7/21/10

Compatibilism

Here's something I've been scratching my head about, ever since the Tom Johnson Affair:  why are people (some, anyway) so riled up about "accommodationism"?  I don't care for the term, but never mind.  Let's talk about the attitude it refers to.  So-called accommodationists are atheists of a  certain sort--atheists who favor a tolerant and pragmatic approach to religion.  For example, they see religious people who embrace evolution as friends, not foes. As a result, they don't like to see these people excoriated.

Accommodationists can be, but really don't have to be, compatibilists about science and religion  That's the view that there's no contradiction in accepting all of modern science and also retaining religion (or some, anyway).  You can "have it all" without being guilty of any thought-crimes.

Accommodationists really don't have to be compatibilists.  You might think science and religion are incompatible, but that this is a problem only for the  person who accepts science and retains religion. It's not a problem in the public domain.  So despite the incompatibility, it's still right to be tolerant and pragmatic. But certainly, some accommodationists are also compatibilists.

Some of the "new atheists" think accommodationists stand in the way of progress--meaning  progress toward the end of religion.  They see science as an excellent religion-o-cide, and resent accommodationists going around passing out an antidote (compatibilism), or at least encouraging complacency.  Of course, religious people look for antidotes to science as well, and can be complacent, but the accommodationists are found especially irritating. "They're fellow atheists. They should know better!"

Anyway, that's my reading of the battle over accommodationism.  I lean toward the accommodationist side because, though I'm an atheist, I don't long for the end of religion. Even if I did, I'd think promoting science was much more important than fighting religion.  And I think it takes tolerance and pragmatism to promote science effectively.

***

What's really on my mind is compatibilism, the antidote to science promoted by some accommodationists (and many religious scientists).   It reminds me of another antidote, also called "compatibilism"--the view that we can accept determinism without rejecting free will, despite the appearance that they're irreconcilable.  To be a compatibilist, you have to accept one of various artful, subtle views about what free will really is. 

Here's what's puzzling me:  within philosophy, compatibilism is perfectly respectable (though of course not universally accepted).   It's not seen as at all unreasonable to want to hang on to both determinism and free will. Determinism is what you seem to have to accept if you take science seriously.  Free will, on the other hand, is something we strongly feel we have, and it's also tied up with our beliefs about moral responsibility.   Why isn't science/religion compatibilism equally respectable? 

You might say--it makes perfect sense to want to go on believing in free will. We have an extremely strong impression that we have it, and believing in it does seem bound up with viewing people as responsible.  It's valuable to be able to retain it. So it's not reactionary or illogical to want to find a way to "have it all"--both determinism and free will.  But with religion it's different.  Religion-retention is reactionary. It's like trying to retain slavery when you've embraced equality, or trying to retain the soul when you've understood the brain.

Of course, religion is many things. Retaining it is in some instances like retaining slavery or the soul.  But the basics--God, for instance!--seem more like free will.  For religious people, there are powerful confirming experience involved, like the vivid sense that we have free will.  Believing in God improves life for many people, just like believing in free will improves life. 

I'll just leave it there.  There's no question it's respectable (even if it may not be correct) to be a determinism-free will compatibilist.  Why is it any  worse to be a science-religion compatibilist? If you have the answer, let me know. I'm just thinking about it.

Update:  Jerry Coyne is also talking about free will today.

29 comments:

amos said...

It would be easier to argue in favor of the possibility of science-God compatibilism than science-religion compatibilism.
Religion, for me at least, implies a set of organized beliefs that go beyond the existence of God. Certainly, science-Deism or science-pantheism are not incompatible.

Paul Hutton said...

I like the comparison of belief in free will and belief in God. Both are central to a person's life, world-view and wellbeing and both are often threatened by scientific advances. I'm guessing there are even people who talk of 'free-will of the gaps'!

Aeolus said...

amos has a point. If you're a fundamentalist who believes the world is only 6000 years old, then your capacity to be a geologist or paleoanthropologist is going to be limited. But many of history's greatest scientists have been theists or deists, and one can hardly say the Jesuits don't know much about science.

I realize Richard Dawkins is British, but I wonder how much of this whole New Atheism brouhaha is a phenomenon driven by the eccentricities of U.S. culture. Despite (or partly because of?) official separation of church and state, the U.S. is obsessed with religion in a way that no other Western nation is. In Europe, Canada, Australia, religion is not an ongoing source of public controversy. (Australia's new prime minister, Julia Gillard, has publicly stated that she's not religious and sees no reason to pretend that she is. Imagine a serious U.S. presidential candidate saying that.)

