why the accommodationists still don’t get it…

March 21, 2012

Few public spats seem to be more amiable than that of Jerry Coyne vs. Michael Ruse mostly because Coyne makes extensive use of the scientific method and natural facts to drive his arguments while Ruse has little to no command of them and acknowledges about as much. And this makes his latest post complaining about Coyne’s tin ear for philosophy, which is a condition of which I’ve been frequently accused also, hypocritical as he’s shown time and time again that he cares far more about being nice than about the facts. Just as a typical accommodationist is expected to do, he sticks to vague platitudes in his critiques pays a tidbit of lip service to the mantra of compatibility between science and religion, and goes on to blather about every little material thing in which Coyne likes to indulge, presumably to distract from this lackluster argument…

Although I have little time for most religion, qua philosophy I still argue that science does not have all of the answers and it is at least legitimate for believers to try to offer their answers. I don’t think the answers are necessarily beyond criticism, but at the same time I don’t think that because they are not scientific answers this thereby makes them wrong or pernicious.

Repeat slowly after me. Science does not have all the answers and does not pretend to have them, otherwise there would be no point in any scientific profession since all the answers have been found. To quote the Irish comedian Dara O’Briain, if science knew everything it would’ve stopped. But science has a terrific way to get a factual, reproducible answer to a particular question. Like the GPS in your car, it doesn’t physically take you to the fancy new restaurant where you made reservations, but shows you how to get there turn by turn, and if you aren’t sure of what it’s telling you, you can check in with the satellites to track your actual position and maps of the area to confirm the route. By contrast, religion is like the backseat driver just as new to the city as you are, giving you directions based on his personal opinions and preconceptions of how others got to a destination, along with threats that you’ll get lost and wander into a really rough neighborhood if you don’t listen. Why take that left on Elm? Because your backseat driver told you to after remembering that he read about some driver’s left turn on Elm to get somewhere and you should do that too if you don’t want to get carjacked or robbed.

Folks, this approach does not work because you’ll end up navigating a maze of streets and arrive where you’d like to go either by sheer luck or because one of you finally looks at a map, the tool designed especially for the purpose of getting you where you want to be. Likewise, this approach doesn’t work in anything else. You need to connect ideas, thoughts, and advice to something that is factual, something science is meant to do. It may not get you where you want to go by the easiest path, it may make mistakes along the way, it may end up that the place you want to go either doesn’t exist yet or won’t exist at all. It’s not perfect. But it’ll get you much farther than wild guesses and wishful thinking. So when someone like Ruse says that non-scientific answers aren’t necessarily wrong by virtue of being non-scientific, he spectacularly misses the point. The problem with non- scientific answers is that they’re not grounded in facts we could falsify or situations we can replicate. They’re a guess or a parroting of someone’s guess. Were you to ask a stranger how to get to the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan and he proceed to give you a set of directions, this doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily wrong. But how do you know that he gave you the right directions? Wouldn’t you want to ask some questions to verify them?

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  • Bruce Coulson

    Unfortunately, science can’t answer all questions; because not all questions can be answered with facts.

    e.g. in a life-threatening situation, if you can only save one person, whom do you save: your sister in law or your uncle? (I realize this is an extreme (and unlikely) situation.) Clearly, science can (or theoretically could) tell you what your chances were of saving each person, what their contribution to your continued welfare (or that of your immediate family) would be if alive, and the direct loss to your welfare for the death of each; but none of that information truly tells you which of them you should save.

    Obviously, it would be foolish to not use science to answer questions with factual answers. (How to I get to ‘x’? Which car is more reliable? Is it going to rain tomorrow?) And theoretically, science should be able to guide us to the answer to any factual question. (I use the term theoretically because I think it’s unlikely that science will indeed be able to ever get all of the information necessary within the lifespan of the human race.) By the same token, it would be ridiculous to not attempt to find those answers if the data is currently unavailable. (Predicting earthquakes, for example.) But if a question by its nature does not have a factual basis, science is unlikely to find the answers. (Although it’s quite possible that it could answer why you chose to save whom you did in the above example.)

  • Greg Fish

    Well, let’s see…

    Who is more likely to survive? Can you think of any way to save them both? You can use some sort of factual basis to make such a decision and we do it all the time in hospitals. It’s called triage.

  • Bruce Coulson

    I believe you’re changing the parameters of the question, which was , if you could only save one, which one would you save?

    And none of those calculations can factor in the emotional bias of; which one do you wish to survive more? And losing which one will cause you the most emotional stress (both from yourself and others)?

    Triage is based on ‘cold equations’ that factor in resources available and chances of survival, where emotion doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) play a role. There’s also the idea that usually, those performing the triage don’t have any direct knowledge of the people involved, which lessens the emotional impact of those decisions. Give doctors enough resources and they will try to save everyone; triage is necessary because those resources are lacking.

  • Kurt Linton

    I think you changed the (parameters of the) question, Bruce. Your initial comment used the word “should”, your second changed it to “would”. There are no “shoulds” in science, proper, because “should” assumes too much. For starters, it assumes free will. Then it assumes a divergence of outcome based on the (unproven) existence of such choice. What “would”, say, the “average person” do in a particular situation is a legitimate (psychological) question. What “should” a person do in order to what? Your outcome precedes your experiment, and that’s not the scientific method.

  • Bruce Coulson

    “if you can only save one person, whom do you save: your sister in law or your uncle?”

    This is a thought experiment. Note that triage is not an issue; it is presumed that whomever you choose to save will survive.

    The point is, can science supply the information to make that decision? Not what you might be likely to do, given your prior history with these people. But which save is the correct one?

    We will go further and state that the loss of either (or even both) of these people will have no direct impact on your survival, or that of your immediate family. (Which would take the question back to a factual, ‘which one is more beneficial to me’ basis, which science could answer.)

  • venqax

    No, it’s not the equivalent of triage. The premissnof such a dilemma is Other Things Being Equal. You can save one of the two and you have to choose based on some moral calculus.