Friday, June 26, 2009


PZ Explains

PZ Myers has a good post up on the accommodationist/incompatibilist flap that is, despite the unnecessary slap at "feeble accommodationist claptrap," a reasonable attempt at clarifying matters that I can agree with in large part.

That word, "incompatibility", is a problem, though. The uniform response we always get when we say that is "Hey! I'm a Christian, and I'm a scientist, therefore they can't be incompatible!" Alexander was no exception, and said basically the same thing right away. It's an irrelevant point; it assumes that a person can't possibly hold two incompatible ideas at once. We know that is not true. We have complicated and imperfect brains, and even the most brilliant person on earth is not going to be perfectly consistent. When we talk about incompatibility, we have to also specify what purposes are in conflict, and show that the patterns of behavior have different results. ...

In order to probe the nature of the universe around us, science is a process, a body of tools, that has a long history of success in giving us robust, consistent answers. We use observation, experiment, critical analysis, and repeated reevaluation and confirmation of events in the natural world. It works. We use frequent internal cross-checking of results to get an answer, and we never entirely trust our answers, so we keep pushing harder at them. We also evaluate our success by whether the end results work: it's how we end up with lasers and microwave ovens, and antibiotics and cancer therapies.

Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe. It uses tradition and dogma and authority and revelation, and a detailed legalistic analysis of source texts, to dictate what the nature of reality should be. It's always wrong, from an empirical perspective, although I do have to credit theologians with some of the most amazingly intricate logical exercises as they try to justify their conclusions. The end result of all of this kind of clever wankery, though, is that some people say the world is 6000 years old, that it was inundated with a global flood 4000 years ago, and other people say something completely different, and there is no way within the body of theology to resolve which answers are right. They have to step outside their narrow domain to get an independent confirmation — that is, they rely on science to give them the answers to the Big Questions in which they purport to have expertise.

So what theistic scientists have to do is abandon the operational techniques of religion and use science to address those questions. The "theistic" part of their moniker is nothing but useless baggage which, if they take it at all seriously, would interfere with their understanding of the world. That is what I mean by an incompatibility between the two.
While I have qualms about what gets included in "the nature of the universe around us" and the assumption, embodied in the quote of J.B.S. Haldane cited by PZ and Lawrence Krauss before him:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.
... that because a technique works well in one field of inquiry, it necessarily will in others (a point PZ acknowledges), PZ makes the most reasonable case for incompatibility I've seen so far.


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