more on Coyne

I commend to you all Jim Manzi’s excellent post on Jerry Coyne’s TNR article on science and religion. I know Jerry Coyne a bit: we have friends in common, and in fact had a pleasant dinner together some years ago at the wedding of those friends. And we have corresponded about some of these issues. Jerry is a gifted scientist and a fine writer, and I’ve learned a great deal over the years from reading his stuff (his stuff for laypeople, anyway). But I’ve also complained to him that he makes real conversation among the contending parties more difficult when he refuses to acknowledge significant differences between, say, young-earth creationists on the one hand and, on the other, people like Michael Behe who accept almost all of what Jerry himself believes about biology. Instead he likes to lump everyone under the catchall term “creationist.” Of course, I have pointed out, the overwhelming majority of all believers are creationists in the very broad sense that they believe in a Creator, but that’s just what makes the term so useless.

Coyne’s response to me has been that the Behes of the world have not themselves done enough to differentiate themselves from the young-earthers, so they deserve what they get; but in this essay he goes further in explaining why he finds any belief in pretty much any conceivable god incompatible with science. So, while he does pause here to acknowledge differences between some of the people on the other side of the religious fence from him, in the end he seems more determined that ever to insist that our only choice is to be either a atheist sheep or a creationist goat. And this determination, in turn, requires him to oversimplify a range of issues, and to caricature the people he is determined to see as his opponents. Let me mention just a few telling passages here.

1) Jim mentions above the anthropic principle, which “creationists” see as evidence of design. Coyne’s counter: “Scientists have other explanations, ones based on reason rather than on faith. 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.” Likewise, to Karl Giberson’s claim that a connection to God can be found in our aesthetic responses to the natural world, Coyne replies that this view “ignores scientific explanations, such as E.O. Wilson's ‘biophilia’ theory, which suggests that we evolved to find places like lakes and prairies attractive simply because they provided our ancestors with food and safety.” But notice that there is no “theory of everything,” and also that Wilson’s “theory” is nothing of the kind but rather, and necessarily, highly speculative. When theist scientists speculate about something, Coyne characterizes it as a lamentable exercise in blind faith; when atheist scientists do precisely the same thing, Coyne calls it an “explanation.”

2) When Giberson admits that he has personal reasons to believe in God, that he is predisposed in that direction, Coyne could see that as an opportunity to acknowledge that everyone — yes, even the atheist! — has such individual predilections and should take them into account. But nah. “This touching confession reveals the sad irrationality of the whole enterprise — the demoralizing conflict between a personal need to believe and a desperation to show that this primal need is perfectly compatible with science.” And he then goes on to quote Richard Feynman’s great line, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool,” commenting, “With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.” Perhaps — but if so, that would apply to atheists as well as theists. So shouldn't Jerry apply Feynman’s warning to himself — isn't that what Feyman wanted us all to do? — and show some awareness of his own predispositions?

3) Similarly, in the same section, Coyne quotes Giberson: “As a believer in God, I am convinced in advance that the world is not an accident and that, in some mysterious way, our existence is an ‘expected’ result. No data would dispel it.” Coyne does not appear to understand the nature of Giberson’s claim. He writes, “No real scientist would say that his theories are immune to disproof.” But isn't it obvious that the claim that Giberson is making isn't a “theory,” isn't a testable hypothesis? Coyne may think that nothing that is not testable can be true — though I surely hope not — but Giberson obviously holds to the much more defensible notion that some things are true even though they cannot be falsified. (Jim addresses this in his post.) So when Coyne claims that Giberson “asserts that he cannot be wrong,” he’s just completely missing the point. Giberson is asserting nothing of the kind.

I think these errors stem from Jerry’s attempt to think in binary terms and to drive a wedge between, again, the sheep and the goats. So while he has to acknowledge, at some points, that Ken Miller and Karl Giberson are in many respects worlds away from young-earth creationists, by the end of his essay his own binary logic forces him to say that there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between ‘em: Miller and Giberson only “see themselves as opponents of creationism.” They can't be real opponents — even though they don't just reject young-earth creationism but excoriate Behe and other Intelligent Design people — because in Coyne’s world you just get the two choices.

One last comment — one point I’d like Jerry Coyne to meditate on. As we have seen, Jerry’s rhetorical approach is pretty much that of Richard Dawkins: it’s the take-no-prisoners, you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me strategy. Jerry consistently defends Dawkins in this essay, and has no patience with the claim (made by both Miller and Giberson) that the aggression of the “new atheist” books “have inflamed religious moderates who might otherwise be sympathetic to evolution, driving them into the creationist corner.” To this claim Jerry replies that it is “Richard Dawkins who, more than anyone else, has convinced people of the reality and the power of evolution. It is the height of wishful thinking to claim that if he and his intellectual confreres simply stopped attacking religion, creationism would disappear.”

Of course, neither Giberson nor Miller nor anyone else has said that the new atheists have it in their power to make creationism disappear — this is yet another straw man — but leaving that aside, I would have Jerry note that Dawkins’s ability to convince people of “the reality and the power of evolution” was greatest when he wrote books that, with great clarity and verve, simply explained evolutionary theory and the core ideas behind it. When Dawkins took seriously the description of his own chair at Oxford — in “the public understanding of science” — he won a lot of people over. It wasn’t until he confused the public understanding of science with the public repudiation of religion that he began to alienate far more people than he convinced.