On Jerry Coyne's "DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?"
We will restore science to its rightful place... We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. —Barack Obama, Inaugural Address
Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works. —Jerry Coyne
DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH? [1.21.2009]
An Edge Special Event
"The real question," writes biologist Jerry Coyne in his New Republic article "Seeing And Believing", is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?
We no longer have President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senator John McCain announcing in August 2006 their support for teaching Intelligent Design in pubic schools. That was a mobilizing moment for the champions of rational thinking such as Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and P.Z. Myers to mount an unrelenting campaign against superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance. The dilemma as Coyne notes is that against the backdrop of scientific knowledge available to us today, these three words are applicable not only to the texts that inform literal fundamentalists but also to the rarefied theological mumbo-jumbo of the most refined, liberal theologians.
But as Coyne points out:
In the next few days, Edge plans to publish a series of brief responses by selected contributors addressing these issues.
JERRY A. COYNE is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book is Why Evolution Is True.
On Jerry Coyne's "DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?"
There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists. What matters are the important questions science is dealing with, from the origin and future of the universe to the origin and future of life.
All this talk about science and religion gives the wrong impression, as it suggests reconciling them or not reconciling them is a big issue... it isn't. As I once put it to theologians at a meeting at the Vatican: theologians have to listen to scientists, because if they want to try to create a consistent theology (and while I have opinions about whether this is possible, but my opinions about this are neither particularly important nor informed) they at least need to know how the world works. But scientists don't have to listen to theologians, because it has no effect whatsoever on the scientific process.
Of course, if you believe in the scientific method and the scientific enterprise, you will have little patience for belief in revelation (whatever that is). Still, all of us, even the most extreme rationalists, harbor contradictory beliefs in our minds and we somehow muddle through. For me, the important line in the sand is not between those who believe in religion/God and those who don't; it is between those who are tolerant of others' beliefs, so long as they dont interfere with one's own belief system, and those who will not tolerate those whose belief system is fundamentally different. In other words, I'll settle for mutual tolerance, though I prefer mutual respect.. And now that we at last have a president who is both religious and truly tolerant, respectful, ecumenical, inclusionary—let's mute the religious wars for awhile and say a prayer (sic) of thanks.'
By sheer coincidence the day I read this Edge question, a charming young actor sat next to me on my plane to LA and without any prompting answered it for me. He had just returned from the inauguration and was filled with enthusiasm and optimism. Like so many young people today, he wants to leave the world a better place. Prior to his acting career he had studied molecular biology and after graduating coordinated science teaching for three middle schools in an urban school system. He described how along with his acting career he would ultimately like to build on his training to start schools worldwide where students can get good science training.
This reinforced for me why we won't ever answer the question that's been posed. Empirically-based logic-derived science and faith are entirely different methods for trying to approach truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. If you believe in revelatory truth you've abandoned the rules. There is no contradiction to be had.
Attempting to reconcile religion with science is a pointless exercise. You don't reconcile chalk and cheese; you put them in different categories.
As an atheist I am untroubled by the fact that I am moved by much of the Christian culture in which I grew up; the art, the music, the buildings, even some of the religious ceremonies. I see no need to apply scientific analysis to aspects of my life that provide great pleasure. However, interesting questions can be asked about the religious beliefs that others have and I don't share. How does belief work for them, how did it develop in their own lives, how did it evolve in previous generations and what is it for? These are all questions that we routinely ask of all aspects of biology and psychology.
The last question, applied in the sense of what is the current utility of religious belief to an individual, is important. In attempting to provide an answer, I part company with some no-nonsense colleagues who are also atheists.
If you live comfortably and are surrounded by good friends and endless opportunities for a stimulating and interesting life, then your need for belief in an omniscient and all-caring being is not great. But if you have a wretched life with nothing to be happy about, you may well want something to cling onto, some conviction that you can look forward to conditions that are never likely to exist in the real world.
