Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Philosophical Poker

Jerry Coyne and Karl Giberson are having at each other, which all but guarantees that there will be a lot of talking past each other.

Coyne opens with this interpretation of Giberson:

Science and faith are compatible because there are lots of religious scientists. Some of them have even won Nobel Prizes!

To which Coyne replies:

Hello? Anybody listening out there? Earth to Giberson: no New Atheist has ever denied that faith and science can be "compatible" in the sense that both can be simultaneously embraced by one human mind. The argument is, and always has been, about whether science and faith are philosophically compatible. Do they clash because they deal with "data" in disparate ways? Do they have completely different standards for judging "truth"? I say "yes," and assert that religious scientists exist in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Of course, science and religion are only "philosophically incompatible" if science is a philosophy or "worldview" that requires practitioners to deal with all data in their life in only one way. The real import, which Giberson seems not to appreciate any more than Coyne, of the empiric fact that many good and even great scientists don't treat everything as a scientific problem (indeed, I've argued that no scientists actually do that, ala PZ's love for the Trophy WifeTM), is that science is not a philosophy but a method that, in truth, draws its greatest strength from the fact that it can be practiced by people of many differing and incompatible philosophies, thus all but guaranteeing that any scientific consensus is not based on a particular "worldview" but, instead, on the empiric evidence that has been vetted by people of many differing "worldviews." Any "scientific community" comprised of only atheists or only theists ... or Republicans or Democrats, under 30's or over 30's, left handers or right handers ... would not have this advantage.

Coyne's next complaint is that Giberson accuses him of attacking theists who are scientists personally. Specifically, Giberson complained that:

... Coyne raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and me over the coals in The New Republic for our claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science.

Au contraire! cries Coyne, he only raked their ideas over the coals and quotes himself from that article:

Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.

I wonder, if Coyne was running a business and someone accused him of polluting the local river, whether he would think that only his ideas were being attacked or whether the attack included his motives, honesty and integrity as well. Now, I haven't read as much by Giberson as I have of Miller but I know the latter is, in all the examples I've seen, careful not to claim that his religious beliefs are scientific, even when he makes reference to scientific facts about the world, such as quantum uncertainty, in support of those beliefs ... a scrupulousness that the "New Atheists" cannot match. It would be "polluting" science to make such references only if science was the equivalent of atheistic philosophy which, again, simply begs the question of what science is.

I have to wholeheartedly agree with Coyne on one point: Giberson is wrong about this:

For the sake of argument, let us set aside questions about the truth of religion vs. the truth of science. Suppose there is no such thing as religious truth, as Richard Dawkins argued in The God Delusion. Allow that the "New Atheist Noise Machine," as American University communications professor Matt Nisbet calls it, has a privileged grasp of the truth. Even with these concessions, it still appears that the New Atheists are behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies.

There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished, beliefs just because they don't comport with science. And the demand seems even more peculiar when it is applied so indiscriminately as to include religious believers with Nobel Prizes. What sort of atheist complains that a fellow citizen doing world-class science must abandon his or her religion to be a good scientist?

Our commitment to pluralism and individual freedom should motivate generosity in such matters and allow people "the right to be wrong," especially when the beliefs in question do not interfere with us. Nothing is gained by loud, self-promoting and mean-spirited assaults on the beliefs of fellow citizens.

The New Atheists need to learn how to play in the sandbox.

There is nothing at all un-American about "demanding" that others agree with our own points of view (i.e. arguing that other people are wrong and bringing all the rhetorical tools to bear on any issue, including ridicule, bluff and misdirection). It is the very essence of Freedom of Speech and was practiced from the very beginning of the US ... including the Federalists "accusing" Jefferson of being an atheist, among many other examples.

Of course, that means Giberson is just as free to play his cards as Coyne is to play his. Only time will tell who has the better hand in that game.


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