Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Monday, March 15, 2010
The Ungentle Art of (anti-)Accomodationist Polemic
Richard Crary’s post nicely dovetails with some thinking I’ve been doing on the way arguments unfold over science online.
In the SCT post that Crary references, I wrote that “The philosophical problems that interest me are the ones that are most contentious,” so I can’t very well let the last hullabaloo over “Science” and “Religion”, those two chimeras, pass without some remark. (Disclaimer: in what follows, I will be throwing both of these words about like they were going out of style, which I deeply wish they would. They are very broad umbrella-terms with a baker’s dozen definitions. I admit that there’s something sloppy about using terms I deem problematic, merely for the sake of a brevity I won’t achieve anyway. But it’s tiresome to constantly say, “a certain kind of…” And in any case, some of the positions I’ll discuss actually deny that there is much pertinent substantive variation among religions or that science is as various as that (for the record, I think it’s less so than “religion” myself). I will try to put in the qualifiers when they are relevant).
dy0genes recently wrote (and I largely agree) that scientific ethics, or rather, the ethics of science, should arise out of the practices of scientists themselves. The debate here shows a beautiful and elementary case study—elementary because it hasn’t anything to do with embryos or vivisection, but with the plain old question of whether and how to be nice to each other. In particular, to someone with whom you disagree, or even who you think is a fool.
The latest round of this perennial dispute seems to have arisen over a book. A usual enough occasion, you might say, but in this case the book has not been written yet. Chris Mooney, author (with Sheril Kirshenbaum) of Unscientific America and the blog The Intersection, was lambasted upon announcing his receipt of a Templeton Foundation fellowship to write about the relation between science and religion. Mooney, who I gather is an atheist, is frank about his conviction that science and religion can be compatible (depending mainly upon the kind of religion), and also about his criticisms of those who take a hard-line incompatibilist stance. The Templeton Foundation, too, is frank about its compatabilist stance on the question. One would have thought, then, that the award would not have raised many eyebrows, but Mooney’s site was drenched in incivility. Not waiting to denounce the book, incensed commenters denounced Mooney himself. (He was characterized, for instance, of having accepted a $15,000 bribe in exchange for his journalistic integrity.) Inevitably, the blog cascade effect took over. The debate has moved on to the twin questions of whether (1) science and religion really have, or do not have, irreconcilable differences, and (2) what to do in either case. I’m interested in these questions, of course, but even more so in the manner in which they are debated.
I think there are roughly three camps here, with some overlap between the second and third. I’ll try to lay them out as I see them: Incompatiblists, Compatiblists, and (between these) Accommodationists.
In the Incompatiblists’ corner, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, Larry Moran, and the names you’ve all come to love, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, among others. (Note: unless I am referring to a particular post, I am linking only to a blog's front page. I encourage you to search through and look around on all of these sites.) Their position, stripped down to its essentials, is: here is science—peer-reviewed, repeatable, mathematized, rigorous, skeptical, falsifiable, prediction-making science; and here is superstition, it matters not of what stripe—transubstantiation, reincarnation, bilocation, you name it. Now choose, because you can’t have both. Thus the aforementioned tend to be extremely impatient with religious believers; not merely with those who hold that God made the world some 6,000 years ago working overtime for six days, but perhaps even more those who are perfectly happy to say that God outsourced the whole shebang through Darwin. To the Incompatibilist, such theistic evolutionists are just victims of their own compartmentalism. They may, it is conceded, do good science. They may also perform valuable service by lobbying against bad science. But then they go and spoil it all by also holding some damn fool notion like, oh, “God exists.”
In the Compatiblist corner, besides big guns like Templeton, you have people like NIH director Francis Collins (former head of the Human Genome Project), Ken Miller, professor of biology at Brown Universtiy (and expert witness against Intelligent Design); and, in the blogosphere, John La Grou at microclesia, Amod Lele at Love of All Wisdom,or the BioLogos foundation (not all of these folks have commented, so far as I know, on the most current controversy—though Amod did have a great post on it recently; I’m just including them to give a sense of some Compatibilist positions). Note, one need not hold that science supports any religious position at all in order to be a Compatibilist. It is not necessary to believe that quantum physics demonstrates the truth of Vedanta or the plausibility of transubstantiation. One might, for instance, hold that religion treats ethics and existential questions about meaning, that science treats empirical questions about the natural world, and that there is no need for the one to step on the other’s toes. Gould’s Non-overlapping Magisteria proposal is one example of Compatibilism. (I am dubious about NOMA as a fine-tuned strategy, for the details get messy, as I’ve argued before).