It seems staggeringly insensitive to tell such people that they are fooling themselves and that, since they only have one life, they should get out there should enjoy it. No amount of science is going to help them to perceive the world in a way that is helpful to them. Science can be applied to relieving the conditions that oppress them—but that is a different matter. Telling them to be rational will only compound their misery.
I applaud Obamas's commitment to science and the key scientific appointments he has already made. But I should be distressed if a new deal for science led to a form of misplaced triumphalism and an assumption that we can provide psychological solutions for problems that are beyond our grasp.
Religion is philosophically incompatible with science. Open inquiry that allows the chips to fall where they may is incompatible with both the idea of 'god's revelation of truth' and religious hierarchies governing knowledge and its dissemination. I am an atheist. I believe that theology, which I hold an undergraduate degree in, is a waste of time.
However, none of this frees science from the obligation of dialog with religious people. Scientists belong to societies. No one practices science in a vacuum, culturally, financially or, even, religiously. It is important to maintain respectful dialog on what the proper relationship of science is to religion if for no other reason than the fact that the National Science Foundation is hugely subsidized by the taxes of religious people. This of course does not give taxpayers veto power over science, but it does mean that scientists neither can nor should regard religion as utterly irrelevant to their practice. A Jamesian pragmatist might claim that science is a societal activity that has an obligation to provide useful results to society, however broadly 'useful' is defined—the recognition of the obligation to the supporters of science is essential.
While science should not pretend that revelation has anything to offer us, it should not forget that it can manifest its own forms of 'revelation'. When scientists believe that they are marching towards Truth in some platonic sense, they are behaving religiously, not scientifically. The belief in Truth, as Rorty cautioned, can become the scientist's god and when it does it involves no less superstition than any other god. And many scientists share a belief in oracles, special people whose words are somehow more valuable and more likely to reflect Truth than that of other people's.
Science is a messy business conducted in messy places. Scientists are evolved hominids that have only used toilet paper for a brief period in their existence. Science owes its existence, health and results to the society that supports it. Scientists are not monks, after all, to be freed from worldly constraints for contemplation of their god, Truth. Their patrons include their opponents in modern societies. They must engage in dialog and not act as though only the true believers in science are worthy of dialog. No matter what jokes we tell over cocktails.
The upshot is although religion ought not to be causally implicated in the practice of science, any more than politics, religious people have a right to demand that scientists treat them with respect and that scientists are careful to construct their own 'canopy of epistemic humility', in the terms of historian of religion Mark Noll.
Belief in Belief
Jerry Coyne nicely dissects the urge of many people to persuade themselves that their religion can coexist peacefully with science in general and evolutionary biology in particular. And he shows just how hopeless this quest is. The question remains: why is this urge so strong, even in some people who have devoted their careers to science? I can discern more than half a dozen plausible reasons for belief in belief in God, and in some people these reasons are no doubt additive, not exclusive. I list them more or less in order, ranging from abject through feckless to noble-if-misguided:
(1) The fallacy of sunk costs: "I've already invested fifty years of my life in this position, and it would be excruciatingly embarrassing to acknowledge my error. In fairness to myself, I was entrapped in this view when I was too young to know better, and I've never been able to find a face-saving exit strategy."
(2) Err on the side of prudence: "I can conjure up enough uncertainty about these issues to excuse myself from drawing the invited conclusions, which might be mistaken, after all, and could, I suppose, do some harm to somebody. Where it doesn't itch, don't scratch!"
(4) What would my mother think? "People whom I hold dear, and who depend on me emotionally, would be heartbroken to learn of my defection. I'm going to carry this white lie to the grave, or at least until my parents are safely in their graves and my children and loved ones give me clear signs of being able to take such a confession with equanimity."
(5) Credal calisthenics: "It keeps me modest, and fosters a desirable habit of moral reflection that helps me do the right thing ‘without even thinking'. It's a method of self-purification that keeps me morally fit."