Athena Andreadis said...

You might think science and religion are incompatible, but that this is a problem only for the person who accepts science and retains religion. It's not a problem in the public domain.

As in ID taught as science? As in abstention-only sex education? As in denial of evolution? I'd call that a serious problem in the public domain.

Determinism is what you seem to have to accept if you take science seriously.

Um, no. Chaos theory, uncertainty principle, post-natal brain wiring, etc. Plenty of space for free will, without compatibilism.

I saw a recent chart that showed national income versus religiosity. The US is a complete outlier: a rich but religion-obsessed nation. In no other First World country, with true separation of church and state, can you have religious fundamentalists in office flaunting their ignorance of and contempt for science. But fear not, in the last few decades the US has been working hard to place itself on the same part of the chart as Pakistan.

Jean Kazez said...

I agree that some incompatibilities are in the public domain (the ones you mention), but some aren't. For example, my liberal Jewish believer friends may have incompatible propositions in their heads, but it's literally no problem whatever for anyone but themselves.

Re: determinism. The free will literature is complex. The sorts of indeterminacy you talk about don't seem to make any room for free will. So for purposes of discussing free will they can be ignored. That's pretty much the consensus in the free will literature.

Yes religious fundamentalism is just awful stuff. But the charts and graphs show all sorts of strange things--like that countries are happier where there is more religion. The most surprising thing is that even the atheists are happier in countries with more religion. So it says in an interesting new book--Happiness Around the World, by ... wish my memory worked.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I think compatibilism about religion and science has to concern more than just the existence of God. It also concerns his role in the universe, what he is supposed to do/have done, etc. There are different types of compatibilism--one form plays around with the meaning of "God," another plays around with the meaning of "truth," etc etc. Depending on the form, more or less of religion gets redeemed. I'm not defending any of this, but rather just wondering why the basic project shouldn't enjoy the same respectability as compatibilism about free will and determinism.

Faust said...

"I'm not defending any of this, but rather just wondering why the basic project shouldn't enjoy the same respectability as compatibalism about free will and determinism."

I don't think this is that hard to understand actually. There are two reasons:

1. Free will/Determinism is a topic that is almost inescapable. We have pretty strong ideas about both floating around, we seem to need the one for morality, the other for science. So someone like Daniel Dennet who is committed to both can write an intellectually respectable, if controversial text like "Freedom Evolves" in defense of compatibilism. One can also (more or less respectably) try to change the structure of the conversation by changing what we mean by "will" or by challenging the notion of "determinism." There is a sense that no such inescapability exists in the conflict between religion and science. On this view, "religion" is just bad science. It's bad epistemology, and makes incoherent and untestable claims. It is inherently bad method. It is "faith" in opposition to "testable claims." So there is no compatibalism possible at the most basic level. Importantly people who hold this view think changing the meaning of "religion" (or science, but especially religion) is NOT ALLOWED. This leads us to reason #2.

2. Culture war. Religion in the anti accommodation debates has a specific cultural target. No one is complaining about Johnston's "Saving God" because there is nothing there that has any broad cultural traction anyway. No one in the bible belt is going to read Johnston's book and say: hey! Maybe he's right about supernaturalism being idolatry! No. they are going to say BLASPHEMY. I remember we had a commenter (I think we was a colleague of friend of yours coming close to feeling insulted by Johnston's book). If you are a culture warrior, and you are targeting religious orthodoxy, the Johnstonian style compatibalism is just a distraction (as is the compatibalism of say MLK or Einstein or Tillich or..), that misses the struggle over the moral soul of society. But make no mistake, at the culture ware level the struggle is NORMATIVE. Harris tips the hand of the movement, such as it is, when he claims to be on the road to discovering a science based morality.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, All that makes sense and is interesting, but re: #1. Isn't it possible that to a believer certain religious ideas have all the irresistibility and connection to morality that free will does? That's what I'm surmising. To a non-believer of course that's not so.

Re 2: Yes, someone like Johnston is not on the anti-accommodationsts' radar, but if he were, maybe the attitude would be: he has a very, very weird idea of what God is, one that's shared by .00000001% of the population. If that's the sort of religion that's defensible, then for all intents and purposes religion isn't defensible.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

I think it's pretty clear why some people have problems with accommodationists. So far, accommodationists haven't really cared to represent the atheist side of the science debate, civilly or otherwise. Accommodationists treat atheists as if they were a private shame that can be kept locked in the basement.

