So, I finished reading “Faith vs Fact” over the weekend. The big thing to say about it, I think, is that there isn’t all that much new in it and, in general, it’s not a book that actually manages to make its case that science and religion are incompatible in any way that matters. The main reason for this, I think, is that as you read the book it becomes clear that Coyne’s essential claim is not that science and religion are in any way incompatible, but more that he thinks that religion is wrong. He constantly points out factual claims of religion that are or that he at least thinks are false, and claims that faith does not generally produce knowledge, but all of these are not interesting claims of incompatibility. If “faith” was a way of knowing, or if religion restricted its claims to what was scientific, almost all of his reasons for claiming that science and religion are incompatible go away. The most that he can claim is that “faith” rejects some of the precepts that science uses to go about investigating the world, but that doesn’t make science and faith incompatible in any interesting way. Just as we can use different tools for different tasks, we can have different approaches to answering different questions, and it is clear that the question of God and the questions that religions are trying to answer are different than the ones that science typically answers, just as questions of morality and epistemology are different questions than the ones that science typically answers. Even if all of these ultimately rely on some kind of empirical facts or facts about the world as Coyne calls it, that doesn’t mean that their main purpose is to demonstrate those kinds of facts, and thus doesn’t mean that the same methods that science uses to answer its questions are appropriate to answer other questions, particularly ones with a more philosophical bent.
And Coyne himself both relies a lot more on philosophical claims that he would admit and seems to be poorly versed in the sorts of issues and methods of philosophy. Discussions of ways of knowing, facts, truth, knowledge, worldviews, naturalism, empiricism and a host of other issues have a long philosophical history, and Coyne in general turns to the dictionary to tell us what these terms are supposed to mean … often with rather disastrous results. For example, he ends up defining fact and knowledge in such a way that it fits his implied view of what science does, which allows him to claim that science produces knowledge and that other methods don’t, which is definitely tautological, when all he needed to do was cite the standard philosophical definition of knowledge as “justified true belief” which definitely fits science and at least would have allowed him to avoid defining the term in a way that suited his own argument pretty much by fiat. If he had taken the standard definition and it worked out the same way, at least it wouldn’t look like he was playing definitional games.
But it seems to me that this reflects the fact that Coyne is not, in fact, well-versed in philosophy, because he continually makes arguments whose implications have profound implications for his overall positions. For example, to argue that science doesn’t abjure the supernatural by definition but instead simply by empirical investigation removes one of the main ways to get a real incompatibility between the two: science inherently denies the supernatural while religion inherently contains it. By making this a matter of empirical fact, science and religion are not incompatible on that score; if God existed and was demonstrated to exist, science would have to accept that. So right there he is claiming not that science and religion are incompatible, but that religion is wrong to think that God exists. This leaves notions of faith and how faith will deny proper skepticism, but it’s only if one insists that one must be skeptical in all areas at all times that that works, which is a strong philosophical position to take … and one that Coyne does not adequately support. A further example of his inadequately supporting a strong philosophical position is when he tries to defend empirical science empirically, and tries to argue against the circularity of that sort of argument by saying, essentially “Show me something else that works better”. Not only is that not any kind of a defense against a charge of circularity, not only is it the case that if he was going to go with that argument he might as well have not even bothered with the claim of actual justification, this argument only works against a claim that says that science can’t actually produce knowledge. Instead, Coyne is arguing against the claim that science is based on faith. To defend it by essentially arguing that it works to make his life better — as he does elsewhere in the book as well — does not defend him from that charge.
The book is also repetitive, in that it often makes the same arguments over and over again, sometimes with awareness and sometimes without it … and sometimes even in the same section. If you didn’t buy it the first time, though, you won’t buy it the second time.
Ultimately, the book is not going to convince anyone that science and religion are meaningfully incompatible, because ultimately all of its evidence is about religion or faith being wrong, and trying to reason from there that science and religion are incompatible. But while true and false statements are in some sense incompatible, there is no reason to talk about false statements as being incompatible with anything. Coyne would be far better served simply saying that religion is wrong, and maybe that faith leads one to bad conclusions, instead of harping on the incompatibility argument.