A clue for Jerry Coyne

A reader alerts me that Jerry Coyne, whose philosophical efforts we had occasion recently to evaluate, has been reading some theology – “under the tutelage of the estimable Eric MacDonald,” Coyne tells us.  And who is Eric MacDonald?  A neutral party to the debate between theologians and New Atheist types like Coyne, right?  Well, not exactly.  Turns out MacDonald is “an ex-Anglican priest” who has been “wean[ed]… from his faith,” and who claims that “religious beliefs and doctrines not only have no rational basis, but are, in fact, a danger to rational, evidence-based thinking.”

Give Coyne’s post a read, then come back.  Now, you might recall my fanciful dialogue from a few months back between a scientist and a bigoted science-bashing skeptic.  The point was to try, through analogy, to help New Atheist types see how they appear to others, and how irrational and ill-informed they really are.  (If you haven’t seen the dialogue, go read that too, then come back.)  To see what is wrong with Coyne’s latest remarks, we can imagine that that dialogue might continue as follows:

Skeptic: I’m trying to learn science so I can meet head-on the argument that we science critics are ignorant of the subjectSo, under the tutelage of the estimable Bruno Latour, I have spent several weeks reading this stuff.  And so far, I’ve learned only three things.  First of all, I’m wasting my time reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact when I could be learning about real things instead.  Second, scientists can’t write.  A lot of what they have to say is obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate because of reason three (which I’ll get to in a minute).  I have for example, just opened Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam by John Wheeler to a random chapter.  And there I find this: 

“On the other hand, when we see time symmetry marred in an elementary process, when we contemplate the writhings of spacetime in wormholes and quantum foam, when we see tiny deviations from Dirac’s predictions for the electron produced by quantum fluctuations, we realize that the “floor” of simplicity as we move to smaller and smaller domains is illusory.  Beneath that floor, in still smaller domains, chaos and complexity reign again.”

Believe me, the book contains paragraphs far more obscure and pretentious than this one.  Can you imagine reading this stuff night after night?  Do you see why my head feels about to explode?  Bruno, why are you doing this to me?

Scientist: Well, it’s easy to make fun of serious ideas by ripping them out of context.  Actually understanding them is a different story.  Wheeler is an important thinker, and you quite obviously haven’t the faintest understanding of what he’s saying.

Skeptic: Oh brother, here we go again.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”  You always say that.  Then comes the Courtier’s reply: “Learn the science before commenting on it!”  But now that I have learned it, even that’s not enough for you.  Why don’t you just finally admit that science is like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster?  I mean, “geons” and “quantum foam” are only the beginning.  This Wheeler guy goes on about tons of other crackpot stuff, like “black holes,” “muons,” “cosmic rays,””wave-particle duality,” and “It from Bit,” whatever the hell that means.  

Scientist: But my point is that you haven’t “learned the science.”  Just reading a book doesn’t mean anything if you’re not even trying to understand it.  And you’ve more or less admitted that you’re not – you’re only interested in scoring a debating point against those who’ve exposed your lack of knowledge of science.  There’s nothing obscure or crackpot about anything Wheeler said.  He’s just using technical terminology.  But the ideas are complicated and are the result of decades or even centuries of scientific developments.  You can’t seriously expect to understand it all just by mining a couple of books over the weekend for passages you can make smart-ass remarks about.

Skeptic: But why waste time trying to understand it when these scientists never show how what they’re saying tells us anything about reality in the first place?  Because that’s the third thing I’ve learned.  There seems to be no “knowledge” behind science.  One gets the strong sense when reading science that everyone is just making stuff up.  There are few arguments for relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, etc. at all in what I read.  People just assume these things are real and go from there.

Scientist: What are you talking about?  Lots of scientists have argued for those things, at length!

Skeptic: Not in what I’ve read these last few weeks.  For example, read a book like Gregory’s Eye and Brain and you’ll find he talks about how evolution did this or how photons do that.  But he never gives us any argument for the existence of these “photon” thingies, and he never answers all the objections people have made to evolution.  It’s all based on faith.

Scientist: He doesn’t address those things at length because the book is about vision, and not photons or evolution per se.  He can take that stuff for granted because other people have argued for it elsewhere.  He isn’t even trying to answer skeptics about evolution or modern physics in a book like that.  Really, do you expect every science book to start from square one and recapitulate what others have already said about every issue that might be relevant to a subject, just to satisfy skeptics like you?  

Skeptic: But their belief in these things is not based on argument.  It’s based on peer pressure, groupthink, the fear of being ostracized.  The so-called “arguments” you refer to are just rationalizations for what scientists were indoctrinated into believing while in school and what all their colleagues expect them to believe when they go to conferences, try to get tenure or funding or to get their papers accepted for publication, etc.  It reflects the worship of science that dominates our society – its pop culture, its educational institutions, commerce and industry, you name it.  It’s all socially constructed, not based in reality.  As Latour says in Laboratory Life

Scientist: That’s another thing.  When the hell did Bruno Latour, of all people, become a neutral source in this debate?!

Skeptic: What do you mean?  Latour is himself a scientist!  In fact, he’s a recognized expert in no less than two sciences, anthropology and sociology.  He also wrote a very influential study of Einstein’s theory of relativity.  

Scientist: This is surreal.  I don’t think you’ll find a lot of physicists or biologists who would agree that what Latour does is “science.”  I’ll bet even many anthropologists wouldn’t.  And as to his article on relativity…

Skeptic: Ah, I see, so the scientists don’t even agree among themselves about what “science” is.  It’s just a bunch of warring, faith-based sects that…

Scientist: No, there is certainly consensus among serious scientists about

Skeptic: Oh, so when you cite some scientist, he’s a “serious” scientist or a “real” scientist, but when I cite some scientist in my favor, suddenly he’s not a “real” scientist or a “serious” one.  How convenient!  Do you have any idea how you sound?

