Ian Barbour: An Appreciative Note Now That He Has Died

Ian Barbour died on Christmas Eve, 90 years old. The eminent, perhaps the original, scholar of science and religion leaves a huge legacy behind, one which many of us are very thankful for. Anyone who takes science-and-religion seriously is familiar with his classic 1966 book, Issues in Science and Religion. He had a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and did graduate work in theology at Yale. He was, by all accounts, also a very pleasant man.

Here is the announcement from Carleton College, where he taught. Connor Wood bids his farewell here, Thomas Jay Oord offers a tribute here and so does Karl Giberson here.
I familiarised myself with his Issues when I was in university. As I’ve thought about the whole science and religion thing over the years, and as I think back on that thinking, I have found that particular book especially helpful and influential in shaping my thinking.

What I appreciate about it particularly is how scientific it is.

Our culture is full of voices, often those invested in setting science and religion up against each other, claiming loudly how science and religion should relate to each other. According to these voices, shouting from pulpits on both sides of the divide, science and religion are perpetually at war. We must choose: Either science, or religion. Either the godless science of Richard Dawkins, or the pseudoscientific religion of Ken Ham. It’s a zero-sum game, an either/or, according to them both.

What’s ironic, perhaps especially in regards to those who claim the mantle of established scientific credibility, is that such an attitude is deeply unscientific. If you’ll allow me to be a bit Humean for a second, science concerns itself with the “is” and not the “ought”. And bold, sweeping pronouncements about the necessary ought of science/religion relations are quite simply unscientific.

Which Barbour’s typological approach in Issues isn’t. In the book he argues for a four-fold typology describing the relationship between science and religion. The models for engagement are: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue and Integration. I won’t go in to them in details. You should read the book if you want that detail. What I want to note is, again, just how scientific Barbour’s approach is. He isn’t announcing how science and religion ought to or should relate, but rather attempts to understand how they do relate. And the fact is that they relate in several different ways. There’s nothing wrong, as such, to throw your lot in with one particular kind of relation – say, independence, like Stephen Jay Gould did with his NOMA model -, but you’ve stopped being a scientist when you do so, and have proceeded to sit down in the philosophical armchair. Which is quite all right, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But it isn’t scientific.

Nor is it very clever. I think it’s the mark of a mature and subtle intellect to be able to acknowledge and articulate positions different and contrary to your own, humbly reserving judgement and noting whatever strengths and weaknesses might characterise that position. So many find that an insurmountable challenge. I’m grateful to Ian Barbour for helping me come closer to that ideal, an ideal he embodied in his work.


No, Creationists Aren’t Crazy. You’re Just Lazy (Among Other Things).


So, creationists are crazy. That’s what Robert Rowland Smith says in Psychology Today, via Evolution News and Views. Creationism, according to Smith, is characterised by denial, psychosis and lack of irony. All symptoms of mental illness. To be fair, Smith’s article is more of a thought experiment than an actual diagnosis/accusation of mental illness.

Thought experiment or not, this isn’t the first time such an accusation has been levelled, of course. New atheists (don’t know whether Smith is one, for the record) have been telling us that theism is a delusion and that religion is an especially pernicious virus of the mind, impervious to reasonable cures. Accusations of brainwashing are species of this argumentative genus. Accusations of compartmentalisation and cognitive dissonance, too, if to a lesser degree.

What lies at the heart of such accusations is an incredulous and often indignant exacerbation towards foreign, weird and perhaps offensive ideas and the people who hold them. How on earth can anyone believe such patent bullshit?! How is it possible?!? Don’t they see how insanely wrong they are?! They must be crazy!

But here’s the thing. Calling people crazy very seldom says anything about them. What it does say something about is you. It says something about the time and effort you’ve put into understanding points of view different than your own. It says something about your imaginative abilities and to what extent you are able to step outside your own intellectual presuppositions and biases to entertain those of your opponents. It probably says something about how socially insulated you are. If you find yourself regarding strangers as crazy on a regular basis, you should get out more and with different people than usual. And ultimately, accusations of craziness say something about your ability to empathise with people, and to treat them with basic respect. Because calling someone crazy and thus refusing to grant them basic reasoning abilities and perceptual grasp means denying something essentially human to them. And it’s only a small step away from denying someone their moral agency too. Then the crazy person is not simply deluded but is dangerous. You don’t have to search very far in order to find accusations like that.

I am by no means a creationist. Regular readers will know that. I’ve argued against creationism on scientific, biblical and theological grounds for years, both online and, more significantly, off. But my disagreement with them, however strongly felt, does not tempt me to accuse them of being crazy. I disagree with them on some very central points, but they aren’t stupid. Or, they aren’t significantly more stupid than anyone else. Stupid is represented among all sides of every debate. It would be unfair and uncharitable to pick out the stupid on your opponent’s side, all the while ignoring the stupid on your own. In fact, that would be stupid. Same applies for crazy.

At the heart of creationism is a strong adherence to the fundamentalist understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible. For them, their understanding of the Bible is a matter of first principles. Creationists believe that the Bible is absolutely correct in every instance, whatever the topic at hand. Since the Bible has stuff to say about the nature of the physical world, it must be correct there too. Does this clash with science? Not according to them. Modern, secular science, yes. But not proper, true science. For many of us, a wooden literalistic interpretation of Genesis and other biblical passages does clash with proper, true science (which is modern, “secular” science). Which means, for us, that wooden literalistic interpretation must be left behind (to put it a bit too simply). Because for a Christian, all truth must be held in unity. There must be basic correspondence between God’s revealed word and his created word. But the thing is, creationists would agree with this. Science and theology must be brought and held together. That’s what creationism is, in their understanding. And while that’s almost certainly wrong, it’s not wrong for them. Because reason and understanding are socially embedded phenomena. Social pressures influence the plausibility of various epistemologies. And if you take biblical inerrancy to a matter of first principles, to be the basis of your epistemology, to be your foundational premise – what follows might seem crazy to those who are ignorant and too lazy to do anything about it, but in reality it’s actually not. It’s quite logical, in fact.

The reasons for choosing biblical inerrancy as foundational premise are interesting and I’m quite sympathetic towards many of them. But that’s material for another post.

What I wanted to say with this post was that creationism, as wrong as it almost certainly is, is not crazy. It’s logical, in so far as its conclusions are in sound correspondence with its premises. If biblical inerrancy is your premise, creationism follows. It might be weird, it might be strange, it might even be offensive. But calling it crazy says more about you than it does about creationism or the creationist.