Sunday, 14 June 2009

My take on accomodationism.

Lately the science blogosphere has been abuzz with discussion about accomodationism. It all started off with a piece by Jerry Coyne for New Republic on the subject, which has since stirred the pot and prompted Chris Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, Ken Miller and P.Z. Myers to give their two cents on the issue (a chronological list of postings and replies [as of June 12th] can be found here). There is alot to read about accomodationism but it all revolves around one question: is there room in science for religion - that is, can science and religion get along, or are they diametrically opposed?

And if you ask me, no, they can't and yes, they are.

The simple reason why is because science deals with the observable, the empirical, the testable; while religion deals with the metaphysical, the unobservable, the untestable. To be a scientist requires, then, a certain mindset - one that forsakes reliance in the intangible and deals wholly with physical reality. For one to have this scientific mindset and still hold a belief in religion requires a measure of doublethink in the true Orwellian fashion.

Much of the accomidationism discussion has talked about Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). In his 1999 book, The Rock of Ages, Gould proposed that science and religion attempt to explain different aspects of life: science attempting to explain how the world works and religion attempting to explain how we should act. If kept separate, then, the two magisteria should never conflict with one another. Accomidationists tend to use NOMA to suggest how science and religion can co-exist: if people keep them separate then there should be no problem with believing in both. Unfortunately, there is a big problem with using NOMA to justify accomodationism: the two magisteria DO NOT stay separate. Religion constantly makes an attempt to explain how the world works - take creationism for an example. Religion makes many claims about the physical world, which is supposedly science's realm. And many times, what religion claims and what science posits conflicts. To believe BOTH means you have to twist one to fit the other - usually twisting religion to fit science. The usual way is to claim that certain Biblical statements are just "symbolism". This poses a question: how do you decide which aspects to take "for real", and which are just "symbolism" (the answer is, of course, there is no criteria for deciding this). And if ANY of the Bible is symbolic, then what reason do you have to believe that any of it is real?

But there lies a bigger problem with accepting NOMA as a basis for accomodationism. If one is able to keep the magisteria separate, the very fact that one accepts the religious magisterium means that one accepts the idea that there are intangible, untestable entities and processes in existence. As a scientist, how could you ever divorce that idea from explaining the observable world? What keeps you from invoking the metaphysical to explain the physical? Again, there is no defined criteria for this judgement. One is resigned to proposing that there might be some unknown, intangible - in other words, unscientific - entity/process behind the physical world. And at that point, one ceases to be a proper scientist.

Now, I want feel I should say that this does not mean you cannot be a good scientist and be religious, or that being religious necessarily makes one a bad scientist. What matters is whether or not you incorporate your religious beliefs into your scientific activities. Once you try mixing the two, you cross the line from "good scientist" to "poor scientist". This is what separates the Ken Millers from the Michael Behes; Miller, while openly Christian, leaves his religion out of his science, and Behe, also openly Christian, insists on mixing the two. The problem lies, as I said above, in that to do this requires a measure of doublethink. You have to ignore (or attempt to explain away) the areas where science and religion are in disagreement, and you have to use the metaphysical for religious purposes and the physical for the scientific despite having no clear reason why they should be kept separate in the first place.

No doubt the accomodationism debate will continue. One wonders if it will ever be settled.


bobxxxx said...

The simple reason why is because science deals with the observable, the empirical, the testable; while religion deals with the metaphysical, the unobservable, the untestable.

Translation: Science deals with reality, while religion deals with bullshit.

C.W.G.K said...

My point exactly.