Religion takes credit for science

June 15, 2011 • 5:50 am

BioLogos loves me, this I know, for they keep posting multi-part analyses of my book.  After they published a three-part review of WEIT by Robert Bishop, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Wheaton College in Illinois, a religious school, I decided to respond.  Although much of what Bishop said was positive, I didn’t much care for his argument (a familiar one) that I was making theological rather than scientific claims (“why would the designer make a circuitous recurrent laryngeal nerve?), nor for his call for science—and I—to engage in “respectful dialogue” with faith.

I thought that would be the end of it, but I was wrong.  I should have realized that, like a dog with a juicy bone, BioLogos just can’t let go. So now Dr. Bishop is publishing a multi-part response to my own response.  It’s turtles all the way down! I don’t know how many parts his response will ultimately comprise, but the first one is called “A Response to Coyne (and Contemporary Atheists Generally), Part 1.” I guess that soon you’ll be able to read Bishop’s response to my response to his response to my book.

Here are Bishop’s main points:

  • Theologians realized that the Bible was wrong about creation, and that life had changed over time—long before Darwin!

Coyne and I agree that evolution provides plenty of examples that are problematic for such an engineering god. However, there are no good theological or biblical reasons for thinking that God is an engineering designer as I indicated in my review. Instead, there are good theological reasons to view God’s relationship to all of creation as one of allowing and enabling all facets of creation to freely develop into their uniqueness according to the contingent rationality God gave to creation. These reasons were around centuries before Darwin came along, so it’s intellectually disingenuous for Coyne to claim that Christians changed their views about God based on Darwin’s scientific arguments and evidence (Darwin was actually exploring a version of theistic evolution in The Origin that drew on some of the older reasons for thinking of God differently than as a grand engineer). The actual historical situation in the 18th and 19th centuries was much more complicated than that.

What, exactly, are these “good theological reasons” to see that God, instead of having created stuff de novo, “allowed all facets of creation to freely develop into their uniqueness”?  Only that science (e.g., Darwin) had shown that life hadn’t been static, but had evolved.  In the end, “good theological reasons” really mean “good scientific reasons,” of course.

Theology changes when either science or secular reason forces it to, not because revelation-based rumination suddenly made theologians do a facepalm and say, “Wait, I know now that God meant life to evolve!  How stupid of me not to have seen that!” And maybe a few theologians before Darwin did think that life hadn’t been static (isn’t it like these people to claim that a few ideas floating around “centuries before Darwin came along” were the dominant strain of theological thought?). But if many theologians and laypeople realized this well before Darwin, why did Darwin cause such a stir?  It’s Bishop, not I, who is being “intellectually disingenuous” here.  And of course, as in the Galileo affair, religious folks try to exculpate their faith’s earlier rejection of science by saying, “But oh, things were far more complicated than that!”  I am so tired of hearing this.

  • We don’t need evidence to believe in God; rather, we need evidence to believe in the scientific method. And we don’t have it.

Coyne imagines that a conversation between us would end rather quickly as he would ask me for “evidence that there is a god” and assumes that would end things. However, that telling question is just the beginning! Coyne’s demand for evidence is based on a rather naive evidentialist epistemology from the 19th century3 that’s not even adequate for scientific inquiry. Indeed, scientists–good ones at least–don’t use such a crude epistemology.4

Check that out: a demand for evidence is now called “naive evidentialist epistemology.” (He also says my book and website are based on a “naive evidentialist framework”.)  What other response can one have to such claims than to shout forced laughter?  Pretending that scientific “truths” don’t rest on evidence is a common accommodationist gambit (reference 4 is to Hugh Gauch’s Scientific Method in Practice), but it’s simply wrong, and a way for the faithful to avoid the real question: What is the evidence for the existence of God?  I, for one, have used the “crude epistomology” of demanding evidence over my entire scientific career, and it has served me—and many others—very well, thank you.  Let’s look what scientists actually do, not what some philosophers say they do.  And what we do is base our understanding of the universe on evidence and reason.  There is, after all, a good reason why string theory is not universally accepted.

The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?” and “What’s your evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible?” Coyne either would have to answer in a way that begs the question by presupposing the very things that need evidential support–assuming his epistemology on display in his blog–or he’d have to simply take these things as brute, bedrock assumptions. Moreover, I’d like to know “What evidence is there that inference to the best explanation is a justified form of inference for scientists to use?”

What’s my evidence?  I quote Stephen Hawking here, “Science wins because it works.” The reason that empirical investigation and reason are reliable is because, unlike revelation and other religious ways of “knowing,” they have led us to a greater understanding of the universe in ways that can themselves be empirically confirmed.  Dr. Bishop, when you get an infection, do you take an antibiotic? I thought so.  Isn’t that evidence for the reliability of reason and “sense perception”?  Do you go up in airplanes? I thought so, and that’s more evidence.  I won’t further belabor the evidence, except to say that everyone, including Bishop, lives their lives based on the reliability of the scientific method.  The ends justify the method.  In contrast, religious “ways of knowing” don’t have that reliability: we don’t even know if God exists, much less what he’s like if he does. Different religions of the world all believe different things and have different tenets.  If faith were as reliable as science, that wouldn’t be the case.  Religious claims have no way of being checked, and that’s why science wins.

Oh, and this accusation is nearly inevitable (my emphasis):

Again, within the naive evidentialist framework adopted in his blog, Coyne couldn’t give an adequate, non-question-begging answer to this question. An adequate answer requires resources outside of science. This doesn’t weaken or threaten science in the least, but does show that the kind of scientism Coyne and so many atheists adopt is a groundless metaphysical position.

Here’s a quote from Herbert Spencer that Bishop might ponder.  Although Spencer was referring to creationism, it holds for religion as well:

” . . those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.  Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.”

  • The scientific method was invented by religious people and, indeed, is based on religion. 

Finally, Coyne completely misunderstands the force of the historical examples I gave of science/faith engagement (the Scientific Revolution and 20th century debates about steady state cosmology). They aren’t just points about the religious faith of some scientists in the past. Rather, the scientific methods these scientists created and used were intimately tied up with and motivated by their faith.

Take the founding of modern science in the Scientific Revolution as a case in point: If all things were created through and for Christ and for their own sake as the doctrine of creation maintains, then truly knowing and understanding created things requires that we take them on their own terms. In response to that kind of theological insight, Galileo, Boyle and Newton among others developed methods for studying created things on their own terms in such a way that their natures could be revealed to investigators as accurately as possible. This means that they didn’t treat created things as divine or as fronts for the real activity of God, or as shadows behind which genuine reality is working. Instead, they treated pendula, animals, planets and stars as having genuine natures and properties, as responding to and contributing to order, and sought to put themselves in the best methodological and epistemological position to receive all that created things had to teach about themselves. . . . The ontological homogeneity of celestial and terrestrial realms advocated early in the Christian era by Basil and John Philoponus, resurrected by Duns Scotus and, later, Galileo proved decisive for seeing nature more accurately as it really is.5 Taking biblical revelation seriously in the face of the strength of neo-Platonic and Aristotelian hierarchies was an ongoing struggle within Christianity6, but once the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Descartes and Newton grasped hold of ontological homogeneity, the exploration of nature was never the same.

It goes on like this, but it’s hard to take seriously.  Yes, nearly everybody was religious back in the sixteenth century, and yes, some scientists did their empirical studies to investigate God’s methods, or to give him glory. But the scientific method as we know it has nothing to do with religious inspiration.  It’s a method of finding things out based on reason, observation, and experiment, which is the direct antithesis of how religion finds things out.  And it existed well before Christianity.

What do we get when scientific methods of investigation are influenced by religion?  Here are two examples: natural theology and intelligent design.  Natural theologians before Darwin, like William Paley, studied and described the wonders of nature as evidence for God’s power and cleverness.  Because of that, they were inhibited from seeking non-divine explanations for life.  It was only when Darwin threw off these God-shackles that we truly began to understand how life developed and branched.  Likewise, intelligent design (ID) deliberately includes notions of a celestial designer in its search for understanding.  Where has ID gotten us? Nowhere.

Every inch of progress in science has come from rejecting any notion that the universe reflects divine causation and will.  For religious people to now take credit for this progress is not only offensive, but smacks of desperation, of how beleaguered and inferior theologians really feel.

194 thoughts on “Religion takes credit for science

  1. “Theologians realized that the Bible was wrong about creation, and that life had changed over time—long before Darwin!”

    That maybe true. But 1) Theologians didn’t learn that life had changed from studying the babble or any religious text they did so by looking at how the world actually works and 2) Darwin explained why it had changed.

    “…we need evidence to believe in the scientific method. And we don’t have it.”

    You mean other than the fact that it works? And because it works we have this thing called the ‘Internet’?

    “The scientific method was invented by religious people and, indeed, is based on religion.”

    Now you’re just making shit up.

    Mike

  2. Also, Bishop’s case rests on the classic Evangelical Christian use of Appeal to Authority, (e.g. the body of Craig’s work) and he fails to see in his appeal to Newton (as evidence that Christianity shaped science) is that if Newton were to allow his theological assertions in his time (Jesus was not God and the Trinity is incoherent – Arian Theology) then he would have been killed by “Biblical Christians”.

    1. Giordano Bruno, Michael Servetus, Roger Bacon…

      In fact, Bishop’s go at JC sounds like Calvin attacking Servetus – “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.”

  3. Also BTW and OT, the Evangelical authoritarian methods are evidenced in how one might contribute at BioLogos. I’ve tried to log in to make the same comment there as I made here but must wait for them to provide approval of me before I can join. I wish Evangelical Christians who would like to impose their superstition on the academy would admit their psychological attachment to control and authority structures. To me, that is another distinction between science and theology. Science operates with a democratic process towards meritocracy and theology needs to appeal to authority as a means of control. It is silly that faith-heads don’t see this.

    1. To be fair, if I recall correctly, Jerry also has this blog set up so that he has to approve first-time commenters. It’s not an unreasonable way of reducing spam.

      1. The WordPress software that Jerry uses sends a robot generated email to the reader so it can identify him as non-spam. BioLogos seems to hold your information hostage until they deem you appropriate enough to post (I don’t know what their assessment criteria is but I have yet to have my account activated). The process is very different.

  4. Admittedly, natural philosophers knew for quite some time before Darwin that the world must have been older than 6000 years. I’m sure that at the time, theologians were already trying to adapt their theology to these facts. But, as you say, these were still not developments driven by theology, it’s theology driven by secular reasoning and evidence.

    Moreover, I’d like to know “What evidence is there that inference to the best explanation is a justified form of inference for scientists to use?”

    I’m still amazed at anyone typing that with a straight face on a freaking computer. What do they think makes them work? Magic?

    Newton among others developed methods for studying created things on their own terms

    I hope he’s aware that Newton still used “Goddidit” to get himself out of a problem with orbit stability? The one that Laplace finally solved with “I have no need for that hypothesis”?

    Did also you notice how he snuck “created” in there? As if that’s not the entire point of contention at all?

    Once again, an author accuses others of naivity, unsophistication, and a lack historic awareness – and turns out to be entirely underwhelming in his attempts to educate people.

