In some sense …

Russell Blackford made a post on Metamagician about how accomodationists don’t really understand the nuances of his position:

http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/06/sciencereligion-compatibility-yet-again.html

Now, I’m all for understanding the nuances of people’s positions — or, as I put it, understanding their actual position — but there are a couple of problems with his post.

The first, and more minor one, is that he says this: “What we say isn’t just “religion and science are incompatible”, which is ambiguous, and could mean various things that are false. We do say that, but we go on to gloss what we mean by it.”  followed shortly by : ” … it is misleading to state simply “science and religion are compatible” as if there’s no problem. ”  Why is this an issue?  Because it isn’t clear that accomodationists just say that.  Some of them might simply say that they don’t think there’s any reason to consider them inherently incompatible, or incompatible in an interesting way.  Some of them flat-out say that religion has to be properly understood itself to not be incompatible.  So, in complaining that they miss the nuances of his argument, he risks missing the nuances of THEIRS.

The bigger problem, for me, though, is this statement: “In my case, what I say is something like this: they are incompatible in a sense.”  While he does go on to gloss — um, I mean explain — what he means by that in a little more detail (it seems to boil down to the sense of religion makes claims that sciences says is false, and vice versa), the “in some sense” is a word with a ton of potential to become weaselly.  If he can say is that all he says that he can find a way or a sense of the word “incompatible” where religion and science are incompatible, then his point is correct we still have to ask if that really matters.  Is  that sense of incompatible worth worrying about?

For example, let’s take bacon and steak.  In some sense they are incompatible because they are different meats.  In another sense they are incompatible because they come from different animals.  In another sense they are incompatible because, in general, they’re used for different purposes and at different meals (bacon generally being breakfast, steak dinner) even though there’s some overlap.  In another sense they are incompatible with your dinner because they are different meats and so if you’re preparing a meal you’d only prepare one of them because if you didn’t you’d have two meat portions, and you generally only have one.

And then you have this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filet_mignon

So, all of those other senses, although at least mostly true (yes, I know that you can have steak for breakfast, and it’s not unpopular) just aren’t relevant, in general.  They are, in another real, important sense, compatible.  You can make claims that depending on certain purposes compatibility and incompatibility are fluid, but if this is accepted then we have to note one key, critical thing: if Blackford is going to make comments that they are incompatible in a sense, he can’t stop there.  He has to show that it is a sense that we should really care about and that really matters.  That scientists who are religious should care about, for example.  And then he has to stick very carefully to those purposes and make sure that he doesn’t exceed the evidence his sense can provide.

To his credit, Blackford has outlined what he thinks the sense is.  Supposedly in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief there are more details (I haven’t ordered it because it’s too inexpensive to get free shipping and I don’t want to pay shipping to get it).  But this, at least, outlines the issue: if you want to minimize the risk of you starting to weasel, you have to outline not only what sense you’re talking about, but why that sense matters and what it impacts.  Otherwise, you risk proving yourself right by finding a trivial incompatibility that wasn’t worth the ink and photons spent on the issue.

6 Responses to “In some sense …”

  1. Kirth Gersen Says:

    I think Russell was clear what is meant by “incompatible,” and it’s not “different.” If one starts from a scientific viewpoint, evaluates evidence, and systematically seeks to reject all hypotheses that do not match observable facts, then the major tenets of religion — virgin births, talking snakes, a 6,000-year-old planet — or, if you prefer, Xeno and his army of space aliens and/or Brahma being born of a lotus flower — will all be rejected. Conversely, if one starts from a religious viewpoint (that Scripture is inerrant), then one will never arrive at any of the findings of science — nothing in the Bible, or the Koran, or the Rig Veda, or Dianetics, will ever lead one to build a functioning space shuttle.

    They’re incompatible, then, in the sense that their starting points point in more or less opposite directions, so that there seems to be no point of intersection along their trajectories. That’s quite unlike bacon and beef, which, as you point out, deliciously intersect at bacon-wrapped filet mignon.

  2. verbosestoic Says:

    I do agree that Russell was at least fairly clear. I even said it twice in the post [grin]. I’m just pointing out what the “In a sense” obligates someone to.

    I disagree that Russell’s point, though, was about what you mean. It seems to me that he’s more concerned about conflicting knowledge claims, in that religion says that they know that X is true and science says that it knows ~X is true. I’m less concerned about that sort of incompatibility than most people.

    As for what you say … you have to be careful since you’re pretty much describing a NOMA position, which is a compatibilist position, or at least an accomodationist one.

  3. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “As for what you say … you have to be careful since you’re pretty much describing a NOMA position, which is a compatibilist position, or at least an accomodationist one.”

    I have no problem ceding religion as a “way of knowing” things that aren’t true and that have no empirical basis in reality. Any claims about the physical world would therefore have to be ceded to science. Any claims about ethics would have equal weight with any others, until someone demonstrates, using advanced game theory or some other tool, that certain strategies are empirically more useful in a communal society — at which point ethics becomes off-limits to religion as well. You can sort of see where that’s heading, and it’s not anywhere that 99.9% of believers are comfortable with. Certainly it’s not one that most accommodationists would find much in common with!

  4. verbosestoic Says:

    Well, since knowing is “justified true belief” you couldn’t cede it things that aren’t true.

    Note as well that your stance on ethics being justified by “strategies that are empirically more useful in a communal society” is one that has a component that cannot be justified by that: that what it means to be ethical is to be empirically more useful in a communal society. You can’t use that same principle to justify that, meaning that you’d have to do something other than science to get that principle.

  5. Kirth Gersen Says:

    “You can’t use that same principle to justify that, meaning that you’d have to do something other than science to get that principle.”

    So you use sociology (qualitative study of communal groups), game theory (a branch of mathematics) or some other equivalent tool, rather than experimental science. (These would, to me, seem more directly applicable than sayings found in an old book that’s been edited and re-translated to the point of obscurity, which is why I leave out religion from the list.)

  6. verbosestoic Says:

    Both the sociology and game theory above were included in your proposition, so appealing to them is circular. You’d have to prove that benefit to communal groups is the right way to judge morality first, and you can’t use it by appealing to that principle. You’d have to do philosophy first. So, those fields finding an action that was so beneficial wouldn’t settle what morality is, or push religion — or anything else — from the field of morality.

    As for your comment on religion, I don’t think that you need religion to get the right morality (and can even argue for that theologically) but will note that if an omniscient, benevolent God exists, He would indeed be able to dictate morality to us and we should indeed listen to Him on morality. That is still an unproven if, though.

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