The poverty of the incompatibilist position …

Jerry Coyne recently attacked an attempt by Dr. Joel Martin to prove statistically that the majority of religious people at least don’t have any real issues with evolution:

After reading my post here, reading his posting should make your irony meters explode.  Seriously.

I’ll get into some of Coyne’s massaging of statistics later, but that’s not the main point of this post.  The main point of this post is to talk about something inspired by and which follows from a comment on that post by Zeke: the fact that there really seems to be no argument or coherent position to the incompatibilist/anti-accomodationist position:


“(2) The requirement that Christians accept “non-theistic evolution” in order to be counted as pro-evolution is anachronistic and ridiculous. Basically, you’re saying that theists have to become non-theists in order to become acceptable pro-evolution-people to you. Well, fine, that’s the hardcore New Atheist position, but don’t pretend like you are actually talking about the question of whether religious Americans accept evolution any more. You are talking about whether religious Americans accept atheism. When one states the question accurately like this, isn’t a very interesting question, really. Theists aren’t atheists is really all you are saying in the posts. And what else is new?”


The best paragraph in Coyne’s post that highlights what Zeke is saying is this:


“My own judgment is that the Catholic Church does not accept evolution as it’s understood by scientists, who think that the human mind, like the human body, is the result of evolution, and that the mind emerged from matter.  By asserting that mind (and “soul”) did not evolve but were instilled in humans by God, the Church can be seen as an advocate of intelligent design.  It differs in degree but not in kind from IDers like Michael Behe, who accept some evolution by natural selection but also assert that other traits were created by a supernatural intelligence.”


Zeke rightly points out that this essentially says that you can’t be scientific unless you’re an atheist or hold an atheistic view (or naturalistic view all the way down).  This, of course, would be the heart, I suppose, of the anti-accomodationist/incompatibilist position: theism is incompatible with science.  The problem here is that we can clearly see that Coyne is doing it by definition, not by argument.  And, worse yet for the incompatibilist position, he seems to be doing by saying nothing more than: “Religion is not science”.  Which, of course, is absolutely true, but uninteresting, and as uninteresting as the claim that theism is not atheism, which Zeke rightly identifies as being an uninteresting question.

And here is the revelation: the incompatibilist position, to be taken seriously, has to be making a serious point and have a meaningful position.  Thus, the onus is indeed on them to define “incompatible” in a way that matters.  It’s clear that simply saying “Science is not religion” is not it.  So, then, what would it be?

Well, let me propose what I think is the at least potentially interesting position they can take.  In order to have a position that’s worth considering, it cannot be the case that they merely claim “Some religions are incompatible with science” and then point to religions that posit — for example — that science cannot work because all of the empirical evidence that science could work on that contradicts their Biblical evidence is simply an illusion created by God (or Satan).  Yes, that religion would be incompatible, but that wouldn’t be enough to make an interesting point.  After all, there are philosophies that are also incompatible with science in that regard (see many post-modern ones) and I could easily invent one in a minute, and yet no one would argue that that means that philosophy and science are incompatible.  So that just won’t do.

No, what’s required here is the stronger and meaningful position of “Science and religion are inherently incompatible”, in the sense that if A is a religion then it is incompatible with science by definition.  By which I mean that the definition of religion somehow entails that it will, in some way, be incompatible with science.  And, of course, we don’t want to do this by simply saying that religion and science are incompatible, so what we would have to do is define what you have to have to be a religion and show that one of those traits entails being incompatible with science.

What this means for the common arguments I’ve seen espoused is that the incompatibilists cannot, as I’ve already said, point to a religion that isn’t compatible as evidence for their claims.  They need, instead, to get down into the argumentative trenches and show an inherent conflict between science and religion.  However, it does mean that accomodationists and compatibilists can point to religions that are compatible with science as evidence for their positions.  After all, if there exists something that by definition is a religion and yet is compatible with science, it can’t be the case that science and religion are inherently incompatible.

