On Monday I posted a reply to Jerry Coyne’s clique-ish and philosophically naive report on a talk he didn’t see. I thought this would be a useful exercise because:
- Coyne is a former professor of mine, I respect him, and don’t want to see him embarrass himself.
- High school-level cliqueishness seems unbecoming in a tenured professor.
- Philosophically naive claims about the nature of science are unbecoming in a tenured biology professor.
- Launching invective-laden attacks on a talk one hasn’t seen is entirely unbecoming.
I reply again because efforts to address some of the issues underlying the accommodationist/enabler spat seem to fallen on deaf ears in Coyne’s case (not so with commenters on that post!) and I hope to actually have a discussion. Furthermore, I think Coyne’s ad hominem attacks and transparently false statements about me require some response.
My goal then, is to correct the record and elevate the discourse a bit, a somewhat different approach than I took last time I went after Coyne. At this point, the level of discourse is rather low, with serious intellectual disagreements being sidelined for namecalling. Coyne’s reply to my comment, calls me a “flea” and a “faitheist,” mocks the theft of my computer, personal files, and Professor Steve Steve, outsources any substantive reply to Ophelia Benson (with whom I’ve been having a civil discussion in the comments here), all the while equivocating on the meaning of terms like “truth” and “ways of knowing,” and misrepresenting my views.
Most bothersome is the fact that his reply here, like so many of his replies to critics, is basically an extended attempt at psychoanalysis. Replying to a post I wrote some months ago, he dismissed my arguments with a wave, saying “Of course you must adhere to your party’s line.” What party? What line? Even if it were a party line, that doesn’t invalidate the argument. Claiming Genie had slighted his book in a review (a rather positive review, actually), Coyne wrote: “I suspect that one reason for this [tepidness] is that I have angered the National Center for Science Education (Genie Scott is its executive director) by claiming that science and faith are largely incompatible.” That topic came up nowhere in the review, nor in the book, making this speculation utterly evidence-free. The major criticism offered related to his use of out-dated terminology for certain fossils, a point he himself describes as trivial. No doubt it’s easier to address imagined motives than to address substantive critique, but he should be able to handle it.
Despite that fact, his current post invests more effort speculating about extrinsic reasons why I might disagree with him than actually addressing my rather lengthy explanation of those disagreements. We are told that my reaction is “visceral,” he speculates that I’m traumatized by the theft of a puppet, claims I am a “diehard” in my position, suggests that I’m simply out to defend a colleague (not an intellectual position), and implies I’m only trying to piggyback on his blog’s success.
In calling me a “flea,” he’s either playing to the non-biologist’s stereotype of parasites as icky, or he’s evoking Richard Dawkins’ evaluation of “‘parasitic’ authors [who] have released books which use Richard’s name or titles to sell their own books.” If the latter is the intended comparison, it is false on several grounds. First, I’m not trying to sell a book. Second, I didn’t use Jerry Coyne’s name or a reference to him in the title, as I was focusing on the ideas, not the man. Third, in the meaningless pissing contest assembled by Wikio, TfK is the 28th top-ranked science blog, while Coyne’s is the 1610th. Who’s parasitic on whom? And who cares? Is there any evidence that I care about this blog’s traffic?
He claims my reasoning is poor, without actually engaging any of it or pointing out any errors of fact or logic. Would he truly become a Christian if a 900-foot tall humanoid appeared in Central Park? Does he really think science is the only way to produce truth? Is he really claiming that all religions make empirically testable claims? I posed those questions to him in my post, but no answer has been forthcoming. How can he know I’m a “die-hard” if he makes no serious effort to change my mind? Why impute motives to me without engaging what I actually said about my motives?
Indeed, for someone concerned with empiricism and being precise about ways of knowing, he’s shockingly inaccurate about most of his factual claims.
For instance, am I a “faitheist”? No. Coyne defines the term as: an “atheist who [is] nonetheless soft on faith.” First, I’m not an atheist and have never claimed to be one. I am an apathist agnostic (Cf.), and have said so on many occasions. Had Coyne invested the modest effort to either ask my religious views, or checked my archives (as I’ve done to find how he defines this term), he would know better. Second, I don’t know what he means by “soft on faith.” If he means that I don’t think faith is ipso facto bad, then yeah. By that standard I’m also soft on dance but not on mushrooms (yech). If it means that I think faith is inherently good, or worth promoting, then no, that’s not my position at all.
Then Coyne claims that my argument “confuses ‘truth’ (whose existence he [I] denies), with ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘knowledge’.” First, I never denied that truth exists. I did write that “‘truth’ is a concept that philosophers have been utterly unable to nail down. Some have simply tossed their hands up in despair and declared truth to be nonexistent, while others work to fix the flaws in existing concepts of truth.” Observing that others deny the existence of truth is hardly an endorsement of such a claim, and nothing I wrote could be construed as saying truth doesn’t exist. Nor do I think I confused “truth” with “ways of knowing” nor with “knowledge.” I rooted my discussion of those terms in Coyne’s own writing, using them as he seemed to be doing, and he ought to either say how I misconstrued him or accept that the muddle is on his end of things.
Indeed, I said relatively little about truth, except when quoting Coyne. I did discuss “truth claims,” which strike me as a more useful term for this discussion. Truth is, at best, hard to nail down; it’s easier to know when someone is presenting a claim they think is true.
Coyne also claims that my discussion of vampires was irrelevant, which suggests that he missed my point. I’ll accept that I may have been unclear about the relevance, and will explain that in more detail shortly. Before that, I will respond to Coyne’s only attempt at a reply to anything I actually wrote (a reply not to anything I said to him, but to a comment I left in response to Ophelia Benson).
