Monday, January 26, 2009

Against attempts to reconcile science and religion

By Jerry Coyne. HT: Eric Koski.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Coyne's a Johnny-Come-Lately anti-theist a la Dawkins. Bad arguments, but worse charisma.

Victor Reppert said...

Any reasons for thinking this?

Anonymous said...

Because he rails against Miller and others, angrily insisting that science doesn't demand the perspective they have regarding God working in nature, while forgetting that science doesn't demand an atheist interpretation either. He confuses science with scientism, where for science to be reconciled with God there has to be definitive and practically non-controversial scientific evidence of God acting in nature (Nevermind that science excludes explanations like these from the outset - at most you are left with a gap, a mystery, not a definitive explanation). His measure of 'science education' is seemingly measured purely in terms of 'How many people reject religion' and 'How many people accept evolution' - and you'll notice for the latter, Coyne almost never seems concerned with whether people actually understand evolutionary theory at all. His concern is whether they say they believe in it or not. He confuses 'an act which would convince a scientist God exists' with scientific proof itself. He supposes that science is capable of telling the difference between an act of design and an act of nature - and this is precisely the basis on which ID is most often rejected (Witness how he admits that Behe 'accepts all but the tail' of evolution. What he doesn't realize is that what this says about evolution - you can accept all of the material science of evolution, and still utterly eschew the metaphysics Coyne so eagerly marries to it.)

Really, the list of flaws goes on and on - his reasoning in this paper alone is wildly flawed on so many particulars. But in the end, the biggest con-game he's trying to pull is the usual one: Confusing science with scientism, confusing 'compatibility with science' with 'demonstrated as truth through science'. For all his talk about God and religion being incompatible, what most seems to aggravate him is the fact that that isn't the case. He wants there to be two options - YEC, and atheism. Anything in between, whether it's deism, God working through or guiding evolution, or otherwise gives him the shivers precisely BECAUSE it reconciles science with religion. If science is compatible with religion - and once you get past the YEC hump for Christians, it easily is - atheists of Coyne's bend have no ace in the hole.

philip m said...

One of his primary obstacles Coyne has with 'religion' is that you cannot test it; and if you cannot test it, you cannot falsify it. This puts us at high risk of being duped by ourselves (a risk which apparently vanishes immediately when we tell ourselves that science is all we need - sweet, safe, sober science).

First of all, Coyne and others in the same tradition of thought always tend to make this point and then leave it there - religion isn't testable, and that's that. But testability is only a preference really; it is good if we can test something because then we can determine whether or not it is true. But certainty is only one of many goods; sometimes other good are better than certainty, like having the ability to pursue things based on their relational merit, like forming loving relationships, helping those in need, without being absolutely certain that this is pleasing the omnipotent being standing right behind me. Certainty is nice, but those who value it above all are going to miss the kind of world we actually live in, where however you live your life is not certain to be the right way to do so.

But in what way does the author use the word 'testable' here? He uses the word science to means simply evolution, so we have to be wary of thinking we know what he means. When we test a hypothesis, what level of confirmation are we looking for? The entire universe already is quite a panoply of arrived data; what does Coyne think of it? Well, for starters he thinks that evolution disconfirms the way a personal God would be involved with creation.

Oh really? So the idea of God *is* testable after all?

Clearly he believes that God's evidential status is correlated with his explanatory usefulness. What he argues, essentially, is not that God is incompatible with certain theories like the multiverse and evolution, he grants they are compatible; rather, what he is really saying is that these lower the probability that God exists significantly, to the point where it does not seem very likely at all.

It is hard to say whether he is successful since he apparently has confused low probability with utter incompatibility, and he only examines two pieces of evidence (fine-tuning and evolution). Applying a confused methodology poorly on two different pieces of evidence and making it into an article which concludes that science is incompatible with God puts him at about par for the course as a scientist writing on religion.

One last note - Coyne asks 'What would show you were wrong?' to believers, and says he has never met one who can give him an answer. The problem is it's the wrong question. If our beliefs are context-dependent, such that my belief is based on the universe and the way my life is, then it becomes quite meaningless to ask 'What if the universe was different in way X, then would you still believe?' What is the purpose of such a question? We aren't *in* a relationship in which way X is the way things are, so it doesn't matter if that would make me not believe.

But as long as we're at it, if we do live in the naturalist's universe, we are all going to die out quite slowly, and in that process it seems naturalism will slowly become more and more confirmed, 'til the point where people are like, 'Well dangit, I guess this is the whole show.'

