Saturday, February 28, 2009
Professor Coyne of the University of Chicago has a long review here of two recent books by theistic scientists that try to reconcile religion and science. I admit I found it a pretty annoying read and long too. These pieces by practicing scientists about why religion is irrational (or rational, for that matter) remind me of videos you can find on YouTube of real life fights between (or among) various amateur combatants: they're not pretty, people make moves they should not and get hurt, and you don't learn much from watching them beyond that watching professionals is more edifying.
I assume Coyne is a good scientist or he would not be at the University of Chicago. But I would not say he displays any natural aptitude for philosophy. And for better or worse, the questions, and there are a lot of them, associated with the relations of science and religion are philosophical questions, and tough ones at that. Watching philosophy done by amateurs is not pretty. For example, early in his essay, he makes something like the claim that it is no good seeing whether some pantheistic, Spinozistic religiosity could be reconciled with Science, nor some form of Deism; nope, the question must be whether some not very clearly defined version of Christianity that most Americans (I suppose he has in mind) believe in, can be reconciled with Science. But why on earth should that be the project? Science is allowed to send its best men to the fight, but Religion is not? This is just a version of a straw man argument and not a very well disguised one at that. Religion comes in a lot of forms from very dumb to very sophisticated. Presumably the question should be whether there is something that counts as religion, that we would recognize as legitimate religious belief if you will, that is -- and here a I speak roughly -- compatible with (what we can call for now) Science.
And that's just the beginning. The justice gets only rougher as one reads on. It doesn't help that the questions are malformed from the beginning. A good place to start to clear things up would be to define what one is talking about when one refers to religion and to science. In these arguments, Science usually means some contemporary version of Darwin's theory of evolution, and religion means any number of things, but including at least (i) versions of fundamentalist Christianity that are committed to young earth creationism, that is, that the earth is only 10 or 100 thousand, or a 100 million years old for that matter, or less; (ii) intelligent design theory, which comes in various forms and (iii) everything else. One rhetorical strategy that anti-religious (and that seems a fair term) scientists use is to lump all apologists for religion together, thus tarring with the same brush serious philosophers of religion with anyone who claims both to be a scientist and to think that the earth is only 6000 years old. But that's no argument. The fair way to proceed is to take on the best the philosophers of religion have on offer, and that is something you almost never see, not from scientists anyway.
At any rate, the following is just a list of points I wish scientists who want to attack religion, or claim that one cannot be both rational and religious at the same time, would keep in mind.
1. The claim that "science" and "religion" cannot be reconciled seems like a very strong claim. But it's very unclear what it is supposed to mean. It might mean that in principle science will someday explain the entire universe and make everything in it intelligible, and that this explanation will make it clear that there is no place in the universe for God (or any version thereof). Well, okay. But why isn't the answer to that, get back to me when you have such an explanation? Or it might mean, you can't do any science at all and be religious -- but that's clearly false. A much more plausible claim is that there is no case for religion so convincing that a non-religious person should feel rationally compelled to become religious. So, no proof that God exists that works, for example. But that is a much weaker claim. And it doesn't have anything in particular to do with Science, except that scientists who are not religious don't need to feel required to trouble themselves with it.
2. Darwin and all that. I don't know much about intelligent design theory and I admit I am not favorably disposed to it. My impression of it is that it takes the form of the following argument (i) There are explanatory gaps in the evolutionary account of the descent of humans from earlier organisms or of the origins of life at all; (ii) there is no set of theories and facts that can be come up with by scientists that will fill these gaps; (iii) therefore these gaps must have been bridged in the past by the action of a Divine Agent (or maybe agents). (ii) of course is a hard one to swallow. It asks us to take on faith a negative proposition, such as, there is no such thing as the Abominable Snowman, which there might be, but to do so in light of a history where it seems explanatory gaps are getting filled in all the time. Nor is it a case like the proposition that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. We have lots of reasons to think that nothing can, but no particular reason to think that some explanatory gap in the evolutionary account of how we or life generally got here will not eventually get filled. We don't have any reason to think it cannot be filled in principle.
But on the other hand it might be the case that somebody could come up with a version of ID theory that is not of the suspect form described above. At any rate, proving that such a theory is impossible does not seem easy.
3. The problems raised by the "fine tuning" of the universe are philosophically serious and should be taken seriously. Coyne is an example of how not to handle these arguments--think YouTube. One can read a good book by a real philosopher such as John Leslie's Universes to get a sense of the arguments. But take a big inconvenient seeming-fact such as the Big Bang. Atheist scientists such as Stephen Hawking find it esthetically displeasing and even embarrassing that the universe seems to have come into existence at a given moment in time or, uh, immediately thereafter. In fact, the whole idea of time beginning is fraught with difficulty (at least it is to me). He and others have tried very hard to come up with alternative theories that give us a universe with no beginning. Part of their reason for doing this is candidly that they resist greatly the notion of Creation. (This is all a bit odd as plenty of theology assumes the universe has been around forever too, and grapples with the problem of how an eternal God creates a sempiternal universe.)
A related problem is that a number of physical constants of our universe are such that if they were just a little bit different, in some cases by an extremely small amount, like one in ten to the power of a large number, then nothing like a universe in which we can imagine life having evolved, would exist. Thus the universe appears as it would if it had been set up, so to speak, so that life could (or maybe had to -- another argument) evolve in it. As Leslie shows I think, this is a hard thing to simply dismiss. What Coyne does is simply say -- hey! maybe we are just one of many, many, many universes and we just happen to find ourselves in one of the very remotely possible universes in which it is possible to find ourselves. It doesn't look like an accident, but really, it is. We are informed there is at least one really fascinating theory to this effect. And that's a good thing. If you have to have a theory, it might as well be a fascinating one. And in fact, we want our cosmologists to try to explain the universe without resorting to "let there be light!" in the same way we want our Olympic swimmers to swim as fast as they can. How much can you explain is like how fast can you swim -- you don't know until you try. But saying "maybe we really are an accident even though it doesn't look like it, and by the way I really think we are, and here's sort of a sketch of theory of how that could be" is not much of an argument. It is just enough to preserve the possibility that the universe was not created, which is something professional cosmologists quite legitimately ardently desire. But those of us who are not in special job of showing science can explain as much as it possibly can, are not obliged to buy into that ethic. It's a professional commitment, not a fact. It is nowhere near enough to refute the claim that the universe is created, much less the weaker claim that it is a plausible to claim that it is or was created.
4. Well, there's more, but that's enough for now.