I noted that it is just as bad to read the Bible as a history of the Bronze Age as it would be to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an historical account of the French Revolution. The truth of either document would not lie in “literal truth” (however we construe that phrase), but in a level of literary truth.
I wasn?t aware that there was a movement to replace the teaching of European history with the view given in Dickens?s novels, nor a push to deny people contraception because that?s what Dickens would want, or to keep women subordinate because Mrs. Micawber would never desert Mr. Micawber.
True enough, though irrelevant to the point at hand. The point I was making is that the sort of knowledge or truth claim involved in religious “ways of knowing” is different than those made by science (just as knowledge and truth claims derived from literature are different than those from science or religion), and the sort of evidence involved in supporting those claims is correspondingly different. Showing that the Bible’s account of the flood is ahistorical means as much as showing that Dickens mangled the history of the French Revolution, or that Star Trek is bogus because of the show’s many violations of physical laws. To Coyne’s point, though: Yes, religious people who deny contraception or try to force their beliefs onto other people through the public schools are wrong: wrong morally, wrong scientifically, and rightly opposed by all people of good will. I oppose them. Nothing I’ve ever done could be taken as supporting or condoning these authoritarian actions of those particular religious groups.
I have been aided immeasurably in those efforts by religious people who agree that religion should not be forced on others, that knowledge about evolution, contraception, or any other topic, should never be denied to anyone based on someone else’s religious biases. I have no reason to oppose those people’s religious faith. In Jefferson’s immortal words, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Why should I care one way or another about it?
Coyne’s argument seems to be that this sort of religious belief is still bad, even if it leads people to march against segregation, distribute condoms to at-risk populations, rally in support of evolution education, and oppose religious groups who seek to impose their beliefs on others. Even Christians who reject the naive literalism endorsed by creationists (and some atheists) are swept into Coyne’s opposition to religion. No one in the accommodationist/enabler spat is arguing about the authoritarian religious people (all agree they are bad), the disagreement is over the other group. Some (atheist or theist) regard them as either false in their theism, pr as meaningfully indistinguishable from creationists, while others (theist and non-theist alike) think they provide a powerful force of opposition to religious authoritarianism, and see value in helping their efforts toward a religiously neutral society.
Near as I can tell, Coyne’s view is that science is the only path to truth (a problematic claim and one I hope I’ve misunderstood), and that any other enterprise which purports to produce truth is therefore in competition with science, and ought to be opposed as such. My view is that science has no monopoly on truth claims nor on knowledge, and that other ways of evaluating truth claims are not problematic so long as they are not imposed on others, and don’t interfere with anyone’s ability to pursue their own course. I oppose authoritarianism, a phenomenon which occurs in some religious communities (but not all), and in various other political and cultural contexts.
Coyne and I disagree. That doesn’t mean we have to impute devious motives to one another. We draw on different experiences, we may have different visions of the good life, but we share the same world and ought to be able to support our claims without reference to untestable claims about motives or state of mind.
As for the relevance of vampires, it gets to the central claim Coyne seems to be making about knowledge. Coyne quoted Russell Blackford’s argument that religion doesn’t produce knowledge because knowledge must be justified belief. Blackford (and Coyne) sort of assume that religion has no way to justify belief, and so cannot produce knowledge. They don’t explicitly address the issue of justification of knowledge, and this is a large topic, disputed extensively by philosophers, and well beyond my area of expertise. In my readings on epistemology, though, I’ve not found the claim that only scientific experimentation can produce justification for knowledge.
It is this precise point at which vampires become relevant. By reading vampire stories, watching Buffy, etc., I can gain knowledge about vampires. My belief that vampires fear crosses is not just plucked from the ether, it is justified by reference to literary works.
This knowledge is clearly of a different sort than my knowledge that evolution produces the diversity of life on earth. It is a truth claim, but not a truth claim about the natural world we all share. It is a claim about a particular literary world (which is why the origin story for vampires in Buffy can differ from that of Blade without rendering the entire notion incoherent).
The digression on vampires emphasized how slacktivist was able to use this knowledge about vampires to extract certain truths about the world. Not physical constants, or knowledge about evolution, but a deeper sense of why groups like the political cult called The Family are morally suspect, to be avoided and opposed. The Family, of course, is a fundamentalist sect, slacktivist is an evangelical Christian. He opposes them, and I support his opposition to The Family. I also support his distaste for creationism, and I wish more people shared his ability to distinguish literary truths from literal truths. I’d like to live in a nation of people just like slacktivist, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Slacktivist’s post was meant to show two things. First, how claims about the paranormal/supernatural can yield knowledge about the world (in a way that science simply could not). I don’t know if Coyne disagrees that these claims are knowledge, that literature is a way of knowing, or if he is simply disputing that those are truths. His ad hominem attacks don’t really advance that. And without any discussion in support of his claim that I “confuse ‘truth’ ? with ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘knowledge’.” We may mean very different things by all three of those terms, and Coyne hasn’t offered any definitions for them to root our discussion. Neither he nor I was present at the talk which spurred this discussion, and Coyne shows no evidence of having asked the speaker what she meant by the terms. Thoughtful discourse might tease out some areas of agreement, and lead us to a deeper and more productive understanding of our disagreements. Alas, all Coyne has offered thus far is name-calling. I think there’s some sort of progress underway in the comments to my original post, though.
My reference to slacktivist was also meant to show what sort of people I’d have to throw under the bus if Coyne had his way. Smart people capable of integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines, equipped with a healthy skepticism about all claims (especially religious claims), and a healthy respect for science as an enterprise. Why should I care if they’re religious? Why should Coyne? As I recall, these are exactly the sort of people that the University of Chicago, a school founded by a religious group, aims to create. I like to think they succeeded with me, and that Coyne and other professors there are still dedicated to that mission. I thus hold out hope for a more reasoned discussion.