Now, you’d think these two camps might be able to join forces against the young-earth creationists or the Intelligent Design champions, and indeed, they make common cause; but they also fight in a manner that is sometimes shocking to behold. Folks like P.Z. Myers strongly object to this being said, but my unscientific impression is that the real incivility tends to come more (not always, but more) from the Incompatibilist camp. If you think about it for ten seconds, this readily makes sense: Compatibilists hold that science is sane, and religion is sane, so there is nothing inherently denigrating about a Compatibilist’s view of an atheist. (Of course a Compatibilist can hold that an atheist is somehow foolish or worse, but that is what you might call “an extra step that doesn’t have to be there.”) On the other hand, let’s face it: the Incompatibilist by definition holds that all religion is unfortunate and mistaken at best, stupid and wicked at worst.
So it stands to reason that some of that “you’re just silly,” “you’re superstitious,” “you're lying to yourself,” “you idiot!” attitude must leak through from time to time. And online manners being what they are, things often move past this, and the Compatibilists are fully capable of firing back in kind.
But what really strikes me is that the Incompatibilists’ greatest gripes—a fury reserved for traitors—is aimed (again, my subjective impression—I’ve done no statistical investigation) not at Compatibilists, but at those few hardy nonbelievers who have ventured into no-man’s-land: e.g., Josh Rosenau, John Wilkins, Michael Ruse, Chris Schoen, and John Pieret, and of course, Mooney and Kirshenbaum. These are the Accomodationists, mostly agnostics or atheists, who have the integrity or the gall (depending on who you ask) to admit/allege that religion and science may be (given the right definitions of each) compatible. Not are, but may be. You don’t have to insist upon the compatibility; what is essential to the Accommodationist case is that the necessity, in every instance, of conflict has not yet been demonstrated. Accommodationism is, moreover, a tactical stance; it seeks to further the cause of either science or religion (almost always the former), by avoiding unnecessary fights. Some Accommodationists stress the philosophical aspects, some the strategic; but especially the latter leads some of its opponents to suggest that Accommodationism is really just Incompatibilism without the courage of its convictions.
This may be the case in a few instances, but there is obviously nothing necessary about it (to say nothing of its being a wholly separate issue from the substantive one of whether the science/religion incompatibility has been demonstrated). To be an Accomodationist does not make you a mealy-mouthed apologist for Creationism. There is such a thing as a necessary fight, and any scientifically-minded Accommodatoinist has the ditch he or she is willing to die in. For instance, all of the aforementioned Accommodationists (and indeed the Compatibilists too) have voiced explicit and sometimes exasperated criticisms of theories of Intelligent Design.
(Of course, most partisans of I.D., for instance the Discovery Institute, might consider themselves compatibilists as well; but here we are speaking of “mainstream” science. The I.D. camp I would consider a separate entity, which goes beyond claiming compatibility; in its eyes, science (meaning, the science it approves of) actually supports religion. I’m at a loss for what to call this camp; I thought of “Appropriationist,” but it’s too tendentious. Suggestions are welcome.)
Now as I said, what interests me is the contentiousness of this debate. The acrimony on these blogs is loud, rank, and above all, perplexing. For instance, Michael Ruse has written a rather harsh denunciation of Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel, and Jerry Fodor for giving aid and comfort to Intelligent Design. He is, in turn, denounced by P.Z. Myers for giving aid and comfort to… Intelligent Design. This leads Ruse to wonder why Myers, Coyne, et. al. want to spend their energy attacking someone they might plausibly think of as an ally. One can see the same thing in the evaluation of Miller by Myers and Coyne. Ruse in fact was the object of a sound scolding for his own moral relativism from the Intelligent Design website Uncommon Descent, but this is not enough to make him sympathetic in an Incompatibilist’s eyes. To some of these folks, the enemy of my enemy is often my enemy.
