Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Religion, Science and Accommodationism

It's not obvious that science and religion are necessarily incompatible. Some religious claims are incompatible with some scientific claims. For example, Biblical literalists make claims that are inconsistent with well-established astrophysical and biological claims. Perhaps religion's claims could be restricted to claims that necessarily are beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, but it's not clear that this would allow religion to remain within the scope of rational inquiry.

Madeline Bunting, in the Guardian, after taking some unnecessary shots at the supposed dogmatism and radicalism of contemporary atheists, reviews a conference of "thoughtful believers" at Lambeth Palace, wherever that is. It's strange how rationality always supports theism when only theists are invited to contribute. She writes,
But the Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, "beware of the power of nonsense". Science's triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were "different ways of knowing" and "what you come to know depends on the questions you start with". Different questions lead to "different practices of learning" – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

This is in fact precisely the kind of nonsense the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to be warning us about. I'm not sure who has claimed that science is a triumphant competitor with religion. Perhaps it is triumphalist to think that religion might be false and belief in it irrational. I doubt anyone thinks that science supports its own version of the same type of claims that religion does. However, the accommodationist position put forth is the real nonsense. She confuses two separate issues. The first is the two different ways of "knowing". The second is the two different areas of "knowledge". These two issues are distinct. The religious way of knowing could cover the same subject matter as science but with different standards of evaluation. Or religion could cover different areas of knowledge (in Gould's terms, NOMA, "Non-Overlapping Magisteria") but in the same general way that science does. Or, of course, it could answer different questions with a different approach.

Unfortunately, under any of these criteria, religion is apt to fail to be fully rational. When religion covers the same questions as science, its answers have simply failed to be supportable. When people have held religious belief in scientific questions (e.g. origin of the earth and species), they have largely been incorrect, and shown to be incorrect, by the advance of science. Religion clearly does not meet the same standards of evidence as science, and so it cannot be that religion approaches different questions with the same methods. That leaves only the question of the rationality of religious approaches to different questions. Gould used to say that the domain of religion was morality, the existence of God and the nature of the soul. Obviously, morality has nothing to do with religion, so we can skip that, but even the other questions are in the domain of philosophy. Perhaps this is the best attitude: philosophy, not science, and religion are in competition. But philosophy is based on reason and careful evaluation of argument and evidence. Religion, I presume, is based on revelation, personal experience and faith. All of these are irrational methods of acquiring beliefs. In sum, if religion is a different way of knowing different subject matter, then it is clearly an irrational way of "knowing" that subject matter, and it should be rejected in favor of philosophical analysis.

But let's sample the rationality of these thoughtful believers:

Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology, argued that the polemical hostile debate which dominates public debate – "the fuss" – is really about a failure of nerve of both science and religion. The response of both is to retreat into their own forms of dangerous literalism – religion into creationism and science into a fundamentalism. Challenging the current deference to Darwin in this anniversary year, he warned that aspects of Darwin's thought can be taken into very dangerous territory; he cited a diary entry of Josef Goebbels' in 1942 on the "parasitical Jews" in the struggle for survival. Science needed ethical thinking.

How science retreats into fundamentalism is never explained, but the repetition of creationist calumny against evolution and Darwin--the connection to Nazism--sounds like fundamentalism to me.

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness. The future of science is a series of imponderables, he concluded, and it may require a set of scientific skills "of which we have no inkling at the moment."

How religion, revelation, and faith could help develop an understanding of consciousness is completely mysterious. I suppose this is Roger Penrose thinking: Religion's a mystery, consciousness is another mystery. Maybe they explain each other. I can sympathize with the idea that we may not have the concepts or skills necessary to understand consciousness, but I don't see how religion has anything to offer on that score. In general the future of science is clearly not a set of imponderables; if it's imponderable, it's not science. Science, except for perhaps the problem of consciousness, is doing fine without adding mysteries to their explanation. Mysteries cannot explain anything.

Bunting continues discussing Midgeley's question:

It was a tantalising suggestion, but John Houghton, the climate scientist, took the question in an entirely different direction. It was science which had established the nature of global warming and science would play a role in inventing the innovations which could mitigate its impact, but religion also had a role as an agent of change of personal behaviour. It had a crucial role because religion essentially concerned itself with relationships to other people, to the rest of humanity and to the natural environment.

This answer appears to provide science its proper role in explaining the problem and resolving it. But religion's role is, again, mysterious. Since morality and religion are independent, Houghton could only mean that religion can provide motivation to do things that we independently, by means of science and philosophy, know to be good. But at least we have something closer to a definition of religion even though it is still couched in vague, weasel-words. The phrase, "essentially concerned itself with relationships" does not tell us precisely what religion is or does. But, given that science and philosophy are responsible for our knowledge of ourselves, morality, other people and the environment, religion can only be one among many possible motivations behind moral improvement. Perhaps this is a purpose of religion, but this is a purpose of any number of social organizations. We can understand religion as just one in a number of social organizations with no special area of knowledge or way of knowing, but presumably accommodationists have a more exalted role for religion in mind. On their view, religion ain't just a bowling league devoting to personal and moral improvement. Unfortunately, taking it to be more than that is just irrational.

There's only a bit left, and it's really more of the same, so I won't continue. The point is that these well-meaning scientists and theologians want to encourage people to behave in morally responsible ways with respect to others and to the environment, but they are hopelessly confused about religion's necessity for that moral responsibility. My general agreement with their goals cannot cause me to avert my eyes from the poor reasoning they use to advance those goals.

No comments:

Post a Comment