(6) We must fend off moral chaos: "I myself don't need God to tell me how to live, but some people really do. Religious belief puts the fear of God into some who would otherwise behave reprehensibly."
(7) Don't make waves: "I have more than enough substantive controversies that I would rather spend my energies on. Why discard alliances, make enemies, lose the affection of powerful friends and associates by raining on their parade?"
(8) Dumbo's magic feather: "Religious belief is a moral prosthesis: it strengthens the resolve and courage of many who want to be good but don't have the true grit they need. If I recant, I contribute to the dissolution of an aspect of the world that they truly depend on. I have no right to take away their crutch."
The combination of any two or three of these is enough, apparently, to induce some very smart people to defend some very lame arguments. They would never tolerate such fuzzy and illogical thinking in their science–or, in the case of philosophers, in their analytic work in ethics or epistemology or metaphysics. They manage not to notice how they have transformed the object of their worship from the original Celestial Bio-engineer into a Divine Nudger of Randomness into an Omniscient Lawgiver into the (impersonal, but still somehow benign) Ground of All Being. Not only don't they notice this comical retreat; they applaud the deep sophistication of the theologians who have conducted it. (I haven't any idea what the Ground of All Being is, so I guess I don't have to be an atheist about that. Maybe the process of evolution by natural selection just is God! Now there's a way of reconciling evolution with religion! )
Each reason for belief in belief in Gd is defensible up to a point, but we need to weigh the indirect side effects of going along with tradition. First, there's the systematic hypocrisy that poisons discourse, and even more important, our vulnerability to those who abuse the "reverence" with which we are supposed to respond to their indulgences. We can continue to respect the good intentions of those who persist in professing belief in God, but we'll be doing them a favor if we stop pretending that we respect the arguments they use to sustain these fantasies.
The answer to Coyne's question is yes. To see why consider that any attempted reconciliation between a believer of monotheistic religion and a scientist is bedeviled by a troubling asymmetry. No scientist would deny to someone who doesn't believe in natural selection the lifesaving benefits of medicines developed based on its premises.
The basic ethics of an open and free society are to be prepared to defend what you believe with reasoned argument from public evidence, be prepared to change your mind, and be tolerant of diverse views on questions the evidence does not suffice to decide. Religious faith that promises great gifts in a mythical hereafter as the reward for adherence to unverifiable claims contradicts these ethics. In fact it is science that practices the generosity and inclusiveness that religions teach, and for that reason will triumph, because ultimately human beings prefer to be reasoned with rather than coerced and manipulated.
However, many still feel the need for a community that shares their wonder at the existence and beauty of the universe, while offering solace for the pains of life and death. For this reason, the fact that there are liberal forms of religion that are consistent with science and these ethics is not to be denigrated, as Coyne seems to. Many former believers have given up monotheistic religions for the pantheistic or liberal reconciliation offered by Spinoza and Einstein, precisely because they recognize the weakness of the claims of revelation compared to science, but still wants to feel part of a community. We scientists, who are lucky to be members of the most inclusive and diverse community on the planet, should understand the need of others to be bound in communities with people who share their values and hopes, so long as they do not contradict the ethics of the democracy we aspire to build.
Science and Religion are here to stay. When President Obama announced that we will restore science to its rightful place in government, the implication is that we will also restore religion to its rightful place--in the Church. Rick Warren was invited to Washington to deliver an invocation, not an opinion on science education or funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Robert Boyle, pioneering experimental chemist and a founder of the Royal Society, helped launch the current trend (in 1691) with his delightful "Christian virtuoso: Shewing, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian... to which are Subjoyn'd, A Discourse about the Distinction, that represents some Things as Above Reason, but not Contrary to Reason."
Boyle's is still the best answer to the question of whether the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. That an incessant stream of books attempting to reconcile Science and Religion keeps rolling off the assembly line is more a testament to the success of the Templeton Foundation than to the failure of Boyle and his followers to make their case.
