5/24/12

Coyne on Evolution and Religion

Jerry Coyne has a new article out on how religiosity gets in the way of Americans accepting evolution.  I'm surprised he continues a pattern of reasoning that was widely criticized over a year ago.  First he dismisses religious scientists as "proof" of religion-science compatibility--

Some argue that the mere existence of religious scientists proves this compatibility, but that is specious. That people can simultaneously hold two conflicting worldviews in their head is evidence not for compatibility but for Walt Whitman’s (1855) solipsistic admission, “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well, then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.).” This argument for science/faith compatibility is like saying that Christianity and adultery are compatible because many Christians are adulterers.
Of course religious scientists aren't proof of compatibility, but you might think they're some evidence. In fact, you would almost have to think so, if, like Coyne, you regarded it as evidence of incompatibility that people lose religion as they develop into elite scientists--
Further evidence for incompatibility comes from the huge disparity in religiosity between scientists and laypeople. While only 6% of the American public describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, 64% of scientists at “elite” American universities fall into these classes (Ecklund 2010; similar results were found by Larson and Witham 1997). This figure is much higher for more accomplished scientists. A survey by Larson and Witham (1998) showed that that 93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences, America’s most elite body of scientists, are agnostics or atheists, with just 7% believing in a personal God. This is almost the exact reverse of figures for the American public as a whole.
This disparity bespeaks a profound disconnect between faith and science. Regardless of whether it reflects the attraction of nonbelievers to science, or the fact that science erodes religious belief—both are undoubtedly true—the incompatibility remains.

Why worry about "proof" in the first passage, and then lower the bar, making the issue "evidence" in the second passage?  With evidence the topic in both passages, both the religious scientists and the formerly religious scientists come out to be some evidence.  But it doesn't seem as if Coyne wants to accept the religious scientists as any evidence at all, since he dismisses them entirely with the Whitman quote and the Christian adultery point.
  
Now, if you've made up your mind that religion and science are logically incompatible (cannot both be all true) on some independent basis, then yes, you can dismiss Francis Collins as compartmentalizing (that's what you've got to think--or something along those lines), and you can think formerly religious scientists are reasoning when science gradually crowds out religion for them.  But in that case, you've got some other basis for thinking religion and science are incompatible. What's really hard to do, if you're being fair and logical, is both dismiss religious scientists as any evidence at all for science-religion compatibility and also use formerly religious scientists as some evidence for science-religion incompatibility. 

Now maybe, maybe, there could be special reasons for the different treatment.  Maybe you've got evidence of compartmentalizing in the religious scientists.  They may actually utter the words of Whitman's poem themselves!  Maybe you've got evidence of reasoning in the formerly religious scientists--you've caught them going from premises about science to negative conclusions about religion.  But barring special evidence of that sort, if you think scientists losing religion count as some evidence for incompatibility, you have to think scientists not losing religion count as some evidence for compatibility. Right?  Right!

24 comments:

greg byshenk said...

Your reading might be a bit uncharitable, here. Jerry notes that "Some argue that the mere existence of religious scientists proves this compatibility," which is something that indeed "some argue". I think that there is a two step argument Jerry is making here: 1) the existence of religious scientists doesn't prove anything; and 2) the evidence is strongly in the other direction.

Jean Kazez said...

I really don't think so. In fact, I think JC is actually being uncharitable to the pro-religion folks when he presents them as thinking religious scientists are "proof" of compatibility, as opposed to just being some evidence. It's far more plausible that they ARE some evidence, as opposed to proof, just like the formerly religious elite scientists are some evidence of incompatibility. I can't think of anyone who regards the existence of religious scientists as literally proof of religion-science compatibility. Evidence, yes, proof, no.

Aeolus said...

One of the scholars I most admire is Joseph Needham, the biologist and great historian of science, and author of Science and Civilisation in China. Needham was a Christian and a Marxist (and an admirer of Daoism and Neo-Confucianism), who believed that dialectical and historical materialism reveal the ways in which God works via physical, biological, and societal evolution. He would have told Coyne (politely) that the idea that religion and science are logically incompatible is quite naive.

Alan Cooper said...

Coyne is well aware, and will admit if pressed, that there are people who consider themselves religious whose positions don't conflict with science; but then he claims that such people aren't really religious - thus resorting to defense by reduction of his own position to a tautology. And at the same time he accuses MOMA advocates of doing the same thing in the opposite direction.

