Friday, 4 November 2011

Misunderstood Presentations or Misrepresentations?

I've now seen the Q & A for the Coyne-Haught Symposium, and it's a relief to see that this is where the missing scientism 'argument' appears, rather than in John Haught's presentation.

In answer to a question asking if Haught would consider not pre-supposing God before looking at his own beliefs (a good question), he ignores this and says that Coyne thinks that:
There's only one explanatory slot for everything.
But this is a bizarre misunderstanding, or wicked misrepresentation, of what Coyne said, and clouds Haught's thinking throughout the Q & A. This is perhaps the explanation for Haught's remarkable decision to try to suppress the video of the event. Because Haught starts by making such a disastrously wrong assessment of what Coyne has said (and is apparently disturbed by this figment of his imagination), he quickly runs down cul-de-sacs. He obviously considers Coyne's position to be one of scientism, but that isn't it at all. He never said there could only be one layer of explanation for phenomena (there usually is), he never said that science is the only way of knowing. The question on the table is, are science and religion compatible? Haught needs to address Coyne's case that they are not, rather than pursue his imaginary demons.

Layered explanation, which Haught is proposing, is fine. All that people ask is that arguments and evidence are presented for any particular explanation offered. Even if we have a phenomena with layers of explanation that doesn't mean we simply adopt any layer that anyone proposes; we must have a reason to consider the layer a viable explanation. We can only go on argument and evidence, not wishful thinking, at least if we are being scientific. This is not scientism, but science. To describe Coyne's ideas as scientism is an abuse of the English language.

But even if Coyne were guilty of scientism, it's still an inadequate argument to place to the assembled throngs. Scientism doesn't then mean that theology tells us something real about the world. An argument has to be made to show that, and Haught doesn't offer us one. He says:
There is no contradiction between a theological way of understanding the universe and a scientific way.
Don't say it, show it! - contra Coyne. This really is a hopeless response from Haught.

Haught is then asked where he sees the evidence for a loving God. Here he distinguishes between publicly accessible, scientific evidence, and transformative evidence - the overwhelming encounter with something that is so true and so good that it carries you away. So, he's talking about subjective experience here, and I'm rather surprised that he can't see that this is fatal to his contention that science and religion are compatible. Every inch of his tall frame seems to be denying the truth that science tells us, even if we allow that his revelations carry some weight as evidence.

Oddly he also says although this is evidence too, it's not something you can get your mind around. Well, how does he then? It's this sort of doublespeak that will be the death knell for theology, I think.

In a discussion on Occam's Razor, Haught again makes the mistake of noting that different understandings can have explanatory value, and therefore his understanding has explanatory value. It's very odd to see a senior academic making such a basic error. He needs to show that his understanding has explanatory value with argument and evidence, not just by logical compatibility. Almost anything can be logically compatible with a set of phenomena, but it doesn't follow that scientific explanations and theological explanations that are logically compatible with the same phenomena are then compatible. Maybe that's another of Haught's errors.

This was a disappointing end, since Haught didn't address any of Coyne's arguments about the methodology of the two disciplines, which to my mind are the source of claims of incompatibility. His hand waving insistence that his beliefs about the world are compatible with science flew in the face of the rest of what he said. A very odd performance.


  • clodhopper says:
    5 November 2011 at 13:54

    A tour de force of hand waving indeed.

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