Monday, July 06, 2009


The Theology of Incompatibility II

Jerry Coyne has reinforced my impression that the nature of claims by "scientist-atheists" (as Coyne calls them) concerning the supposed incompatibility of science and religion are really assertions of the incompatibility of atheism and religion. Coyne claims that Francis Collins, as Ken Miller before him, have allowed "their scientific statements and beliefs to be infected with religion." He cites this from Collins' BioLogos website:

The mechanical worldview of the scientific revolution is now a relic. Modern physics has replaced it with a very different picture of the world. With quantum mechanical uncertainty and the chaotic unpredictability of complex systems, the world is now understood to have a certain freedom in its future development. Of course, the question remains whether this openness is a result of nature's true intrinsic chanciness or the inevitable limit to humans' understanding. Either way, one thing is clear: a complete and detailed explanation or prediction for nature's behavior cannot be provided. This was already a problem for Newtonian mechanics; however, it was assumed that in principle, science might eventually provide a complete explanation of any natural event. Now, though, we see that the laws of nature are such that scientific prediction and explanation are ultimately limited.

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles. Given the impossibility of absolute prediction or explanation, the laws of nature no longer preclude God's action in the world. Our perception of the world opens once again to the possibility of divine interaction.

Is that an example of scientific statements being "infected" with religion or is it theology taking account of the scientific facts about the world? After all, would "scientist-atheists" deny theology the right to recognize that the Earth is an oblate spheroid or that the speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s? Are theists to be prohibited from taking those facts into account when formulating their theology? Must all theology assume the Earth is flat and the speed of light is infinite?

No reasonable person could possibly contend that Collins' statement is claiming that it is certain that God acts within quantum uncertainty, much less that it is a scientific result to think so. Collins, at most, points out the logical conclusion that God, if he/she/it exists, could act in that realm, as science presently understands it, without our being able to detect it or to say that that such action is against "the laws of nature." Note that this is not, as Coyne claims, a god-in-the-gaps argument of the type perpetrated by the Discovery Institute and other IDers. Collins does not take the crucial step that those advocates do of claiming that "because we do not know how this happens, therefore God must have done it."

One observation leaps out: "scientist-atheists" appeal to the facts of the world as revealed by science all the time in furthering their arguments for atheism. Either their views are just as incompatible with science for being infected with atheism or they are special pleading that it is fine for them to use science's facts in support of their beliefs but anyone who doesn't believe as they do is barred from the facts of science. In either event, their argument for incompatibility on those grounds collapses under its self-contradiction.

I think it's telling that Coyne's first impulse is attack Collins' theology on theological grounds, claiming it's ludicrous for God to do anything other than the straightforward thing. Quite apart from the fact that we are well aware of intelligent agents (ourselves) who take other-than-straightforward paths to achieve even good ends, it goes back to what I said in my earlier post: if an infinite, omniscient, etc. agent exists, why wouldn't its means and motives be obscure to finite beings like ourselves? Isn't Coyne demanding that such a transcendent being act like the least subtle of our own species? More importantly, there is nothing scientific about such objections and where, then, is the incompatibility? We already knew that Coyne's philosophy/theology is incompatible with theism; what I thought he was out to do is to show that science is incompatible with it.

Coyne asks what will happen if we eventually find out that what appear to be totally unpredictable events really do have a deterministic causation. He concludes that theologians would not then concede that theism is, therefore, wrong. Collins, as already noted, has not staked his theology on quantum uncertainty and, in any event, science does not give up so easily either, as in the case of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury.

He is undoubtedly right that theists will not concede their beliefs based on a change in our understanding of some fact of the world, in that we know that religion has adapted to the facts of the world, as they are learned, and there is no reason to think that it wouldn't adapt in the future -- just as science itself does. The question is why that is supposed to be a bad thing. After all, we don't reject all of science because it was wrong about / ignorant of quantum uncertainty until the last century. The facts of the world are complex and often not obvious, so it is hardly surprising that we haven't gotten it all right in the first go. An infinitely complex entity could hardly be expected to be more easily understood than the natural world. Coyne can rightly point to some religions that claim infallible knowledge of God, but hardly all do. Should theology be rejected in general solely because it, like science, changes over time?

This objection has more than a faintly ludicrous air to it because the same "scientist-atheists" are constantly urging other political/social institutions to become more adapted to scientific results. If politicians and other social leaders adapt their behavior and beliefs to the results of science that is, according to them (and rightly so), a good thing but if theologians do it, that somehow proves that theology is incompatible with science.* The complaint seems to be more that theology isn't holding still and, instead, is presenting a moving target to atheists. I can certainly see why theists would be no more impressed by that argument than deer would be by hunters' complaints of the same ilk.

Coyne and other "scientist-atheists" are free, if they choose, to make theological arguments against any concepts of God that do not directly deny the results of science. As I've said, I think they are pretty good theological arguments -- ones I've largely accepted myself. But we need not take seriously that these objections arise from science or that they demonstrate that science itself is in conflict with such concepts of God.


* Not all, perhaps:

"I'm Dan Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and we are forever being told that we should do our homework and consult with the best theologians. I've heard two of you talk now, and you keep saying this is an interdisciplinary effort--evolutionary theology--but I am still waiting to be told what theology has to contribute to the effort. You've clearly adjusted your theology considerably in the wake of Darwin, which I applaud, but what traffic, if any, goes in the other direction? Is there something I'm missing? What questions does theology ask or answer that aren't already being dealt with by science or secular philosophy? What can you clarify for this interdisciplinary project?" (Words to that effect)


If I had to guess, I'd say that Coyne was more upset by the proposition (true, according to the best science) that "a complete and detailed explanation or prediction for nature's behavior cannot be provided."

This is worse than god, because it challenges scientific omnicompetance without being "ludicrous." And furthermore because the resulting uncertainty leaves a hole that we must fill with something. Maybe not god, but not science either.
Uncertainty (as opposed to mere ignorance) seems to be the bane of both the "scientist-atheists" and the creationists. It's not the only trait they share.
Not so much the bane as the blind spot. It seems that it's often difficult to get them even to acknowledge the uncertainty - which is an "interesting" trait to discover in a scientist, moreso than in a creationist.
Coyne asks what will happen if we eventually find out that what appear to be totally unpredictable events really do have a deterministic causation.

That wouldn't affect theologians either, although it appears Collins isn't aware of the more sophisticated philosophical defense - the assertion of a layered reality (as I've written about elsewhere). Even if the universe was "deterministic", there would be no way to determine via empirical methods (science) whether or not there is a hidden layer or layers underneath all this observable stuff. We would be somewhat like software programs (deterministic, in this case) trying to glean the nature of the underlying hardware we're running on, which is impossible no matter what experiments we run. In fact, if such a layer existed, we'd never even be aware of its existence, outside of our imaginations. The hidden layer or layers would control everything and there would be no empirical record at our layer. The layered-reality argument also applies to simulation and dream scenarios.
The layered assertion cannot be disproved, although it could be "proved" with God-like intervention from the outside. And just the mere fact that we can make such a non-disprovable assertion, means that science will always be an incomplete way of knowing.
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