This is the image that came to mind seeing the most recent exchange between atheist biologist Jerry Coyne (the eight year-old in this saga) and Christian philosopher Edward Feser. Jerry rushes at Ed, all arms flailing, Ed holds hand out, stopping the charge, calmly pointing out to Jerry that his facts are wrong, his arguments are invalid, that he is completely missing the point, or that he has failed to make a crucial distinction, at which point Jerry, in seeming ignorance of the points Ed has made, just keeps repeating the same futile procedure over and over and over again.
But if you can't appreciate his logic (and he makes it very difficult), you at least gotta admire his spunk.
In the most recent episode, the issue is whether there could have been a literal Adam and Eve. It is a debate, Christianity Today magazine asserted, that constitutes "a groundbreaking science-and-Scripture dispute, a 21st-century equivalent of the once disturbing proof that the Earth orbits the sun." While it is not quite equivalent to the issue of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead, a literal claim without which there would literally be no Christianity, the Apostle Paul does clearly assume a literal Adam, making it a truth claim the disproof of which would seriously cripple the philosophical and theological integrity of Christianity, particularly the doctrine of original sin, which asserts that, in the words of the old New England Primer, "In Adam's fall, we fell all."
There are Christians, of course, who try to fudge on this issue, claiming that one could believe in a figurative Adam and Eve (i.e., that Paul was mistaken) and still be an orthodox Christian. Former head of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins and his colleague Karl Giberson attempt this position. But it's not a terribly convincing.
The Catholic Church has long taken the position that the origin of the human body--whether it comes from "pre-existent and living matter"--is not the material issue. One can take the position that the human body was the result of biological development as long as one did not deny that "souls are immediately created by God." Leo XII's statement on this issue in his encyclical Humani Generis also states that polygenism (that we are descended from multiple parents rather than one particular set) is not a belief that is reconcilable with orthodox Christianity. In addition, he said, such a belief would conflict with the belief in original sin.
Protestants are not limited by any particular theological authority other than their own personal interpretive inclinations, a fact that has resulted in a riot of diverse schools of thought on such issues, but the Catholic teaching is clear and unambiguous. We are descended from two original human parents. So the questioning of this dogma is important indeed.
Enter Coyne, who declared recently on his blog, "[T]he scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible."
And, lest his assertion was not clear, he added, "Unlike the case of Jesus’s virgin birth and resurrection, we can dismiss a physical Adam and Eve with near scientific certainty."
And, just in case there was still any doubt about what he meant, he concluded, "[T]he genetic data show unequivocally that humanity did not descend from a single pair that lived in the genus Homo."
Coyne tries to base his claim on genetic research that ironically derives in part from the person whose appointment to head the Human Genome Project he adamantly opposed on the grounds that he was an evangelical Christian: Francis Collins. Collins wrote, in a 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that, as Christianity Today put it, "humans emerged from primate ancestors perhaps 100,000 years ago—long before the apparent Genesis time frame—and originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals."
Richard Ostling, writing in Christianity Today, recounts the position of Dennis R. Venema, a biology chairman at Trinity Western University and a fellow at Biologos, an organization with which Coyne has shown little but scorn because of their "accommodationist" (i.e., that science and religion are consistent approaches to truth):
Over the past decade, researchers have attempted to use the genetic diversity within modern humans to estimate primordial population sizes. According to a consensus drawn from three independent avenues of research, he states, the history of human ancestry involved a population "bottleneck" around 150,000 years ago—and from this tiny group of hominids came everyone living today. But the size of the group was far larger than a lonely couple: it consisted of several thousand individuals at minimum, say the geneticists.So Coyne, armed with evidence uncovered in part by an evangelical Christian who only several years earlier he proclaimed could not be trusted on such issues--and flailing away, announces that there were no Adam and Eve. Coyne then goes on to catalog various evangelical rationalizations of the problem, all of which he finds wanting, at which point he does his end zone dance.
But it was all effective enough to convince John Farrell to write a piece in Forbes magazine where he unaccountably finds Coyne convincing on this issue, quotes him, and expands on Coyne's points (misstating the Eastern Orthodox view on original sin in the process), and challenging the Catholic Church to renounce its "silence" on the "challenge of genomics."
Apparently the continuous public witness of the Church over the course of centuries to the truth of the Aristotelian-Thomist position, which articulates a full view of man as a physical and spiritual creature that bears only partial resemblance to the being Farrell, Coyne and others discuss in their arguments, and making clear public statements which are easily available to anyone who is serious about wanting to know the Church's position are just not sufficient.
Despite this, Coyne accuses theists "of rationalizing, post facto, hopes and ideas that one pulls out of thin air." Statements like this serve as atheist like a sort of spell to keep .
But just in case anyone needed to be reminded, Catholic philosopher Ed Feser enters the fray. Feser, who is fast becoming the go-to guy when it comes to defending the Ancient Faith against its less than intellectually impressive detractors (and who you can just imagine sighing once again and shaking his head), then pointed out a few uncomfortable facts to Jerry (and John), among which is that, in his post on this issue, Coyne didn't even bother taking into account the view of the Christian institution that has been around the longest, an institution that has made an implicit distinction between the concept of homo sapiens as a biological category and the concept of rational animals as a physical and theological category.
