Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/09

13

Theology and belatedness

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Anyone who has not read evolutionary theorist Jerry Coyne’s essay on science and religion in the New Republic is missing a tour de force.  Under review are two books attacking creationism and intelligent design.  Their authors–a physicist at Eastern Nazarene College and a cell biologist at Brown University—then try to reconcile their Christian faith with evolution and physics.  This, Coyne concludes, authors Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller fail to do, however masterful their demolition of creationism:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Coyne touches on several topics already discussed on this site, such as the unwillingness of certain high-minded apologists to discuss what Coyne calls “religion as it is lived and practiced by real people.” But what struck me most while reading the review is how post hoc theological reasoning has become.  It has been reduced to forever playing catch-up to science.  Whatever new insights about the universe science establishes, religious divines will immediately conclude that that is exactly the way God would have done things and what they had meant to say about him all along.  Did it take 14 billion years before God’s intent to create a species that would worship him reached fruition, 14 billion years of laborious preliminaries before anything even remotely resembling human beings could have been glimpsed on the scene?  Well, of course!  It makes perfect sense; that’s exactly what any omnipotent God would have done.  If scientists tomorrow found powerful evidence that in fact species came into existence whenever a giant sling-shot fired a wad of  chewing gum at the earth, we would learn that the sling-shot is the divine instrument par excellence. 

The religious might object: “But of course religious explanation proceeds in this post hoc fashion; we already know that God is the creator of all things, so science will always merely unveil his complex project and show us his design in ever more accurate detail.”  Maybe so.  But wouldn’t it be nice if for once the religious put out a strong and falsifiable hypothesis about God’s actions that wasn’t parasitic on science?  Correct me if I am wrong, but I would say that Genesis Chapter 1 (or 2; too bad they’re not consistent) was the last such attempt, and we know how that turned out.  And yet, Genesis 1 (or 2) seems a lot more plausible as a description of how a God with total power over existence and non-existence would work: if he wants a species, he just creates it, rather than waiting billions of years for random mutations to work their way through.  Compare the robust agency of “Then God said, Let us make man in our image … in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” with the tortured narrative devised by Kenneth Miller to fit God into what the best physics and biology research currently tells us about the world: 

The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.

If you wanted to create the universe and a certain set of species, wouldn’t you just do it?  Am I being too anthropomorphic here?  I don’t think so.  God is composed exclusively of human attributes lent to him from our own vast arsenal; assuming that he would use the maximum of his power to create what he wanted rather than devising an elaborate Rube Goldberg scheme to realize his will is no more fanciful than thinking that he would answer the prayer of a suffering widow out of compassion.  The latter is what many of us would do, which is why we think God would, too; why not assume as well that he would employ a direct, efficient method of creation? 

Despite not having a single independent source of knowledge about God’s MO beyond what they can borrow from science, the religious still insist that the burden lies on non-believers to show how the latest findings of science are not consistent with God’s work.  They can insist all they want, but it still looks to me like  they ran out of ideas long ago.

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36 comments

  • Polichinello · February 13, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    The best quote in Coyne’s article comes right after the paragraph you cite:

    In other words, God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

    So, Lawrence Auster and his friends are right about one thing at least: you can be an orthodox Christian or you can accept Darwinian evolution, but you cannot do both and be logically consistent.

  • Aaron · February 13, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    “God is composed exclusively of human attributes…”

    You affirm the consequent, Heather.

  • MLD · February 13, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    I read this blog regularly. This is my first comment.

    I experienced a crisis of faith awhile ago, and that crisis did not lead to the desire or ability to clamp down on the death of God, so to speak.

    My gifts are not those that are of any use to science or scientists, but I always loved science and I appreciate the health and relative wealth it has afforded me.

    My understanding of the theory of evolution is almost non-existent, leaving aside the understanding that we share a common ancestor with another primate. I probably have that not quite right either.

    Because I lack the acumen to judge the theory in any meaningful way I must offer it an act of faith too. In other words, I’m an agnostic here, but a very interested one.

    I grew up in a devout Italian, RC family. But my parents faith was not beleaguered by doctrinal necessities. By certain necessities of praxis, yes, but those are not necessarily mutually inclusive.

    Not to thread cross, but Indulgences never really caught on in Italy. There was an uptick in the 17th Century, but we called our priests Don and we eschewed the aesthetic of indulgences. It was impossible for the melodramatic peasantry to embrace what a Calvinist once referred to as this “ruthless metricality.”

    I have always resented the authoritarian waiver of the incoherence of dogma, that if rejected, was supposed to land you in Hell.