I think scientists should stop wasting their time trying to beat up on the idea of God in the name of science.
My son recently completed his PhD in history on Max Weber's intellectual reception and introduced me to his (Max Weber's) century-old "Science as a Vocation" article. In it, Weber says, approvingly, that whereas Europeans look at professors as role models and expect them to be wise men, an American's "… conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father's money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. … And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct."
I think that's a healthy attitude. Professional scientists have no special expertise other than at science. Nobel Prize winners in anything cannot claim a morally superior insight into the Vietnam or any other war. The universe may indeed have started in a big bang (and if you think about the chain of logic and inference and concepts that have had to be invented in order to understand that sentence you will realize what a stretch it is), but that doesn't negate anything deep. Mental reality is as real as physical reality, and, in fact, a necessary precursor to theorizing about physical reality.
Personally, I like Schrodinger's attitude, and no one can quibble with his physics.
"My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature," he wrote. "Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I fore see the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibil ity for them." Therefore, he continued, "I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt 'I' – am the person, if any, who controls the ‘motion of the atoms' according to the Laws of Nature."
I enter this conversation feeling vaguely like a wishbone being stretched. On the one hand, I believe that the world is the creation of transcendent God that I perceive dimly behind the almost opaque curtain of my experience; but I also believe in the extraordinary power of science to unfold the nature of that world with astonishing clarity and conviction. I have one foot in each of Gould's non-overlapping magisteria and the space between them seems, at least in this conversation, uncomfortably large.
Discussions like this that juxtapose "empirical science" with "revealed religion" rarely seem like appropriately balanced encounters to me. When Ken Ham and his merry band of biblical literalists talk disparagingly about science, I can barely recognize it. But I had the same problem with Dawkins's send-up of believers in The God Delusion.
Coyne, who affirms Dawkins's approach, speaks of "theologians with a deistic bent" who inappropriately presume to "speak for all the faithful." The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration. This seems unfair to me. The great unwashed masses of these "faithful" should be juxtaposed with the great masses of people who "believe" in science but are not professionals. Most Americans—and the rest of the world, for that matter— are attached to both iPods and a belief that medical science is their best hope when they are sick. They "believe" in science. What do you suppose "science" would look like, were it defined by these "believers"? The physics would be Aristotelian; astrology and aliens would accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind. And yet all of these people would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.
Empirical science does indeed trump revealed truth about the world as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein's dethronement of Newton was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that science was clearly in error. It was, rather, a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Why is this different than modern theology's near universal rejection of the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament, so eloquently skewered by Dawkins? How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed?
The world disclosed by science is rich and marvelous, but most people think there is more to it. Our religious traditions embody our fitful and imperfect reflections on this mysterious and transcendent intuition—an intuition that, as articulated by some of our most profound thinkers, seeks an understanding of the world that is goes beyond the empirical.
Coyne is correct that books like those he reviewed—Ken Miller's Only a Theory and my Saving Darwin—have not been particularly successful in securing a peaceful overlap for the magisteria, at least not for most people. Coyne would say there is no such peaceful overlap. But there are many well-informed believers who have come to peace with science, and who live happily on the rich, but thinly populated, turf where the magisteria overlap.
I think we can all agree though that, wherever we stand, there is a great need for a discussion of how America's conversation on origins should proceed. We need to wake up to the reality that current strategies have been an abysmal failure and ask some tough questions about why that is. There is a widespread fear on America's main streets that evolution is destroying a cherished belief in God. As a consequence, anti-evolution has assumed the proportions of a military-industrial complex but the battle is a proxy war, aimed not at evolution, but at materialism. I wonder what would happen if, in the name of pluralism and diplomacy, we could all agree that it was OK for people to believe that evolution was a part of God's plan. I suspect that cultural changes would be inaugurated that would eventually make both Eugenie Scott and Ken Ham irrelevant.
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.
