"An Exclusionist View of Science
My colleague and friend Jerry Coyne is a brilliant scientist, an excellent writer, and a thoughtful, outspoken atheist. He believes that God does not exist, and that any reasonable person should think as he does, rejecting the elixir of faith as pointless delusion. In taking that position, even though it is one with which I disagree, he places himself in distinguished company, no question. If Dr. Coyne's review of recent books by Karl Giberson and myself (Only a Theory, and Saving Darwin, respectively) sought only to make that argument, thereby to distance himself from a couple of deluded Christians, I wouldn't have much to complain about. On the issue of faith, there's plenty of distance between us, even if I think Coyne is on the wrong side of the question.
But Coyne did something quite different from that.
In addition to making the usual claims about the lack of evidence for God, Coyne flatly states that faith and science are not compatible, arguing that the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. What about the tens of thousands of scientists, now and in the past who were people of faith (including roughly 40% of all working scientists in the US, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)? Coyne waves them away with scorn, literally comparing them to "adulterers" who have subverted their vows to be true to science—or at least to Coyne's view of science. More on that later.
Coyne claims that "theistic evolutionists" like me exhibit three of the four hallmarks of creationism, making me really no different from the folks I opposed at the Kitzmiller trial. He couldn't be more wrong about that. I share exactly one thing in common with creationists, which is my belief in God. The other points of supposed agreement are figments of Coyne's imagination—or of his overwrought efforts to slander any believer by placing them in the "creationist" camp.
He seems to argue that a person of faith who accepts evolution must also believe God "micro-edited DNA" to guide evolution. While it's certainly true that a Divine author of nature could intervene in his world at any time, I have never argued for the sort of divine tinkering that Coyne finds so disturbing. In fact, I have argued exactly the opposite. Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. Unfortunately, Coyne does not seem to appreciate this point.
And, just to quibble, he claims that only 25% of Americans believe we evolved from apelike ancestors. The actual figure (unlike Coyne, I will cite a reference) is 40% (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto. Science 313: 765, August 2006).
Coyne's eagerness to close out any possibility that there is an author to the natural world leads him into a curious position of self-contradiction on the appearance of the human species on our planet. As I pointed out in Only a Theory, evolution did indeed produce the grand and beautiful fabric of life that covers our planet, including our own species. Therefore, we are not a "mistake" of nature, but a full-fledged product of the natural world. If God is the creator of that world, including the laws of chemistry and physics and even the unpredictable events of the quantum universe, then it would be perfectly reasonable for a religious person to see our emergence, through the process of evolution, as part of God's plan for that universe. This doesn't mean, as I took care to point out in my book, that nature is rigged to produce big-brained, hairless, bipedal primates who would invent football, canned beer, and reality television. Rather, it means that the universe in which we live is sufficiently hospitable to life that on this one planet, at the very least, it has supported an evolutionary process that gave rise to intelligent, self-aware, reflective organisms, who would then be capable of arguing about the meaning, purpose, and nature of existence.
I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way—only that it could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith.
To Coyne, however, even the mere possibility that someone might understand nature in a Divine context is absolute heresy. As a result, while he strictly rules out anything but natural causes in the evolutionary process (as would I), he then must argue that the same process could never, ever happen again. Why? Because if conditions in our universe are such that they make the emergence of intelligent life, sooner or later, pretty much a sure thing, then people might wonder why. And if they were to come to the conclusion this might mean that there was a Creator who intended that as part of his work, they would be guilty of the very thoughts that Coyne finds so outrageous that he wishes to banish them from the scientific establishment.
So, despite his frank admission that "convergences are striking features of evolution," he rules any possibility that human-like intelligence could also be a convergent feature. His only reason for so doing seems to be that such intelligence evolved "only once, in Africa." Apparently, to satisfy his standards, it should have evolved many times. Actually, of course, if an observer had checked as recently as 5 million years ago, it wouldn't have evolved at all. Nonetheless Coyne has absolutely no empirical reason for claiming that what happened once could not happen again—and he surely knows that. But, to borrow a phrase, he is "forced" into that conclusion by his own anti-theist views.
For someone so insistent on empirical evidence, Coyne is remarkably quick to invoke faith when it suits his purposes. Realizing that the anthropic principle could indeed be seen as friendly to religion, he knows he just doesn't have enough evidence to reject it. So Coyne dreams 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." Indeed. Perhaps we will. But even if we achieve that theory, we will still have to ask where the laws and principles of that theory come from, something that even Coyne at his speculative and hopeful best does not seem to appreciate.
Finally, what of his central criticism—the claim that science and religion are not only different, but incompatible and mutually contradictory?
He's right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work. On such claims, science has nothing to say one way or the other. Coyne's complaint on such things, paradoxically, is that they must not have happened because there is no scientific explanation for them. That amounts, in essence, to saying that these things could not have happened because they would be miracles. Well, that's exactly what most Christians take them for, so Coyne's only real argument is an a priori assumption that miracles cannot happen. Make that assumption, and miracles are nonsense. But it is an assumption nonetheless, something that Coyne fails to see.
How, then, should we take his claim that scientists who profess religious faith are akin to adulterers? An adulterer, of course, is one who has taken the marriage vow of faithfulness and exclusivity, and then broken that vow to have sex with another. Have scientists who profess faith broken some vow of philosophical naturalism that is implicit in the profession?
I, for one, don't remember any such vow in my training, my PhD exam, or my tenure review—although perhaps things work a little differently at the University of Chicago.
What science does require is methodological naturalism. We live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works. By definition, that confines science to purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science. I agree, and would defy Dr. Coyne to point to any claim made in the books he has reviewed that defines science in any other way. He cannot do that, of course, because there are no such claims. I would also ask that he point out scientific flaws in the work of biologists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Francisco Ayala, or Francis Collins that may have derived from their personal religious faith. He won't be able to do that, either, of course. Every scientist makes mistakes—and I've made plenty in my career. But the real issue is whether a scientist's view on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly, it is not.
Coyne's entire critique, then, is based upon an unspoken assumption he expects his readers to share, namely, that science is the only legitimate form of knowledge. To Coyne, any deviation from that view is an adulterous contradiction of the sacred scientific vow to exclude any possibility of the spiritual, not just from one's scientific work, but from the entirety of one's philosophical world view.
With all due respect to my distinguished colleague, that is nonsense. One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect? The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and if existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering.
To Jerry Coyne, a person of faith like the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, could not possibly have been a true scientist because of his faith in a loving and provident God. That would make Father Lemaître, in Coyne's eyes, nothing more than a creationist. Too bad, because as I'm sure Jerry knows, it was Georges Lemaître who provided the first detailed mathematical arguments for cosmic expansion, which today we call the "big bang." Remarkable how Lemaître rose above his adulterous tendencies, isn't it?
The genuine tragedy of Coyne's argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly ideological crusade—a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, Jerry, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and you would do well not to turn them away."
Again, by way of richarddawkins.net