    The Church (that means the three traditions of RCism, Orthodoxy and Reformed) it seems to me, views a continued questioning of this incoherence as impious. But if God is the God of creation and human physiology, it is impious not to question the incoherence.

    I’d never make much of a materialist though, because even when every minor detail of the tulip has been explained I still feel that the miracle of the tulip has been left untouched.

    Thanks for the chance to spout off, and my favorite read here is Cornelius Troost. Hope I spelled his name correctly.

    It is a terrible thing not to be able to speak your doubt. And it is a terrible thing not to be able to speak about scientific findings because dogma (religious or secular) prefers, always prefers, the ignoble “noble lie.”

  • Bill Ramey · February 13, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Actually, Heather, theism has posited something in advance of science, namely, that the universe had a beginning. Atheist philosophies tended to view the universe as an eternal matter machine with no direction or order. We can also add John Buridan’s foreshadowing of Newtonian physics. Indeed, many historians of science think that Christianity was crucial to development of science, because it promoted the notion that the universe is a rational order open to empirical study.

  • Michael Tumilty · February 13, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Again, I fail to see why religious people try to prove God through science. Perhaps they think that if they ‘speak the scientific language of the secular’, that they will convey their faith and/or convert the secular. But the more intelligent the secular thinker, the more the religious will fail to do so.

    There is no proof God exists. If there were, the most intelligent and rational men would be the first and best evangelicals.

    Reviewing 1 Corinthians Ch. 1 explains this. In it, Paul says that the religious message he is sent to convey is not supposed to be delivered with high-minded wisdom and artful, compelling arguments. He admits that religious faith is concluded to be foolishness by a secular mindset. He doesn’t dispute that.

    But he explains further that there was a point when “the world by wisdom knew not God”, in other words, man grew apart from God through rationalization. Through the high faculty of thought, man debased himself. So it pleased God, for whatever reason (no pun intended) to redeem man by “the foolishness of preaching”.

    God did this to prove two points. 1) That he’s God, and he’s all powerful (he pretty much has to throw that one in there) and 2) “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.” In other words, man’s rational thinking is obviously trumped by God’s, but it is also trumped by something that is foolish to God, but even his foolishness can convert men’s minds to loving him and trusting him. And belief in a guy that was nailed to a cross as being the savior of the world will always be pure foolishness to the secular world. This was by design, by God, to trump rational argument. Period.

    So, in spite of man’s (relatively) high faculty of wisdom, the foolishness of God is always able to “win the argument”. I’m all for the secular/religious blogs and debates, but, while fun for us, they’re ultimately foolish and quaint in God’s eyes. There will always be believers and non-believers, even after both parties have exhaustively shared all their ‘wisdom’. Only God can convert hearts and minds.

  • Cornelius J. Troost · February 13, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I have not read Coyne and yet much reading allows me to surmise his tack.However, I was fascinated years ago by a book called Biology of the Spirit. I discovered a modern version in The Spititual Brain by Mario Beauregard and Denise O’Leary and bought it on the spot. Here we see a valiant effort by an eminent neuroscientist to locate evidence in the brain of a spiritual force OUTSIDE the brain.

    What Beauregard does is to belittle neuroscience for its sophomoric materialism and lack of imagination. He takes a soft, fuzzy approach to psi research and various psychic claims.The folks at Skeptic magazine have shot down psi claims for years but they always pop back up. Beauregard eventually bets the house on the mystical experiences of Carmelite nuns who undergo laboratory study during such experiences.

    The nuns were subjected to fMRI and QEEG measurements as they went through their mystical eperiences.They had a very high rate of strong experiences that seemed sacred and loving. They were one with the Universe.The parts of the brain that lit up(so to speak) were the inferior parietal, visual cortex, caudate nucleus, right medial orbitofrontal cortex, and right middle temporal cortex. Beauregard thinks that the right middle temporal cortex is the locus of the subjective impression of contact with a spiritual being.The others mediated cognitive processes and related emotions.

    Beauregard makes no claim for God based upon these data but suggests that the nuns were in contact with a being that which nothing greater than can be conceived.(I could not resist being thomistic)What would you folks do with this evidence?I think he means for this demonstration to show that some low key element of psi cannot be explained away. The nuns are simply more sensitive to the external forces all around us.Buddhist monks certainly have interesting experiences, but so do epileptics and LSD freaks.Can such brain activity solve our body/mind or body/spirit problem?

  • Grant Canyon · February 13, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    “Actually, Heather, theism has posited something in advance of science, namely, that the universe had a beginning. Atheist philosophies tended to view the universe as an eternal matter machine with no direction or order.”