    1. I think he means Newton studied, on their own terms, those things that Newton accepted as being created things.
      Which is really neither here or there, the scientific method remains the same.

  5. lol… reading this i couldn’t get this example out of my mind … the shopkeeper who sold paints to Da Vinci taking credit for the Mona Lisa… 🙂

  6. This Bishop person just gets me angry …
    ‘Oh, but you do not understand Mr clever professor, because evidence is silly & wrong & should not be used to undermine my fairyland fantasies.’

    He is just another cherry-picker – the bits of the bible he likes are ‘true’ – “the contingent rationality God gave to creation” – what utter UTTER guff!
    Grrrrr….

    1. But what is the frickin’ Bible if not evidence that Christians use to make claims about their god? There is absolutely no sect of Christianity that totally rejects the “evidence” of that scripture (how could one even talk about Jesus without arguing that the New Testament contains evidence of his existence?).

      It’s absurd for Bishop to argue that evidence is irrelevant to religious belief — the only religious people who think that personal revelation is the only thing that matters are schizophrenics.

  7. For religious people to now take credit for this progress is not only offensive, but a move of desperation, showing how beleaguered and inferior theologians really feel.

    We have a saying im my field; never attribute to malevolence that which can be explained by incompetance.

    However, in the case of Robert Bishop I’m not prepared to cut him any such slack, he is just a liar for jebus.

    To attribute the development of science to religion is like saying that medicine developed due to disease.

    To paraphrase Sam Harris, back in the middle ages all sheep shearers where xtian, but you didn’t have to be an xtian to be a sheep shearer – you only had to be xtian if you wanted to be a live sheep shearer.

    1. In ‘The Closing of the Western Mind’, Charles Freeman makes it absolutely clear – clear enough that even a Robert Bishop could see it – that the foundations of the scientific method were in place long before Christianity surfaced. It was Paul who introduced anti-intellectualism into Christianity with his vow that he would ‘destroy the wisdom of the wise’, a view that the dogma has clung to for two millennia. Bishop’s random word lists are insufficient to exculpate his theology.

  8. R. Ingersoll said it well :

    “There is no possible way by which Darwin and Moses can be harmonized. There is an irrepressible conflict between Christianity and Science, and both cannot long inhabit the same brain. You cannot harmonize evolution and atonement. The survival of the fittest does away with original sin.”

  9. Jerry Coyne is amazing!

    He will not get tired talking to those who love word play more than anything else.

    Those people have minds that are scared t oadmit in the open that they change!

    They really cling to the concept of “absolute unchangeable”

    One cannot have a conversation with people like that – they are all liers – they lie to themselves and others – they know they change but they will never admit it

    When you tell them that

    “the only permanenet thing is change” they go into stupor and then come back with “god did it”

    which of course is completely irrelevant to what you have told them

    How one can communicate with someone who comes back with da-da-da-da-blah-bla-babber-boooo-baabooo?

    This is all pointless. Talking to religious apologists is so pointless.

    1. You forgot to mention that they are cowards as well as liars. They are so cowed, tremble mightily, if the thought of a finite end to their thoughts and thinking could possibly occur.

      Horrors! BANISH the thought!

      “Infinity, and Beyond!!!”

    2. This is all pointless. Talking to religious apologists is so pointless.

      Maybe talking to religious apologists themselves is largely pointless – although there are, thankfully, exceptions even there. But there are a great many skeptics and fence-sitters for whom the arguments are cogent and tangible lifelines. And the winds of change seem to be gathering force if the diminished attendances in various fundamentalist congregations are any indication:

      Groups that have experienced a net loss from changes in affiliation include Baptists (net loss of 3.7 percentage points) and Methodists (2.1 percentage points). However, the group that has experienced the greatest net loss by far is the Catholic Church. Overall, 31.4% of U.S. adults say that they were raised Catholic. Today, however, only 23.9% of adults identify with the Catholic Church, a net loss of 7.5 percentage points.

  10. Bishop – “The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?” and “What’s your evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible?” Coyne either would have to answer in a way that begs the question by presupposing the very things that need evidential support–assuming his epistemology on display in his blog–or he’d have to simply take these things as brute, bedrock assumptions. Moreover, I’d like to know “What evidence is there that inference to the best explanation is a justified form of inference for scientists to use?”

    The appropriate response to this is, “And your answer to all of these questions is that an omniscient spirit talks to you?”

    I hang out on William Lane Craig’s forum, where I run into this sort of sophistry all the time. It’s just a silly game that theologians and philosophers play, who don’t have a clue as to how a brain works, and therefore don’t have a remotely realistic epistemology. Unfortunately, lots of people do get baffled by the BS, and see such ability to engage in sophistry as evidence that the philosopher actually has some understanding of something of real significance.

    1. “The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?””

      And how the heck does Bishop know that when he thinks he’s reading the Bible he’s actually reading the Bible? How does he know he’s not in the Matrix, or subject to the whims of an evil demon, and all of his well-reasoned theology is nothing more than illusion? Doesn’t theology and Biblical scriptural analysis also rely on reason and sense perception (however inappropriately applied)? How can Bishop undermine the foundations of science without taking down the whole rotting edifice of theology and religion with him?

      Honestly, it’s like these people are determined to ignore their own experiences in the world.

      1. He just “knows” it is true and real (and all that). I am reminded of listening to a “psychic” after she failed the JREFs challenge. She said that she knew that her power came from angels (or something silly like that), and she knew she was correct, but when asked about whether she knew her (incorrect) answers were correct, she said yes – she believed they were correct at the time, even though she was wrong. She just couldn’t relate the two, that she might be wrong when she believed she knew she was right, especially when it dealt with her big, basic ideas. This guy probably works the same way. I know we’ve all heard it before when dealing with theists – when you point out that a Muslim believes he “knows” he is correct, the Christian would say he is mistaken, and that he (the Christian) really “knows” and is correct. Just because.

    2. I was amazed that Dr. Coyne managed to wade through all of that without ever calling it sophistry.

      “There is in every village a torch – the teacher; and an extinguisher – the clergyman” – Victor Hugo

      It’s easy to see who is trying to enlighten people and who is just trying to obfuscate.

  11. It sounds like he expects you to answer the question that Descartes was unable to answer, namely how you trust any of your senses to not be lies from the Matrix. All the while, he trusts his own inclinations that there is a God (and so too did Descartes), not realizing that the notion of God is just as firmly dependant on the senses as science, since its not like people suddenly are aware of Jesus… they have to be taught, through their senses too.

    And Descartes question of getting from “I think therefore I am” to trusting what he sees ignores a lot of the problems of neurology. Crazy people don’t see what we see, yet they still think, therefore they are, and have access to the same God that everyone else does… why do we not trust them? I think the answer is just that consensus in observation, and repeatability in experimentation is the only standard of proof that can exist. And frankly, the ability to discover things that no one has ever thought of before tends to break down the notion that the universe is my dream, or illusion, or the like. I’m just not that bright. And if it were all an illusion, why would it be so dense?

    1. The thing about asking questions like “how do you know you’re not in the Matrix?” is that if it can be used to refute science/empiricism, it can just as easily be used to refute religion/revelation.

      1. Exactly. This sort of Antinomianism about science leads to Post-Modernism, which is really just an extended riff on “I refuse to admit the validity of your rules of evidence if I don’t like the results.”

      2. Yes, this is precisely why religion leads one inexorably towards either the narcissism of solipsism, or to epistemological nihilism, pulling-out the rug from under itself, in the process. Religion is a self-defeating anti-epistemology.

    2. its not like people suddenly are aware of Jesus… they have to be taught, through their senses too

      And a not-insignificant percentage of people who sense Jesus are called “schizophrenic”. How can Bishop argue against their experience without invoking the very same notion of reliability of objective, third-party empiricism that he is determined to reject?

  12. “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?” and “What’s your evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible?”

    If nature is unordered and unintellgible. If my reason and sense perceptions are unreliable then any understanding of the universe is impossible. Then all of existence is absurd nonsense anyways. That isn’t an argument in support of their position; it’s just an argument for the futility of the entire exercise.

      1. Exactly: I’ve seen this called the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept. The demand for evidence for empiricism or a good reason to follow reason assumes what the critic is “questioning.” He’s not asking a real question. That is, he is playacting at being skeptical, and knows he is playacting. He’s trying to fool an unwary opponent into trying to meet his mock challenge in order to play a game of “Gotcha!” which a wary opponent would have played first. The circular reasoning takes place in the question.

    1. “Then all of existence is absurd nonsense anyways. That isn’t an argument in support of their position; it’s just an argument for the futility of the entire exercise.”

      Precisely – it’s the ‘cartoon universe’ of theism: Either God’s so-called plan is perfectly arbitrary (surely a contradiction in terms), in its inscrutability, or it merely appears to be perfectly arbitrary.

  13. I saw the response when it first came out. When I read “naive evidentialist epistemology” my first thought was that the response was a hoax modeled after the Sokal affair.

  14. I suppose this argument will never be won, and in many ways it just gets tiresome – the real purpose is to educate the younger generation so that they don’t end up hidebound.

    I take the point that the 17th and 18th century savants were often religious people. These people developed the field of geology (as a practical tool to find minerals) and showed that extinction (heresy) occurred well before Darwin came on the scene. Their ideas certainly contributed to his training in this field. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that their religion was more a hindrance than a help to their thinking. The concept of the country rector or indeed senior clergyman who contributed to science is more a product of a person with an educated mind and time, than a function of his religious training. To credit this sort of progress to the church makes no sense to me.

    I am reminded of a quote from a famously skeptical pre-Darwinian (he died when Darwin was 13) American President:

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions” – Thomas Jefferson

  15. And again, I need to point out that Bishop’s brand of religion relies absolutely on evidence, logic, and reason.

    Bad evidence, poor logic, and bad reasoning.

    Without the tales told in the “bible”, Bishop would have no reason to believe in a god named “Yahweh” or his half-god son who had wonderful superpowers that left behind not a trace of evidence of them.

    He has swallowed fairy stories as true. If the bible did not exist, he would believe that the Labors of Hercules were an accurate representation of the metaphorical labors of Zeus’ representative on Earth.

    He is now invited to prove otherwise.

  16. ““A Response to Coyne (and Contemporary Atheists Generally), Part 1.””

    God help me, there will be more parts, then. Too soon to peel my skin off? Or should I just wait until I’ve read parts 11 through 30?

  17. “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?”

    Writes Robert Bishop, tapping the words into his computer, connected to the internet.

  18. So asking for evidence that the Christian god exists is naive scientism, and the appropriate response is to demand evidence that anything at all exists.

    It really amazes me that people with thought processes like this don’t starve to death or get hit by cars more often. I hope they frequently thank their god for compartmentalization because that’s the only thing keeping them alive.

  19. Bishop’s article is extremely disappointing.
    The “disingenuous” claim directed at Coyne is simply untenable at face value. With such random ad hominem attacks, BioLogos places itself alongside intelligent design proponents. They are not advocates for science, but just another woo machine.

      1. Well, they do – the goal seems to be to give evangelical Christians the conviction that science is safe for their beliefs. Mind you, if any evangelical Christian reads this stuff and responses critically, I think the goal is lost.