(Well, of course, sometimes he is; I've read a good deal of Myers' past blog posts, and while he's gruff, he's not nearly as unreasonable as some people make him out to be.)
Ruse’s case is interesting because it shows up just how odd it can be to really see things from your opponents' point of view. To take a single example, one which segues with my earlier questions about trust: Myers reacted with deep, snide disgust at an anecdote in which Michael Ruse described going through the “Creation Museum,” run by a guy named Ken Ham in Petersburg, KY. As Andrew Brown reports, Ruse had written:
Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit ...I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true – it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people.
Ruse went on to reflect upon this unexpected bout of empathy:
It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false – that eating turds is good for you is [also] false but generally people don't want to [whereas] a lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.
Now whatever defects Ruse’s approach and stance may have, this sort of attempt to get inside the minds of your opponents is just the kind of meta-scientific experiment I mean when I speak of a philosophical engagement with the question of (In)compatisbilism. It's also the sort of talk that leaves P.Z. Myers nonplussed:
Oh, right. Forget all that stuff about the earth being 6,000 years old, all the diversity of life on earth being packed into a boat for a year, and the adamant belief that atheists, agnostics, and theistic evolutionists are trying to destroy the nation for Satan…we're supposed to feel for them, and try to understand their psychology…. This is what is so awful about the "New Atheists": they are such horrible, insensitive louts. They can't overlook the teeny tiny little demand of biblical literalism to see that creationism isn't quite so wicked…. If only we'd try to see the world through their eyes, we would understand that their beliefs aren't stupid and crazy and wrong. Or something. I'm not quite sure what. I guess we're supposed to sympathize with them, and be less critical.
He then proceeds to count the ways he does talk with, understand, and sympathize with creationists.
I understand that many creationists are intelligent and sane — they share a lot of values with me, like wanting to be able to think as they please, to raise happy, healthy families, and they are very concerned about their children….I do sympathize with them. I feel great sympathy and sorrow for the fact that they've been lied to by deluded con men like Ken Ham, and that they're living lives driven by an irrational fear.
But there are also some for whom I have no sympathy at all.
I have zero sympathy for intelligent people who stand before a grandiose monument to lies, an institution that is anti-scientific, anti-rational, and ultimately anti-human, in a place where children are being actively miseducated, an edifice dedicated to an abiding intellectual evil, and choose to complain about how those ghastly atheists are ruining everything.
Those people can just fuck off.
This admirable rant, and Ruse’s thoughts to which Myers is reacting, are right at the crux of the matter for me. Though I do admire the rant (and I mean it—while with all my heart I disagree with Myers’ hardline Incompatibilism, I cannot but stand a little awestruck by his indefatigable and uncowed commitment to the cause he believes in), Ruse’s curiosity about what makes creationism compelling—despite how crazy he thinks it is—is, finally, exactly as worthwhile to a philosopher, who must be interested in everything, including the pre-reflective biases that dispose us to find one claim or another enticing, believable, worthy of our lives. Need I specify that this interest does not stop at sharing these biases, but includes critique? But how—in what spirit—does one critique?
I am deeply invested in the substance of the argument, and no one will be shocked to learn that I am a Compatibilist myself; but I keep coming back not just to what’s being said in the argument but in how people are saying it. What fascinates me is this boundary between content—the question of religion and science and their compatibility or lack thereof—and the process of the debate, which keeps turning from conversation into dogfight. Why are people so angry at each other? I don’t ask this in some faux-naïve oblivious manner; I get that there’s a substantive disagreement about reality, and that people are taking things personally. My interest in these arguments stems from good old-fashioned philosophical reasons. “What sorts of disagreements lead to hatred and wrath?” Why is it apparently so difficult to keep the conversation within the bounds of civility? Why do the comments swerve so quickly, if not completely away from substantive argument, at least towards liberal inclusion of condescension and insult?
There is something about this debate, all three or four sides (and counting) of it, that clearly we don't understand very well. We're not having the argument. It is having us.