The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, June 19, 2009

A tangent to the Great Accommodationism Debate

There's a spectacular brouhaha fascinating debate going on in the evolution education advocacy community, over what is being undiplomatically called 'accommodationism'. A few days ago Jerry Coyne gave a link round-up, and it's already gone further: the best way to catch up is to go to his blog and scroll down. (Of course, if you're reading this much after June 2009, go here.)

Accommodationism, in this context, means emphasising the compatibility of religious faith with the truth of evolution. Few would object to merely pointing out that "Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith." Of course it can.
The problems arise when we read a little further in this authoritative statement:
Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.
The more I think about that statement, the more it seems likely to irritate scientists and philosophers as much as believers and theologians - which is one way of demonstrating compatibility, I guess.

Coyne's view is that rather than make lots and lots of (often arcane) statements about compatibility, science advocacy organizations should stick to science and keep schtum about religion:
Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE? Not at all. I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint. I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution. If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended. Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education. Leave theology to the theologians.
Well said.

Speaking for myself, I used to be a compatibilist and accommodationist. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm no more a scientist than I am a theologian. But for a heartfelt exploration of how these questions play out in real life, it's hard to top this:
Years ago I was fighting the good fight of creation on the Internet. I argued that evolution was impossible, for it required that the genetic code had to be changed to make new kinds of animals. It did not seem feasible to me that evolution could do this. I argued in the CompuServe debate forum, basing my arguments on Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crises. My favorite illustration was the difference between mammals and reptiles. The differences between living mammals and reptiles are substantial. Mammals all have hair, mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, and the distinct mammalian ear, with three little bones inside. These features are found in no living reptiles. I argued that this is because there is no viable intermediate between the two, that an animal could have either the reptile genetic code or the mammal code but could not be in the middle.

An evolutionist disagreed with me. He told me that in the past there had been many intermediates. He said that there were animals that, for instance, had jaw and ear bones that were intermediate between reptiles and mammals. How did he know this? He gave a reference to an essay in Stephen Gould's Ten Little Piggies . I wrote back that since the local library had a large collection of children's book, I should be able to find that book. (I thought I was so funny). I borrowed the book, and found an interesting account of how bones in the reptile jaw evolved and changed through millions of years to become the mammals' ear. That sounded like such a clever tale. How could Gould believe it? Perhaps he made it up. But there was one little footnote, a footnote that would change my life. It said simply, "Allin, E. F. 1975. Evolution of the Mammalian Middle Ear. Journal of Morphology 147:403-38." That's it. That's all it said. But it was soon to have a huge impact on me. You see, I had developed this habit of looking things up, and had been making regular trips to the University of Pennsylvania library. I was getting involved in some serious discussions on the Internet, and was finding the scientific journals to be a reliable source of information. Well, I couldn't believe that a real scientific journal would take such a tale seriously, but, before I would declare victory, I needed to check it out.

On my next trip to the university, I found my way to the biomedical library and located the journal archives. I retrieved the specified journal, and started to read. I could not believe my eyes. There were detailed descriptions of many intermediate fossils. The article described in detail how the bones evolved from reptiles to mammals through a long series of mammal-like reptiles. I paged through the volume in my hand. There were hundreds of pages, all loaded with information. I looked at other journals. I found page after page describing transitional fossils. More significantly, there were all of those troublesome dates. If one arranged the fossils according to date, he could see how the bones changed with time. Each fossil species was dated at a specific time range. It all fit together. I didn't know what to think. Could all of these fossil drawings be fakes? Could all of these dates be pulled out of a hat? Did these articles consist of thousands of lies? All seemed to indicate that life evolved over many millions of years. Were all of these thousands of "facts" actually guesses? I looked around me. The room was filled with many bookshelves; each was filled with hundreds of bound journals. Were all of these journals drenched with lies? Several medical students were doing research there. Perhaps some day they would need to operate on my heart or fight some disease. Was I to believe that these medical students were in this room filled with misinformation, and that they were diligently sorting out the evolutionist lies while learning medical knowledge? How could so much error have entered this room? It made no sense.