Of course, there are other issues, like the (in)compatibility of science and religion, strategy, and so on. Y'all have touched on them, rightfully. But -- the sense that accommodationists are false moderates is what fuels a lot of indignation. Like Brutus to the affirmative atheist's Caesar, or Lieberman to their Democratic Party.

Faust said...

I can take both of your responses and say yes! exactly. By which I mean this:

Let us say that there are versions of a thing called "religion" which can be salvaged from the supernaturalist mindset. If so then there are at least two approaches to getting rid of supernturalist religion (which is assumed to be wrongheaded as supernaturlism is :

1. Define all religion as NECESSARILY supernaturalist, and thus advocate the elimination of religion from all cultural practices (ultimately). I think when people complain about New Atheism, they percieve, rightly or wrongly, that this is what is being pursued.

2. Realize that it is possible to simply recommend alternative theologies, that retain the "heart" of the religious enterprise, what you call the "irresistibility and connection to morality that free will does," thus salvaging something important from our religous traditions, while still jettisoning all the methodologicaly unsound epistemic claims of those religions.

The choices are as follows then: pragmaticaly pursue the elmination of all religion from the world because it is inhernetly supernaturalist, OR recommend alternative theologies that are compatible with naturalism, but yet retain a certain vital connection with morality (this is exactly what Johnston claims to be doing in both books).

As I see it the only other option is to pursue a Rawlsian (or Rortian, Rorty pursues a similar strategy in his essays on religion), division of the society into public/private spheres, where the public sphere admits only ideas that can all can subcribe to, and the private sphere admits any ideas whatsoever. That may indeed by accomodationism. But it is not compatibalism.

Faust said...

@Benjamin "So far, accommodationists haven't really cared to represent the atheist side of the science debate, civilly or otherwise."

I can't speak for the online wars, because I find them somewhat tiresome, so I don't follow them in more than a passing way. But if by "not represnting atheists fairly" means "thinking that the kind of polemic delivered by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris" is ITSELF a bad polemic that represents "religion" unfairly by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in the sense of viewing religion as necessarilty supernaturalist, then I think what is going on here is an argument about what constitutes a "fair analysis of religion."

Speaking for myself, I think the New Naturalists are quite right to attack supernaturalism aggressively, but quite wrong to pretend that nothing can be ransomed from religion once the supernaturalism is rejected. So in my view the is "unfair representation" on both sides.

I see this as a background dynamic to these arguments, but unfortunately one that floats only in the background when it should be foregrounded as the primary issue.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Salvaging something from religion doesn't seem like a dastardly enterprise, though it doesn't really interest me personally (except as a "curiosity"--I did enjoy Johnston's book, in fact enough to get the next one).

Benjamin, I think rumors of atheists locking each other in basements have been greatly exaggerated. This is like a debate Christians might have with each other. Some are aggressive exclusivists. Some are laid back universalists. Maybe they disagree with each other about how to talk to non-Christians, but that doesn't mean anyone's being locked anywhere.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

Faust, you've hit the bullseye. For all the talk about civility and that kind of thing, it's all about what constitutes a fair analysis. That's a substantive dispute that craves serious attention.

I can't speak to Harris because I haven't read his work. But Dawkins and Hitchens strike me as providing plausible analyses. I don't think they have got it entirely right, in various ways. But I think they are absolutely on the right track, and I am absolutely sure that they're not very closely read by antagonists.

I actually sympathize with your "baby and bathwater" grievance in one way. But I suspect that my analysis of that grievance is actually much more of a shock to the religious sensibility than Dawkins or Hitchens could ever attempt.

Jean, I don't know. Here's an article I just came across that was meant for publication in the New Scientist: http://file.wikileaks.org/file/how-to-spot-a-hidden-religious-agenda-2009.html

The article is strongly materialist, and anti-anti-materialist. A few yards away from atheism. They self-censored under threat of libel -- locked in the basement.

Jean Kazez said...

Benjamin, I have experienced and resented being "locked in the basement" for being an atheist...actually, quite a lot. So I understand the worry. I just don't think it's true that other perfectly open atheists, like Chris Mooney, are putting anyone in the basement when they try to have a conversation about priorities, communication, tone, etc.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

Jean, at first, I felt the same way. And I want to have that conversation. But I've gradually lowered my opinion over the past year because it's clear to me that he's not trying to have that conversation at all, online. So in late June I wrote: "From what I can tell, Mooney advocates cooperative discourse. He did not tell people to “shut up”. At worst, he implied that people should not be jerks."

