Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jerry Coyne's Scientific Faith: Is science more rational than religion? Part I

One of the recurrent themes in the rhetorical arsenal of the New Atheism is that science is rational and religion is not. This dogma is repeated by New Atheist writers as if it were a part of their creed, which, of course, it is.

The dogma is articulated once again by one of its loudest advocates on the Internet, biologist Jerry Coyne in yesterday's article in USA Today. I say "articulated rather than "argued" because, like most dogmas, it is never never actually argued for, but only asserted. If you keep up with the proclamations of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Jason Rosenhouse, P. Z. Myers, and Sean Carroll, you will see this canard invoked repeatedly in their assertions that religion and science are mutually exclusive. It is utilized almost as if it were an incantation.

If scientific rationalists had prayer wheels, this is the mantra they would chant.
Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth.
This is just another form of the scientistic creed: Credo in scientiam omnipotentem.

Part of Coyne's problem is that he is haunted by the ghost of scientist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was the godfather of what he and his fellow atheists derisively call "Accommodationism," the view that science and religion are two "non-overlapping magisteria"--two realms of thought and practice that simply have nothing to do with each other. It is the modern rendition of Sigar of Brabant's medieval doctrine of Two Truths: that the truths of faith and the truths of religion operate in complete independence of one another.

But in a panicked response to this Gouldish apparition, Coyne and other New Atheists take refuge at the other extreme--in the idea that religion and science not only overlap, but are mutually exclusive. Like many such arguments against religion as a legitimate mode of thought, Coyne's tangles himself up in his own reasoning--an ironic eventuality given the fact that it is on the ground of rationality itself that Coyne claims to set up his headquarters.

Coyne prosecutes his case on this point (in the USA Today piece and elsewhere) in two ways: the first is to simply confound scientific methodology with reason; the second is to simply assert that religion is illogical and non-evidential. Regarding the first of these, Coyne never really articulates what definition of reason he is employing in his critique--and, indeed, his confusion may be less a confusion between two terms than it is a general confusion about what reason is.

In a New Republic article last year, Coyne invokes something he calls "secular reason." No one is exactly sure what this "secular reason" is, since he appears to have invented it himself. But it apparently includes "science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every areas that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe." In other words, the criterion each of the disciplines on his list meets--and that religion does not--is the employment of reasons to justify them.

Note the lack of an actual argument. Assertion will do in a pinch.

In fact, for someone who makes such a show of being rational, Coyne displays a noticeable lack of familiarity with what reason consists of and what it entails. Indeed, he seems largely unacquainted with the basic nature of logic. Let's join Coyne in progress as he makes his closing argument in the case that science and religion are incompatible in his New Republic article:
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.
We'll cut him some slack on his knowledge of neuroscience and assume he is speaking figuratively, but clearly Coyne has no understanding of the difference between the formal requirements of logic and their relation to the assumptions involved in reasoning. Formally speaking, what you reason about has little to do with how well you may reason--or whether you reason at all. As Chesterton once pointed out,
Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs.
You can be as rational about astronomy as about astrophysics, and just as irrational about the Fibonacci Sequence as about fortune telling. But these distinctions mean little to Coyne, whose thinking appears to operate on the basis of some dreamy connection he imagines to exist between science and rationality that he has caught by contagion from the his atheist brethren.

If you're going to talk about whether you can be coherently religious and scientific at the same time, you ought to at least be coherent when you address the question. Coyne clearly has trouble making this fundamental distinction between the content and the process of reasoning, a distinction a mere journalist like Chesterton could employ with ease:
On the assumption that a man has two ears, it is good logic that three men have six ears, but on the assumption that a man has four ears, it is equally good logic that three men have twelve. And the power of seeing how many ears the average man, as a fact, possesses, the power of counting a gentleman's ears accurately and without mathematical confusion, is not a logical thing but a primary and direct experience, like a physical sense, like a religious vision. The power of counting ears may be limited by a blow on the head; it may be disturbed and even augmented by two bottles of champagne; but it cannot be affected by argument.

Logic has again and again been expended, and expended most brilliantly and effectively, on things that do not exist at all. There is far more logic, more sustained consistency of the mind, in the science of heraldry than in the science of biology. There is more logic in Alice in Wonderland than in the Statute Book or the Blue Books.
You can disagree with religion. You can argue with the evidence for it. You can say it's nonsense. But to say it's not rational is simply an ignorant statement. To say in the first place that religion does not employ reason is simply to disregard the whole history of religious thought. There are more syllogisms in a page of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas than in whole scientific treatises. In fact, a freshman student at the University of Paris in the 13th century could reason circles around Coyne and his fellow atheists without breaking a sweat.

