the moon etc) and has inspired so many, so I think people should focus on having a discussion how nightmares can be avoided and stop worrying about people dreaming.

The court case is an excellent example. Sure I would want the forensic team to be scientist and shudder with the thought of being in a court where religious experts would make sense. But I guess that this is probably true for 99% of all religious people as well, I assume they just like we are able to see that questions of objective facts are better being dealt with by science than religion. Would you still declare those people irrational? The problem I see with rejecting NOMA is that you are fighting the wrong people. You alienate those who are interested in a dialogue. That makes no sense. The task has to be to get rid of the nutters not to create more (god has already created enough of them ;-)

Finally, as much as I believe in science, it is interesting to note that the scientific narrative of the world isn't as complete as people seem to think sometimes. We all rely on technology which is based on science but apart from that what we do and think on a daily basis doesn't really happen in the objective world of science but in a world of cultural narratives the world of meanings, oppinions, passions, attitudes etc etc as much as they try neither sociology, nor psychology, nor psychotherapy (if one counts that as science, it might just as be seen as a cult) have yet produced a conclusive theory which could allow you to navigate the everyday world based on "facts", this means that the difference between science and religion isn't that clear cut (yes, I am getting a bit postmodern here, but what's the harm in being up to date, the heady times of 18th century science enthusiasm are actually over).
This worry about NOMA is not only bad for the sad religious people who find themselves forced to let go of treasured pet beliefs it scares scientifically oriented people into being narrow minded, afraid that they would open up the gates of hell to all sorts of irrational nonsense.
Tolerating religious beliefs doesn't mean to agree that religious experts have to run the courts. There is a boundary that needs to be drawn, but that boundary should be drawn based on actions not on the basis of believes.
E.g. if some religious person thinks his religion requires him to kill someone, he should be allowed to think that, but that doesn't mean that one has to agree with him, and he most certainly should not be allowed to actually do it.

phonytician said...

Nichole -

The lists with cruelty and good advice are hilarious, sadly they have nothing to do with any argument.

Cruelty number one: Cain murders Abel, clearly that is encouragement for religious hate crimes...

I hope nobody ever counts the number of incidents of cruelty in the American law cases. By that logic, I am afraid, they would come to the conclusion that the Law is even more vicous than the bible.

Loren said...

I had a thought on that question. If the existence and nature and activities of the traditional sort of God could be readily verified, then it would be reasonable to have a "science of God", and likewise with angels and demons and ghosts and sorcery and so forth.

Think of what it must be like to live in a sword-and-sorcery universe. One could imagine a science of sorcery in such a universe, as opposed to it being a pseudotechnology as it is in our Universe. I coined the term "pseudotechnology" in analogy with "pseudoscience".

Nichole said...

String theory is not "unevidenced," it is difficult to test. The energies required to observe it directly are far beyond our current abilities. Even the LHC will be too wimpy.

All string theory models are quantum mechanical, Lorentz invariant, unitary, and contain Einstein's General Relativity as a low energy limit. So to falsify string theory, it suffices to falsify quantum mechanics, Lorentz invariance, or general relativity. Therefore string theory is falsifiable and meets the definition of scientific theory according to the Popperian criterion. However to constitute a convincing potential verification of string theory, a prediction should be specific to it, not shared by any quantum field theory model or by General Relativity. One such unique prediction is string harmonics.

Billions of dollars should be poured into this research. A unifying theory of everything would greatly advance our technology. Instead, unestimable amounts of money are poured into the coffers of frauds and charlatans and churches and the likes of Kent Hovind. Banning this idiocy would be considered "unfair" by the likes of you. And as a result, civilization as a whole suffers.

And my point with the bits of bad advice and the bits of good advice from the bible? Maybe you missed it: my point was that the bible is a mixed bag, yet it claims to be a bag full of good. Because, see, all the bad bits are supposed to be "metaphorical," and we're only supposed to take the good bits literally. Unfortunately, there is some quibbling about which are the literal bits and which are the metaphorical bits, and we end up with atrocities like the "Creation Museum" which features dinosaurs with saddles. Clearly the religious side is sticking to their magisteria. Clearly. 9_9

Sinbad said...

"String theory is not 'unevidenced,' it is difficult to test."

Let's see...

string theory has not yet provided quantitative experimental predictions and, as currently understood, it has a huge number of equally possible solutions, and these "string vacua" might be sufficiently diverse to explain almost any phenomena we might observe at lower energies.

Conclusion: there might be evidence someday, but not yet.

Nichole said...

No. Maybe you should do some reading on anti-de-Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence, the holographic principle and quantum physics in general before you decide to call it irrelevant or non-existent. String theory as a grand unifying theory is still beyond us, but indirect effects have been observed and these will be tested by the LHC.

Sinbad said...

"[T]hese will be tested by the LHC."

I'm no scientist, but will be is future tense, as in not yet.

Nichole said...

You're no scientist, but you sure are a douche bag troll. Try looking into what I already said, and stop being such a fucking pedant. Here you go, this guy started it:

http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/9711/9711200v3.pdf

Have fun, see you in a few years when you grow up kid.