Atheism, Loud and Quiet (part 2)

Now that I've read the infamous 8th chapter of Unscientific American (by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum--see here for background), I'm still on board with the basic idea, but not sold on some of their subarguments. The basic idea is that science educators, who are less religious than the average American, should avoid religion-bashing. The important thing is to get people to accept evolution, climate science, etc., not to get them to renounce religious ideas that are central to their lives. That's the important thing because sound public policy in this country hinges on having a scientifically well-informed populace. And religion-bashing is likely to alienate people, in a very religious country like the US.

But now what about the subarguments? CM and SK think "the new atheists" are guilty of a very basic error about the relationship between science and religion. Dawkins & Co. are misguided in supposing that the two are incompatible. As the authors see it, they are not only compatible but rather obviously so.

They start to make their case with some examples of famous scientists who have been religious. But that's underwhelming. It's like arguing that abolitionism and slave ownership are compatible by pointing out that Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Then there's a point they make about the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism. They think science just eschews religious hypotheses as a matter of methodology. It takes no position on religious entities and processes. CM and SK quote the philosopher of science Rob Pennock as saying that science is methodologically naturalistic in the way plumbing is. People "do" science and plumbing without gods and fairies and the like, but that doesn't mean scientists and plumbers can't believe in gods and fairies.

But hold on. It could be very odd to "do" science and plumbing naturalistically, depending on what you think gods and fairies are up to. Why spend the whole day looking for a block in the drainage pipes, if you think the pipe fairies might be at it again? Why be determined to find natural causes for diseases and disasters, if you think there's a god out there who sometimes punishes people for their sins?

It's a Very Hard Question whether science and religion are compatible, not one that CM and CK can settle quickly, or that atheists are necessarily getting wrong. In fact, it's this hardness that the authors could have used in their argument. Science educators should stick to transmitting science--evolution, climate scientists, neuroscience, etc. etc. It's not their job to teach what are in fact extremely contentious philosophical theories about science and religion. Don't teach incompatibility, don't teach compatibility, I'd say. Stick to teaching science.

That would be my prescription. And now I will get back to cursing the coqui frogs, which have started their nightly singing. (See previous post.)


Tea Logar said...

"Science educators should stick to transmitting science--evolution, climate scientists, neuroscience, etc. etc."

This seems to me a very odd view of what science is, and this might also help explain why people like Mooney on one hand and people like PZ on the other might be talking past each other.

Mooney and you seem to think of teaching science in terms of teaching substantive theories: evolution, gravity, etc., while PZ and others (including myself) think of teaching science as primarily teaching a scientific way of *THINKING*.

It may be perfectly "compatible" to teach someone a theory of evolution, then tell him that god started the whole process, and also that this same god dislikes abortion and euthanasia. But it's not compatible to teach someone that they should only accept the theory of evolution because critical reasoning and scientific examinations confirm it, but that they can on the other hand accept the catholic dogma simply because a book says so.

If you see science as simply teaching of certain theories, you are not really teaching science, and you are doing nothing to promote rational, critical thought. If you see science in this way, than you are right that science and religion are compatible. But this is only because you don't understand what teaching science is about.

Jean Kazez said...

"If you see science in this way, than you are right that science and religion are compatible. But this is only because you don't understand what teaching science is about."

But wait. I didn't say science and religion were compatible. I said this is a very hard question, a question of philosophy, not science proper. I said I think science educators should simply teach science, and leave that very hard question for people to sort out for themselves, or with their clergy, or (ideally) in a philosophy class.

What I'm saying is different from what Mooney is saying--I think he's recommending that science educators teach that science and religion are compatible. In other words, he wants them to teach a particular (problematic, in my view) resolution to this very hard question. I'd say just "don't ask, don't tell." It's not a science question how science relates to religion.

