Massimo Pigliucci thinks Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins have naive views about science and the supernatural:
My problem with Dawkins and Coyne is different, but stems from the same root: their position on morality is indeed distinct from Harris’ (at least Dawkins’, I don’t recall having read anything by Coyne on morality), but they insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.
Jerry Coyne replies by explaining why Massimo is being silly:
Dawkins, too, is not immune to the blandishments of art and literature, as you can see by simply reading his books. I suspect that both Richard and I are advocates of “scientism” only to the extent that when questions are amenable to logic, reason, and empirical investigation, then we should always use those tools. If that’s “scientism,” then so be it.
Jerry then goes on to give some examples of places where hypotheses involving the supernatural can be tested.
This issue flares up periodically, but is it really all that complicated?
Let us acknowledge up front that it is difficult to give a clear definition of the supernatural. If we discovered, say, that there were entities in the universe that could act in defiance of what we consider to be universal natural laws, that would just mean those laws do not apply as widely as we thought. One could argue that if it happens, then it is natural. Still, I take it that if we found there were intelligent agents in the universe who can alter our physical constants at their whim and bring universes into being by acts of will, then we could reasonably attach the label “supernatural” to them.
So let us get down to business. If we are speaking of supernatural entities who do not interact in any way with our natural world, then science plainly has nothing to say about them. On the other hand, if you are suggesting entities that do interact with the natural world, and which have clear intentions and attitudes towards us, then science obviously has something to say about them.
An simple example is the problem of evil. If you believe that the world is superintended by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, then the empirical observation of rampant pain, suffering and evil is a difficulty you must address. There certainly appears to be a contradiction here. Perhaps the problem is solvable and the contradiction disappears with careful thought. Philosophers and theologians have certainly offered plenty of arguments in that direction. But there are not very many who dismiss the problem out of hand by saying that the factuality of the natural world is irrelevant to our understanding of supernatural entities.
A second example is the problem of human inevitability. If you believe that God created he world specifically with humans in mind, then you must come to terms with what evolution is telling us about natural history. Once again, you can not argue that the details of natural history are irrelevant to our understanding of God and expect to be taken seriously. A clean separation between our understanding of the natural world and many common ideas about the supernatural is not possible.
You could argue that these are not definitive tests of the relevant supernatural ideas. Many people in possession of the relevant facts persist in the traditional beliefs, after all. But that is no different from anything else in science. Young Earth Creationists reject modern scientific arguments for the antiquity of the Earth, but that does not mean that science has nothing to say about their beliefs. Many people once thought that hypothesizing neutrinos was just a desperation move for preserving conservation of energy. Nothing is ever definitive in science, and you can always devise ad hoc hypotheses to prop up any beloved idea. What is relevant to this discussion is simply that science has something to say about specific conceptions of the supernatural.
A better argument is that it is not really the supernatural that is being tested in these examples. The question of the age of the Earth is one that can be addressed by scientific means, and the answer science has found is disconcerting to some people. They might even be led to rethink their religious views in the light of these answers. The fact remains, though, that nothing about the supernatural played any role in the work the scientists did. I agree with this, but again do not see it as relevant. If you believe that the supernatural realm influences the natural realm then science can, at least in principle, discover things that will affect the probability that your beliefs are correct.
Just as science can test certain specific ideas of how the supernatural interacts with the natural, so too can it uncover things that make the existence of a supernatural realm seem likely. If we have a good grasp of the sorts of things that go on in the natural world, and then find a phenomenon that is utterly at odds with what we know, we are likely to revise upwards the probability that there is a supernatural realm monkeying with nature from outside.
There is a reason nearly everyone who considered the matter in the early nineteenth century found William Paley’s argument to be convincing. (For that matter, rather a lot of people today find it convincing). He pointed to a phenomenon, namely the functionality of certain complex systems in organisms, that seemed utterly beyond what could be explained by natural causes, and quite reasonably concluded that we should consider supernatural causes instead. As it happens, Paley was wrong about that. But now suppose that all of those lines of evidence that today support evolution by natural selection had instead shown evolution to be a nonstarter. In that case I suspect most of us would still think Paley’s argument was pretty strong.
Not definitive, of course. You could never be certain you had such a good grasp on the workings of nature that you would know the supernatural if you saw it. History teaches that lesson rather well. But, again, that is irrelevant. Everything in science is held tentatively and is open to revision when new evidence turns up. All you can do is come to the best conclusion you can based on the evidence you have. It is a triviality to imagine fact sets that would make the existence of the supernatural seem like the most reasonable conclusion.
It is a bit more problematic to go the other way. Most knowledgeable people would agree that science has, in fact, not come up with anything that counts as good evidence for the existence of the supernatural. But can we go from absence of evidence to evidence of absence? When evidence is absent under circumstances where we can reasonably expect to find evidence if the entity in question is real, then absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. Among philosophers of religion this is known as the problem of divine hiddenness, and it is not a problem to be taken lightly.
There is a seemingly endless stream of books explaining how to reconcile evolution with Christianity. There would be no reason to write such books if the separation between the natural and the supernatural were as clean as some would like to maintain. The rather large number of people in this country who see a threat to their religious faith from science are not being irrational. They do not need lectures from pompous academics about how they are all mixed up about what their faith requires of them. What they need are good arguments for why they are wrong about the implications of evolution, and they are certainly not getting them from he philosophers and theologians.