It is interesting to note that the most thoroughly Christian period of civilization, the late Middle Ages, was also the most concerned with logic. Not only was it rational, it was rational to a fault. The Christian intellectualism of the later Middle Ages was remarkable, not for its lack of rationality, but its obsession with it. The criticism often heard about debates over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was directed, not at people who didn't use logic, but people who used it to the exclusion of almost all else--including, in a few cases, common sense.

In his magisterial Science and the Modern World, philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead goes so far as to call the Middle Ages a "rationalist orgy." Medieval thinkers such as Duns Scotus, the "Subtle Doctor," were criticized for going overboard on their application of reason, not for disregarding it.

But this, clearly, is not Coyne's problem.

To be continued...

9 comments:

Singring said...

Martin,

I note with what distaste you attack Coyne's penchant for asserting things. That's a fair criticism.

However, in the course of our many discussions on your blog you have made two massive assertions yourself that - despite repeated and almost pleading requests - you have refused to back up with any argument. Since you seem to be so annoyed by people asserting things, I thought I'd give you a chance (and Thomas too, if he's interested) I'll take this opportunity to ask yo once again to adress these questions:

1.) On what basis do you assert that the universe is contingent and not necessary?

2.) You have claimed that philosophy can give access to truths science cannot. Can you name any one such truth?

For Thomas:

1.) What secondary or ontological causes are there that are required to explain the formation of a hydrogen molecule from two hydrogen atoms?

If you don't want to answer these questions, I can understand - you are under no obligation to do so, despite you having asserted these things.

However, if that is the case I would urge you to stop accusing others of making baseless assertions (whether that may or may not be true is another question altogether) lest it makes you look like a complete hypocrite.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

You keep telling me I have not given you an argument on these issues when I already have. The fact that you don't like an argument is not an indication that it is not an argument.

On what basis do you assert that the universe is contingent and not necessary?

Let me spell this out for you:

If the universe is not necessary, then it is contingent
The universe is not necessary
Therefore, the universe is contingent

This is a valid Modus Ponens. If you disagree with one of the premises, then tell me which one and why you contest it. But don't tell my I'm not giving you an argument.

You have claimed that philosophy can give access to truths science cannot. Can you name any one such truth?

Yes. The truth that philosophy can give us access to truth.

What's your problem with that?

Singring said...

'If the universe is not necessary, then it is contingent
The universe is not necessary
Therefore, the universe is contingent'

So you support your assertion by claiming that the inverse assertion is false?

LOL. Yeah - that's pure, hard-core rational reasoning right there. Not a whiff of assertion going on.

'Elephants are gray'

'How do you know that?'

'Because elephants are not not gray!'

You're running in circles, Martin. How do you know that the universe is not necessary?

'Yes. The truth that philosophy can give us access to truth. '

Seriously, Martin? Is circular reasoning all you ever do?

I ask you for any example of a truth philosophy can give us to that science cannot and you reply with that?

I asked you what truth it is that philosophy can give us access to! You can't just pretent you've supported that assertion by reiterating it as a perfectly circular argument! This is just the most banal response I have ever come across!

Martin Cothran said...

So you support your assertion by claiming that the inverse assertion is false?

Absolutely. Not only is it a valid form of argumentation, it is the very first example Aristotle cites in his chapter on lines of argument in the Rhetoric (Book II, Ch. 23). If Aristotle had a blog, I'd give you the address and you could go and make cheeky remarks there too. But I don't think it would get you any further there than it gets you here.

This method of argumentation is particularly effective when the contradiction of the statement you are trying to prove is self-evidently false, as in the case of the universe being necessary. Are you actually saying that it is not a valid inference to say that, since it is not light it must be dark? Or that since there is not nothing, there must be something? If so, then you are denying all disjunctive reasoning.

In regard to your charge that my citation of the statement 'The truth that philosophy can give us access to truth. ' You had asked me to name any statement the truth of which philosophy gives us access to but which science cannot. I gave you one. And you complain I didn't "support the assertion." You didn't ask me to give you a supported assertion. You ask me to give you one that didn't rely on science.

If you like, we can take yours. It would do just as well: "Science can give us access to truth." That is a statement the truth of which philosophy, but not science, can give us access to.

Singring said...

'Absolutely. Not only is it a valid form of argumentation, it is the very first example Aristotle cites in his chapter on lines of argument in the Rhetoric (Book II, Ch. 23).'

I didn't question the form of argumentatiuon being valid, it is of course, I questioned the specific argument YOU were making. The argument was: 'The universe is contingent becasue it is not necessary!'. You were supporting an assertion by asserting that the inverse of the assertion was false.

It should be painfully obvious that this is a circular shell-game. No doubt if I asked you how you know the universe is not necessary you'd smile and say it is becasue it's contingent! Your line of argument reminds me of a dog chasing his own tail.

