It should be no surprise that New Atheist Steven Pinker would help promote the book of his fellow culture warrior, Jerry Coyne, with a positive review.
Pinker begins his review with some historical revisionism:
Between 2005 and 2007, a quartet of bestsellers by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens launched the New Atheism. Emboldened by the growing success of science in explaining the world (including our own minds), inspired by new research on the sources of religious belief, and galvanized by the baleful influence of religion in world affairs (particularly 9/11 and its aftermath), these Four Horsemen of the New Atheism — as they came to be called — pressed the case that God does not exist and that many aspects of organized religion are pernicious.
While New Atheists often try to cloud the issues by pretending that only religious people use the term “New Atheism,” we can clearly see that Steven Pinker himself has publicly acknowledged the existence of New Atheism. Yet the launch of New Atheism had nothing to do with “the growing success of science” or “new research.” It was all built on a knee-jerk reaction to 911. Sam Harris was the first to publish and he explains it clearly:
In my criticism of religion, I’m not reacting against any kind of fundamentalist upbringing; but nor was I told that there was no God. It really was not a subject of conversation. So my rather strident criticism of religion is really a product of very recent events. In my case, it’s September 11, 2001. So my upbringing isn’t so informative of my views at the moment.
Pinker then begins the attack on the “accommodationists” and “faitheists,” using Coyne’s faulty thinking about science to promote his militant atheism.
As with Michael Corleone’s offer to Nevada Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather Part II, Coyne’s offer to religion on the part of science is this: Nothing. This sounds more imperialistic and scientistic than it really is, because Coyne defi nes ‘science’ broadly, to encompass any system of belief grounded by reason and evidence, rather than faith. On this defi nition, many of the humanities, such as history and philosophy, count as ‘science’, not just the traditional physical and social sciences.
In other words, to mask the imperialistic and scientistic core of Coyne’s views, we have to sneakily dumb down the definition of science so that it is nothing more than “any system of belief grounded by reason and evidence.” This attempt to spin science “broadly” is rooted in intellectual dishonesty and this is easy to show.
First, my critiques of New Atheism and New Atheist leaders are grounded by reason and evidence. Thus, my critiques, and this blog, are science. It’s not Michael who criticizes the New Atheists and finds them wanting. It is science that criticizes the New Atheists and finds them wanting. Do you think Pinker is willing to acknowledge this given it falls out of the broad definition of science? Get serious. Rather than follow through on Coyne’s logic and acknowledge Shadow To Light is science, Pinker would stutter and stammer and then begin to furiously backpedal toward a definition of science that is not quite so broad.
Second, when it comes time to promoting the success of science, Pinker abandons the “broad” definition:
But Coyne’s own philosophy is more pragmatic than foundational: science works. It makes valid predictions, from hominin fossils to the cosmic background radiation, and it allows us to change the world, from curing urinary tract infections to putting a man on the moon.
Hominin fossils. Cosmic background radiation. Curing urinary tract infections. Putting men on the moon. Hmmmm. All examples of the physical sciences. Nothing from the social sciences, let alone the humanities is cited.
That Coyne and Pinker run so quickly from their “broad” definition of science when it suits them tells us this attempt to redefine science does not come from an appreciation of the value of science. After all, people who appreciate the value of science don’t try to redefine it so it can be used as a club in their socio-political wars.
Pinker then engages in some self-serving posturing:
This intransigence is not a quibble over the meaning of the word ‘science’; it’s a statement of how people with any appreciation of the value of science ought to fix their beliefs. They should treat all claims with skepticism, and provisionally accept only those that are warranted by arguments and evidence that anyone can recognize. They should not accept claims on the grounds of revelation, doctrine, authority, tribal solidarity, subjective appeal, or no reason at all — that is, on faith.
Is Pinker admitting he does not appreciate the value of science? After all, he is part of a movement whose leaders argue that a religious upbringing is child abuse. Where is Pinker’s skepticism? Where are the arguments and evidence to warrant such a crackpot position? What’s more, Pinker was part of the New Atheist group effort to smear Francis Collins and prevent him from heading the NIH over six years ago. Two years ago, I dissected Pinker’s malicious attack, which amounted to stereotypes, quote-mining, and fear-mongering. Yet six years after the attack, Pinker has still not acknowledged he was wrong nor has he apologized. Some appreciation for the value of science, eh?
Pinker/Coyne continue to undermine science by insisting science is capable of determining whether or not God exists. Pinker repeats some of Coyne’s talking points:
It could have contained uncannily prescient truths such as “thou shalt not travel faster than light” or “two strands entwined is the secret of life.” A bright light might appear in the heavens one day and a man clad in white robe and sandals, supported by winged angels, could descend from the sky, give sight to the blind, and resurrect the dead. We might discover that intercessory prayer can restore hearing or re-grow amputated limbs, or that anyone who speaks the Prophet Mohammed’s name in vain is immediately struck down by lightning, while those who pray to Allah five times a day are free from disease and misfortune.
Big problem. Pinker and Coyne don’t tell us WHY any of this would count as scientific evidence for God. Anyone who appreciates the value of science would understand that such a connection is essential to the core of science. Yet neither man seems interested in making it. Why is that? Because the connection entails the validity of God of the Gaps logic. That is, the only reason science could embrace the “God did it” explanation for any of these phenomena is because science would have no possible natural explanation. So is Pinker admitting that God of the Gaps reasoning has a place in science? But he just doesn’t want to be so obvious about the concession?
It’s pretty clear to me that the militant atheism of Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker has damaged their brain’s ability to think like scientists. Such empirical events would not be scientific evidence for God. The most science can say is “There is no natural explanation for how or why such events occurred.” Such miracles could be personal/philosophical evidence for God that would extend from the fact that science could not explain them. In other words, while God of the Gaps reasoning has no place in science, and is not part of science, it could be used outside of science – in the realm of philosophy or theology. Pinker and Coyne seem incapable of escaping their confusion about these matters.
In the end, Pinker simply helps highlight what is fatally flawed with Coyne’s thesis – it redefines science in an arbitrary and harmful manner and tries to shoehorn God of the Gaps logic into science. Ironically, while Coyne and Pinker earn attention and money as Defenders of Science, they promote lines of thinking that undermine science, converting it into something so mundane that is no different from my own blog, while insisting “God did it!” is a possible explanation to consider as part of science.
As someone who truly does appreciate the value of science, I find their posturing inexcusable.