What's Wrong with Michael Ruse's View of Accommodationism?

Michael Ruse wrote a book called Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (2010). It's a defense of accommodationism—the position of atheists who maintain that science and religion are compatible because they are different ways of knowing. Ruse is one of the main proponents of Methodological Naturalism, which postulates that science is restricted, or limited, to investigations of the natural world. Since religion deals, by definition, with the supernatural world, it falls outside the domain of science and is, therefore, compatible with science. This leads Ruse to define several criteria of Christianity that are immune to scientific investigation [The Essence of Christianity].

This position used to be overwhelmingly accepted by the majority of scientists and philosophers, especially in America. It has become the standard view of most professional scientific organizations and of The National Center for Science Education (NCSE). It's a convenient way for atheist scientists and religious people who are mostly accepting of science to avoid conflict as they make common cause against the extreme creationists.

But that view is now being challenged and it's no longer acceptable to claim that it represents the only view of science. That's what the good guys did during the Dover trial a few years ago but it wouldn't work today because there are dozens of prominent philosophers of science who would argue against such a limitation of science.

One of them is Peter Slezak of the School of History and Philosophy, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He recently wrote a review of Ruse's book: Michael Ruse: Science and Spiritutality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (Slezak, 2011).

Much of the conflict depends on definitions and Slezak clearly endorses a much broader view of science than Ruse. Here's how Slezak challenges the view that science has limits.
This is a widely held and obviously appealing line to adopt for those, like Ruse, who are committed to the scientific enterprise and its claims. However, I will suggest that, despite its appearance of open-minded ecumenicalism, the posture faces insuperable intellectual difficulties. In wishing to leave room beyond ‘‘the allowable scope of science’’ (p. 235), Ruse is effectively endorsing a traditional demarcation between science and metaphysics in order to restore respectability to some claims in the latter category. However, this recidivist project does not properly address the hegemonic nature of the scientific enterprise. This conception is expressed in the final remarks of Bertrand Russell’s (1935) book Religion and Science. Aside from questions of value that lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood,

Russell says:
Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot
discover, mankind cannot know (1935, p. 243).
The title of Freud’s (1927, 92) book The Future of an Illusion refers to religion and ends with the exactly the same sentiments: ‘‘an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere’’. These expressions of a positivist conception are less dogmatic than they appear because they may be understood as statements of the openmindedness of science rather than its opposite. That is, ‘‘science’’ doesn’t exclude anything simply because the honorific label is used for anything worth believing. That is, if there are any rational grounds for a proposition, it will become included within the domain of established science. Or, rather, perhaps we should say that it will be included on the spectrum of claims ranging across ‘good, bad and bogus’ to use the sub-title of Gardner’s (1981) book. The point is captured in Laudan’s (1983) account of the ‘‘Demise of the Demarcation Problem’’ since he shows that ‘‘the problem of demarcation … is spurious’’ and the heterogeneity of beliefs and activities means that there are no lines to be drawn (see Special Issue of Science & Education, 2011, volume 20, 5–6). In particular, this means that the claims of religion fall somewhere on the spectrum, arguably nearer the bogus end. However, this means that they are subject to the usual criteria for deciding what is worth believing, which is, in any case, clear enough from the nature of the claims as we will note presently.
Ruse and his allies believe that any attempt to step outside the limits of science constitute a venture into metaphysics and this is not science but something else. Peter Slezak rejects this argument ...
Plantinga (1991, 8) suggests that the question of the clash between faith and reason is ‘‘enormously difficult’’ requiring ‘‘penetrating grasp of the relevant theological and philosophical issues’’ as well as the complex science. However, this is sheer bluff since the arguments don’t depend on any such arcane knowledge. Thus, citing Plantinga, Ruse (p. 183) seeks room for claims alongside and independent of science on the grounds that there are alternative ‘‘world views’’ and, therefore, a choice between two ‘‘metaphysical’’ options— naturalism and theism. The air of reasonableness and even profundity in this stance produces a vacant illusion of explanation but disguises sophistry. First, even if we are to talk this fancy philosophical way with Plantinga, it remains obscure why the Christian theistic ‘‘metaphysics’’ is the only alternative to the ‘‘naturalistic’’ one. One could presumably find or invent many others that would have equal status as alternatives to naturalism by virtue of having nothing to recommend them. Does Plantinga think that Mexican metaphysics based on the theology of Quetzalcoatl deserves equal consideration with his Christian variety?

The very idea that we can transcend what Ruse calls the ‘‘limitations of a science based knowledge’’ (p. 10), or that we have a choice between alternative ‘‘metaphysics’’, is an illusion. There is no alternative to our best theories other than worse ones. Naturalism is just the picture provided by our current science and is, therefore, the best we’ve got. Pretentious philosophical talk of ‘‘metaphysical’’ options can’t change the fact that naturalism is the only game in town since it is simply the totality of our theories in physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, geology and so on. Does Christian metaphysics provide a better account of quantum physics, cosmology or the structure of DNA?
Slezak is going to be accused of scientism or, at the very least, naturalism. The accommodationists will claim that the leap to naturalism is overstepping the limits of what science can or cannot claim. That's not true. Science teaches us that the scientific approach works and that most things have a naturalistic explanation. It follows that any claim of a valid a non-naturalistic explanation must have at least as much to recommend it or else it is nothing more than hand-waving.

Slezak, P. (2011) Michael Ruse: Science and Spiritutality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science Sci & Educ 21:403-413. [DOI 10.1007/s11191-011-9373-0]
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