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RS04 - The Great Atheist Debate Over the Limits of Science 

Release date: March 14, 2010

"Accommodationist" is a word that began to appear in recent months during public debates over science and religion. The derogatory term has been applied to atheists and rationalists like Eugenie Scott, at the National Center for Science Education, and Chris Mooney, science writer at Discover Magazine, who maintain that science and faith are not necessarily incompatible. Although the debate is frequently framed as a practical one, about what the tactics of the secular movement should be, it is also a philosophical one, hinging on the question of the epistemic limits of science. In this episode, we examine the arguments being made by and against the so-called "accommodationists," and ask: Can science disprove religious and supernatural claims?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick: The book Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human

Massimos pick: The website of the National Center for Science Education

Reader Comments (8)

Regarding the Accommodationist topic, you guys drilled down to a key point in terms of the conversation the two respective sides undertake in discussing this topic but I think you needed to go one step further. The point at which Massimo spoke of the two sides "not talking the same language" and relative "incoherence", is when I would have liked to have heard that fleshed out more on a pragmatic level. When "Last Thursdayism (LT)" is invoked, it certainly can serve as a conversational "trump card." However, it can not and does not serve any purpose from a practical standpoint. In fact, if LT (in its broadest form throughout all topics, not just religion) were to be honestly accepted as a normative form of understanding, then our ability to communicate would essentially vanish as the ramblings from the insane would carry as much weight as comments from the supposed sane.

March 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Regarding the consciousness topic, it's generally accepted that the brain is not likely to be an independent source of consciousness. In other words, having a brain in a vat won't do it. It requires the entire body, including critical things like a central nervous system, in order fully grapple with the emergence of consciousness. While it's common to only bring up the brain when discussing consciousness (as was done in this episode), I think it perpetuates the simplistic "brain=consciousness" paradigm and therefore doesn't lend itself to providing a greater understanding of this complex topic. As a suggestion when talking about consciousness, please remember to give credit to non-brain parts of our body.

March 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJason

An interesting show - thankyou!

Listening to it, I began to wonder if the dispute between the purists and the accomodationists isn't really over what religion is, rather than about the limits of science. For example, Dawkins (a purist) doesn't say that science can falsify the metaphysical claims of religion, but instead emphasizes the empirical content of the religion, and infers from this conception of what religion is that science has something to say regarding s religion's truth. An accomodationist, such as yourself, would point back to the metaphysical content, and to various moves which rescind the empirical claims.
What I take from this is that the two parties each have a different conception of the core claims of religion. The purists think that at least some of the core claims are empirical, and where a metaphysical 'recapture' of a claim is made, this is a kind of excuse made behalf of the empirical claim, and not a genuine rescindment. So on this view, intercessory prayer is a core belief, believers think it works, and those believers who appeal to the possibility of God's not playing our scientific game do not usually believe this, but merely point it out so as to avoid criticism and retain their faith.
On the other hand, accomodationists take the core claims of religion to be metaphysical, perhaps primarily ethical. They view the empirical claims as part of the historical baggage of a religion, not as central to concerns of the religious, and therefore think that attacks on the empirical claims fail to substantially engage with religion. They take the metaphysical recapture to show that the empirical claims are not important.
I doubt either position is wholly right, since it seems to me that there's enough diversity of religious opinion that both descriptions apply. Some believers will have a rather esoteric conception of God, and so their beliefs will be primarily metaphysical. Some believers will take the empirical claims seriously, and think of the esoteric interpretations of God as woolly-headed and without content. Given this, a mixture of philosophy and science is appropriate to criticize religion, not just one or the other. After all, what else should we expect with such a notoriously broad and indefinite concept as 'religion'?

