Faith vs. Fact out in Polish, reviewed by my surrogate dad

July 5, 2020 • 11:30 am

There’s a gynormous post on Pinker coming up shortly, and I hope to post it today. Many of you, who have sent me the Official Call for Demonization, know what this is about, but you’ll have to be a bit patient.

In the meantime, I just received notice that Faith versus Fact has finally appeared in Polish (Title: Wiara vs Fakty; this is the eighth translation into non-English languages), and although I haven’t seen it in paper, I have just received not only a photo of the cover, but also a nice review by my surrogate father and friend, Andrzej Koraszewski at the website run by him and Malgorzata, Listy z naszego sadu (“Letters from our orchard”.)

The book was translated from English by another mutual friend, Monika Stogowska, a professional translator who lives in Warsaw; according to Malgorzata, the translation is so good that it sounds as if the book were written in Polish rather than English.  The screenshot below goes to the Polish review (Google will translate it to English if you wish), and also shows the cover. I love the chessboard with religion playing against reason and science:

Because there are several friends involved in this, the review could not possibly be completely objective, and Andrzej admits this at the outset (translations of his review by Malgorzata):

“I’ve just got a book written by my friend, translated into Polish by my friend and published in Polish by another friend, and dedicated to my wife, me and to our cat, Hili. For obvious reasons this will not be a critical review. . . .”

Yes, I did dedicate the book to Andrzej, Malgorzata, and Hili, as well as to my undergraduate mentor Bruce Grant. I did a lot of reading and note-taking when I stayed in Dobrzyn for a few weeks.

Andrzej ends his review this way:

“The book was partly written in Dobrzyń nad Wisłą so I enclose a picture of the Author who in the process of writing the book was catching facts by their tail”.

And the photo: Hili and I communing! This is the best way to write:

Książka po części pisana była w Dobrzyniu nad Wisłą więc załączam zdjęcie Autora jak w trakcie pisania łapie fakty za ogon.


In yet another paper, Gregory Bassham continues his criticism of my science vs. religion work

May 31, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Two days ago I analyzed former philosophy professor Gregory Bassham’s unpublished critique of my book Faith versus Fact. (I also discovered that I analyzed the paper on this site in 2017 at greater length, so it’s been unpublished for at least three years. Shoot me for forgetting!). Bassham claimed that religion has its own “ways of knowing” that aren’t based on science, much less empirical observation. His argument, I contended, falls flat.

Now I found a similar critique from Bassham on about my argument in the book that science does not depend on faith. I won’t say he’s obsessed with me, but if he wants to get his ideas out, he should concentrate on getting them published.

You can see his second critique by clicking on the screenshot below.

My argument in the book, also made in my Slate piece “No faith in science,” is aimed at a common jab at science made by believers. “Science,” they say, “is based on faith, just like religion.” In effect, they’re saying, “See, you’re just as bad as we are!”

Read below if you want; it’s a short paper (12 pages double spaced).

In my book and the Slate article I contend that the religionists’ argument depends on two different conceptions of faith, described in the Slate piece like this:

You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.

The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.

It goes on, and I don’t want to reprise the argument, which is a short one at Slate. In the present paper, Bassham presents a variety of ways that, he thinks, science depends on “faith”, but it turns out that all of these are “confidence-justified-by-experience” construals of that word.

First, though, he reprises word for word what he wrote in the Faith vs. Fact critique when trying to argue that religion is not based on “faith = belief without evidence.” You’ve seen this before, so he’s self plagiarizing:

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, or as inherently irrational.

Where’s the beef—the bit about “evidence”? The paragraph above doesn’t do a lot of work towards showing a similarity between what scientists deem as “faith” (justified confidence) and religious faith. So let’s look at one of Bassham’s arguments that scientist really do have a religious-like faith:

Finally, what of the claims that science is based on faith because of its commitments to the orderliness of nature and an unexplained set of physical laws?

These are really separate issues, but Coyne lumps them together and dismisses both with the following quick retort:

The orderliness of nature—the so-called set of natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation. It is logically possible that the speed of light in a vacuum could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster. . . . The laws of nature, then, are regularities (assumptions, if you will) based on experience, the same kind of experience that makes us confident that we’ll see another sunrise (p. 210).

Here Coyne completely misses the point at issue. The claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on faith is grounded in two obvious features of science: (1) its working assumption, based on extensive but nevertheless limited evidence, that the laws of nature always operate everywhere in the universe, and (2) its resort to inductive reasoning to predict future events based on past observations. Both points require comment.

