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.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.
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.
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...