6/30/2009

VIRTUAL COMMITTEE ON WORDING

Much nattering on the Intertubes, something about 'accomodationism' and 'exclusivism.' As usual, the urbane John Wilkins attracts or directs people to the most serious commentary.

A commenter, Leigh Jackson, joins many 'anti-accomodationists' in taking issue with the vague and seemingly religion-pandering position statement on religion from the NAS, which is as follows:

Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding. But science is a way of knowing that differs from other ways in its dependence on empirical evidence and testable explanations. Because biological evolution accounts for events that are also central concerns of religion — including the origins of biological diversity and especially the origins of humans — evolution has been a contentious idea within society since it was first articulated by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858.

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution. Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts.

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. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.

Leigh's proposed changes is as follows:

A non-accommodationist (neutral) rewrite of the last paragraph would look something like this:

Science and religion often address different kinds of questions in different kinds of way from one another. Sometimes they address the same or similar kinds of question but do so in different ways. In science, explanations must be based on empirical evidence. 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 beliefs or claims about supernatural forces or entities. Science has found no evidence to substantiate supernatural beliefs or claims but has found explanations for many phenomena once attributed to supernatural forces or entities.

Science and religion have a very different relationship today than they have shared in the past. Scientists once had to serve the interests of faith as well as reason and were not allowed to challenge the authority of the Church to decide on the theological implications of what scientists said. Scientists were censored by the Church if they did not exercise sufficient self-censorship.

The compatibility of science and supernaturalist religion today is an open question.


Here's my take as I wrote it to Leigh over at John's place:

Leigh, this may surprise you, but this theist agrees with you in that I think the NAS account could stand a rewrite similar to what you commend. Here's how I would tweak it:

"The relationship between science and religion is complex. While scientists themselves privately hold all manner of beliefs where religion is concerned, scientific practice excludes religion as a formal matter. This is because science and religion can differ in the sort of questions they ask, and even when they ask similar questions they will often address them in different ways."

"In particular, science attempts to explain phenomena purely in terms of natural causes, and bases these explanations on empirical evidence gathered through observation and experiment. Scientific claims are always held provisionally: they can be modified or rejected based on new findings."

"In contrast, religion often makes supernatural claims that are based on faith, and not subject to review based on empirical evidence. History shows that science is most effective when it is not subject to such constraints. "

Whaddaya think?

9 comments:

R. Moore said...

I prefer to avoid all special pleading on behalf of religion. If we are to make a statement in this area at all, it should at least be honest:

"Science" is conclusions based on objective evidence, defined as "evidence that is same to all observers using the same protocol, within a predefined statistical variation"

"Religion" is superstition,

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As an enlightened society we recognize that superstitious beliefs can be benign, and beneficial to community. But there is nothing a religion can achieve that any group cannot achieve. Religion has many positive benefits in this regard, but no more so than any secular group with a positive mission. Because of the positive benefits, good activities, whether religious or secular, deserve tolerance and protection.

And bad activities deserve scorn and punishment.

Religion is indistinguishable, in the objective sense, from any other superstition, like ghost-hunting, or UFO's or the Hollow Earth. There is no objective way to separate someone who talks to God from someone who talks to the dead, or demons, or any other voices that are produced by the human brain. To suggest that religion has superstitious beliefs is to make a special case that lacks justification.

All the other wording is pandering, and a legitimate reaction to the fact that denigrating religion leads to unfortunate outcomes. Like losing your job, or being killed.

What religion is not, most definitely, is about "asking questions" in a way science cannot or does not. Religion is "answers" disguised as question. If some has ever come across a "religious question", that is not merely a premise for justifying superstition, I would like to see it.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Richard, I think you have a point in that a lot of questions formally posed by religion are done so merely to set up the formal answers, which in turn often seem to exist merely to prop up the authority of the religious hierarchy.

But me, personally, I do ask questions and I don't do it for the above reasons. I ask them for me, not for some hierarchy, and I don't claim that in asking them I have some pat answer that will satisfy everyone...or even myself. I suppose we could argue about whether these questions are meaningful, coherent, etc. But I think they are questions, and they do get asked. They just don't belong in science.

R. Moore said...

Scott --

It is "religion" that I claim does not ask questions -- I try to separate the institution from the individual, as many people do ask philosophical questions about meaning and reality. I maintain that "religion" is an attempt to stifle such inquiry.

Therefore, the premise "religion ask questions that science cannot" is false, and should be discarded. Every paranormal "investigator" I know of makes the same case for special consideration of their "questions", I do not see the distinction that religion brings.

