Sunday, October 20, 2013

Jerry Coyne's Test for Being an Accommodationist: Infallible?

Jerry Coyne has presented his "infallible" test for knowing whether an atheist is really a "hidebound accommodationist":

Faitheists, accommodationists, and theists will invariably say that religion played a trivial, or even no, role in that [Galileo] affair.

The problem is that Nick Matzke has already offered a counter-example to Coyne's test.  As he says in the comments section:

Hugo Holbling’s essay is much, much better. And he’s definitely no science-religion-warfare guy — he’s a very determined anti-demarcationist, for instance. His conclusions?

Matzke then goes on to quote Holbling at length, showing that he thinks religion played the major role in the Galileo affair.  So here we have one accommodationist - Nick Matzke - quoting another accommodationist - Hugo Holbling - as saying that religion was the main culprit in the Galileo affair.

I think it's fair to conclude that Coyne's test isn't infallible after all.  Sorry Jerry, but better luck next time at becoming the first Jewish pope since Peter. 


Jon Garvey said...

So, Coyne says, there are two kinds of atheist, both of whom pride themselves on being rational, and only believing evidence.

There is the accommodationist, who (he says) will deny the role of religion in the Galileo affair without regard to the data.

And the non-accommodationist, like him, who will insist on the role of religion in the Galileo affair without regard to the data.

At least we know where we are now.

Bilbo said...

My guess is that Coyne thinks the role of religion in the Galileo is undeniable, but that accommodationists will deny it anyway.

Jon Garvey said...

By his criterion he has proved himself a non-accommodationist. But since his reasoning (if you're correct) proves he's also a moron, it's safe to conclude that non-accommodationists are all morons. QED.

Bilbo said...

I think non-accommodationists have serious philosophical problems. Since most of them are not philosophers, I find it easier to excuse them for their errors.

As to the Galileo affair, since I haven't studied the matter myself, I rely mostly on word-of-mouth. It sounds like the interpretation of certain Biblical passageds was at least one of the factors. The question is how much of a factor it was. I wouldn't know.

Jon Garvey said...


Most entertaining source for Galileo and the whole Copernican wheeze starts here:

Not being a philosopher is an excuse - despising philosophy from that position is just self-incrimination . A classic case of "if you were blind, you would be guiltless, but now you say 'we see' your guilt remains.

Jerry could at little cost pontificate less and read more - though I'm not sure your bowdlerised translation of Aquinas would be the place to start ;-)

Bilbo said...

Thanks for the reference, though I doubt I that I will take you up on it. (Now "bowdlerize" was worth looking up.)

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the only objection to Galileo's heliocentrism were some passages in the Bible that appeared to teach that the Earth did not move (and was the center of the universe?).

Do most people who accept the Bible as the inspired word of God still think those passages should be read literally? Obviously not. So here would be a case where a conflict between science and religion was resolved in favor of science, even among religious people. In other words, religious people were willing to revise their religious beliefs when they saw that those beliefs conflicted with accepted science. True, the revision came after Galileo, but it came, nevertheless.

Likewise, most Bible believers have given up the view that we live in a young universe or earth. I'm not sure what percentage of Bible believers accept the theory of evolution, but I suspect it is substantial. If the theological issues for evangelicals that are associated with it should ever be resolved, I would expect that most believers will come to accept some form of evolutionary theory.

So Coyne's insistence that there is some necessary conflict between science and religion seems to be much ado about nothing.

Jon Garvey said...


You're right, it is a storm in a teacup - but even more so as the whole conflict is, as pretty well all historians agree, a nineteenth century fiction. There really should be no surprise that Christianity adjusts its interpretations to science, as that's been the pattern forever.

A shame you've not time to look at TOF's piece, because it documents that every premise of your "let's suppose" case is erroneous. The whole myth is, as they say "not even wrong."

Apart from the personal/political nature of the real Galileo affair, the simplest summary I can give of Catholicism's "official" relationship to the heliocentrism question is:
(a) Most scientists reject Copernicanism because of lack of supportive evidence and presence of strong counter-evidence (eg lack of stellar parallax, lack of coriolis effect).
(b) The Church is not going to reinterpret Scripture to fit a speculative theory before it can provide hard evidence to overturn 2000 years of consensus science and biblical interpretation.
(c) So show us some evidence that shifts the scientific consensus, and we'll happily interpret the "problem passages" figuratively, as we do many others.

As a matter of fact, Galileo fought for Copernicanism against Tycho Brahae's newer geocentric theory (which had the data on its side) and he blanked Kepler altogether, whose theory, not Copernicus's, soon turned out to be right. Copernicus used more epicycles than Ptolemy did - another reason for skepticism at the time.

Also, one of the main planks of Galileo's argument was his theory about the tides being due to earth's movement - which was flat wrong even at the time, as was pointed out to him by those nautical folk who knew there were 2, not 1, tides per day.

There was a recent discussion on BioLogos about the subtle ideological aspects of the matter. Geocentrism was a good fit to the theological concept of earth as the lowest and grossest place in the universe, towards which all things fell. Heliocentrism appealed to the Renaissance humanist ideas of man's dignity - we got to be on a celestial body like the angels.

Now that sounds a bit like the 20th century problem with accepting the big bang, because materialist scientists were sure the universe "ought" to be eternal. Except in the 16th century, their ideological preference turned out to be right, rather than wrong.

Bilbo said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for summarizing the issues for me. I'm tempted to copy your comment and just put up a separate post, but then everyone will say, "You only did that because you're an accommodationist or a theist."