Shifting and Refining …

So, today, Jerry Coyne in a post on Kloor, again, say this:

My one comment: it’s crucial in these arguments to define “compatibility”, and it makes a big difference whether you conceive of science/faith compatibility as “the ability to do both or accept both at the same time” (the common argument), or—as I do—”the comparative ability of science and religion, using their respective philosophies and methodologies, to discern (as they claim to be able) the truth about the universe.”

There is a lot in here to unpack. The first is that this seems to be an example of Coyne, well, being Coyne, as he admits that the common definition of compatibility here is that you can do both or accept both, while he is using a different one. Now, to me, the common definition boils down to this: can you have a consistent worldview that contains both? And this is what I mean when I say that science and religion are compatible, and it seems to me that this is what most accomodationists mean when they say that science and religion are compatible … or, at least, that they aren’t incompatible (since most of them are replying to those who say science and religion are incompatible). And I translate Coyne’s definition thusly, from a comment at his site:

If what you mean when you say “science and religion are incompatible” is “science is really good at figuring out the truth about the physical universe; religion, not so much” then I think you’ll find that most of the accomodationists you deride wouldn’t disagree with you … especially the atheists. However, saying that science is really good at what it does — and likely, like Wolverine, the best there is at what it does — doesn’t impact the stance that you can have a consistent worldview that contains both scientific views and religious views.

The idea here is that science has a field — I called it the physical universe — and that it is the best there is — the most reliable and the best for figuring out those sorts of truths — at it. Note that this in and of itself doesn’t require that science be the only way of knowing anything of interest, or that all claims are scientific, or even that you can’t have another way of knowing that can get you some of the same facts that science does (just not as good). So, for example, I think that everyday reasoning can get us a lot of the same facts as science, but it isn’t as reliable a way of knowing (it gets things wrong more often). But it is still reliable enough to be considered reliable, and has enough justification to get us knowledge, and is used because it trades off getting things wrong more often versus making decisions faster. I also think that philosophy is a way of knowing that gets us conceptual truths, but that science’s field is generally this world and that you can’t easily get conceptual truths by looking at this world (or the physical universe, if you want to call it that), due to this whole accidental/essential property thing that, really, I don’t want to get into here.

But, suffice it to say, other than a debate over what counts as science’s field and if there’s anything beyond that, or if there’s any reason to use another method even if it gives the same information that science will, I think that I accept his definition of incompatibility, and that it has nothing to do with what I mean when I say that science and religion are compatible. Thus, Coyne is being Coyne in understanding that there is a common definition of a term — which he explicitly mentions here — and then going ahead and using a different definition … and then trying to criticize others based on his definition and not the common one, which I pointed out further on in that comment:

Quite literally, you and accomodationists are not talking about the same thing when you use the same words. And by moving to the definition you give, it really sounds like you are conceding their position, but perhaps saying that it isn’t an interesting compatibility (like Dennett). Since most accomodationists, then, would concede you your incompatibility but say the same thing about it, there is no clash at all; you are vigorously agreeing about the claims put forward, but are disagreeing about something else: whether, for example, someone SHOULD still believe in religion or a specific religion, or whether someone should make their religious beliefs consistent with science or just drop them altogether. Which are interesting debates — they form the heart of all atheist/theist debates over the past several thousand years — but have nothing to do with accomodationism or compatibilism as ANYONE defines the terms, even you.

Coyne replied to my comment, with a comment that seems a bit, well, odd:

They don’t give a definition; I do. And no, most accommodationists wouldn’t agree with me even under my definition, because they think that religion is a valid way of knowing things about the physical universe.

And how you think I concede their position is beyond me.

You should read the theologians on ways of knowing before you claim that accommodationists agree with me. They sure as hell don’t–even under my definition. See John Haught, John Polkinghorne, and so on and so on.

First, most of them do give a definition; most of them are quite clear, at least it seems to me, that they are using the common definition and Plantinga is explicit about it, so explicit that in the debate with Dennett it was conceded by Dennett. Coyne can argue that they go beyond that, and make claims that require a stronger definition, but that’s hardly a claim that they don’t make it clear what definition they’re using.

Second, if as Coyne concedes that definition is the common one, then they — and I — don’t have to define it. We can just use the common definition and assume that everyone understands what is mean. It’s only if you want to use a definition that is not the common that you’d then have to be clear about it, and make absolutely certain that everyone is clear on that and that you only criticize based on claims made that contradict that one, and not the common one … which Coyne, even here, isn’t exactly careful to do.