        1. the goal seems to be to give evangelical Christians the conviction that science is safe for their beliefs

          But only if one interprets “science” in a very narrow way, as having nothing to say about certain empirical claims of religion (such as miracles). They aren’t advocating for science as we would recognize it, but instead for a neutered, submissive, naive epistemology.

  20. “Likewise, intelligent design (ID) deliberately includes notions of a celestial designer in its search for understanding. Where has ID gotten us? Nowhere.”

    Indeed. Maybe someone can answer this question for me. Why do people want ID taught in science classes? Now, I know that I’m coming from this from a biased angle and I’ve heard their arguments. BUT, as Dr. Coyne points out, it gets us nowhere in biology, or science in general!

    Even if they want to claim that there is evidence, what does the evidence add? Nothing. There is nothing to be gained from ID. Now, if it is the type of person that says that g-money has his/her/it’s hand in it the whole time, well, I guess it adds understanding, but still nothing is added. That is, even if one accepts the ID line, it still gives us nothing. We are still stuck using natural explanations. Therefore, it is completely worthless to teach it in a natural science course.

    If they want to teach it in a philosophy or religious studies course, I guess, if it is an elective, fine (though I’m still iffy on whether I want my daughter exposed to it). It has no logical (even from an IDist point-of-view) place in a natural science course. It doesn’t require the methods used in natural sciences and it does not inform students that will go on to fields in the natural sciences. It’s like teaching a programming language in a literature class.

    End rant.

  21. Indeed, Bishop is being very very disingenuous here. Take the following excerpt (which others also have quoted):

    ““The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?” and “What’s your evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible?” Coyne either would have to answer in a way that begs the question by presupposing the very things that need evidential support–assuming his epistemology on display in his blog–or he’d have to simply take these things as brute, bedrock assumptions. Moreover, I’d like to know “What evidence is there that inference to the best explanation is a justified form of inference for scientists to use?”

    What he is doing here is that he is taking a very reasonable position that science is not free of metaphysics, and never can be (the logical positivists tried for a while but failed), and using it in favor of religion. But he neglects to tell people that religion is extremely bad metaphysics. It is logically incoherent taken on its own (as many many metaphysicians have pointed out umpteen times, and continue to do so to this day). This is the reason that I agree with PZ that we need not refer to epistemology (standards of evidence etc) to dismiss religion. It does not even pass basic grade-school logic.

  22. It always amazes me that religious apologists fail to realize that citing the religiosity of 17th century scientists only reinforces the robustness of the scientific method (and methodological naturalism) DESPITE the influence of religion. This example actually makes the OPPOSITE point of the one apologists hope to make.

    Here’s the case in point: During the scientific revolution, natural philosophers from Descartes to Boyle to Newton to Leibniz insisted that natural phenomena should only be causally described using natural processes, events, and laws. No special pleading for miraculous divine intervention outside the laws of nature. This much Bishop seems to acknowledge. And yes, nearly all of these folks were motivated, on some level, to study nature by sincere Christian faith–to better understand god’s creation using science, etc. However, an important result of this tradition–which had the contemporary label ‘physico-theology’ (as opposed to scriptural theology, and a kind of precursor to ‘natural theology’), was that since miracles could not be considered as events outside of ordinary nature, miracles became naturalized. But that’s a pretty weak definition of ‘miracle,’ and seems to give most of the game away. And this meant–and many of these natural philosophers themselves realized–that god was not a necessary part of any explanation of how the universe worked.

    So you get, for example, Boyle attempting to explain how Jesus’ resurrection could have been accomplished through chemical processes of dissolution and recomposition, or John Ray calculating whether there was enough water on earth to produce the water for Noah’s flood (and how that water could evaporate and precipitate), or William Whiston using Newtonian mechanics to plot the path of a comet that could have dumped a bunch of water on the earth (via its tail). In none of these explanations, though, was god allowed to use hocus pocus to achieve the desired result.

    Sure, this caused all kinds of anxiety, and the case was made that these natural events–the great flood, for example–were miraculous in the sense that god somehow arranged for their occurrence and imbued them with special meaning. And yes, people like Newton did sometimes fudge things by invoking mysterious properties of god to explain things like gravity. But it’s not irrelevant that Newton was attacked by many of his contemporaries for invoking just this kind of speculative, non-mechanical explanation (and was motivated to keep looking for a mechanical explanation).

    All of this is to say that there’s a better case to be made that these 17th century natural philosophers were more concerned with methodological naturalism than they were with upholding traditional theology. That they were undoubtedly sincere Christians only testifies to the power of scientific logic. Whatever they were motivated by–and people are motivated by all kinds of things to pursue science–the science they practiced prepared the way for an era where invoking god at all in scientific investigations was simply unnecessary. And whether they meant to or not, these Christian naturalists helped write god out of the equation.

    I have no problem with someone being inspired by faith to want to pursue science. But why people like Bishop think the history of science supports an argument that faith is somehow an important or intrinsic part of science is a mystery to me.

    1. All of this is to say that there’s a better case to be made that these 17th century natural philosophers were more concerned with methodological naturalism than they were with upholding traditional theology.

      Actually, Newton, Leibniz, Pascal, and Descartes were all very interested in upholding theology. But certainly not traditional theology — Newton was a unitarian and (AFAIK) never published any of this theological works (a great many were found only in the 20th century) and I believe Leibniz was also a unitarian. Pascal and Descartes obviously were more sympathetic to Catholic theology, but they still took a rationalist approach to the subject (e.g. Pascal’s wager and Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” were new arguments as far as Catholic theology was concerned).

      Untangling these fellows’ religious beliefs and scientific investigations is problematic because “science” wasn’t really a concept at the time — the seventeenth century guys didn’t have a separate cognitive bucket for science the way we do looking back. “Methodological naturalism” wasn’t a thing. These guys were philosophers, not scientists, and they didn’t have the same concept of a scientific theory as something distinct from any other form of philosophical argument. (As an example, Newton didn’t see his invention of the calculus as occurring in a separate domain from his investigation of mechanics — he didn’t make the “mathematics/science” separation that we do from our perspective.)

      But by that token, none of these guys would qualify as scientists in modern terms. Newton didn’t think of experiments as a way to test theories so much as to demonstrate them. Descartes wasn’t an empiricist and almost all of his work his speculative. Pascal did some experiments, but doesn’t seem to have been any more committed to empiricism than Newton was.

      This indicates one of the problems with this line of argument: most of those seventeenth century guys inspired to do “science” by faith in God were not actually doing science. There was no such thing as peer review at the time, and empiricism hadn’t yet come into its own. These arguments reinterpret the events of the seventeenth century through a modern epistemological perspective that simply doesn’t apply. It’s bad history.

      1. It’s always interesting how apologists such as Bishop never quote people like Diderot, and his statement that (paraphrased) ‘humanity cannot be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’.

      2. @ Dan L.:

        I don’t think you understood the point of my comment.

        Yes, of course I know that these people wouldn’t have called themselves ‘scientists’–that’s why I called them natural philosophers in the paragraph you quoted. And of course they didn’t have the same epistemic categories or labels we use today. I never said they weren’t interested in upholding theology. Nor did I say they intended to decouple science from theology or undermine religion. I was talking about the (admittedly unintentional) effects this approach had on the development of scientific philosophy. And I didn’t make any historical assertions I wouldn’t stand by (or be happy to document)–so if you’ve got objections, please give me specifics, not a high-minded lecture.

        If I was going to provide a scholarly, historical account of 17th century theology there’s much more to be said about the complex nuances of the individual interpretive strategies of Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Ray, Leibniz, etc. (and I’m a f*$#ing historian of science, so yeah, I know how to do that). But that’s not what I was doing here: I was responding to how history is marshaled by christian apologists to force an interpretation of the relationship between science and theology that is not justified. And I was explicitly commenting on the lessons of that history for MODERN audiences, which is why I put things in modern terms.

        Oh, and by the way, Newton was an Arian, and Leibniz was a Lutheran.

        1. All of this is to say that there’s a better case to be made that these 17th century natural philosophers were more concerned with methodological naturalism than they were with upholding traditional theology.

          That is what I disagreed with and why I wrote my post. I didn’t think I was saying anything terribly disagreeable or critical, I just wanted to make sure we’re not making the same mistakes of interpretation that Bishop is. I certainly didn’t mean to denigrate your credentials as a historian of science — I didn’t know that’s what you were.

          Arianism is a type of unitarianism according to my admittedly broad, shallow understanding of these things.

          1. I also thought it was worthwhile to point out that religion wasn’t motivating these guys to do science because they weren’t actually doing science (as we’d understand the idea now). The intent there wasn’t to contradict you, but just say what I thought about this particular line of argument.

            1. Sure, I’d prefer to keep things friendly myself. The tone of my reply was influenced by your comment about “bad history”–that’s all. In any event, I don’t object at all to your point about being careful with history. Perhaps my original comment was open to misinterpretation–my essential point was that apologists should be careful about invoking history to support their agenda, because a closer look at that history may have lessons they won’t like.

              Cheers,

              David

              1. Not at all. He WASN’T doing science as we currently understand the term.

  23. Theologians depend on their own religious based epistemological reasoning, which for them is not naive at all. Anything to do with evidence, observation, and testing is callowness. I agree with Stephen Hawking that science works and answers questions that faith cannot.

  24. Ah, post-facto rewriting of history and biblical “truthfulness” – the religious cadre’s friend since before Jesus was even invented.

  25. Just pointing out that most people who are real rational thinkers have found that religion is continually trying to hijack science. I’m sure this is going to be a reoccurring theme in our struggle to free the human mind from the shackles of religion.

  26. The fact that most people can learn to walk and speak a natural language indicates that:

    a) sense experience is broadly reliable

    and

    b) the universe is at least partially ordered and intelligible.

    These aren’t assumptions, these are empirical results. Results that Bishop also relies on when assuming that people who read what he’s writing will understand what he is trying to say.

    Trusting that the Bible is indicative of the reality of anything outside the minds of first century priests and scribes is, on the other hand, pure assumption. Bishop only gets away with the argument because he keeps his own assumptions implicit.

    Let’s try to call out that the assumptions of theology are a strict superset of the assumptions of science. The assumptions of science aren’t more stringent than the assumptions one has to make to learn to walk. The assumptions of Christian theology are harder to swallow by several orders of magnitude.

  27. I didn’t much care for his argument (a familiar one) that I was making theological rather than scientific claims (“why would the designer make a circuitous recurrent laryngeal nerve?)

    there are good theological reasons to view God’s relationship to all of creation as one of allowing and enabling all facets of creation to freely develop into their uniqueness according to the contingent rationality God gave to creation.

    I love this claim. What are these reasons? What is meant by (nonengineering in any sense people would understand) “contingent rationality”? What observations could be inconsistent with this undefined notion? None. Whatever is found to exist is evidence of their undefined god’s mysterious plan, and nothing not. If someone tries to understand this divine rationality by reference to any real understanding of, y’know, rationality, they’re illegitimately doing theology. Real theology can use words like “contingent rationality” without having to define them meaningfully such as to allow for counter-evidence. It’s so pathetically dishonest.

    The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?”

    *

    Galileo, Boyle and Newton among others developed methods for studying created things on their own terms in such a way that their natures could be revealed to investigators as accurately as possible….proved decisive for seeing nature more accurately as it really is.

