Coyne Weighs In

Jerry Coyne has posted his thoughts on the subject of methodological naturalism. Here’s a sample:

I am a methodological naturalist, but I don’t think that all supernatural claims defy scientific analysis. Moreover, I don’t see that the methodological/philosophical distinction has a lot to do with the dissonance between faith and science. The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable. These are two fundamentally different and incompatible ways of ascertaining “truth.” In fact, I don’t see that religion has any way at all of ascertaining “truth,” since its claims cannot be falsified. The fact that the major “truths” of different religions are in permanent and irresolvable conflict testifies to this difference between science and faith.

Lot’s of food for thought. Go read the whole thing.

Comments

  1. #1 Anthony McCarthy
    June 10, 2009

    And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.

    Coyne must really be horribly disappointed in those people who came out of the death camps with their religion intact. I wonder what he would say to them, would he try to convince them that they should abandon their faith in a diety who is good, loving, and just on the basis of their experience. I think Coyne’s use of this on today of all days is appallingly bad taste.

  2. #2 John Kwok
    June 10, 2009

    While this is a bit off topic, I am still surprised that Coyne didn’t seize the opportunity that was handed to him by the World Science Festival here in New York City, by agreeing to participate in its roundtable panel discussion on Science, Faith and Religion (Those participating include physicist Lawrence Krauss – perhaps best known for his book, “The Physics of Star Trek” – and Ken Miller. I will be in attendance as one of several hundred in the general audience.). Coyne could have used this opportunity not only to make a persuasive case why science and scientific organizations should not have an “accomodationist” stance towards religion, but also explain why the Templeton Foundation should be scorned by all.

  3. #3 RBH
    June 10, 2009

    Coyne wrote

    The real dissonance, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is between the scientific acceptance of only those claims adjudicated by empirical investigation, and the religious acceptance of “truth” claims that are discovered by revelation (or instruction by one’s parents) and are unfalsifiable.

    This is where Coyne confuses the issue by referring to apples and kumquats. The first alternative (“scientific acceptance … by empirical investigation”) is phrased in terms of how knowledge claims are justified, whereas the second clause (“‘truth’ claims that are discovered by revelation’) in phrased in terms of the source of the alleged claim. Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification is useful to keep in mind here.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 10, 2009

    RBH –

    I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. For the sorts of claims to which Coyne is referring, the source (Scripture) is the same as the justification (It says so in Scripture). Certainly not all religious claims are made on the basis of revelation, but enough are that I think this is a legitimate point on Coyne’s part.

  5. #5 Anthony McCarthy
    June 10, 2009

    Is the truth that all people are created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness falsifiable? Is the rightness of the separation of church and state falsifiable? Just how much truth that can’t be falsified does he want us to give up as delusion?

    From what I’ve seen on his blog, Coyne has a way of rigging the rules that “truths” are evaluated by so the results will always come out the way he wants them to. He ran a contest on that topic last month.

  6. #6 BaldApe
    June 11, 2009

    I don’t see that religion has any way at all of ascertaining “truth,” since its claims cannot be falsified.

    Besides that, if any of them were demonstrably correct, it would be big news and we would know about it. If someone were really psychic, or a real prophet, or could restore lost limbs by prayer, we would know about it.

    In fact, to me that’s the thing that makes religious “ways of knowing” so unconvincing. They all come up with different “truths” and there is absolutely no way to reliably separate the good stuff from the bull. My conclusion is that it’s all bull.

    Once naturalistic methods have successfully explained just about everything that used to have a supernatural explanation, the idea that the remaining unexplained things might really have a supernatural explanation is just plain silly.

  7. #7 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ BaldApe –

    It might be worthwhile to read writings from those philosophers who don’t seen religion and science as mutually exclusive, but rather, in some respects, complementary. For example, here in New York City, on February 12th, I heard philosopher Philip Kitcher talk about “Living with Darwin”, and he observed that one of the best reasons why religion is necessary is via its ethical codes and fostering a sense of community within human populations (Of course he is referring only to those religious practices and faiths that are capable of doing “good”.).

