The Haught/Coyne Debate …

So, I’ve just finished watching the debate (I skipped the last half of the Q & A because it was kinda boring me). The first thing to note is that in terms of sheer content — not looking at what was said or how good it was — Coyne’s presentation was packed with content, while Haught’s said relatively little. Taking notes on each presentation in preparation for this post, I took one page on Haught and three pages on Coyne. For a lot of it, it wasn’t clear what purpose some of Haught’s statements had, even if we don’t take it in light of this being a debate. But, more importantly, a lot of what he said simply seemed to be background and presentation rather than direct statements of position.

But we don’t judge presentations or debates strictly on how much you say. So what did each person say?

Let’s start with Haught. Early in the presentation, Haught used quotes about the universe having purpose, and the supposed consequences of the universe not having it. I know that some have criticized this as not in any way showing that the universe has purpose, but it struck me that the best way to interpret that is not that these quotes prove that the universe has purpose, but more about why it’s important for us, at least, to ask if there is one and, if there is, what that purpose is. I don’t think this was intended to prove that there is one; the frameworks presented later do more for that than the introduction did.

The main thrust of Haught’s presentation, though, is his idea of the hierarchical view, where the lower cognitive or intellectual levels cannot grasp higher ones. In the Q&A, he also talks about these as levels of explanation. And from this, he says that since we are at a lower level than the Ultimate, we can only grasp the Ultimate through things like symbols … and doing that is what he calls “faith”.

Haught makes an analogy to books, and if we translate the symbol notion in directly we can make more sense of the “monkey-to-adult” analogy. If a monkey looks at a book, the monkey only sees marks on a page. The child who knows the alphabet knows that these are symbols, but doesn’t really know what the symbols that are “words” really mean. The teenager can read the words and so knows what the symbols mean, but only grasps the literal meaning and not the deeper meaning that the words are trying to convey. The adult, then, is capable of understanding the deeper meaning of the symbols beyond the strictly literal. As Haught clarifies in the Q&A, there’s nothing wrong with each of these levels, but they are different explanatory or cognitive levels.

I’d add that sometimes what level you’re at depends, in fact, on what sort of explanation you’re looking for. Take the teapot example from the Q&A. If you are looking for a physical explanation for why water boils, the atoms explanation works fine and is all you need. But if you want the intentional explanation, then the physical explanation will not satisfy you and is totally extraneous, just as the intentional explanation is if you care about the physical one. They are different explanations and you cannot easily translate them into the other view and maintain their explanatory power, but for your purposes you don’t really need to; each explanation gives you exactly what you want for the purpose you have in looking for an explanation.

Of course, the explanations have to be in some sense compatible with each other, in that they can’t imply things at another explanatory level that contradict the explanations there. So you couldn’t, say, argue for an interpretation of a word or phrase in a book that contradicts the actual meaning of that phrase. That would introduce a contradiction, and you’d need to resolve it. But note that that does not have to mean that you reject the higher level on the basis of the lower; you don’t have to insist that the phrase means that so the higher explanation is incorrect. One can find other evidence that allows you to say that the author is not using the words in the way they are literally meant, and then contradict the lower level of explanation or, at least, sidestep it (yes, the phrase does mean that literally but that does not mean that that is really what the phrase is signifying). So some sort of resolution has to happen, but that in and of itself doesn’t indicate any interesting contradiction.

What Haught does have to do is demonstrate that this hierarchical view is actually true, and there is some level of explanation that needs to reference some kind of Ultimate Purpose. Haught appeals to two main arguments. The first is him basically arguing that the traditional theistic view holds this and also that this is basically what Christianity posits. While this may show how Christianity can see itself to be compatible with science, it doesn’t mean that it’s right to do so. The second is him pushing the meaning analogies to their utmost, but this again doesn’t prove that this view is correctly applied in the case of the universe. Just because books and tea boiling can have legitimate levels of meaning doesn’t mean that there is any actual level of meaning for the universe or, in fact, beyond human comprehension. And if meaning at least stops at the level of human comprehension, his arguments about the Ultimate Purpose and transcendence fall apart; there is no meaning for us to attempt to grasp — and fail to grasp — above our understanding.

However, this does indeed suggest that settling the question of whether or not there is this transcendent meaning is not, in fact, a question that can be settled by science, because science presumes that such a thing does not exist, and works well with such an assumption. You could argue that if there was such a purpose that you would see something in science that could point to the lack … but then we can look at tea boiling and books and note that at the purely physical and directly empirical level you simply don’t ever need to wonder about the higher levels of explanation. So you will never see a lack at the lower level unless you look higher.

