Sunday, August 22, 2010

What the dickens?

Phil Plait, Randiphile, Bad Astronomer and as far as I can tell, all round nice guy, gave a speech at TAM suggesting that skeptics not be dicks. He posted the speech and follow ups on the Bad Astronomy blog. Jerry Coyne has queried whether he is a dick (Sorry Jerry, Dick is an informal form for Richard, and the gnu atheists already have a Richard) to whom Phil Plait might be referring? He wonders what evidence Plait has to support his thesis. Given that many ex-believers state that sometimes a bit of in your face atheism has swayed them to give up or rethink their beliefs, and they can't all be lying, it would seem that it's OK to be a dick in some situations.

Perhaps it's a discover blog thing? Maybe that's why the Intersection and Bad Astronomy are running a similar line?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

What is philosophical consistency?

Jerry Coyne responded to Massimo Pigliucci's characterisation of Coyne's view philosophical consistency as naive thus:

What I mean by “philosophical consistency” is that one’s philosophies are consistent. In the case of a scientist, one’s scientific philosophy is that you don’t accept the existence of things for which there is no evidence. In the case of a religious person, your philosophy requires you to believe in things for which there is either no evidence or counterevidence. It’s just that simple.

John Pieret counters:

To start with, as I have pointed out before, if, in fact, science is "a philosophy" or a "worldview" (i.e. a metaphysical belief about how best to approach all aspects of life), then it is on equal footing with religion under the American Constitution. If, as Coyne correctly points out, science contradicts at least some religious claims, then science cannot be taught as true in American public schools but, at best, can be taught in comparative religion or philosophy classes as one competing "worldview" out of many.

If, on the other hand, it is not a weltanschauung, there is nothing "inconsistent" in applying the scientific method to some things and not to others, depending on your objectives.

John Pieret argument seems to be that if Coyne is right, and a scientist must be philosophically consistent in the sense that Coyne argues for, then science is another religious belief or worldview. I'm not from the U.S. and I'm not involved in the battle to keep creationism out of state schools here in Australia. Partly because we have no separation of church and state, and partly because religious folks get lots of government funding, pork-barrelling each election, to run their own schools and teach whatever they like, sadly. I'll leave that issue to the side.

Setting aside the term philosophical, what is consistency?

I understand consistency to mean that a particular set of beliefs do not contradict a subset of the same beliefs. This is internal consistency. They need not be externally consistent, that is, the beliefs might concern the behaviour of dragons, and be consistent, even though external to the person, there are no dragons. I think it's too much to ask that any human be internally consistent in all their beliefs, let alone externally consistent. We're all a bit irrational, and perhaps this is just to be expected with a jerry-rigged brain bestowed by evolution. I think what I've described is logical consistency. Douglas Walton*, a philosophy professor, who holds a doctorate in philosophy - Doctorates appear to be important if you read the comments below some of the links. Massimo Pigliucci has 3 apparently, Russell Blackford has 2, Jerry Coyne has at least 1, I have none, sniff. - declares that

[t]wo statements are inconsistent if it's not logically possible for both of them to be true.

That is, for two statements to be consistent, the can logically be true, they don't contradict. Coyne defines philosophical consistency as the situation in which

one’s philosophies are consistent

Do this mean that science, and religion, are philosophies? If so, and if they are consistent, then they do not contain specific (or intertwined groups of) beliefs that contradict one another. When I read the term philosophical I think it relates to such thing that generally are part of philosophy, such as epistemology (knowledge), ethics, metaphysics, etc. It seems here that Coyne is using philosophical in the sense that someone might say Buddhism is a philosophy, or my philosophy is an eye-for-an-eye. If that's the case, then we are talking worldviews.