The impact of that day in the library was truly stunning. I didn't know what to say. I could not argue against the overwhelming evidence for mammal evolution. But neither could I imagine believing it. Something had happened to me. My mind had begun to think. And it was not about to be stopped. Oh no. There is no stopping the mind set free. I went to the library and borrowed a few books on evolution and creation--diligently studying both sides of the argument. I started to read the evolutionist books with amazement. I had thought that evolutionists taught that floating cows had somehow turned into whales; that hopeful monsters had suddenly evolved without transitions; that one must have blind faith since transitional fossils did not exist; that one must simply guess at the dates for the fossils; and that one must ignore all of the evidence for young-earth creation. I was surprised to learn what these scientist[s] actually knew about the Creationist teachings of flood geology, of the proposed young-earth proofs, and of the reported problems of evolution. And I was surprised at the answers that they had for these Creationist arguments. And I was surprised to see all the clear, logical arguments for evolution. I read with enthusiasm. I learned about isochrons, intermediate fossils, the geologic column, and much more.

I would never see the world in the same light. Several weeks later I found myself staring at the fossil of a large dinosaur in a museum. I stared with amazement. I looked at the details of every bone in the back. And I wondered if a design so marvelous could really have evolved. But I knew that someone could show me another animal that had lived earlier and was a likely predecessor of this dinosaur that I was observing. And I knew that one could trace bones back through the fossil record to illustrate the path through which this creature had evolved. I stared and I pondered. And then I pondered some more.

Within days, I had lost interest in fighting evolution. I began to read more and speak less. When I did debate, I confined my arguments to the origin of life issue. But I could no longer ignore what I had learned. Several months later I first sent out an email with probing questions to a Creationist who had arrived on the scene. He never responded. I have not stopped questioning.
Preach it, brother!

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I am one of those "few" who disagree with the very first quote. Just why and how 'can' the two be compatible? An explanation is called for right at the start, but none are offered. The use of that little word 'can' loads the dice in favor of creationism (or whatever it's called nowadays) by asking me to start looking for an account of the supposed compatibility. As an Atheist I refuse to buy into that game.

The two 'can' be compatible because in science you need to keep careful track of the difference what you "know" to be true (have reason to believe has been verified by experiment), what you're attempting to verify, things that you've heard about but that you have seen no account of evidence for, and what you'd _like_ to be true, it contains the tools necessary (what you have faith in is just another category of thing that you have to keep separate from your experiment) to think clearly about this sort of problem.

Theoretically this is something that "Athiests" should have to do as well, in the /believed/ to be unlikely case some actual evidence for invisible pink unicorns should actually show up.

I, myself, try hard not to have any beliefs at all, and be very aware of them as beliefs when I do. (So I suppose this is a theoretical question...)

Having wasted far too much time, over a span of about ten misguided years, attempting to maintain a world view in which an acceptance of the evidence for evolution was somehow (and quite precariously) compatible with my religious faith I would argue that it's possible. It's just a hell of a lot of work. The mental gymnastics that I would perform on a daily basis to reconcile my two opposing belief systems never ceases to amaze me in retrospect. It's not surprising though, that a person can convince himself that the two are completely compatible when you consider all of the other improbable beliefs to which many folk are wont to cling. Let them tangle their brains if they like -- just keep their accomodationist agendas far from the table when it comes to planning curricula for public schools or allocating funding to alternative educational systems. Looks like an all too slippery slope onto which scheming creationists and IDiots might happily slosh some oil in hopes of watching reason and true science slide off into oblivion. "Sure," they'll say, "you teach our kids evolution and we'll come into the class room and teach your kids about Jesus. That's fair, isn't it? There's no conflict anymore. It's all compatible..." wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

