Jerry Coyne’s Argument Derails

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. He is also the latest high profile scientist to join the New Atheist Movement. He wrote an essay for The New Republic entitled, Seeing and Believing, that has sparked quite an internet kerfuffle about faith and science that is being archived on the Edge website.

In this essay, Prof. Coyne not only superficially reviews the books of theistic evolutionists, Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller, but uses these reviews as a platform to spread the message of New Atheism – Christian faith and science cannot be reasonably reconciled.

A key point in Coyne’s position is the ability of science to determine whether or not the Christian faith is true. Although Coyne has never published a single scientific study in the peer-reviewed literature to address the validity of Christian faith, he boldly makes his case in the pages of a popular magazine article:

Despite Gould’s claims to the contrary, supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces.

The first thing to note about these two key sentences is just how vague they are. Coyne’s tactic is one that is very common among the New Atheists – use the word science as much as possible without ever making an effort to define it. In his New Republic essay, Coyne uses the word ‘science’ 71 times and ‘scientific’ 45 times. Yet he makes no effort to rigorously and precisely define what science is. This is crucial, as ‘science’ can mean many different things to different people. Likewise, Coyne makes no effort to define the “supernatural.”

You would think that a high profile scientist who, in a high profile publication, claims “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science” would actually define ‘science’ and ‘supernatural’ for his readers. But not so.

The second thing to note is that the first sentence comes with a squishy qualifier: supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. By adding “not completely,” Coyne clearly conveys the message that some “supernatural phenomena” are beyond the realm of science while others are not. Does Coyne have an objective basis for categorizing “supernatural phenomena” into these two groups? Or is it a subjective judgment call?

The third, and most important, thing to note is that in the space of two consecutive sentences, Coyne shifts the argument in a subtle, but very significant manner.

The first sentence – supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science – is about supernatural phenomena, science, and its realm. The second sentence – All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God – is about persons, what they see, and what they believe.

These two sentences make two different claims. While Coyne never defines science, I am sure he would agree that the scientific method is a necessary component of science. As such, we need only notice that a scientist embracing a belief because the scientist observed something is neither the scientific method nor science.

A person, who happens to be a scientist, making an observation and coming to hold a belief, is no more doing science than anyone else making observations and coming to a belief as a consequence of those observations. If I happen to observe my neighbor cheating on his wife, I will come to believe that my neighbor is cheating on his wife. But this does not mean that science has shown my neighbor is cheating on his wife.

If Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins are in an abandoned house, and come out claiming to have seen a ghost, it would be nonsensical to claim science has detected the existence of ghosts because two scientists claim to have observed a ghost.

Scientists making “certain observations” is not science. Science is a method that involves hypothesis formation and testing through objective measurement. At most, an observation may count as part of the scientific method, but if all Coyne has is the ability to imagine observations that could personally convince scientists God exists, he doesn’t have an argument that shows us science can detect the existence of God. This is crucial, as his first sentence is talking about science and its realm, not scientists and what they see and believe.

And it is crucial because, as we shall see, the rest of Coyne’s arguments follow from the subtle change introduced by the second sentence (the focus on scientists and what they see) and not from the first sentence (science and its realm).

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