Maybe Pieret's points about separation of church and state are correct then, but I don't think that matters here because whether we like the consequences or no of an argument has no bearing on the truth of that argument. I think then we can say that if certain scientific beliefs are true, the it is logically inconsistent that other beliefs posited by religion. In this sense (science is a worldview) then a scientist qua scientist must hold the scientific worldview and thus couldn't hold to any religious beliefs that were contradicted by science on pain of being inconsistent. Maybe Pieret has a point here. (As a gnu atheist, that hurt to write.**)

Coyne continues by saying that

[f]urther inconsistency comes from the fact that science and faith find out things in different ways: scientific knowledge is attained through observation, experimentation, and agreement among practitioners. “Religious knowledge” (and I put it in quotes because it’s an oxymoron) comes from dogma, authority, and personal revelation. This leads to the final inconsistency: the stuff that religion “finds out” contradicts what science finds out.

I think Coyne is on firmer ground here. But this is a different type of inconsistency. It's a methodological consistency. What method, or spectra of methods does one use to gain knowledge in the world? Rational methods such as science, but including mathematics, philosophy, critical thinking, logic, etc, or revelation, spiritual insight, and scripture? This doesn't seem to be touched by Pieret's criticism.

As an aside, I think the objection that Coyne and other gnu atheists are scientistic is false, if only because all seem to have said more than once that they don't hold science alone as reliable ways of gaining knowledge. I take them at their word. Also, the sort of response that you don't use a method to know that someone loves you (hates you, etc) is a weird one. You won't use science, as it's understood, as a methodology, but if you don't use critical thinking or some variety of rationality, how can you tell if your infatuation (not arrived at rationally) isn't returned and you're in danger of stalking? This seems to parallel the distinction between context of discovery and context of justification that occurs in science and Massimo Pigliucci thinks counts against Jerry Coyne, though I don't see how. Anyway, I just put in this aside as I've seen these kinds of objections before.

So, we have science, and other rational methods of gaining knowledge. The thesis of epistemic incompatibility that Jerry Coyne and others have asserted, that science as a method of gaining knowledge, is incompatible with, religion is firmer ground from which to launch arguments.

Is the epistemic incompatibility of science and religion or lack thereof inconsistent in the sense that Douglas Walton argues? Is it logically impossible that science arrives at a truth that has been arrived at (I'm being generous here) via religious methodologies? Obviously not. A prophet might just pluck an idea out of his nether end, tell it to his followers and it becomes part of that religions beliefs. It could be that this idea is in fact serendipitously true, and science, in its own time, arrives at this truth. Not a big deal I'd have thought. What is interesting is that lots of putative knowledge claims given by religion have been shown to be wrong. They could have been right as Russell Blackford (sorry, no quote) has pointed out, but weren't. As an epistemic method religion, to put it politely, is not so good and it's tools are incompatible (but not inconsistent in the Walton sense) with science and other rational methods.

I hope I haven't misrepresented the arguments of any of the gentlemen I've quoted above. If I have, please correct me. If you feel that I've botched the whole thing, or just part of it, let me know. I appreciate learning how I went wrong even more than just the knowledge that I went wrong. I'm sure I did go wrong somewhere. Wrong linkage, poor spelling, poor grammar and crimes against readability are a given.

*Walton D. Fundamentals of critical argumentation.

** Various attempts at humour or self-deprecation appear in this post. I could have used smileys, but then the whole thing would've been even worse on the eye ;).

Russell Blackford get's a little impatient with intersection.

Russell Blackford got impatient with the time it takes for a comment to be moderated on the intersection, so he posted it on his own blog. Could it be that Russell is a militant, gnu atheist*? Anyway, check out the comments. Lot's of the regulars let fly. There's a Coyne, a Benson comes in swinging, a Pieret replying in kind. I like a good blue**.

*I like the term gnu atheist. Has a certain je ne sais quoi? Speaking of militant atheists. What's the difference between a militant atheist, a militiant islamist and a militant christian? The islamist blow shit up and kill heaps, the christian will kill a doctor who performs abortions and the atheist will kill the ambience at whatever bar you've lobbed into and unluckily found said atheist holding forth. You've been warned militant atheists are dangerous! OK, enough of bad humour.

**Aussie slang. A blue is a fight or punch up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Massimo to Jerry: You're not a philosopher so shut up!