But then I read Unscientific America, which was a poor effort. Also, on Intersection, my boring critical posts about the sloppy citations of the book's first chapter were censored. In other words: *you* people get in the basement. We're only out to sell copies.

So by October, I was fairly convinced that his accommodationist project was hopeless, or at least that he was not up to the job of making his own case. Later that October I met him in person, and we talked for a bit about strategy and science communication. My opinion of his project rose, barely. But that's only because, when in person, he actually interacts with criticism in a meaningful way.

Long and the short of it is that I'd like to have an honest conversation about strategic diversity and fair treatment of religion. But as far as the online environment goes, I don't think we'll find it with him or Kirshenbaum.

amos said...

Ben: You're a sane person, which isn't the case with everyone involved in this debate. Mooney may well be the most mediocre, opportunist, mercenary author ever to write a book, although I doubt it, since many mediocre, opportunist and mediocre persons write books every year. However, don't you sense that there is a personal "get Mooney" crusade, promoted by some people, motivated consciously or unconsciously, by an incredible obsession with Mooney, an obsession that Freud, Lacan and
Melanie Klein could not get to the bottom of?

Jean Kazez said...

Ben, I think when their book came out they wrote lots and lots of posts that were very responsive to criticism. So it would not be fair to say the blog is unresponsive. What IS true is that for the most part they don't get involved in the comment section. You can't really go there and have a conversation. But really, I think that's a sign that these people are busy, successful journalists. I can think of many successful journalists who have blogs, but don't converse at their blogs. I believe it's quite normal, and not a sign of any deep problem with the whole "accommodationist" way of looking at religion and science.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

A little bit. The sharp focus on Mooney's behavior and arguments throughout all this is strange, because Sheril Kirshenbaum is equally culpable when it comes to the stuff I'm talking about. So I've been at pains throughout the ordeal to criticize her (usually less visible) behavior in moderating the Intersection. Still, I think after some initial resistance, people have gradually come to acknowledge her role as well.

As for the tenacity. Well, it's largely reactionary, I think. Chris does something silly every month or so -- i.e., posting more nonsense about Pluto, accusing Dawkins of being an accommodationist, accepting a Templeton fellowship, smack-talk to the AAAS -- and people react critically each time. If he stops doing silly things, people will stop reacting. But he won't, because the outcry helps him find a career niche. And people won't stop reacting, because they resent the fact that a substantial and important conversation is being trivialized.

(I'm saying this as someone who doesn't give a toss about the Tom Johnston affair, btw.)

Benjamin S Nelson said...

(The above was to amos.)

Jean, maybe they are just busy. But there are a few things that concern me.
(a) I wonder what the point of a blog is if not a forum for answering plausible questions every so often.
(b) I don't see what kind of conversation they hope to have if their primary ambition is to sell the book, and not discuss its contents on their home turf.
(c) They do make replies to critics who have names, i.e., who might actually impact their reputations in some way. Jerry Coyne, etc.
(d) These replies have tended skirt the big issues, focusing on the weakest arguments that their critics make instead of attacking the strongest ones.
(e) This all fosters a certain come-down-from-the-mountain style that is just plain inappropriate to the internet medium. And this connects with a more global concern that people have about their outlook. The fact is that they're not educators and they don't want to be. They don't get their hands dirty with encountering real people and making real arguments, and don't strive to. That's a reflection of the fact that their advice is meant for Hollywood or Washington and only weakly relevant for the rest of us.

Jean Kazez said...

I see most of that very differently, but it would take too long to explain and offer evidence. Re: "come down from the mountain" style. I get your point, but I do think that's very common in successful journalists and busy people. I see it all over the place. I like Jerry Coyne's blog a lot, but he "comes down" very little too. What makes that OK is that he attracts a nice, harmonious group of people who talk to each other. The intersection has attracted a different crowd--too split between lovers and haters, and too infested with sockpuppets. Hopefully moderation will help.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

Sure, but journalists and Coyne and the rest don't tell people how to communicate. Coyne tells us why evolution is true, journalists like Matt Taibbi tell us why Wall Street is corrupt, PZ Myers gives us anti-religious rants. If they stop doing those things, we're in a place to complain. In the same way, if Mooney is supposed to be telling scientists how to communicate, it means I pretty much expect him to communicate.

amos said...

Hello Ben: It's nice to hear your point of view.

However, when I dare to glance at one known New Atheist blog, I'm frightened.

