Friday, October 15, 2010

Jerry Coyne's Scientific Faith: Is science more rational than religion? Part III

In the New Atheist mythology, rationality is the sole possession of science. Religion, on the other hand, is devoid of it. Rather than relying on "reason and evidence," says biologist Jerry Coyne, in his recent USA Today article, "faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority." Elsewhere, he has referred to the "anti-rational habits of religion."

But we have already seen two problems with thesis. The first is that, if reason has anything to do with logic, the claim that religion is not rational simply doesn't hold up. The Christian Middle Ages were not only rational, they were, as Alfred North Whitehead, "an orgy of rationality." It was, in a way that no other age was, the Age of Logic. Commentaries on Aristotle, treatises on logical topics, and summas on theology that are filled to the brim with syllogisms. If we ignored the explicit Christianity of the age, we would have to say that deduction was the religion of the Middle Ages.

The second is that, despite its pretensions to rationality, science itself is based on a faith that the future will be like the past. The rational process of induction, the method of logic upon which all scientific generalization is based, involves the premise that the observations scientists make about the past can be extrapolated into the future. But this assumption, as David Hume famously pointed out in the 18th century, is based not on reason, since it can be established neither by induction nor deduction, but on custom and tradition--things that atheists like Coyne claim characterize religion, not science.

So in what respect can atheists say that science is rational in a way that religion is not? The only way they can do this is by redefining rationality. And, indeed, when we look at what atheists say, this is exactly what we find them doing. Our object lesson in atheist pretensions this week has been Jerry Coyne, so let's see what Coyne does with the term "rationality" that allows him to use it in the way he does.

Here is Coyne, in a New Republic article last year:
So the most important conflict ... 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.
That's right: "secular rationality." What does this mean? It's not exactly a term you will find in, say, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, let alone a scientific manual. It's nice that he included logic in his list, but in what sense are these fields rational in a way that the religion that produced thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are not? One quickly gets the impression that there is no particular reason he includes these disciplines in the category of "rational" other than the fact that he happens to agree with them. Do they really employ arguments in these fields in these fields, but don't employ them in theology? Has Coyne ever actually read an academic paper in theology? In fact, looking through Coyne's list of rational disciplines, the reader will note that philosophy, the discipline of which logic is a branch, does not even appear.

It's hard not to conclude that Coyne has simply botched this whole point. In fact, it starts to become apparent pretty quickly that Coyne himself is hardly a paragon of rationality (as the rest of us define that term. His reasoning, in fact, reaches laughable proportions when he tries to articulate a hierarchy of religions according to their friendliness to science:
Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category.
Coyne apparently failed to notice that the religions he points to as the least contradictory to science--Pantheism and Buddhism--are the ones that produced the least scientific progress. And the religions he cites as least friendly to it--including Christianity and Judaism--are the ones that most informed the cultures that brought about the scientific revolution.


When you hear atheistic scientists making arguments like these, just ask them to produce a list for you of the great scientists produced by pantheist and Buddhist cultures. If they can uncover some names, hand them the list of Jewish and Christian scientists--and make sure to draw their special attention to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Then do it again, just for fun.

The irony is that if the average theologian wrote a paper with as little awareness of the distinction between assertions and actual argumentation as Coyne displays in his discourses on these subjects, he would be considered an embarrassment.

But, apparently, the standards of rationality among scientific rationalists is high as they seem to think.


Art said...


In the comments to a preceding essay on the subject, we’ve learned that logical arguments that deal with reality are, in Martin’s vernacular, not rational, because they rely on a statement that Martin suggests is itself not rational. I am fairly sure that, if Coyne were given the definition of “rational” that we are using here, he would agree with this, and he would furthermore agree with where this leads – that, by Martin’s standards, science, an enterprise that is rooted in reality, is “not rational”.

We can also easily surmise that, since it is impossible for an argument that is grounded in reality to be rational (according to Martin’s usage), the only rational argument (using rational as Martin does) is one that is disconnected from reality. Rational logic is from the realm, to be blunt, of the imaginary. Which means that, to call religious and Christian thought “rational” (as Martin has been doing in this series of essays) is to assert that religion is of the realm of the imaginary. I rather suspect that Coyne would agree wholeheartedly with this.

