Chris Mooney has posted his latest salvo in his ongoing discussion with Jerry Coyne. Sadly, I think he has muffed it pretty badly.
Coyne, of course, can take care of himself. I am inserting myself into this discussion simply because I think this is an important and interesting topic. So let’s have a look.
The trouble starts early in Mooney’s post when he writes:
I believe the central reason we have such massive problems with the teaching of evolution to be precisely this–millions of America believe, incorrectly, that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept it. This misconception is highly prevalent, and is regularly reinforced in a number of ways: Through the media, by church leaders, by the New Atheists, and so on.
Close to half of all Americans accept the young-Earth creationist view of things, if the public opinion polls are to be believed. Those Americans really do have to give up their faith, or at least to alter it radically into something fundamentally different, if they are to accept evolution. Many others look at the savagery and unpredictability of evolution and see threats both to God’s goodness and to human specialness. They may not be logically forced to abandon their faith, but they are not being unreasonable in seeing a fundamental conflict between evolution and their faith.
There are counter arguments, of course. By all means read Miller, Haught, Ruse and all the others on this subject. They have shown quite successfully that traditional Christianity is not flatly refuted by evolution, or by anything else in science. Coyne and the New Atheists have never claimed otherwise. The trouble is simply that their attempted reconciliations seem terribly implausible, to me and to a lot of others.
Your answer to whether science and religion can be reconciled will depend a lot on what you consider essential to your faith and on what you consider it plausible to believe. It is not an empirical matter that can be resolved by amassing enough facts. Consequently, it does not make sense to describe it as a misconception that evolution and Christianity are incompatible, at least not as a general proposition. The YEC’s are not misconceiving anything in saying that evolution conflicts with Christianity as they understand it. Nor are the many other Christians who are not YEC’s but who still see insurmountable challenges to their credulity in accepting both the tenets of their faith and the findings of science.
So long as traditional religion remains a dominant force in our society we are going to have this problem. The strategy of trotting out religious scientists and spouting happy talk about science and faith complementing one another has been a dismal failure, as demonstrated by the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans want some form of creationism taught in the schools. It’s not because of Richard Dawkins that we have this state of affairs, and it is not because millions of people are confused about their faith.
Precisely what was decided in the Dover case? The full decision is here, but basically, Judge John E. Jones III unmasked “intelligent design” for the religious charade that it is. Underlying the decision, however, was a definition of science as a process of naturalistic–but not atheistic–inquiry. Or as Judge Jones put it, relying on Robert Pennock’s testimony as well as that of others:
In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. (9:21 (Haught); 1:64, 87 (Miller)). While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. (3:103 (Miller); 9:19-20 (Haught)). This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. (5:23, 29-30 (Pennock)). Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (1:59-64, 2:41-43 (Miller); 5:8, 23-30 (Pennock)).
Near the end of his essay Mooney writes
I might also add that as I read Jerry Coyne, he is constantly violating the methodological/philosophical naturalism distinction-so persuasively articulated by Pennock, so fundamental to the Dover trial-as if it doesn’t matter. Certainly, I have never seen, in what I have read of Coyne so far, that he draws the distinction, not even to problematize it. But more on that in later posts.
He must be reading a different Jerry Coyne from me. The Coyne I’m reading wrote, in his article for The New Republic that started this whole thing:
Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it.
Looks to me like Coyne understands perfectly the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. In fact, what he says in this paragraph looks strikingly similar to what Judge Jones said in the paragraph Mooney quoted.
After a few paragraphs in which Mooney establishes, as if anyone were confused on the matter, that science can not conclusively rule out the possibility of the supernatural, he writes:
Crucially, such logic suggests that it is most emphatically possible to accept the results of science’s naturalistic methodology, and yet also retain supernatural beliefs that science cannot touch. Similarly, one can accept science’s naturalistic methodology but not hold any supernatural beliefs. Neither position violates science. Only confusions or inappropriate commingling of the two realms are a problem: Thus “intelligent design” violates science because it tries to transform religious claims into scientific ones and, indeed, to undermine methodological naturalism itself. ID tries to claim we can detect God’s supernatural action, in the world, through science. Due to such religious underpinnings-and such a grave category error-it does not belong in science class.
This completely misses the point. If you hold views about a supernatural realm that have absolutely no empirical consequences whatsoever then you have nothing to fear from science. There are even certain religious systems that posit such a realm. But that is not the sort of faith held by most Christians.
If you believe that God has certain attributes and that humanity occupies a special place in creation then it is certainly possible for the empirical realities of nature to pose a challenge to your religious beliefs. Just think of how much simpler theology would be if we took Mooney’s approach. Turns out all those theologians who see a serious (if surmountable) challenge to their faith in the reality of evil and suffering were guilty of a category error. All they had to say was that empirical realities are a separate realm from any hypothesized supernatural world. And those theologians who from 1859 onward saw a threat in the idea that natural selection was the dominant force in evolution? Tripped up by an elementary philosophical oversight.