Granted, I'm using the word "science" narrowly--so that it's not the same thing as "reason" or "philosophy" or "critical thinking." But this is actually pretty normal (PZ notwithstanding). In a neuroscience class, you would not expect the teacher to try to resolve the mind-body problem. That's a super-hard philosophy question, best left to the professionals! I'm just suggesting the same approach. The biology teacher is not actually equipped to sort through the very difficult question of how science and religion are related.

It wouldn't hurt for science educators to use this as a rule of thumb--they ought to teach a body of knowledge that's generally accepted. That means (once again), no tackling the issue of science-religion compatibility.

s. wallerstein said...

When we debate how to teach science, we're not talking about MIT. We're talking about what goes on in a secondary school with a bunch of students who in general will never study science again nor read a book on science in their lives and who often are not particularly intelligent. Sorry. The average IQ is 100. Half the population has an IQ of less than 100. So we want them to learn certain basic facts: the theory of evolution, genes, global warming, the brain produces thought. We want them to remember those basic facts for the rest of their lives, just as we want them to learn basic facts of civic education: that human rights are good, that democracy is the best form of government, that racism is bad, etc. It's as simple as that. A very very small percentage of those students will go on to MIT to study science in depth or on to Harvard to study political theory, and then they can question and reason critically. But in a basic secondary school science class we want the kids to memorize certain facts. Nothing more. There is absolutely no reason to confuse them with any stuff about whether religion is compatible with naturalism or not. They can study that in the university if they elect to.

Tea Logar said...

Maybe. Or maybe the fact that we want the kids to memorize theories (instead of explaining to them how those and other theories came to be in the first place) enables the religionists and post-modernists alike to make smug comments about "how unreliable scientific thinking is" whenever a certain theory is shown to be false.

The inability to distinguish between scientific *thinking* and scientific *theories* makes it possible for people to abandon the former when the latter fails.

s. wallerstein said...

Tea: The majority of people are never going to learn how theories come to be. To tell you the truth, I would have a hard time explaining how natural selection works or Einstein's theory of relativity or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. I suspect that most educated people whom I know, none of them scientists, would also find it difficult and yet all of us accept that state of the art science is the closest to truth that is available at present. So teach kids basic scientific facts and let those who want to learn more science continue their quest. Drill the science into their heads like spelling or the multiplication table is drilled into kids.

Faust said...

With this post I've seen 3 people disparage the notion that "because there are religious people that are also scientists we have evidence that the two are compatible."

The examples given as to why this is an underwhelming justification for the claim of compatability are:

Coyne: It's like saying marriage and adultery are compatible because there are married people who commit adultery.

Myers: you could also argue that there are serial killers who are Christian, therefore Christianity and repeated, planned murder are compatible.

Kazez: It's like arguing that abolitionism and slave ownership are compatible by pointing out that Thomas Jefferson had slaves.

I think that all three of these examples are actually quite interesting and do not necessarily show what they are supposed to show.

1) Marriage and adultery can obviously be made compatible. How about open marriages? Certainly there are marriages in which people commit "adultery" in the sense of undesired affairs and then subsequently continue their marriage. I'm not sure what this rather loose and unhelpful analogy is supposed to show.

2. What is "Christianity?" Is it simply believing every word of the bible? In that case you could do all sorts of horrific things and be a Christian. And such an approach aside violating Christian law and then subsequently being forgiven is part and parcel of the Christian way. So you can certainly be "a thief" and be a Christian, "a liar" and be a Christain, and yes I imagine according to some theologies you could pull off being a mass murderer and be a Christian...provided you got redeemed at the last minute. Sinning and being a Christian go together like ham and eggs because being a Christian is about the possibility of redemption...not merely being perfect. Though your milage will vary depending on theology.

3) How about Jefferson? I am not an expert on the history but I know he considered slavery to be a moral evil and worked towards ending it. I seem to remember reading he justified keeping his slaves because if he let them go it seemed likely they would suffer a worse fate than the kind of care he provided them. True? Not a historian. In any case I can imagine there being some compatability here under the right description of the historical events.