I guess my talent for eliciting controversy is at work once more, this time thanks to that 'can'. As a trained philosophy teacher I developed an eye for such slippery-slope, mealy-mouthed, weasel words. As for having no beliefs at all, that is probably impossible, as the greatest American philosopher argued in 2 famous, easily readable essays way back in 187something. We need beliefs (and desires) to help generate any actions whatsoever. Some naturalistic philosophers, especially Peirce and Schopenhauer, were willing to call the 'directed' coordinated movements of some paramecium's cilia beliefs, since they let it act properly, within the beast's limits (now I'm infringing on Ken's territory, so I had better stop). And in science, which was Peirce's main example, having no beliefs at all gets you exactly nowhere. These are great essays. Well, if you start with some RELIGIOUS beliefs, you may generate some scientific results, but they will surely support your religion quite tenuously if at all. What they will perhaps do, is to goose you to do more SCIENCE, so as to get yet more SCIENTIFIC beliefs, which in this case are BETS that such-and-such will occur if you do this-or-that experiment. In no such case do religious beliefs become part of the CONTENT of your studies: they just motivate you, precisely like Bach's intense Lutheranism motivated his greatest products. I'd love them even if I had never heard the word "Gott" in any language, or if the God- notion never occurred to me (it was forced down my throat by bigots). The philosopher Reichenbach got it right, by distinguishing between the Context Of Discovery (which includes religious motivations) and Context Of Justification, which is properly limited to experimentation and mathematical deduction of consequences. Having no beliefs is literally a no-brainer, LOL.

If Catholicism & Hinduism can co-exist without fighting despite having completely different answers I don't see how science can't co-exist with both. Of course I believe they are both wrong & that the scientific method provides the only close approach to accuracy but it seems only politeness not to say so in mixed company, if one can honourably avoid doing so.

Neil, if the scientific method provides the ONLY close approach to accuracy, as you say (rightly), then you are one step away from saying that the scientific method is the only way of approaching the true description of the world's general structure. That is precisely what Peirce argued. His tactic was to compare science with religion (sometimes under the term "authority") and other supposed truth-ascertaining methods. He did his best to show that every method except science contains built-in instabilities which prevent them from being relied upon for truth-getting in the long run. Scientific method, he argued, was the only technique that CAN ascertain these truths IF there are any. Now, if you accept Peirce's reasoning in the paper (I do), then all one can do with any religion is (as you say) to be polite to people who have any religious faith. You can respect the person without respecting the CONTENT of his/her beliefs. The papers are "The Fixation Of Belief" and "How To Make Our Ideas Clear," with the first containing what I just sketched. Any collection of Peirce's papers will have them: they are fundamental.

Yes. To me it is indeed the only way with a proven record of factual success.

I was merely saying that it is unnecesary to seek a fight, as Dawkins for example, seems to do. (This may seem, to anybody who has read stuff by me, a slightly uncharacteristic position - it is just that to defend against the threat of creationism is now slightly unnecessary.)

I reserve my powder for things like global warming catastrophism & environmental Ludditry which I think are genuine current & unscientific threats.

Hi Neal---I haven't followed the creationism debate very much. Why is fighting creationism 'slightly unnecessary'? I should think that with crap like government subsidized faith schools around the real fight is still to come in many countries, if it's not going on right now (I live in Sweden, one of the 2 most secular countries in the West; the other is Finland). As for Dawkins, I find him simply boring. I know all the arguments and don't need to be convinced. But I have heard that he's poor at non-dogmatic arguing. I like the book only for its bibliography and scattered nuggets of info to use in MY arguments. Here, thank goodness, the battle was won some years ago, largely thanks to a philosopher, I'm glad to say. Ingemar Hedenius, the teacher of many of my best friends here in Uppsala.

The confession of a former Creationist you've quoted illustrates what I take to be your point here: science and religion can't co-exist in the manner that appeasers wish because exposure to scientific explanations of phenomena (particularly the modern theory of evolution) corrodes belief in the religious worldview. The religious position can only maintain itself on the basis of retaining a goodly portion of ignorance about science. The Christian right in America certainly seems to have perceived this most clearly and have tried to restrict the teaching of evolution to the young because of it. They recognize that once the young become aware of the sheer amount of evidence (the library shelves full of journals) on the side of evolution and the paucity of evidence on the theological side, the scales will start to tip over to science for any thinking person. Only arresting this process at some point, by erecting a barrier and refusing to continue with one's intellectual development can one forestall a loss of faith.