The problem I have is that, in general, not only have the incompatibilists I read — Larry Moran, Coyne, and PZ Myers, as well as everyone they link to who agrees with them — never bothered to do this, they’ve never actually bothered to even define their position, or even argue for it.  I know that I am coming a little late to the party, but even in Dawkins’ book I don’t see a really well-defined position of how science and religion are incompatible, with good arguments for that position.  In general, I get the impression that their argument is more like “I don’t like religion, so it’s bad.  Science is good.  So incompatible.”  Okay, okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement.  It definitely, though, seems more like “Some religions disagree with science on some of the things I think are important, and I prefer the methods of science to those of religion.  So, incompatible.”  But, however you slice it, the big issues do seem to be personal ones.  Religion, for example, opposes teaching evolution in schools or wants to teach intelligent design.  Religion disagrees with some scientific views that they find appealing.  Religion causes people to kill in the name of religion.

None of these, of course, are valid philosophical arguments.  And this is problematic for these incompatibilists since most of them also advocate reason and critical thinking (and oppose religion also because they think religion doesn’t do that).  This means that they can’t allow such personal arguments to sway them.  They have to provide objective arguments that everyone can follow and evaluate.  And they also need to outline a precise position so that we all can determine if they hold the two incompatible in a way worth worrying about.  None of which I’ve seen.  (If someone has a good link or a good book that does outline this, feel free to recommend it).

But as it stands right now, the incompatibilist position is too vaguely defined to be evaluated, and what little it does talk about is too shallow to be a meaningful distinction, as it seems to reduce to “Religion is not science”.  So none of that is helpful.  And note that the burden of proof is not on those who don’t accept that science and religion are incompatible, but on those who are arguing that they are.  The incompatibilists made the claim, so they must prove their claim.

Now, let’s look at a couple of ways in which people can claim religion and science compatible.  I submit two broad categories: NOMA (that science and religion, at their heart, deal with two different areas) and a claim that religion and science are two different methodologies for looking at the same truths.

Let’s start with NOMA.  The most obvious NOMA position would be that science is naturalistic and so studies natural things, and religion is not and concerns itself mainly with supernatural things.  This is a commonly held distinction, and so looks like a good starting place.  But there is an objection to this, which is made by Dawkins and Coyne and, well, almost all of them: if supernatural things have an impact on the “natural” world — through miracles or creation — then science can study them while they’re looking for natural causes.  So that wouldn’t put supernatural things outside of the scope of science, unless the supernatural thing never actually does anything (the deist God, then, is considered the only NOMA-eligible religion).  So, NOMA doesn’t work.

To see what’s wrong with this position, we need to look at little deeper.  In order for the original distinction to have any meaning, we have to consider that science makes at least a naturalistic presumption, in that it assumes — at least — that all things are natural (if it doesn’t just simply decide that the supernatural doesn’t exist).  So, from this, it follows that when given a choice between a naturalistic explanation — no matter how improbable — and a supernatural explanation, science will choose the natural one.  And then this becomes a problem for the counter to the natural/supernatural NOMA distinction: how can we assume that science would ever allow for a supernatural explanation if they will take any natural explanation over a supernatural explanation?  It will only be the case that science will accept the supernatural if there is no other natural explanation possible, but we know that there are almost always other explanations for any phenomena we witness.  Thus, it seems like there will always be a possible natural explanation for science to accept over the supernatural one.  This sort of biasing would indeed create a NOMA position, in that a field that simply rejected a naturalistic presumption — without claiming that supernatural things existed — might in fact take supernatural explanations where science would not.  In short, there is room in NOMA for a field that does not make the naturalistic presumption, and therefore studies the supernatural in and of itself.  Which is a position that science cannot take since they never allow themselves to accept the supernatural explanation.

Note, BTW, that science may be perfectly reasonable and even right to do so; I do not claim that anything supernatural really exists.  This is an entirely philosophical debate, looking at arguments and presumptions.  We can always hammer out the details later.

The other claim would be that science has its methodological assumptions — to use Larry Moran’s, that it is rational, evidence-based, and skeptical — and religion has a different set, either because it adds or rejects one or more.  I’ve already argued that religion does indeed do this, by rejecting skepticism:

But, in this case, NOMA doesn’t apply.  Religion and science look at the same things, but they do it in different ways.  Since the expectation is that they’ll all come to the same answers eventually, there’s no conflict between them, even if they disagree at some times about certain points.