I think "naive" is the wrong word for this, but in the interests of civility I will refrain from using the right one.

Deepak Shetty said...

I think JC is actually being uncharitable to the pro-religion folks when he presents them as thinking religious scientists are "proof" of compatibility, as opposed to just being some evidence.
Shrug - its what some religious people like to argue (I believe Miller points to himself when told science and religion are incompatible). I believe Eugenie Scott answers the question in the same way - so you can't dismiss this as no one believes this as proof - only some evidence.

Besides if a vaccine works 80% of the time and not 20% - is it proof that it works or proof that it doesn't?

Jean Kazez said...

OK, let's make the issue "proof"--so sure, we should admit that religious scientists are not proof of religion-science compatibility. It would only make sense to keep on talking about proof when we think about the cases where religion crowds out science, or science crowds out religion. Those cases don't prove incompatibility any more than religious scientists prove compatibility.

But instead, JC switches the topic from "proof" to "evidence"-- presumably so he can use formerly religious scientists as supporting his view. This is obviously not playing fair.

Anonymous said...

This is off topic, but why is science taken so seriously? As if it has the weight of revelation? Isn't all science just theories, in the sense that it is something that it a passing description, one that is subject to change, and to be abandoned, if another theory is found.
Why do people who are not elite scientist go after this like they are defending their faith or something?
But because science has some cultural standing, it seems you are allowed to do it. Or am just experiencing it this way?

Deepak Shetty said...

OK, let's make the issue "proof"--so sure, we should admit that religious scientists are not proof of religion-science compatibility.
I agree with that. I doubt Coyne disagrees even if some of his statements are poorly phrased.
If tomorrow 80% of scientists are religious(as it was in the past) - we wouldn't accept that as proof of compatibility.

But it could be that
a. People who study science and become scientists , mostly start out religious ,a majority then lose their religion or become so liberal that they are actually secular.
or
b. People who are already non- religious are more inclined to study science or become scientists.
or a combination.

If either a. or b. is true , then I would still think that is telling.

Deepak Shetty said...

@Anonymous
This is off topic, but why is science taken so seriously? As if it has the weight of revelation?
Fine. Stop using the internet then. Stop using everything that is a product of science , then perhaps when you ask this question, Ill take it seriously.

Jean Kazez said...

Science ought to matter to everyone because it's the best way we have of predicting what's going to happen next, and we need to do that to exercise any control over our futures. In fact, I sometimes think we should add to the US Bill of Rights that we have a right to have science-based public policies. It annoys me no end that I have to pay for programs that are based on religion, wishful thinking, etc. Like having to pay for abstinence only sex education, and textbooks designed to promote various agendas, rather than just to tell the truth.

As for "poorly phrased"-- yes, probably if JC spelled out what he was trying to say in a lot more detail, he could explain himself coherently.

M K said...

"I'm surprised he continues a pattern of reasoning that was widely criticized over a year ago."

That you find it surprising is odd, in fact very surprising; I would be less surprised to learn that you're being somewhat disingenuous. All sorts of patterns of reasoning have been widely criticized without being abandoned ... atheism, theism, liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, capitalism, etc. In Coyne's case, as in those others, he has reasons that he considers good reasons to think that those criticisms are invalid.

"Now, if you've made up your mind that religion and science are logically incompatible"

But that is not the position of those who say they are incompatible; rather, they are intellectually incompatible processes. If one were to apply the same methods to all empirical claims, including those of one's own religious dogma, one would reject the latter claims as unsupported by the evidence ... at least that is the argument. Thus, the acceptance by scientists of religious dogma is held to be evidence of compartmentalization.

"(cannot both be all true)"

That is way more than is necessary. A and B are logically incompatible if any of A and any of B cannot both be true. (But that's not the thesis at hand.)

M K said...

"This is off topic, but why is science taken so seriously? As if it has the weight of revelation? Isn't all science just theories, in the sense that it is something that it a passing description, one that is subject to change, and to be abandoned, if another theory is found."

You seem to have completely left out the part where science is registered with observation. Theories are not abandoned just because another theory has been found; rather, they are abandoned when another theory explains the same observations that the first theory explained but also explains observations that the first theory does not, and cannot be reasonably modified to explain. Such replacement of theories is quite rare.

M K said...

