Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Faith vs Fact

Biologist Austin Hughes has a lengthy critique at The New Atlantis of fellow biologist Jerry Coyne's recently published screed against religion titled Faith vs. Fact. Hughes gives a couple of paragraphs in his review to two challenges Coyne directs at believers and adroitly dispatches both of them. Here's Hughes:
Coyne issues the following challenge to his readers: “Over the years, I’ve repeatedly challenged people to give me a single verified fact about reality that came from scripture or revelation alone and then was confirmed only later by science or empirical observation.” I can think of one example, which comes from the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (whose writings Coyne badly misrepresents elsewhere in his book). Based on his exposure to Aristotle and Aristotle’s Arab commentators, Aquinas argued that it is impossible to know by reason whether or not the universe had a beginning. But he argued that Christians can conclude that the universe did have a beginning on the basis of revelation (in Genesis).

In most of the period of modern science, the assumption that the universe is eternal was quietly accepted by virtually all physicists and astronomers, until the Belgian Catholic priest and physicist Georges LemaƮtre proposed the Big Bang theory in the 1920s. Coyne does not mention LemaƮtre, though he does mention the data that finally confirmed the Big Bang in the 1960s. But, if the Big Bang theory is correct, our universe did indeed have a beginning, as Aquinas argued on the basis of revelation.

Coyne pairs the above challenge with an earlier challenge from new atheist writer Christopher Hitchens: “Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.” I agree that there is no a priori reason why atheists could not perform the kinds of heroic actions of self-sacrifice on behalf of the poor and marginalized that St. Vincent de Paul or St. Damien of Molokai are known for. It’s just that atheists so very rarely do. They have little to compare to the lives of the saints as a storehouse of examples of moral greatness.
Actually, I think there's a better answer to this second challenge: To wit: "Cruelty is objectively wrong." True, a non-believer can speak the words, but if atheism is correct their assertion would be false. On atheism there simply are no objective rights and wrongs.

In any case, Coyne's book, like much of the New Atheist genre, is filled with misunderstandings, self-contradictions, non-sequiturs, and philosophical simple-mindedness as both Hughes and philosopher Ed Feser have documented. Here are a couple of examples of Coyne's infelicities that occurred to me as I read the book last summer:

Throughout his book Coyne adopts a tendentious definition of faith. He insists that faith is believing something despite the lack of evidence, or even in the face of counter-evidence. He observes that such faith is considered a vice in science but esteemed as a virtue in religion, and indeed it would be a scientific vice were the definition correct, but it's not. Faith, whether in science or religion, is manifestly not belief despite the lack of evidence. It's belief despite the lack of proof or certainty, which is a quite different matter. Coyne's straw man definition is a description of "blind" faith, but it's not an accurate description of the faith of millions of thoughtful believers.

He goes on to make the astonishing claim that there's no evidence whatsoever of the existence of supernatural entities or powers. I say this is an astonishing claim because it requires the one who makes it to willfully avert one's eyes from the voluminous positive evidence afforded by both cosmology and biology - the fine-tuning of cosmic parameters and constants, the evidence of a beginning to the universe, the irreducible complexity of many cellular bio-machines and systems, and on and on. The claim also requires that the one who affirms it be wholly unacquainted with the numerous powerful metaphysical arguments for God's existence.

To be sure, it is perhaps the case that none of this evidence amounts to a certainty that God exists. Perhaps, though it's doubtful, naturalists will someday show that there are satisfactory naturalistic explanations for all of these aforementioned facts and arguments, but to think that these are not evidence is to belie a fundamental confusion in one's mind between evidence and proof. It is also to confuse plausibility with certainty. Ideally, both philosophers and scientists believe what they conclude to be the most plausible, or probably true, hypothesis. They don't wait for certainty, like Godot's friends waiting for him to show up, before making their epistemic commitments. One may suppose that the evidence is not sufficiently powerful to compel one to accept the conclusion that there is a God, especially if one does not want there to be a God in the first place, but what one cannot say is that there is no evidence that would justify the conclusion that God exists if one were open to that possibility.

The accumulated labor of both scientists and philosophers has taken that option off the table.