There is a counter to this: the counter of irrelevance.  Science is, we all agree, massively successful.  If religion is studying the same things it is, and we expect them both to get to the same answers, what do we need religion for?  This might be the underlying thought behind replies to “Science has no answers for X” that are of the form “Well, how good has religion been at them?”: the idea that religion hasn’t proven that it can give answers to what science hasn’t been able to do either.

I’ve shown in the post I referenced above that I do think that rejecting skepticism can be useful, and as long as it can be useful there’s room for both methodologies.  We may need to have some methods of conflict resolution for the times when they aren’t claiming the same facts, but that they disagree at times wouldn’t make them inherently incompatible in an interesting way.  It would simply make them different.  And different in way that my post does point out allows someone to use either according to the specific circumstances.

So, this could be an incompatibilist viewpoint, but only in a sense that is uninteresting, as it reduces to “Religion is not science”.

Another potential claim, following from the definition of religion, would be this: Religions require that there be a god.  Science has proven that gods do not exist.  Therefore, religions are incompatible with science as they deny — in principle — scientific fact.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific fact that gods do not exist.  Some religions might be in conflict with scientific fact, but few of those are inherently in conflict with scientific fact.  To take a few examples, while evolution over time is a scientific fact, that that was not influenced by a God is not; there is no scientific fact and, it seems, no possibility of scientific fact claiming that.  It is not yet a scientific fact — to take Coyne’s argument above — that the mind evolved or that there is no soul.   So, religions that accept evolution over time but posit the influence of God are not, in fact, incompatible with scientific fact.

As I said in the comments of Coyne’s post, if a religion allows itself to conform to scientific fact and then adjusts its views to match that scientific fact, it isn’t incompatible with science.  Theistic evolution is precisely that sort of case: it conforms to the scientific facts of evolution by adjusting its views to conform to them.  Eventually, scientific fact may eliminate such religions, but that day is not this day.

There are other arguments and positions that can be held, and I welcome people like Dawkins, Moran, Coyne and others outlining them and arguing for them.  Or, at least, defining a position that I can evaluate.  Otherwise, I think any rational person has to conclude that the debate over accomodationism has to be called off due to the lack of an opposing side.

Now, let’s take a look at some small things in Coyne’s post.  He says this:


“There are many ways that accommodationists try to show that faith and science are compatible, but never before have I seen a scientist with this aim play so fast and loose with the data.”


Well, since he makes this charge so bluntly — and repeats it at the end — I guess we can expect that he will play strictly with the data, right?  Right?

Sigh.  Nope.

Let’s look at one of his arguments.  He takes a quote of two charts, puts them side-by-side, and then tries to establish that the Catholic Church doesn’t really accept evolution.  Now, before I comment on this and show his conclusions, note that this is why he wants to do this:


“If you move Catholics from column “A” to column “B”, the proportion of American who belong to non-compatibilist faiths goes from 45.85% to 75%. ”


So, it’s important to him to get that (I will, BTW, reproduce the whole paragraph later to talk about it in more detail, but this is just what I want to show for now).  You can find the graphs in his post, and I just want to highlight his “analysis”:


“But we don’t need to rely on these anecdotes.  Go back to the Pew Forum survey again, and look at all the figures about faith/science conflict, including Catholics—53% of whom find science and faith often in conflict. Do the following data paint a picture of compatibility between the magisteria?”


So, he’s referring to the left-hand graph, which does show that 53% of Catholics think that science and religion (he says faith, they say religion) are often in conflict, 39% said that they weren’t, and 8% refused to say.  Well, fair enough, as far as it goes.  But he ignores the right-hand graph, which asks the more specific and far more relevant question of whether or not science conflicts with that person’s specific religious beliefs (the question is a bit awkward, but that’s what it gets at, it seems to me).  And when asked if it conflicts with their own personal religious beliefs, 52% of Catholics said … no.  44% said it did, and 3% refused to answer.  And the left-hand question asked “often”, while the right-hand said “sometimes”.

So, the data that Coyne provides contradicts the claim that Catholics believe that science conflicts with their religion.  They think that it often conflicts with “religion”, but not theirs.  Or, at least, the majority don’t, and it’s about the same numbers on either side.  So how is this evidence for his contention?

