I’m surprised that accommodationists and the National Center for Science Education don’t criticize [other] evolutionists for describing the evolution and natural selection as “purely natural and materialistic processes,” for that steps on the toes of the faithful just as hard as saying that evolution is “unguided and purposeless”. In both cases divine intervention is explicitly ruled out.
Not sure why he omitted the word “other,” but the first sentence doesn’t make sense without it.
That he would find this confusing is simply further evidence that Coyne does not understand the point of view he’s investing such effort arguing against. And also that he doesn’t understand key issues in the relevant philosophy of science. Winter is cold, the sky is blue, etc. This is a standard creationist claim (also), and I’m sure Coyne has seen someone addressing it at some point on his way to becoming an “internationally famous defender of evolution against … intelligent design.” Maybe he’s even had to address it himself. The links above to the Index of Creationist Claims give you the framework to address this bad argument on your own, but here’s a more detailed reply to Coyne’s angle specifically.
Natural selection is a purely natural and materialistic process. It doesn’t invoke supernatural causation. All the steps involved in its description are natural and material. Saying that it is a purely natural and material process is a simple description, not a judgement about teleology or metaphysical inputs into the universe. Evolution more broadly can also be described using entirely natural and non-metaphysical processes: biological reproduction, descent with modification, natural selection, mutation, neutral drift, gene flow, recombination, etc.. The same can be said of any other scientific process, because science can (for reasons we can return to if we must) only work with explanatory processes that are natural and material. Natural selection is, of course, “guided” in the sense that it is directional, and evolution is “guided” in the sense that natural selection and other natural laws give it somewhat predictable direction. But “unguided” in Coyne’s post is a point about metaphysical teleology.
Talking about teleology in the context of scientific explanations gets into a different set of questions. Going back to Aristotle, philosophers have distinguished proximate causes from ultimate causes, and it isn’t hard to recognize that there may be several gradations of increasing ultimateness starting with the most proximate explanation up through the most ultimate explanation.
A trivial example: A robber enters a store, shoots the clerk, and takes the money from the register. To explain why the clerk died, you can offer a highly proximate explanation involving the details of the bullet’s path, and the precise biological effects following from this severed nerve and that slashed blood vessel and the trauma to this or that organ. It’s a perfectly fine explanation, but we can go further. You can take it for granted that bullets fired into a body are often fatal, and can instead focus on the physics of a bullet being fired, the action-reaction dynamic that propels the bullet, the air currents and gravitational tugs that shift the bullet’s path, and the tumbling that follow initial impact between the bullet and a bone, which causes the bullet to fragment and dissipate its energy into tissue according to laws of conservation. Or you could go another way, and examine the evolutionary processes that make these sorts of injuries fatal to humans. Or you can pull back some more, and examine the psychology of the robber, why he decided to break into that store with that loaded gun, and why he decided to draw the gun and fire. This psychology, too, has an evolutionary history that we could choose to pursue. Or we can pull further back, and examine the economic forces that led that clerk to be in that store, and which kept the owner from installing bulletproof glass or hiring a guard, and which led to the robber seeing theft as his only economic option. And we can pull even further back to consider why we have that economic system rather than a different one, and so forth. A sufficiently determinist (and determined) observer might bring this explanatory framework back to the Big Bang, or we could choose to focus on the fatal effects of altering the ion balance across the membrane of a single damaged neuron. Each of these explanations is adequate for some purpose, and inadequate for another. Philosophers would say that these different levels of explanation supervene on one another, which we can also get back to if we must.
If we were theologically inclined, we could also ask why any omnipotent, omniscient deity would allow this clerk to be gunned down simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In that theological context, we might assume that the clerk died for some reason – these reasons tend to fall somewhere in this range: he was evil and deserved to die, he would do evil in the future and needed to be stopped, the good that the money did for the robber outweighed the harm done to the clerk and his family in any of various ways, the deity chooses not to interfere in such matters despite having the power to do so, the deity is evil and wants bad things to happen to good people, the deity has aims and means beyond our comprehension and beyond our explanatory power. Cosmic purpose and guidance come into all of these in various ways, but assuming a metaphysical direction does not require that the biological, psychological, economic, or physical explanations must have purpose or direction. Nor does it invalidate those natural, scientific explanations. It is just an explanation at a different level.
Which is to say that one can perfectly reasonably say that evolution and natural selection are natural and material processes which are not, in a scientific sense, guided or purposeful, while still holding that they are processes used and manipulated towards some metaphysical purpose – that evolution is scientifically not teleological while still being metaphysically teleological. Gravity is not teleological, but baseball players and rocket scientists and even gun-toting robbers still manage to use that non-teleological causal process to achieve a fixed purposes, plant and animal breeders have imposed directionality onto evolutionary processes for millenia, and that doesn’t change whether evolution is guided in the scientific sense.
Coyne, as an atheist, is not inclined to think there’s some supernatural intelligence guiding the universe. He doesn’t think that such an intelligence intervenes through miracles, and he doesn’t think it manipulates natural processes to accomplish specified goals. That’s fine. There are thoughtful scientists including Simon Conway-Morris and Ken Miller who would argue for a different conclusion, with Conway-Morris arguing that evolutionary processes and the laws of the universe are such that life would inevitably converge on something like humans possessing something like human intelligence. This strikes me as implausible, but to the extent he is arguing on a purely theological level, I don’t know what evidence could possibly refute or validate the claim; nor do I know what evidence could possibly refute or validate the claim that there is no such metaphysical directionality. As an apathist agnostic, I neither think the claim is testable, nor that it’s either interesting or relevant.
As long as Conway-Morris doesn’t claim his conclusions are science and deserve to be taught as science, I don’t see anything wrong with him holding that view and arguing for it. Nor do I see anything wrong with Coyne holding his view and arguing for it, again so long as he doesn’t attempt to pass nonscientific metaphysical claims off as if they were science. That sort of abuse of science is what gets me fired up against creationists, and I can’t effectively argue against that behavior from creationists if I were to tolerate it from non-creationists. If a scientific group or a textbook makes the broad claim that evolution is metaphysically unguided, I think that goes too far, just as it goes too far to say that evolution is metaphysically guided.