    How are these not contradictory?

  28. “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable”

    The moment the demand for evidence comes down to the question of whether perception is even accurate, you’re in voodoo The-Matrix-Movie-Is-Real theory. How do you know reality is real and the world is not just one giant illusion?

    I guess even science needs some theoretically unprovable founding assumptions, the primary one of which is “no, reality is not one big fucking illusion.” Because, well, if Bishop doesn’t also hold that assumption than what the hell is he even doing out of bed?

        1. Alas, no I am not Richard Carrier but I’m flattered that my short post reminded you of someone as scholarly as him.

          I just arrived home from work so I’m going to be watching those lectures you posted to wind down, thanks!

          Richard

  29. So,

    Coyne’s demand for evidence is based on a rather naive evidentialist epistemology from the 19th century3 that’s not even adequate for scientific inquiry.

    lemme get this straight – an apologist for a ~2Ky/o collection of fables (with its mountains of contradictory interpretations) is accusing jac of being ~150yrs outdated?

  30. Instead, there are good theological reasons to view God’s relationship to all of creation as one of allowing and enabling all facets of creation to freely develop into their uniqueness according to the contingent rationality God gave to creation.

    What “contingent rationality” drives evolution? It appears Bishop is retreating to physics while the context is biological evolution. It’s a good sign he doesn’t understand the topic at hand well enough to comment intelligently and so retreats to vague generalities with no real relevance.

    1. “It’s clear theologians don’t understand science well enough to comment intelligently, so they retreat to vague generalities with no real relevance.”

      Generalised that for you 🙂

  31. For some reason, this reminds me of that episode of “The Bing Bang Theory” where Sheldon and Amy are arguing physics vs. neuroscience.

  32. I apologize for correcting the august Herbert Spencer but creationism doesn’t even rise to the level of theory. It’s an assertion.

  33. What’s my evidence? I quote Stephen Hawking here, “Science wins because it works.”

    It’s not categorically impossible that the regularities of nature and the reliability of our senses are illusions, but if so, it’s quite a coincidence that science does work. It is therefore reasonable to infer that science is a better explanation, but how can you defend the very practice of inference to the best explanation without begging the question? It’s not possible, though this is not a problem.

    Bishop accuses Coyne of begging the question, and, strictly speaking, Coyne does beg the question by responding with “science works”. Coyne is quite right to point out Bishop’s inconsistency in applying the skepticism he levels at us, but he hasn’t quite answered this accusation.

    I’d guess Coyne knows that Bishop’s questions are pointing at assumptions that really are unprovable in a strict philosophical sense, and it would have been nice if Coyne had addressed this, as it might have helped defuse Bishop’s accusations of scientism. Coyne’s response relies on the correct notion that trying to use “strict philosophical” a priori is of little practical use.

    The reason, of course, is that refusing to make the assumptions necessary for the scientific method amounts to skepticism about all claims to knowledge whatever. Even if you are a radical skeptic, it is impossible to live without assuming that induction is reliable. You are forced to either die or act as though the world is really out there and our senses are reliable.

      1. Re-reading the article, I can’t find an admission that science rests on unprovable axioms (please correct me if I’m wrong). He listed many good reasons why the axioms are important and impossible to avoid, but he didn’t mention that they are axioms, afaict.

        The argument that one needn’t resort to unproveable axioms because “science works” really does beg the question (since the statement “science works” can’t be verified without those same axioms). Coyne could have been crystal clear in showing that this was not the argument he was making. He wasn’t, with the result that I can’t tell for sure if he’s making that argument or not.

        1. The only unprovable axiom Science is resting upon is that the world is not an illusion. Everything else can be demonstrated.

          Individuals may hallucinate, which is why results must be reproducible and verifiable by third parties. If the world is not an illusion, then this works.

          The axiom that the world operates under reproducible, naturalistic principles has been experimentally verified by every working scientist every year since the dawn of naturalism. All you have to do is reproduce anyone’s experiments throughout history and see that the results are still the same. It’s been 400 years but you’re welcome to reproduce Galileo’s gravity experiment by dropping balls of different mass and timing when they hit the ground. Likewise, if you ever watch the weather report on television you’ll see that even the most complex systems can be predicted within reason.

          The scientific method itself is experimentally verified every single time it’s used.

          Mathematics, logic, and reason are experimentally verified every time they’re used to get at the correct result. The fact that we can predict exactly where a planet or moon will be on any given day and time is proof of both math and naturalism.

          1. As Hume pointed out, one can’t experimentally verify induction. But that’s a foundational issue for more than just science — it pretty much involves any cognitive project, including theology.

            1. Except that science deals with the tentativeness of induction by inviting people to search for those edge cases where theories break down. Newton induced that his laws of motion would apply to all motion and for the most part was right. Then when Einstein found his edge case and published a theory explaining it, he became famous.

            2. I should add that since science is strictly tentative, I don’t think the tentativeness of induction is a problem to it. The logical problem is with any philosophy that uses it in a way that *isn’t* strictly tentative.

              1. Hume’s problem isn’t solved by making inductions tentative, as the problem is more fundamentally how we can make any inductions.

          2. The scientific method itself is experimentally verified every single time it’s used. Mathematics, logic, and reason are experimentally verified every time they’re used to get at the correct result.

            But there’s no guarantee that the next time they’re used they won’t be verified. As Norbert Wiener – one of the progenitors of the science of cybernetics – put it in his “The Human Use of Human Beings”:

            I have said that science is impossible without faith. By this I do not mean that the faith on which science depends is religious in nature or involves the acceptance of any of the dogmas of the ordinary religious creeds, yet without faith that nature is subject to law there can be no science. No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law. [pg 193]

            He is, of course, only a fallible human being himself, but I think I’ll choose to “believe” him, or at least accept that as a working hypothesis. Particularly since Lewis Carroll’s story What the Tortoise Said to Achilles along with some of the serious commentary on the premises behind the story provide some justification for it.

            1. No amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law.

              This is, of course, Hume’s Problem of Induction in a nutshell.

              1. Agreed. I wonder whether both Carroll and Wiener, and Turing for that matter, were influenced in their arguments and presentations by that of Hume.

            2. How apt that you should quote the progenitor of cybernetics, Steersman!

              I’d restate your first quote to say, “The scientific method itself is experimentally validated every single time it’s used. Mathematics, logic, and reason are experimentally validated every time they’re used to get at the correct result.”

              Just as scientific hypotheses are validated (or falsified), but are never proven (= verified).

              Similarly, it would be better to say that “nature is subject to law” can be validated — that it can’t be proven shouldn’t be in dispute. (One might go off on a tangent here to argue against nature being subject to law — no electron solves Schrödinger’s equation, for example — but we can take that, for now, as shorthand for nature behaving in a way that can be expressed by scientific models to an arbitrary degree of accuracy.)

              So, yes, there’s no guarantee that the next time they’re used they won’t be falsified. But they are so very, very well corroborated that it is quite rational to have “complete trust or confidence” in them – “faith” in them, in that sense alone. In fact, it would be quixotic not to.

              /@

              1. How gratifying and encouraging that you see and acknowledge the connection – not many do; thanks. 🙂

                But Wiener and that book of his have had a very formative influence on my philosophy and career so I always like to “show the flag” whenever the opportunity presents itself.

                Regarding your other comments I would agree that “validated” might be a reasonable replacement for “verified”. Although I periodically wonder under what circumstances there might be a transition from the former to the latter.

                And likewise about your comment on “faith”: in that sense alone. Generally speaking in any case. But I also like to emphasize that aspect or connotation since the religious seem to have made a dirty word out of it.

            3. I have to disagree with your definition of “faith”, which is so vague that it really means anything and nothing at all: if believing something that has been observed and scientifically demonstrated to the highest possible standards time and time again requires “faith”, then all observation, all knowledge, and all thought is “faith.” Once you wax philosophical about the word to that extent it loses all meaning.

              As for the belief that nature is subject to law requiring “faith”, I also have to disagree. It’s not faith if it’s been demonstrated time and time again, and if after centuries of trying (during the modern scientific era), nobody has successfully demonstrated otherwise. No miracles have been credibly recorded, the planets have never decided to move from their orbits, nothing at all has been demonstrated that would show the Universe behaving irrationally.

              If believing the rational behavior of the Universe as true requires “faith”, then I would wonder what exactly, in your world, would not involve faith? If the answer is “nothing” then you’ve successfully redefined the word into meaninglessness.

              1. As for the belief that nature is subject to law requiring “faith”, I also have to disagree. It’s not faith if it’s been demonstrated time and time again, and if after centuries of trying (during the modern scientific era), nobody has successfully demonstrated otherwise.

                Such belief is well founded, I agree, but it requires certain unprovable premises, e.g. validity of induction. Maybe that’s not enough to warrant the use of “faith”; perhaps you prefer “axiom”. (Alternatively, one may assert that statements of “belief” are shorthand references to tentative conclusions rather than “belief” as conventionally understood. This appears reasonable, though one hesitates to redefine the English language.)

                If believing the rational behavior of the Universe as true requires “faith”, then I would wonder what exactly, in your world, would not involve faith? If the answer is “nothing” then you’ve successfully redefined the word into meaninglessness.

                To assert that triangles have three points or bachelors are unmarried, these statements require no faith because they follow from well defined premises. The point is to differentiate the classical concept of absolute knowledge from what we may learn about the natural world.

                Everyone acts needs this kind of “faith” in order to deal with the world. The alternative is radical skepticism. Whereas faith in the supernatural appears superfluous, faith in induction et al. appears to be necessary.

              2. triangle |ˈtrīˌa ng gəl|
                noun
                a plane figure with three straight sides and three angles : an equilateral triangle.

                All you’ve done is quote the dictionary definition of a word back to me and assert that does not require faith. Ditto with “bachelor.” If a triangle-like shape were found with four angles, we would arbitrarily decide to call it a “quadrilateral” instead. Tell me something *about* triangles that doesn’t require either faith by your definition (including mathematical induction) or merely stating the arbitrary definitions of words.

                I agree with you that “axiom” much better describes the core precepts of science.

              3. Tell me something *about* triangles that doesn’t require either faith by your definition (including mathematical induction) or merely stating the arbitrary definitions of words.

                I’m not sure what you mean by “including mathematical induction”. We can know that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees (on a plane) with absolute confidence.

                What I’m saying is that there are statements we can make that don’t require unprovable axioms/faith, namely those that are true by definition.

                You’re saying that using the word “faith” in this way makes the word meaningless. It may be a stretch, but the difference between “bachelors are unmarried” and “massive bodies accelerate toward one another” is not meaningless and is to do with faith/unprovable axioms.

              4. I just wanted to add that you certainly have a point about how using the word “faith” in this context is confusing since it means something rather different WRT religion.

                There is certainly a distinction between believing in induction and believing in woo: believing in woo is inconsistent with believing in induction 🙂

              5. I have to disagree with your definition of “faith” …

                “Honest men may disagree.”