In other words, the biological condition of homo sapiens is a necessary condition for being a humans as we know them now, but it is not sufficient. The philosophical distinction of man as a "rational animal" (Aristotle's definition) is also necessary to the full definition of human being. Men are indeed homo sapiens, biologically speaking. But they are something far more than this: they are creatures who can apprehend abstract concepts in a way in which other animals do not even remotely approximate. He points in his response to an article by Kenneth W. Kemp ("Science, Theology, and Monogenesis"), which goes into gory detail about the Catholic position on this and why it is completely consistence with a bottleneck of however many thousand homo sapiens.
But Coyne, who apparently didn't actually read Feser's article but someone else's summary, does what he seems to do every time he has to deal with Feser: he fires wildly while running for cover. In this case, he criticizes Feser using an argument that Kemp's article, to which Feser had linked to, had already refuted--and then goes and hides behind Jason Rosenhouse. "I needn’t go over all the problems that Jason finds with this."
It's hard work acting as second for someone who, every time he show up for the duel, runs off, but Rosenhouse, a mathematician who blogs at EvolutionBlog, holds forth manfully. But Rosenhouse seems to have no better ability to manage careful distinctions than Coyne.
He argues first that "the Bible does not teach anything remotely like what Feser is describing." Rosenhouse manages this criticism by assuming that Feser is somehow obligated to give Genesis a fundamentalist reading, which it is kind of hard for Feser to do since, like, he's a Catholic. As Feser himself pointed out, while it would be very convenient for atheists if all Christians took a fundamentalist position, they probably need to get used to the fact that all Christians are not fundamentalists, and that it would probably help their case (not to mention make for a more productive discussion) to actually address the arguments of Christians who, like Feser, don't match up with the stereotypes atheists are always invoking.
Rosenhouse then questions Feser's point that human being are not exhausted by their physical attributes, to which Rosenhouse responds, "we should note that Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes." Back to Feser:
Hear that? Not “a highly controversial basis.” Not “a basis that I, Jason Rosenhouse, find unconvincing.” No, not the slightest basis. Now, forget about my own arguments for the intellect’s immateriality (though Rosenhouse says nothing in response to them). A great many more important Catholic philosophers and theologians have also presented serious arguments for it, as have non-Catholic Christians and pagan thinkers in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. Secular writers like Karl Popper and David Chalmers have endorsed forms of dualism. Secular writers like Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and Galen Strawson, while they do not embrace dualism, nevertheless reject physicalism. Yet others, like Thomas Nagel, Jerry Fodor, and Joseph Levine, have argued that there are at least serious difficulties facing physicalism which have yet to be answered. And many materialists who think these difficulties can be answered at least acknowledge that the difficulties are indeed serious ones raised by critics in good faith. Then there are secular non-dualists like Tyler Burge, John Searle, and William Lycan, who (as I have noted before) have expressed the opinion that the dominance of materialism in contemporary philosophy of mind owes less to the quality of the arguments in its favor than to ideological thinking.In other words, let's all pretend that these argument have never been made so we can go on arguing with our fundamentalist caricatures.
But for Rosenhouse, it seems, none of these thinkers has the slightest basis for his views. It’s all just transparently feeble religious apologetics, apparently even with the many secularists among them. No doubt that’s because Rosenhouse read a materialist philosophy of mind book once back in college which he thinks “refuted” all the objections to materialism once and for all.
Finally, Rosenhouse says, "Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees." He then goes on to list all the intelligent qualities animals have the men also possess, all of which are apparently supposed to add up to the qualities that men have that animals do not possess, namely, as Feser points out, "conceptual thought" that "can have a determinate, unambiguous content and a universality of reference that sensations, mental imagery, and material symbols cannot have even in principle."
Rosenhouse says that Feser's account "creates some very difficult theological problems." The problem is that none of the "theological problems" Rosenhouse identifies are actually theological problems. In fact, all they amount to is Rosenhouse saying that he doesn't understand why God would have done it that way. So saying you don't understand someone's motivations for doing something some kind of refutation of the fact that they did it?
"Also," Rosenhouse adds, "the idea of a Chosen People is itself theologically problematic. Among Jews, a very common understanding of the notion is that the Jews are unique only in their willingness to accept a covenant with God. Which is to say, it is the Jews who chose God and not the other way around." Wait, Rosenhouse was only just earlier seen arguing that Feser wasn't following the Biblical account, and now Rosenhouse is arguing this? One thing that comes through loud and clear in those accounts is that the covenant is completely unilateral in its initiation. Maybe Rosenhouse could explain how he derives Abraham's willingness out of the Biblical accounts which don't mention what Abraham thought about it at all.
Memo to New Atheists: Don't debate Feser. Go back to your caracatures. And theists? They don't need caricatures. They've got Rosenhouse and Coyne.