    Well, let’s not get too carried away. The fact that the story-telling originators of the myth intended to explain the creation of the world and of humanity started their story at the proposed beginning of the universe should not be at all unexpected. It’s not like they predicted the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But, anyway, with regard to the Hebrew myth in Genesis, it is hopeless wrong, from just about the first line.

    “We can also add John Buridan’s foreshadowing of Newtonian physics.”

    Oh, I don’t think so. Buridan was an Aristotelian. Newton’s work, along with Galileo’s and Kepler’s, which preceded it, was anti-Aristotelian.

    “Indeed, many historians of science think that Christianity was crucial to development of science, because it promoted the notion that the universe is a rational order open to empirical study.”

    I’ve never bought this argument. I think that early Christian theologians and philosophers had a role, where they did natural philosophy, in some ways the forerunner of science. Further, how does Christianity promote a rational universe, what with all the miracles and all?

  • Joshua · February 14, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Doesn’t all this just bring us back to the age-old debate as to what extent Scripture is to be read literally, even by faithful Christians themselves?

    Consider another Christian-centric theory, “young-Earth creationism”, that claims the Earth is just a few thousand years old. If you are a Christian of a stripe that regards the entire contents of the Bible as the literal truth, without even the occasional metaphor or allegory thrown in there, then chances are you believe that the Earth is indeed just a few thousand years old, which of course is incompatible with what science says. If, on the other hand, your particular flavor of Christianity doesn’t interpret the Bible so strictly, that leaves a lot more wiggle room in which a believer may reconcile the OT with science. The same, obviously, holds true for other Biblical claims that venture into realms now occupied by science, such as the origin of species.

    Also keep in mind that although the Bible may be intended as an eternal tome, it (and therefore Christianity itself) would never have caught on in the first place if it wasn’t written in a way that was easily comprehensible by, and interesting to, the authors’ contemporaries in the first couple of centuries AD, long before the scientific method was even invented. Whoever first set pen to paper to compose the Book of Genesis surely had no idea how old the Earth really was, and the specific age of the Earth really wasn’t all that important anyway, but for the purpose of the story he had to come up with some number that, by the standards of the day, was considered very large, yet not so large as to sail over the heads of average folks on the street. Presumably, back then most people had little or no use for numbers in the millions or billions, so… thousands of years it was. The trouble, of course, is not only that science doesn’t agree, but that nowadays we routinely throw around numbers in the billions and trillions, so the age of the Earth that someone pulled out of his nether regions all those centuries ago is no longer regarded as incredibly old, but incredibly young. Again, the same principle was likely at work with respect to other Biblical claims now contradicted by science.

  • Lorenzo · February 14, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Coyne’s essay is impressive. He is, however, unfair about the resistance to Darwin, because there is another factor that philosopher Mary Midgeley expresses well:

    The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral (p.172, Evolution as a Religion).

  • Lorenzo · February 14, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Coyne’s essay is impressive. He is, however, unfair about the resistance to Darwin, because there is another factor that philosopher Mary Midgeley expresses well:

    The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral (p.172, Evolution as a Religion).

    @Grant Canyon

  • Lorenzo · February 14, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Sorry, I stuttered.

    Grant: The Christian adoption of natural law philosophy clearly did promote a vision of a structured and ordered universe. One can, of course, reasonably argue that this did not require Christianity. Nevertheless, there is a clear contrast with Islam, as I explore here.

  • Jerry Coyne · February 15, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Great job–one of the best critiques of religious accommodationism that I’ve seen! And thanks for touting my piece.

    Jerry Coyne

  • Post hoc-ism in apologetics « · February 15, 2009 at 11:54 am

    [...] but somebody called my attention to a really cool post on a secular conservative website called “Secular Right.” While discussing my New Republic book review, the author, one Heather MacDonald, talks about how [...]

  • kurt9 · February 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    I believe Tipler’s “Omega Point” idea as well as the “Selfish Biocosm” idea (along with the technological singularity) offer a way to reconcile religion and science. It was Tipler’s book “The Physics of Immortality” that convinced me that not only is transhumanism compatible with Christianity, but that they are actually one and the same. In fact, Christianity requires transhumanism to make universal resurrection a reality.

    Both Christians and Transhumanists are people who seek transcendence. The goals of both groups are identical. Only the methods are different. Transhumanism is to traditional Christianity as self-employment is to working for a corporation. Its all a matter of temperament and personality. Some people are better off with self-employment, others make good corporate employees. Likewise, some people prefer transhumanism, others are more comfortable with traditional religion.

