Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Critical Response to Jerry Coyne, P. I

Jerry Coyne is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. He is the author of the recent book Why Evolution Is True. On February 9, 2009, Coyne published a paper through The New Republic called Seeing and Believing. In this paper, Coyne defends the thesis that science and religion will never reconcile despite on-going efforts toward that end. In particular, he relies on the work of two prominent scientists – who also happen to be Christians – Karl W. Giberson (Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution) and Kenneth R. Miller (Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul), who have made concerted efforts at establishing harmony between science and religion.

Coyne takes a fair stab at the conflict science and faith have entrenched themselves in since the early 1900's. However, his personal summary of his paper makes it clear that he sees no present or future amelioration between the two realities. In fact, he goes so far as to state that the attempt to reconcile science and religion “is doomed to fail.” But in hastening to such a conclusion, Coyne has overlooked the fact that modern Western science was birthed in Christian and Islamic cultures. And if the maxim “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it” holds any water, there is hope for a reconciliation despite Coyne's prognostications. Having not looked back on the history of the field he practices, Coyne's thesis inversely admits a tacit probability for history to repeat itself: that is, experience re-birth in the arms of religious perspectives.

Be that as it may, Coyne notes that the religious population in America repels the notion of Darwinian natural selection because it implies that “far from having a divinely scripted role in the drama of life, our species is the accidental and contingent result of a purely natural process.” As a bit of an armchair philosopher, I have to ask the question, how does one move from the suggestion that our species evolved to the notion that that evolution was 'accidental'? Even the best of scientists admit to not knowing what is aback of evolution that would set the whole process in motion, so how can anyone determine that it was 'accidental'? Here Coyne has put himself at sixes and sevens: he has confused the observed effects with what he assumes the cause might be, and that that cause is purely 'accidental'.

Such reasoning, while it may be sincere, shuts-up the steps between evangelical America's repulsion toward Darwin's theory and what evolutionary theory actually professes: namely, that we are here, and that we know some of the mechanisms of how that is so, but we remain utterly clueless as to the actual causal factors that conceived us. So saying, any declamation of God's creative demi-urge, or any decrying of the evolutionary model both end in the same place: the necessary admission that we don't know how the first cause actually motivated anything into being.

Coyne's use of the word 'accidental' betrays just as much of a faith-based understanding of reality as any one of the evangelicals Coyne disagrees with. He has no way of knowing that evolutionary processes were 'accidental', so to profess that to be so is simply a profession of faith, and not a scientific given. Coyne has, despite the fatalistic pronouncement of his original thesis, unwittingly started a reconciliation between scientific endeavour and religious/faith-based reasoning.

Coyne notes,

The cultural polarization of America has been aggravated by attacks on religion from the “new atheists,” writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who are die-hard Darwinists. Outraged religious leaders, associating evolutionary biology with atheism, counterattacked. This schism has distressed liberal theologians and religious scientists, who have renewed their efforts to reconcile religion and science.

What is wonderfully interesting about Coyne's admission that the 'new atheists' have vexed America's evangelical community is that he has identified not only a cultural polarization in America between those who hold religious beliefs and those who espouse naturalistic theory, but that he has identified opposite and extreme ends of current political, and philosophical views. It is not enough to suggest that there is a cultural 'polarization' because science and religion can disagree. Coyne's use of the term 'new atheists' helps us identify more closely the extreme ends of the divide that are not being reconciled. The evangelical community of America (often outspoken, extreme right-wingers) is divided from the opposite and opposing 'new atheist' advocates (often outspoken, extreme left-wingers). Effectively, Coyne has spotted out two groups of fundamentalists. It should come as no surprise to anyone, if we take Coyne's point seriously, that unless either ends of the philosophical spectrum are drawn closer to the centre, the distance between the fundamentalist extremes will always be obvious and unreconciled.


tag-photos said...

What I am coming to question is simply this.

Why is the theory of evolution contrary to creationism?

Just as an excercise let's go through Gen 1:1-2:3 (italics from from Wikipedia)

[i]First day: create light[/i]

Big Bang...

[i]second day God creates a firmament[/i]

Molten material from BANG cools and solidifies

[i]Third day: God commands earth and sea and creates plant life[/i]

Hydrogen and Oxygen react creating water. Uknown processes happen to create the molecular building blocks for plant life.

[i]Fourth day: God creates light[/i]

Group of molten material and combustable gases are drawn together through gravitational forces and create the sun.

[i]Fifth day: God creates sea life and birds[/i]

Single cell organisms float in water and air. Those organisms later evolve into fish and birds.

[i]sixth day: Creates land creatures[/i]

Again single cell organisms are created through means unknown and later evolve to all known life.

I kinda like that rough theory and it is a way to incorporate the nearly indisputable proof of evolution into the creationism theory.
I even added a BANG :)

Christopher said...


You do realise, don't you, that this is exactly what Sarah was explaining to you when you were writing here under your other pseudonym?

You have just stated a reasonable case for theistic evolution. You have just contradicted your previous hold on the word "day". Are you retracting your hold on that word now, and allowing yourself the speculative room that Sarah and I were promoting earlier?

tag-photos said...

No I am not contradicting myself here at all.

I am saying that it is possible that god created the building blocks for all life in a single day, the time for the earth to rotate once. i.e. approximately 24 modern hours.

The previous discussion had you and Sarah arguing that a day could be any arbitrary amount of time. Even though in that same passage the bible actually defines the time period of a day.
So this is a far cry from the previous discussion where it was argued that each "day" was actually an age of unknown amount of time.

While unlikely that a chunk of molten rock the size of the Earth would solidify enough in a 24 hour span of time to support life, it is not undeniably impossible either. The condition of the universe at that time can not be replicated to prove either way through experimentation.

But do you see this is definitely not the same as calling a day an age?