Note that in all three example we are discussing normative comparisions. "Marriage" with a moral violation of marital fidelity. "Being a Christian" with a horrific moral violation of christian moral law. "Abolitionist" with a lifestyle that would seem to mar the moral project of abolition.

Should I say: saying that science and religion are compatible is like saying animal rights activism and eating eggs and cheese are compatible because there are people who are animal rights activists who eat eggs and cheese? Yes. I think I will say that.

Part of the difficulty here is the question of what "science" and "religion" ARE. I think we can CLEARLY show that there are epistemic claims that religions make that are testable by science and shown to be false. But to go beyond this and say that a thing called "religion" is inherently incompatible with science is going to require quite a bit more work.

Faust said...

When I made the arguments offered in my previous comment I was interested in exploring the semantics of the analogies being used to critique the notion that the existence of religious scientists serve as evidence for the compatibility of science and religion. In a sense I was suggesting that the analogies seemed like sophistry to me, and so I used a bit of sophistry to twist them around and show that “compatibility” seemed entirely arguable—depending on the meanings of the words being used. Quite a bit of semantic sophistry seems to be deployed in this science/religion debate, particularly as the word “religion” tends to be defined to suit the purposes of the argument being deployed.

However, I thought about it some more and realized that the 3 analogies in question could be distilled to a general principle. So I thought about the issue again from this perspective. This allowed me to reframe the analogy like so:

Saying that science and religion are compatible because there are scientists that are also religious

Is like saying:

Having a moral commitment and violating that moral commitment are compatible because there are people that have moral commitments (marriage/Christianity/abolitionism) that violate or fail to fulfill those commitments (adultery/murder/slave owning).

Does this reduction of the various analogies to a common principle help us understand the use of these analogies any better?

For one thing, phrased in this way it can be argued that we are dealing here with an instance of akrasia or a weakness of the will. For when we are talking about the (extremely persistent) phenomenon of people proclaiming a good and then failing to do the good (so postulated) then we have an example of weakness of the will. Is there a suggestion lurking behind these analogies, then, that the incompatibility between science and religion is a normative incompatibility? In other words are religious scientists people who “know the Good of science” but who “fail to do the Good of science” outside of the lab?

I think that this may be a good angle to take when reading the various responses to this issue. Consider Tea Logar’s statement in her first comment above:

It may be perfectly "compatible" to teach someone a theory of evolution, then tell him that god started the whole process, and also that this same god dislikes abortion and euthanasia. But it's not compatible to teach someone that they should only accept the theory of evolution because critical reasoning and scientific examinations confirm it, but that they can on the other hand accept the catholic dogma simply because a book says so. [emphasis mine]

This is a normative assertion. Science SHOULD be accepted because critical reasoning is a great good, and because blind acceptance of a revelatory tradition does not constitute critical reasoning, then it constitutes a violation of our adopted (scientific) norms to accept it (without the application of critical thinking).

To put it another way the principle that scientific exclusivists (as opposed to accomodationists) would like to push is a normative principle that runs something like (in a somewhat Wittgensteinian fashion): “religion” is a wheel that plays no part in any mechanism; therefore we SHOULD NOT ever refer to any such wheels when describing the reality in which we live.

More to say here. But I’ll leave it there for now.

Jean said...

Must be brief...

Faust, I don't think these analogies prove that science and religion are incompatible, but challenge the facile attempt to show they are compatible just by giving examples of religious scientists.


Faust said...

Aloha! Do I owe you a medal?

No I get it. But I find the analogies themselves to be a bit facile--that was the point of my first post. The fact that there are skilled productive scientists that are also religious is not something that should be casually dismissed, though it is not, in and of itself conclusive proof of "compatibility" depending on what we mean by "compatablity."

Still, facile sophistry aside I find it facinating that the three analogies given can be reduced into a common format--a common principle which can be clearly seen in the form:

"Having a moral commitment and violating that moral commitment are compatible because there are people that have moral commitments (marriage/Christianity/abolitionism) that violate or fail to fulfill those commitments (adultery/murder/slave owning)."