  8. #8 BaldApe
    June 11, 2009

    @ John Kwok

    Still, the fact claims of religious texts that relate to physical events (flood story, 6-day creation, etc.) are demonstrably wrong. Why should we accept ethical claims (like “clean” and “unclean” foods, acceptance or rejection of homosexuality, etc.)? Again, they mostly disagree, and when they agree an appeal to a universal human nature is much more reasonable than a claim of divine inspiration.

  9. #9 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ BaldApe –

    We should accept “ethical claims” simply because to do otherwise would to invite anarchy and eventually, even barbarism. One need not be religious to subscribe to an ethical code of conduct. Indeed, this is exactly what philosopher Austin Dacey – who serves as the Center for Inquiry’s United Nations representative – has been advocating his recent book, “The Secular Conscience”.

    Throughout history, there have been religious leaders who have advised followers not to accept writings in their faith’s sacred texts as literal expressions of GOD(s) thought. For example – and I wasn’t aware of this until I heard Ken Miller observe this at a private talk he gave here in New York City last month – Saint Augustine advised his fellow Christians not to take literally the Genesis account as the recollection of the real creation of the world; instead, it should be viewed merely as metaphor. More recently, the Dalai Lama has stated that if religion is in conflict with current scientific knowledge, then religion must change to conform with that knowledge.

  10. #10 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    Kwok, I think Bald Ape was talking about specifically religious ethical claims, – really, specifically purity-based religious ones – not ethical claims in general?

    And I’m wondering if I’ve somewhat misunderstood Kitcher, who I’ve only heard on a Point of Inquiry interview – I keep meaning to get that book . . . Does he feel religion is necessary, or that religion serves necessary functions which might be also carried out by other systems/institutions?

    Once naturalistic methods have successfully explained just about everything that used to have a supernatural explanation, the idea that the remaining unexplained things might really have a supernatural explanation is just plain silly.

    Bald Ape – I have to say, this is one thing that always gets me. Granted, “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results,” but still, on the level of rough rule-of-thumb heuristics …. (which isn’t to say that religion isn’t relevant in other ways, etc, …) Religion: the boy who cried God?

    . If someone were . . . .a real prophet

    Granted, if they stuck to the traditional OT sociopolitical beat, as opposed to fortune-telling, I expect they’d still be pretty much ignored . . .

  11. #11 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Dan S. –

    He may be, but still it was worded in such a fashion that one could conclude that he was rejecting the necessity of adhering at all to any “ethical claims”, religious or otherwise. It was for that reason that I had to refer to Dacey’s book.

  12. #12 SLC
    June 11, 2009

    Is Prof. Rosenhouse planning to comment on Prof. Millers’ shot across Prof. Coynes’ bow?

    http://www.millerandlevine.com/evolution/Coyne-Accommodation.htm

  13. #13 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ 12 –

    Ken clearly pulls no punches this time (Much to his credit, Ken has bent over backwards with regards to hostile criticism he has been receiving from militant atheists like Coyne and PZ Myers. But sometimes you just have to call a spade, a spade.). Regrettably, I believe that his rebuttal is a fair and accurate assessment. What Jason Rosenhouse and, especially Jerry Coyne, will find troublesome is Ken’s unflattering comparison of Coyne’s position on science’s “accomodation” with religion to that of two well known creationists,

  14. #14 AL
    June 11, 2009

    Is the truth that all people are created equal and endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness falsifiable? Is the rightness of the separation of church and state falsifiable?

    Neither of these are “truths” in the same way that “2+2=4″ or “I am typing from a computer” is a truth. In fact, these are normative claims, and there is a distinction between facts and values (i.e. normative claims != descriptive claims).

