Thursday, 3 November 2011

Coyning It

Jerry Coyne starts by pointing out the various pointers to a conflict between science and religion, such as organisations like the Templeton Foundation who search for a resolution to the problem, how scientists are more likely to be atheist, how more people in the US believe in angels than in evolution. The suggestion here is, I think, that there is an incompatibility which gives rise to these activities and beliefs.

I think this is fine as an indication of a problem, but it doesn't show that science and religion's incompatibility is true any more than people acting and believing that science and religion are compatible makes that true. If everyone in the world but me agreed that science and religion were compatible, I think I would still think they weren't (although it would make me pause!).

Coyne then moves onto a description of scientific methodology, which he characterises as 'qualified common sense'. 'The first principle is that you must not fool yourself..'. Religion on the other hand is based on 'dogma, authority and revelation'. He notes that religious ideas have changed because of scientific advances in our understanding of the world around us (such as evolution) and secular morality. And for the better - our treatment of women and gays, for example.

This is stronger ground for Coyne. To my mind there is a fundamental incompatibility between the methods of religion and the methods of science that is almost bound to result in differences. Now, it's possible that they don't; it may be that dogma, authority and revelation are different ways of finding out the same thing as scientific methodology uncovers. The problem with this view is, it never has. On every occasion that science has come up against religious 'knowledge', the scientific knowledge has won out. So, the religious might offer that dogma, authority and revelation are a way to uncover knowledge that science cannot uncover. Again, this is possible, but the evidence suggests otherwise, because we have a history of divergent beliefs about anything that cannot be shackled in some way. How do we shackle our beliefs? Well, the scientific method is the best way, and so far, the only reliable arbiter we've discovered.

Coyne says that in science, faith is considered a vice, but in religion, a virtue.

Maybe this is a little too broad brush? I understand what he means, but there's a danger of making the same mistake that Clifford made, in The Ethics of Belief (1877) when he says:
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
I think William James shows in The Will to Believe (1896), that this is a practical impossibility, and a moment's thought confirms this. We are a social animal, and one of the reasons for our seemingly exponential advance in recent times is our ability, well in advance of other animals, to pass knowledge on to our offspring, and to share knowledge. This process is impossible without an element of faith in the institutions that supply this knowledge. Certainly as children we aren't in a position to gather evidence; trust in our nearest and dearest seems to be built into us without any need for evidence. One might speculate that evolution has determined that a propensity to trust without evidence when we are children has been a successful evolutionary ploy. Not surprising, if that's so, that this also spills over into our adult life. We conduct our daily lives through many trivial acts that are not fully evidenced, since we have to get on and it's impractical to gather evidence for every minor thing one does. Maybe this is equivocating between faith as trust, and faith as believing without evidence, but it seems to me there are sufficient occasions when we really do not have any evidence to discount Clifford's as a general rule.

Coyne's rule is better, however, because it notes that in science, faith is considered a vice. This, it seems to me, allows us to sanction the rule, since it lets us have faith in our every day lives as a pragmatic necessity. But in matters of scientific import, it is not fit for purpose.

Coyne continues and notes that in religion there is no way of knowing you are wrong.

A key point, this. Two religious ideas have no method, in principle, of resolving which one is right.

Coyne notes that methodological naturalism has led to the view that metaphysical naturalism is true. There's no God, just material processes, and that works. He lists a number of areas about the cosmos where religion could have got reality right, but didn't, such as special creation, Adam and Eve, the Flood and so on. He wittily observes that falsified scientific claims are discarded, but falsified theological claims are made metaphorical. Religion does make existence claims, and the Nicene Creed is used as an example. He points out that the answers to the bigger questions haven't been answered by religion, because they do not agree with each other.

And as I wrote above, there is no method of reconciling different beliefs in principle.

Coyne quotes Haught as saying that "the transience and expected death of the cosmos defy our attempts to state clearly what the 'point' of it all may be."

Funnily enough, this is the point I make in my post on Haught's talk. however, it's worth noting that this quote from Haught's Deeper than Darwin ends with this sentence:
On the other hand, recognizing the possibility that the universe is still barely emerging from the cosmic dawn, we may take them as promissory symbols of the ultimate depth into which all things are being drawn. he was saying this as a set-up to this assertion. But like his talk, he seems to have nothing but wishful thinking to back up the notion. Perhaps he's left his arguments in the book.

Coyne runs through some unscientific behaviour typical of religion, such as denying that the Bible says what it appears to say, that it doesn't involve an honest search for truth, but a rationalisation of what is already believed to be true...

I'm guessing that Haught found such accusations beyond the Pale, since I'm sure he would disagree that this is what he does. I think it's certainly clear that William Lane Craig's arguments are rationalisations, since he admits he doesn't believe in god because of the arguments he puts forward. Coyne hilariously includes a quote from Haught that certainly suggests he puts wishful thinking above scientific endeavour. To say that all religion, or all theology, is guilty of this may be unsustainable, however.

...that they make stuff up, they rationalise every new scientific observation as part of God's plan, that they understand the nature and intention of God.

Coyne quotes Haught again as 'making stuff up'. Again, I'm sure Haught denies this, but it's hard to see how what he says is anything but made up. Without some method of knowing, with verification, how does Haught know? It's not clear, I should say, that the quote that Coyne uses of Haught's is referring to the hiddenness of God exactly. It's certainly true that Haught's quote on the problem of evil doesn't come close to addressing the issue.

Coyne gives a good example of fitting science around the God idea when discussing Haught on evolution, where Haught says it is a tribute to God that the world is 'an inherently active and self-creative process'. 

Before science showed it true, no theologian would propose evolution as the obvious way for a god to make the world, but afterwards it becomes a 'tribute' to him. With this sort of post hoc analysis, there really is no hope for theology.

Coyne ends, I think, with an appeal to why science and religion shouldn't be compatible, because the consequences of the poor methodology of faith are the evils of religion, some of which he lists. These are allowed to persist because of dogmatic thinking.

This is fair, I think. None of these consequences of religion are solely a problem of religion - it's people in the end who enshrine these evils, and people can ignore the dogma. But, as a matter of principle, dogmatic thinking can more easily lead to such abuses. This is the power of Coyne's presentation. I don't see that these attacks are ad hominem, since Coyne is making an argument about the incompatible methods adopted by science and religion, the abuses of method by religion, and he illustrates these using Haught's own words. Haught could, I think, complain about the quotes if they have been quote-mined, so I would encourage him to explain that in an article as soon as possible, if that's the case.


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