Eric Koski said...

philip m: “First of all, Coyne and others in the same tradition of thought always tend to make this point and then leave it there - religion isn't testable, and that's that. But testability is only a preference really; it is good if we can test something because then we can determine whether or not it is true. But certainty is only one of many goods; sometimes other good are better than certainty, …”

1. First, there’s a misunderstanding of science here. Science doesn’t aim at certainty. Certainty would imply that the propositions of a scientific theory are not revisable in the face of future evidence. If you regard your theories in this way, you’re not doing science.
2. Respectable religious belief has intellectual integrity at its core, including a concern with whether one’s beliefs are true. Without this, any actions or decisions one bases on one’s religious beliefs are undermined.

Philip m: “Well, for starters he thinks that evolution disconfirms the way a personal God would be involved with creation.

Oh really? So the idea of God *is* testable after all?”

Yup, you nailed him there! Actually, um, no.

The theist has to take a position: Does God intervene in the universe or not? If not, then it appears that the theist’s God-hypothesis isn’t testable. This leaves the theist somewhat at a loss to explain what could count as a rational basis for her belief (having forsworn the possibility of evidence). If so, then to demonstrate that her belief is well-founded, the theist needs to be able to point to some evidence. Traditionally, about the best evidence the theist could point to has been the inexplicable (before Darwin) existence of complex natural organisms, seemingly designed to have the capabilities they have. (This is Paley’s wristwatch argument.)

Darwin’s theory undermines this whole enterprise by providing compelling explanations for the existence of all the diverse biological stuff we see around us, including ourselves. If I can explain all of this without God, then nothing in the universe provides me a rational basis for religious belief. I can of course say “God drives all that occurs; He just makes it look as if natural selection did it.” -- so in this minimal and uninteresting sense, theism is not incompatible with (i.e., not observationally inconsistent with) natural selection. That’s not enough for there to be anything in the universe giving me a rational basis for belief. It leaves God no better off than the teapot or the noodly beast.

“Clearly he believes that God's evidential status is correlated with his explanatory usefulness.”

Well, that’s what evidential status is.

“… he only examines two pieces of evidence (fine-tuning and evolution).” He examines them because they’re generally considered to be the best cases for the theist: the most visible contemporary theist challenges to a naturalistic understanding of the universe are based on some form of design argument.

“… he apparently has confused low probability with utter incompatibility …” Coyne doesn’t use the word “utter”, as in “utter incompatibility”. If an accurate scientific understanding of the universe renders the claims of religion highly improbable, then science and religion are to that extent incompatible. Serious people take probability seriously. You do when you get onto a plane, or invest toward your retirement, or sign the consent form for surgery. At least, I hope you do.

Gordon Knight said...

Of course there is one thing that God does explain and naturalistic explanations cannot--the existence of anything contingent at all.

I tend to think the best version of the ontological argument is question begging, but one hardly refutes it by pointing out that it does not depend on empirical evidence!

There are experiences that can justify a belief that are not publicly observable and therefore don't fit the scientific paradigm

My belief in my feeling of pain is an experience, and teh best justification I can have, but its not publicly observable.

By limiting reasons to scientific evidence you illegitimately exclude rational metaphysics and private personal experience.

Anonymous said...

"Darwin’s theory undermines this whole enterprise by providing compelling explanations for the existence of all the diverse biological stuff we see around us, including ourselves. If I can explain all of this without God, then nothing in the universe provides me a rational basis for religious belief. I can of course say “God drives all that occurs; He just makes it look as if natural selection did it.” -- so in this minimal and uninteresting sense, theism is not incompatible with (i.e., not observationally inconsistent with) natural selection. That’s not enough for there to be anything in the universe giving me a rational basis for belief. It leaves God no better off than the teapot or the noodly beast."

What a bunch of nonsense.

Evolutionary explanations make no commitment to God's existence one way or the other insofar as the science goes. Darwin's theory undermines nothing on the level of God, save for YEC claims - all it does is introduce a mechanism, a secondary cause, which works every bit as much as an illustration of how God works or could have worked in the world. It doesn't show that you can 'explain all this without God' without begging the question.

Further, 'God drives all the occurs' does not automatically lead to 'He just makes it look as if natural selection did it'. You may as well argue that artists 'make it look as if paint brushes made paintings'. In both cases you have tools used towards ends. Yes, I'm very well aware that you probably have a real good imagination and can imagine order, agency, etc all being the outgrowth of pure blind chance - but guess what? You could have played the game of 'blind luck and brute fact' before evolution. The only difference is that Coyne and others now count on confusion about evolution to use as a mantra in their bizarre, weak case for atheism.

The atheist explanation is the ultimate flying spaghetti monster - it's a Lovecraftian invention, the idea of utterly mindless, purposeless force pointlessly creating universes with enough number, range, and fine-tuning to inevitably and accidentally produce 'illusions of design', minds, and otherwise. Oh Ye of the Eternal Pasta, Capable of all acts, all potencies, save for one - it cannot fundamentally have a mind, or anything resembling a mind.

