More Confused Thinking About Science and Religion

Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel wrote an article showing that religion and science are compatible and, as you might guess, this unnerved atheist activist Jerry Coyne. In his attempt to rescue the misguided notion that science and religion are incompatible, Jerry Coyne writes:

But that doesn’t address my own argument, made in Faith Versus Fact, that the grounds for incompatibility have nothing to do with whether scientists can be religious and religious people can be fans of science.

If you think about it, that’s an odd claim to make. Imagine you are an alien from another planet sent to gather information about the human species. Previous probes have shown the humans have both science and religion, so you want to know how the humans handle both. Unfortunately, you initially contact Dr. Jerry Coyne to get this information and he tells you that science and religion are incompatible. You check the humans’ databases and find that “incompatible” means:

(of two things) so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together.

So before probing further, you, unlike Dr. Coyne, think like a scientist and turn Dr. Coyne’s claim into a scientific prediction (since, after all, it is making an empirical claim). What would you predict? Clearly, you would predict that if science and religion are incompatible among the humans, they could not exist together. Thus, you would expect all scientists to be atheists and all religious people to be anti-science. It follows from the hypothesis of incompatibility – so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together.

As a sort of positive control, let’s cite a true example of incompatibility – theism and atheism. Because theism and atheism are incompatible, we don’t find theists who are also atheists, nor do we find atheists who are also theists. They have to choose since they are so opposed in character as to be incapable of existing together.

Thus, when Siegal shows that many scientists are religious and many religious people are interested in science and support scientific research, he is thinking like a scientist and raising data that serve to falsify Coyne’s position. Coyne responds to these data like a typical pseudoscientist by trying to remove his hypothesis from the realm of empirical consequences:

the grounds for incompatibility have nothing to do with whether scientists can be religious and religious people can be fans of science.

Coyne wants to insulate his hypothesis from the data because it undercuts his hypothesis. As such, we’re left with the amusing and ironic situation that scientist Coyne has to abandon the scientific approach to keep his activist scientism afloat.

Look, what if all scientists were atheists and all religious people were anti-science? Would Coyne still be arguing that his position has nothing to do with whether scientists can be religious and religious people can be fans of science? Of course not. He would be citing it as powerful scientific evidence for the truth of this position.  We all know this to be true.

If fact, we know he’d do this because he already tries to do this. Later in his blog posting, he writes:

Sadly, Siegel neglects the really important statistics: Scientists, at least when we have the data, tend to be far more atheistic than the general public…..If science and religion are compatible, why, at least in countries where we have data, are scientists so much less religious than the general public? It could be that nonbelievers are more attracted to science, or that science actually makes people less religious, or (most likely) a combination of these factors. Either way, this shows some conflict between science and faith.

What I want you to notice is how Coyne has completely abandoned the notion that “the grounds for incompatibility have nothing to do with whether scientists can be religious” and contradicts himself by arguing “If science and religion are compatible, why, at least in countries where we have data, are scientists so much less religious than the general public?” Apparently, whether or not scientists are religious or atheistic does indeed have something to do with his incompatibility claims.

So Coyne’s position is just an unfalsfiable hypothesis such that when scientists are religious, it does not count. But when scientists are atheists, it does count.

How does the activist mentally erase the data that contradict his hypothesis? Here is how he explains scientists who are religious and religious people who embrace science:

This kind of cognitive bifurcation just shows that people can accept two incompatible ways of judging what is “true” at the same time.

At this point, Coyne is assuming his conclusion. It’s not that people accept two incompatible ways of judging what is true. It’s that they accept two different ways of judging what is true. Let me illustrate.

Consider the picture below:
yasuni-forest

You can look at this picture from a scientific perspective. As such, you’d be focused on the biology, the geology, and the geography. You might want to count the different number of plant species or predict which part of the world this is. But you can also look at the same thing from an aesthetic perspective, noting the beauty of the whole thing. The scientific perspective does not detect the beauty and the aesthetic perspective cannot tell you if a scientist wrongly classified one of the plants. But this does NOT mean the two perspectives are incompatible. That would be absurd to think so. They are merely two different perspectives.

There are many, many problems with the notion that science and religion are incompatible. But what we’ve seen today is 1) the position flirts (at the very least) with unfalsifiability, and is itself incompatible with the scientific approach and 2) the position confuses the incompatible with the different. Just because two things are different does not mean they are incompatible. As one who is eating an peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I know that to be true.