Massimo Pigliucci reheats the leftovers. With extra bile. New Atheists are not to his taste.
John Pieret wants a heaping helping.
Jerry Coyne can't stomach the lack of freshness. He's been sick you know?
John Pieret thinks that it's Jerry's leftovers that are the problem*.

*All attempts at gastronomic puns are not intended to be anything except unfunny.
Thanks to John Pieret for correcting my bad linking. I suck as this internet thingy.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tom Johnson/YNH the end?

It seems Jerry Coyne could moonlight as a detective.
Here he has the scoop (probably) on the Tom Johnson/You're not helping guy.
Ophelia Benson is happy with Coyne's work. Still waiting for an apology.
PZ Myers is over Tom Johnson. Me too.
Chris Mooney gives his thought about what PZ knows, and thinks Jerry Coyne would make a good investigative Journalist. Erm...
Russell Blackford has his say.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Does anti-accommodationism harm?

One of the arguments in the accommodation debate is that anti-accommodationist/new atheist stridency, forthrightness, or whatever it's termed harms the cause. It drives people away apparently. So the anti side ought not be so loud or not argue their case as a tactic. I think that's what it boils down to. This of course is an empirical question. It's not certain a priori that the anti side are a problem.
Anyway, apparently there is some data.

Jerry Coyne starts here.

Jason Rosenhouse add his bit here with more data. He askes where is the backlash that was predicted to follow the new atheists nastyness.

Josh Rosenau has a post* giving his opinion.

Of course PZ had to have his say.

*I posted the wrong link before. Thanks to verbose stoic for the correction.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Coyne on accommodationist tactics.

Jerry Coyne lists the tactics of those rascally accommodationists. Apparently there is a clergy letter project that is being relentlessly attacked by nasty atheists.

PZ Myers, evil atheist overlord, thinks he might have relentlessly attacked this accommodationist letter project.

Quiche Moraine on accommodation

An interesting look on the contrast between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge.

The conflict between science and religion is in the means of acquiring knowledge.

h/t Opinionated bastards.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Podcast of Mooney on Accommodation.

Are Science and Religion compatible? The New Atheists argue that a proper understanding of science undermines faith. But according to atheists such as Chris Mooney (author of Unscientific America and host of CFI's podcast Point of Inquiry) not only are science and moderate religion compatible , but the uncompromising rhetoric and harsh tone of the New Atheists "can only damage the cause of scientific literacy." For this episode, the doubtcasters share their take on the "accommodationist" vs "confrontationist" debate. Also on this episode: a critical look at the Templeton Foundation and we look at the psychology of persuasion for a new installment of God Thinks Like You.

H/T to Jason Bonney.

De Dora on Accommodation

Michael De Dora doesn't think that science and religion are compatible.

Sorry for not having anything but links lately. I'm snowed under with work and baby.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ruse on compatibility of evolution and religions like Christianity

Michael Ruse finds it hard to reconcile the contingency of evolution with the necessity of there being human or human-like beings;

intelligent beings, with moral awareness, able to act in this world, have to exist if Christianity is true

Jerry Coyne agrees as one would expect from an anti-accommodationist.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The big accommodation debate

Just found this very helpful link on Jerry Coyne's blog of the accommodation debate or free-for-all from last June. This is the episode started by Coyne with his New Republic article on Miller and Giberson that I mentioned a few posts back. Here's another link at edge that essentially has the same material some way down the page.

Wilkins on the great accommodation debate.

This link to an article by Blackford on Wilkins seems to belong here.

This will be useful to me, if no body else, so I've posted it here for easy reference.

You're not helping will help no more

Russell Blackford gives a eulogy for the You're not helping blog which turned out not to help. I've posted a few links from that blog to try and give a bit of balance I suppose. I hadn't noticed how poor it was. By the way, my name is Brian. Russell can vouch for that.

PZ Myers has gives his view.

Found this as well at The Buddha is not serious.

Ophelia Benson on You're not helping. Seems whoever was behind the blog was not doing the accommodation 'cause' any favours.