And it seems to me that what separates science from fields like art, literature, music, philosophy and when we look at things like love is, in fact, this looking for meaning as opposed to simple meaningless or inert stimuli. This is, I think, one of the issues when psychology tries to do science on human behaviour; we seem to think that meaning and something of us and the personal is left out. The most radical form of this was behaviourism, and while we’ve made great strides since then there still is the issue of minimizing the intentional/personal in those fields, especially when we bring neuroscience into the picture.

That being said, Haught didn’t engage science directly for much of the presentation, which means that he didn’t really spend enough time demonstrating that they are, in fact, compatible.

Now, on to Coyne. The biggest issue here is that while Coyne himself declares this to be a philosophical problem, he doesn’t have a lot of arguments that address this as a philosophical problem. There’s one that comes up later that, if we reinterpret it, becomes one, but when we examine it that way we see it isn’t a very good one. If you are going to argue that science and religion/faith are philosophically incompatible, you do need to understand that arguing against specific religions doesn’t cut it. Yes, he was targeting Haught’s view specifically, but you do need to move beyond specific religions and specific differences in beliefs to make a full philosophical argument for the incompatibility of science and faith/religion.

The first thing to comment on is what was, it seems, mostly a throwaway point but that does indicate an issue in looking at this: Coyne starts by essentially linking science and religion being compatible with them being “buddies” as he puts it, or in having an interesting impact on each other. That, of course, is not what is required for them to be compatible. They may, as we saw in Haught’s presentation, be different levels of explanation or cognition, and so won’t have much to say to each other, but will form part of a complete picture. It will not suffice to show that science and religion don’t complement each other — and even that one will cause changes in the other — to demonstrate a real incompatibility.

His first argument is what I’ll call the “survey” point, as he produces surveys of various people and their opinions on whether science and religion are compatible. Many people think that they aren’t, and he also trots out the idea that scientists are far more atheistic than the general population. The problem is that this is, of course, a philosophical problem and philosophical problems are not settled by surveys or by what people think is the case, but by what is really the case. Which, I suppose, is true of facts in general. If 95% of people thought that the world is flat, that would not make it flat, and that a large percentage of people do not think science and religion compatible does not mean that they aren’t.

As for the scientists, we can pull an explanation for that out of Haught’s own talk: if you spend all your time using a method that presumes there is no higher level of explanation and so leaves the issues that faith addresses out of the picture, it can be very easy to simply not see the use of that level of explanation. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist and isn’t useful. If all you did was translate words in a book, you might have a hard time seeing books as more than simply literal words and instead seeing them as stories, but that would hardly mean that books do not contain stories.

Coyne moves from this to an argument based on rejection of scientific facts, and points out that many religious people would reject a scientific fact if it clashed with their religion. But the same sort of objection applies here: who says that because a lot of people would in fact do that that they should, or that that’s how religion is really supposed to work? If we take Haught’s explanatory/cognitive level explanation — which, we must remember, Coyne thinks he’s attacking — we can see as already stated that the levels of explanation have to be consistent at some level, and so will have to adjust to each other. Sometimes that will mean that the level of Ultimate Purpose will adjust to the physical, and sometimes the opposite. But any dogmatic notion of the direction of change is just plain wrong under that model, so this objection can be simply answered by “Those people are wrong”. Again, there is no philosophical point here.

And it leads to a philosophical objection against Coyne. Coyne’s argument is based on conflicts over scientific fact. But he gives the example of angels and, later, the resurrection as examples of problematic conflicting beliefs. But we have to ask whether those are, in fact, scientific facts. Science does not have in any of its models angels, and as Coyne says so far science has not found anyone else who has risen from the dead, but that does not make the non-existence of such things scientific fact. Far from it. At best, all you can say is that science doesn’t yet accept them, which is insufficient for Coyne’s point. We can contrast those “facts” with evolution and say that evolution is indeed a fact, and so does involve a contradiction with some interpretations of some religions. Which is why it must be dealt with in some way by those religions. But that does not apply to some of those other things, and Coyne must be careful to limit his supposed contradictions to actual scientific facts. But Coyne himself thinks that attempts to do these sorts of mappings problematic, and indicative of the problem itself. This, however, is patently absurd under Haught’s notion and is not supported under the general philosophical argument of compatibility and incompatibility. At this point, Coyne has not even established something like Larry Moran’s “Ways of Knowing” distinction, and so we have no way to judge in what sense Coyne thinks the two are generally incompatible, or how we should judge compatibility and incompatibility. So why would an interaction between the two — even one way — indicate incompatibility?

This carries on into Coyne’s point about how science rejects faith while religion embraces it. Yes, in some sense that makes religion and science incompatible, but does it make them incompatible in an important sense? It certainly means that while you are doing science you cannot be doing religion — but not necessarily vice versa — but is that sufficient to get at an interesting incompatibility? To use an analogy, it is absolutely true that in some sense walking to the store and driving to the store are incompatible, in the sense that you can’t do both at the same time, but does that mean that you should only ever drive to the store and never walk? Whether you walk or drive will be based on what makes sense at the time, which will be determined in large part by what your purposes or goals are. The same can be said if you take Haught’s viewpoint: which method you use — the one that includes faith or the one that rejects it — will depend on what level of explanation you’re after.

