Christian writer Francis Spufford sent me an email calling my attention to a post on his blog, Unapologetic, in which he belatedly answers two critiques I’d written of his pieces—one essay in the Guardian and the other his infamous “Dear Atheist” letter in New Humanist. You know what you’re in for when you see the title: “Dear Jerry Coyne [Caution: long]” And oy, is it long: 3620 words! This does not bode well for his new book.
I’m not getting into a back-and-forth with this man, who apparently wants me to help publicize his new book, but I’ll highlight just two points, neither of which is new. The real value of Spufford’s verbose post in serving as an exemplar of how a smart and literate man can justify Christianity in the complete absence of evidence for its tenets.
From his new blog post:
Truth, meanwhile, is just a state of affairs, something which is so whether we currently know it or not. You would like it be the case that evidence is the only means of approach we have to truth, and that conversely truth is the kind of thing we can only approach through evidence – in which case you can indeed treat them as terms which are effectively substitutable. But this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. It is a philosophical picture of the world that gives science a monopoly position as the supplier and definer of truth, but that does not make the picture, itself, scientific. It is only one of several possible pictures, all of which are compatible with the known facts of the case, and all of which are compatible with loyalty to the scientific method. So science does not in itself provide a criterion for choosing between the pictures. Neither does holding to an ideal of fidelity to the real compel one to choose your favoured picture.
I am SO tired of this trope. It may indeed be the case that we can’t justify a priori via philosophical lucubrations that we arrive at the truth about nature only by using the methods of science. My answer to that is increasingly becoming, “So bloody what?” The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically. If we are interested in finding out what causes malaria, no amount of appeal to a deity, philosophical rumination, listening to music, reading novels, or waiting for a revelation will answer that question. We have to use scientific methods, which, of course, is how causes of disease are found.
Look at evolution: before Darwin, the appearance of “design” in organisms was taken as evidence for God’s handiwork. That was “one possible picture compatible with the known facts of the case.” And if religion was the only way of knowing we had, that’s where inquiry would stop. It was science that told us that the appearance of design actually came from the interaction of a random process of generating variation and a non-random process of disposing of that variation—in other words, natural selection. And you can make predictions and retrodictions from the scientific theory: predictions that we will see natural selection in action (we do) and retrodictions that we will never see adaptations evolved in one species that are useful only for members of another species (we don’t). And we can then find a parallel to natural selection in animal breeding.
The point is that science helps us move forward—to find the truth about nature. Those other “pictures” are science-stoppers. They leave us hanging with our questions either unanswered,”answered” only subjectively, for individuals, or answered by the nonsensical “God did it.”
The justification of science is simply that it works for everyone. Philosophers, please butt out on this one! It’s time for the a-priorists to stop promulgating their base canard, which increasingly seems like a way to justify the irrelevance of such philosophy—or, in the hands of the faithful, to impugn science and justify religion.
If those philosophers had their way, we’d sit around the lab all day scratching our butts and wondering if we really should do those experiments. Maybe we could find the answer simply by musing about it. But we proceed as if evidence gives us truth, and—sure enough—it does. As Stephen Hawking said, “Science wins because it works.”
But what about those other methods, which, for Spufford, obviously involve committing oneself to Jebus and then simply intuiting the truth? Here’s what he says about these other ways of “knowing”:
We can’t verify or falsify our beliefs the way we can our knowledge. But that doesn’t mean there are no criteria we can bring to bear to distinguish between beliefs. We can ask whether belief pays due and scrupulous attention to what can be known. We can ask whether belief is equipped with, as it were, some of the proper humility owed to the provisional – with a continuing willingness to change, to notice, to be wrong. We can ask whether beliefs are generous or mean, altruistic or self-serving, frightened or hopeful, candid or self-deceiving. We can be intelligent and nuanced about belief. But to do this we need not to dismiss the whole inevitable human activity of belief-formation as nonsense. This is one of my reasons for preferring my picture of the world to yours.
Notice how the real question at issue, “which belief is true?” subtly morphs into the less interesting question, “can we distinguish between beliefs?” It’s the usual theological bait-and-switch.
Of course we can distinguish between beliefs! Quakers are humble and nonprosyletizing, Muslims and Scientologists think it’s their duty to spread the faith. Methodist beliefs are more malleable than those of Islam. Muslims want to kill those who reject the faith; Catholics merely excommunicate them.
But distinguishing between beliefs does not tell us which of them (if any) are true. This exercise can’t tell us whether there’s an afterlife or not, whether Jesus really was the son of God (much less even existed), whether the dictates of Orthodox Jews conform better to God’s will than those of the hadith, whether there even is a god, and so on. Indeed, religion can’t even answer the question of “which actions are moral”. Science can’t do that, either, but the fact remains that religion can’t answer either questions of fact or the “big questions” about purpose and meaning. Sects like Mormonism and Islam have fractured into sub-sects, sometimes dozens of them, because they can’t decide what the “truth” is—even within a faith.
If you can’t falsify a belief, but can only distinguish between different beliefs, then there is no way of knowing whether your belief is true. Period. That’s why science wins, for it gives us tools for testing different hypotheses.
I’d like to ask Mr. Spufford whether he knows that the tenets of his Christianity conform to reality more than the tenets of say, Hinduism. Does Jesus pwn an elephant-headed God?
I reiterate that it’s time for philosophers to stop their finger-wagging about science’s ability to find truth being a philosophical assumption—one that we can’t justify it a priori. Maybe it is philosophical, but frankly, Francis, I don’t give a damn. If philosphers want to defend their turf that way, or diss science and empower faith, fine. In the meantime, science blithely goes ahead and helps us understand the universe, while religions like Catholicism are still debating the same points they did before the Enlightenment. We’re on Mars; they’re still pondering God’s nature and wondering if there is a hell.