Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jerry Coyne: Too Atheist For the Atheists

I happen to have the "distinction" of having been attacked by University of Chicago Biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne on his "Why Evolution Is True" blog during a kind of 6.5 minutes of fame I had online a few years back. Dr. Coyne is the gold standard of militant atheism and speaks with a fervor and certainty that some might associate with religious "fundamentalism." Once in a while, the atheist community comes to recognize that some of their representatives are so utterly disdainful of anything that smacks of theology and so intolerant of any views that diverge with their own accepted wisdom that they become a tad embarrassed.

Such is the case with the general reaction to Dr. Coyne's latest contribution to humanity - a book called "Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible." Dr. Coyne doesn't believe in free will so I suppose he can't be blamed for writing yet another needlessly judgmental, philosophically unsophisticated and antagonistic work. Then again, since he doesn't believe in free will how could he blame the religious (or anyone really) for holding the views that they do? But Whatever.

Science writer John Horgan has written an interesting piece in Scientific American entitled "Book By Biologist Jerry Coyne Goes Too Far Denouncing Religion, Defending Science."  He also wrote up a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal called "Preaching to the Converted."  Here's a helpful excerpt from that piece:

Coyne’s defenses of science and denunciations of religion are so relentlessly one-sided that they aroused my antipathy toward the former and sympathy toward the latter… He overlooks any positive consequences of religion, such as its role in anti-slavery, civil-rights and anti-war movements. He inflates religion’s contribution to public resistance toward vaccines, genetically modified food and human-induced global warming.
Conversely, he absolves science of responsibility for any adverse consequences, such as weapons and ideologies of mass destruction. “The compelling force that produced nuclear weapons, gunpowder, and eugenics was not science but people.” Right. Science doesn’t kill people; people kill people.
Na├»ve readers of Mr. Coyne might conclude that science is rapidly filling in the remaining gaps in our understanding of reality and solving ancient philosophical conundrums. He claims that free will, the notion that “we can choose to behave in different ways,” is being contradicted by research in genetics and neuroscience and “looks increasingly dubious.”
As evidence, he cites scientific revelations that our choices are often influenced by factors of which we are unaware. Yes, Freud told us as much, and Sophocles for that matter. But it is absurd to conclude that all our conscious deliberations are therefore inconsequential…
Mr. Coyne’s critique of free will, far from being based on scientific “fact,” betrays how his hostility toward religion distorts his judgment. Evidence against free will, he says, “kicks the props out from under much theology, including the doctrine of salvation.” Mr. Coyne thinks that if religious people believe in free will, it must be an illusion.
Mr. Coyne’s loathing of creationism, similarly, leads him to exaggerate what science can tell us about our cosmic origins. Mr. Coyne asserts that “we are starting to see how the universe could arise from ‘nothing,’ and that our own universe might be only one of many universes that differ in their physical laws.” Actually, cosmologists are more baffled than ever at why there is something rather than nothing… And multiverse theories are about as testable as religious beliefs.
Mr. Coyne repeatedly reminds us that science, unlike religion, promotes self-criticism, but he is remarkably lacking in this virtue himself. He rejects complaints that some modern scientists are guilty of “scientism,” which I would define as excessive trust—faith!—in science. Calling scientism “a grab bag of disparate accusations that are mostly inaccurate or overblown,” Mr. Coyne insists that the term “be dropped.”
Actually, Faith vs. Fact serves as a splendid specimen of scientism. Mr. Coyne disparages not only religion but also other human ways of engaging with reality. The arts, he argues, “cannot ascertain truth or knowledge,” and the humanities do so only to the extent that they emulate the sciences. This sort of arrogance and certitude is the essence of scientism.
Well said, and oodles of fodder for future discussion (especially as Horgan then goes on to make some classical theological errors that, as he explains, have informed his religious worldview) but we'll save that for another post.

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