  15. #15 AL
    June 11, 2009

    What Jason Rosenhouse and, especially Jerry Coyne, will find troublesome is Ken’s unflattering comparison of Coyne’s position on science’s “accomodation” with religion to that of two well known creationists,

    I find it troublesome, but only because it’s well-poisoning. So what if Buckingham and McLeroy agree with Coyne? I’m sure Buckingham and McLeroy (and Johnson, for that matter) also believe the sky is blue, should Coyne refrain from believing that for fear that Miller might irrelevantly then point out that he agrees with those kwazy kweationists? The comparison doesn’t actually point out what’s wrong with what Coyne said. It’s a red herring.

  16. #16 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Al –

    You and I see it differently, and in my case, it is not merely because Ken is an old friend. Coyne should have anticipated that Ken might respond this way in light of his own inane comparison of Ken as a “cryptic” creationist in his New Republic review of Ken’s and Giberson’s books back in January.

  17. #17 BaldApe
    June 11, 2009

    I should have said “Why should we accept their ethical claims?”

  18. #18 John Kwok
    June 11, 2009

    @ Al –

    I just read Ken’s essay again. Sadly, it makes perfect sense for Ken to link philosophically, the worldviews of Buckingham, McElroy, and Johnson, since all of them – including Coyne ironically enough – contend that to “belief” in evolution, then you must be a militant atheist who strongly denies any belief in GOD.

    In Ken’s essay, Ken makes the credible accusation that Coyne – if Coyne were to follow the logical consequences of his harsh rhetoric – would conclude that, of all people, a fellow atheist, Carl Sagan – might adhere to the very weak version of the anthropic principle which Coyne contends is an important part of Ken’s religious and scientific worldview.

    Instead – and this is a statement which Ken is in full agreement – Sagan made this impassioned plea on behalf of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence:

    “But clearly when we’re talking about extraterrestrial intelligence, we are not talking–despite Star Trek–of humans or humanoids. We are talking about the functional equivalent of humans– say, any creatures able to build and operate radio telescopes. They may live on the land or in the sea or air. They may have unimaginable chemistries, shapes, sizes, colors, appendages and opinions. We are not requiring that they follow the particular route that led to the evolution of humans. There may be many different evolutionary pathways, each unlikely, but the sum of the number of pathways to intelligence may nevertheless be quite substantial”. [Sagan, The Bioastronomy News, vol. 7, no. 4, 1995]

    So if Ken is a creationist according to Coyne’s simplistic logic, then was Sagan too?

  19. #19 Dan S.
    June 11, 2009

    Neither of these are “truths” in the same way that “2+2=4″ or “I am typing from a computer” is a truth.

    I was gonna try and say this, but you did it much more succinctly. Thanks!

    (One could argue that church/state separation has a some degree of empirical support, but that just goes one step out from value issues.)

  20. #20 eric
    June 11, 2009

    Good essay.
    I mentioned this on PT but to expand a bit here: every scientific model or equation or theory is like a coin with two sides. It says what variables matter to predicting a phenomenon. By necessity, this also means it says what variables don’t matter. Newton’s universal equation for gravity does not just imply that the gravitational force between two objects depends on their masses and the distance between them: it also necessarily implies that this force depends on nothing else. There are no other variables that matter. Not the number of angels pushing that planet, not your prayers, or the intelligence of the two objects, or anything else. You might say that every model comes with an infinite number of extra terms, each with its own coefficient, but at the moment the coefficients for those terms which correspond to supernatural action appear to be zero.
    So while there may be some supernatural phenomena we cannot study via science, the question of “what do supernatural agents do” is partially answered every time science comes up with an explanation for some phenomenon: they don’t do this. Maybe something else, but not this.

  21. #21 Uppity
    June 11, 2009

    13: “Neither of these are “truths” in the same way that “2+2=4″ or “I am typing from a computer” is a truth. In fact, these are normative claims, and there is a distinction between facts and values (i.e. normative claims != descriptive claims).

