King’s College, formerly “The College of Christ the King”, is a Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania with about 2300 students. On November 4, the school hosted the annual Eastern Pennsylvania Philosophical Association Conference, a one-day affair in which papers were given on all aspects of philosophy. (The keynote speaker was Massimo Pigliucci, who spoke about stoicism.)
Only one paper is listed in the College’s announcement of the meeting:
The conference also featured research presentations. [Gregory] Bassham was the first of nine presenters to speak at the conference. In the Walsh room of the Campus Center, he argued for the compatibility of science and religion in a refute [sic] towards philosopher and author Jerry Coyne.
“Coyne claims that science and religion have irreconcilable differences. However, Coyne relies on dubious definitions of naturalism and faith. Many religious believers agree with naturalism in science, but not in other areas of life. These believers typically do not regard faith as belief without evidence, contrary to Coyne’s sense of faith,” said Bassham.
Bassham is a professor of philosophy at King’s College with a diverse set of publications.
Well, my identification as “philosopher and author” isn’t quite accurate, but it would surely make Massimo bridle, as he claims I have no philosophy cred at all. (Actually, I do: I coauthored a peer-reviewed paper, as well as a five-page response to a misguided critic, with philosopher Maarten Boudry in a genuine philosophy journal, Philosophical Psychology. If you want a copy of “Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs,” give me a shout.)
Reader Michael actually found Bassham’s paper presented at the conference, which you might be able to download free from academia.edu (otherwise, I have one); it’s apparently an unpublished manuscript called “Coyne’s case for the incompatibility of science and religion.” It’s a double-spaced 18-page critique of my book Faith Versus Fact, and, while making some fair points, completely fails to refute my main point. That point is this: religion and science are both engaged in discerning and asserting truths about the cosmos (statements about “what is“), but religion lacks the methodology to adjudicate or convince the bulk of rational people of its truth claims. (I recognize in the book that of course religion is about more than just making statements about God, his nature, and the factual assertions underlying faith. But few faiths do not make truth claims, and without those claims, religious dicta about behavior and morality have no underpinning.)
The difference between science and religion is shown by the palpable fact that scientific research converges on truths (provisional truth, of course), and that adjudicating those truths is independent of the researcher’s nationality, religious belief, or ideology. In contrast, religion, whose “investigative tools” are limited to faith, dogma, and authority, has no way to decide which claims are “true.” That’s why we have thousands of religions on this planet, many making conflicting and incompatible claims. If religion made reliable truth claims, there would be only one religion.
Bassham is apparently a believer, and I say this based on his defense of religiously based truth claims, which of course turn out to be Christian ones. I won’t address what I see as his more minor criticisms, but concentrate on the main thesis I described above. I do note, however, that Bassham agrees with me that doing science does erode religious belief (why is that?, I wonder), and that religions do indeed make truth claims. He just thinks that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond science that can confirm these claims. He also admits that Biblical literalism is out: that Sophisticated Theologians™ don’t accept much of what the Bible says, so my critique of “unsophisticated” religion practiced by creationists, most Americans, and Muslims bears no weight. (Bassham, however, doesn’t say which parts of the Bible are literally true, since he appears to accept the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, and so on.) I’ll present only three of Bassham’s criticisms of my book, but they’re ones central to my thesis.
1.) Yes, religion does give empirical evidence for the supernatural. This is what Bassham says, first attacking philosophical naturalism, the idea that naturalism is all there is.
Two things should be said here. First, Coyne’s defense of philosophical naturalism is skimpy and unconvincing. The three factors he cites—scientists’ ingrained skepticism, the success of methodological naturalism in science, and the failure to find empirical evidence of the supernatural—are insufficient to support philosophical naturalism without a further premise: the failure of apologetics to provide rational grounds for religious belief. Coyne is scornful of apologetics, claiming that it is a farrago of obfuscation, fallacious reasoning, and wishful thinking. But this is something that must be shown, not gestured at with a few derisive pot-shots. For this is a critical point in dispute in the science-religion debate: Are there, as most contemporary theologians would claim, good reasons for adopting methodological naturalism in science, while rejecting philosophical naturalism as a general worldview?