It's All True
It is a pity that people like Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett can't see how easily religion and science can be reconciled. Having once viewed the world as they do, I understand how their fundamentalist rationality has blinded them to deeper truths. I've wanted to say to both of these men—"Some things are above reason. Way above!" Happily, George Dyson has done this for me in a brilliant essay on this page. He demolishes the intellectual pretensions of militant atheists like Coyne and Dennett in the most elegant way imaginable: by merely divulging the title of a 17th century work by the great Robert Boyle. When I was a militant neo-rationalist, I had a sinking feeling that my colleagues and I had not fully reckoned with Boyle on the argument from Design and were, as a result, risking public humiliation. Now it has come to pass…
If I have one quibble with Dyson, it is that he has been far too modest in drawing out the implications of his argument. He is, of course, right to declare that "science and religion are here to stay." But magic is here to stay too, George; Africa is full of it. Is there a conflict between scientific rationality and a belief in magic spells? Specifically, is there a conflict between believing that epilepsy is a result of abnormal neural activity and believing that it is a sign of demonic possession? Dogmatists like Coyne and Dennett clearly think so. They don't realize, as Dyson must, that the more one understands neurology, the more one will understand—and honor—demonology. Have Coyne and Dennett read the work of sophisticated magicians like Aleister Crowley or Eliphas Levi? Don't count on it. Ask yourself, how could matter conflict with spirit in any way? Answer: it cannot. Forgive me, but I find it embarrassing to have to explain these things to people who are supposed be well educated.
Emanuel Derman admonishes neo-secular militants like Coyne and Dennett to "stop wasting… time trying to beat up on the idea of God in the name of science." This is so comprehensive a demolition of their work that I suspect Coyne and Dennett will be forever changed. Derman reminds us, with extraordinary patience, that scientists have no authority outside the narrow focus of the scientific worldview. Can a biologist harbor any educated doubts about the Virgin birth of Jesus? No—because human parthenogenesis has nothing whatsoever to do with biology. Can a physicist form an educated opinion about the likelihood of the Ascension? How could he? Bodily translocation into the sky does not require any interaction with the forces of nature. Can either a biologist or a physicist realistically doubt the coming Resurrection of the Dead? Many have tried—all have failed. (Please understand that any mention of "entropy" in this context is mere posturing.) As Derman recognizes, it is the sheerest arrogance that has led atheist scientists to overreach in this way.
This Edge exchange has been a feast for the mind! Consider Lisa Randall's moving account of having traveled by airplane in the company of a "charming young actor" who just knew in his heart that our species descended, not from apelike precursors, but from the biblical Adam. I urge readers to linger over these points, as Randall's prose is condensed nearly to the Planck scale. Just picture what it must have been like to be at thirty thousand feet in the company of a man who studied molecular biology at the college level. Next, consider that this prodigy is both a working actor and an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. Finally, realize that the stranger at your side believes evolution to be nothing more than a sinister piece of secular propaganda. I can dimly imagine how Coyne and Dennett felt upon reading Randall's tale this far.
But Randall drills deeper:
"Empirically-based logic-derived science and faith are entirely different methods for trying to approach truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. If you believe in revelatory truth you've abandoned the rules. There is no contradiction to be had."
I am confident that Randall's airplane adventure will mark a turning point in our intellectual discourse. Not only has she resolved all the contradictions between science and religion (and magic, voodoo, UFO cults, astrology, Tarot, palmistry, etc.), she has reconciled apparently conflicting religions with one another. Hindus worship a multiplicity of gods; Muslims acknowledge the existence of only one, and believe that polytheism is a killing offense. Do Hinduism and Islam conflict? Only "if your rules are logic." Just as paths ascending a mountain slope can seem discrepant at the mountain's base, and yet once we stand upon the summit, we find that all routes have led to the same destination—so it will be with every exercise of the human intellect! The Summit of Truth awaits, my friends. Simply pick your path....
And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is "staggeringly insensitive" to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur'an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.