So all this indicates is that science and religion are not the same method. Well, duh. That’s not an interesting incompatibility.

Coyne then launches into his standard argument against the idea that some scientists being religious means that science and religion are compatible. The problem is that he still misses the contradiction with his first point, which relies on specific instances to make his case. All this does is do the same thing. If it is invalid here, it is invalid there as well.

His next point is where he ends up agreeing with Haught’s notion that science limits itself deliberately to specific assumptions, meaning in this case the naturalistic presumption. And assuming that there is only the naturalistic and ignoring purpose, science succeeds at what it does. Therefore, science is right to do so and the non-naturalistic approaches aren’t compatible and aren’t saying anything interesting. But, as we’ve seen, the first part about making the naturalistic presumption and even succeeding at it is not in any way in conflict with Haught; he will certainly agree that science can succeed quite well with its assumptions at the level of explanation that it’s interested in. But that does not mean that there are no other levels of explanation, or that science can indeed find all of them. As stated earlier, Haught and theologians still need to prove that there are such levels, but that’s an argument over correctness, not compatibility.

As we move through Coyne’s speech, it seems clear that Coyne’s objections are indeed less about compatibility and more about correctness; his objections are not that religion is not compatible with science, but that it is, in fact, simply wrong. It would be nice if Coyne would be clear and focused on that instead of cluttering the argument up with an attempt to link to the philosophical argument of compatibility.

Coyne then goes on to talk about specific incompatibilities of specific beliefs, but this, again, misses the point. You simply cannot make a general philosophical point by appealing to specific cases. What Coyne needs to establish is that religions, by necessity, must indeed arrive at contradictory results that cannot or should not be resolved. He does not in any way do that, likely because the idea is so staggeringly unlikely that no one who gives it even a moment’s reflection could take it seriously. It is far too easy to imagine religions that make no claims that could contradict science at any important level. All you’d need is a religion that says that it accepts all scientific fact and will adapt to it. So the general philosophical argument is difficult to make on these grounds, at least.

The next step for Coyne is to basically simply assert that the various patch-ups are admitting that it isn’t actually true. This isn’t, again, an attack on compatibility, but on correctness, except to the extent where he can cast doubt on methods religion can take to adapt itself to science. Unfortunately, neither the “The Bible is not a science textbook” nor metaphors establish the idea that those who use them are conceding that the Bible is not true. Return to the levels of explanation again. For the level that the Bible is purportedly at, do we need to get all the scientific facts right, or state them at all? Can we use metaphors instead? It certainly seems plausible that we could. Coyne can suggest that the Bible could have described it all like science now says things are, but would that have fulfilled the purpose? Gotten the meaning across any better? It’s unlikely. So these moves are not admissions that it isn’t true, but simply recognitions that literal truth is not required for the point. What Coyne is doing is like insisting that if I talk about someone walking to the store that if it turns out that person was never there then my thought experiment is simply untrue and therefore my whole philosophical project is just false. That’s ridiculous, and so we can see that the point here misses it.

But the metaphor example and the example of the Nicene Creed do potentially raise an important point, if Coyne fails to establish it. Coyne argues that any time something gets falsified it turns into metaphor, but some things cannot be turned into metaphor, like the things listed in the Nicene Creed. However, none of those involve conflicts with scientific fact either. It may well be the case that future scientific advances will absolutely eliminate the things Coyne talks about from the Nicene Creed, but that day is not today. If that happens, then there would be a conflict between science and that particular religion that may not be resolvable, and large numbers then may either change or drop their religion. But this does not indicate, again, a deep philosophical incompatibility; again, all this would demonstrate is that that specific religion may, one day, be absolutely determined to be false.

Coyne also raises the issue that while science gets answers, religion has not been able to answer any of its questions. When we consider that nothing else has been able to either without running into the same problems, we can reasonably ask how Coyne’s argument impacts Haught’s view. Haught considers these to be at different levels of explanation, and so that science can answer its questions while theology has had a harder time doesn’t mean anything unless science can answer them as well. And science dictating that there are no questions there — which is why they can’t be answered — doesn’t work because science can’t provide answers to questions beyond the scope of what it considers. Essentially, it would be like someone saying that Hamlet is the story of a man driven by the ghost of his father to kill his uncle and the tragedy that results insisting that people looking for deeper meaning are doing something wrong because they don’t at least currently agree on what that symbolic meaning actually is.