  • Ernest Brown · February 16, 2009 at 9:22 am

    GC,

    Perhaps you should caution Ms. MacDonald to “not get too excited.”

    Bill’s posting of the fact of the Judeo-Christian postulation of a temporally finite universe is an undercutting defeater for MacDonald’s spurious claim that:

    “It has been reduced to forever playing catch-up to science.”

    This “heads I win, tails you lose” one-way employment of “science says” around here by antitheists is not going to stand.

    “I’ve never bought this argument. I think that early Christian theologians and philosophers had a role, where they did natural philosophy, in some ways the forerunner of science.”

    Yes, that comes from the institutional view of science (i.e. science as an institution dates from the beginning of the 19th century), which, if taken literally, means that Galileo and Kepler weren’t scientists either.

    “Further, how does Christianity promote a rational universe, what with all the miracles and all?”

    Well,

    (A) The very ability to call something a “miracle” presupposes natural regularity to begin with.

    (B) The “miracles” of the Bible have a two-fold relevance here. First, nothing is “miraculous” from God’s perspective by nature, secondly the miracles of the Bible have an ostensibly rational purpose to demonstrate God’s power in an intelligible context [whether one accepts the overarching narrative or not], which the arbitrary transformations of the Greek myths, holdovers from primitive nature myths, do not.

    The view propounded by antitheists that the Church was a monolithic force blocking all rational inquiry during the Middle Ages is wrong-headed, as most of the genuine intellectual advancement in that era took place under its aegis. (Goldstein, pp. xi-xiv, c.f. footnotes on p. 69, 70 and 76) Enquirers are more than welcome to check out Thomas Goldstein’s. DAWN OF MODERN SCIENCE. Foreward by Issac Asimov. American Heritage Library edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988), cited above. It is a good overview of the history of the development of modern science.

    For a good, fair-minded discussion of the interplay of science and theology from a non-theist, I recommend the following:

    http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/CIS/Numbers/Numbers_Lecture.pdf

    http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/CIS/Numbers/Numbers_Discussion.pdf

  • Ernest Brown · February 16, 2009 at 9:43 am

    I should note that Prof. Numbers does make a mistake in his characterization of the “science from Christianity” argument.
    The argument isn’t that non-Christians weren’t doing science (quite the opposite!), it is that non-Christian world-views were deterministic in nature and ultimately poisonous to the sustained development of scientific inquiry.

  • Danny · February 16, 2009 at 9:54 am

    @Grant Canyon

    Grant Canyon:

    I believe Bill was referring more to the cosmological argument having been more or less vindicated by modern cosmology. The Bertrand Russel objection to the argument – “can’t the universe and the motions contained within it just have been around forever” – has been ruled out. The universe came into existence about 13.7 billion years ago. Aquinas (and Aristotle especially) certainly weren’t arguing from or appealing to the Genesis narrative.

  • Ernest Brown · February 16, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Danny, quite so. Dr. William Lane Craig notes that he gets the double standard that GC tries to employ constantly in his debate with skeptics.

  • Ernest Brown · February 16, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I should also add that Buridan was critical of Aristotle’s theory of motion, it is his theory of impetus that Bill is referring to.

  • Grant Canyon · February 16, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Yes, that comes from the institutional view of science (i.e. science as an institution dates from the beginning of the 19th century), which, if taken literally, means that Galileo and Kepler weren’t scientists either.

    In this sense, they weren’t. But more to the point, the fact that Christian theologians were doing natural philosophy doesn’t mean that the Christian theology was necessary to do the natural philosophy.

    (A) The very ability to call something a “miracle” presupposes natural regularity to begin with.

    Yes, but this was not something that was unique by any stretch to Judeo-Christian thought. The ability to discern the regularities in nature is evident in most every human culture. Thus, the ability to recognize cessations of that natural order is also recognizable.

    (B) The “miracles” of the Bible have a two-fold relevance here. First, nothing is “miraculous” from God’s perspective by nature, secondly the miracles of the Bible have an ostensibly rational purpose to demonstrate God’s power in an intelligible context [whether one accepts the overarching narrative or not], which the arbitrary transformations of the Greek myths, holdovers from primitive nature myths, do not.

    How can the first of these promote a rational universe if, to god, there are no miracles and the rational running of the universe can be overridden at any time by this same god?

    Again, how does the demonstration of god’s power to perform miracles promote the idea of a rational universe, rather than promoting the idea that everything happens as god wants it; that nothing happens except that which through the will of god, regardless of anything, including the cycles of nature and the regularity of the natural world?