In fact, I don’t just “gesture” at the fallacies of apologetics; I go into them in detail, addressing things like theodicy, explanations for why we don’t see God these days, the concept of Original Sin, and so on. In fact, philosophical naturalism is the proper underpinning of methodological naturalism (the view that nature and the laws of physics are all there is), because we simply have no evidence for anything acting beyond naturalism. As Sean Carroll emphasizes repeatedly, the models of physics are sufficient to explain all observed phenomena, and give no support to the supernatural. The success of naturalism and the failure of supernaturalism to help us make sense of the Universe is a very good reason to adopt philosophical naturalism.
But let’s leave that aside, for the most bizarre aspect of Bassham’s defense of religious epistemology is his arguments for why we know that religious truth claims are valid (my emphasis below):
Second, most theologians and informed religious believers today would reject Coyne’s claim that that there is no empirical evidence for the supernatural. Though some would dispute it, I agree with Coyne that science has failed to find credible evidence of such allegedly supernatural phenomena as ESP, reincarnation, miracles, psychic channeling, near-death experiences of a heavenly afterlife, or the healing powers of prayer. But this is a far cry from saying that there is no empirical evidence for God or some higher power or transcendent realm. Few contemporary theologians would claim that belief in God is a non-rational or even contra-rational leap of blind faith. They point to phenomena such as the order and beauty of the world, the consciousness of objective moral obligations, the natural desire for eternal happiness, the “fine-tuned” nature of physical constants, testimony of miraculous events, fulfilled prophecies, the credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine, the literary beauty and spiritual power of the Bible, and various kinds of religious experience as providing an evidential grounding for acts of religious faith. Coyne offers brief rebuttals to some of these evidentiary arguments, but a great deal more would need to be said to support his claim that there are irreconcilable conflicts of philosophy between science and religion.
Can anybody not already marinated in faith accept this as “evidence” for God? Order and beauty of the world, such as it is, has more parsimonious explanations, at least for order. Those include the laws of physics and natural selection. As for “beauty”, well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, and if you think that the Atacama Desert is evidence for God, I can’t help you. (E. O. Wilson has explanations for why we find some things beautiful—”biophilia”—but that’s just a hypothesis. And of course we find some things scary and repulsive as well, like snakes and spiders, and we have good non-supernatural reasons for that!)
As for as the “consciousness of objective moral obligations,” there is no evidence that consciousness requires God, since we are now making progress in understanding it through fully materialistic means. Further, there are both social and evolutionary explanations for “moral obligations,” as I’ve said before, and I deny that any moral obligations are “objective.” Are Muslims who kill apostates, gays, and adulterers, or who favor that behavior, showing “objective moral obligations”?
“The desire for eternal happiness” is, of course, wishful thinking, and is surely not evidence for God.
As for the “fine tuning” of physical constants, we don’t know why they are as they are, but again, why fill our ignorance by saying that this is evidence for God, much less the Christian God? And, as others have pointed out, the nature of the Universe, as well as some of the physical constants, are not consonant with the idea of a God—at least the kind of god that even Sophisticated Theologians™ accept.
Miracles? None have baffled scientists to the point that we have to take the supernatural seriously. If God cures people, why does He never restore missing limbs or eyes? Every “miracle cure” is of a disease known to be curable by modern medicine (often applied, as in the case of one of Mother Theresa’s saint-confirmatory “miracles”), or subject to spontaneous remission. And “fulfilled prophecies”—which ones are Bassham talking about? I am aware of no Biblical prophecies that were fulfilled in real life, and many that weren’t, like Jesus’s promise that he’d return in the lifetime of his contemporaries.
And as for “the literary beauty and spiritual power of the Bible,” how, exactly, is that evidence for God? Does the beauty and power of Crime and Punishment, or The Dead, also give us evidence for God? How much of the Bible’s “beauty” was put in by the translators of the King James version? And is this kind of evidence characteristic of SOPHISTICATED Theology™? If it is, it’s not very sophisticated, but simply a combination of credulity and confirmation bias.
2.) Coyne doesn’t define “faith” right: it’s far more than “belief in the absence of convincing evidence.” Here Bassham trots out the Clydesdales of Sophisticated Theology™ (my emphasis):
Second, Coyne’s argument relies upon a conception of faith that few contemporary theologians would accept. In defining faith as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence,” Coyne commits a strawman fallacy that Richard Dawkins and many other vocal critics of religion have also perpetrated. There are many widely accepted conceptions of faith that do not view it as evidence-free belief. Among these are the Catholic “propositional” view of faith as assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer; the Calvinist conception of faith as firm belief in key tenets of the Christian faith as a result of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; the modern Protestant “voluntarist” view of faith as interpretive trust in the self-revealing actions of God within human history; and the modern “Existentialist” conception of faith as an attitude of commitment, acceptance, and “total interpretation” made by the whole person. None of these common views of faith see it as an evidence-free form of cognition.