How can a militant secularist atheist neo-dogmatist like Coyne not see the plain truth? There simply IS no conflict between religion and science. And even if there were one, it would be an utter waste of time to say anything about it. Lawrence Krauss has established this second point beyond any possibility of doubt. Go back and read his essay. It'll just take you five seconds. I've read it upwards of seventy times, and each perusal brings fresh insight.
Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives to deliver the perspective of a genuine believer and to defend his work from the callow misreading of Coyne:
"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."
That's just the right note to strike with a neo-militant rationalist like Coyne. These people are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…
Of course, one mustn't carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible—and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue—and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.
Miller, on the other hand, recognizes that every scientist is free to see the world as he or she wants to: If Francis Collins wants to believe that the historical Jesus was actually raised from the dead and still exists in an ethereal form which renders him both clairvoyant and mildly disapproving of masturbation, these beliefs do not even slightly detract from his stature as a scientist. A man like Dawkins, who was exposed long ago for his rigid adherence to biological naturalism, may choose not to believe these things. The choice is his. But given his resolute denial of the risen Christ—and, indeed, of the very existence of a loving and provident Creator—Dawkins has no standing to criticize the approach of Collins, because he simply has no internal sense of how labile the scientific imagination can become once tempered by the Christian faith.
Miller is especially good at separating scientific rationality from every other form of human cognition. It is crucial that the reader understand that science is a trade: it does not matter what a scientist believes as long as he does his scientific work properly. This has been a stumbling block for many would-be intellectuals who imagine that science might have something to do with a comprehensive understanding of the universe, or that an awareness of the quantity and quality of evidence may know no boundaries. Perhaps an analogy will help: Let us say a cardiac surgeon believes that automobile accidents are caused, not by human inattention, brake failure, and the like, but by the Evil Eye. Would this reduce his stature as a physician? Of course not—because heart surgery has nothing to do with the indiscretions of car and driver. As Miller states, "the real issue is whether a scientist's view on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly, it is not." Yes, this is as clear the rising sun. I would only add that a belief in the Evil Eye is perfectly compatible with modern medicine—with the possible exception of ophthalmology. Some have called this the "balkanization of epistemology." I think words like "epistemology" are overrated. And so do most Americans.
Finally, Miller arrives at the deepest question of all:
"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?"
I have often wondered why walking works. Why is the world organized in such a way that we can walk upon it? And why should there be limits to our ability to move about in this way, like those imposed upon us at the highest altitudes? Indeed, I thought the subject fit for my doctoral dissertation, but was cruelly dissuaded by an unimaginative advisor. And yet, I think Miller's question is deeper still. Clearly, men like Coyne and Dennett have averted their eyes from the answer—an answer that is plainly obvious to over ninety percent of their least educated neighbors. The universe is rationally intelligible because the God of Abraham has made it so. This God, who once showed an affinity for human sacrifice, and whose only direct communication with humanity (in the Holy Bible, through the agency of the Holy Spirit) betrays not the slightest trace of scientific understanding, nevertheless instilled in us the cognitive ability to subsequently understand this magnificent and terrifying cosmos in scientific terms. As to why science has been the greatest agent for the mitigation of religious belief the world has ever seen, and has been viewed as a threat by religious people in almost every context, this is a final mystery that defies human analysis. I have often thought that if God had wanted us to understand the difference between having good reasons for what one believes, and having bad ones, He would have made this difference intelligible to everyone.
The universe is whole and without contradiction. What may appear like a contradiction at one level of physics or biology is always resolved at higher vibrational energies—or perhaps, as Miller points out, by "miracles." Needless to say, miracles, are precisely the sorts of occurrences that defy rational understanding and which would cause anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of the world to doubt their occurrence. Which is to say that if Jesus had been born of a virgin, had raised the dead, had been so raised Himself after a brief interlude, had then ascended bodily into the heavens, and has subsequently nurtured from on high these two millennia an abiding distrust for Jews and homosexuals—these are precisely the sorts of low probability events that people like Coyne, Dennett and Dawkins would doubt ever occurred. Therefore, the doubts of fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militants actually render the miracles of Jesus' ministry more plausible than they would otherwise be. Jerry, Dan, Richard—please give this some thought.
