In my last post about Creationism, the comments included some discussion about what constitutes a “Creationist”, and what flavors of religious ideas toward science are current. I stated that what is commonly called “theistic evolution” was unobjectable to anyone. That wasn’t entirely true.
Jerry Coyne and a bunch of the “New Atheists” do have problems with theistic evolution, beyond just not taking a theistic approach themselves. So far, no one has discussed introducing a “theistic evolution” distraction in the public schools, but… if they did… chances are it could, properly constructed, pass constitutional muster even if that chapped PZ Myers’ ass.
Coyne’s article is very well written and expresses a lot of good points, but is just a tad shallow to pass muster on a conversation about science and religion. Let me tell you where he takes the wrong track – why he is wrong about the two prominent theistic evolutionists that he discusses, and why he is wrong to conclude that science and faith cannot be reconciled (depending on how you mean “reconciled”.)
First, he says that “all Creationists” have four traits:
First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God’s image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called “irreducible complexity.” This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God.
I could (and probably will before it’s over) quibble over these four traits of all Creationists. But, before I do, I wish to point out that this formulation of “traits” that all creationists share is an unfortunate track to take because it inevitably leads to the condemnation of Christians who reconcile with science as “sharing lots of traits” with the objectionable creationists. I could add probably a hundred more traits that all creationists share… starting with a tendency to metabolize sugars in oxygen… and at the end of it conclude that Jerry Coyne is far more like a creationist than different. To avoid that fallacy, it might be more helpful to identify what is scientifically objectionable about the creationist, and deal with that. To identify “believes in God” as as a creationist trait, then find this “creationist trait” objectionable in the person trying to reconcile belief with science just begs the question.
Jumping ahead a little bit in Coyne’s article in order to stay focused on another aspect of this problem:
Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God.
In fact, this is where Coyne jumps the rails in a bad, bad way. He originally identified the third characteristic this way: “they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors.” Now, he identifies that trait in Giberson & Miller by pointing out that they believe God had “a special role” in the evolution of humans (from ape-like ancestors). A comparable mistake: UFOlogists believe life forms visit earth from extraterrestrial space. Jerry Coyne believes that life exists on earth and the earth which has a “special relationship” with space. His belief is the same as the UFOlogists! Coyne’s third Creationist trait as formulated earlier in the article is certainly an objectionable trait of Creationism, and certainly marks a departure from science. This third trait attributed to Christians who accept evolution, on the other hand, is not nearly so problematic. While it would be wrong to take a position that something about humans cannot be explained without recourse to a “special role” for God in their creation – the notion held by Giberson & Miller seems not to necessarily include such a position. In fact, the “special role” for God that they suggest in the evolution of humans is that God arranged nature in a way that humans would evolve without supernatural interference (at least discounting the moronic speculation about God’s quantum molecular tweaking that Coyne attributes to them).
In other words – both Miller and Giberson are fully on board with the fact that we never objectively observe anything in nature that requires a non-natural explanation. It’s also worth noting that nothing of Miller & Giberson really seems to match up with trait #2, either. And since the “irreducible complexity” of the “human soul” is a bit of a cheat to count, they only qualify on one trait – the first. They believe in God.
Importantly, this is in no way inconsistent with their non-scientific beliefs that God created nature so that self-aware organisms would arise and be capable of responding to Him.
Of course, if we stop there, and don’t defend the compatibility of some of the “iffier” tenants of modern religion with science, then we might feel it appropriate to concede Coyne’s charge that “the reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.” The article under critique is very lengthy and has numerous points to address, so I’m going to have to hide some of this response from the front page – if you are reading from there, click “More” to continue…
OK – so let me just quickly point out that Miller is not a theologian, and Giberson nor Miller are theologically very liberal. And though prominent biologist Francis Collins isn’t mentioned in this article, it’s fair to point out that he reconciles a theologically conservative Christianity with his passion for science. Although Collins and many other theistic evolutionists often make some terrible mistakes in employing the fine tuning argument, those aren’t hard mistakes to make and are not central to the task of reconciling faith and reason in some sense.
But, going forward, we still need to show that such doctrines as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection (from Chistianity – the ascension to heaven of Elijah in the Jewish faith, the ascension of Mohammed in Islam for other ‘for instances’) can be compatible with science – or at least we must answer the objections that Coyne raises about them.
Now, let me be very clear here: I do not think these articles of faith are remotely plausible. When I show their compatibility with science, I am not trying to show that science can confirm them either in principle or in practice or that investigation of the natural world should tell us anything particularly interesting about them. I am certainly not defending their veracity. I am only trying to demonstrate that a religious belief in the truth of these doctrines is not incompatible with naturalistic science.
