Coyne Attempts To Refute Sober

Since Jerry Coyne believes “evolution is the strongest evidence ever adduced against the existence of a theistic god,” you might imagine he would be very uncomfortable with Sober’s clear thinking and rock-solid argument about the possibility of God-guided mutations during evolution.  So he tries to steer people away from Sober’s conclusions with five complaints.  All five complaints fail miserably and come across as desperate hand-waving, confirming the validity of Sober’s argument.  Let’s have a look below the fold:

Coyne: 1. There is no evidence that God exists—at least a theistic God, which is the type demanded by Sober’s thesis.  Ergo, we needn’t consider the rest of his hypothesis.

Sober’s argument has nothing to do with whether or not God exists.*  Sober is arguing that if God exists, evolutionary theory has nothing to say concerning whether or not He could have or would have guided rare mutations across deep time.  Coyne’s complaint completely fails to address Sober’s argument and can thus be dismissed.

[*As an aside, When Coyne notes “there is no evidence that God exists,” we need to ask ourselves what does he mean?  What data would count as evidence for the existence of God?  Oh yeah, Coyne means that since he has never seen a 900-foot tall Jesus walking throught NYC, there is no evidence God exists. ]

2. Experiments have repeatedly showed that mutations do appear to be random: we don’t jack up the probably of an adaptive mutation by putting an organism in an environment where such adaptive mutations would be useful.

Sober would presumably respond that yes, well, they look random, but some rare ones might be caused by God. And of course we can’t logically or empirically rule that out, but there’s no evidence for it.  We needn’t consider all logical possibilities in science that have no evidence supporting them, particularly because in this case the biggest piece of evidence—the existence of an interventionist God—is so implausible as to be unworthy of consideration

Again, we  can dismiss this complaint because is completely sidesteps Sober’s argument.  He is not arguing that science should consider and incorporate the notion of God-guided mutations.  He clearly argues,

My present point is that none of these auxiliaries is part of evolutionary theory; they are ─ all of them ─ philosophical theses. My Duhemian claim is that evolutionary theory has consequences about divine intervention in the mutation process only when evolutionary theory is supplemented by further assumptions…..Atheists who think that evolutionary theory provides the beginning of an argument for disbelieving in God should make it clear that their arguments depend on additional premises that are not vouchsafed by scientific theory or data. Philosophy is not a dirty word.

3. If you’re a theist, and thus have some idea of how God works, then you have to ask, “Why would God do it that way, rather than just bringing new species or complex adaptations into existence de novo?”  The answer, “God works in mysterious ways,” is not only unsatisfactory but unparsimonious.

So the third complaint is easily dismissed in that Sober is not at all concerned with the theological question of why God would do this or that.  This has nothing do with his argument.  Sober is arguing that if God exists, evolutionary theory has nothing to say concerning whether or not He could have or would have guided rare mutations across deep time.

As a theist, I can address Coyne’s complaint as follows.  I think the notion of God gently and subtly guiding a process of unfolding is far more satisfactory and parsimonious than the idea of God continually poofing species into existence across deep time.

4. If you’re going to make an argument that God intervenes rarely to cause an outcome—so rarely that the process looks random—then you might as well argue that God intervenes everywhere in a rare fashion: in the rolling of dice at Las Vegas, at coin-tossings in the Superbowl, and so on.  We can’t rule out a rare God-effect there, either, but we don’t see Sober arguing for such things.  Why not? Because that idea is scientifically sterile.

The fourth complaint can be quickly dismissed because again Coyne fails to understand or deal with Sober’s argument.  Sober is not arguing that God did intervene to cause an outcome and/or that such a notion should be scientifically fruitful.  It’s not about getting such a notion into science.  He is simply pointing out if God exists, evolutionary theory has nothing to say concerning whether or not He could have or would have guided rare mutations across deep time.  Sober is correctly noting that any and all attempts to derive theistic/atheistic consequences about divine intervention in the mutation process can only occur when they are supplemented by further, philosophical assumptions.  Nothing about coin tosses or the rolling of dice at Las Vegas invalidates this argument.

As for the side issue of why  Sober doesn’t argue for such things, I imagine that he might make the very same type of argument if a bunch of Gnu atheists kept arguing that science disproved the existence of God because science had failed to detect God-guided coin tosses or the God-guided rolling of dice.

Coyne has one last shot:

5. This is the old “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence for absence” argument.  And yes, the nonexistence of guided mutations doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but militates against it in a Bayesian way, particularly since there’s no evidence for a guiding force. As others have noted repeatedly, the absence of evidence is evidence for absence if that evidence should be there. There really isn’t a distinction between biological and theological questions here, since the action of the supernatural on mutation rates is a biological question.

Here Coyne is reduced to pounding the podium.  He merely asserts, without any justification, that “the action of the supernatural on mutation rates is a biological question.”  Coyne blindly insists this is true as a function of completely ignoring Sober’s entire argument.  Coyne writes, “the absence of evidence is evidence for absence if that evidence should be there,” yet he has provided not one shred of basis for thinking “the evidence should be there.”  You would think that Coyne would be his strongest here, as here is where he could flex his intellectual muscles as a scientist.  He, as a scientist who knows evolutionary theory well, need only come up with a testable, scientific hypothesis – If God did indeed guide a few mutations during evolutionary history, then we would expect to see data X.  If he could generate this hypothesis that does not depend on additional premises that are not vouchsafed by scientific theory or data, then, and only then, would that lack of X be significant.  Yet Coyne, as a very experienced scientist, cannot do this for the simple reason that Sober is right.

All in all, Coyne’s response to Sober is a complete failure.  Every complaint fails because not one of them acknowledges and actually responds to Sober’s argument.  On the contrary, they are all different ways to tap dance around Sober’s argument.  And while the dance routine elicits applause from Coyne’s Gnu acolytes (and personal attacks on Sober), it’s safe to say that a thinker such a Sober would not be impressed whatsoever.

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2 Responses to Coyne Attempts To Refute Sober

  1. Reading a bit more of Coyne’s blog posts, it seems that most of his problems stem from his basic beliefs that 1) Science is the primary way (and probably the only valid one) to gain knowledge, and that leads to 2) The most important factor to decide the question of God’s existence is empirical, scientific evidence (as opposed to philosophical arguments). Hence if the best Sober can do is make the case that evolution and theistic interventions are logically possible, for Coyne the actual probability of God’s existence is still close zero – in fact this just affirms his belief that it is zero, because if it weren’t zero then we wouldn’t need to argue for such things (mere logical possibility of compatibility) – we would actually “discover evidence” of the supernatural when examining the evidence for evolution.

    Of course, as you have already pointed out in the past Coyne’s concept of what would constitute “empirical evidence for God” is incoherent and probably involves God-of-the-gaps.

  2. Crude says:


    I’m not sure if you’ve seen them, but I believe Mike has some great past posts showing how Coyne’s discussion of “science” gets incredibly slippy and convenient.

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