Peter Lipton, In Memoriam

(Reposted from November 2007.  I deleted this accidentally while purging spam posts).

I learned this morning that Peter Lipton has passed away.

He was one of the first speakers in Cambridge this summer at the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. He gave a fun, provocative lecture on the philosophy of science. He had talked about the various models used to define science by philosophers of science like Carl Popper or Thomas Kuhn. He proposed that a way to manage conflict between science and religion is to take an immersion approach, borrowing in part from Kuhn and in part from a philosopher of science named Bas Van Fraassen. Peter Lipton speaking

Peter was a fascinating lecturer, but also fascinating to we fellows for a different reason: he was both an atheist and a devout Jew, regularly attending temple. We had a terrific discussion with him about how he could separate his lack of belief in God yet still accept the idea of God in the scriptures (this is my shorthand and does not do justice to his position). But when one of the fellows asked him if he could accept the verses proscribing homosexuality, Lipton said adamantly he could not. So we challenged him further on this — how could he accept the idea of God while not believing in God, but make a different distinction around homosexuality?

I followed up with him on email. He sent me this:

Thanks for this excellent question, which is forcing me to think harder about my
position. There are several options here.

First, I could follow your advice and accept but not believe the proscription on
homosexuality. This would capture my view that I work with the entire text, and that
I am helped in my ethical deliberation by struggling with that text, even in cases
where I end up not believing some of its moral content. The downside of this option,
from my point of view is that it takes the notion of acceptance pretty far from van
Fraassen’s use in his constructive empiricism, since for me ‘accept’ would now seem
to mean something like ‘engage with’. For van Fraassen, ‘accept’ has a more positive
meaning, something like ‘believe to have true empirical consequences’ or ‘use for the
purpose of making predictions’.

On balance the first option may still be my best bet. But I think I have another
option too. For although I did not mention this yesterday, full acceptance is only
the limiting case. Thus van Fraassen would not say that we should even accept all of
all of our theories, since in many (all?) cases we know that the theory is not even
entirely empirically adequate. So we may decide only to accept part of the theory.
Thus we have three levels: the stuff we believe, the stuff we accept without
believing, and the stuff we do not even accept. So I think I could take the view
that the proscription on homosexuality is something I do not even accept. (I can
still of course give it a literal interpretation, even though I wholly reject it.)
The downside of this option is that it might lead to a loss in the coherence of my
religious practice, a coherence that the notion of acceptance was designed in part to

There is also a third, dynamic option, combining the first two. What I have in mind
here is that one might start with accross-the-board acceptance as a kind of default,
so one begins by accepting the whole text, but then with study and thought one works
out not only which parts of what one accepts one should also believe, but also which
parts one should not on reflection continue to accept.

A paper he was working on at the time that captures his thinking on the subject, “Science and Religion, The Immersion Solution,” Peter Lipton , will soon be published.

He and I also exchanged a brief note on Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1929 sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win?. Peter said the sermon was quite apropos for the ideas in his paper.

The Cambridge obituary on Peter Lipton.

It was a treat to engage with him. May his model resonate.

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