Seriously, dude? These count as evidence? Do you really want to claim that “assent to revealed truths on the authority of God the revealer” has the same epistemic status as experiments showing that the human immunodeficiency virus is the cause of AIDS? That the “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit” is as dispositive for God as fossils are for evolution?
All of these forms of evidence come down to authority, dogma, and revelation: the bases of “faith”. This paragraph, and the one above, clearly display the intellectual weakness of “evidence” used by even Sophisticated Theologians™—the kind of evidence relied on by people like Alvin Plantinga. So even if Bassham accepts my contention, as he does, that most people’s religious beliefs are incompatible with science, he fails to make a case that the evidential standards of Sophisticated Theology™ make it far more compatible with science—i.e., powerfully able to discern truths about what exists.
3.) The use of different methods by religion and science doesn’t make them incompatible. Bassham:
Third, while it is true that religion and science generally use different methods, it is far from clear that this makes them incompatible. If it did then one would have to say, implausibly, that science is incompatible with historiography, political science, legal theory, philosophy, and literary theory, for all of these disciplines make claims about empirical reality that are frequently “incorrect, untestable, or conflicting.” There are many “ways of knowing” that cannot, and do not, employ the rigorous methods of science. This makes them different from science but not necessarily incompatible with it. Historiography, like religion, relies heavily upon appeals to authority. Philosophy, like theology, relies strongly on appeals to intuition, reasoning, and critically defended interpretations. Yet it would be odd and implausible to claim that either historiography or philosophy was “incompatible” with science.
This sounds good but the center doesn’t hold. In fact, insofar as any of these disciplines attempts to discern objective truths about the cosmos, if they do so without using “science broadly construed”—the empirical toolkit involving examining nature, making and testing hypothesis, holding doubts, demanding independent confirmation, and so on—then they, too are incompatible with science. As I say in my book, philosophy and math do give us “knowledge” in working out the consequences of a set of assumptions, but they don’t tell us what is true about the Universe. Appeals to authority and intuition, reasoning, and critical defense are not substitutes for “science broadly construed”, and if these methods claim to discern objective truths about our Universe, then yes, they too are incompatible with science as a way of finding out what’s true.
To me (and of course I’m biased) Bassham’s arguments are weak, and certainly don’t show that Sophisticated Theology™ is perfectly compatible with science. If that theology is so watered down that it makes no empirical claims at all, then yes, it can be compatible with science in one sense, but much Sophisticated Theology™ still makes truth claims—about the divinity of Jesus, the Resurrection, the dictation of the Qur’an to Muhammad and so on—that aren’t adjudicated scientifically. As many of us know, Sophisticated Theology™ is often gussied up bits of Biblical literalism (“no, there was no Adam and Eve, but of course there was a divine Jesus”), or a word salad so confused (deliberately, so, I think) that you can’t figure out what it’s saying. What, for instance is the Ground of Being? Is it a testable claim about God? If so, then it’s in conflict with science. If not, then it’s just mental wheel-spinning and we have no call to accept it.
It’s characteristic of Bassett that he pulls the Courtier’s Reply Fallacy at the end of his article:
To summarize and to conclude: Coyne claims that there are “intractable incompatibilities” between science and religion. He defends this claim by offering a few preliminary indicators of conflict (in the Preface and Chapter 1), and then offers more developed arguments in Chapter 2. His central claim is that there are deep and irreconcilable conflicts between religion and science with respect to methods, outcomes, and philosophy. As we have seen, while some of his arguments are effective against certain popular forms of religions, such as Biblical literalism, they have very little force against more sophisticated modern forms of religion or theology. In particular, Christians today who are science-friendly, reject Biblical literalism, and refuse to view Scripture or the Creeds as “competing” with science in the task of describing physical reality have nothing to fear from Coyne’s overstated and theologically uninformed arguments.
“Nothing to fear from me”—that’s what believers love to hear, and of course that’s Bassham’s preordained conclusion. But if you want to see how strong his arguments are, simply reread his paragraph on the kind of “evidence” that religious people—and presumably Bassham himself—accept as showing that there’s not just God, but the Christian God.
And of course it was accepting science, and evolution, that weaned many religious people away from their faith. Why do you suppose that happened?