Guest Post: Jerry Coyne in Toronto

Guest post by Leslie Rosenblood

On Wednesday, June 10, I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry Coyne in Toronto to hear him speak about his new book, Faith vs. Fact, at an event organized by the Centre for Inquiry Canada.

I have been a reader of Coyne’s website, whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com, for several years, and appreciate his clear, unadorned prose, especially when describing complex concepts. His style in person is quite similar: his speech was organized; his arguments buttressed with research, polls, and quotations, as appropriate; and his slides effectively supplemented his lecture, not replacing his oration with too many words nor distracting from it with too many graphics. (I took notes throughout but did not record his speech; quotations below are as accurate as I can reconstruct them.)

Coyne started by defining science as a methodology for finding what’s real, and not as a body of facts. This echoes Henri Poincaré’s claim that “a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” Thus, many jobs can be considered scientific professions in addition to chemists, physicists, biologists: plumbers, mechanics, and all other occupations that use inquiry, hypothesis testing, and falsification to determine what is and isn’t working and what should be done about it.

This led to the main thesis of his speech: that science and religion are incompatible (also the subtitle of his book). He demonstrated this on several levels, and also addressed several common attempts, often from prestigious scientific organizations, to reconcile the two.

What’s odd, according to Coyne, is that most people act very much like scientists in their day to day lives; religion fades into the background (or to invisibility) with mundane affairs. “When you lose your keys, you don’t pray for a revelation to find them,” said Coyne. “You retrace your steps.”

One of the most common tactics used to demonstrate that science and religion are compatible is showing that many scientists are also deeply religious. “But this ignores the difference between compatibility and compartmentalism,” argued Coyne. “People are quite capable of shedding scientific rigour when attending church on Sunday mornings.”

Coyne then showed compelling research indicating a strong correlation between scientific achievement and lack of religious belief – to the point that very few elite scientists (using membership in the US National Academy of Sciences as a proxy) profess any religious belief. He hypothesized that becoming expert in the tools, techniques, and methodologies of scientific endeavours, and learning more about the way the universe functions, leads inexorably to becoming an atheist.

“Accommodationists” (those arguing in favour of the compatibility of science and religion) often take the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) approach favoured by Stephen Jay Gould. Science and religion, in this view, are in entirely separate domains: science holds sway in the realm of facts, while religion informs our values. According to NOMA, we should let scientific inquiry determine what is, and allow religion to inspire us to determine what we ought to do with this knowledge.

Unfortunately, Coyne argued, NOMA simply doesn’t work, because it is rejected by both scientists and theologians. Whenever a religious text made a truth claim about the universe (such as how the world was created), scientists have (almost without fail) shown it to be false. Theologians reject the stricture that limits them to “meanings, morals, and values.” (In fact, Coyne argued, when it comes to ethics, “secular philosophers do it better.”) Thus, despite the separation implied by NOMA, neither party has been willing to agree to its boundaries.

More fundamentally, religion and science are incompatible on three levels:

  • Methodological: “In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue.” This blatant contradiction on the value of faith points directly to the incompatibility of science and religion.
  • Philosophical: Here Coyne quoted Laplace, regarding God: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” The scientific method attempts to minimize its assumptions; most religions assume the existence of an omnipotent Deity as its starting point.
  • Outcomes: If one considers evolution vs. creationism, the historical accuracy of the Flood, or whether humanity descended from Adam and Eve (they didn’t – Coyne stated that the smallest population bottleneck humanity (or human-like apes) ever experienced was approximately twelve thousand individuals), it is self-evident that science and religion conflict.

On many fronts, major religions disagree with each other. (How many gods are there? Is homosexuality wrong? Which of the at least 41,000 Christian denominations in the world is accurate, if any? Is the Christian God one or three?) Ultimately, said Coyne, religion can’t say why something is wrong – or why they’re right.

Jerry Coyne left us with this bon mot towards the end of his speech: “Falsified claims in science are discarded. Falsified claims in religion… become metaphors.”

There was a question and answer session after his speech, which clearly demonstrated that the Centre for Inquiry attracts those on the fact side of the fact vs. faith conflict. When given the microphone, I asked, “While I generally agree with your list of harms that stem from religion, in my view most of the risks to our global civilization stem from secular considerations. Climate change from our ever increasing carbon emissions; agronomy and animal husbandry practices that are almost perfectly designed to one day evolve a super bug; human activity driving species extinctions at an enormous rate; and massive pollution of land and water leading to (among other detrimental effects) huge dead zones in our oceans. None of these threats to our sustained survival have religious motivations at their core; on the contrary, they are exacerbated by the rational application of our current technology and scientific knowledge. Given this, do you maintain that religion is the worst form of irrationality and the greatest threat to our modern way of life?”