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3 Responses to More Confused Thinking About Science and Religion

  1. Ilíon says:

    It’s always “heads I win, tails you lose” with God-haters.

  2. Dhay says:

    It seems to me that Jerry Coyne’s claim that science and religion are incompatible is disguised bigotry. It’s non-PC to be bigoted towards Black people simply because you are gut-bigoted against them because they are Black, it’s for good sound evidenced logical reasons such as Black people being lazy (they must be, or they’d get on and get out of the slums, wouldn’t they!), or less intelligent than Whites, or far more likely to be criminals.

    Women, too, don’t need the vote because they are less intelligent, they’re less worldly-wise, they’ve got their husbands to vote with their best interests in mind (It’s the anniversary of votes for women in the UK) and very few of them meet the property-owning qualifications for eligibility to vote anyway.

    Thus does repugnance-based and fear-based bigotry become rational, evidenced, scientific, morally justified and necessary, and respectable; indeed bigotry’s obviously the only attitude a thinking person can have.

    Bigotry towards Christians is justifiable and justified in the eyes of bigots because Christians are delusional; and because “Faith is the belief in things for which there’s no evidence”; and because moderate Christians are only moderate because they don’t know or disregard their own Bible – if they didn’t they’d be fundamentalists, stands to reason!

    Bigotry towards Christians is also justifiable and justified because Christians are all of them ultra-right wing socio-political extremists who really want a theocracy though they will reluctantly settle for a political-social-economic system which systematically oppresses the poor, Blacks, women, indeed systematically oppresses all minorities.

    Bigotry towards Christians is also justifiable and justified because Christians are bigots.

    Bigotry towards Christians is justifiable and justified because Christians are anti-Science, anti-Reason, anti-Evidence; we atheists know they must be enthusiastically anti- because we are enthusiastically pro- (as cheerleaders are pro-team) and they’re not us.

    (I’ve deliberately painted what’s graduated in black and white for emphasis — but I expect you get my gist.)

    And bigotry towards Christians is justifiable and justified because science and religion are incompatible, Jerry Coyne says so and he’s a smart person.

    *

    What would Michael Shermer say about Coyne? — He doesn’t, but perhaps he should, it needs but a small amendment to one of Shermer’s better-known and most widely publicised sayings. Ah yes:

    “Smart people believe [bigoted] things because they are skilled at defending [bigotry] they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

    *

    Shermer has written about Francis Collins’ “…journey from atheist to theist, which at first was a halting intellectual process filled with the internal debates scientists typically have with themselves when working on new ideas.”

    Can I read this as Shermer telling his readers that Collins became a Christian via the intellectual processes typical of science.

    That doesn’t sound like science and religion being incompatible.

  3. Dhay says:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2018/02/03/more-confused-thinking-about-science-and-religion/

    *

    In his 06 February 2018 blog post entitled “Templeton gives millions of dollars to promote “intellectual humility”” Jerry Coyne’s objects to the funding; his bottom line is:

    For the life of me, I can’t see the value of investing $8 million in studies of “humility”. My take, as I said, is that this money is meant to fund studies of “scientism”: the overreach of science beyond its so-called proper boundaries, and the role that close-mindedness among scientists (e.g., towards God) impedes intellectual advance.

    But I welcome other people’s takes. Templeton is really good at cloaking its accommodationist agenda, and I can’t quite figure this one out.

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/02/06/templeton-gives-millions-of-dollars-to-promote-intellectual-humility/

    Coyne, despite reading and reproducing the definition(s) of “intellectual humility” (see below) doesn’t know what the hidden agenda is – he’s convinced there has to be a hidden agenda, he’s a bigot where the ‘The John Templeton Foundation’ (or anything or anyone “accommodationist”) is concerned, there has to be a hidden probably anti-atheist agenda; but ignorance is no barrier, he takes a guess (“my take”) and asks for his readers’ guesses.

    The definitions are:

    [Saint Louis University version:]
    Intellectual humility is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well. It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others. If intellectual humility marks a mean between extremes, then related vices (on the one side) would be intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness, and overconfidence in one’s own opinions and intellectual powers, and (on the other side) undue timidity in one’s intellectual life, or even intellectual cowardice.

    The project will focus on a variety of philosophical and theological issues relevant to the topic of intellectual humility, as informed by current research in the empirical sciences, including: virtue epistemology; regulative epistemology; peer disagreement; intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy and deference to authority; religious pluralism; divine hiddenness; intellectual humility and theological method; biases, heuristics, dual-process theories and evolution; intersubjectivity and mind reading.