Gregory said...

Science has yet to reconcile it's own specialized domains of inquiry into a coherent/consistent picture (i.e. the "theory of everything").

Theoretical physics, for instance, is replete with mutually exclusive, divergent explanations of the laws of physics, information, and their relationship to the material universe. See, for instance, Paul Davies explication here:

http://arxiv.org/ftp/quant-ph/papers/0703/0703041.pdf

Only persons with extremely naive, prejudiced views of science, would see science as a threat to religion (i.e. proponents of scientism).

The "testability" criterion of scientific inquiry favors theism, not atheism.

For instance, scientists who attempt to reconstruct the primitive conditions of the earth (i.e. Miller and Urey experiments), in the attempt to discover how organic life arose, are implying a design algorithm. Otherwise, how could they trace a path of "logical" steps leading toward the production of living organisms? Or, why believe that there is any "logical" pathway at all? What's more, all scientific experiments are performed under the auspices of "intelligent/rational" agents. If a "rational" agent initiates an experiment, like the one done by Miller and Urey, which results in the production of the building blocks of organic life, then the most that can be ascertained from that is that amino acids require "intelligent" causation.

Furthermore, pontifications on the early conditions of the universe are unavoidably speculative and, therefore, empirically untestable. In fact, the "uniformity of nature", of which science is predicated upon, is, de facto, humanly "untestable". Only a being possessing something like omniscience, could actually verify the truth of the U.O.N.

Therefore, reports of the "rationality" of science, and of the demise of religion, of which it's allegedly responsible, are highly exaggerated.

T'sinadree said...

Anonymous: "The atheist explanation is the ultimate flying spaghetti monster - it's a Lovecraftian invention, the idea of utterly mindless, purposeless force pointlessly creating universes with enough number, range, and fine-tuning to inevitably and accidentally produce 'illusions of design', minds, and otherwise."

Anonymous, I have to remember this one. It really does illustrate the silliness of it all.

On another note, I got a chance to look at Coyne's book this week. Although it is interesting, there was one aspect that I found quite peculiar. There's a recommended readings section at the end. Under the topic of ID the author states that he did not list any sources explicating or defending the movement. Instead, he simply recited the usual names associated with ID if the reader wanted ideas for further reading on the topic (Dembski, Behe, etc.). The reason, he says, is because ID is exclusively supported by religious, and not scientific, arguments. Coyne probably thought that including ID references here would just be a waste of space. While I personally really don’t have a position on ID, I thought this was quite sloppy scholarship, even if, in the end, ID is purely based on such argumentation. I’m also guessing he’s never heard of Bradley Monton’s forthcoming book: Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.

Also, I just want to say that I laugh every time I hear an atheist state that their position is based on science, reason, and evidence, the implication being that, by definition, religion is irrational, and, as a result, is a basis for simply dismissing any argumentation for religion from the beginning. I also don’t know why they feel the need to distinguish science and reason since, to them, they are basically one and the same.

philip m said...

Eric, I'm swamped right now, but I will comment back in a few days, if not too much other discussion happens.

philip m said...

Eric: Science doesn’t aim at certainty. Certainty would imply that the propositions of a scientific theory are not revisable in the face of future evidence. If you regard your theories in this way, you’re not doing science.

Not too much should be read into my use of the word 'certainty.' All I meant to imply is that testability allows for a clear mechanism to determine the probability of a theory. Of course we must always be open to revision, but the more we find our predictions are correct, the more confidence we should have in a given theory.

The theist has to take a position: Does God intervene in the universe or not? If not, then it appears that the theist’s God-hypothesis isn’t testable.

philip: Clearly he believes that God's evidential status is correlated with his explanatory usefulness

Eric: Well, that’s what evidential status is.


You're clearly a bit confused - these two assertions are contradictory. If God's evidential status is correlated with his explanatory usefulness, which you say he is, then why does he need to intervene in the universe? You say, "If I can explain [biological stuff] without God, then nothing in the universe provides me a rational basis for religious belief." Apparently, the only piece of data on the table of consideration is the development of life.

The amount of atheists that think evolution comments on the question of God this resolutely, to the point where if evolution occurred nothing in the universe could possibly make religious belief rational, is unebelievable. It actually kind of gives credence to the if-evolution-happened-our-cognitive-factulties-aren't-reliable bit.

Whether or not a belief is rational is contingent upon the entirety of the context in which it is held. Detectives interview people and look around the crime scene, perhaps they look through some documents. But we, we have an entire lifetime of growing up and finding out about everything, all of which must be considered with relation to different claims about the universe. The theory which which establishes the most coherence with our experience - the entirety of it - is the most probable. Don't short-change yourself by thinking that evolution was the gavel on the question.