Saturday, February 21, 2009

Frank Conversation

Attorney General Eric Holder summons us to a "frank conversation" about race, and Heather MacDonald at City Journal responds to the call. I don't think, though, that her talking points are quite what Holder had in mind. Even so, they're nothing if not frank.

If people start responding like MacDonald does to Holder's invitation to more open and honest dialogue he might rue the day he ever brought it up.


Science Vs Religion (Pt. IV)

This is the fourth installment of our analysis of biologist Jerry Coyne's New Republic article on the incompatibility of science and religion. See here, here, and here for previous posts.

Coyne set out to argue that religion and science are incompatible because they have different doxastic criteria (justifications for belief). It may be true that the claims of each require different sorts of warrant but that hardly makes them incompatible. Where, for example, is the conflict between the claim that birds migrate by the stars and the claim that God exists? Where's the incongruity between the belief that the universe is comprised mostly of dark matter and energy and the belief that an omnipotent, omniscient and personal God created it?

The incompatibility is not between religious belief and science but between religious belief and materialism. Materialism, however, is metaphysics, not science, and Coyne's tendency to conflate the two is ironic as we'll point out in the last paragraph.

Coyne writes:

In a common error, [Karl] Giberson confuses the strategic materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of materialism. He claims that "if the face of Jesus appeared on Mount Rushmore with God's name signed underneath, geologists would still have to explain this curious phenomenon as an improbable byproduct of erosion and tectonics." Nonsense. There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life, we could find meaningful DNA sequences that could have been placed in our genome only by an intelligent agent, angels could appear in the sky. The fact that no such things have ever been scientifically documented gives us added confidence that we are right to stick with natural explanations for nature. And it explains why so many scientists, who have learned to disregard God as an explanation, have also discarded him as a possibility.

This is hard to follow. Coyne seems to want to say that the materialistic assumptions scientists employ are just a methodological tactic, but he winds up endorsing a kind of materialistic metanarrative. Moreover, the notion that the experience of certain phenomena would jar scientists out of their materialism hardly proves that their materialism is merely tactical. If it's true that scientists could be persuaded by empirical evidence to jettison their materialism it only means that they're open-minded and rational.

Even so, I think Coyne is mistaken about this. If any of the phenomena he mentions actually occurred, a materialist would immediately, and rightly, set about looking for a mechanical, natural explanation. If his search were unsuccessful he'd simply issue a promissory note and assure us that science will surely discover the causal mechanisms behind the phenomena eventually. Angels in the sky would be explained away as either mass hallucination events or the visitation of life-forms from other planets. Even were a DNA sequence or star pattern found that somehow spelled out "I, God, Made This" the materialist would simply shrug and say something like, "Given an infinity of worlds there has to be at least one where such an amazingly improbable pattern would exist." The point is that someone who doesn't want to believe in God will withhold belief as long as there is an "out" through which they can escape. Coyne is being a little naive if he thinks that materialist scientists could be persuaded to abandon their worldview so easily.

He goes on to say that:

Like Giberson, [biologist Ken] Miller rejects a literal interpretation of the Bible. After discussing the fossil record, he contends that "a literal reading of the Genesis story is simply not scientifically valid," concluding that "theology does not and cannot pretend to be scientific, but it can require of itself that it be consistent with science and conversant with it." But this leads to a conundrum. 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.

Coyne raises an interesting question here, but muddies it up by seriously misrepresenting science. Science emphatically does not suggest that miracles are impossible. Science deals in probabilities, not possibilities. Indeed, there's very little that science declares impossible. The most science can "say" is that as far as any scientist has ever been able to observe under laboratory conditions, human virgins have never produced offspring and dead people have never revivified. Science qua science cannot say neither of these ever happened nor that they never could happen. Miracles are statistically improbable, they're not logically impossible.

Coyne really seems to be saying something like this: If materialism is true, miracles performed by a supernatural being are impossible. Materialism is true, therefore miracles are impossible. But if this is his argument it's not very persuasive since the truth of the second premise is very much open to dispute. The second premise is, in fact, a religious assumption about the world, as Roy Clouser points out, and it undergirds Coyne's science. This is ironic, as we said above, since Coyne is arguing in this essay that religion and science are incompatible even as he himself has no trouble harmonizing the two in his own life.