Note that even if he hadn’t completely ignored the more relevant and direct data, his point doesn’t work … and he’s smart enough to know that it isn’t.  After all, he does argue that claims of “X% of scientists are religious” doesn’t say anything about whether or not science and religion are really compatible, since they could be wrong about that.  So, then, why does he think that asking Catholics if they think science and religion are compatible is any sort of argument for compatbility, to the extent that he uses it to claim that there is a conflict (at least for Catholics)?  They could be just as wrong.  Now, he can be slightly forgiven since he was replying to someone who was using statistics, but this returns to the irony point: don’t abuse statistics to make your point, and don’t make arguments that the statistics aren’t relevant to.  Coyne does both in one paragraph.

The next graph talks about the acceptance of evolution:


“And if you break down opposition to evolution by faith, you find that only 33% of Catholics (as opposed to 32% of the American public) see life as having evolved over time due to natural processes. And 27% of Catholics, in opposition to the official dogma of their church, see life as having been created at one time and remaining unchanged since—only a bit less than the 31% of the public in general:”


Again, I won’t copy the graph.  So what we have is this: For Catholics, 33% seen life as having evolved over time due to natural processes, 25% see it has having evolved over time guided by a supreme being, 7% say it evolved over time, but don’t know how, 27% said that they existed in their present form from the beginning of time, and 8% didn’t answer.  So, right away, that 7% above should probably be included in the compatible position; there’s no God or anything that’s against natural evolution there, bringing it to 40% that are perfectly compatible with Coyne (we shouldn’t let that they don’t know the science stop them from being considered compatible).    Anyway, Coyne concludes:


“So Martin chalks up 67 million Catholics as belonging to churches that accept evolution—yet only 33% of individual Catholics buy non-theistic evolution.”


Well, it’s somewhere in-between that and 40%, but the real question is: So?  Why is the precise form of evolution the determining factor in compatibility here?  He never says, but simply asserts it, which is a bad thing for someone trying to show that they are, in fact, incompatible.  I submit that the important thing with evolution is “Evolved over time”.  If you accept that, you accept evolution in every meaningful sense.  If you have a different idea of how that progressed, that doesn’t mean you don’t accept it.  That Catholics tend to think that a divine hand guided it doesn’t mean that they don’t accept evolution any more than if someone thought that natural selection wasn’t the overwhelming factor in evolution it would mean that they didn’t accept it (oh, wait, Coyne might argue that, too).

This is devolving to the logical fallacy of the “No True Scotsman”; even accepting the heart of the theory is not enough for Coyne, so he adds on other details to say “But they don’t really accept evolution”.  This carries on through the discussions of the soul that Coyne uses to claim that the Catholic position is really ID (see the top of the post); that they disagree that mind also evolved and argue that it was given to us by God makes them ID … in an interesting sense for the accomodationist debate, somehow.

The worst part about that is that if you look at the fields that pay the most attention to mind — Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Mind, and Psychology — it isn’t clear that mind evolved.  There are emergentist positions of mind, and it seems that emergent systems don’t really evolve the way evolutionary theory would want them to.  They can be selected for once they appear, but you can’t select for the individual parts since they only work when they’re all stuck together.  There’s no clear path as to how mind could have evolved.  And evolutionary psychology is not the overwhelmingly popular theory of mind in psychology, and has its own problems (as Coyne himself admits).  Does this mean that anyone who held, say, an emergentist theory would have to reject evolution?  Hardly.

This is clearly just an attempt for Coyne to massage the numbers so that he can avoid the embarassing result that because the Catholics accept evolution, most religions — by numbers of followers — accept evolution.

But Coyne does back out of this, with what almost might be a good argument related to Martin’s claims if he hadn’t missed the entire point of all of this:


“If you move Catholics from column “A” to column “B”, the proportion of American who belong to non-compatibilist faiths goes from 45.85% to 75%.  But this whole enterprise of totting up faiths is misleading.  It is individuals who reject evolution, fight science textbooks, and make trouble for evolution—many of these in opposition to the “official” positions of their faiths.”


And the numbers seem to indicate that that’s about 27% of Catholics, unless he wants to argue that the official position of the Catholic Church is not compatible.  But he does, in some sense, miss the point: you cannot claim that a religion is in and of itself incompatible because some of its followers disagree.  The official position of a religion being compatible is a great start, and gives a perfectly rational and reasonable response when, say, a Catholic comes in claiming that their religion and evolution are incompatible.  You simply say: “Your religion disagrees with you”.

