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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jerry Coyne's essay: Are Science and Religion really compatible? 2, reaction

A previous post considered an essay by Jerry Coyne, who argued that science and religion are incompatible.

I have found two interesting reactions to that essay. I am sure that there are and will be more such. Edge published responses by several people, most agreeing with Coyne, but not all. The responders included Karl Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller, authors of the books that Coyne was reviewing in his essay. David Heddle, of He Lives, analyzed Coyne's claims logically. So has Siris.

In any serious argument, the first thing that ought to be done is to define terms. (It often isn't done, unfortunately, but it ought to be.)

Coyne deserves credit here. He has defined some of his terms. He defines theism thus: ". . . the concept of a transcendent and eternal god who nonetheless engages the world directly and pays special attention to the real object of divine creation, Homo sapiens." In so doing, he explicitly excludes some of the most "liberal" "Christian" theology as pantheism, not theism, or Christianity. I agree with Coyne -- A christian should believe the ideas he includes in that sentence.

Coyne also defines creationism, by saying that "all" creationists believe:
1) in God.
2) ". . . that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process."
3) that humans did not evolve from apes, but were specially created.
4) ". . . they all adhere to a particular argument called "irreducible complexity." This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot." (This is a central belief of the Intelligent Design movement.)

Here, we begin to see some problems with Coyne's definition. Most obviously, Coyne is reviewing two books, one by Kenneth R. Miller, who is, according to Coyne, a creationist, and, hence, trying to do the impossible, namely combine science and belief in God. Coyne explains how Miller rejects item 4 in Coyne's own list of what makes one a creationist. He also says that Karl Giberson, who wrote the other book Coyne is reviewing, writes that ID is both bad science and bad theology. In the same essay where he writes that "all" creationists share four traits, he also writes:
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.

So, Coyne's definition of a creationist does not hold up, as he has undercut it in his own essay. The authors he is reviewing don't necessarily accept irreducible complexity, one of his four criteria for characterizing creationists, but only "may" show it, and that only in their belief in the origin of the soul.

It is also true that some believers, including Billy Graham, are willing to at least entertain the possibility that what separated humans from pre-human ancestors was not the creation of human bodies and minds and souls, but the special creation of a soul within a pre-existing type of pre-human creature. So the third part of Coyne's definition may not hold up, either. There those, possibly including Giberson and Miller, who would say that God miraculously created the universe with laws and emergent properties that allowed living things to evolve, perhaps even allowed life to originate, without special miraculous activity during those events. Thus, point two is not necessarily true of all those Coyne says are creationists, either.

Even if Coyne hasn't defined creationist as carefully as he might have, or has lumped gap theorists with various kinds of theistic evolutionists, IDers, and young earth creationists, and others, it is possible that his main idea has merit. Is it possible for a scientist to be a believer, or the reverse? He doesn't think so:
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.

I have noticed a gap in Coyne's definitions. He hasn't defined science. The quote above comes as close to such a definition as he gets.

There's another idea in Coyne's essay that needs some discussion. He writes:
"In a common error, Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism."

By this, he means that ruling out supernatural explanations works for science, but, he implies, this pragmatic methodology doesn't necessarily imply that there is no such thing as the supernatural. Maybe not. I suspect that Coyne, although he says that there could be evidence that would persuade him of the supernatural, would finally reject it. At least one prominent evolutionary biologist has explicitly said that he would do so:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen. "Billions and Billions of Demons," By Richard C. Lewontin. New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, vol 44, pp. 28+

Perhaps Coyne really doesn't have "an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism." I wonder. But Lewontin has, and I don't think he is alone. Richard Dawkins seems to have such a commitment, too. The link in the previous sentence is to the Wikipedia article on him, which says that he is an atheist, and a militant one. Antony Flew has accused him of such an absolute commitment.

If you start by ruling out, say, that air has weight, you are not going to publish articles and books that claim that it does. If you start by believing that there are no supernatural realities, it is very unlikely that you are going to write and speak as if you do. (The converse is also true, of course.) Hebrews 11:3 tells us that we understand how things were made by faith. Genesis 1:1 doesn't tell us when, how, why, or where things started. But it does tell us that there was a Who who started them. I have a commitment to a philosophy of supernaturalism. I admit it. Does that make me a bad scientist, or mean that I really can't be a scientist? I don't think so. I don't think Lewontin's unshakable commitment to materialism makes him a bad scientist, either. But Lewontin, Dawkins, or Coyne are probably not very reliable guides through the difficult waters of the interface between science and religion. (As an aside, Dawkins has recently reviewed Coyne's latest book.)

Thanks for reading. I will probably summarize the criticism of Coyne by He Lives, and discuss the responses by Giberson and Miller, in a subsequent post.

The third post is here.

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