                While I’ll agree that the word may be somewhat ambiguous as there are some half-dozen different denotations of it, I really don’t see it as particularly vague or meaningless, at least as I – and Wiener – have used it. Unfortunately the commonly used definition – “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion” – frequently obscures what I think is the more fundamental, general and relevant one: “firm belief in [conviction of truth of] something for which there is no proof”. And there’s the implication that the “something” is either religious dogma in the first case or a set of principles or axioms in the case referred to by Wiener.

                Although, in passing and to be fair, I should note that another dictionary offers a variation of the latter – “strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp. without proof or evidence” – with “evidence” being generally more readily available than “proof”.

                But that generally seems to be the nature of axioms – principles that have to be accepted without proof even though there might be some evidence to suggest they are true. As, for example, the parallel postulate of Euclidean geometry was believed to be true – unshakeably or not – until Einstein’s theory showed that it was “wrong”.

                It’s not faith if it’s been demonstrated time and time again …

                That it has been so demonstrated is not a guarantee that the next demonstration won’t fail. The only absolute proof would seem to be to prove – “validating a proposition by application of specified rules” – that it is in the nature of the phenomena themselves that the event expected must of necessity occur.

                As for what I would think would not involve faith I might suggest things of the class of “2+2=4”. I recently ran across a word which describes that class – apodictic – which “refers to propositions that are demonstrable [by deductive logic?], that are necessarily or self-evidently the case or that, conversely, are impossible.”

              6. Steersman:

                Yes, honest men may disagree. 🙂

                So let’s go with your definition of “faith,” which I actually agree with:

                “firm belief in [conviction of truth of] something for which there is no proof”

                Science does not in any way qualify as faith by this definition. There is plenty of “proof” that science’s axioms work. The issue you seem to be having is that this proof can never be 100% conclusive; that there’s always that chance, no matter how remote, that some future discovery will cause naturalism itself to fall apart. But saying that something cannot be universally proven does not qualify as “no proof”. The Pacific Ocean’s volume may be large but it is not infinite, does that mean there’s no water in it at all?

                I think the phrasing of your dictionary, “for which there is *no* proof,” makes it clear that it’s not a binary question. Something can have some proof, a lot of proof, or no proof at all, and faith is involved in the latter.

              7. George:

                But “Woo” sounds like an awesome religion, with a name like that it’s gotta be good. Where do I sign up? I want to believe in woo!

              8. Richard:

                So let’s go with your definition of “faith,” which I actually agree with

                Allll-right! – progress! 🙂

                Science does not in any way qualify as faith by this definition. There is plenty of “proof” that science’s axioms work.

                I’m not saying that science “qualifies as faith”; all I’m saying – all that Wiener has said – is that faith – in the sense and by the definition that we have agreed on – is a necessary element of it. But I think you are – to use a dollar word – “conflating” proof and evidence: lots of evidence that “science is subject to the rule of law”, though no proof where the latter means “the validation of a proposition by application of specified rules”.

                And for one example of that consider the “proofs” associated with elementary geometry where there is a specified set of axioms and rules of inference and by which one can prove various theorems. And for one example of a case where no proof is possible consider Gödel’s Proof which asserts or proves, among various conclusions, that one cannot prove, if I understand it correctly, that the number system is consistent.

                The issue you seem to be having is that this proof can never be 100% conclusive …

                Partly. You raise the issue or question as to whether “proof” is a “binary question” and I would say, based on the previous examples, that it is: one either proves, for example, Pythagoras’ theorem or Fermat’s last theorem, or one does not – there is no “half-way house”; the statement in question is either proven – one way or the other – or it is not. And if it is not proven then there may be some evidence to suggest that the statement may be true as in, for example, the Riemann hypothesis. And by that token the assertion that “nature is subject to law” would appear to be an hypothesis, the truth of which is taken on faith because of necessity.

              9. You’re inserting your own interpretation of “proof” on your dictionary and changing its meaning, but I bet you didn’t think to consult it first. If you look up its own definition of “proof” I bet you that it won’t be binary. Mine isn’t: “Evidence or argument establishing or helping to establish a fact or the truth of a statement.” (New Oxford American). It should be obvious to you just from your dictionary’s definition of “faith” that it’s not speaking in logical absolutism.

                Besides, do you really think the only thing that qualifies as acceptable without faith in the unproven is elementary geometry? I hate to break it to you, but even may be in conflict with modern physics. Geometry relies upon cartesian calculations but if Einstein is right than the Universe is non-Euclidian and cartesian calculations are at best a small-scale approximation. The geometric nature of the Universe, on which all geometry relies, is the subject of theoretical physics and is completely, absolutely, unproven.

              10. Actually the definition of proof that I was using – “the validation of a proposition by application of specified rules” – came from here (2a), although I see that (1) in the same source, somewhat contradictory to (2a), is similar to your definition and refers also to evidence – which makes the interpretations somewhat confusing to say the least.

                However, I still think the sense that Wiener tried to convey with his “no amount of demonstration can ever prove that nature is subject to law” was “proof” as a finite set of deductive steps culminating in a conclusion, hence a binary question – at least as I see it. Although maybe his focus was less on the “prove” than on the “demonstration”, the latter in the sense of a set of physical tests, experiments or measurements. But even there a relevant analogy would seem to be fitting a set of data points to an equation – which can, I think, generally be done for any arbitrary number of points. The question is then where a new point will reside, a question of predictability; the difference between interpolation and extrapolation I think.

                Besides, do you really think the only thing that qualifies as acceptable without faith in the unproven is elementary geometry?

                Not quite sure how to parse that, what you mean by that. It seems that mathematics itself is less reliant on faith than is science since, in the example of geometry at least, they simply ask “if these premises are true and these rules are true then what theorems, what consequences, follow?” It seems that it is science, at least in its more practical applications or versions, that is obliged to assert or accept on faith that those premises are true and to go on from there.

                The geometric nature of the Universe, on which all geometry relies, is the subject of theoretical physics and is completely, absolutely, unproven.

                Agreed, at least past the first and second order “approximations” afforded by Newtonian and relativistic theories. And if one of the 10^500 different string theories is actually true then the chance of actually finding, let alone proving, the associated “geometric nature of the Universe” would seem to be decidedly slim. But if that is the case then it seems one might reasonably ask what types of phenomena could manifest themselves at the macro level at which we reside …

            4. @Steersman

              Hey Steersman. Hope you don’t mind – I wanted to chip in.

              I’m a bit confused as to what you’re on about.

              Well… That’s not entirely true. I think I know what you’re on about. But my reading of what you’re saying is a bit… peculiar. Chances are good that I’m misreading you.

              So here’s my reading of your argument: Have I got something wrong?

              I think you are you are putting forward a fairly standard critique of science/inductive reasoning.

              This critique is that that science relies on the notion that what happened last time we ran an experiment will happen the next time we run an experiment. However, this cannot be deductively proven to be so.

              Acting on a belief that cannot be proven – in this case, the belief that what happened last time will happen again next time – is a form of faith.

              So it would follow that science requires faith.

              This is my attempt at a summary. Because it’s a summary, of course I’ve left a lot of detail out.

              So with that disclaimer out of the way: As a summary, is it a fair enough reading of what you’re on about?

            5. Daniel:

              Hey Steersman. Hope you don’t mind – I wanted to chip in.

              Sure, no problemo – the more the merrier. 🙂

              I think your summary seems a reasonably accurate statement of “where I’m coming from”. Although I should elaborate a bit to clarify a few points without, hopefully, making an essay of it.

              First is that, as you put it, the argument is, apparently, a standard critique, but with what some might consider some unnecessary baggage or superfluous concepts attached – faith – although that was central to Wiener’s general position and philosophy as well as his contributions to that critique.

              Secondly – which may speak to your “peculiar” perception – I tend to use that argument or analogy in discussions with atheists in part because it is frequently a bit of a red flag and tends to cause some – at least – to reach for the cross, holy-water and the wooden stake – figuratively speaking. But there is a point to that.

              Dawkins in his “The Blind Watchmaker” observes – somewhat testily – that “To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies.” And I think that to say that someone uses or relies on faith frequently sounds like an accusation of having the same tastes. But I also think that it’s not particularly helpful – or even wise – to be condemning religious fundamentalists for something – engaging in acts of faith – which is also central to one’s own philosophy and principles or, more generally, those of science. They may be rightly condemned for going overboard with the idea but not with its use in general.

              Though relative to that and to emphasize, I will be the first to accuse them, in many cases, of pathological excess, of being irresponsibly and flagrantly dishonest in the extent to which they rely on faith. George Locke argued that “everyone needs this kind of ‘faith’ in order to deal with the world” with which I would largely agree. One might reasonably argue, I think, that faith – in the general sense defined earlier – is as necessary as eating and drinking and breathing and in a broad spectrum of circumstances and situations. But there is obviously a difference between having a glass of water – or wine – and getting blind drunk.

              And once that common ground, that common “guilt”, is acknowledged then I think it becomes easier – and more credible – to rationally discuss the different levels of evidence, if not proof, associated with the different premises accepted on faith and why some are better and more effective than others. But maybe it’s a minor point and not terribly relevant …

  34. What other response can one have to such claims than to shout forced laughter?

    Well, you can always remind the good doctor that the Bible opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant; features a talking shrubbery (on fire!) that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero; and ends with zombie snuff porn and intestine fondling.

    Cheers,

    b&

    1. Presuming that the Bible actually contains such stories assumes a naive evidentialist epistemology — what evidence do you have that those words actually appear in the Bible? Heck, what evidence do you have that the Bible actually exists?

      Tsk, tsk, Ben. Such crude epistemology — I expected better from you…

      1. Ah, yes. Silly me.

        Clearly, it’s not a magic garden, but the Garden of Eden, West of Nod, Somewhere Not Far From Baghdad, Perhaps Near Sadr City. And it’s not talking animals, but the Great Serpent, Satan Himself. And the Giant is really El of the Elohim^W^W^W^W The Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth and all that is seen and unseen. And he loves us, even though he condemned us all to lives of toil and suffering because a couple of emotional infants that he personally sculpted from mud weren’t capable of following his directions…erm, as wages for the sin of disobedience. And the talking shrubbery is YHWH^W the same Lord God Almigh…

        …aw, to Hell with it. Talking plants and animals, wizards dueling with magic wands, zombie snuff porn. That’s the story and I’m sticking it to ’em.

        If they don’t like it, they can grow up and stop pretending they really believe in faery tales.

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. They don’t believe in fairy tales: they believe that the fairy tales are stories that point to deep truths about fairies, which are not literal fairies, of course, but transcendent fairies. That’s quite different.

          And the tales are true, but not in the naive empirical sense: history is much more complicated than that. It’s nuanced.

      2. I find it impossible to understand how somebody accusing another of naive evidentialist epistemology can display such naive evidentialist epistemology of their own.

        What evidence do you have that the concept of evidence itself actually exists?

        Crude epistemology indeed.

        Solipsists of the world, unite!

  35. The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?” and “What’s your evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible?”

    And the appropriate response to Bishop’s question is to pose a question right back at him: “What evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable would you accept?” and “What evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible are you looking for?”

    Those are perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions; they also happen to be questions that Bishop himself cannot answer without giving away the show. In the normal course of human discourse, a skeptical demand like “what’s your evidence that Springfield is the capitol of Illinois?” takes place under the assumption that there is some sort of evidence that would satisfy the demand: a map, a geography book, a document, a personal anecdote, an all-expense paid trip for two to Springfield, Illinois — something. What do you need to see? What would it take? Tell me what you need.