    The view propounded by antitheists that the Church was a monolithic force blocking all rational inquiry during the Middle Ages is wrong-headed, as most of the genuine intellectual advancement in that era took place under its aegis.

    I don’t believe that it blocked all rational inquiry. I believe that there would have been more intellectual advancement in the absence of the church, however such counterfactuals are impossible to prove either way. I simply don’t believe that the church or religion should be given credit for non-theological advances, such as with science, when there is no basis for doing so.

    Simply because a Christian does science does not mean that Christianity should be credited with the scientific discovery, which is what proponents of the theory that “Christianity is science’s handmaiden” are, I believe, attempting to say.

    I believe Bill was referring more to the cosmological argument having been more or less vindicated by modern cosmology.

    Actually Bill was stating that theism made a correct prediction. “…theism has posited something in advance of science.”

    Further, nothing of the sort of vindication you asserted has been established. Neither the Hebrew creation myth nor the cosmological argument was vindicated by modern cosmology. The most you can say is that if the Big Bang represents an actual beginning and not, for example, the latest in an oscillating universe, that the findings are not inconsistent with these things. But that’s not vindication.

    Indeed, in terms of vindication, Genesis is a joke, what with all the magic fruit, talking snakes, global floods etc. No one with a serious interest in science believes it to be anything more than a fanciful fable.

    As for the cosmological argument, if we ignore the obvious defect in the argument (the exception given for the uncaused cause from the chain of causality), the premise that “everything begins to exist has a cause” has been proven incorrect by quantum physics.

    Aquinas (and Aristotle especially) certainly weren’t arguing from or appealing to the Genesis narrative.

    Aquinas most certainly was arguing from Genesis (from the whole of his theology, actually.) If not for Genesis, he would have no reason to favor a finite universe over an infinite one.

    + + +

    “…the double standard that GC tries to employ…”

    What double standard would that be?

  • Grant Canyon · February 16, 2009 at 11:26 am

    I should also add that Buridan was critical of Aristotle’s theory of motion, it is his theory of impetus that Bill is referring to.

    Ok, even if we consider impetus to be a forerunner of Newtonian physics, which is a stretch, the credit does not go to theism, merely because he was a priest, which was Bill’s point. When he was forming his theory, he was doing natural philosophy, not theology.

  • Bill Ramey · February 16, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Grant,

    Again, Heather made this claim: religion (Christianity in particular) always plays catch up with science. To show that such a categorical claim is false, we only need one counterexample. I offered one. Whether or not Genesis is wrong on other details has no bearing on my point and is just a red herring. The fact is that Genesis posits a universe with a beginning and modern scientific cosmology confirms–as much as a scientific theory can–that this is so. You can claim that the writers of Genesis got lucky and so on, but again, I simply provided a counterexample to Heather’s claim. If someone says that all Fs are Gs, and I point to an F that is not a G, I have provided an adequate counterexample to the claim. The source of the counterexample is irrelevant.

    The point of bringing up Buridan (and let’s add Roger Bacon and Nicole Oresme to the mix) is that modern science emerged from monk-ridden Christian Europe. Yes, science had good starts in Islamic Arabia and China, but ultimately fizzled there. Why? Because Islam is fatalistic and pantheism blurs the distinction between creator and created. Christian thinkers tended to believe that the universe has an order and that it can be empirically studied. This is all uncontroversial textbook stuff. What we’re wrangling over is how much hay can be made from it. All I’m saying is that it is enough to falsify the “relgion vs. science” meme that so many atheists uncritically accept. It certainly falsifies the notion that Christianity is always playing catch-up to science.

  • Grant Canyon · February 16, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    @Bill Ramey,

    No, Heather wasn’t making a categorical claim, whe was saying that religious types are reduced to making post-hoc rationalizations, in the face of scientific advancement. In my mind, claiming that Genesis posited the Big Bang theory is just such a post-hoc rationalization, because it strips away all the differences between the two, in terms of the knowledge itself, the source of knowledge, and its reliability, until all that is left is a trivial similiarity.

    Yes, modern science arose in Europe, owing more to the political and social changes in Europe than on ad-hoc claims about religion. And to the extent that its practitioners were, themselves, Christian, that fact is irrelevant to the merits of thier science. One cannot point a Buridan and, through him, take “credit” in the name of Christianity, when the things you are pointing to him for (i.e., his natural philosophy) did not depend on his Christianity.

    And there can be no doubt that religion in Europe was at least as harmful as it was helpful. The question, in my mind (which cannot, alas, be answered), is how much further science would have advanced without religion.

