Friday, April 17, 2009

A Critical Response to Jerry Coyne, P. II: Having Our Cake and Eating It, Too

It is the nature of fundamentalists to bottom-line their thinking as far as they are able. There is emotional security in holding to what one perceives as an inviolable interpretation of reality. So when an equal opposing claim to reality makes itself known, it is inevitable that philosophical claims to reality will clash. It is just this phenomenon that Coyne has identified when he notes the bipolar culture of evangelicals and the 'new atheists'. Says Chris Hedges in When Atheism Becomes Religion,

"Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude."1

With two opposing streams of fundamentalism equally certain that their views of reality are the only reliable views, the atmosphere for dialogue is squelched, and reconciliation is necessarily impossible. The same idea is borne out in common conversation: if two people are unwilling to lay aside their differences in order to establish effective, meaningful communication – communication that both parties can benefit from – then reconciliation is not possible.

However, Coyne goes on to make the point that there are liberal theologians and religious scientists hoping to effect a harmony between the two perspectives. That is, some theologians and scientists are setting their differences aside to bring about mutually beneficial communication. We can reasonably assume then, that those scientists are seeing enough convergence to make a possible reconciliation. For Coyne, though, this is too easy. In fact, he states that “there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.”

Noting that people are working on reconciliation implies the possibility of that end. Those who hold to a congenial view of both science and religion – that is, those who hold to “both attitudes... simultaneously” – manage a cognitive dissonance not uncommon to daily living; for example, being enslaved to the workforce in order to gain a future freedom that one values now. Whether or not anyone agrees with my stated example, the contrasts between what people believe and what they have to 'work with,' or value can often run into conflict despite the fact that both 'attitudes' must be conjoined in a persons mind. So while it is that religious folk insist on a divinely curated reality, and the scientific community insists on a chance naturalistic reality, the fact remains that dissonance between the two fields does not logically imply a total divorce.

Embracing competing claims is in no way a “trivial” occupation, as Coyne states. It is, as I've already noted, a reality we all face. In fact, it is one of the foundational layers of being a human being, of recognizing that for all our linear equations, reality is often relentlessly bisected to the point where traveling along a straight line becomes impossible. Too much of who we are as human beings, as participants in this nebulous cosmos, is presently beyond our reach or comprehension. Given that fact, we can all benefit from the sciences that quantify perceptible reality, and we can all benefit from the philosophical, or metaphysical quandries that religions attempt to address. And we can have both of those things simultaneously. We can have our cake and eat it, too. Not because doing so is 'trivial' and therefore easy, but because not doing so is dishonest and therefore makes living that much harder. Hopefully, Coyne can see the cognitive dissonance in that, and embrace it without seeing himself as “trivial”.

Still, Coyne raises important questions we would be remiss to pass by:

...some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But the tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.
Coyne is quite right to note that some tensions between science and religion disappear when Christians give up a face-value rendering of Scripture. Believers would be foolish, for example, not to question the intention behind injunctions that encourage us to pluck out our eye, or cut off our hands for sinning (Mt. 5:29-30). And given the current findings of science, a face-value interpretation of the creation story seems implausible. That is, believing that everything that ever existed, and presently exists simply popped into existence 6000 – 10000 years ago, and has experienced no variation in form or function is, quite literally, naive.

The crux of the issue, Coyne notes, is a philosophical question. It is a question of epistemology. That is, if there is a disagreement between science and religion (and there is), that disagreement is the tension produced between empiricism and revelatory faith. The two systems of 'knowing' differ in many ways. By way of example, empiricism relies on what is actively observable and measureable. Faith relies on passive reception and hermeneutical reflection. Empiricism stakes claims on testable, repeatable experiments. Faith hammers down claims via profession, and systematic indoctrination. Even so, behind both of these epistemologies, and despite their competing tensions, enough of a similarity remains that not taking it into account would render the whole conversation between science and religion meaningless. That similarity is the fact that all knowledge has a fiduciary basis. In other words, what we say we know, what we claim to know, what we have measured and consider known all hinges on the fact that we believe that knowledge is accurate, binding, and correspondant to reality.

This is not a plug for the overstated case of postmodernity. Conversation on the 'relativity of truth' is often a comedy of errors wherein the actors have mistaken what they take to be true with what they hold to be valuable. No, behind all of these crossed monologues on the compatibility of science and religion, both institutions value what they think they know, and ergo believe it to be true. In science it is of paramount value to test observable data, and once the results are in the conclusions are taken to be 'true'. In religion, it is of chief importance (value) to ensure that faith claims correspond with what is agreed was divinely revealed. In either case, both parties are taking the same leap: what they conclude, based on what they interpret from their observations, is concluded in faith. The philosopher David Hume spoke to this epistemological perspective when he asserted that limitless finite observations cannot be used to draft an unrestricted general conclusion and still be logically defensible.2 Thus what science can value as a 'law' is moreso a testable faith-claim, but not necessarily an inviolable truth. As Dinesh D'Souza points out in What's So Great About Christianity:

"If I say all swans are white and posit that as a scientific hypothesis, how would I go about verifying it? By checking out swans. A million swans. Or ten million. Based on this I can say confidently that all swans are white. Hume's point is that I really don't know this. Tomorrow I might see a black swan, and there goes my scientific law."3

Or, to put it another way, there is no way to prove a connection between cause and effect, that B was caused by A. It is a correlation that is assumed but not universally fixed, as Hume was keen to note. Thus empirical science and religion both hinge on faith-based assumptions. Accordingly, if both factions are willing to admit that particular bridge between their respective gaps, reconciliation is not only possible, but already exists and awaits our recognition.

1 Hedges, Chris When Atheism Becomes Religion New York, NY, Freepress, 2008, p. 69
2 D'Souza, Dinesh What's So Great About Christianity United States of America: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, p. 188.
3 Ibid.

1 comment:

Gregory said...

I could show Mr. D'Souza a black swan if he wishes. :)

Good articles, Chris. You've demonstrated the hole in Coyne's thinking rather effectively. All his empiricism hasn't told him that God didn't start the evolutionary chain. Further, as you noted with your article about Hitchens poisoning logic, "Religion" is too broad a brush to paint with. Obviously not all religions believe the same thing--some are wrong. A wrong religious belief can obviously not be squared with science any more than it could be squared with a right religious belief. Simply, a wrong belief, religious or otherwise, simply cannot be squared with reality. That is what makes it wrong.

The unfortunate part of the question then becomes, how do we know for certain what is right religious belief? From a religious standpoint, it is the same as D'Souza's white swan analogy. But when evidence comes along that shows a religious belief to be wrong, the religious person can tend to just ignore the proof and hold to his faith. Of course, the materialistic scientist or "new atheist" seems just as prone to that behaviour.

That's what makes the question as difficult as Coyne says it is.