    But once Bishop tells Prof. Coyne “well, I would agree that reason and sense perception are reliable if you would show me X,” then he’s trusting in an intersubjective agreement on what is reasonable, knowable through the senses, ordered, and intelligible. The game is exposed. Bishop can only get away with his sophistry if he never, ever has to tell anyone what he needs to see or hear or learn in order to convince or persuade him that he was wrong to doubt his reason, his senses, or a nature that is not chaotic and deceptive. He doesn’t doubt those things: he is pretending to doubt.

    Call him on the pretense.

    1. How does Bishop know that the Bible actually exists? How does he know that he has held in his hand a book with printing in it? How does he know he has actually read the words that he claims to have read from it?

      Honestly, this kind of profound skepticism undermines Bishop’s position as well as the foundations of science. The way we know anything about the world, including learning about religious claims, involves reason and sense perception. Once those are out the window, everything is up for grabs, including religious “knowledge”.

      1. He knows these things because he trusts in God. Without that, you are just winging it.

        You can be sure of God. Well, no. It takes faith.

        But it takes the kind of faith that makes a virtue out of leaping beyond the evidence and escaping doubt by taking a little bit of God’s infallibility as your own.

        Quick and dirty rundown: Both pre-modernists (the religious) and post-modernists decry the empirical rationality of modernism and its cautious ‘reasonable inferences’ and insist that no –everything is a matter of faith. It all comes down to what you choose to have faith in. The pomos then conclude that there is no Truth, we can know nothing, all beliefs are personal tastes, and no belief is more reasonable than any other belief. The religious conclude that there has to be Truth and a way to Know it: some people have a psychic supersense that makes them recognize and prefer the Truth — and others don’t. In both cases, everything is built on aspiring to perfection and denying any possibility of common ground. Modernist science rejects perfection in a search for common ground.

        1. But that won’t get him very far, Sastra, since what he knows about his god he has gotten from his senses (such as reading the Bible). How does he know that he has actually read anything about his god? Once you allow the Matrix, all bets are off — no source of knowledge is safe, even faith, since faith is an attitude one has about certain types of claims, and is not a source for those claims. The source will still involve some sort of perceptual experience (even “revelations” involve perception, even if it is only internal and not objectively veridical).

    2. “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?”

      Sense perception can be very deceptive. So, perhaps, can reason. (The fallacy of “It must be true because it would be so nice if it was!” and its corollary “But if that is true, bad things will happen!” seem endemic among the religious.) But they can be imppoved by various kinds of cross-checking. Or is internal and external consistency something else that faith can rise above?

      “Basically” seems like a weasel word.

      One might ask, “What do you offer in their place?”

  36. Don’t forget about the predictive power of science. When Einstein says black holes exist, and here are the properties; then we develop methods to detect them a century later, that’s a powerful testament to the truth.

    Should some of the predictions of string theory come true, that will be powerful evidence for it. If the predictions don’t pan out, the scientists will either modify the theory, or move on.

    Even with a lot of predictions that never came true, scientists still have a better success rate than biblical predictions. And scientists don’t have the benefit of writing their predictions after the fact.

  37. Seven hells, if evidentialism is “naive,” what is faith?

    And I love how he castigates Coyne for inability to prove his “brute, bedrock assumptions” that reality is intelligible by our senses without mentioning the fact that he must make the very same assumptions if he wishes to hoist himself out of the quagmire of solipsism.

    There is no comparison here. No measuring of faith against. science. It’s just a critique of science with the silent assumption that faith can somehow overcome these obstacles that stymie “evidentialism,” when of course nothing could be further from the truth.

    Put more simply: Science–It ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we got.

  38. Coyne’s demand for evidence is based on a rather naive evidentialist epistemology from the 19th century that’s not even adequate for scientific inquiry. Indeed, scientists–good ones at least–don’t use such a crude epistemology.

    We just want to know if you’re pretending or not. You keep saying god does this and god does that, like you know what you’re talking about. Well, other religions do that too. You sound a lot like other people who are pretending. We want to know if you’re pretending or not. Is that really so hard to comprehend? (The answer is no it’s not hard to comprehend. You’re just dodging.)

  39. The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?” and “What’s your evidence that nature is ordered and intelligible?”

    This is the classic “everything is a faith position, science is a religion” bad argument, albeit raised up on the stilts of Cartesian and Humean scepticism. The right response is Chris Hallquist’s: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

    Jerry Coyne’s pragmatic response was also Hume’s, in a way: Hume pointed out that if we kept doubting that bread was nutritious, we might forget to eat and thereby starve.

    1. The other idea that I’ve heard (and can’t remember who from, now) is this:

      Why do we teach children to look both ways before crossing the road?

    2. It does show just how much the apologists are willing to throw out to keep their superstition though, doesn’t it?

  40. What’s my evidence? I quote Stephen Hawking here, “Science wins because it works.”

    I agree totally that science works and works exceptionally well. It is the only tool we have for obtaining empirically verifiable information and is self-correcting.

    Whether it wins is to be seen.

    What are your thoughts on ” the Cybernetic Cut” by David Abel.

    http://www.scitopics.com/The_Cybernetic_Cut.html

  41. I want to know exactly what good theological reasons are. I want to know what the criteria are and how we know them when we see them. I want to know everything there is to know about them.

  42. “The appropriate response to Coyne’s question is to pose questions to him: “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?””

    Well I know that if I’m standing on a railway track and there is a train speeding towards me then if I don’t step off the track I will get crushed and mangled. Yep works for me.

  43. I don’t have much to add to the great comments already posted, but here’z something that touches the same issues re the rôle of religion in the history of science, and may be of interest to CC’s followers:

    Why God’s Philosophers did not deserve to be shortlisted for the Royal Society prize

    James Hannam’s book is a good read but presents a distorted view of the medieval period and the development of science that suits his Catholic agenda, claims Charles Freeman.

    No so much a book review as a condensed history of scientific thought – or “natural philosophy” – from the Greeks to Galileo Galilei.

    I say “condensed” … it’s a pretty long article, but well worth the effort.

    /@

  44. Coyne doesn’t seem to grasp the point that his indictment of an intelligent designer based on “flaws” in evolved organisms turns completely on conceiving of a designer as a cosmic engineer. The latter conception doesn’t come from some scientific view; rather, it’s a particular theological view of a designer made popular by 18th century deists and resurrected by the ID movement.

    Oh come on – of course it’s a theological view, but the point is to note some of the things that are wrong with it. It’s not some special arcane rarefied theological view; it’s the view most theists have of their god – that it created everything. Der.

  45. “The ontological homogeneity of celestial and terrestrial realms … proved decisive for seeing nature more accurately as it really is. Taking biblical revelation seriously in the face of the strength of neo-Platonic and Aristotelian hierarchies was an ongoing struggle within Christianity, but once the likes of Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, Descartes and Newton grasped hold of ontological homogeneity, the exploration of nature was never the same.”

    This is akin to Napoleon’s discussion on religion and science with Catholic General Gourgaud while exiled on St. Helena. Recall that Napoleon was a patron of some of history’s greatest scientists from every field, and had first hand knowledge of their personal views. Here’s Napoleon’s take on the compatibility of religion and science, gained from his interaction with these scientists:

    Gazing up at the heavens, Gourgaud says, “They make me feel I am so small, and God so great.” Napoleon replies: “How comes it, then, that Laplace was an atheist? At the institute neither he nor Monge, nor Berthollet, nor Lagrange believed in God. But they did not like to say so. … I often asked Laplace what he thought of God. He owned he was an atheist.”

    Bishop is just doing some pre-Enlightenment cherry-picking.

  46. “What evidence is there that inference to the best explanation is a justified form of inference for scientists to use?”

    You’d have them use, what, instead – a transcendent open-hearted appeal to the fucking numinous … in front of a frozen fucking waterfall … on Palm fucking Sunday?

    Idiot.

  47. Basically it comes down to reason and evidence vs faith and revelation – in other words informed empirical speculations that can ever be honed by new evidence and better theories (science) vs static naked unchanging speculation (religion) which can change if at all only at the edges. We either live with our biased unchanging speculations or break out into the world on the tentative but ever ratcheting tightening raft of not necessarily absolute truths but the only truths possible to discover however they may be tweaked and expanded in the future. The latter won’t give us heaven but it will give us a chance at reality which is why it may ever be the less popular but far more precious way of examining and engaging in the world. I am far from a genius but it has always been very simple to me. I still can’t understand why this shouldn’t be obvious to everyone.

  48. “Basically it comes down to reason and evidence vs faith and revelation – in other words informed empirical speculations that can ever be honed by new evidence and better theories (science) vs static naked unchanging speculation (religion) which can change if at all only at the edges”.

    Is there any record of a the christian religion claiming to be able to determine the “how” of anything by “faith and revelation” ?

    1. How do you suppose they “know” about god… wasn’t it through a revelation via burning bush– or so the story goes…. as was the first writings we have about Jesus. Are you suggesting that any supposed claims about divine beings,, events, realms, etc. comes from evidence rather than “revealed knowledge”?

      What, other than revealed knowledge, suggests that there is a trinitarian god? What is the evidence for original sin? Heaven? Hell? Do you think people who wrote the bible were sitting down and taking notes as the history unfolded? How do you think they “know” what they claim to know?

      What a bizarre question?

      1. Maybe the question was not clear.

        I meant that Christians would evoke faith in God to explain why something has happened or is happening or why something exists but I wondered if there is any record of an attempt to use faith to somehow explain the mechanism/s involved in the production of the event or the object ?

        1. Genesis comes to mind. Faith healing comes to mind. The claim that Obamas actions resultedbin tornados comes to mind.

          1. Does Genesis purport to describe a mechanism for the creation of the universe or does it offer a reason for its existence ?

            For example if I were to say that the Boeing Company made 747 jumbo jets would I be claiming to describe the mechanism /s used in the production of 747s ?

            Would I need to know anything about the Boeing Company, including whether it even exists, in order to determine what a 747 is made of and how it operates ?

            1. If you were to claim that 747s are hatched from really big eggs, would you be surprised if we laughed at your joke?

              No?

              Then why is it that I suspect you’ll take offense at the fact that I’m laughing at your silly assertion that Genesis “offers a reason for [the universe’s] existence”?

              Cheers,

              b&

              1. I take no offense.

                You have not answered the question – particularly the second .

                Would I need to know anything about the Boeing Company, including whether it even exists, in order to determine what a 747 is made of and how it operates ?

              2. What on Earth makes you think it’s possible to encounter a 747 without knowing about The Boeing Company?

                You seem to be implying that we could drop a 747 in the middle of the Amazon Basin and the tribespeople there would be running their own international airport in no time at all.

                And, if my guess is right, you’ll leap straight from there to “Aha! It’s therefore impossible to understand anything at all without input from He who Designed it!” and there we’re right back to First Cause nonsense.

                But what the Hell. I’ll answer your question anyway.

                No human will ever know what a 747 is made of and know how it operates — and especially know how to fly one — without knowing about The Boeing Company.

