Wrong or Incompatible?

Well, it’s Christmas day, about 7 am here. I don’t have kids who are so incredibly excited to get to opening the presents and am not rushing out to go anywhere, so it’s a good time to do some posting while waiting for the sun to come up and it to warm up so that I can go for a walk later.

Anyway, right now I’d like to look at Jerry Coyne’s latest Quote of the Day. Now, he’s talking about a book of exchanges between Dan Dennett and Alvin Plantinga, and I might be interested in reading it except that it’s a bit short and this line — that Coyne likes — puts me off a bit.

Dennett asks Plantinga to justify why the supernatural being who created and drove the process of evolution couldn’t have been Superman instead of God.

Using Superman — if he meant the character — makes little sense in context of the comic books, so it’s a bad example in that case. If Dennett means some sort of natural being that’s just a really intelligent human-like entity, that would be a better argument … but then I suspect Coyne would not like it as much.

Anyway, the real issues come in, again, when Coyne tries to make an incompatibilist argument. He starts with a quote from Dennett that says this in part:

In fact, my disapproval of the NOMA gambit [Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria”] grows out of the worry that these attempts by well-meaning scientific diplomats do more harm than good, unwittingly convincing many laypeople that scientists will lie through their teeth to get evolution taught in the schools.

Coyne seems to accept and conclude this from that, in part:

Ponder how many accommodationists say that there is no conflict when they believe otherwise in their hearts. After all, many of them (including the three named by Dan) are atheists.

The problem is this: just because you think two fields or ways of knowing or theories are not incompatible does not mean that you think they are correct. Even the strongest form of atheism in and of itself only allows a move to “I think you’re wrong”. The weaker forms don’t even allow that; if you merely lack belief in God or gods, you by definition don’t believe in lack of them either, and so don’t hold the belief that they are necessarily wrong. So, at most, those scientists being atheists means that they think that at least some religions are wrong, not that they think them incompatible with science at a philosophical level. And if they don’t think them incompatible with science at a philosophical level, then they are simply expressing what they believe to be true, and so aren’t lying, despite Dennett’s hints in that direction.

You can, of course, think that things are compatible with science without thinking them right. For example, I totally concede that utilitarianism is compatible with science; I just don’t think it an appropriate moral code and so think it wrong. I also concede that strict materialism about mind is compatible with science — it would, of course, be ludicrous to deny that — but also think it at least incomplete if not, in fact, totally wrong. One can say that science and religion are not incompatible — even using arguments like NOMA — and still think that religions are wrong. For incompatibility, you need a strong notion that you cannot be both a scientist and be religious, at a logical level. Being wrong simply does not warrant that sort of strong notion.

And this, again, reveals the real issue for Coyne. Every single argument he makes ends up being one that says not that religion and science are incompatible, but that religion is wrong. And he really needs to stick to that, since he might actually be able to muster some arguments for that that don’t end up with him entering into a philosophical morass. If he sticks to “These religions are wrong” then he can stick to the facts, pointing out the claims that conflict and asking — hopefully honestly, without having a prejudiced idea that it can’t be done — how they intend to resolve them. Some of them will be easy to resolve, some harder, and some impossible. In some cases, the thing Coyne says are conflicting won’t be actual facts of science, and so the religions can ignore them on that basis.

But at least we’d be focusing on the real issue. No more surveys showing how many scientists think religion wrong as if it proves something philosophically. No more talking about philosophical inconsistencies that he can’t actually prove. No more talk about “ways of knowing” and arguing that science and religion do things differently and so are incompatible in a way that makes philosophy incompatible with science, too. No, what we’d be left with is an actual debate, where science can indeed participate to its fullest degree and where there are still interesting theological and philosophical issues to be addressed.

T’is a dream I have [grin].


One Response to “Wrong or Incompatible?”

  1. Examining Sophisticated Theology: The Current Outline … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I also bought Plantinga, and the book that Coyne criticized: “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism”. For fairness, I also bought the debate between him and Daniel Dennett on the issue “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?” although I’ve already taken on the “Superman” argument here. […]

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