Furthermore, should it be suggested by anyone that ordinary human reason should lead us to believe in these doctrines, I would have to concede that point only in the sense that ordinary human reason is often flawed! Attempts to make historical arguments in favor of these doctrines seemingly always fail. I say this in acknowledgment of Coyne’s well-justified concern that “… the most important conflict–the one ignored by Giberson and Miller–is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science–every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe.” And truly, most religious viewpoints do run afoul of secular reason somewhere along the line – either in the improper effort to enlist reason on behalf of non-reason, or on moral grounds where the inferior ethics of human spokespersons for God are allowed to override common decency. This is always a problem when it occurs and is certainly more apt to occur in more conservative brands of religion than liberal ones.
Despite the dangerous waters of religious thinking, I am nevertheless committed to demonstrate that religious ideas are not in a profound sense incompatible with scientific reasoning. Certainly they fall if made *subject* to scientific reasoning, but it is not necessary to make make them subject to scientific reasoning. To get into this, I’ll start with a quote from Coyne that cuts right to the heart of the issue:
Why reject the story of creation and Noah’s Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science? After all, biological research suggests the impossibility of human females reproducing asexually, or of anyone reawakening three days after death. Clearly Miller and Giberson, along with many Americans, have some theological views that are not “consistent with science.”
Why, indeed, reject the one and not the other? And, are both “not ‘consistent with science’” after the same fashion?
First – the creation story, as presented by modern creationists is falsified by the evidence. It isn’t a matter of “scientific impossibility” – it is a matter of observed facts that show the story as understood by modern creationsists is incorrect and that another story is true. That is the overriding reason why an intellectually consistent Christian must reject the modern creationist story. It is not the only reason – there is also an argument that can and has been made that the modern creationist story is bad theology: that it misunderstands both the purpose and the meaning of the Bible (I could be convinced otherwise, but I currently agree with this argument). It is true, however, that a literalistic reading of Genesis is irreconcilable with science and insistence on it in face of the evidence constitutes willful ignorance.
How is this different from the story of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection? Most importantly it is because these two singular instances are not falsified by the evidence. It is hardly worth mentioning, as Coyne does, that “research suggests the impossibility [of them]“. That just begs the question, as these events are considered to have been pulled off supernaturally. 1) Their supernatural character is the whole point, and 2) natural impossibility cannot rule out supernatural possibility, by definition of “supernatural”. The question is whether they can be disconfirmed by observation, and they cannot.
Backtracking to an earlier point in the article, Coyne makes one other effort to find a place where the religious are forced to subject their faith views to scientific reason, by deconstructing “NOMA” – Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria”. Before I get into the particulars of Coyne’s counter to NOMA, I would like to state that I personally subscribe to this viewpoint very strongly. In fact, in most areas of life, it is the natural way of thinking. Gould states it eloquently, as quoted by Coyne in the article, “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values–subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.” Simply put, this is no more and no less than a practical description of how people think. You can play Mad Libs with it – replace these words: “religion, human purposes, meanings, and values” with blank lines and you can play all day. “Art, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of aesthetics, perspective and representation of human values”. Or, for the avid philatelist, “stamp collecting, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of antique, international, and misprinted postage”.
Coyne says that this doesn’t work for religion for two reasons. The first is that there is no mechanism for deciding between the variety of mutually exclusive religious systems that exist. I cannot see how this is relevant. Believers manage to find not only a religious system that suits them, but manage to settle internal conflicts within that religious system in a way that suits them. Why their methods for doing so make religion incompatible with science is beyond me.[*] His second point is a bit trickier. I quote:
Despite Gould’s claims to the contrary, supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces. [...] Similarly, if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.
In fact, I substantially agree with Coyne on his first statement. Science certainly can, for instance, falsify the modern creationist story despite it being a statement about the supernatural. The reason for this is only that it also makes claims about nature – claims that are easily disproven. Nevertheless – the supernatural component of the story remains mysterious to science. No observations of nature can tell us what is going on with someone or something outside of nature. In fact, from Coyne’s description of the 900 foot tall Jesus – based strictly on naturalistic observation, we could never discover whether this was indeed a truly “supernatural” occurrence. We could verify that it happened. We could acknowledge that we could find no natural explanation. But, if we fall on our faces with Hosannas to a supernatural God, we are relying on an intuition that does not arise from scientific investigation of the phenomenon. There is no observation that will distinguish between an unthinkable natural mystery and a supernatural one.
Claims about the virgin birth and resurrection also make claims about nature besides their supernatural component – but they are too far removed in time for our methods of natural investigation to shed any reliable light on their historicity. Our reason suggests that they are naturally impossible, and for those of us who don’t have non-rational beliefs that they are likely to have occurred supernaturally, there remains no reason to believe them at all. It doesn’t defy explanation that some of those who entertain non-rational beliefs about the supernatural will believe these stories on those grounds.
