Jun 12 2009

Two, Four, Six, Eight, Why Won’t We Accommodate?

The debate about Accommodation rages on. Can science and faith be reconciled? Is there a middle ground? Jerry Coyne has taken the liberty of compiling a list of some of the relevant posts made during the latest rounds of this bout.

Of course, it’s really not a “fight”. A discussion? Certainly. An argument? Perhaps. The majority of the sparring partners are on the same side: that of science. The debate seems to have come to a point where some of the parties think the question now becomes one of “What is science?” or “What is science meant to explain?”

Chris Mooney claims that Jerry Coyne “has violated the methodological vs. philosophical naturalism distinction.” Chris seems to rely heavily on Robert Pennock’s testimony at the Dover trial (and the decision of Judge John E. Jones III in that trial) in defense of this statement.

In Why Evolution is True, But Coyne is Wrong About Religion, Part II: Lessons of Dover, Chris says (emphasis mine):

I believe the central reason we have such massive problems with the teaching of evolution to be precisely this—millions of America believe, incorrectly, that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept it. This misconception is highly prevalent, and is regularly reinforced in a number of ways: Through the media, by church leaders, by the New Atheists, and so on.

If this incorrect view could somehow be dislodged, then, we might also have a better chance of defusing tensions over the teaching of evolution, and thereby improving “scientific literacy” (a term we define in more detail in the book, but that I won’t get bogged down with here). Such are some of the premises that I’m working from…

…and I’m hardly the only one. Indeed, I would argue that this view basically prevailed at the historic 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania evolution trial. Kenneth Miller, Barbara Forrest, John Haught, and Robert Pennock—all folks whose testimony helped evolution triumph in that Harrisburg courtroom—re some of its leading articulants, as is the National Center for Science Education, which provided critical support to the pro-evolution case in court.

Are the millions of Americans (and people in other countries, I am certain) who believe about evolution “that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept it” incorrect? Is this truly a misconception? The answer seems to be a resounding “Yes!” for those who seek accommodation between atheists and religious moderates. This would include Chris Mooney and Ken Miller.

Mooney asks, “What if there really is a fundamental conflict between science and religion? What if methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism aren’t really distinct—but the former inevitably also entails the latter?”

Barbara Forrest has already studied the connection between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Her conclusion seems to me to imply that there really is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. The abstract of her article Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism: Clarifying the Connection (originally published in Philo, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2000), pp. 7-29) reads thusly (emphasis mine):

Abstract: In response to the charge that methodological naturalism in science logically requires the a priori adoption of a naturalistic metaphysics, I examine the question whether methodological naturalism entails philosophical (ontological or metaphysical) naturalism. I conclude that the relationship between methodological and philosophical naturalism, while not one of logical entailment, is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion given (1) the demonstrated success of methodological naturalism, combined with (2) the massive amount of knowledge gained by it, (3) the lack of a method or epistemology for knowing the supernatural, and (4) the subsequent lack of evidence for the supernatural. The above factors together provide solid grounding for philosophical naturalism, while supernaturalism remains little more than a logical possibility.

In this article, Forrest does outline the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism: “Methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism are distinguished by the fact that methodological naturalism is an epistemology as well as a procedural protocol, while philosophical naturalism is a metaphysical position.” This appears to be the distinction which Mooney accuses Coyne of violating. I agree with Barbara Forrest’s conclusion that the relationship between the two is the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion, even in the absence of logical entailment. Does Coyne violate or ignore this distinction? Perhaps. Does that invalidate his argument? I think not.

Coyne has, as have millions of other atheists, rejected supernaturalism. The religious faithful embrace it. But what do the faithful have to fear from science? What is it that has them fighting tooth and nail to gain acceptance for their supernatural beliefs? I think Forrest has the answer:

For the philosophical naturalist, the rejection of supernaturalism is a case of “death by a thousand cuts.” Since its inception, methodological naturalism has consistently chipped away at the plausibility of the existential claims made by supernaturalism by providing increasingly successful explanations of aspects of the world which religion has historically sought to explain, e.g., human origins. The threat faced by supernaturalism is not the threat of logical disproof, but the fact of having its explanations supplanted by scientific ones.

The history of scientific inquiry is not one of logical refutation of supernatural beliefs, rather it is one of natural explanations taking the place of the supernatural. Lightning bolts are weapons of the gods, flung down from the heavens. Sorry, but we’ve found a natural explanation. The sun chariot flies through the heavens each day, bringing light to the world. Sorry again, but we’ve found a natural explanation for that too.

For religion to have meaning for humanity, it must have an effect. Many of these effects for which religion has proposed supernatural explanations have been shown to have naturalistic explanations. Much of what was once seen as supernatural becomes knowable as our methods of perception are improved. It’s simply not supernatural any more.

In closing her article, Forrest has this to say:

To say that we live in a natural world, situated in a universe governed by natural laws, even if these laws are considered nothing more than invariable regularities, is to say a great deal, the major points of which are specified by Kurtz:

Today, it is possible to defend … naturalism … on empirical scientific grounds. Naturalism thus provides a cosmic interpretation of nature. The universe is basically physical-chemical or material in structure, it is evolving in time; human life is continuous with other natural processes and can be explained in terms of them. To defend naturalism today is to say something significant, for it is an alternative to supernaturalism … [which] is unsupported by scientific evidence.
[—Paul Kurtz, “Darwin Re-Crucified: Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?” Free Inquiry (Spring 1998), 17]

This means that we are saying—again, tentatively rather than categorically—that we do not live in a supernaturally governed cosmos, and every expansion of scientific understanding, especially the understanding of human existence, e.g., of consciousness and the origin of life, solidifies and confirms this denial.

Science, because of its reliance upon methodological naturalism, lends no support to belief in the supernatural. Consequently, philosophical naturalism, because of its own grounding in methodological naturalism, has no room for it either. While for the supernaturalist, this absence may be the chief complaint against both science and methodological naturalism, for the philosophical naturalist, it is the source of the greatest confidence in both.

I am aware that there are many scientists who have, in some way, reconciled their quest for empirical knowledge about the world with their faith in a supernatural god. I find it difficult to comprehend how this is done, but I’m not a believer. It’s out of my ken. For myself, I will continue to promote skepticism and empirical knowledge alongside these people, but I still find myself unable to offer accommodation to those who patently refuse to give up their supernatural beliefs.


  1. Jason Thibeault

    I’ve said it in private, but well done sir.

    No matter how much people may want to convince themselves, and the moderates, that religion and science can coexist, science has an eroding effect on faith-based belief systems, because faith often makes arguments in direct opposition to the evidence.

  2. Juniper Shoemaker

    Great post! Thanks for linking to it.

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