When NCSE makes a statement on religion and science, they forget this (or wisely avoid it). Their comparison, if fair, would encompass all superstitious beliefs. This would, however, get them in further hot water, as while religion is happy to be elevated for comparison with science, it takes offense to being demoted to comparison with Bigfoot.

No "accommodation" is possible, only an honest assessment of the criteria for categorization.

Once religion is placed in the correct category of superstition, we can then acknowledge that we all have superstitions, and concentrate on the benefits (if any) to be gained from these un-objective beliefs.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Richard, I have to say that your comment now resonates more strongly now that you've unpacked it for me! When you put it that way, if I accept your definition, I would be hard-pressed to disagree with your conclusion.

I would guess that, from your perspective, that I don't have 'religious questions' per se but simply the sort of garden-variety questions that humans tend to ask about meaning and purpose, only nested within a framework of superstition.

I guess the next thing I would want to know is when questions like 'is there a God?' become a superstition. It seems obvious to me that any question whose framing privileges belief in the supernatural would, as you say, not really be a legitimate question but simply a concealed answer.

I'm pretty confident that in the workplace I manage to avoid putting myself at odds with the Establishment Clause. But, as you may recall, I've had commenters allege that I am privileging some religious views in my class by pointing out some evolutionary biologists are believers. The gist has been that even if my practice was constitutional, it stacks the deck in favor of some belief systems versus others. This was Starwind's claim. Do you find merit in his claim from the other side, in that I tend to take the NCSE line and run with it? After all, NCSE is pretty much lock-step with the NAS statement we've been discussing and which (if I read you correctly) you think panders to religion. I would be really interested in what you thought, because (unlike some of my critics) you've actually seen me teach!

On the other hand, I don't think most creationists would be that interested in your prescription. As you say, they would not like to be lumped in with Bigfoot. But let's say that I took my cue from you and just announced in a public school science class that science excludes superstition, and leave it at that.

It seems to me that, no matter how logical that might seem to both of us, that I would be in hot water PDQ. What do you think?

R. Moore said...

Scott said:


But let's say that I took my cue from you and just announced in a public school science class that science excludes superstition, and leave it at that.


My approach would be to define science, and keep defining science, until the listener either gets the point that religion cannot be science, or doesn't.

If people understood that under my definition, "evidence is same to all observers using the same protocol, within a predetermined statistical variation" regardless of belief, it would be very clear that religion will probably never meet this standard. (See, I give the theists a bit of hope :) )

I only include "religion is superstition" in the current discussion because that has been the NAS/NCSE approach, but it is really superfluous, once one accepts my definition of science.

But you want to bring it up in class. A compulsion you have :)

I understand, but this is very dangerous ground. An investigation will always ensue, and motivations examined. Your motivations as a Christian will not be treated the same as my motivations as an Atheist (should I bring up religious belief vs science) even if the same. Lawyers will rejoice.

The debate rages on at Pharyngula, but as of now, I side with PZ -- the credibility of science lies with its objectivity, and if religion gets special status, then objectivity goes out the window. For instance, it is very hard to have respect for Dr. Francis Collins at this point, as he applies different standards for evidence but refuses to admit it. A scientist rehearsing his/her prejudices is not a pretty sight.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Well....I don't think that Frances Collins claims he is doing science when he talks about his conversion experience and all that. He seems to be transitioning into a post-scientific phase to his career. But of course he is going to use the veneer of his scientific career to polish his apple, so to speak. As it happens, I'm participating in a Bible study that features Collins. So far I've been sitting and listening. Speaking of which, we should get together some time soon!

R. Moore said...

Scott said:

Well....I don't think that Frances Collins claims he is doing science when he talks about his conversion experience and all that.

Dr. Collins' conversion experience is his own, and he is welcome to it. But he does not stop there -- he expects others to share it, and considers it scientifically supportable, as his BioLogos website demonstrates.

On BioLogos, we consistently see non-scientific conclusions presented as scientific conclusions -- in other words, Collins believes the scientific standards that were absolutely essential for his work on the human genome project should now be relaxed, because of his religious beliefs, and scientific conclusions that are tangential to his beliefs should be modified to accommodate them.

BioLogos is an excellent example of the exploitation NAS/NCSE statement gone awry. It is a length rehearsal of prejudices, without any scientific value whatsoever.

And I would suggest that justifying religious faith through lies and half-truths will never serve whatever good purposes religious faith has.

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onein6billion said...

This discussion has continued to evolve in the last week.

"Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding."

But it's the only "rational" way of knowing and understanding.

Superstition is just irrational.