So, Coyne and Martin are actually on the same page here. Which raises a question – why so many essays to drive home this point? Couldn’t this be done in a tidier, more straightforward manner? Is Martin so annoyed by the thought that someone uses the word “rational” in a way different from that which he chooses that he has to pen several essays that drive home this point? Isn’t this being just a bit too pedantic?

I’m just sayin’….

Anonymous said...

And Coyne was in town giving a lecture earlier this week. Martin could have discussed all this with him. If Jesus were in town, I would at least have talked with him and gotten an autographed photo or something.

Martin Cothran said...

I'm trying to comprehend the proportionality between Jesus and Jerry Coyne.

But I'll tell you what: If Coyne comes to town, is executed, and after three days comes back from the dead, I'll go see him.


Martin Cothran said...


Congratulations, you get the weekly prize for the longest disquisition based on a completely false assumption about what I said. You just barely beat out Singring, and that's quite an accomplishment.

You assume that I think that induction is not rational. What I said was that induction is based on a premise that cannot be rationally justified. It does not follow from that statement that induction is therefore non-rational. I know fine philosophical distinctions are hard for scientists who make forays into philosophical discussions to make, so I'm perfectly willing to help you out on this.

And the reason I wrote one (not "many posts") on the point was because I thought it was an interesting irony that the method used by scientists, some of whom are atheists, was based on a premise which itself was based on custom and tradition, something atheists profess to reject as a valid justification for belief.

I'd try to read my posts a little more carefully next time.

Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said...
I'm trying to comprehend the proportionality between Jesus and Jerry Coyne.

But I'll tell you what: If Coyne comes to town, is executed, and after three days comes back from the dead, I'll go see him.

You will be the one with the nails?

Francis Beckwith said...

Coyne states:

"Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth."

What category does this claim belong in? It's clearly not science, since it is a claim about science and not of science. (Just as if I say, "the circus is in town" is not a claim about, but not of, the circus).

Coyne does not seem to realize that comparing "science" and "religion" is like comparing "sociology" with "the culinary arts." It's too a high a level of abstraction. Tell me the science, the religion, the doctrine, the tests, the arguments, and so forth, then we're in business. But talking about generalities is just bizarre.

Consider, for example, Coyne's belief that rationality is good. How does he assess this? Does he mean to say that human beings are perfected by rationality? If so, is he talking about an ideal (in the Platonic sense) or substantial form (in the Aristotelean sense). IF neither, then what grounds the "good"? He, of course, denies the reality of formal and final causes. So, he can't prove his point by "science" in the modern sense. It turns out that certain understandings of the "good," connected to certain theological traditions, would benefit Coyne at this point. If he employs them, then his view of rationality requires theological premises (broadly construed). If he doesn't employ them, then it's not clear how he knows why reason is good and why we ought to embody it.

What is so sad about Coyne is that he is so intelligent and accomplished in his craft, but so deeply ignorant of the intellectual traditions that shaped and formed the universities that he so dearly loves. He wants an inheritance without patrimony or paternity.

Francis Beckwith said...
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Francis Beckwith said...
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KyCobb said...

But science isn't based on the faith that the future will be like the past, because the future won't be like the past. The universe is constantly evolving,and science is the process by which we develop explanations for the observations we make. The explanations which make accurate predictions of our future observations are theories which we employ as long as they are useful. Scientists are constantly looking for new observations which they can't explain, which is kind of the opposite of believing the future will always be the same as the past.

Martin Cothran said...


This is a great faith statement about science, but the question is whether it is an accurate reflection of how science really happens. You might want to read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a reality check.

KyCobb said...


As I understand Kuhn's book, its the accumulation of anomalous results which ultimately leads to a paradigm shift and a new scientific revolution. Individual humans are of course resistant to change, because they are only human. That's why science doesn't depend on the goodness of men, but rather the repeatability of their observations. Ultimately the evidence wins out, even if it takes a generational change.