Personally, I find no use in my life for non-rational beliefs about the supernatural. That’s no secret. And it’s no secret that the “New Atheists” often find such beliefs to be on balance harmful. Nevertheless, it is quite possible to hold some such beliefs without ruining a cognitive program of scientific investigation of the natural. Furthermore, whether one “should” hold such beliefs or not is purely a philosophical question – not a scientific one (though the facts we know through science – especially about human psychology – are certainly relevant to that philosophical task!)
Lest I be accused of preaching to the choir (Hi, Buck! You sound great!), let me state unequivocally that modern creationism is utterly irreconcilable with science. It requires that a person reject the science that shows what happened in the natural world, and often involves the substitution of unscientific methods for scientific ones while claiming to represent science. Neither of these behaviors is compatible with science. And let me reiterate something I said in the comments on that other post:
…if you believe that God, in some mystical way undetectable to science, arranged for evolution to produce what it has, that’s just basic theistic evolution, embraced by such luminaries as Human Genome Project Director Francis Collins. Nobody has a problem with that (except the people at Answers in Genesis, who will call you a “quisling” for accepting it.)
If you believe that God tinkered with the process so that instead of producing what it “naturally” would, it produced something else instead, then that is “Guided evolution” – and the problem with it is that we should be able to detect that by looking for ways that real-world evolution differs from what natural mechanisms will produce, and yet we never find that. So, scientists don’t embrace this view (though most understand the need for non-scientists to accommodate the science to their intuitions and/or religious viewpoints).
If you deny that there is a universal common ancestor for the living things on earth, then you are being misled. And I personally don’t have a problem with you for being misled, but I do have a problem with the people that are misleading you.
Obviously, my first point is a tad off. The Coyne’s, Dawkins’, and Myer’s of the world may have some unkind words for you if you profess theistic evolution. That’s about the extent of it – I don’t think you will get the kind of grief that the Discovery Institute gets for trying to inject creationism into school curriculum. And, for the rest – I stand by every word if you give me a little latitude for sacrificing a smidgeon of precision in favor of brevity.
Maybe I am wandering off topic a bit. To return to the subject at hand, I want to take up NOMA in context of what it means to reconcile science and religion. Now, when I say “non-overlapping magesteria”, I mean non-overlapping magesteria. I get the impression that Coyne would like to overlap them a bit, so that the one can be understood in terms of the other. If that’s what “reconciled” means, then we are finally at a point where I can agree with him wholeheartedly. You cannot make a scientific study of the supernatural, nor can you make a religious study of nature. (That isn’t to say that a religious study of the supernatural is any good either – but that’s a question for philosophy of religion, not for science). On the other hand, if by reconciled we mean that nothing of science prevents us holding a religious viewpoint about the supernatural, then aye – they are reconciled as long as we are able to compartmentalize them without necessary contradictions. In light of this distinction, let’s review two other statement’s of Coyne’s from his article:
A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas’s board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take “religion” to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. After all, the goal is not to turn the faithful into liberal theologians, but to show them a way to align their actual beliefs with scientific truths. [emphasis mine]
Let’s go back to the Mad Libs excercise as before. “After all, the goal is not to turn the ________ into less _________ _________s, but to show them a way to align their _________ness with scientific truths.” Would this make any sense if the blanks are filled in with *anything* that doesn’t make objective claims about nature? Art, for instance? How do you reconcile the artiness of art with scientific facts? What does that even mean? And, if religion is construed so as to make no *objective* claims about nature (i.e. claims that influence what we would expect to see under any given observation anyone could possibly make today), then why should this make sense for religion? For the record, I addressed above, in a limited way, that it is quite possible to be a mainstream or moderately conservative Christian, yet construe one’s faith in just this manner. My point here is that our goal should not be to show people a way to align their actual beliefs with scientific truths – since their actual religious beliefs should not be and very often are not of a nature that they could possibly be evaluated scientifically. In cases where they are of that nature, the only reconciliation is to abandon those which have been scientifically evaluated and found to a high degree of confidence to be false. However, this should not be very onerous, as the core tenants of most religions are not of this nature.
Going on to the next statement:
No, a proper solution must harmonize science with theism: the concept of a transcendent and eternal god who nonetheless engages the world directly and pays special attention to the real object of divine creation, Homo sapiens.