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

I think what's being missed here is the fact that almost all of the people that atheists are arguing with are not the kind of people who assert that their religion is empirically equivalent to "last Thursday-ism". None of the theists I've argued with would accept that comparison. They'd call it a straw man. Once you've got to the point where you can get your opponent to admit that their beliefs are equivalent to that, you've won the argument as far as any reasonable person is concerned. That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

No-one actually lives their lives as if the physical world is just a solipsistic illusion. There is no real argument between the accommodationists and the purists beyond the semantics as far as I can see. Dawkins and Hitchens both agree with you. They don't say they can disprove gods, they just say that theists can't demonstrate their beliefs. You people aren't in disagreement! Please try to communicate with each other better so we can get on with actually tackling our common foes.

April 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterInquisitor

I found the thesis put forward in this rather strange. It seems like what was being said was "Sure, science and religion are compatible, because one can simply deny the validity of science (by applying whimsical and silly ad hoc theological explanations)". I felt like the thesis had little to say about the conflict between religion and science, and seemed self-defeating to an extent - science and religion are compatible, but only if you reject the validity of one (in at least a few key areas). I could be wrong (i've generally only heard one side of the argument), but I don't think this really addressed what the "purist" vs "accommodationist" argument is really about.

April 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVirtute
This has been extremely interesting, and given me a great deal to consider. To present, I have attempted to exist in a dichotomy of mindset, operating within the world as scientifically as possible, seeking factual, physical explanations for phenomena observed around me, and at the same time maintaining a faith bred in from childhood, in a creator deity and the potential for an afterlife.

My basic rationalization has been the idea that God takes a hands off approach to things (not quite to the extent that deism puts it, but I figure he or she wrote the rules, and is content to let them play out most of the time). It seems to make sense; the world is pretty organized, and there is no known reason that the laws of physics should be what they are, except that if they weren't, we wouldn't be around to observe them (really, there is no known reason for anything; there is just a pattern of observable interactions). This leads me to either exceptionalism (i.e. we got really lucky that the universe is this way), multiverse theory (impose an infinite universe or universes to make the probability of this one's existence 100%), or intelligent design (impose infinite deity to make the universe this way). In the past, I considered the three equal in probability.

I have concluded, as a result of critically examining those three possibilities in light of this podcast, that scientific argument favors exceptionalism, we have observed neither God, nor other universes, whereas this universe has at least a sample size of one. We can say in honesty that 100% of observed universes follow these physical laws, and, as a result, we can conclude that these are the only physical laws that are possible. But, sample sizes of one make most people (rightly) nervous. The are pretty far from a six sigma result; as evidence of this fact, consider how many scientists have devoted their careers to building up multiverse theory. It makes people uncomfortable to think that we got this lucky. Perhaps they are wasting their lives, and need to just become more comfortable, but undeniably the mind cries out for reasons, and science, as argued in this podcast, would simply stop before addressing this question. The rational thing to do is say "There is not sufficient evidence upon which to make a judgement" and form no opinion whatsoever.

My conclusion differs from the scientific: It doesn't matter what is true. I take more enjoyment and solace from believing in a creator, and considering that there might be a point to it all than I could get from strict adherence to the data we have, which leaves me in existential crisis and doubt. So, I decided I could continue being religious, despite the fact that I have no reason to believe I am right, because I have so little reason to believe I am wrong, and nothing to gain by changing my opinion.

Perhaps I am a fool, but I see no harm in it. If I am right, then I am lucky, not wise. And if I am wrong, then it doesn't matter what I thought or did or believed or pursued anyway.
July 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Huffman
Accommodation seems correct. Science cannot prove or disprove Super Natural Claims. Religion cannot prove or disprove Natural Claims.
February 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
The last thursdayism is not a proposition. Because it neither can be true or false. When it is used as an argument for religion it is a fallacy maybe even 2. Namely circular reasoning and special pleading. So I don't think such claims are even remotely relevant and in no way equivalent to scientific hypotheses. So I don't agree that those arguments pose a problem for science. They pose a problem for science in any way.
September 26, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEmiel de Jonge

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