We’ve seen what Professor Coyne would count as evidence for the truth of Christianity/existence of God. So let’s have a look.
“The following (and admittedly contorted) scenario would give me tentative evidence for Christianity. Suppose that a bright light appeared in the heavens, and, supported by winged angels, a being clad in a white robe and sandals descended onto my campus from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles bearing the names given in the Bible. Loud heavenly music, with the blaring of trumpets, is heard everywhere. The robed being, who identifies himself as Jesus, repairs to the nearby university hospital and instantly heals many severely afflicted people, including amputees. After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music. The heavens swiftly darken, there are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and in an instant the sky is clear.
If this were all witnessed by others and documented by video, and if the healings were unexplainable but supported by testimony from multiple doctors, and if all the apparitions and events conformed to Christian theology—then I’d have to start thinking seriously about the truth of Christianity.”
1. This entire example depends on the validity of God of the Gaps reasoning. We need only ask why such a sensational, miraculous “God demonstration” would count as “tentative” evidence of God? Answer – precisely because it is miraculous. Take away all the miraculous elements and Coyne would not count this as evidence for God. So it’s evidence only to the extent it represents a Gap. Coyne needs to stop playing these sneaky word games and come clean by answering a simple question – Is God of the Gaps reasoning a valid way of determining whether or not God exists? Since Coyne has previously dismissed God of the Gaps reasoning in other contexts, his answer is clearly “no,” meaning that his example must likewise be dismissed (because it entails multiple gaps), meaning Coyne has failed to provide any examples of something that would count as evidence for God.
Given that this example has now been exposed as sophistry, we could stop here. But there is more information to be gleaned from Coyne’s writing.
2. Coyne’s example is actually evidence that the man is closed-minded about the truth of Christianity. The whole example can be summarized as follows: Coyne’s mind is so closed about the truth of Christianity that he needs something that is profoundly explosive just to pry it open so that he can “start thinking seriously about the truth of Christianity.” Since these intellectually explosive events have not occurred, he can take him at his word in that he has yet to “start thinking seriously about the truth of Christianity.” Meaning that he doesn’t think seriously about the truth of Christianity; he dismisses it without any serious thought. This is the very pattern of thinking we would expect from someone who is closed-minded.
3. The example also shows that when it comes to the topic of religion, Professor Coyne has lost the ability to think like a scientist. This can be seen from different angles.
a. The example that Coyne cites is not a prediction from a well-grounded hypothesis. In science, we first consider various observations in the light of previous knowledge and experience and use all this information to make a prediction about what should exist. The key is that the prediction must be entailed by the truth of the hypothesis. Coyne would first need to explain why the truth of Christianity would lead us to predict that Jesus should miraculously appear on his campus to perform such miracles. But he doesn’t. Instead, it’s just something that is supposed to pop into existence for the sole purpose of convincing Jerry Coyne. It’s his own personal, subjective litmus test. It’s what he personally demands to meet his own personal needs.
In science, we say that X is evidence for Y because Y predicts that X should exist. We don’t say X is evidence for Y because that’s what I would need to believe Y.
b. The non-scientific nature of this evidence can also be appreciated once we realize it would fail to convince other scientists. For example, both PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are atheistic scientists who have previously made it clear that they would not consider such a miraculous demonstration as evidence for God. Because of the personal nature of Coyne’s evidence, we can’t say who else would be convinced by such evidence. This is not how evidence is processed in science.
c. The non-scientific nature of this evidence can also be appreciated by considering there is no way to proceed from Coyne’s “tentative” conclusion. If Coyne is going to start taking the truth of Christianity seriously because of these miracles, and tentatively concludes God exists, how does he propose to test this tentative conclusion? How could the hypothesis “God caused those miracles on Jerry Coyne’s campus” be falsified? What’s more, what type of data would count as evidence that Coyne’s tentative hypothesis was in fact true? Since there is no way to falsify or strengthen the hypothesis, Coyne’s evidence and hypothesis is not scientific.
4. The example also shows that when it comes to the topic of religion, Professor Coyne relies on bad theology. I’m not sure what aspect of Christian theology that would allow us to predict such a sensational event should occur, that Professor Coyne is so special and so important that he deserves his own personal showing of “God Performs Miracles.”
5. Finally, because the evidence is so personal, and it not entailed by any scientific hypothesis/theory or any theology, why are we supposed to believe that Coyne would accept such events as “tentative evidence” for God? Because he said so? Seriously – there is no evidence Coyne would accept such events as evidence for God. We have only the word of a Gnu activist writing an activist book.