Third, in response to the claim that religion says things about the physical universe, the problem here is that that was my very loose translation, and there’s a lot of work to do to figure out how to translate “universe” or, more accurately, to define what science’s main field is. Is the Resurrection supposed to be a fact about the physical universe, for example? Well, since it’s supposed to happen in this one, so that might count. But given the nature of it and the available evidence, it’s not likely to be settled experimentally, or through the accrual of scientific evidence (although it’s possible that it could be disconfirmed that way). So what we’d have is a claim that resurrecting someone from the dead after three days violates a scientific law, and so can’t happen, at best. But, the Resurrection is associated with a purported supernatural entity who in theory can suspend those laws at will. Nope, not something that science can decide, methinks, and so it then might not be a scientific proposition, and so not part of the scientific field … which allows, then, for us to accept Coyne’s definition while still preserving the claims, propositions and methods for religion and theology.

Fourth, I claim that it seems like Coyne concedes the common definition because he shifts the discussion from the common definition to his … without arguing against the common definition. If Coyne doesn’t think that science and religion can be made compatible according to the common definition, then there’s no reason for him to introduce his definition. He should instead argue for why he thinks that even under the common definition science and religion are not compatible. So, perhaps I was being too charitable in interpreting him as conceding that point once he shifted the argument, but let me be charitable again and suggest that perhaps the things that the accomodationists need require a stronger form of compatibility than that … but it is still unclear that they need his view of compatibility.

Fifth, I answer his claim about the theologians in a reply on his site:

… but to me under your definition the question to ask is “If science had a proven scientific fact that conflicted with their religious beliefs, would these theologians argue that that scientific fact should not be considered one on the basis of religion?”

All atheist accomodationists, clearly, wouldn’t.

Haught wouldn’t. He talks clearly about levels of explanation and by definition a fact at another level of explanation isn’t contradictable by another one (er, more or less, since the facts at all levels have to be consistent in some sense).

Plantinga is clear that he accepts all scientific facts, but not all of the metaphysical/philosophical conclusions that people take from those facts. His book — which I just read — is all about separating out the actual scientific facts from those other sorts of commitments.

Given what Polkinghorne says about natural theology and how he has adapted his views in reaction to scientific facts, it is unlikely that he would do that as well.

All of this is independent of whether they think that religion can produce some knowledge claims. And I really don’t want to start talking about ways of knowing because that would get really, really long.

So, most of them, under my view of Coyne’s definition and what it actually entails, wouldn’t in fact disagree with him. Coyne replied:

64% of Americans would reject the fact if it contravened their faith; that’s the result of a Time magazine poll. The question is whether these theologians accept as facts things that science wouldn’t, because there is no evidence.

First, those 64% of Americans are not, in fact, the theologians he cited, so I assume that I’ve made my case. And, in fact, we don’t know if they are accomodationists at all; under both definitions, they likely aren’t. So I’m having a really hard time seeing how that’s really relevant to the question he asked me and that I answered.

Second, it is not a commitment, as I have already said, of his view that you accept that science is the only way of knowing, or that you only accept as fact things that are scientific facts. As I said in my comment reply, that gets into ways of knowing, which is a massive epistemological debate. A debate that I think Coyne is not only losing, but has already lost. Again, I accept things as known facts that science won’t accept, such as that you cannot derive an ought from an is. Now, note, for me this is using the narrower definition of science, meaning the things you’d find in a Faculty of Science at a reputable university. If Coyne wants to broaden science as well — and he does — then my reply is that, basically, we have the same thing all over again. Which, in a nutshell, is this:

Under Coyne’s, um, non-standard definitions, I will concede his points but wonder why he uses the words he does if they aren’t meant to refer to the standard definitions, which Coyne seems to concede are reasonable because he chooses his battlegrounds to avoid challenging them.

I think this is Coyne doing philosophy really, really badly, and refining his positions and definitions without properly re-examining the conflicts that started the debate. I could accuse him of “moving the goalposts”, but I think that implies some sort of dishonest debating tactics and I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think that Coyne is refining his positions as he goes along from vaguely defined strong ones to more reasonable and better defined ones. You can see that with his definition of “science” because he had to include fields that he needed to produce knowledge without allowing religion in. But he didn’t bother to update the conflict, and so he gets charged with scientism for talking in some cases like it’s the formal sciences and formal scientific method, while on the other hand having to lump those fields into something called “science” to maintain his original view on science versus religion. The same thing can be said here, because it was not too long ago that Coyne talked like he was using the common definition of “compatible”:

Jerry Coyne responded to Massimo Pigliucci’s characterisation of Coyne’s view philosophical consistency as naive thus:

What I mean by “philosophical consistency” is that one’s philosophies are consistent. In the case of a scientist, one’s scientific philosophy is that you don’t accept the existence of things for which there is no evidence. In the case of a religious person, your philosophy requires you to believe in things for which there is either no evidence or counterevidence. It’s just that simple.