I was a bit surprised that Mooney didn’t use this quote from Judge Jones’ decision:
Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock
assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory
is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in
general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the
theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the
scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the
existence of a divine creator.
I have no problem at all with that statement, and I suspect Jerry Coyne does not either. So long as we are talking about a divine creator in the abstract then there is no conflict with evolution. Deism is not threatened by evolution. If we were talking about the Christian conception of God specifically, though, then I would have a problem with that line about there being “no conflict at all.” That’s not the sort of question that can be resolved by the testimony of a few expert witnesses. Soften it to, “Many scientists and theologians see no conflict between evolution and divine creation,” and we’re back in business.
Going back to Mooney’s essay we find:
Evolutionary science does belong there, for not only is it good science, but it isn’t atheism–this science, like any other, is religiously neutral. It looks to the world for naturalistic causation, but cannot say anything whatsoever about the supernatural.
It is simply absurd to say that evolution is religiously neutral when it flatly contradicts the religious faith of nearly half the country. One more time, science can not rule out the existence of a supernatural realm, but it can certainly make certain ideas about how the supernatural realm interacts with our earthly realm seem highly implausible.
Such, anyways, is the logic of the Dover decision, based on the arguments of Pennock, Miller, Haught, and Forrest, and of course the very skilled lawyers who used them as key witnesses. So here’s the question: What if Coyne and the New Atheists are right, and evolution (or science itself) isn’t actually neutral? What if there really is a fundamental conflict between science and religion? What if methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism aren’t really distinct–but the former inevitably also entails the latter?
The Dover case, as I read it, doesn’t explicitly say. Furthermore, I’m not a lawyer. But I fear that were the New Atheists to somehow prevail on this point, the anti-evolutionists might wreak some serious havoc in the courtroom in a later case. This is one reason to be concerned about the New Atheist position.
This mostly reiterates past confusions. The clear distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism is mostly irrelevant to the question of whether science and religion are compatible, since religion typically claims far more than the mere existence of a supernatural realm.
Moreover, the question of whether there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion is not the sort of thing about which there is a clear right and wrong answer. As I said previously, people have to decide that for themselves based on their own notions of faith and plausibility. I look at Ken Miller’s arguments and see desperate special pleading in the service of an antiquated religious system. He sees an entirely plausible view of the world that makes sense of the facts and is in keeping with Catholic tradition. Po-TAY-to, Po-TAH-to.
That the legal question is complex is one of the few aspects of this on which I agree with Mooney. I would point out, however, that the outright contradiction between evolutionary science and the religion of nearly half the country has never been deemed a reason for finding it unconstitutional to teach evolution. Creationists have filed lawsuits on precisely that basis, but I am not aware of any that even made it to trial.
Furthermore, the 1968 Supreme Court case Eperson v. Arkansas struck down Scopes-era laws prohibiting the teaching of theories that contradicted religious dogmas. The decision included this nugget:
The Court held that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state from requiring, in the words of the majority opinion, “that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”
That seems on point. The scholarly consensus is that evolution is good science, and that creationism and ID are not science at all. That some people see a conflict between those assertions and their religious beliefs is apparently irrelevant. In light of this, Mooney’s hand-wringing seems unwarranted.
Suppose we turn things around. What if science had discovered that the universe is on the order of ten thousand years old, just as the YEC’s claim? Suppose further that scientists discovered that different animals use fundamentally different genetic codes, and that these codes occur in a pattern that matches a reasonable notion of “created kind.” Would anyone argue that it is unconstitutional to teach these facts in science class on the grounds that they provide substantial support to the Biblical account?
(Quick digression: If science actually had discovered those things, would anyone regard those findings as a defeat for the Bible, on the grounds that the Genesis account was clearly meant as an allegory? Or do you think all those theologians who nowadays give lectures on the absurdity of taking Genesis literally would suddenly argue instead that the Bible had it right all along?)
Absolutely nothing in the Dover decision is being challenged by Coyne or anyone else. Different people can draw different metaphysical conclusions from the same empirical data. The argument is over whether it is reasonable to accept both evolution and traditional Christianity, not over whether it is possible to accept both. Rather a lot of people in this country do not think it is reasonable, and in my view they are entirely justified in that belief. They should not be dismissed as ignorant extremists, or told they are making a category error, or given a lecture about methodological versus philosophical naturalism.
There is, indeed, a conflict between evolution and traditional religion. Not at the level of logical implications or metaphysical certitude, but at the level of what the different systems claim about natural history and our place in it, and the basis on which those claims are defended. Continue with the happy accommodationist talk all you want, but don’t blame it on RIchard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne when you are greeted with folded arms and planted feet.