'"(cannot both be all true)"

That is way more than is necessary. A and B are logically incompatible if any of A and any of B cannot both be true.'

Oops, that's equivalent to what you wrote. My apologies.

Speaking of logical incompatibility and scientific theories, an interesting example is Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. They both explain many observations, but they cannot both be entirely correct.

M K said...

Now that I've read Coyne's article, I find it rather pathetic that you focus on a minor point ... which you get badly wrong (unsurprisingly), even after it was pointed out to you in your own cited 2010 blog post that Coyne means neither logical nor psychological incompatibility but rather philosophical or methodological incompatibility, which he spells out in his article.

Feh.

Jean Kazez said...

MK, Everything you've said is complete nonsense. Thanks for dropping by.

Brandon said...

I don't really keep a close eye on Coyne. What does he say elsewhere about the argument that the existence of good atheists is evidence that atheism and morality are compatible?

I find the Christianity/adultery analogy a somewhat curious one. The only sense in which the two are incompatible is purely deontic: committing adultery requires violating an obligation as a Christian. The two are compatible in every other way. And I can't help but wonder if it's related to the way he explains this very obscure notion of "methodological incompatibility," which doesn't look like any ordinary way in which we might consider methodologies as incompatible (particularly since methodologies are by nature extremely tolerant, allowing you sometimes even to assume known fictions and falsehoods simply in order to get results conveniently, which is the only thing that's methodologically important), perhaps this "methodological incompatibility" is just a weird way of claiming that it's an ethical violation. But I find the whole discussion obscure.

Jean Kazez said...

Brandon, I agree with everything you say.

I do think Coyne has somewhere said good atheists are evidence for atheism-morality compatibility. It's a little dicey to take that stand, and then completely throw out religious scientists as evidence for religion-science compatibility. (As he does, when he makes the Christian adultery point.)

I agree that the whole idea of methodological incompatibility is really obscure. Obviously I use one method when I decide whether a movie is any good, and then use another method to figure out if bad weather is coming. This doesn't, surely, mean aesthetics and meteorology are incompatible.

So I've always taken the issue of religion-science compatibility as really being about whether all of science and all of religion could be true. The psychological evidence about scientists does probably have some relevance to that (weak relevance, anyway), but definitely all three groups are relevant--religious scientists, scientists who lost religion, and religious people who lost science. To throw out the religious scientists takes some fancy footwork, and the quip about adulterous Christians just doesn't do the job.

Deepak Shetty said...

@Jean
I do think Coyne has somewhere said good atheists are evidence for atheism-morality compatibility.
Only in the context of atheists can't be moral or you need religion for morality - in which case the existence of moral atheists is a counter argument.

Obviously I use one method when I decide whether a movie is any good, and then use another method to figure out if bad weather is coming.
But then you wouldn't use the term compatible would you - the concepts would be orthogonal. The term compatibility only applies when the systems are in some way complementary (i.e. is this DVD compatible with that DVD player).
If you wanted to know if prayer worked what would you do as scientific tests? what would you do as a religious tests? Irrespective of the answer you get (and the answer can be the same) the means you use to arrive at the answer aren't even remotely compatible.
Personally I phrase it as an evidence based system is incompatible with a faith based one.

Jean Kazez said...

Deepak,

Re: good atheists. It doesn't matter whether they come up as a counter-argument or why they come up. If you think good atheists are evidence of morality-atheism compatibility, you're going to have a hard time throwing out religious scientists as evidence of religion-science compatibility. In fact, you get the same "moves" in both cases. William Lane Craig dismisses good atheists on grounds that they're compartmentalizing, in exactly the way Coyne dismisses religious scientists!

Re: methodological incompatibility. It seems to me that to be incompatible methods A and B have to yield results that are incompatible in some sense, the most obvious being when results are contradictory. So it isn't simply two methods that are incompatible, but the propositions they lead us to assert. Ethology and physics couldn't be more different methods for studying a dog, but aren't "incompatible" until one yields statement P about the dog and the other yields not-P. Possibly I'm not really disagreeing with anything you said--just trying to say that incompatibility/compatibility can't be purely a question of methods.

Deepak Shetty said...