Coyne relies heavily on insisting that religion just “makes stuff up”, but even later when he tries to demonstrate that he provides little to no evidence of that. It’s a stylistic point based at least in part on a specific interpretation of a passage in the Bible, but it needs far more justification than Coyne gives it. One wonders if he considers any ruminations on meaning or anything not quite empirical to be “making stuff up” … and we can talk about art, philosophy and those other fields to make that seem unacceptably scientistic.

He goes on to talk about how convenient it is that the Ultimate being is “ungraspable”, without there being any argument made to establish that. Haught, however, argues precisely for why that is in his talk; the higher levels are incomprehensible from the lower ones, and Ultimate Meaning is clearly higher. Haught could be wrong, but in that context it is not ad hoc or tautological. He also relies on claims that something that is claimed to be invisible may equally well be non-existent, but this does not establish the “must” or “is” he needs to make his point.

Coyne then goes on about the problem of suffering and the problem of it inherent in evolution, but this only strikes at one God, the Abrahamic one. Yes, that is the one that Haught holds and so the one that Coyne focuses on, but even if the disproof worked it would not establish the overall philosophical point that they are inherently incompatible. At best, he’d get that that religion is wrong, not that science and religion are inherently incompatible.

Coyne then points out that science and religion have nothing to offer each other. But under Haught’s view of differing explanatory levels, they don’t have to. The “I want tea” explanation does not add anything to the physical explanation of boiling, nor does the physical explanation of boiling shed any light into the intentions of the person who put the tea on. So as an attack on Haught specifically it does nothing, and so it cannot establish an inherent incompatibility between science and religion since some religious views, at least, can escape it. And that’s even if it established it in the first place.

Coyne goes on to talk about the empirical authority science has, based on its successes. Which is fine, but does reduce to the question of whether or not the empirical is all there is, and if that’s the only interesting level of explanation. Philosophy specifically disagrees, and since Coyne is making a philosophical point here that does not necessarily allow for empirical resolutions he has to respect that, and cannot presume that being empirical means that only the things it says are right.

Towards the end, Coyne argues that the question is important because religion goes beyond simple private action, but into the public realm as well, mostly under its attachment to ethics. Coyne admits here that how science is used is not determined by science, but by things other than science, and religion is vying to be one of the things that determines that. But the problem here is that this nips his scientism in the bud; something other than science has to do this. What, then, is Coyne’s alternative? What alternative will he have that doesn’t fall into the dogma of thinking it has absolute truth in these fields and so making the same mistakes — or different ones from the same sort of cause — that he ascribes to religion? Also, considering the vast number of current ethical theories, why does he think that any alternative will get answers like science does, or get them validly? How does he know? Without a proven alternative, Coyne doesn’t have a real objection here; he doesn’t even know what would or wouldn’t be moral other than by relying on his own subjective intuitions,

Which carries over into his famous list of things that the Catholic Church is doing badly. Some of them are simply moral differences, and it isn’t clear which moral view is superior. For example, for divorce the Church does allow for marriages to be ended under extreme cases, but in theory those are supposed to be extreme (and they’ve done it for at least 25 years, since I learned about it in school as a child). For some of the others — like pedophilia and the cover-up — those are not the direct results of religion itself, but of human notions and failings. So this may be a reasonable attempt to establish why the question is important, but Coyne offers no scientific alternative and so we cannot see the way forward according to science … and so without a way forward, we have no reason to think that settling this in favour of science would be any better.

Ultimately, as stated earlier, the debate seems to boil down to correctness as opposed to compatibility. Haught needs to demonstrate that the levels of explanation he appeals to really do exist and are worth looking at. Coyne’s counters are all about religion being wrong as opposed to it being incompatible with science. Ultimately, here we have a remarkable lack of interesting clash … but a fair amount of interesting content.

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4 Responses to “The Haught/Coyne Debate …”

  1. unkleE Says:

    This is a very thorough and fair-minded review. Thanks. [Saves me having to listen to the debate myself : ) ]

  2. Here Comes the Easter Coyne! « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] This, then, is why I criticize Coyne for wanting to be able to claim to have read the works without caring to understand them, in just the same way that theists — myself possibly included — want to get credit for having read the New Atheists without taking the time to really read them and get the arguments. If Coyne understood the argument, then he’d have a completely different objection, if he had one at all. But he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the tea example either. He doesn’t get a lot of the arguments. If he did, he’d have better objections, because there are objections to all of them, as I pointed out in reviewing the debate between Haught and Coyne. […]

  3. New Atheists, Incompatibilists and Polarization … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] this is not simply a position on a particular religious fact — even though, as we can see in any argument Jerry Coyne makes that their objections are about specific religious beliefs, and not about religion as a whole […]

  4. Shifting and Refining … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] my discussion on Coyne’s debate with John Haught, I pointed out that a lot of things were said but that there was no clash, and particularly that […]

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