In other words, what? Where is the disharmony between science and such a god? Certainly it hasn’t been shown scientifically that nothing transcends nature (as this would stretch the scope of scientific tools). Certainly it hasn’t been shown scientifically that nothing that could, in a mystical way, be thought of as “eternal” could exist. Nor that it could have traits that could be described anthropomorphically. Nor that one of those traits is the ability and care to engage the world directly and to pay special attention to reflective and self-aware beings in it. I don’t think that anyone has shown any reason to presume these ideas are unharmonious with science. I won’t argue that many ideas closely associated with these are unharmonious with science – but none of those are essential to religion.
In fact, propositions about specific and singular supernatural events that impinged in observable ways on nature sometime in the unobservable past cannot be held to be unharmonious with science. In fact, propositions about supernatural occurrences with consequences in the natural world indistinguishable by observation from natural occurrences are not unharmonious with science.
Only those propositions on supernatural occurrences with observable consequences in the natural world that can be distinguished by observation from natural consequences – and which are falsified by observation – are truly unharmonious with science.
So, the task for the harmonizer is simply to identify and cull this very narrow class of specific supernatural beliefs! Many of those have already been culled by history. For almost everyone, seizures are no longer caused by demons – or are caused by demons only in ways indistinguishable from neurological disease. For almost everyone, humanity’s theological centrality is perfectly divorced from the earth’s cosmic centrality. For many, if not most, the faith healer is a fraud, or involved in occurrences indistinguishable from the common causes of “miraculous” healings. In this sense, history and education are the best harmonizers of religious belief and science.
If I may take a moment to play devil’s advocate, consider the possibility that further harmonization can help cure some of the world’s ills. You probably can’t get a tribal leader in rural India or Africa to abandon all of his religion – but if you show him how to harmonize it with science, he may no longer find smallpox vaccines to be a threat. He may no longer allow or encourage the notion that sleeping with a virgin can cure AIDS.
I turn my attention now to a very specific criticism of the Miller and Giberson made by Coyne:
And where do they find the hand of God in nature? Unsurprisingly, in the appearance of humans.
Giberson and Miller assert that the evolution of humans, or something very like them, was inevitable. Given the way that evolution works, they claim, it was certain that the animal kingdom would eventually work its way up to a species that was conscious, highly intelligent, and above all, capable of apprehending and worshipping its creator. This species did not have to look perfectly human, but it did have to have our refined mentality (call it “humanoid”). One of Miller’s chapters is even titled “The World That Knew We Were Coming.” Giberson notes that “capabilities like vision and intelligence are so valuable to organisms that many, if not most biologists believe they would probably arise under any normal evolutionary process…. So how can evolution be entirely random, if certain sophisticated end points are predictable?”
Reading this, many biologists will wonder how he can be so sure. After all, evolution is a contingent process. The way natural selection molds a species depends on unpredictable changes in climate, on random physical events such as meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, on the occurrence of rare and random mutations, and on which species happen to be lucky enough to survive a mass extinction. If, for example, a large meteor had not struck Earth sixty-five million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs–and to the rise of the mammals they previously dominated–all mammals would probably still be small nocturnal insectivores, munching on crickets in the twilight.
This criticism continues at length – what I quote is only a summary. Let me just allow that the criticism is technically accurate, but not especially relevant. We could reformulate Miller’s view without human certainty about the probability of human evolution. This would require us to have God know something that we don’t (which wouldn’t be surprising, if there were a God): God would have to know that indeed evolution is bound to produce intelligent life on at least one of the gazillions of stars that litter the universe, even though we ourselves do not. Alternatively, we could take another tack and suggest that the multiverse model makes the evolution of intelligent life approach a probability of 1. This might be, however, the strongest point of Coyne’s that I am willing to call into question.
I have one last issue to take up with Jerry Coyne from the stance he presented in this article. I quote again:
This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict.
Lest anyone be mislead by this quote – Coyne is not advocating such a specious and dishonest tack. Unfortunately, he does seem to be accusing the National Academy of Sciences (!) and others who travel in “scientific circles” of being just this mendacious. And such an accusation is entirely irresponsible and unwarranted. In fact, the “dirty little secret” that he perceives – the “disharmony” – apparently doesn’t exist in the first place. I don’t stand to defend the National Academy of Sciences. Those folks have the acumen and prestige to defend themselves. But, since I agree with them that religion and science do not necessarily conflict, I will defend myself.
I have no professional interest in promoting this stance. My personal interest is confined to friends, family, blog readers, and chance encounters who are apt to turn a deaf ear to science simply because they are overly concerned about protecting a religious belief. And, of course, I am interested in voicing the ideas I believe are correct and true against those I believe are incorrect and untrue.
The remainder of this article is quite praiseworthy. Coyne does bring up some better criticisms of Miller’s and Giberson’s views while not failing to cast Miller’s and Giberson’s anti-creationist work in a positive light. The entire article is well-written and thought-provoking. I recommend you read it with a critical, yet open mind.