Jerry Coyne has a cute take.

Greg Laden too.


Greg Laden reports that the YNH guy has left an apologetic note on The Budda is not serious' blog.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Some more on the MN/PN distinction

Here's an interesting post on the MN/PN distinction and what science is.

World Science Festival episode

Back at the start of June 2010 The World Science festival had a Templeton sponsored panel. This organization seems to promote anybody who endorses or argues for compatibility of science and religion. Whatever type of compatibility that might be. New atheists need not apply.

Jerry Coyne wasn't for it. Sean Carroll agreed with Coyne. Chad Orzel disagreed. Josh Rosenau disagreed with Coyne too. Jason Rosenhouse disagreed with Orzel and Rosenau. Ophelia Benson disagrees with Rosenau. Tom Paines ghost was there (supernatural!) And I'm sure You're not helping didn't help.

Wilkins on accommodation

John S. Wilkins starts a series of posts on how a religious person might find evolution and their religious beliefs philosophically compatible, as opposed to just being psychologically compatible.
In this first post, he explores the deistic option and the convergence option. Wilkins is worth a read, even if you don't agree with him. He doesn't find the two options mention as compatible in the sense that anti-accommodationists claim isn't possible, but will suggest how this can be done in a later post. At least that's what I got when briefly skimming his blog post.

Episode n+1

Jen McCreight of Blag Hag blog posts about an a symposium devoted to accommodationism at the Evolution 2010 conference to which no anti-accommodationists were invited. Apparently atheists are the mirror image of creationists.

Ophelia Benson weighs in.

Jerry Coyne as well.

The inimitable PZ Myers of Pharyngula has a crack.

Russell Blackford too.

For the other side:

You're not helping having a crack at Jerry Coyne. And commenting on Chris Mooney article that's in the previous post. I guess this episode (n+1) isn't discrete from n.

Episode n of the debate

I'll just post this set of links. If you are a follower of the accommodation debate you'll be familiar with the parties involved and possibly with these particular articles.

First up we had a pro argument in the Huffington Post by Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the AAAS.

Then an anti discussion at Ophelia Benson's Butterflies and Wheels. Some good comments there IMO.

Russell Blackford enlarged on the discussion on his Metamagician blog.

John Pieret critiques Blackford on his (Pieret's) Thoughts in a Haystack blog.

That's where I lost the trail on this episode of the debate. I'm sure there were more posts on blogs.

[EDIT] Update, discovered more spore and picked up the trail!

Chris Mooney, riffs on Ishners HuffPo piece at the Intersection blog.

Ophelia Benson was not amused.

Russell Blackford elaborated on a cracking comment by Eric MacDonald (commenting on the previous link's article) on Butterflies and Wheels. Even if you violently oppose Eric's views, you've got to admit the man can write!

Jerry Coyne critiques Chris Mooney. I need some form of tree diagram to show the linkage here!

You're not helping critiques Coyne. Plenty of snark.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Some contemporary anti-anti-accommodationist views

I'm a bit snowed under at the moment so instead of trawling through blog posts of a year ago I'll post something more contemporary. Something of an anti-anti-accommodationist or anti-new atheist bent. Does anti-anti-accommodationist function like a double negative and thus be identical with accommodationist? I don't know, but it might. I also need to work some abbreviations for accommodationist and anti-accommodationist as it's a pain to type those words all the time.

Here's a post from the Rationally Speaking blog by Massimo Pigliucci from February 2010. I quite like Pigliucci's terming of anti-accomodationists/new atheists as purists. It's shorter and has a certain snark value. There's a lot of snark from both sides, and coincidentally a lot of complaints about tone. Massimo raises the methodolical naturalism (MN)/philosophical naturalism (PN) distinction to argue against then anti-accommodationist view. Basically science assumes MN for pragmatic reasons, it doesn't need to assume PN. Roughly if science is limited to MN then what it can say and blunted in arguments about incompatibility. Earlier I stated that there were no attempts to refute the epistemic incompatibility thesis. I'd forgotten about the invocation of the MN/PN distinction. My bad. Whether it works as a refutation is another matter. As was pointed out previously in comments, if you don't think epistemic incompatibility works then there's nothing to refute in the first place.

