Science and metaphysical commitments

Jerry Coyne writes, “Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment.” Yet this is a rather odd assertion given what Coyne claimed toward the beginning of his article:

A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas’s board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take “religion” to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. (emphasis added)

If we cannot “re-define science” to include the supernatural, it stands to reason that there is indeed an a priori philosophical commitment to materialistic explanations. It does not bode well for Coyne’s case if such a fundamental contradiction is laid out in the very same essay.

So we have two claims from Coyne:

Claim 1: You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural

Claim 2: Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment.

To support Claim 2, Coyne reaches back over a century to insist that God was once part of science, but the “God did it” explanation “has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it.” For some strange reason, the fact that our Universe runs as an orderly and rational place, where a striking balance of natural law and contingency allows us to live as free agents in a coherent world, is supposed to be evidence against the existence of God. But that’s another topic for another day. What I would note here is that while Coyne presents a questionable representation of the history of science, what he fails to realize is that even if his point is valid, it is not all that relevant. Yes, scientists in the 19th century may have mixed their theology and science, but that does not mean that scientists in 2009 do not rely on an a priori philosophical commitment to materialistic explanations.

Consider, for example, the words of another scientist, Richard Lewontin:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

So Lewontin would disagree with Coyne and we are now left wondering who is right, who speaks for the scientific community, and how would we know? At this point, we should begin to think like scientists and ponder the extent to which this disagreement exists. How many scientists agree with Lewontin and Coyne’s Claim 1, insisting that science restrict itself to a commitment to materialistic explanations? And how many would agree with Coyne’s claim 2, that science is open to supernatural causes (for example, scientists witnessing a nine-hundred-foot-tall-Jesus)?

In other words, we cannot accept Coyne’s claim on faith. He may be a very bright scientist, but he is, in the end, only one scientist. If we are to make claims about “scientists” or “science,” we need sociological data that explore the beliefs of a community of scientists. And I must confess that I know of no such studies.

We could, however, consider Jerry Coyne himself. Is it psychologically plausible that he remains open to supernatural causation in science? He is, after all, a member of the New Atheist Movement who regularly lashes out at theistic evolutionists who hold rather meek theistic views in relation to science. And he did claim that we “cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural.” If Coyne does not hold to an a priori philosophical commitment to materialistic explanations, it is hard to imagine what  such a commitment would look like!

But let’s not forget that Coyne has gone on record by providing an example of what it would take for him to incorporate the supernatural into science:

if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.

Next, we need to consider what Jerry Coyne is saying about science given he would include this type of phenomenon into the realm of science.

This entry was posted in God, Jerry Coyne, Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Science and metaphysical commitments

  1. DATCG says:


    May I make an observation here? It appears Coyne is saying he needs evidence of “Poofing.”

    He is being contradictory in his statements, no doubt.

    Frankly, the word “supernatural” is used as a concept of “poof” by atheist. That is their interpretation. That Design Theorist, even Evolutionary Theorist still believe in some form of Poofing.

    In a rather humorous discovery, unfamiliar with Oral Roberts claims, I now know where the originator of musical icon MC 900ft Jesus was inspired. I always knew it was a mockery, just not from where. Interesting.

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