I think that the fact that all three analogies have this form is instructive and tells us something about the kind of compatability that is lacking here-specifically that it is a lack of normative compatability. Coyne really does say things that bascially ammount to: scientists should not indulge in frivolous irrational unprovable and otherwise unhelpful speculations that cannot be falsified through experimentation. That's a normative assertion. It really IS like saying "you can't have a normative commitment to modeling the world on the basis of naturalism and then violate that norm by indulging in unfalsifiable supernatural fantasy."

I think the anaolgies are not merely showing how easy it is to show that human beings contradict themselves in practice, but provide a way of understanding the science religion debate as a particular kind of normative conflict.

I have to say: seeing religious scientists as suffering from akrasia is a new one on me...and pretty interesting.

Faust said...

Oh and this is good:


Anonymous said...
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Jean Kazez said...

Can't type much on tiny keyboard....

Hey, you need an occasional break from all the extreme beauty.

I agree it's suggestive that smart people can be both scientist and religious....it forces you to take compatibility as a real possibility. But Mooney & Co seem to think it shows more than that, and that seems wrong.

That's all I can manage.

Faust said...

Well on this issue I think you and I are in pretty close alignment.

My quibbling about the analogies (once I got over my sophistry) was more about exploring the structure of the analogies--seeing if it shed light on what kinds of compatablity we might be talking about. Presumably the fact that all three analogies offered as examples of incompatability had the same structure seems relavant no?

I wonder what constitues good evidence in these kinds of cicumstances. For example if I said: You don't need to believe in God to be a good person and I know this because there are good people who are atheists wouldn't this be considered good evidence?

If I then say: You can be a practicing Christian and meaningfully contribute to science and I know this because there are devout Christians who make meaningfull contributions to science is this not the same kind of evidence? Or is it different?

Perhaps these kinds of examples do not show "compatability." Perhaps they show "not relevant to practice." Believing in God is not relevant to the question of whether or not someone is "good" and also not relevant to whether or not someone is cabable of doing "good science." Maybe "compatability" is just a red herring.

As far as Mooney is concerned I think he has some good points but overeaches.

My feeling is that if you are someone who wants to bring as many people to the conversational table as possible (which is what he says he wants to do) then you are obligated to try and help people build conversational bridges wherever possible, and less time drawing more lines in the sand. So he should have been more clear about where he agrees and disagrees with his opponents, but instead has simply muddied waters that should be made more clear.

Anonymous said...

If you believe in god you
could say that science creates
models/mechanisms to explain how the STUFF god made
--the particulars-- works, based on the assumption that sensual evidence can confirm a theory. This is science's realm and no more.
But scientism says this is the only way to understand what existence is, which I find absurd.
Assumes what it must prove --
that there is no more to the universe than what it says there is. In its arrogant way science
would have you believe that its realm is all --that to understand the nature of things in the widest sense is to do science.
I find this nonsensical--science is a narrow realm within the larger frame of human life, and of existence in general. Its approach can yield some helpful material
results--so what? It still cannot tell you what a single thing is.
The nature of life and existence and the universe is wider--and the wider understanding of life is found by living it and delving deep.
The basic nature of things is in your face everyday---it is
being---and it is by understanding being in a profound way that
the widest possible understanding of the universe may be had.
It is this understanding and experience that spritual disciplines have cultivated for thousands of years.
And the basic experience--a lived experience-- is that individuality is a lie--there is
no separation---and in fact no individual--only the life of the totality. That we are and all is
being. And that being neither loses nor gains in being.
The true way to live life is as
being---then you are finally at home anywhere and everywhere. This is both living truth and complete fulfillment.

Some scientists have had insights into this wider possibility--Shrodinger for instance, who in his paper "What is life?" argues that the notion of a personal self is a mistaken notion.
Such scientists are the rare exception--and science has no method, no program for producing such insight-----this is the realm of the path of spiritual development.