When I started tweeting (@JoshRosenau), I was unconvinced. I’m already overwhelmed with silliness and interesting people writing interesting stuff, so why would I a) want to read more and b) want to restrict myself and others to 140 characters. And the character limit still grates, though I’m learning to have smaller ideas.
But what’s nice about twitter is that it’s a massive conversation across continents with the people you like chatting with. And the 140 character limit eliminates the throat-clearing and extended explanations that tend to come into contentious blog posts. You can link to that, or you can just say what you think and see whether anyone disagrees, and then reply if and when they do.
So Daniel Loxton, who I met last summer at DragonCon and who edits Junior Skeptic magazine, has gotten some flack for writing a book about evolution in which he says that science and religion can be compatible, and kids should talk to their parents and trusted community leaders about how evolution fits into their own moral universe. This spawned a long comment thread at his blog, much of which was obnoxious, and an interesting set of exchanges on Twitter. For instance, he and Jim Lippard have been discussing whether everything useful ultimately has scientific basis, or if there are things outside of science. This is a central point in the ongoing blogwar over accommodationism, but perhaps thanks to the strictures of Twitter, the discussion stayed focused and seems to be getting somewhere. Loxton began by arguing:”[if metaphysics are in scope for science] then political theory must be in scope too. Everyone’s pet peeve is in scope.” Lippard countered by noting: “Facts & values aren’t completely independent–science & ethics, science & politics, and science & law all overlap.” After a few rounds, Lippard adds: “We start doing science w/extra-scientific background assumptions, & doing science can cause us to revise them.”
I replied: “Values influence what scientific questions you ask, too. And policy comes from the interaction of evidence and values.” The conversation continued a bit, then waned, then was picked up by SkepDude. After some back and forth in the same vein, SkepDude raised an interesting question that I throw out to the blogs as well: “I’ll stick to my Hitcheneske [sic] challenge: Can you conceive of one moral principle/action that would not exist if not for science?”
This is nice, as it turns the common plaint of anti-accommodationists on its head. The request is often (to quote Larry Moran’s recently discussed blog post): “offer up examples of knowledge gained by religion that are fully compatible with the scientific approach but couldn’t have been derived from that approach alone.” This always struck me as a loaded question, as it kinda begs the question. A theist might offer “God is love,” or “Jesus is the son of God.” The reply would be that these claims aren’t verifiable scientifically, and various corollaries to them seem to contradict our scientific understanding of the world (massive suffering for the former, the Resurrection for the latter). We can argue about theodicy, and whether various theological approaches to the problem of evil leave a loving God as a viable option, and a lifetime of talking about religion convinces me that this discussion will not result in a theist conceding theodicy as insurmountable. But even if theodicy ultimately disproves a loving God, it doesn’t disprove the core theological truth claim: “God exists.” I don’t know of anything that could do so, and Richard Dawkins and other anti-accommodationists have conceded that point as well.
There are other problems with the underlying notion of compatibilty implied by Moran’s question, but that’s for another post.
SkepDude’s formulation corrects many of these flaws. If compatibility meant that the two produce identical outcomes, it would simply mean that one or the other was otiose. The test of whether things outside of science are compatible with science is whether the two produce distinct but non-contradictory (or, perhaps given that science is changing and inherently uncertain, minimally contradictory) results. So “do unto others as you would have then do unto you” works nicely as an example which fits Skepdude’s framework. It’s an idea which existed before science in pretty much all religious systems. Experiments in evolutionary game theory show reciprocal altruism of that sort to be stable strategies, but there are other stable strategies. To choose which strategy we follow, we need something more.
Religion is not the only source of that “something more” of course, but it is a source, and the choice, whatever its basis, is ultimately one made on extra-scientific grounds.
So what do you think of SkepDude’s challenge? Is there a moral principle which would not exist but for science?