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.