Alfred North Whitehead once compared the Christian Middle Ages--which, according to Coyne's thesis ought to be the high tide if irrationality--with the so-called "Age of Reason": "The earlier period," said Whitehead, "was the age of faith based upon reason. In the later period, they let sleeping dogs lie: it was the age of reason based upon faith."
Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the later Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, based upon a naive faith.Whitehead, one of the 20th century's great philosophers and mathematicians, wondered why it was that scientists had ignored the 18th century criticisms of its foundations by philosopher David Hume. Hume showed that (once you rejected the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis that reigned up until the Renaissance) there were some things you had to give up. Among them was the pretension that the basic assumptions behind science were rational. And so he goes on to show that the process of induction and the concept of cause and effect are entirely non-rational in their origins. There is simply no way to justify them on the basis of reason.
Induction relies on the basic assumption that the future will always be like the past. But this is an entirely non-rational assumption and can never be proved. Causation too is an entirely metaphysical concept with no empirical backing. All you can prove is that you have seen physical correlations. But, as scientist are always reminding us (but never heeding themselves) that correlation is not causation. You can never produce a cause, all you can produced are the two events that happen to always occur in a sequence.
"Our holy religion," said the empiricist Hume, "is founded on faith."
In fact, what very few people seem to have noticed is that Coyne and his fellow New Athiests have, within their own position, an inherent incompatibility. On the one hand they hold to a naive materialism in the name of "empiricism"; on the other hand they house a physicist contingent that has redefined the very idea of matter in such a way as to make materialism meaningless.
In fact, far from being rationalists, the practitioners of the natural sciences are anti-rationalists. There has long been an uneasy alliance between the mathematical sciences and the empirical sciences, with the mathematical rationalism of disciplines like physics often attracting the derision of their colleagues in the natural sciences. The physicists, on the other hand look down on the natural scientists as being philosophically and mathematically naive.
Far from enjoying a happy marriage of rationality and empiricism, science (in the abstract and dogmatic sense in which people like Coyne use the term) houses an intrinsically estranged pair of squabbling disciplines. The more mathematical and rationalist science gets, the less empirical it becomes, and the more empirical it becomes, the less rational and mathematical it is forced to be.
"Insofar as the propositions of mathematics give an account of reality they are not certain," said Einstein, "and insofar as they are certain they do not describe reality."
The only thing incompatible with science is science itself.
To be continued...