'Are you actually saying that it is not a valid inference to say that, since it is not light it must be dark?'

Of course not! What I AM saying is that if you want to argue in this way you first have to give some kind of coherent reason supported by some empirical evidence that it IS in fact not light! Otherwise you are simply backing up an assertion with an assertion.

'This method of argumentation is particularly effective when the contradiction of the statement you are trying to prove is self-evidently false, as in the case of the universe being necessary.'

There we go again...another assertion!

Let's highlight it:

'the statement you are trying to prove is self-evidently false, as in the case of the universe being necessary.'

So now the universe not being necessary is a 'self-evident'? Do your really expect me to take anything you say seriously when your response to a direct question for supportive argument is:

1.) It is the way it is because it's not the way its not

and

2.) It's self-evident!

Really?

'If you like, we can take yours. It would do just as well: "Science can give us access to truth." That is a statement the truth of which philosophy, but not science, can give us access to.'

How can philosophy tell us whether or not that statement is true? Let's see philosophy in action here...

Chuck O'Connor said...

I don't think you understand Dr. Coyne's argument. He is not arguing that religious thining is irrational but rather the evidence for religious knowledge is non-falsifiable. Science tests the truth it asserts by falsifiable standards. Religion asserts it's truth sans evidence in deference to credulity. One need only examine Chesterton's argument for the evidence of miracles and his "apple woman". The epistemology is thin.

Also, it might be good to better understand the aims of new atheists before you make silly pronouncements towards creedal commitments. You seem to be applying your religious aims to the aims of scientific thinkers (only illustrating further the gap between faith and science). PZ meyers articulated rather well that the aim of the new atheists should be disagreement with all ideas asserting truth no matter where they originate. I suggest you look into the battles on philology between atheis Chris Moooney and atheist PZ. No creed there.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Coyne states:

"Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth."

What category does this claim belong in? It's clearly not science, since it is a claim about science and not of science. (Just as if I say, "the circus is in town" is not a claim about, but not of, the circus).

Coyne does not seem to realize that comparing "science" and "religion" is like comparing "sociology" with "the culinary arts." It's too a high a level of abstraction. Tell me the science, the religion, the doctrine, the tests, the arguments, and so forth, then we're in business. But talking about generalities is just bizarre.

Consider, for example, Coyne's belief that rationality is good. How does he assess this? Does he mean to say that human beings are perfected by rationality? If so, is he talking about an ideal (in the Platonic sense) or substantial form (in the Aristotelean sense). IF neither, then what grounds the "good"? He, of course, denies the reality of formal and final causes. So, he can't prove his point by "science" in the modern sense. It turns out that certain understandings of the "good," connected to certain theological traditions, would benefit Coyne at this point. If he employs them, then his view of rationality requires theological premises (broadly construed). If he doesn't employ them, then it's not clear how he knows why reason is good and why we ought to embody it.

What is so sad about Coyne is that he is so intelligent and accomplished in his craft, but so deeply ignorant of the intellectual traditions that shaped and formed the universities that he so dearly loves. He wants an inheritance without patrimony or paternity.

Anonymous said...

Singring,

In regards to your request for an argument on why the universe may be said to be contingent:

(1) By empirical observation we see that Something does not come Nothing.
(2) Science tells us that more complex things come from simpler things.
(3) Ergo, if we rewind time so as to make that which is more complex to that which is simpler, we may reasonably infer that the universe, when at its most simple and base, could not have accounted for its own existence, it being something and not nothing.

Perhaps you may speak something to the effect of that which we observe being "particular" things *within* the universe and not the universe proper; but then we must have a better definition of "universe." Either way, the assumption (and it is an assumption) that I am making is that the existence of the universe follows from the everyday things we encounter (i.e., Something never comes from Nothing). But it is an assumption that seems more plausible than your assumption that the "universe" (and you'll have to explain in more detail what you mean by that) is somehow fundamentally different from things "within" the universe, say all those billions of suns and stars which live and die. And if it a *system* of the universe (that things begin living at some point and then die at some point) and not really the stuff the universe is comprised of, then perhaps that is a point on which we may argue as well.
If I have made any glaring mistakes at reasoning here, I welcome your critique(s).

-Johnny

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should probably clarify--as I am assuming you will attack the whole Something-Nothing thing--how I see the discussion.

Stephen Barr wrote a splendid review of Hawking's most recent book; a book that I've seen unmercifully slaughtered by numerous philosophers (almost to a gratuitous excess). It touches upon the whole Something-Nothing talk.

http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/much-ado-about-ldquonothingrdquo-stephen-hawking-and-the-self-creating-universe

-Johnny