I feel as if I were in the presence of a heresy hunt, of an angry lynch mob, of Orwell's daily hate session. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive, but others seem to feel the same way.

It freaks me out to see such intelligent and such learned people forming a mob, a mob whose frenzy against Mooney seems to feed on itself, ever increasing in its fury. Besides frightening me, it makes me want to protect Mooney and Tom Johnson, whoever he is.

I imagine that as a thinking person, you, as all thinking people, must have felt that terrible isolation which occurs when a crowd or herd of unthinking
beings turn on one (as a one who dares to think out of the box) for heresy or being politically incorrect or for speaking inconvenient truths. How sad then that other thinking persons lend themselves to participating
in a heresy hunting mob!

Best to you, Ben.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

Amos, I used to be agoraphobic, so I know that feeling all too well. Couldn't even order a pizza over the phone without feeling like a wreck. I still have "the shakes" -- anxiety, panic attacks going to movies. I'm even nervous being around people I love, which even led to recent private tragedy recently. So I understand the fear. I despise and resent it because of how it limits me, and how it impacts others, but I have it all the same.

But I've also been "on trial", so to speak -- and got shaken to the core when the angry "mob" turned the other cheek. I've been in rallies outside of parliaments, where union brother and sister march in solidarity against the ridiculous rule of myopic governments. I've been an outspoken liberal in an organization of socialists, and to some degree became trusted and came to trust them myself.

As far as the movement goes -- well, a movement takes all kinds if it's going to work. Strategic diversity, within some parameters, is an absolute necessity. The liberal franchise needs to stand up and respect its activists in the same way that conservatives stand up for soldiers. And the same attitude goes, I think, for the naturalist crowd. Mooney is like a conservative who hates religion, or a liberal who hates all protesters. He's got no solidarity with important parts of his base -- namely, the outspoken naturalists -- which means he has shot himself in the foot before he got out of the gate.

And it's not like he has focused on just PZ Myers and critiqued his tone. If Mooney really thinks Paul Z has gone over the edge (as he sometimes does), then it's fine to blast away with lectures on respectfulness. The thing is, Mooney also targets people like Coyne with the same infantile criticisms. This is unfortunate, since Coyne is actually pretty anodyne.

The eagerness to misrepresent people like Coyne tells me that Mooney's on the wrong side -- got the wrong strategy, the wrong priorities, and so on. So I suppose that if other people get angry because they have a similar outlook on the situation, then I understand why, even if I don't share their resentment.

amos said...

Ben: I understand what you're saying. I've participated in movements and marches myself, although the shouting gets to me. It especially gets to me when the shouting singles out one specific individual, as if Lyndon Johnson (hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today) or George W. Bush in your day, were responsible for all the evil in the world. I've long thought that the title of the song "everybody needs somebody to love" should be changed to "everybody needs somebody to hate" and especially somebody to blame for the ills of the world and somebody that I can feel morally superior to. I have no particular love for Mooney; in fact, I don't even like his smile, but the fact of singling out any person as the target of so much hate and indignation smells bad to me.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

For sure, it's not pleasant. But he's a grown man (and Kirshenbaum is a grown woman) and they published their work in a public forum. If this is how they've chosen to go about their project, then they're legitimately subject to criticism.

Of course, if audiences are more than just critical, we ought to try to ratchet them down a peg. And that's easier in some forums than others.

Jean Kazez said...

Don't want to wrangle about endless details, but I have to say--I don't read any of this as you do. See here--

http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/08/strategic-self-restraint.html

http://kazez.blogspot.com/2009/07/chris-mooneys-apostasy.html

Let's maybe drop the subject now, as I don't want to host any of the weird Mooney eviscerating that goes on at other blogs. If we have to eviscerate someone, I'm sure we can find someone much more worth eviscerating. End of subject, please.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

If you like. But you brought up Mooney, so I thought I'd explain what's going on from the other side.

Also thanks for that first link. On a brief re-reading, I still believe pretty much all I said there. Definitely saves from having to repeat!

Jean Kazez said...

Benjamin, When you talked about accommodationists putting atheists in basements (7/23, 11:23 am), what could you have meant besides Mooney and all the standard worries about him criticizing Myers, banning Benson, questioning Coyne's review, etc etc etc? So I think you did bring him up. I just think all that stuff has already been discussed ad nauseum here and elsewhere.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

Nope. It's the standard line among accommodationists. Nisbet, BioLogos, the authors of "Comment is Free", etc.