A religious person could certainly acknowledge evolution and pay lip service to it but I doubt they would have truly assimilated and understood it.

Here is a clear summary of Professor Hedenius' ideas. I am proud to say that I knew his widow: .
If all parties of the debate were as clear as this person was, we might well make some quick progress. For these simply expressed notions are as relevant to the religion problem as they were when Ingemar Hedenius put them on paper.

It's -- I think -- a question of fundamental incompatibility with (at least) the various forms of Abrahamic monotheism.

Science is about facts, and facts are necessarily independent of any specific person's mind; if it's dependent on some one specific mind, whatever it is, it's not a fact; the facts are known with some degree of confidence or precision, and that's about knowing how wrong you are, not what the truth is.

So science as a human activity asserts, successfully and powerfully, that desiring the truth is relatively futile but that desiring to set quantified limits on your error and your ignorance, following a procedure that requires submitting your ideas to the judgment of others, works.

Those two things, between them, dismiss revelation and truth as sources of utility or authority. Of course this is incompatible with any revealed-truth, authoritarian-hierarchy religion. (It's also one of the reasons why so much of the chaff being generated by the religious right in the US is aimed at creating crippling confusion about scientific method.)

Graydon, you said it about as good as can be said. The best philosophy fills in some details and doesn't usually connect it to religion, as you just did so well. Moreover, you forced me to correct myself! Neither Peirce nor the best realists in philosophy (of which Peirce was one) were so arrogant as to claim that we SHALL attain to the truth. In particular, Peirce, Popper, and my idol Wilfrid Sellars argued (more modestly) that a MERE NOTION of truth serves as a HOPE (Peirce's term), a kind of wish to obtain better and better quantifications and new theories. So far that hope has paid off. We have no guarantee that it will keep on doing so. It's all we have. Religion gives us less by propounding lies. To quote Peirce again, such lies (and indeed any appeal to a final authority) "blocks the path of inquiry." A very bad thing.

Thanks to all for the stimulating comments.

In a book I glanced through on Friday I came across Peirce's name for the first time in ages and had resolved to look more into what he had to say, so it's interesting to see him his name cropping up again here. I mostly knew about Peirce and pragmatism via The Philosophy of Humanism by Corliss Lamont.

Hi Ken, Peirce was the best philosopher my Old Country has ever produced. Those two essays seem simple and in a sense are. "How to make our Ideas Clear" was later modified by Peirce to get rid of some vestigial positivism. Result never published. But "The Fixation of Belief" still cannot be beat. The best paperback edition of his stuff is The Essential Peirce, in 2 volumes. They are still easily available, I hope. I read him over and over again. He's wide-ranging, scientifically oriented, radically innovative in logic (going beyond the UK's Boole for the first time) and even great at speculative naturalistic metaphysics. He was hampered by lacking an academic position for a long time, the major crime of living in sin, and a love of booze. Sad story. His writings are pithy and must be read closely, with care, and then ditto again.....Well, that's enough ranting about my favorite American philosopher. Sellars came pretty close, since he was for a large part indebted to Peirce. The latter's true value was recognized less than 50 years ago. The poor man died in 1914, a pauper living in a silly mansion, without enough money to buy one loaf of bread: He probably stole food or begged during his periodic trips to NYC. A realy sad story. A great thinker. Not a nice guy. Forget C. Lamont. He was a pompous ...who did some good philanthropic things for NYC and Columbia. Bad things, IMHO, for American education, with his holier-than-thou Humanism. I've seen it in action.


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The "Urantia Book" might offer an interesting perspective regarding this issue.

why don't scientists say to creationists:

OK, let's say that god DID create the world 6000 years ago, it sure looks like he made it to look like there'd been evolution on the planet for a billion years. we're not making them up, these fossils, you know. god must have put them there.

so surely god wants us to study these bones and learn the theory of evolution, even if it's not true! perhaps evolution expresses some other kind of truth that god wants us to learn. cos it is sure useful for curing diseases and conservation and stuff, and god probably wants us to do those things, right?

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