Coyne responded by acknowledging that while some scientists are venal, selfish, and corrupt, it isn’t intrinsic to the scientific enterprise. In any case, however, one can’t hold scientists as a whole responsible for how their discoveries are applied. I agreed and reiterated that the thrust of my question was about how people rationally apply technology in their self-interest but at a collective cost. Coyne’s response was to introduce a thought experiment: if you could go back 200 years and eliminate either religion or scientific advances, which would you pick? Of course we agreed on the answer, and Coyne extended that idea to the present day by quoting Sam Harris, “No society ever went extinct due to a surfeit of rational thought.”

Coyne, I felt, hedged and dodged in his reply. I am not a fan of any form of unfounded, irrational, or contradictory belief system, but am not convinced that religion is the greatest threat our society faces. Coyne did not address this directly. But aside from this minor disappointment, I enjoyed his presentation greatly and look forward to reading my (autographed!) copy of Faith vs. Fact.

Leslie Rosenblood took part in the second Chesterton Debate entitled “God’s Politics: A Debate on Religion’s Role in Public Life” and writes on his own website, Opinions and Questions.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jerry Coyne in Toronto

  1. “but am not convinced that religion is the greatest threat our society faces”

    How about we are greatest threat to our society, be it
    religion, tea party, conservatives, monarchists or
    socialists. We evolved to be to successful and dominate our environment, maybe to successful?

    Can we save ourselves from ourselves? I doubt it, my
    buddy is a climate scientist and when I talk to
    him the future looks grim. Two degrees is or will soon be in the rear view mirror and our current social structure may not survive climate change.

    “(In fact, Coyne argued, when it comes to ethics, “secular philosophers do it better.”)”

    Did he give any reasoning to support this? I would like to hear it.

    • Hello, Billybob.

      I certainly agree that in today’s world, we (humans) are our own worst enemy, and (barring a large meteor strike or external cataclysm on a similar scale) we will be (collectively) responsible for our demise should our civilization implode. I’m trying to be more specific than that – what aspect of ourselves allows us to continue with such self-destructive behaviours, even when the risks are known?

      Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” shows that our continued success (even existence) is not assured.

      Dr. Coyne referred to Hume, Kant, Bertrand Russell, and Peter Singer as examples of secular (non-religious) philosophers who advanced ethics and morality far more than the pronouncements of various theologians. This was a minor part of his overall address; he did not spend much time dwelling on this particular point.

      Leslie

      • Climate change is not as much self-destructive as it is decendant-destructive. Yes, food prices are up due to climate change and there are other problems but the symptoms are subtle and if action to stop climate change might inconvience us it is not happening.

        Think terrorism, people allow the government to spend lots of money and constrain their rights out of an immediate sense of fear. Climate change although far more dangerous does not appear to be an immediate threat therefore it is irrelevant to most people. We are like CEOs, we only see 3 months into the future.

        I would argue that Martin Luther did more for modern ethics than any of the philosophers mentioned. Not intentionally mind you but it is the result that matters to us.

  2. It is an excellent question but, I don’t fully agree with your analysis even though I agree that Coyne sidestepped your point.

    Leslie Rosenblood:
    “…in my view most of the risks to our global civilization stem from secular considerations.
    Climate change from our ever increasing carbon emissions; agronomy and animal husbandry practices that are almost perfectly designed to one day evolve a super bug; human activity driving species extinctions at an enormous rate; and massive pollution of land and water leading to (among other detrimental effects) huge dead zones in our oceans. None of these threats to our sustained survival have religious motivations at their core; on the contrary, they are exacerbated by the rational application of our current technology and scientific knowledge.”

    The largest contributor to the major problems we face is the overwhelming number of humans which necessarily drives the devastating effects that you describe. Religion is the real driver of having large families and disregarding the need to reduce, through attrition, the human population. There should, at this time, be social and governmental incentives for not having children. However, the incentives are instead weighted strongly toward having more children which is directly driven by the after life mythology of religions. Increasing carbon emissions, species extinctions at an enormous rate, massive pollution of land and water are directly linked to an overabundance of humans which is directly related to the after life beliefs of the religious. Christians have no need to concern themselves as their life is simply a test for status in an after life, there is no need to concern themselves with the throw away testing ground, which is the planet.