If you think good atheists are evidence of morality-atheism compatibility,
The point is - it isn't and I dont think anyone makes that case. (Its analogous to there are no atheists in foxholes - really? here are some)

It seems to me that to be incompatible methods A and B have to yield results that are incompatible in some sense,
Assume you add two single digit numbers by using standard math. Assume I write a program that picks some number at random. it might be that some times my program actually matches your values. Is this compatibility? What if after repeated trials it matches every single value - is this compatibility? You cannot only look at the answers.

If I look at some of the core questions of religion (Does God exist? What pleases him/her/it? Did he walk among us? Does he/she/it answer prayers) - I get vastly different answers, vastly different methods , vastly different reasons. It hardly matters then whether science and religion agree or disagree on the age of the earth or evolution. Though I would agree that my biases make me focus on the incompatibilities :).

jkazez said...

I think we just need to say this more carefully--method A and B are incompatible provided that they sometimes yield inconsistent results. If adding two numbers in the usual way and using a random number generator didn't sometimes yield inconsistent results, then I would see them as compatible. But that's not the case. The two methods are sometimes (in fact usually) going to yield inconsistent results.

Without focusing on the propositional output of two methods, I just don't see what there is to make them "incompatible" as opposed to just very different. Or rather, I can see some possibilities, but they're all pretty murky.

Deepak Shetty said...

method A and B are incompatible provided that they sometimes yield inconsistent results.
This I could partly agree with , but its different from what you originally said
So I've always taken the issue of religion-science compatibility as really being about whether all of science and all of religion could be true.
The reason for restricting my example to single digit numbers is that it is trivial to figure out in how many trials you can get an exact match for all answers with a random number thing which has an upper bound. (you say that you would then think these systems are compatible)
However standard math will work for any number - the random number generator wont.

On a side note , professionally I would not use the term incompatible to mean different ways to do the same thing (i.e. We do not say Windows OS is compatible with Mac OS). We use the term compatible when the systems are complementary (This website is compatible with internet explorer. This application is compatible with windows 2003 , this phone is compatible with the EU networks). If I use that its clear that science has nothing to gain from religion. and religion can only use science to figure out where all its wrong!. Any compatibility is one way (and needs the religion to embrace change.)

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to be good without religion? When I mean religion, I mean a hypothetical true religion, which has not been discovered yet. Let us there is one, and if you practice this, it doesn't matter when or where, will bring out the best in you. That means you will become honest, kind, compassionate, moral, upright, honorable, courageous, noble, saintly.
But suppose you realise in following this religion, you discover that other systems, whatever they may be, causes people to be less than what they can be. And that people who support the system they live in have vested interest, because the system is sustaining them, whether emotionally, financially, psychologically etc.

Now the system may yield numerous material gains. And the religion only very little. But the former brings about massive disparity, and the latter equality.

What does one do in that case? Does one follow a system that may yield results or the hypothetical religion?

I think it is necessary to defend religion whether it may be off the mark, because people believe there is something other than human reason than can give us the truth. This has its downside, but it may be necessary to establish the fundamental human choice, existence before everything else, over everything else no matter how scientific or reasonable, other wise we lose something of ourselves.
Actually I dunno.

greg byshenk said...

"Re: good atheists. It doesn't matter whether they come up as a counter-argument or why they come up. If you think good atheists are evidence of morality-atheism compatibility, you're going to have a hard time throwing out religious scientists as evidence of religion-science compatibility. In fact, you get the same "moves" in both cases. William Lane Craig dismisses good atheists on grounds that they're compartmentalizing, in exactly the way Coyne dismisses religious scientists!"

I apologise for the late response, here, but I think that this is based on an ambiguity in the different senses of 'compatible'.

The question of "morality-atheism compatibilty" seems to be "can atheists act morally?", to which the answer would at least seem to be "of course". Plainly there are atheists who do act morally. One can avoid this conclusion by suggesting that in some sense 'morality' is essentially connected to theism, and thus that atheists are not really acting morally, but this is just begging the question. And incompatibilists, such as Jerry Coyne, would agree that theism and science are 'compatible' in this sense of the word. That is, if the question is "can theists act scientifically?", then the answer is obviously "yes".

But this is not the question when one asks about the 'compatibility' of "religion" and "science". Here one is comparing methods or practices as ways of learning about the world, or "ways of knowing". The 'incompatibility' argument in this case is that, to the extent that religion makes knowledge claims, it is incompatible with science. And in this sense, the mere fact that someone might use different methods (at different times) says nothing at all about the compatibility of the different methods.