                Whether or not it’s hypothetically possible for an hyperintelligent shade of the color blue from the eleventh quadrant of the triple-h subcluster to figure it out is…well, such a discussion is about as absurd as suggesting that there’s profound insights on the nature of the universe to be found in a 2,500-year-old anthology of really bad faery tales.

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. Maybe I should make the question more general :

                Do you think that scientists, using investigation/ experimentation / peer-review etc need to know anything about the engineers who designed and built a stealth bomber ( or any other object) in order to eventually understand the composition and function of said object ?

              4. And again, how could your modified scenario even be remotely plausible?

                Do you think the Soviet engineers who took apart Gary Powers’s U2 had never hear of Lockheed?

                Do you think it’s somehow possible to gain the knowledge you’d need of modern aerospace technology to make sense of the Stealth while living in a vacuum that kept you from all knowledge of the very subject you’re learning about?

                Enough with the incomprehensible analogies. You’re clearly aiming for some sort of a point. Go ahead and make it already. Stop beating around the bush.

                If you’re trying to gently lead us down some sort of Socratic path you think represents some sort of new ground, you can drop the subtlety. Either your ideas stand on their own or no amount of sugar-coated build-up will do them any good. Besides which, if it’s even vaguely related to Paley’s Watchmaker argument, I can assure you we’ve heard it all before already.

                b&

              1. “Enough with the incomprehensible analogies. You’re clearly aiming for some sort of a point. Go ahead and make it already. Stop beating around the bush”.

                My point:

                I would argue that it is possible that, given time, the composition and function of all objects in the universe, naturally occurring or man-made may be elucidated by the scientific method.

                This capacity is due to the nature of objects and the techniques of the scientific method and does not relate to the cause of the objects.

                In seeking to elucidate composition and function of naturally occurring objects in the universe therefore the statement :

                ” there is no need for the God Hypothesis”

                is correct and coherent but it is equally correct and coherent to say that

                ” in scientifically elucidating the composition and function of a 747 (or any other object) there is no need for a Boeing Company (or any other agency) Hypothesis”

              2. No, the two statements are in no way vaguely equally correct and coherent.

                The “God Hypothesis” not only doesn’t exist and is incoherent, anything it could vaguely remotely resemble is entirely unevidenced.

                The Boeing Company is superbly well evidenced.

                If we had two theories of the origins of Christmas toys — one being the parental purchase theory and the other being the Santa Claus theory — would you suggest that both are equally valid because you can enjoy the toy equally well regardless of whether or not somebody can produce for you the cash register receipts?

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. I take it that the point of all this is that one can be a scientist and still think a god created everything. Does that sum up your argument, Phosphorus99?

              4. Phosphorus:

                If I can jump in, it sounds like your 747 example is an analogy for the Universe and Boeing is an analogy for God. You’re claiming that if we encountered a 747 without knowledge of Boeing we could determine how it functioned but not why it was built and by whom. You seem to be making the point that science can tell us how the Universe functions but not why it exists, and I assume your “why” is then answered by the existence of God.

                That’s a terrible analogy. A 747 is not a Universe. Even without knowing a thing about Boeing any observer can see that it’s artificial and therefore created by some human organization. “The God Hypothesis” here isn’t analogous your “Boeing Hypothesis”. It would be analogous to a “Someone Created This Flying Metal Thing Hypothesis.” And I dare you to tell me that “Someone Created This Flying Metal Thing” would not be a provable hypothesis given careful study of the wreckage.

              5. You seem to be making the point that science can tell us how the Universe functions but not why it exists, and I assume your “why” is then answered by the existence of God.

                I also presume this is Phosphy’s general argument, which is why it is so frustrating to see him/her being so intentionally obscure about this point. He/she isn’t arguing in good faith (which I find rather ironic).

              6. My intention with regard to the question on the 747 was merely to show that we need no information on the “maker” of an object in order to describe its composition and function. So the statement ” there is no need for the God Hypothesis ” is superfluous

              7. Ben Goren
                Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

                You’re still presupposing that the universe is an object that has a maker….

                In this discussion – no.

                I am saying .. that objects may be adequately described with respect to composition and function by the scientific method without need for consideration of their source of origin.

                The universe is an “object” and may therefore be adequately described without reference to its source of origin.

                Therefore the statement ” there is no need for the God Hypothesis ” is superfluous.

            2. Does Genesis purport to describe a mechanism for the creation of the universe or does it offer a reason for its existence ?

              Taken literally, Genesis offers very clear sequencing of the creation of aspects of the world, sequencing that is clearly wrong.

              1. “Yes, it does. And so does the tornado example. Please try to argue honestly”.

                What mechanism /s does it offer ?

                also

                Would I need to know anything about the Boeing Company, including whether it even exists, in order to determine what a 747 is made of and how it operates ?

              2. Here’s your specific examples of Genesis providing mechanisms:

                In the original Hebrew, it says that the sky is made of a solid (implied invisible) sheet with water resting upon it. The mechanism used to create the sky was the creation of this sheet, which was used to sever the waters of the sky from the waters of the ocean. God then drains the ocean to allow air and dry land to fill in under the sheet.

                Translations tend to replace “sheet” with “firmament” or “structure”, which are more vague and would allow for more possible interpretations. But by doing so, they are translating away the original literal meaning of this passage — and one that makes much more sense from the perspective of a Bronze Age storyteller who gazed wide-eyed and wonder-flled at that big blue “ocean” in the sky. The literal meaning of “sheet” is also more compatible with other phrases, such as claiming that heavenly bodies are “attached” to it and birds “walk upon its surface.”

                In Genesis, God (literally in Hebrew “the gods”) later attaches the sun, moon, and stars to this sheet and instructs them to move along their respective paths for the purpose of giving us signs and telling time.

                It also says, literally, that daylight is created by the direct command of God, not by the sun. The sun was added after the fact to help us tell time. It even says plants were growing and thriving on the Earth before the Sun even existed.

                Other parts of Genesis describe holes or gates appearing in this sheet through which rain is allowed to fall.

                These are all physical mechanisms that Genesis proposes, and they are scientifically false.

              3. Thank you.

                I am aware of the concept of the firmament. I am also aware that on the first two or so days of creation there was no sun. The Book of Revelation claims that there will be a repeat of this scenario – day and night with without the existence of the sun- at the end of the age.

                These are interesting and unusual constructs. I’m not sure what to make of them. Are they mechanisms for explain
                ing physical events … I’m not sure.

                Elisha struck the water ( with a rod I think) and an axe head which was at the bottom of a river floated to the surface – does this describe a mechanism for causing axes to float? I don’t think so.

              4. These are interesting and unusual constructs. I’m not sure what to make of them. Are they mechanisms for explain
                ing physical events … I’m not sure.

                That’s excessively coy of you. Why should we take these details as metaphorical/poetical/whatever, but believe in a literal god that did all these things?

              5. Erm…what on Earth makes you think that there’s any reason at all for anybody to even pretend that any part of the Bible is anything other than an ancient faery tale?

                I mean this in all honesty.

                It opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant. It features a speaking shrubbery — on fire, no less — that convinces the reluctant hero to take up his quest by giving him magic wand lessons. It ends with an utterly bizarre zombie snuff porn fantasy, complete with the zombie king ordering one of his thralls to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound. All along the way, we’ve got non-stop giants and wizards and sea monsters and magic spells and beanstalk-equivalents and and and and and….

                I mean, this doesn’t even rise to the level of good storytelling, let along serious literature.

                And even hinting that any of it “really” happened — in any sense, metaphorical, spiritual, or otherwise — should be immediate grounds for suspecting that the person doing so is certifiably nuts.

                Read the Bible for historical anthropological reasons, and to understand the source of a particular popular mythology that influenced a lot of our culture.

                But as something to otherwise take seriously? Are you crazy?

                b&

              6. Tulse

                “Why should we take these details as metaphorical/poetical/whatever, but believe in a literal god that did all these things”?

                I am not saying that I think Elisha, for example, striking the water and making the axe head float is metaphorical/poetical/whatever and not the record of an actual event.

                I take it as the record of an actual event.

                What I am saying is that I do not see in this event that the author is suggesting that striking a river with a stick is a mechanism for making axe heads float on water. It is a unique event, performed by a unique man.

                For the record I am male

              1. Thanks, Phosphy — with that you’ve made it clear you’re not interested in genuine dialogue, like so many of your co-religionists. We’re done.

              2. My apologies.

                I had no intention to be dismissive.
                There are some constructs in the Bible which I really don’t know how to assess and seeking to discuss them tends to be less than useful

              3. If you’re serious about wanting to figure out how to assess the Bible, you should start by deciding why it’s this one particular Bronze Age anthology of mythology you’re hung up on assessing as opposed to the many other indistinguishable anthologies of Bronze Age mythology that’re out there. Or, for that matter, why you’re hung up on assessing any anthology of mythology at all.

                I mean, you do know, don’t you, that early Christians went to great lengths to detail how Jesus was indistinguishable from all the pagan gods, except for the accusation that it was evil time-travelling demons who planted those stories ahead of Jesus’s arrival in an effort to make everybody believe he was just another tired old variation on the same ancient themes?

                I’m not exaggerating. Read Justin Martyr. A great example is chapter 21 of his First Apology, but a quick search for “sons of Jupiter” will reveal plenty more. All of Martyr’s extant works are available online in various translations, so take your pick.

                Cheers,

                b&

                P.S. Justin Martyr was writing this stuff about a century after all the Jesus stuff is supposed to have gone down, and he’s contemporary with the earliest solid sources we have on Christianity. And he’s one of the holiest of Catholic Saints, still to this day. b&

        2. Oh, and from the Catholic side of the house, possession. You think they still have exorcists because there’s an excess of priests?

          Faith is the tool used to identify the mechanism – possession – to explain certain odd human behavior.

    2. Genesis satisfies your question. Revelation to explain the mechanism. The fact that the mechanism is GODDIDIT doesn’t alter the case.

      1. Would I need to know anything about the Boeing Company, including whether it even exists, in order to determine what a 747 is made of and how it operates ?

        1. Are you actually capable of having a serious, honest conversation? Nothing you’ve said so far makes any particular point. I see that you’re groping (badly) after trying to establish the old Watchmaker analogy, but that has nothing to do with the question you asked.

          Theists offer revelation and prophecy all the time to explain things. To imply that they don’t – as you did initially – is fundamentally dishonest. Or ignorant. But since you’re clearly a theist, dishonesty is the more likely explanation.

  49. “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?”

    The fact that I when I read this question I laughed my arse off: it shows that Bishop’s computer is able to transmit information in a format which other computers can read and which mine can display; that my eyes work; that my brain’s able to translate the written language I see into words and concepts that I understand; that my thinking machine is sufficiently developed to recognise bullshit when it sees it; that I recognised this particular example of bullshit as naive & unintentionally humorous, given that it was intended to be some kind of thought-provoking question from an “expert” theologian instead of disingenuous solipsism.

    1. However, I could be utterly wrong: I, or perhaps more likely, my handlers could have invented Bishop & his insultingly vapid “argument” (and Dr Coyne’s excellent response) out of whole cloth for my entertainment as my disembodied brain lies here in an enhanced positronic agar subsrate, a resident of a simulation designed to keep me from remembering that “I” am just a disembodied brain – a veritable Captain Christopher Pike in a petri dish.

