De Dora on accomodationism …

There’s a link to an article by Michael De Dora on accomodationism.  I got it from Accomodation Watch, which I’ve mentioned before.  At any rate, here’s the article:

Note that at this point I haven’t read the full article yet.  I got as far as this point and had to stop:


“The practical evidence wielded for the compatibility argument usually includes people like Francis Collins, the geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health who is an evangelical Christian . If devout religious believers can be scientists, the argument goes, there is no tension between the scientific and religious approaches to the world. Yet this line of thought ignores the real issue: the difference between practice and theory (or, is and ought ).”


Um, no.  The difference between practice and theory and the difference between is and ought are, in fact, completely different things (pardon the inadvertent pun).  When we talk about theory and practice, we talk about an abstract hypothesis of how a field works — a theory — and then about how that field really works — practice.  When we talk about is and ought, we’re talking about the difference between descriptive and normative claims.  Descriptive claims do, in general, talk about how things work in practice, which is probably where De Dora gets confused.  But normative claims are not merely in theory; they are facts about how things ought to be done.

The best way to see how this could impact his argument is to look at it this way: when you find a difference between “in practice” and “in theory”, generally theory gives way to practice.  The famous paradox of Achilles and the tortoise is a prime example of this.  The mathematics said he’d never overtake the tortoise.  However, real life testing proved that he would.  So, there was a paradox, and the mathematics eventually gave way.   The scientific mindset is even stronger on this, as even the most elegant theory that is contradicted by the facts either must change to accomodate the facts or must fall out of favour.  In general, theory gives way to practice.

This, however, is not true of descriptive and normative.  It is expected that if the descriptive does not match the normative, that the descriptive will alter itself to match the normative.  In short, if you have a normative principle, and you find that people aren’t acting that way, the solution is not to change your normative principle to accomodate what people actually do, but to make people do what the normative principle demands.  The normative, therefore, does not give way to the descriptive; if they clash, it is the descriptive that must be altered.

So, before reading the rest of the article, we can see that De Dora does need to settle these questions (and I’m not saying he hasn’t; again, I haven’t read the article yet).  If he wants to make an appeal to practice vs theory, he’s in deep trouble since he’d also have to overcome the general principle that if theory and practice clash, practice wins.  So if the theory says that you shouldn’t be able to be a good scientist if you accept religion, and it turns out that there are some good scientists who are religious, or if the claim ends up being that adopting both viewpoints can only impede your scientific work and it turns out that for some scientists it actually seems to improve it, De Dora will have lost.  That’s why he needs to drift into normative territory, to demonstrate that scientists ought not be religious.  But he’ll still have the issue of pragmatics: if it works for them and can even enhance how they do science, where’s the problem?  What normative claim can he make against scientists doing science in a way that makes them do science better?

Ultimately, the only really decent argument he can make is to argue that if science and religion really are incompatible that some don’t think they are is not an issue; they’re just wrong about that (some will go further and talk about cognitive dissonance and all sorts of other crap, but that would bring it back to practice/theory above and we don’t want to go there).  However, this has nothing to do with practice/theory or is/ought.  It’s just a claim about fundamental definitions and how those interact.  At best, you’d get into arguments over whether accepting something that’s wrong to make your science better is a good way to go, or if we really need to accept only what’s true even if it’s detrimental.  That’s a massive philosophical argument that I’m very sure De Dora won’t get into in this article.

So, now I’ll go to read the rest of the article.

… And I’m back.  And he did try to aim at an ought argument, it seems, by summarizing it this way:


Indeed, consider the logic of Leshner’s argument:

1. Many scientists are religious/have religious faith.

2. Therefore, science and religion/religious faith are compatible.

And now imagine instead that the following argument was being made:

1. Many people drink alcohol and drive.

2. Therefore, drinking alcohol and driving are compatible.

We would obviously object here, and we would be absolutely correct to do so.”


Weeeeeeel, not necessarily.  See, that logic is, in fact, completely and totally true: you can indeed drink alcohol and attempt to drive a vehicle.   What we’d rightly object to is the idea that because people do drink and drive means that people ought to drink and drive.  Considering the risks involved by impaired driving, we can make a moral claim that drinking and driving is unacceptable.  So you shouldn’t do it, even though you can.  Thus, a normative claim … and one that has decent backing.

Now, let’s look at how he finishes it:


“Yet the drunk driving logic is no different than the logic Leshner uses to boast of the compability of science and religion. This is precisely why philosphers file Leshner’s argument under the “appeal to common practice” fallacy : even if a majority of people believe in something or engage in some practice, that does not mean the belief or practice is acceptable, correct, justified, or reasonable. If one wants to make a case for the compatibility of science and religion, he or she must not point to the abundance of easily partitioned human brains, but instead provide philosophical reasons why science and religion are actually congruous and do not conflict. ”


The problem is that he’s shifting the burden of proof here.   It’s not up to accomodationists to prove that science and religion are compatible or can be made so, it’s up to incompatibilists to show that they aren’t compatible in an interesting way.  The fact that many intelligent people have no problems internally reconciling faith and religion is, in fact, a reasonable challenge to an incompatibilist position; if they are so obviously and inherently incompatible, why don’t these people have issues with it?  This doesn’t mean that they aren’t incompatible, but it is something that incompatibilists have to explain.  De Dora has not attempted to explain that, but has instead simply dismissed it out of hand.

And he’s dismissing it incorrectly.  The “appeal to common practice” fallacy is a normative fallacy, showing that you can’t disprove or prove a normative claim by descriptive evidence.  But he hasn’t established any normative component or argument at all, at least not here.  So, is this a normative question, or a factual one?  Is it about normative/descriptive, or about theory/practice?  If it’s about theory/practice, the appeal to common practice fallacy does not apply, as we really would be looking to see how they interact in practice and so appeal to common practice would in fact be relevant and meaningful and actually settle the question, and so wouldn’t be a fallacy at all.  If it’s about normative/descriptive, then precisely what normative principle should we appeal to to say that scientists ought not hold both religious and scientific viewpoints even if they can without impeding their work and appreciation of either.  If we don’t have this normative principle, his objection cannot get off the ground.  And it isn’t the job of accomodationists to prove that there can’t be such a principle, or that science and religion are compatible, either.  We can doubt his claims perfectly well without having to prove that he’s wrong.

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