[f]urther inconsistency comes from the fact that science and faith find out things in different ways: scientific knowledge is attained through observation, experimentation, and agreement among practitioners. “Religious knowledge” (and I put it in quotes because it’s an oxymoron) comes from dogma, authority, and personal revelation. This leads to the final inconsistency: the stuff that religion “finds out” contradicts what science finds out.

These all seem to be of the “you can’t hold both at the same time” variety. As the debate as gone on, you can see that Coyne is focusing on what is indeed his best argument: that science is much more successful than religion is at finding out how the world works. It’s even the backbone of another argument he makes about why we should assume metaphysical naturalism: science has been so successful using methodological naturalism doesn’t that imply metaphysical naturalism? (Hint: It doesn’t, at least not strongly enough to justify metaphysical naturalism). So, then, for him, the compatibilism and accomodationism debate is now all about this, and the debate over success, so much so that he makes a definition out of it … except that to his opponents at best that definition is a good argument, and at worst is totally irrelevant to the debate, as no one challenges science’s success. So, again, Coyne drifts in his positions but it isn’t clear that as he does so that he’s still debating the same arguments anymore, and that there’s still even anything interesting to debate with at least some of his opponents.

In 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 Coyne — despite having prepared for Haught — didn’t actually address the position that Haught was advocating, and so there was no clash between them; they were literally talking about two different things. Ultimately, it is this refining of definitions without refining his full positions that causes this; at the end of the day, Coyne tends to fall into making passionate arguments that, as they progress, end up with the two sides completely talking past each other … with Coyne, at least, still thinking that they are talking about the same thing, somehow.

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2 Responses to “Shifting and Refining …”

  1. Crude Says:

    But, the Resurrection is associated with a purported supernatural entity who in theory can suspend those laws at will.

    The funny thing is, even being ‘supernatural’ has little to do with it. The same problems obtain with ‘natural’ situations, like us living in a computer simulation, or living in a universe created and overseen by physical beings, or… etc. It’s trivial to imagine plenty of ‘natural’ claims that simply aren’t amenable to scientific testing.

    I’ve actually read you saying that you think natural/supernatural distinctions are bogus at this point, and I largely agree.

    “Religious knowledge” (and I put it in quotes because it’s an oxymoron) comes from dogma, authority, and personal revelation. This leads to the final inconsistency: the stuff that religion “finds out” contradicts what science finds out.

    Except that’s flat out wrong, unless Coyne is willing to argue that various arguments for God’s existence and nature – from Kalam to the Five Ways to other arguments – don’t constitute “Religious Knowledge”. Which would be one hell of a thing for him to concede.

    Not to mention, Coyne makes it sound as if ‘religious knowledge’ necessarily contradicts ‘scientific knowledge’. It simply doesn’t. “God created and sustains the world’s existence” can’t contradict science, since science can’t get anywhere near addressing that claim. Again, if Coyne wants to argue that such a claim isn’t part of ‘Religious Knowledge’ (I recall he regards deism as compatible with science), he’s welcome to. I actually wish he could be goaded into doing a defense of deism in a full post, because I’d love to see the reactions.

    As for how Coyne treats science, I think you may like this other take on his views.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’d seen that criticism of Coyne before, or something very much like it, but I’m trying to be more charitable here … or, perhaps, less charitable, depending on how you look at it. I don’t think Coyne really sees the shifts he’s doing. I think he started from the stronger form of science and that that form of science is what really impresses him, but in order to preserve basic beliefs that we need to do anything in the world he needs to include that in “science”, so that he can contrast it with religion which doesn’t do anything reasonable (or so he thinks). But as he opens it up, then it seems to allow room for faith to count as “science”, too.

      I kinda like to think of this:

      To me, proper theology is philosophical, and so can be evaluated philosophically (generally through philosophy of religion). Coyne seems to want to allow philosophy to count as “science” under his definition. Thus, any philosophical theology — like Kalam, the Five Ways, the Ontological Argument, the Problem of Evil, etc, etc — are scientific by his own definition. If he wants to break that, he must either claim that there is no theology that is philosophical — and rightly outrage philosophers of religion — or deny that philosophy can produce knowledge, which is both rather insane but also would undercut science, since philosophy produced it.

      At the end of the day, almost every time Coyne tries to engage in something philosophical he seems to trip himself up.

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