Larry Moran is unhappy with me. This is fine; I knew that posting “On the need for grownups” would get people angry, and it did. I hoped it would spark some productive discussion, and it has, at least via email.
What bothers me is that the reasons Larry is upset seem to entirely misconstrue what I wrote:
Joshua Rosenau has fired another shot in the accommodationist war. As usual, he focuses more on rhetoric and mudslinging than on the logical arguments that are presented by both sides. In this case, he demeans all those who disagree with him in On the need for grownups [Updated]. Apparently, there are very few honest people on my side of the argument.
I’m not going to reply to Josh. He’s gone beyond the pale as far as I’m concerned and no amount of rational argument is going to convince him that science and religion may not be compatible. His mind is firmly made up and now he’s just making sure that his side gives out as many insultsâperceived or realâas it receives.
A few things to note. My comments were not directed at the honesty of anyone involved. I don’t think Larry is arguing for a position he does not believe, nor that PZ, or Jerry Coyne, or Ophelia Benson, or I, or Chris Mooney, or Matt Nisbet, or any other participant is defending a position that is not deeply held. I do think that dishonest arguments are being made, and I wish that would stop. But I think anything I said which demeans his side in the fight could be said also of my own. Just as I can offer some defense of my own bad actions, I don’t doubt that Larry, et al. can defend themselves. My point was that this creates a cycle of insult and defense and retribution which is unproductive. I wanted to urge people to move past that cycle and behave in a manner better reflecting the maturity and intellect of the participants.
When I called for grownups, I wasn’t saying that the participants aren’t already grownups. In most areas of our lives, we all behave very differently that we have in this particular fight. I was recognizing that my own “side” is no better than the other in terms of grownup behavior, and I was hoping others would join in breaking that cycle. Maybe it’ll work and maybe it won’t. Maybe I’m the wrong messenger for that.
But Larry also raises a point that is worth considering on all sides. He asserts that “no amount of rational argument is going to convince [Josh] that science and religion may not be compatible.” First, I don’t feel like I’ve seen nearly enough rational argument, so much as I’ve seen emotional argument. (Again, from both sides.) Second, I’m comfortable with the possibility that the two might be incompatible (indeed, some religions are admittedly and obviously incompatible with science; others, to my eye, seem to be capable of compatibility). My objection is to the claim that all religions are inherently incompatible with science. Third, I wonder what rational argument would convince Larry that science and religion may be compatible. My guess is that the same is true of him that is true for me, which leads me to a broader and overarching consideration.
This is a point that John Wilkins raises quite nicely in reply to my original post, which is that questions about the compatibility of science and religion do not seem to be amenable to scientific testing. And as Larry’s definition of science seems to be coextensive and indeed synonymous with rationality or rationalism, then maybe these questions can’t be resolved via rational discourse.
If we were discussing this in person, I might precede that claim by enquiring first whether Larry thinks theology counts as rational argument. I expect that he’d say it isn’t, holding out the need for empirical evidence as an input to the logical disputation. He might not put it exactly that way, but some version of this reference to empiricism is common enough in the versions of the conversation I’ve seen over the last few years that I don’t think I’m unfair in assuming the conversation would get there eventually.
And that’s when I’d ask what sort of empirical evidence exists regarding compatibility of science and religion. Larry’s post lays out the reasons why he rejects the evidentiary value of millions of religious people who find their faiths compatible with science, nor the numerous churches who have policies against setting their faith in opposition to scientific evidence or against scientific processes. Others in Larry’s camp have also argued against allowing such evidence. And let us simply accept the claim without haggling over the right and the wrong of these arguments (but reserve the right to take up the merits of the argument later).
Aside from looking at people, though, what evidence could there be about how science works or how religion works? Both are human enterprises. Science is a practice, a way of testing certain sorts of claims (at minimum) about the world. Religion is a practice as well. I cannot conceive of some Platonic ideal of either science or religion which operates independent of the context of humans thinking certain things and doing certain things. If we cannot use the evidence of how people do those things as evidence, then we are solidly into the realm of the untestable.
Which is fine. Lots of stuff goes on in that realm. Art is, to my mind, the least controversial to point out, but I think that preferences for one sports team over another and indeed for one sport over another also qualify. So do matters of national pride, not to mention system of government and economic systems. The choice of computer operating system, or programming language for software authors, is in this realm. So is which brand of knife a chef uses, and which kind of food and which food preparer one prefers. I tend to think religion fits nicely into this series, but as that’s fairly central to the dispute at hand, we can set that aside for now.
This is not, of course, to say that evidence has no relevance to these matters. There are things which are genuinely easier in Perl than in C, and things which can be made to run faster by programming in C than in Perl. But there’s no absolute standard by which to say that speed of operation is better for a given job than speed of programming. And programming is a craft, so sometimes it’s considered better to do something the hard way than the easy way. Sometimes that self-imposed constraint is exactly what makes a good program great. There may be answers that are clearly wrong, but none that is definitely right.
In such circumstances, I try to apply the maxim: de gustibus non est disputandum (there’s no disputing about tastes). This isn’t to say you don’t talk about them, but there’s nothing gained by escalating discussion to dispute. My fiancÃ©e doesn’t care to eat red meat, and while I occasionally try to tempt her with delicious bacon or a nice brisket, I do so knowing that I won’t change her mind, and that actually trying to logic her into eating meat would only cause resentment. I hope the parallel to the current accommodationism fight is obvious.
And because the last post was so negative, let me say that folks like John Wilkins and John Lynch and Jason Rosenhouse and Sean Carroll have set good examples of discussing science and religion without (much) vitriol. I’d like to see other people (including myself) doing more of the same.
People will do what they want, of course. I’m not the king of the internet, and my feelings about what constitutes asshole behavior are also matters of taste. Disagree with me. My point is: if you treat me like an adult, I promise to do the same, and hopefully I’ll do that anyway.