Thursday, August 06, 2015

Science and Religion (Jerry Coyne, via Stephen Pinker)

Monarch butterfly in my backyard
Jerry Coyne has recently published his new book Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Stephen Pinker reviews it Current Biology - "The Untenability of Faitheism."

Here are a few comments I have on Coyne, via Pinker's review.

Pinker writes: The "Four Horsemen of the New Atheism — as they came to be called — pressed the case that God does not exist and that many aspects of organized religion are pernicious."
My comment:  But Dawkins’ attacks on religion displayed an ignorance of the real arguments and issues, and was for me and others a book that could have been titled Attacking Strawmen. Dawkins did not understand the arguments he was "defeating." So Dawkins, at least, didn’t “press the case that God does not exist.” Are “many aspects of organized religion pernicious?” Some, perhaps. But ahhh, then there is atheism’s truly heinous 20th-century record of attempts to wipe religion off the map, making theistic evil appear puny in comparison. Here Pinker displays his political bias and spins it for all his cohort to see.

Pinker: Though in the ensuing decade a growing sliver of the population has become disenchanted with religion, the majority of Americans still believe in God. Indeed, even many intellectuals — including scientists — are not ready to let go of religion. Few sophisticated people, of course, profess a belief in the literal truth of the Bible or in a God who flouts the laws of physics. But whether it comes from a loyalty to family and tribe, a fear of alienating purse-string-holding politicians and foundations, or a reluctance to concede that nerdy scientists might be right about the most fundamental questions of existence, many intellectuals have proclaimed that the new atheists have gone too far and that key components of religion are worth salvaging. 
Comment: There’s another option: we believe it is true that God exists.

Pinker: The backlash against the New Atheists has given rise to a new consensus among faith-friendly intellectuals, and their counterattack is remarkably consistent across critics with little else in common. The new atheists are too shrill and militant, they say, and just as extreme as the fundamentalists they criticize.

Comment: There’s much more than this. The New Atheists are wrong, and irrationally so. See again the irrationality and supreme unreasonable of Dawkins’ massively unstudied God Delusion.

Pinker: Faith-friendly intellectuals "are preaching to the choir, and only driving moderates into the arms of religion. 

Comment: Which is what Dawkins was doing and, I suspect, Pinker, substituting "atheism" for "religion."

Pinker:  People will never be disabused of their religious beliefs, and perhaps they should not be, because societies need unifying creeds to promote altruism and social cohesion. 

Comment: Pinker here engages in the psychology of religious belief. But there is also a psychology of atheistic belief, so this cuts both ways. See Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless, for example.

Pinker - According to some intellectual theists "science is unable to discover all truths, particularly those concerned with meaning, purpose, and morality. If science and religion just stayed on their own sides of the bed — their “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould put it — we could all just get along."

Comment - But remember – Gould as right, and he was no theist. Science qua science says nothing about morality. Famously, this has been called the “naturalistic fallacy.”

Pinker: As with Michael Corleone’s offer to Nevada Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather Part II, Coyne’s offer to religion on the part of science is this: Nothing. 

Comment: But even if religion offers nothing to science {there are scientists who do not themselves believe this}, science offers nothing to religion, at least when it comes to saying anything about “value” and one of its subsets, “morality.” Remember Nietzsche here.

Pinker - Coyne defines ‘science’ broadly, to encompass any system of belief grounded by reason and evidence, rather than faith. On this definition, many of the humanities, such as history and philosophy, count as ‘science’, not just the traditional physical and social sciences. 

Comment - Hmmm… are Pinker and Coyne going to reduce philosophy to science? I doubt that a lot of philosophers, theistic or nontheistic, will accept this. Pinker and Coyne are speaking out of turn on this. Sounds like Stephen Hawking's absurd statement at the beginning of his The Grand Design.

Pinker: You might object that this definition of science is so expansive as to be meaningless, but one thing that Coyne and his opponents agree on is that religion falls outside it. Consider the following common line of reasoning: science is incapable of telling us what is moral; therefore, we need religion to do so. People who advance this argument (and there are many — Coyne names names) have omitted a vast middle ground of secular reasoning, namely mainstream moral philosophy, which Coyne, in effect, treats as continuous with science. 

Comment: Pinker, and apparently Coyne, miss the point here. “Science is incapable of telling us what is moral” – that’s correct, irregardless of whether or not religion (or philosophy) can say anything about this.  Science can weigh things, measure things, and quantify things. But “good” and “evil” have neither weight nor length. Science may come to the point where scientists can (as best they can) point to certain biochemical neuronal activity when a human subject affirms a certain event as “evil.” OK. But what this arrives at is biochemistry, not “morality.” From what is empirically we cannot derive what I ought to do volitionally.

Pinker - There’s another reason that Coyne’s characterization of science is far from vacuous: it admits of no syncretism, hybrid, or other mongrel with religious faith. This intransigence is not a quibble over the meaning of the word ‘science’; it’s a statement of how people with any appreciation of the value of science ought to fix their beliefs. They should treat all claims with skepticism, and provisionally accept only those that are warranted by arguments and evidence that anyone can recognize. 

Comment - This is simply stunning to me given what philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga have written about warranted belief. For a summary see Plantinga’s recent book  Knowledge and Christian Belief.

Pinker - They should not accept claims on the grounds of revelation, doctrine, authority, tribal solidarity, subjective appeal, or no reason at all — that is, on faith. 

Comment - Take this statement: 1) Persons should not accept claims on the grounds of revelation, doctrine, authority, tribal solidarity, subjective appeal, or no reason at all – that is, on faith. Statement 1 is a belief Pinker and Coyne have. It is a kind of moral belief, indicated by the imperative language “should not accept.” Pinker and Coyne are telling me what I should not do

Accordingly, they believe statement 1 is true. But how so? On science? What is the difference between this and W. K. Clifford’s nonsensical claim that No one should believe anything without supporting evidence, when that statement itself cannot be supported empirically?