  • John Farrell · February 16, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    I’m a little surprised Heather didn’t see the holes in Jerry’s argument, tarring all religious scientists with the same creationish brush. Brandon at Siris sums it up nicely, so I’ll quote him at length:
    **
    This is Coyne’s characterization of creationism:

    “But regardless of their views, all creationists share 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. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot. If any were missing, the blood would not clot. How could something this sophisticated have blindly evolved?”

    His argument requires that these four be necessary and sufficient conditions. If they are not necessary then (1) his claim that they apply to all creationists (Coyne makes no distinction between the terms ‘creationists’ and ‘intelligent design proponents’) is false; and (2) he can’t make his ‘convergence’ argument later on, at least in a way where it still remains clearly relevant (since, no doubt, everyone including Coyne himself ‘converges’ with the views of creationists on irrelevant points). If they are not sufficient, he can’t make his ‘convergence’ argument, either, since they wouldn’t suffice to make the general claims about religion that he gets out of that argument. But they definitely are not necessary conditions; I’ve personally met IDers who are pantheists and would firmly reject (2). This requires little to no modification of standard ID arguments; they just take the intelligence to be built-in rather than distinct. And even if such people did not exist, we know that (2) & (3) are not logically necessary to the position because standard ID arguments are consistent with the position of Hume’s Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, who holds that there is an intelligent designing principle of some sort, who knows what, that one could call ‘God’ if one felt the need. Thus if (as is plausible) (2) and (3) are commonly accepted by IDers, this is more reasonably explained in sociological terms than in terms of the position itself. Likewise, Coyne never considers that someone like Miller might well consider his later convergence argument to be itself a proof that these are not sufficient conditions, i.e.: Miller’s not an IDer (because his conception of science is not the same, whatever his convergence on ‘religion’ — which Miller, of course, would not grant is quite so close as Coyne thinks, in part because I don’t think he would understand the term in the same way), so if Coyne’s characterization of ID makes it difficult to distinguish Miller from it, this is due to the failure of Coyne’s characterization to draw essential distinctions. And it is noteworthy that, despite the fact that Coyne recognizes the essential issue is how science is to be understood (devoting a considerable portion of the essay to the question), out of these four conditions only (4) even reaches the vicinity of giving us any inkling of what the creationist view of science is — and it doesn’t give us all that much of an inkling, either.

    Thus the conclusion Coyne reaches is not surprising at all; given the way that Coyne has set up the problem — ID is contrary to science, ID is accounted for in purely ‘religious’ terms, ‘religion’ generally converges on ID as accounted for in such a way — the conclusion derived is virtually inevitable. But the set-up of the problem is so artificial that one suspects it was derived from the conclusion to be reached rather than vice versa. That is, the essay works very well if it is taken to be an account of how someone might find claims about the incompatibility of science and ‘religion’ (however the latter is understood) plausible; if taken as an actual argument for that conclusion, however, it is poorly constructed, since it begs the question early on. We get the conclusion Coyne believes, in nice detail, but we never actually see any sustainable argument for it.
    **

  • Ernest Brown · February 16, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    “When he was forming his theory, he was doing natural philosophy, not theology.”

    To impose an absolute wall of separation between Buridan’s theology and natural philosophy is utterly anachronistic, and it would have been rejected by Buridan himself.

    Your take on the “Big Bang’s” history is even more out-of-left-field.
    Those implications weren’t drawn by theologians “ad hoc,” they were drawn by the non-theistic enemies of the theory even before the theologians could get their hands on it, right down to the derisive nickname that it is known by in scientific history. Anyone who doubts me can check it out in Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. I believe that he discusses it on pp. 49-52 of the paperback edition of the 10th anniversary edition Revised and Expanded edition, or around pp. 45-47 of the original edition. In Jastrow’s classic comment:

    “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

  • Ernest Brown · February 17, 2009 at 6:09 am

    “I believe that he discusses it on pp. 49-52 of the paperback edition of the 10th anniversary edition Revised and Expanded edition, or around pp. 45-47 of the original edition.”

    I note that Hawking makes the spurious (according to Jaki) claim on 49 that the Catholic Church made the Big Bang “officially” to be “in accordance with the Bible” in 1951, which does nothing to alter the point that the first persons to draw those unpleasant implications were not theologians making apologetic points, but non-theists with exactly the opposite intentions, as Hawking points out in his discussion of the Steady State model immediately following on 49-50.

