Science and Religion in The New Republic

Jerry A. Coyne has written a review for The New Republic of two books that attempt to synthesize evolution and theism, one by Karl W. Giberson, and the other by Kenneth R. Miller. I think that the review is deeply misguided. It must be close to 10,000 words long, so I’ll address just a few of the things Coyne says that are most crucial for his argument.

Coyne responds to Giberson and Miller’s claims that the evolution of humanoid intelligence was inevitable by saying:

Reading this, many biologists will wonder how he can be so sure. After all, evolution is a contingent process. The way natural selection molds a species depends on unpredictable changes in climate, on random physical events such as meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, on the occurrence of rare and random mutations, and on which species happen to be lucky enough to survive a mass extinction. If, for example, a large meteor had not struck Earth sixty-five million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs—and to the rise of the mammals they previously dominated—all mammals would probably still be small nocturnal insectivores, munching on crickets in the twilight.

This response is quite problematic. Coyne’s demonstration that we know that humanoid consciousness could not have been inevitable because evolution is “contingent”, depends on “unpredictable changes” and “random physical events” is an attempt to sweep a lot under the rug. In fact, even the “random” elements of evolution — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws. Human uncertainty in describing the evolutionary path that results, which as a practical matter we refer to as randomness, is reducible entirely to the impracticality of building a model that comprehensively considers things such as the idiosyncratic path of every photon in the universe compounded by the quantum-mechanistic uncertainty present in fundamental physical laws that govern the motion of such particles. As a practical matter, we lack the capability to compute either a goal or the path of evolution, but that is a comment about our limitations as observers, not about the evolutionary algorithm itself.

On the other hand, I share Coyne’s skepticism about Miller or Gibertson’s assertion that we know (in any scientific sense of the word “know”) that evolution must (or in Miller’s terms, was extremely likely to) generate humanoid intelligence. But this doesn’t mean that it was not inevitable, simply that we lack knowledge of whether it was or was not. One can reject Miller and Gilbertson’s claim that we know it must have happened this way, but also reject Coyne’s strong claim that we know it was not inevitable. One is left with the much more modest claim that at present there is no scientific answer to the question of whether humanoid intelligence was inevitable or not. But this does not imply incompatibility of science and theism.

Coyne is similarly confused about the philosophical issues surrounding what is called “fine tuning” by some theists, and called “the anthropic principle” by some scientists: roughly, the observation that if any one of a large number of physical constants had even a slightly different value, then human life would be unlikely or impossible. The “fine tuners” argue that this is evidence of the existence of God. Instead of simply pointing out this is an obviously unscientific assertion, Coyne’s feels the need to invoke alternative potential scientific explanations.

First, he says that “Perhaps some day, when we have a ‘theory of everything’ that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe.” Somebody ought to highlight the problem of infinite regress to him, because this would simply raise the obvious question of why these forces of physics require our universe to have the physical constants that we observe.

Next, he presents a second alternative, citing “intriguing ‘multiverse’ theories that invoke the appearance of many universes, each with different physical laws; and we could have evolved only in one whose laws permit life.” The multiverse theory may or may not be true for all I or anyone else knows, but given that we can’t observe other universes, it’s about as falsifiable as my theory that these various universes were created at the beginning of time through a titanic battle between Gilgamesh and Santa Claus. Given, as we’ll see, how ultra-falsificationist Coyne is in this essay, this is a pretty thin reed for him to support his argument. He never says that he knows it to be true, and presents it as a hypothesis, but it’s clearly a meant to provide a scientific-sounding alternative to the “God did it” position. It’s oogedy- boogedy for the Hyde Park set.

Coyne continues into the truth of religious belief, saying:

Truth implies the possibility of falsity, so we should have a way of knowing whether religious truths are wrong. …

Anything touted as a “truth” must come with a method for being disproved—a method that does not depend on personal revelation.

Coyne here confuses the “possibility of falsity” with falsifiability. He goes on for several paragraphs in this vein. Falsifiability is roughly the property of a statement that it is possible to imagine, at least in principle, an experiment that could show a factual contradiction to the statement, and therefore prove it to be wrong. But of course this is Popper’s famous “criterion of demarcation” – the standard which he believed comprised the boundary between science and non-science. In Popper’s view, scientific statements must be falsifiable. While there has been an enormous amount of debate about and qualification of this criterion over the past 80 years, it clearly describes an important characteristic of truly scientific statements. I am highly aligned with this position (see, for example, Popper is my homeboy).

But what Coyne is implying here is that scientific truth is the only form of truth; that no other way of knowing anything has any value or worth. Let’s just say we part company there. In fact, one could take this as a healthy criterion of demarcation in the other direction. It may be that one way to know we’re avoiding “God of the gaps” theology is that we are considering non-falsifiable statements.

Finally we come to a part of Coyne’s argument (quoted by Andrew Sullivan in his blog) that asserts that “real” religious belief, if not certain academic contortions, is contradicted by science:

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a “middlebrow” book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

That is, if we strip away all of the falsifiable statements that are made in practice by religions, we are left with something vanishingly close to materialism anyway. But consider, to use Coyne’s own logic of falsification, an obvious counter-example. By about the year 400, Augustine described a view of Creation in which “seeds of potentiality” were established by God, which then unfolded through time in an incomprehensibly complicated set of processes. By the 13th century, Aquinas — working with the thought of Aristotle and Augustine — identified God with ultimate causes, while accepting naturalistic interpretations of secondary causes. Today, the formal position of the Catholic church, incorporating this long train of thought, is that there is no conflict between evolution through natural selection and Catholic theology. So, in this example, we’re describing an orientation supported by those esoteric theologians Augustine and Aquinas, and promulgated today by that so-liberal-he’s-practically-an-atheist Pope Benedict in that weirdo minority Roman Catholic sect. You know, “unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.”