Jerry Coyne applies rigorous standards of logic and evidence to the claims of religion and to the attempts to reconcile it with science. Many scientists who share his atheism still believe that he is somehow being rude or uncouth for pressing the point. But he is right to do so. Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.
Science cannot be walled off from other forms of belief. That includes meaning and morality – reason connects them all. The same standards of evidence that rule out unparisimonious, unfalsifiable, or empirically refuted hypotheses in science also rule out crackpot conspiracy theories, totalizing ideologies, and toxic policy nostrums. Moral systems depend on factual beliefs, informed by psychology and biology, about what makes human beings suffer or prosper. They depend on standards of logical consistency that make it possible to apply the principle of fairness. And they depend on meta-ethical propositions about what morality is, and on how we can decide what is moral in particular cases. Just as coherent biological reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that God can step in at any moment and push the molecules around, coherent moral reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that the universe unfolds according a divine merciful plan, that humans have a free will that is independent of their neurobiology, or that people can behave morally only if they fear divine retribution in an afterlife.
Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you've already lost the argument, because you're using reason to make your case. And no, this isn't having "faith" in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don't "believe" in reason; we use reason.
Why do so many scientists get anxious when Coyne and others apply standards of coherence and evidence — the very standards they rely on in their own work — to the propositions of religion? One fear is that people (other than them) cannot lead meaningful and moral lives without it. This is an empirical proposition, and evidence from contemporary Europe – unprecedentedly secular, and unprecedentedly peaceable – is relevant. Another is a fear of rupturing ties of family, community, culture, symbolism and ritual. But these can survive without a theistic belief system — think of secular rituals such as a moment of silence to commemorate a colleague, or the wearing of poppies on November 11. And the largest portion of the family and cultural ties that hold together communities of American Jews, Chinese, Italians, and other ethnic communities are not theological propositions.
But the reconciliationist arguments do depend on theological propositions, and there is no reason that they should not be subjected to the standards of reason.
A is A: Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion
In a recent "In Conversation" that I did with Karl Giberson at the Harvard Club in New York to discuss his new book Saving Darwin, I noted our parallel career paths of both attending Christian colleges, both embracing creationism, and both replacing our creationism with evolutionary science, and yet I became an atheist while he retained his Christian faith: "As you were going down the path of abandoning creationism and challenging your religious beliefs, why didn't you just keep going and become an agnostic or atheist?" Giberson's reply is revealing:
"There's a slippery slope, and you slide off that fundamentalist plateau down toward unbelief at the bottom, and you probably clawed your way as you were sliding down looking for something to grab a hold of and couldn't find anything; I guess I'm stuck on a bush part way down at the moment and haven't felt the need to slip all the way to the bottom."
The sense I had in spending an evening with Karl Giberson is that he is this close (hold your thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart) to being an agnostic (in Huxley's definition of God being "unknowable"). I agree with Jerry Coyne's appraisal of both Giberson and Ken Miller as being "thoughtful men of good will" with "a sense of conviction and sincerity" in their books, and in his final assessment that "in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution…for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims."
But I go even further than Coyne. And knowing both Giberson and Miller, I believe that they are both close to the position I shall herewith articulate: I don't think a union between science and religion is possible for a logical reason, but by this same logic I conclude that science cannot contradict religion. Here's why: A is A. Reality is real. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-Nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism.
In a natural worldview, there is no non-natural or supernatural. There is only the natural and mysteries left to explain through natural means. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism. The only way to do this for theists is to posit that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature—super nature, or supernatural—and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science. Thus, there can be no conflict between science and religion, unless one attempts to bring God into our time and space, which is a violation of the principle of A is A.