For a bit more anti-anti commentary with snark that's even more recent, try this from You're not helping. The issue of tone, specifically the anti-accommodationists tone toward accommodationists/believers surfaces

In their passionate attempts to marginalize religious belief, the antiaccommodationists’ shock-jock tactics and parlor games are ending up marginalizing themselves.

I wonder how true this is. Aren't atheists marginalised already to some extent in society, at least that's what I hear about the U.S.? Anyway, your mileage may vary. The important thing is there are trenchant supporters of both sides and that's a good thing. Isn't it?

Anyway, I'll try to bet back to some replies to Coyne's article in the New Republic time permitting. I think you'll see that there is a lot of overlap between what was said a year or two ago and what's being said now.

An anti-accommodationist salvo

In order to give a feel of the debate, or at least parts that I've stumbled across, I want to look at an article by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic. Later I'll look at replies both supporting and arguing against Coyne.

I think it's fair to say that Coyne is firmly in the anti-accommodationist camp. He wrote the New Republic article to review books by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson that attempt to reconcile religion and science. Miller, and Giberson, both scientists, believe that religion and evolution are compatible, that is, they belong to the accommodationist camp. Being religious and scientists this would be inevitable, though many accommodationists are atheists, just not of the new variety.

Coyne's article covers the political and philosophical aspects of the debate. The political aspect is concerned with how to change the fact that many Americans do not accept the science of evolutionary theory because it conflicts with their specific religious beliefs. This means the political dispute arises from the philosophical. As I've stated before the so called new atheists, and thus anti-accommodationists, are loud and proud, or strident and shrill depending on your own vantage point. For them attacking creationism with science and rationality is par for the course. This rankles many. According to Coyne, for some accommodationists at least, the fault then lies at the feet of the new atheists. If only the uppity atheists would tip-toe around the thorny issue of compatibility so that the faithful would have no problem reconciling their beliefs and evolution.

So the obstacle to understanding is not religion, it is those aggressive atheistevolutionists who won't shut up.

If this statement is accurate then there is a denial of free speech here and an unsupported assertion that the rejection of evolutionary theory has accompanied the recent phenomenon of atheists asserting their message and challenging religious hegemony. It is easy to see that this would upset the anti-accommodationists and that they couldn't endorse a policy based upon it. One could be snarky here and suggest that given that evolution has been rejected by some segments of the religious for many decades and new atheism is so recent then perhaps it's an example of reverse causation.

It is reported that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) supports a broadly accommodationist stance as it has a statement that

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than lessened their religious faith.

but not mentioning that many scientists do not find specific religious beliefs and evolution compatible. This is problematic because the anti-accommodationists feel that the body should take no political position on the issue and solely focus on advancing science. It should not be partisan. It follows then that they would not endorse the NAS supporting any anti-accommodationist stance either.

On the philosophical side the article raises different versions of compatibility in dispute; first psychological compatibility,

there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind

and epistemic incompatibility,

[t]he real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?

Coyne continues by arguing that one way to make science and religion compatible in an epistemic sense is to redefine one to be encompassed by the other. If by religion we mean pantheism, identifying nature with god, then there is no incompatibility between science and religion for example. This point is important because there are versions of religious beliefs that are or can be made philosophically compatible with scientific knowledge. Philosopher's gods, such as deistic or ground of all being deities seem compatible with science, at least they don't contradict the knowledge derived from science specifically because they make no claims to knowledge about the observable. But these deities have lost their personal nature and thus what makes them appealing to many believers. Why pray to an indifferent force or entity? My previous post stated that epistemic incompatibility was between science and religion. But that was so indefinite as to be wrong. It is between the knowledge we derived from science and specific religious claims that incompatibility arises. A question then is whether believers are happy to alter or give up any beliefs that are incompatible with scientific knowledge. Young Earth creationists reject evolutionary theory because it directly conflicts with their beliefs about the origin of humans and the age of the Earth.