    Without religions there are still problems that need to be fixed, such as animal husbandry practices, economic inequality, and reining in the out of control profit motivations but, religion is a major if not the major roadblock. Religion gives otherwise decent people a, to them, legitimate reason to believe that an outside super authority will handle it, there is to the religious nothing we need to do, it is all part of their gods’ plans.

    It isn’t rational to use science and technology as a tool to destroy the only home we can and will (for all practical purposes) ever have. Science and technology are tools, those tools also are providing a warning that we need to change where we are going and how we are acting.

    As a USian I feel the need to add that Canada is in most cases the adult when compared to the collective childlike actions of the United States. The elite in the United States are like spoiled kids that could also benefit from a diaper change.

  3. “Coyne started by defining science as a methodology for finding what’s real, and not as a body of facts.”

    So he started with philosophy, good. Except this is true of theology as well, you have scripture and interpretation, instead of facts and theories.

    And that fact/value distinction in philosophy does not equate ‘theory’ (or interpretation) with value. A scientific theory, in this sense, would be in the realm of facts. Should the Americans have dropped the bomb on Japan? What does science tell us about that?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem

    “What’s odd, according to Coyne, is that most people act very much like scientists in their day to day lives”

    Only they don’t really do this. People are superstitious and illogical on a grand scale. Lottery tickets, horoscopes, and on and on. People might on occasion act like scientists, but more often than not, they rely on their intuition to make decisions and solve problems…. even scientists do this day to day.

    “Coyne then showed compelling research indicating a strong correlation between scientific achievement”

    There is also compelling research that shows a correlation between high iq and mental illness. So what.

    “leads inexorably to becoming an atheist.”

    Confirmation bias.

    “Unfortunately, Coyne argued, NOMA simply doesn’t work, because it is rejected by both scientists and theologians. Whenever a religious text made a truth claim about the universe (such as how the world was created), scientists have (almost without fail) shown it to be false.”

    Gould was arguing (with NOMA) that religious people “should” stick to questions of value. He didn’t say that they have in the past, he was arguing they should.

    “(In fact, Coyne argued, when it comes to ethics, “secular philosophers do it better.”)”

    But NOMA is not about a separation between philosophy and theology. Its about separating science and religion. So this is little more than a slight of hand substitution.

    Gould felt that religion does facts badly, and that science is really good at this. Similarly, science doesn’t really do ‘value’ at all. And Sam Harris shows us pretty clearly how badly secular types can muck up ‘values’ with their own brand of intuition and bias.

    “In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue.” This blatant contradiction on the value of faith points directly to the incompatibility of science and religion.”

    So… they are non-overlapping with regards to faith? Heh.

    “religion can’t say why something is wrong – or why they’re right.”

    Relgions can’t, but a religion can. God says so. Divine authority is central to most religions. ‘People’ disagree on which religion is correct about right and wrong, but that doesn’t mean that one of them is not. Religon is not one thing. Neither is science, they don’t use beakers and bunsen burners at the LHC.

    Science on the other hand, can’t determine right/wrong at all. It can only say what is consistent and inconsistent.

    “Falsified claims in science are discarded.”

    Only, they aren’t.

    When scientists observed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, this falsified gravity. But now we have ‘dark energy’.

    What is dark energy? No one knows. It’s a place holder, one could say ‘pixie dust’ instead, and it wouldn’t really change the problem.

    Similarly, according to gravity, and observation, the galaxy we live in, should have flow apart long ago. Not enough mass to keep it together according to gravity.

    So now we have ‘dark matter’. There are indications there is something out there with mass… but it could be the space pixies again. We don’t know. We do know, galaxies seem to defy gravity.

    Also, physics has its own NOMA… Gravity and Quantum Mechanics.

    They don’t work together, at all. QM is one of the most tested and solid theories in science… but it doesn’t work with gravity. Now we have strings and loops… nothing testable mind you… but it sounds good.

    Should we throw out gravity then? No, of course not… but…

    Falsification is false. Science is much more complicated.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability#Falsificationism

    “In any case, however, one can’t hold scientists as a whole responsible for how their discoveries are applied.”

    Or religion for the acts of the religious.

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