Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Here We Go Again

I have been remiss of late in tending to this blog ... a combination of physical problems, ennui, work and the lack of items that ticked my fancy.

This is a bit of a drive-by ... raising issues rather than trying to answer them.

Jerry Coyne, with a more than a bit of graciousness, congratulates Ken Miller for being named by the University of Notre Dame the 2014 Laetare Medal winner, given annually to a Catholic "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity."

Coyne focuses on some of Miller's stated beliefs, which Miller has never claimed were scientific in nature and labels them "antiscientific, [because they are] based not on evidence."

But Coyne has certain beliefs that are not based on evidence, much less scientific evidence, for example, his opinion of James Joyce:
I do not believe, nor have I ever asserted, that science provides us with all the answers that are worth having. Some answers worth having involve subjective taste: which bistro should I eat at tonight? Should I go out with Sue or with Megan? Is Joyce's The Dead truly the best story ever written in English? (The answer to that, by the way, is "yes".) Why does Beethoven move me to tears while Mozart leaves me cold? And there are the moral questions, such as "Is abortion wrong?"

Now some of these questions are at least potentially susceptible to empirical investigation and falsification ...
But what I have never seen is a coherent explanation of what specifically is different between Coyne's "subjective taste" in matters he finds aesthetically pleasing to think about the world and Miller's. What makes one "antiscientific" and not the other? Neither claim scientific support for their position, though both vaguely claim that science might have a bearing on their respective beliefs. Neither claim that their beliefs are actually part of science.

Why are Miller's beliefs anymore "antiscientific" than Coyne's? ... other than that Coyne aesthetically doesn't like religion?

Not to throw oil (and Ken's a nice guy and all), but I don't see his name pop-up a lot in the research I work on (mainly evolution).

I guess he's a big name in cell biology... and he writes one of the most popular biology text books in existence... OK fair enough.
I had the same reaction to Coyne's post. If Miller has some odd beliefs which do not in any way affect his science, there's no need for concern. In any case, science is supposed to be resistant to odd beliefs of an investigator influencing scientific conclusions.
In any case, science is supposed to be resistant to odd beliefs of an investigator influencing scientific conclusions.

Precisely. Those who would make science a "worldview," instead of a formal and systematized collective human enterprise always seem to forget that.
Forgive my ignorance, but has anyone, ever, been put to death for a wrong belief about Joyce's The Dead?

If not, don't you think it makes a poor analogy for Catholicism?
As I understand it, Catholicism makes empirical claims about the nature of the universe. Coyne cites the virgin birth and the resurrection as examples. Believing that these things happened, as a traditional Catholic (Millers description of himself) must do, is to make an empirical claim.

While I can't speak for Coyne, it strikes me that things either are, or they are not. Using a word like "virgin", which has a well understood empirical meaning, is a scientific claim. This would seem to be a different thing than a statement of personal preference or taste.

Assigning such claims to a special category where one can simultaneously believe them and yet not implicitly make a claim about reality seems incoherent.
David Evans:

The issue here isn't what is good or bad, but what is "scientific" and/or "antiscientific."

has anyone, ever, been put to death for a wrong belief about Joyce's The Dead?

Now you have to understand that I (and, presumably, Miller) grew up as American Catholics (though I exited as a teenager), where the laity openly, with practically no pushback from the priests, defied the Church's proscription of birth control and other supposedly "core" beliefs of the Church. That anyone would be put to death for disagreeing with the Vatican would never occur to an American Catholic. He can claim to be a "traditional (American) Catholic" without endorsing the Inquisition.

Ken Phelps:

First of all, parthenogenesis is not unknown to science, any more than regrowing limbs is. Nor does our observation that virgin births or resurrections are uncommon prove that 'all swans are white.' (Cough, Hume)

Catholicism makes empirical claims about the nature of the universe

But so has Coyne, such as that there is no such thing as "free will." That doesn't mean that he has or claims "scientific" evidence for those assertions; just that his philosophical materialism leads him to that conclusion. The fact that Coyne can't scientifically prove the lack of "free will" doesn't mean he is wrong anymore than Miller's claim that there is some sort of God.

things either are, or they are not

But the trick, as always, is determining which is which ...

Science (as good as it is) does not provide an infallible guide to that. When Miller and/or Coyne wander away from science, we should recognize they are equally lost or found.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education