Coyne offers some more examples of somewhat procrustean attempts to make science and religious claims compatible and in the end, which is not surprising for an anti-accommodationist, finds them unsatisfactory.

I recommend reading the article as I believe Coyne shows none of the stridency or shrillness often attributed (mostly falsely in my opinion) to the new atheists while still disagreeing with Miller and Giberson. Again I'd just like to point out the above is my understanding of the issues and whilst I'm biased I hope I haven't seriously misrepresented anybody. If I have please feel free to point this out in the comments.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


This blog's raison d'etre is to pull together disparate sites and views on the accommodation debate. What is the accommodation debate? Put simply, are science and religion compatible? Your answer to this question will go a long way to determining which side of the debate you lie. The side that views science and religion as compatible are somewhat derogatively termed accommodationists. The opposing side anti-accommodationists, or the new atheists. The later term is considered a put down often as it contrasts the so called new atheists with 'old atheists' who were/are considered to be cut from a finer cloth. The differences between new and old atheists is not so much philosophical, after all, if both don't believe in a deity there's not much to quibble about on that head, but political. New atheists are loud and proud and are happy to goad and belittle religious belief and unmerited, in their opinion, deference given it in society. John S. Wilkins, who is one of many internet denizens involved in the accommodation debate prefers to term new atheists as affirmative atheists. This term is not encumbered with the baggage associated with the new atheism sobriquet, but it seems we're stuck with the new atheism. Some so called new atheists have embraced the term and have written books to support new atheism*. New atheism then is more than anti-accommodationism, but on the subject they are roughly co-extensive. However, you'll have to take my word on that.

The accommodation debate does seem to have the air of two groups talking past each other. This seems to lead to exasperation between the opposing parties. The anti-accommodation group argue roughly that science as a means or method of obtaining knowledge about the world based on reason and evidence is incompatible with religion which makes knowledge claims about the world based on revelation, scripture and personal experience that is not subjected, nor could be subjected, to empirical testing. This form of incompatibility has been termed epistemic incompatibility. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, so epistemic incompatibility is an incompatibility of knowledge claims or methodology. A religious claim may be false, but there would be no way to determine this using religious methods, whereas a false claim in science can be shown to be false using scientific methodology. The accommodationists claim that religion and science are compatible because there are as a matter of fact many religious scientists or many religious people who accept scientific results and still believe in religious claims such as God existing and having a plan for them. This then is not a knowledge claim so much as claim that it is psychologically possible, and often evidenced, that people can find the findings of science and the claims of religion as compatible. This type of compatibility then is psychological compatibility. It is possible then that a person accepts that humans evolved from some common ancestor with all other life on the Earth and still holds that human beings have a special relationship with God and are part of some divine plan for example. The anti-accommodationists have stated that they do not deny psychological accommodation happens or that it is common. Here is why the groups seem to argue past each other. But if the anti-accommodationists accept that psychological accommodation occurs, why then do accommodationists bring up psychological compatibility as a refutation of epistemic incompatibility? In this post I'm not investigating the soundness of the epistemic incompatibility thesis nor contesting the psychological compatibility argument as the latter seems plainly obvious, every person holds views that are irrational or contradictory on some point. Given that the epistemic incompatibility thesis is correct, for the sake of argument, then a refutation of it is what is required. It is not relevant to the case at hand to point to another form of compatibility. That this happens might simply be attachment or loyalty to one's own side, refusal to consider the arguments of the anti-accommodationists, lack of insight into the different forms of compatibility/accommodation, or various other reasons, some less savoury than others.

If you've read this far, you'll no doubt have worked out which side of the debate I lean towards. I've tried to be fair in presenting a simplified version of the debate so that following posts can flesh it out or sharpen up terms and arguments. We all have our biases and I'll try to minimize mine, but I'd be a liar if I claimed I did not have any.

*Victor Stenger for example.