    These are helpful categories, but they aren’t nearly so distinct as you appear to suppose. To begin with, science rightly teaches us that each and every alleged fact is subject to re-evaluation and correction in light of evidence. Moreover, brute facts aren’t particularly helpful on their own. They require interpretation. For example, Coyne’s statement that “Evolution is True” is essentially an interpretive one based upon a large body of empirical evidence, as the book outlines. That evidence may cumulatively be enough for reasonable observers to conclude that, as a practical matter, evolution is a fact (as I believe it to be). But that statement isn’t strictly true. Thus the attempt to make such a definitive, bright-line distinction doesn’t hold up across the board.

  22. #22 SLC
    June 11, 2009

    Re eric

    It should be pointed out that Newton also believed that the interplanetary interactions might cause the solar system to become unstable over time and postulated that every once in a while, god intervened to maintain stability. It took a hundred years for Laplace to actually compute the interplanetary interactions using perturbation theory and demonstrate that the system was stable over long periods of time. Famously, he presented a treatise on the subject to Napoleon who asked where god might fit in. Laplace replied that he had no need of that hypothesis.

  23. #23 Anthony McCarthy
    June 11, 2009

    SLC, you might want to mention that George Berkeley discovered problems with the calculus that took even longer to correct. Course, he was just a faith head too.

  24. #24 windy
    June 12, 2009

    Coyne must really be horribly disappointed in those people who came out of the death camps with their religion intact. I wonder what he would say to them

    I would not be disappointed, but why is it especially admirable? Would you praise someone who came out of the Gulag with their faith in Stalin intact?

  25. #25 eric
    June 12, 2009

    SLC and Anthony,
    Yep, I was aware, that’s actually why I chose that example. But just about any scientific proposition will do. F=ma, 2LOT etc… by saying what variables matter, they necessarily tell you what variables don’t matter.

  26. #26 Anthony McCarthy
    June 12, 2009

    eric, you do know that if someone says that God made the universe in exactly the way it was made and developed, it would be absolutely compatible with all of science. If God made it that way it’s all a manifestation of a supernatural will. Who knows? Maybe when we’ve evolved some more we’ll have a faculty that allows us to observe it. Maybe we’re a pre-release version.

    Maybe God is like those really good tailors who can hide the stitches so well you can’t tell they’re there. Clearly, God doesn’t care if the new atheists don’t believe it.

  27. #27 Keith Douglas
    June 13, 2009

    Anthony McCarthy, a (metaphysical?) naturalist must point out that to even say “the universe was made” is to lapse into supernaturalism. To even say it had an origin is – bad popularizations about the big bang not withstanding.

  28. #28 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    June 13, 2009

    Keith Douglas, you are so right!
    Coyne, Dawkins, Kurtz, Provine, Myers and I know that with the weight of evidence showing no cosmic teleology [pace Simpson and Mayr] , the teleonomic/atleic argument then concludes , no deity need apply for the work: it violates also the Razor to include any deity, any deity would be vacuous [ ignosticism], and all that would be obfuscation.
    Scott and Ruse arrogantly refuse to recognize our argument – whilst non-theists themselves!- yet all to willing to argue for theism in effect!
    Windy, faith doth that to people!
    Miller and all use the new Omphalos argument that the deity lets us think that natural causes are the actual causation but no, as Malebranche’s occassionalim notes, when we hit the eight ball, He is the one who actually delivers the blow! This obfuscation irks us new atheists! It i sone reason why we are new atheists!
    Thankfully, we have PZ and the others to enlighen others about this ruse! We do not seek ideological purity but the truth: accommodationists can still accommodate but never should deny our finding that theism and science do not mix factually but only religiously: superstition can accommodate to many things! Scientists can wear metallic objects to ward off diseases or rabbit foots for good look but those devices don’t work.

    From the side of science, no accommodation; from the side of superstition- the supernatural and the paranormal, indeed yes!

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