This is our fifth and final post on materialist biologist Jerry Coyne's essay in The New Republic on the alleged incompatibility between science and religion. Previous installments can be found here, here, here, and here.
Coyne observes in his piece that:
Beginning with Plato, philosophers have argued convincingly that our ethics come not from religion, but from a secular morality that develops in intelligent, socially interacting creatures, and is simply inserted into religion for convenient citation.
With all due respect to Professor Coyne, the term "secular morality" is gibberish. There can be no secular morality except insofar as a group of people arbitrarily agree upon certain rules that have no basis in anything other than the subjective preferences of the people who agree to them. There's no reason to think that a morality so arrived at imposes any kind of obligation upon anyone and there's no reason to feel guilt if one breaks the rules. Only morality grounded in something transcendent can obligate us. So far from secular morality being inserted into religion, it actually piggy-backs on religion, claiming itself to be independent but all the while relying on religion to carry it and give it credibility.
In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin's colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that "science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact." As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer.
I doubt very much that Darwinians would be dissuaded by the discovery of any of the things Coyne mentions. All such discoveries would do would be to inspire the true-believers to become more creative with their hypotheses. If human fossils were found together with dinosaur fossils then we would read about the possible mixing of rock strata or the surprising survival of dinosaurs long after they had previously been thought to have gone extinct. The Darwinist metanarrative certainly wouldn't be falsified by such finds, only a particular part of the overall theory would be considered in need of an adjustment.
But let's apply Coyne's "How would we know we were wrong" test to Darwinian beliefs about the origin of life. How would we know that life did not arise through blind, impersonal forces if, in fact, it did not? What "ugly fact" would falsify the claim that life is the product of those blind, impersonal forces? No one can offer a candidate, but Darwinian materialists nevertheless continue to insist that their speculations on the matter are scientific. Since no discovery could possibly falsify their belief that life arose purely mechanistically must we not disqualify such beliefs about abiogenesis from the domain of science?
Professor Coyne adds this:
There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God's existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it. And what could possibly convince people to abandon their belief that the deity is, as Giberson asserts, good, loving, and just? If the Holocaust cannot do it, then nothing will.
I'm not sure what this is supposed to demonstrate other than that religious faith is not the same sort of thing as empirical science, but then nobody said that it was. Coyne is comparing apples and oranges. All anyone he has quoted in his article has said is that science and religion are compatible, not that they're identical. The appropriate comparison is between theistic belief and materialism. The very same phenomena that would falsify materialism, an unmistakable appearance by God, say, would serve to verify theism. On the other hand, if theistic belief cannot be falsified that simply means that materialism cannot be verified. So given this epistemic symmetry why does Coyne believe so adamantly that a scientist can consistently be a materialist but not a theist? How is a scientist's materialism any more compatible with his practice of science than would be his theism? They're both theological.
To be sure, particular religious beliefs may be incompatible with certain scientific beliefs, just as contrary scientific beliefs can be incompatible with each other, but it's one thing to say that a particular tenet of religion is incompatible with a tenet of science, it's quite another to say, as Coyne does, that religious belief is incompatible with science.RLC