Massimo Pigliucci is an atheist who thinks that science and religion are compatible because they rule in different domains. He takes a very narrow view of "science"— one that excludes the work of historians and philosophers who are presumably using some other way of knowing. (He doesn't tell us what that is.)
I prefer the broad view of science as a way of knowing that relies on evidence, rational thinking, and healthy skepticism. This broad view of science is not universal—but it's not uncommon. In fact, Alan Sokel has defended this view of Massimo Pigiucci's own blog: [What is science and why should we care? — Part III]. According to this view, any attempt to gain knowledge should employ the scientific worldview. Historian and philosophers should follow this path if they hope to be successful. Pigliucci should know that there are different definitions and any discussion of the compatibility of science and religion must take these differences into account.
Pigliucci thinks that religion is about ethics and the question of meaning and these cannot be addressed using science—his definition—as way of discovering truth. He thinks that it's okay to believe in supernatural beings because that doesn't conflict with his narrow view of the domain of science.
That's fine, he's entitled to his opinion and to his restrictive definition of science. I'd like to know what other methods he would use to answer questions about meaning and ethical behavior if they are not evidence-based and rational but that's a question for another time. For now, let's just agree that Pigliucci can define science in a way that excludes philosophy, religion, history and a host of other disciplines.
But here's the problem, Pigliucci would like to refute all those people who maintain that science and religion are incompatible using the broad definition of science. He doesn't do this by discussing what they actually say about science, instead he applies HIS definition of science to those others and declares victory.
Given Pigiucci's stance on accommodationism, you can be sure that he hates Jerry Coyne's latest book Faith vs Fact. You would think that he probably bought a copy right away and read it thoroughly, but he didn't. He still hasn't read Jerry's book. That doesn't stop him from criticizing Jerry Coyne indirectly by challenging the views of his philosophy colleague, Russell Blackford, who wrote a favorable review of Coyne's book.
Let's look at Pigliucci's defense of accommodationism in: In Defense of Accommodationism: On the Proper Relationship Between Science and Religion.1 He makes five points,
i) We need to make a distinction between “religion” in the sense of any particular organized body of beliefs and practices, such as Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., and a more general belief in some sort of transcendental (i.e., non-material) entity. Specifics claims about the world of individual religions — when they do make them — may or may not be in contradiction with scientific findings, and this needs to be verified claim by claim. It is a good general bet, though, that whenever a religious claim about reality is at odds with the corresponding scientific claim, the latter will turn out to be closer to the truth.We all agree that whenever a belief system makes claims about specific facts and events that conflict with science, by any definition of science, then the belief system invariably can be shown to be a false way of acquiring true knowledge. As a general rule, faith doesn't produce true knowledge whenever it can be directly tested. Religion has a very poor track record in this area. Maybe it works better in another area?
I agree that we should not get dragged into silly debates about the particular practices of Catholicism, Hinduism etc. The real question is whether a transcendental (non-material) entity actually exists. Is the belief in such an entity compatible with science?
ii) Religions, and religious belief, however, are primarily not about cosmogonies, but rather about ethical teachings and questions of meaning. Whether those ethical teachings are sound, or the answers provided to the issue of meaning satisfying, needs to be assessed depending on the specifics. But such assessment is a matter of philosophical discourse, and perhaps of human psychology, certainly not of natural science.Jerry Coyne has already pointed out the flaw in Pigliucci's argument. The facts clearly show that religions are very much about cosmogonies. That's what people actually believe.
But let's go along with Pigliucci and see where it takes us. Let's agree with him that the important point about religion is the belief that ethical teachings and questions of meaning can be answered by a transcendent, non-material, entity—a supernatural being or gods. Can we ever decide whether this is true or not?
You bet we can. We look for evidence that ethics and meaning come from gods and can't be explained by human behavior. That evidence is lacking so the hypothesis is rejected. Jerry Coyne, Alan Sokal, and many others (including me) think this rejection is due to scientific thinking. Therefore, the belief in supernatural beings that give us ethics and meaning conflicts with science as a way of knowing.
Pigliucci may agree with us that there's a conflict but he thinks that the important questions can't be addressed by the scientific way of knowing. Instead, it belongs to the philosophy and human psychology ways of knowing. We don't know how those ways of knowing are defined but they aren't part of the "natural sciences" so there's no conflict with science according to Massimo Pigliucci.
