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Michael Ruse

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Accommodationism in the Religion-Science Debate: Why It's Incomplete

Posted: 09/15/10 12:37 PM ET

The New Atheists continue to swing out against all and sundry. The Pope is an ever-popular target, especially with his trip to Britain. President Obama is another punching bag these days, what with his attempts to soothe down the row over the Muslim center near the World Trade Center site and his talk about America being a religious nation for folk of all faiths. But there is always a little venom to spare for the so-called "accommodationists," these being folk who think that one might possibly be onside with science and yet be religious. Some accommodationists, like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project who now runs the National Institute of Health, are actually practicing Christians (or members of other faiths). Others, like me, have little or no religious belief. But all of us just don't see why the two cannot go together.

Of course, no one thinks that it is possible to hold every belief that someone has held in the name of religion also in the name of modern science. You cannot believe in a worldwide flood and in plate tectonics. You cannot believe that the Native Americans are the lost tribes of Israel and in modern physical anthropology. But the accommodationist claim is that there is much left over that you can believe in: a creator god, a divine backing for morality, and the notion that there is an ultimate purpose to it all with the possibility of some kind of eternal life, for instance.

What is usually said (and I think it is true) is that science is simply not about these sorts of questions. Take origins for instance, in the news at the moment because Stephen Hawking's new book is about them. The science that Hawking talks about may well be true. It is very exciting if it is. But it simply doesn't talk about the theological issues, the issues that religious people believe in. Even if it shows how something comes out of nothing, it doesn't -- it cannot -- explain why. Here, argues the religious person, we must invoke a creator god. This is not a scientific concept, but one that in some sense complements science.

Now this is all very well and good, but at a certain level I fear that the accommodationists are missing a very important link in the argument. Why are there questions that science cannot answer, and why is it that it is these questions rather than others that science cannot answer? You can tackle some, or perhaps all, of these questions piecemeal, as it were. For instance, if there is a creator, then it is pretty clear that he (or she or it) will have to be a necessary being in some sense. Otherwise you run into the perennial question of what caused God. If God is a necessary being (which is indeed the claim of the Christian), then no answer is needed. Nothing caused God. God always was, necessarily, just like 2+2=4 always, necessarily. But now the question becomes why science doesn't deal with necessary beings? And so the discussion continues.

I think (immodestly, perhaps foolishly) that you can bridge the gap, provide the link. Start with the point made by many commentators on science, most insistently by the late Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: all science is metaphorical. It is like poetry in this respect. Gravitational attraction, work, force, pressure, genetic code, natural selection, arms race, continental drift -- the list goes on indefinitely. Moreover, although one hears periodic calls for the elimination of metaphor (Thomas Hobbes of all people, in the Leviathan of all places, was a big one on this), it is pretty certain that it is not going to happen soon, if ever. However, Kuhn would say not to worry because metaphors (which he took to identifying with his key notion of paradigm) do a lot of good in science. For a start, they have incredible heuristic value, pushing you to think in new directions. And they give meaning when you are finished.

Now follow this point with the fact that there are certain metaphors that define, as it were, the practice of science. They are what are sometimes known as root metaphors. Back at the time of the Greeks, the root metaphor was that of the world as an organism. In some sense, all matter was seen as vital. That was why Aristotle insisted on the importance of what he called "final causes." Organisms have ends, have functions. You can ask, "What is the purpose, or end, of the nose?" He (and the other Greeks) thought that you could ask such questions of all things.

With the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the root metaphor changed. Now it was the world as a machine. We had mechanism. Francis Bacon, the philosopher of the Revolution, was scornful about final causes. He likened them to vestal virgins, beautiful but sterile.

And now we have the third and final point. As Kuhn stressed, the reason why metaphorical thinking is so successful is that it focuses you on the problems; it makes and defines the problems, in fact. And it does this in major part by putting blinkers on you, like with a racehorse. (Nice metaphor there!) It excludes a lot of extraneous issues and questions. If I say my wife is a rose or a diamond, I am saying much. What I am not saying is anything about her mathematical abilities. She might be a wiz, she might be dumb. I am not even addressing the question.

What does the machine metaphor exclude? For a start, it says nothing about ultimate origins. You may (like Hawking) talk about how things are put together. You do not talk about the ultimate origins of the ingredients. Like Mrs. Glasse's recipe for jugged hare: "First take your hare." Second, as David Hume pointed out, it says nothing about moral values. A machine may be used for good; it may be used for bad. That is up to us, not the machine. Third, the machine metaphor in science says nothing about ends. This may seem a little strange because of the machines we make, we can ask about ends. What is that strange object in the kitchen drawer? It is a gadget for taking the stones out of cherries. In science, however, as pointed out already, at the time of the Scientific Revolution, people found that end-talk was not helpful.

God may have designed the world (all of the scientists of the day thought that he had) but (in the words of the greatest historian of the whole event) by the time the Revolution was over, "God was a retired engineer." Finally, let me stress that in basic respects this is an empirical matter. There is no predetermined list of excluded questions, and as science changes, we may change the list. For instance, many follow the German philosopher Leibniz in thinking that machine-talk excludes talk of consciousness. Some, like today's philosopher Daniel Dennett, would disagree. I'll leave this here as an exercise for the reader.

My conclusion follows simply (although I have written about these issues at much greater length in my recent book, Science and Spirituality). Today's mechanical science does even set out to ask or answer certain questions, and hence if the religious want to have a crack at answering them, they can. Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the ultimate foundation of morality? What does it all mean? Perhaps, what is consciousness that sets animals, humans particularly, apart?

This is why I think one should be an accommodationist. I stress that none of this means that one must be religious, much less subscribe to some particular form of religion like Christianity. For myself, I simply cannot get around the problem of evil. My god died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen. And there are metaphysical questions that need answering. Grant that God must be a necessary being. Is the notion of a necessary being really coherent? Most importantly, it does nothing to speak to the virtues and evils of religion, particularly organized religion.

If well taken, what the argument I have just given does do is (in the words of the subtitle to my book) "make room for faith in the age of science." This the New Atheists would not allow, and I think they are wrong.