Reply to Atheist Scientist Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion?

Reply to Atheist Scientist Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion? July 13, 2010
Original Title: Reply to Atheist Scientist Jerry Coyne: Are Science and Religion Utterly Incompatible? (Even Theistic Evolution is Disallowed?)
Jerry Coyne (b. 1949); photo by Emma Rodewald: 8-17-06 [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]




Dr. Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. He earned his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Harvard University in 1978, working in the laboratory of Richard Lewontin. He has written over 110 refereed scientific papers and 80 other articles, book reviews, and columns, as well as the books Why Evolution is True and Speciation (co-authored with H. Allen Orr).

I made a reply (on his blog) to a small portion of his online article, “What evidence would convince you that a god exists?” (7-7-10). Excerpts from his article appear below (indented), followed by my reply. Then I reply to a few parts of a second article that the first linked to. His words throughout will be in blue.

* * * * *

One of the big differences between religion and science as “ways of knowing” is that in science we can almost always specify what observations or experiments would prove our theories wrong. In contrast, the faithful do not (and cannot) specify what observations would disprove their beliefs—or the whole basis of their religion. There are two reasons for this distinction. First, through judicious theological manipulation the faithful carefully insulate those beliefs from disproof, often in a hypocritical way. When evidence is found against them, like the medieval age of the shroud of Turin or observations showing that prayer doesn’t work, the faithful simply say, “No, you can’t test God.” . . .

Second, because religious belief is irrational, the faithful often won’t let themselves even consider counterevidence. The evidence for evolution is by now overwhelming (I wrote a book about it, and didn’t even scratch the surface), but still around 60% of Americans think that humans were created by God directly instead of having evolved—and a lot of the latter believe that our evolution was guided by God. Faith has immunized these people against the plain facts. . . .

But we atheists, being scientifically inclined, can do the converse: we can lay out what observations would turn us into believers. . . .

This is a challenge to those believers who say that their way of knowing is equivalent to that practiced by science and rational investigation.

* * *

because religious belief is irrational, the faithful often won’t let themselves even consider counterevidence.

Circular argument. The conclusion is already in the premise.

Isn’t it interesting that you think that even theistic evolutionists are included in the class of those who are “against the plain facts.” This is classic atheist dogmatism. It’s not enough that a person accepts evolution itself. He must also deny that God had anything to do with it in order to be pronounced kosher and orthodox and to get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval pasted on his forehead.

No one may dare harmonize evolution with his religious beliefs, and believe that God guided the process (a position that Darwin and his original public defender T. H. Huxley thought were perfectly acceptable).

No, you have to take it a step further. The logic of your position and the grammar of the above statement prove that you think that evolution precludes any talk of God or theistic evolution. Yet that is the very thing you can’t assert, by your own excessive “scientism” — because science can say nothing about God, by the simple fact that its purview is matter (and it often prides itself on precluding any talk of God or teleology).

Even if science now bans God totally from any and all discussion about the universe, it can’t ban all other intelligent discussion or beliefs about God in philosophy and theology. Science is not the sum of all knowledge.

If you want religious people to “shut up” and never let their religious views influence science to the slightest degree (even to the extent of excommunicating theistic evolutionists), then it seems to me that you should — by the same token – shut up about religious matters, and not pretentiously pose as an objective observer, all the while engaging in massive self-contradiction insofar as you speak from a “scientific” point of view that has nothing directly to do with religious matters or God. But you want it both ways.

It is shoddy thinking like this that is deplorable. Bad logic is bad logic, no matter what the source is or how otherwise “smart” the one committing the error may be.

* * *

The link at the beginning of his paper goes to another article he wrote for The New Republic: “Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail” (2-2-09). This was a hostile book review of works by theistic evolutionists Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller. I will respond to particularly outrageous and logically-challenged portions of it.

* * *

The National Academy of Sciences, America’s most prestigious scientific body, issued a pamphlet assuring us that we can have our faith and Darwin, too:

Science and religion address separate aspects of human experience. Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than lessened their religious faith. And many religious people and denominations accept the scientific evidence for evolution.

Would that it were that easy! True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. )

Coyne’s is an extreme position indeed (but that makes it fun to deal with). As he himself notes, even “America’s most prestigious scientific body” roundly disagrees with it. But that is of no concern to Dr. Coyne. For him, militant atheism is THE DOGMATIC TRVTH.

Miller equates the faith of religious believers with physicists’ “faith” in a naturalistic explanation for physical laws:

Believers … are right to remind skeptics and agnostics that one of their favored explanations for the nature of our existence involves an element of the imagination as wild as any tale in a sacred book: namely, the existence of countless parallel simultaneous universes with which we can never communicate and whose existence we cannot even test. Such belief also requires an extraordinary level of “faith” and the nonreligious would do well to admit as much.

Well, physicists are not ready to admit as much. Contrary to Miller’s claim, the existence of multiverses does not require a leap of faith nearly as large as that of imagining a God. . . . it is simply wrong to claim that proposing a provisional and testable scientific hypothesis–not a “belief”–is equivalent to religious faith.
Here Coyne provides no counter-argument; he merely asserts. It is often the case that the militant materialist has no cogent reply when challenged directly regarding his fundamental premises. Miller’s observation is almost self-evidently true. These fashionable theories of today’s cosmology do indeed require much faith.
Eminent physicist Paul Davies (as far as I can tell, an Einstein-like pantheist, but not a theist) actually provides an argument rather than a bald assertion (stated three different, equally bankrupt ways). I agree with him, and have made the same argument for years:

[S]cience has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. . . .The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

. . . to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science. . . .

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

. . . The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe. . . .

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

(“Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times, 11-24-07)

Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.
This is what one calls a false dichotomy. Coyne has again employed circular argumentation, and suggested wild schemes as the only possibilities of such reconciliation. He hasn’t demonstrated that this is the case. What is so difficult about accepting that science is confined to the study of matter, and that religion is primarily a matter of spirit (pun intended)?
Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God.
None of these beliefs, however, interfere in the slightest with accepting the facts and methods of science. They simply refuse to arbitrarily rule out God as having some place in the whole schema. The laws of science and the idea that God might be behind these laws as originator and/or preserver, are not contradictory concepts. Coyne and other materialists may wish to define such a thing out of existence, by category, but it is not an inherent contradiction.
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board.
Religious faith is opposed to “evidence, logic, and reason” and is based on “unsupportable” assertions across the board. This sort of sweeping statement cannot, of course, be answered succinctly, because to answer it would require hours and hours of going over the reason why Christians believe in God. Who has all that time? I don’t even have it, and I am a full-time apologist.
Not content to trash religion and imply that virtually all who have faith are irrational dolts and intellectual pea-brains, who necessarily reject science as we know and love it, Coyne takes his “principle” even further, extending ultimate religious opposition to just about every reason-based field of knowledge known to man:
. . . the most important conflict . . . is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science–every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful–those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths–fall into the “incompatible” category.
I believe this is the most intellectually arrogant and condescending person I have ever encountered. This guy makes Richard Dawkins look like Pope Benedict XVI. It’s breathtaking. It takes a lot to shock me anymore, with all the error I deal with on a regular basis, but this phenomenal jeremiad truly did.
Finally, Coyne has his explanation for why many scientists proclaim that science and faith are not in fundamental conflict: filthy lucre:
This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict.

Okay, sure, whatever you say . . . mainly I wanted to show my readers what the extreme militant wing of atheism (the science-as-religion and be-all, end-all crowd) believes. Coyne is virtually a self-parody, in writing things like this. But he is obviously dead serious.

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