Early Foul Trouble …

So, I received my order of atheistic books, and started reading Coyne’s “Faith vs Fact”, and in the preface and up to the first page I already have a couple of major fouls to call on Coyne.

First, in the preface, he talks about criticisms that he’s going after the folk view of religion and not the theological one (pg xvii):

For if we construe “religion” as simply “the beliefs of the average believer”, then arguing that those beliefs are incompatible with science is just as nonsensical as construing “science” as the rudimentary and often incorrect understanding of science held by the average citizen.

But this parallel is wrong in several ways. First, while many laypeople hold erroneous views of science, they neither practice science nor are considered part of the scientific community.

But Coyne holds a view that science is not just formal science, but should be construed broadly, so much so that on page xix he argues that science is the only way to produce truths, and explicitly clarifies that as construing science broadly. What the views of the average citizen would be here is at least folk science, if not everyday reasoning itself. So to make the claim that the views of the average citizen don’t count as doing science, then he has to argue that folk and everyday reasoning is not scientific. Which means that either there is another way of knowing than science that produces truths, or that everyday reasoning doesn’t produce truths or knowledge. Since most of our everyday interactions are based off of folk reasoning in general, and folk psychology is actually massively more successful than psychology is, in general, and in fact folk physics seems to work better at allowing robots to do simple things like bouncing a ball than full physics is, either way Coyne has a serious problem. Either we are doing science when we do folk reasoning, or we are doing something other than science, but it is difficult to deny that we get truths about the world from folk reasoning. Some of the conclusions of our folk reasoning clash with science, and in general when that happens we adjust our beliefs to the one that seems to provide the better claim, which is usually, but not always, science. But this is the method that liberal theists use to reconcile their faith with science as well.

In terms of this specific argument, if Coyne accepts that everyday reasoning is not science then we have to consider folk reasoning its own way of knowing, which means that folk science clashes with academic science in precisely the same way as folk religion clashes with theology; a less formal way of knowing clashing with a more formal one. If he decides to consider folk science, at least, science, then he’s right back to the argument that folk science is the less formal and less accurate version of science, and so folk religion clashing with science on those sorts of truth claims is precisely the same sort of clash as folk science with science. Either way, this argument doesn’t work.

(He handwaves later an idea that since theology doesn’t have special expertise about religion — more because it doesn’t have any set truths — folk religion is closer to expertise in religion than folk science is to science. This is like saying that folk philosophy is closer to academic philosophy because philosophers only know the history of the arguments and don’t have set answers. But knowing the details of the argument and what doesn’t work, and why it doesn’t work, is extremely important, if for no other reason than to avoid making the same old naive proofs over and over again. As I consider theology more philosophical than scientific, the parallel still holds).

On page 1, he asserts that we don’t have clashes between religion and business and religion and sport like we do between science and religion because science and religion are about finding truths and those aren’t. I cry “Foul!” again. First, religion also has as a strong component the search for a meaningful and good life, and sport and business are at least components of that. Second, the reason they don’t clash is that religion and sports and business have, in fact, reconciled, at least for the most part. No one, generally, is pushing to get religion out of sport or out of business, at least if done privately, and everyone allows for one’s religion to influence the businesses and sports that one enters into, and how one acts while doing that. That isn’t the case for science and religion, at least today. It’s essentially the difference between religion in Canada and Europe and religion in the United States, where at least generally in Europe and Canada religious tolerance rules and people are allowed to act on their religion as they see fit, while in the United States the pushback from fundamentalist religion is driven, at least in part, by a strong secular push to get religion out of the public square. And we’ve seen in Europe and Canada that when stronger secular positions — for example, against hijabs or religious displays or religious accommodation — are pushed that conflict between religion and secularism heats up again.

The same thing applies to science and religion. Right now, there are a number of potential conflicts between the two, and this causes a number of scientists and scientifically-minded people to insist that they are incompatible. Because they insist that they are incompatible, that becomes a big topic. Since both science and religion are important to people, this heats the discussion up, so you get religious people saying to abandon science and adopt religion, scientific people saying to abandon religion and adopt science, and a number of people in the middle saying “Can’t we all just get along?” While there are factual claims in religion that matter, there are also a number of “seeking the good life” claims in religion as well that would clash as much if not more with the claims of philosophy, but in general we don’t see religion and philosophy as having anywhere near as much of a conflict as we currently see religion having with science. And since philosophy is explicitly about discovering truths about the world and certainly about the domain where religion also claims to be discovering truths, there should be as much conflict there. But there isn’t. This belies Coyne’s claim that the issue is mostly about competing truth claims.


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