    And:

    [University of Connecticut version:]
    For the purposes of this CFP, intellectual humility can be understood to involve the owning of one’s cognitive limitations, a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others, and low concern for intellectual domination and certain kinds of social status. It is closely allied with traits such as open-mindedness, a sense of one’s fallibility, and being responsive to reasons. Traits and behaviors opposed to intellectual humility and its allied traits, then, would include closed-mindedness, overconfidence in one’s opinions and intellectual powers, dogmatism, an exaggerated sense of intellectual autonomy, reluctance to pursue and consider new evidence, intellectual arrogance, and intellectual vanity.

    It’s odd that Coyne should be so negative:

    For the life of me, I can’t see the value of investing $8 million in studies of “humility”.

    For if you look back at Sam Harris’ blog posts you find “Edge Question 2017: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”; and you find Harris’ answer is “Intellectual Honesty”:

    Wherever we look, we find otherwise sane men and women making extraordinary efforts to avoid changing their minds.

    Of course, many people are reluctant to be seen changing their minds, …. This fear of losing face is a sign of fundamental confusion. Here it is useful to take the audience’s perspective: Tenaciously clinging to your beliefs past the point where their falsity has been clearly demonstrated does not make you look good. … If the facts are not on your side, or your argument is flawed, any attempt to save face is to lose it twice over. And yet many of us find this lesson hard to learn. To the extent that we can learn it, we acquire a superpower of sorts. … Intellectual honesty allows us to stand outside ourselves and to think in ways that others can (and should) find compelling. It rests on the understanding that wanting something to be true isn’t a reason to believe that it is true—rather, it is further cause to worry that we might be out of touch with reality in the first place. In this sense, intellectual honesty makes real knowledge possible.

    Our scientific, cultural, and moral progress is almost entirely the product of successful acts of persuasion. Therefore, an inability (or refusal) to reason honestly is a social problem. … few things are more important than a willingness to follow evidence and argument wherever they lead. The ability to change our minds, even on important points—especially on important points—is the only basis for hope that the human causes of human misery can be finally overcome.

    https://samharris.org/edge-question-2017/

    Harris’ “intellectual honesty” comes down to willingness to be open to new information, new ideas, a willingness to change your own mind and doxastic openness; as does Templeton’s “intellectual humility”.

    When I compare Templeton’s “intellectual humility”, which the New Atheist Jerry Coyne knee-jerk objects to, with the New Atheist Sam Harris’ strongly recommended “intellectual honesty” the difference seems to lie only in the name, they’re functionally very similar or the same.

    Harris commissioned a horribly badly-designed and botched experiment, “Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence” to investigate:

    People often discount evidence that contradicts their firmly held beliefs. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms that govern this behavior. …

    https://samharris.org/when-the-brain-wont-change-its-mind/

    Looks like Templeton has decided to do a better job than Harris of investigating why people won’t change their minds, when they should change or shouldn’t, and how to facilitate such openness (intellectual humility”).

    *

    Not that Harris displays “intellectual honesty” himself: he has repeatedly shown himself incapable of not having the final word and final verdict – paraphrased, “I won” – whenever debating or, er, discussing with anyone (in print at any rate, I have no patience for hours of slow podcast); and when he says (cut from the long quote above):

    I know at least one eminent scholar who wouldn’t admit to any trouble on his side of a debate stage were he to be suddenly engulfed in flames.

    You just know he’s referring to William Craig Lane: the anonymising allows those many who would say WLC thrashed Harris, by keeping on-topic whereas Harris rambled off-topic all over the place, to assume Harris means some other eminent scholar; and it spares Harris’ blushes because he won’t lose face for not himself displaying “intellectual honesty” (or “intellectual humility”) if it is not possible to definitively pin down who he’s actually talking about, therefore nobody can embarrass Harris by challenging Harris’ self-proclaimed final verdict.

    *

    Coyne [OP] > This kind of cognitive bifurcation just shows that people can accept two incompatible ways of judging what is “true” at the same time.

    Looks like cognitive bifurcation operates among New Atheists. That “intellectual honesty” and the conditions under which it flourishes is worthwhile investigating and promoting is “True” for Harris; but that “intellectual humility” and the conditions under which it flourishes is worthwhile investigating and promoting is “False” for Coyne; evidently they are using two incompatible ways of judging what is “true”.

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