Wednesday, September 16, 2009



Jerry Coyne is once again displaying for all to see the entire depth of philosophical reasoning and discourse he is capable of.

Naturally, that involves name-calling and passing the buck to others to do the heavy lifting, in this case, Ophelia Benson (not necessarily the best choice) and her commentariat. I suppose that's better than if he does it himself, given past results.

The particular occasion for Coyne's latest outburst is Josh Rosenau's piece at Thoughts from Kansas, "On vampires and ways of knowing." Josh's main point (if I may be so bold as to interpret) is that religion and science are making different sorts of "truth claims" and, so, the standards imposed on one sort are, at least, potentially inappropriate to apply to the other.

Of course, there can be intelligent and reasoned disputes about Josh's view. Coyne will have none of that, however. Invective and ridicule is the most he can muster.

But what I find most interesting relates to a post by Ed Brayton on what may seem like a different topic but which I think is deeply related to all of Coyne's posturings. Ed points out a recent exchange between David Frum and David Horowitz over whether conservatives should defend Glen Beck's "over-the-top" (read: "dishonest") attacks on Cass Sunstein. Frum's point is, basically, that the end does not justify the means, especially when the means contradict your own ends. As Ed puts it:

This is the mantra of extremists. No matter how bad they can admit their own behavior is, it's justified because the other side is even worse. Strength and vigor in one's opposition to the evil other side becomes paramount and no tactic can ever be too much because, after all, They are even worse and must be stopped.

Back to Coyne. The closest he comes to making an argument against Josh is to complain that Josh says this:

The only basis Coyne offers, and the only one I can recall being offered by other enablers [people who, like Coyne, support creationists in their muddling of the nature of science], is that religion and science are incompatible because religions can make false empirical claims.

But so can art. I think that people who would read A Tale of Two Cities as an historical account of the French revolution are being just as bad as those who read the Bible as an historical account of the Bronze Age. It's perfectly possible to read Dickens or the Bible as true, but not as empirically true. And if the battle is between people who read the Bible in a non-empirical sense and those who don't, then it seems like we should strengthen the hand of moderate theists, not disparage them.

Coyne's response is not to rationally discuss any difference between art and religion or how art, as "a way of knowing," is not an appropriate analogy to religion. Instead we get this:

I wasn't aware that there was a movement to replace the teaching of European history with the view given in Dickens's novels, nor a push to deny people contraception because that's what Dickens would want, or to keep women subordinate because Mrs. Micawber would never desert Mr. Micawber.

In other words, religion is so much worse than art in its social effects that there is no need to examine the truth of Josh's philosophical position (much less Coyne's), it is only necessary to determine the "strength and vigor in one's opposition to the evil other side." If it is not sufficient, you are a "faitheist" (and a "flea" to boot). Truth, reason, logic ... none of those matter in the face of the Great Enemy.

More and more, Jerry Coyne is showing himself to be the David Horowitz of the "New Atheists."


Update: Josh has his own reply to Coyne.

Re: "It's perfectly possible to read Dickens or the Bible as true"

The similarity between _A Tale of Two Cities_ and the Bible is they are both fiction. However, while there is ample evidence that Dickens existed, there little (read no) evidence that Jesus existed.
... there little (read no) evidence that Jesus existed.

I'm not sure that's true but it makes little difference to Josh's point, which had more to do with Sydney Carton than Dickens anyway.
I was really struck by that sarcastic remark about teaching Dickens as veridical truth too. What a MacGuffin. It's like calling upon conspiracy theorists in a conversation about historians, in an effort to say that history is bunk.

Rosenau is suggesting that if there are reasonable people that fall under a common rubric, then other reasonable people should support them in the face of extremist encroachment. That seems simple enough to understand, and it makes Coyne's deflection onto the important topic of whether Josh likes his panda too much just seem bizarre.
I suspect Coyne is hobbled by his scientific training (plus his own disinterest in non-scientific means of disputation). In science, he does not need to consider, much less justify, empiricism. In any scientific dispute, he can simply point out that any opponent is not properly applying the methodology of science and the dispute is over. He is literally at a loss about how to go about defending empiricism.

For many people (especially if they have a touch of the bully about them) who are at a loss about how to proceed, the easy and safe way to go about it is name-calling and ridicule. There will always be some people about who will egg you on and that is enough (hence his boasting about the success of his blog and making it, via the "flea" business, a "measure" of his correctness).

Not all scientists are so insular, of course.
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