      That’s my story and it’s up to Bishop to prove me wrong. If he exists at all.

  50. Theologians realized that the Bible was wrong about creation, and that life had changed over time—long before Darwin!

    I don’t think that was his point. I think his point was that theologians realized that the Bible was right about creation. Crazy though it may seem, I think that was his point. I have a hard time believing he thinks the Bible is wrong about something. Lol. So we have to go with the crazy “Alice In Wonderland” option, i.e., he thinks theologians realized the Bible was right about creation.

  51. “What’s your evidence that reason and sense perception are basically reliable?”

    We know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that sense perception is *NOT* reliable. WTF is an illusion you marroon? And that’s why science depends on reproducibility and double blind studies exist.

    It’s also why personal revelation isn’t reliable. Yet again, their own argument undermines their position.

  52. Phosphorus99: “My point:

    I would argue that it is possible that, given time, the composition and function of all objects in the universe, naturally occurring or man-made may be elucidated by the scientific method.

    This capacity is due to the nature of objects and the techniques of the scientific method and does not relate to the cause of the objects.

    In seeking to elucidate composition and function of naturally occurring objects in the universe therefore the statement :

    ” there is no need for the God Hypothesis”

    is correct and coherent but it is equally correct and coherent to say that

    ” in scientifically elucidating the composition and function of a 747 (or any other object) there is no need for a Boeing Company (or any other agency) Hypothesis””

    ————————————

    I suggest that your comment is not entirely coherent. Can I “elucidate” the composition and function of a 747 without knowing who built it? Yes. That doesn’t tell me how it was built; i.e. it doesn’t explain the precise steps of the construction process.

    But God remains unevidenced and untestable.

    1. Thank you.

      I merely wished to make the point that one does not need infer any hypothesis about the maker of an object as a necessary prerequisite to examine,understand and explain the composition and function of said object.

  53. Although much of what Bishop said was positive, I didn’t much care for his argument (a familiar one) that I was making theological rather than scientific claims …

    While I am entirely sympathetic to and totally supportive of your general efforts to promote evolution and to curtail the spread of creationism, it does seem to me that Bishop has a point:

    After all comments about what a good or bad designing god would do are statements about the character, wisdom and plans of such a god. Such comments don’t tell us anything about the existence of such a designer. If anything, they only tell us about how Coyne appraises the work of such a designing god …

    I’ll certainly agree with you that if such a designer exists it certainly has to be considered a rather poor one – cause for a class-action suit at least. As Darwin said, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature!” It seems that while you present valid scientific criteria to evaluate the works of a putative designer, the questioning of the fundamental premise of its existence in the first place still appears to qualify as a theological argument.

    However, and of far greater consequence, I also think that Bishop – in that passage and related statements in his response – proceeds to shoot himself in the foot and to show his true colors:

    Instead, there are good theological reasons to view God’s relationship to all of creation as one of allowing and enabling all facets of creation to freely develop into their uniqueness according to the contingent rationality God gave to creation.

    Looks an awful lot like a variation of Last Thursdayism in which God supposedly created the universe last Thursday, but made it appear far older just to “mess with our minds” (nice guy). Paraphrasing Niall Shanks in his God, the Devil and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory (pg 134): “theological lipstick on an old creationist pig”.

    1. It seems that while you present valid scientific criteria to evaluate the works of a putative designer, the questioning of the fundamental premise of its existence in the first place still appears to qualify as a theological argument.

      What I don’t get is why Coyne’s argument can’t be scientific and theological at the same time. Even if this is not the case, what’s wrong with a book mainly about science exploring the theological implications of the science in question? Given that WEIT is to a large extent a repudiation of creationism, such exploration hardly seems outside the book’s proper scope.

      Note that Bishop isn’t just saying that Coyne’s theology is wrong or naive (though his arguments there are BS too, IMHO), but that theology per se is out of bounds.

      There is an large scale effort by accommodationists (including Mooney, BioLogos, and I think the NCSE) to frame all claims to the supernatural as being outside the realm of science. Bishop’s criticism seems to be along these lines. Theological claims are about science, so anything science might learn can have no impact on theology. Thus, Coyne’s claims about “bad design” are invalid. The problem is that there’s just no reason to ignore the theological implications of science, the wall between them is artificial.

      1. What I don’t get is why Coyne’s argument can’t be scientific and theological at the same time. Even if this is not the case, what’s wrong with a book mainly about science exploring the theological implications of the science in question?

        Generally, I agree: one might suggest that Coyne’s argument is a hybrid – a comment on a theological issue from a scientific perspective. And in the same way as was Paley’s watch and, more recently, as is Dembski’s recourse to thermodynamics. Although one might argue that all three cases are more theological than scientific – arguments or counter-arguments from design or lack thereof – as it is the former which provides the context and motivation – the horse – while the latter provides the rationale and justification – des cartes, so to speak.

        The problem is that there’s just no reason to ignore the theological implications of science, the wall between them is artificial.

        I’ll certainly agree on the importance of addressing those theological implications of science, although I’m not sure that the wall is artificial. On the one hand it seems – at least from the Wikipedia article on the topic – “supernatural” is somewhat of an oxymoron: anything that exists – and theism seems to argue that god, frequently as some sort of intentional entity, exists – is, ipso facto, natural, whether or not current or future science has any method of testing or confirming or observing that existence. Making the wall artificial and illusory.

        But on the other hand, one might suggest a dualist perspective, that consciousness, intelligence, is a basic attribute of the universe and not reducible to any materialist or physicalist explanations or perspective – even with recourse to emergence. In which case the wall might be real and insurmountable. And in which case I think that the theist’s or deist’s argument may have some small amount of merit, at least in their reference to agency and consciousness. Although outside of that, particularly in a religious fundamentalist context, I think there’s far too much odious and onerous baggage to justify any credibility to or acceptance of any part of the rest of the dogmata. And in the context of which I found it interesting, startling, amusing, and the source of some trepidation to read Bishop’s closing comment in the original review:

        … acrimony will continue and we’ll miss out on the reconciliation science and faith already have in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20).

        I half-expected to see that followed up with some reference to the “purity of essence” of our “precious bodily fluids” … 😉

        1. Generally, I agree: one might suggest that Coyne’s argument is a hybrid – a comment on a theological issue from a scientific perspective.

          It seems you’re making theology out to be something separate from science, as though questions about God are different from questions about the natural world in such a way that scientific approaches are inappropriate. Bishop appears to rely on this position too, but is it true? What’s the difference?

          it is the former which provides the context and motivation – the horse – while the latter provides the rationale and justification – des cartes, so to speak.

          Bishop’s “but it’s theology” objection remains unsubstantiated. So what if it’s theological? Is a book like WEIT not permitted to make theological arguments? On the contrary, to the extent that WEIT is a repudiation of creationist theology, it is a theological argument. With issues like the pharyngeal nerve, Coyne is basically taking Creationist premises (God as designer) and showing that they are inconsistent with the facts.

          This is where science/religion apologists run aground. When religions make claims testable by science (e.g. design hypothesis), science really is in a position to falsify religion. You can’t then go back and say, “Hey, you’re making theological claims!” as this only applies to theological claims that are impregnable to science.

          Look at it this way: either creationism is a theological position or it isn’t. Science is unavoidably inconsistent with it in either case. If creationism is theology, then science can answer at least one theological question.* If creationism isn’t theology, then inferences about a designer of the type Coyne makes aren’t theological.

          * You don’t even have to trust science’s answer over theology’s to agree with this. Whether or not science’s answer is correct, the question is within its scope.

          But on the other hand, one might suggest a dualist perspective…In which case the wall might be real and insurmountable.

          Why would science be an inappropriate framework for examining consciousness or spiritual matters, even under dualism?

          I have seen some argue that if mind is immaterial, then its source cannot be material. At the very least, science is in a position to evaluate the premise.

          1. It seems you’re making theology out to be something separate from science …

            While I’m not terribly knowledgeable about various philosophical naming conventions and concepts it really seems to be a question of definitions here and a case of “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. But the one for theology includes “the study of the nature of God and religious truth”. And by that token Jerry’s arguments would appear to be theological and specifically an argument against the existence of God and more specifically a counter to what Dawkins calls “The Teleological Argument, or Argument from Design”.

            And the “pharyngeal nerve” case, among others, appears not to be the proverbial “stake-through-the-heart” of god’s existence but only suggests, for example, other supposed objectives or issues on the part of god – as argued by Bishop – or incompetence for which Hume amusingly suggests these possibilities:

            This world was only •the first rough attempt of some infant god, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his poor performance; it is •the work of some dependent, inferior god, whose superiors hold it up for ridicule; it was •produced by some god in his old age and near-senility …

            In addition, I don’t think Bishop is denying Jerry the right to make theological arguments, even from a scientific (design) perspective, only suggesting calling a spade a shovel. But I think it is a somewhat ambiguous or obscure area which is why I used the word “hybrid” to describe Jerry’s argument – in the same way ethical or moral or philosophical “claims” are also part of the theological argument.

            Consequently, it seems the issue is somewhat academic and a case of “splitting hairs” about which you seem to be making overly heavy weather. Far more problematic, I think, is Bishop’s “begging the question” – sneaking in the conclusion as part of the premises and which looks suspiciously a lot like Jehovah.

            Why would science be an inappropriate framework for examining consciousness or spiritual matters, even under dualism?

            It’s not, but some – apparently including such luminaries as Weinberg, Dyson and Hawking – argue that there are or may be some basic limitations to what science can explain even though the phenomena in question – including consciousness – are entirely real and tangible.

            1. Consequently, it seems the issue is somewhat academic and a case of “splitting hairs” about which you seem to be making overly heavy weather.

              Bishop’s points about Coyne making theological argument may be sound, but he doesn’t really explain how they’re relevant to anything. Nevertheless, you’re right that I’m making hay about it 🙂

              there are or may be some basic limitations to what science can explain

              For sure. One shouldn’t expect science to explain everything even under physicalism. Failure to acknowledge this is sufficient to substantiate a charge of scientism.

              1. Bishop’s points about Coyne making theological argument may be sound, but he doesn’t really explain how they’re relevant to anything.

                Probably not terribly relevant to much of anything; maybe just a case of trying to get the game played on his turf since he doesn’t seem very successful on a scientific, “evidential” one.

                Nevertheless, you’re right that I’m making hay about it.

                Target of opportunity? 🙂

                Failure to acknowledge this is sufficient to substantiate a charge of scientism.

                Agreed – entirely appropriate to be addressing these “paranormal” and “supernatural” claims from both a scientific and philosophical perspective – something that Sagan was a vocal proponent of [e.g. Broca’s Brain]. But I’m not sure that “natural” and “supernatural” are appropriate tools to be using – something that Shanks [God, the Devil and Darwin] seems to rely on, somewhat to the detriment of his arguments – not that they’re not still very persuasive. Seems a more encompassing and useful dichotomy is “real” and “unreal” or “real” and “fantasy”, the latter including “figments of the imagination”, “delusions” and “imaginary friends”.

Leave a Reply