Now, there are two groups that could fit into this “disagrees with the official position camp”.  The first are those that don’t know what that position is.  When you answer the above — with the evidence — they will say “Huh.  I didn’t know that”.  And then they will either join with the official compatible position, or move to the second group: those who are aware of the position and disagree with it.  They, then, will have reasons for disagreeing with it.  Reasons that they can outline and can be argued against.  At this point, it’s probably better for the scientists to stay out of it and let the Catholics argue over it, but this is a job for philosophy and theology and those fields are welcoming of opinions from everyone.

So, no, those people shouldn’t be a problem, if their religion accepts evolution.  And they’re a minority anyway, even by the normal numbers.  So, what’s Coyne’s problem, again?

And, after all of this, the ultimate paragraph:


“Martin is wrong to claim that it’s a “misconception” that “[evolution] is viewed with distrust by persons of faith.” That happens to be the truth. We can’t make opposition to evolution go away by massaging the data.”


Well, you could start by not massaging the data yourself …

But there’s one good point here.  Is evolution viewed with distrust by people of faith?  It may well be, and I think it is (even though Coyne certainly doesn’t demonstrate it in his post).  But then the question is: why is it viewed with distrust?  Is it because they don’t accept it?  Or is it because they keep getting told that their faith and evolution are in conflict by people like Coyne, even if they really aren’t?

Clearly the latter is not the fault of religion, or science, but is the fault of incompatibilists.  Let’s let them take responsibility for that first, and then we can see where it all shakes out using good, clear arguments and positions.

3 Responses to “The poverty of the incompatibilist position …”

  1. Deepak Shetty Says:

    why is it viewed with distrust? Is it because they don’t accept it? Or is it because they keep getting told that their faith and evolution are in conflict by people like Coyne, even if they really aren’t?

    There is lots to reply to in your post, but Ill settle for this point. Before Richard Dawkins had published his book, Before the term new Atheist existed, Before the internet , did religious people view evolution with distrust? (I believe the answer is yes). Have they always viewed evolution with distrust?
    How then are the incompatibilists at fault?
    The easier answer is that yes evolution does contradict some parts of some religious books(do you actually deny this?), and this does pose a problem who believe their book literally true, or infallible, or without error.
    As far as the Catholic church goes , you must answer that if you believe that somehow God injects souls into fetuses or that morality could not evolve then do you actually understand evolution and do you actually believe in it irrespective of whether you answer yes/no in a multiple choice question? While a person with such beliefs may be pro teaching evolution (which is really important), Im not sure you can put these people in the category believes in evolution , just as those who accept ‘micro’ evolution but not ‘macro’ evolution also cant be put in the category believes in evolution.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, if you think that Dawkins invented claims that science and religion are incompatible, you seem to have missed most of the history of science. Science and religion have been claimed incompatible for quite some time now. In fact, I’d dare say that science and religion have been claimed incompatible from the time that there was anything called “science” to talk about.

    I’ll also note here that there aren’t just atheistic incompatibilists, but theistic ones as well.

    So, I’ll concede that I need to be more careful to ensure that people realize that I don’t mean to single out atheistic incompatibilists here, and that I might not have been careful enough to point out that I don’t think that all of the claims about their incompatibility will go away if people just stopped saying that they were incompatible. But I do wonder how many people would think that they didn’t conflict if they didn’t have respected religious and scientific personages ranting that they are.

    That’s really why the first part of the post is the most important, as it basically asks incompatibilists to support their contention, so that we can settle whether or not science and religion are really incompatible in any interesting sense.

    As for theistic evolution, I claim that accepting that things change over time is about as far as evolution theory can mandate. If you accept everything that is mandated by the theory, then you believe in it.

    And as for the conflict of claims … well, not all religions insist that everything be taken literally, so they wouldn’t conflict and so there is no incompatibility between religion (in general) and evolution, even putting aside the religions that don’t have any conflicts with evolution at all.

  3. Something’s rotten in the discourse … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] about his opponents … and then does it himself (see this post of mine for an example: ).  And that’s more about, again, the irrationality than the tone […]

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