  • Grant Canyon · February 17, 2009 at 6:26 am

    @Ernest Brown

    Nonsense, it’s not anachronistic at all. Those who are claiming that religion was crucial to the development of science make an examination of the distinction between theology and natural philosophy not only necessary but proper. That Buridan might say his natural philosophy is part of his theology is irrelevant. The proper question is whether they’re separable. If they are, then there is nothing more than a correlation.

    As for the Big Bang, I’m only talking about the claim that theology predicted the Big Bang conclusion. That is nonsense, because all of theology is guesswork, a little logical manipulation, massive amounts of willing suspension of disbelief, making stuff up and blind faith belief in the absence of evidence. That it occasions on truthful information from time to time is nothing more than the stopped clock phenomenon.

    That some non-theist scientists resisted the science because it, being proposed by a priest, appeared to be nothing more than theism dressed up the cloak of science is unfortunate, as they should have considered the evidence on its merits, as they did when the supporting evidence became known. It does point to the unintended consequence of religious belief: namely that you run the risk of having people reject your ideas as unsound because you’ve proven yourself willing to believe other unsound ideas like religion.

    That the theologians thought that the universe had a beginning and the Big Bang is nothing more than a coincidence, as there is no connection between how the scientists obtained the knowledge and the theologians came up with their guess. Further, the claim is illogical and in bad faith, as it requires one to ignore all the batshit-crazy stuff about creation that goes along with the theological position, in favor of the one discrete point in which they claim prediction.

    Well, Jastrow’s statement is idiotic. The scientist and the theologian aren’t on the same peak; the theologians are down on the plain pretending to be mountain climbers while the scientists are actually doing it.

  • Jacob · February 18, 2009 at 1:06 am

    Heather,

    I recommend this post to you “Myth and Cult: How Atheists Misunderstand Religion”:

    http://distributedrepublic.net/archives/2009/02/18/myth-and-cult-how-atheists-misunderstand-religion

    To summarize, I don’t think this flavor of arguments is convincing to anyone.

  • Jacob · February 18, 2009 at 1:22 am

    @Bill Ramey

    Bill,

    Science petered out in the Islamic world because the Spanish caliphate fractured, leaving it militarily vulnerable to the Christian imperialists to the north. The ensuing violence radicalized their society and brought a quick end to their premature renaissance.

    The cultural sophistication and scientific knowledge of the French and Spanish victors was pitiful in comparison to the defeated Muslims. It took them a few centuries to catch up.

  • Bill of MD · February 18, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Coyne writes in the cited New Republic article: “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. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot. If any were missing, the blood would not clot. How could something this sophisticated have blindly evolved?”

    This paragraph shows, remarkably, that though Coyne has (unlike most evolutionary biologists) written explicitly in defense of evolutionary theory (and thus inevitably against Creationism/ID), he has little real understanding of ID.

    The “complexity” in “irreducible complexity” does not specifically refer to systems that are complex in the sense that the nervous system of a chimp would be thought complex compared to that of an ant. It refers to systems whose functionality depends on two or more interacting parts. Such a system will work (and thus be advantageous for the organism that possesses it) only when all the parts are present and operative. No part individually confers an advantage. So all parts must have evolved together in anticipation of their common role. But this is obviously forbidden by the non-teleological nature of evolution. But irreducibly complex systems are known to exist, so there is more to the development of life than can be accounted for by random mutation/natural selection.

    But Michael Behe’s notion of Irreducible Complexity is only a part of ID theory; it gets all the ink because it is by far the easier part to understand. The other part is due to mathematician William Dembski, and depends on the existence of a property of complex systems called “Complex Specified Information”, that Dembski invented. A system can be complex because it is chaotic – a junk yard or a string of random characters are, technically, complex – but they contain no “specified” information, unlike, say, DNA, which is both complex AND specified.

    Dembski offers proof that the CSI of DNA (or the protein molecules it gives rise to) is far too great for it to have been created by a purely random process, and then goes on to prove (or attempt to prove) that no systematic process – like evolution, or its computational analog, the genetic algorithm – can generate such complexity either. To get an idea of the full-fledged theory, go to

    http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/

    (not for the faint-hearted).

    Pretty obviously, Coyne has somehow managed to conflate Dembski and Behe.

    =========================================

    Dembski and Behe are routinely vilified by supporters of evolution, usually, as with Coyne, with no real understanding of their arguments; the major canard is that ID is not science or not “a science”.

    It is true that ID does not create a new scientific paradigm and research program to replace or rival evolution theory. But it is clearly scientific in the sense of using the methods of science to offer a refutation of the fundamentals of evolution.