Scientist: It only “sounds” suspicious if you’re hell-bent on finding something suspicious about it instead of trying to understand the reasons why I say what I do.  Look, you’re so off-base about so many things that I’ve got to start from first principles even to make a dent, and it’s complicated further by…

Skeptic: Yeah, yeah, it’s “complicated,” I don’t understand the issues, Courtier’s reply, blah blah blah.  Whatever.  You tell me I need to learn about science before criticizing it, so – just to humor you, because I already know it’s a waste of time – I do.  Then, because you don’t like what the evidence I’ve uncovered shows, you suddenly shift your ground and say that reading science books isn’t good enough after all, and that the scientists I cite are not “real” scientists.  I don’t think there’s any point in continuing this conversation any further.  And I don’t think there’s any point in reading any more science.  I don’t want to waste months of my life reading this stuff if there’s nothing to be gained from it except the ability to say to my opponents, “Yes, I do know about scientific schools of thought X, Y, and Z.”  Why bother to torture our brains if we can simply ask scientists to prove, using evidence and reason, that their viewpoint is correct, and better than that of either science critics like me, or other scientists?  But they never do that – it’s all just making stuff up or at best rationalizing preconceived ideas.

Now, Coyne would be outraged by our Skeptic, and rightly so.  But replace “Skeptic” with “Coyne,” “Scientist” with “Theologian,” and so forth, and I submit that you’ve got a dead-on summary of Coyne’s attitude toward theology.  Of course, Coyne and his ilk will insist that the cases are different.  But what you will never get from them is an actual argument for this claim, or at least not an argument that doesn’t beg the question.

If there were any doubt that Coyne’s reading project is unserious, it is dispelled by his jaw-dropping remark that he hasn’t come across any arguments for God’s existence “that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion.”  If Coyne were to imagine his own reaction to a creationist who said he hadn’t seen any arguments for evolution “that aren’t taken up and refuted in Duane Gish’s Evolution: The Fossils Say No!,” he would have some idea of what a fool he is making of himself.  Reasonable and well-informed people can disagree about whether a thinker like Aquinas (say) has proved the existence of God.  Reasonable and well-informed people cannot disagree about whether Richard Dawkins knows what the hell he is talking about when he criticizes thinkers like Aquinas in The God Delusion.  He does not, and to every Aquinas scholar it is cringe-makingly obvious that he does not.  If Coyne does not know this – and his own clueless past remarks about Aquinas show that he doesn’t – then it is hard to believe that he has even tried to look for serious defenses of the arguments for God’s existence, and thus hard to see how he has any business complaining that he hasn’t found them.

Still, Coyne insists that he really wants to know what the best arguments are, that he is “dead serious here, and not looking for sarcastic answers,” and even that he is “hoping that some real theologians will read this and provide some answers.”  Well, here is an answer.  If Coyne really wants to know what the rational foundations of theology are, he should read works that aim to lay down those foundations, instead of works that presuppose them – just like someone skeptical about evolution should read a book like Coyne’s Why Evolution is True instead of complaining that books like Richard Gregory’s Eye and Brain do not argue for evolution.

Traditionally, the central argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument, and (also traditionally) the most important versions of that argument are the ones summed up in the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways.  But the typical modern reader is simply not going to understand the Five Ways just by reading the usual two-page excerpt one finds in anthologies.  For one thing, the arguments were never intended to be stand-alone, one-stop proofs that would convince even the most hardened skeptic.  They are only meant to be brief sketches of arguments the more detailed versions of which the intended readers of Aquinas’s day would have found elsewhere.  For another thing, the terminology and argumentative moves presuppose a number of metaphysical theses that Aquinas also develops and defends elsewhere.

So, to understand the Five Ways, the modern reader needs to read something that makes all this background clear, that explains how modern Thomists would reply to the stock objections to the arguments, and so forth.  Naturally, I would recommend my own book Aquinas, since it was intended in part precisely as an up-to-date explanation and defense of these arguments, and will provide the reader with a useful survey of what not only Aquinas, but the Thomistic tradition more generally, has said about them.  (I do some of this in The Last Superstition too, of course.  But that book does not deal with the Third Way, as the Aquinas book does.  Moreover, New Atheists – who have a sense of humor about everything but themselves – are likely to make the polemical tone of TLS an excuse for dismissing its arguments.  This is unreasonable, of course, especially given their own excessive polemics – I’m only fighting fire with fire – but there it is.)

Another relatively recent book to look at on the Five Ways is Christopher F. J. Martin’s Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations.  Unfortunately, this is an expensive book, but it looks like the University of Chicago library has a copy, so Coyne should have no trouble getting hold of it.  If Coyne wants to dig even deeper into a broadly Thomistic approach informed by hard core analytic philosophy, I would recommend that he look at Barry Miller’s trilogy: From Existence to God, A Most Unlikely God, and The Fullness of Being.  These are also expensive, but I see that Coyne is again in luck, since the University of Chicago library has all three.  There are also some articles on Aquinas’s arguments worth checking out, such as David Oderberg’s recent piece on the first premise of the First Way.  And then there is the question of how Aquinas would deal with the atheistic objection from evil, the best recent book on which is Brian Davies’ The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil.

After Aquinas’s versions of the cosmological argument, the next most important argument for God’s existence is the kalām cosmological argument.  Here the things to read are William Lane Craig’s books The Kalām Cosmological Argument and Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology (co-written with atheist Quentin Smith), and David Oderberg’s articles on the subject (available here, here, here, here, and here).

So, there’s your answer, Prof. Coyne.  No need to thank me!
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