As I said earlier, Pigliucci is entitled to his definition of science but when he criticizes others who use a different definition2 he has to recognize that distinction. He doesn't do that. I can't decide whether he just doesn't get it or whether he is deliberately obfuscating.
iii) There is no logical contradiction between accepting all the findings of modern science and believing in a transcendental reality. Which is why lots of intelligent people, including lots of scientists, do in fact accept science and believe in a transcendental reality.This is only true for his definition of science as a collection of facts. It is not true for the broad definition of science as a way of knowing. Many of us think that questions about the existence or non-existence of a "transcendental reality" are are perfectly valid questions that can be addressed by a scientific way of knowing.
The answer is "no, there is no evidence of a transcendental reality." Thus, if you continue to believe in such a superstition, it conflicts with the scientific way of acquiring truth and knowledge. Like most accommodationists, Pigliucci wants to protect religion from such questions by enforcing methodological naturalism [What Kind of Knowledge Does Philosophy Discover?].
iv) “Science” is a particular type of human epistemic activity, with a specific history, cultural setting(s), social structure, and so forth. As such, it is not co-extensive with “reason and evidence,” and it does have proper and improper domains of application (as well as some domains where it is pertinent but not decisive — a philosopher would say domains in which scientific evidence underdetermines the question at hand).This is one definition of science but it's clearly not the only one. It's not the one Jerry Coyne uses.
If Pigliucci wants to quibble about the meaning of science then why doesn't he tell about the other ways of knowing and how they help us discover truth and knowledge? Do any of those other ways conflict with religion and faith? Or does Pigliucci really think that belief in a transcendent reality that gives us ethics and meaning is consistent with at least one other successful way of knowing that yields truth and knowledge? Does religion conflict with the philosophical way of knowing, for example?3
v) Specifically, issues of ethics and meaning are outside the proper domain of science, though they are in fact beneficially informed by the best science available (i.e., these issues are good examples of the above mentioned underdetermination).If I understand him correctly, he's saying that a question like, "Does the universe have purpose and meaning?" is a question that cannot be addressed by the science way of knowing. Apparently we can't get an answer to that question by gathering evidence and applying rational thought.
Does that mean we just have to arrive at an answer by faith alone? Atheists answer "no," based on the lack of evidence of purpose and meaning, and believers answer "yes," based on what their gods say. There's no way we can decide who's right? That doesn't make sense to me.
What about ethics? Let's say a society of atheists wants to reach collective decisions about abortions, capital punishment, slavery, and jay-walking. How do they do it? Do they collect evidence and apply rational thinking to come up with a proper code of ethical behavior that's best for their society? Or do they consult the religious leaders of the neighboring country?
What if they decide that women should be treated as equals in spite of the fact that their religious neighbors insist on the superiority of men? Is there no way to decide who's right because the question is outside of the purview of evidence-based rational thought? I don't think so.
Ethical behavior does not fall within the exclusive domain of rationality and evidence-based reasoning, although it should be. That's because lots of modern "ethics" is irrational. That does not mean that correct ethical behavior is determined by transcendental beings who cannot be challenged. That's absurd.
If religion says that we should behave one way and evidence and rationality say that another way is better for society, then the religious view conflicts with the scientific way of knowing. In modern industrialized nations the religious view usually gives way to the more rational view. Religion doesn't get a free pass on ethics or meaning. It loses the battles in that area just as it loses in cosmonogies.
Finally, let me add a few words on the nature of science. Again from Blackford’s review: “[Coyne] favors a concept of ‘science broadly construed.’ He elaborates this as: ‘the same combination of doubt, reason, and empirical testing used by professional scientists.’” But this has it exactly backwards: it is professional scientists that use that same combination of doubt, reason and empirical testing that Homo sapiens has been using since the Pleistocene, and that has made us the dominant species on planet Earth (for good and, mostly, for bad, as far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned). To refer to the application of basic reasoning and empirical trial and error as “science” is anachronistic, and clearly done in the service of what I cannot but think is a scientistic agenda.
Pigluicci loves to accuse us of scientism [Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science]. See the cartoon from his blog.
His stance is based entirely on his restricted definition of science.
Fine, ... whatever. I'd love to ask him if he has a word for the application of reasoning and evidence as a way of knowing and whether that thing—whatever it is—conflicts with faith. That's the real question that Jerry Coyne is asking. And the answer is "yes."
1. Jerry Coyne has already covered Pigliucci's remarks in: Massimo Pigliucci takes out after Russell Blackford and me. (Thank-you, Jerry, for using "me" instead of the incorrect "myself" that's creeping into our language.)
2. Science as scientia [Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science] [Sean Carroll: "What Is Science?"], or science as Wissenschaft [John Wilkins discusses the "Demarcation Problem"].
3. If it doesn't, then that's one reason for rejecting philosophy as a way of discovering truth and knowledge.