    ID has a historical analog in the work of the nineteenth century engineer and mathematician Fleming Jenkin. Darwin, knowing nothing of Mendel, imagined inheritance to be a process of blending, where the characteristics of the mating pair blend in the offspring. Jenkin claimed that, under blending, a favorable variation would be rapidly weakened in its effect, since the organism possessing it would most probably mate with one lacking it, halving its effectiveness in the first generation, and so on geometrically for subsequent generations. Thus Natural Selection will end up with nothing to work on.

    Jenkin’s argument, now only of historical interest, was clearly “scientific”; he did not defend it by citing the Bible or claiming that it came to him in a vision. Behe and Dembski are simply doing in their own way what Jenkin did in his.

    It might be urged against Behe and Dembski that they are motivated by religion rather than the love of truth. Assume that this is so. Does it invalidate their ideas? Obviously not, since the ideas can be evaluated by the normal methods of science, accepted if they succeed, rejected otherwise. Are all scientists free of ulterior motives – narcissism, competitiveness, careerism? Obviously not, but no one advocates rejecting their work for that reason.

  • Caledonian · February 19, 2009 at 11:18 am

    “But it is clearly scientific in the sense of using the methods of science to offer a refutation of the fundamentals of evolution.”

    It’s not part of the scientific method to refuse to familiarize yourself with findings contrary to your favored hypothesis.

    ID is pseudoscience, in that it pretends to use science’s methods and data while actually violating / ignoring them left and right.

    It’s much less honest than straightforward religious arguments, which at least don’t try to disguise themselves as something other than what they are.

  • Bill of MD · February 19, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Bill of MD wrote: “But it is clearly scientific in the sense of using the methods of science to offer a refutation of the fundamentals of evolution.”

    Caledonian replies: “It’s not part of the scientific method to refuse to familiarize yourself with findings contrary to your favored hypothesis.”

    Where did Behe and/or Dembski “refuse” to do this?
    Please, no cryptic put-downs. A site like this is not the place for full-scale analyzes, I know, but you can presumably do better than unsubstantiated assertion.

  • Caledonian · February 20, 2009 at 9:04 am

    “Where did Behe and/or Dembski “refuse” to do this?”

    The Dover Trial. It was covered extensively. Behe remained adamant that evolution could not have produced blood clotting despite admitting that he hadn’t read any of a large stack of scientific articles addressing that very topic. He had, in fact, no knowledge of any research on the subject.

    How he could know that the articles presented no credible hypotheses without having read them is quite a mystery.

  • Bill of MD · February 20, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Bill of MD: “Where did Behe and/or Dembski “refuse” to do this?”

    Caledonian writes: “The Dover Trial. It was covered extensively. Behe remained adamant that evolution could not have produced blood clotting despite admitting that he hadn’t read any of a large stack of scientific articles addressing that very topic. He had, in fact, no knowledge of any research on the subject.”

    Which means that he had *failed* to read the articles, not *refused*. To which one might add that at time of writing “Darwin’s Black Box”, he knew nothing about Muller’s natural selection-based explanation of “Interlocking Complexity”, effectively the same concept as “Irreducible Complexity”, first described a century ago. Which shows that he is a sloppy, possibly self-deceiving researcher. But what he asserted in DBB was scientifically correct within the limits of what he understood. He did not rely on the authority of a Holy Book or invoke the supernatural. So what he did was poor science, but poor science is still science. Poor science is not confined to ID supporters. Science is subject to the same human weaknesses as all other human activities. The method of review and duplication is intended to overcome those weaknesses as far as is possible . With Behe’s “Irreducible Complexity”, it obviously worked.

    You haven’t explained what Dembski “refused” to familiarize himself with.

  • Caledonian · February 20, 2009 at 10:16 am

    “Which means that he had *failed* to read the articles, not *refused*.”

    They were easily accessible, especially for someone who’s supposed to be a professional biologist. How else do you explain his complete ignorance of the literature, other than that he refused to read it?

  • Bill of MD · February 20, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Bill of MD: “Which means that he had *failed* to read the articles, not *refused*.”

    Caledonian: “They were easily accessible, especially for someone who’s supposed to be a professional biologist. How else do you explain his complete ignorance of the literature, other than that he refused to read it?”

    You need to look up the meaning of “refused”.

    Do you have a reference to your accusation that “Behe remained adamant that evolution could not have produced blood clotting despite admitting that he hadn’t read any of a large stack of scientific articles addressing that very topic.”? No, I don’t want to be sent on a wild-goose chase, I mean a direct reference.

    In any case, even if Behe did what you claim, that only indicates bad science, not pseudoscience, which is a different thing.

    And, you still haven’t explained what Dembski “refused” to familiarize himself with.

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