Since Francis Bacon, it has been clear that scientists regularly make claims that are not 100 percent certain because they go beyond the available evidence. For instance, they often make universal generalizations (statements of the form “All A’s are B’s”) based upon limited evidence. This is one reason why, as Coyne himself admits (33-34), all scientific theories and claims are tentative, revisable, and falsifiable. Thus, when scientists assume that basic scientific laws like the speed of light operate always and everywhere in the universe, they are not simply, as Coyne claims, making an “observation.” It is impossible to “observe” either future events or (trivially) events in unobserved parts of the universe. Thus, when scientists assume that the speed of light is a “regularity” that remains absolutely invariant, they are making a universal generalization that goes beyond the available evidence. In other words, they are holding “a belief which is not based on proof.” This is what defenders of the “science is based on faith” argument mean when they claim that scientists’ belief in the orderliness of nature is based on “faith.”

In other words, says Bassham, our assumption that the speed of light is a constant throughout the universe is an act of “faith” comparable to the claim that “belief in Jesus as your savior will get you to Heaven”.  And that is bogus. The speed of light in a vacuum can be measured in several ways, and incorporated into physical theories that apply elsewhere than in a laboratory on Earth, and, as far as we know now, is a constant. We do have evidence, just as we have evidence that other physical constants apply in places other than on Earth. So our inference to the best explanation is that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum.

Only a faith-osculator would argue that the speed-of-light claim is bascially the same as claiming that Jesus Christ, the son of God (as well as God himself) died and was resurrected so you can go to heaven, a belief based on at least five distinct empirical claims, all of them unevidenced.

In fact, there are some who have suggested that the speed of light is variable (see here and here, for instance). I’m not sure how much credibility the VSL (variable speed of light) view has, but the important thing is that we hold to a constant c because that’s what the evidence shows, but we could relinquish it if the evidence shows otherwise.

In contrast, no Christian will abandon the Jesus idea even though there’s not a scintilla of evidence for it from the get-go.  So, “faith” in science 1, “faith” in Christianity, -100.

All of Bassham’s arguments for “faith” as a tenet of science are similar to the above, and I’ll let you grapple with them yourself.  To end, I’ll give a quote from philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (oy!), which Bassham quotes to show how science depends on faith:

Science cannot be practiced in thin air. In fact, science itself presupposes a number of substantive philosophical theses which must be assumed if science is even going to get off the runway. . . . Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science: (1) The existence of a theory-independent, external world; (2) the orderly nature of the external world; (3) the knowability of the external world; (4) the existence of truth; (5) the laws of logic; (6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment; (7) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (8) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (9) the uniformity of nature and induction; (10) the existence of numbers.

I would claim that all of these are inferences to the best explanation, though #6 is clearly not what scientists believe since we know that in some ways our faculties are faulty (that’s what optical illusions are about).  #7 is dubious because nobody argues that (viz., quantum mechanics), and a few of the others, like “the existence of numbers” are not articles of faith.

Knock yourself out!


A religious scholar goes after my book “Faith Verus Fact”, mainly because I didn’t deal with Sophisticated Theology®

May 29, 2020 • 9:30 am

An academic named Gregory Bassham has written a longish critique (18 double-spaced pages) of my 2015 book Faith Versus Fact. It apparently isn’t published (yet), but you can find it on the link below if you are a member (no fees, though you may have to sign in with Google or Facebook).  Click on the screenshot below, and if you can’t get access to the manuscript, email me for a pdf.

Bassham used to teach at King’s College, Pennsylvania, formerly called The College of Christ the King (a name change was clearly indicated!). It’s a Catholic school, but I don’t know whether Bassham is a believer, though I suspect you’d have to be to be hired there. His biography from is below:

Gregory Bassham is a former Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (Pennsylvania). A native of Oklahoma, Bassham received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Oklahoma, and his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. Among his nine books are: The Philosophy Book: 250 Milestones in the History of Philosophy (2016), Critical Thinking (6th ed., 2018), The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (2010), Basketball and Philosophy (2007), The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (2003), Original Intent and the Constitution: A Philosophical Study (1991), and C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics (2015). He is currently writing a textbook on environmental ethics. A long-distance runner, Bassham has twice run the Boston Marathon.

And the critique:

Bassham takes issue with nearly everything I say, and I’ll leave you to read his piece. I want to highlight just one of his beefs, which goes after the most important argument I make in the book. That argument is this: science and religion are incompatible because they both claim to be methods of ascertaining truths about the Universe, but only science has ways of adjudicating, refining, and deepening our understanding. (Religion, of course, does other stuff as well.) Religion’s ways of ascertaining “truth”, which involve Scripture, authority, revelation, and other things subsumed by the rubric “faith”, are not reliable, and that’s why there are so many religions making conflicting claims. We have less certainty about God than we do, say, about the reproductive behavior of the lobster.

Moreover, I argue that theology has not “advanced” in the past several millennia. What I mean by this is that although theology may have gotten more convoluted, and corrected some of its earlier errors (for example, by admitting that creationism is false, which Bassham does—but 73% of Americans don’t), it still hasn’t advanced in understanding the divine. How many gods are there? Is God all-powerful and all-loving? Was Jesus the divine son of God, a prophet, or didn’t he exist? Did God give us free will, or are we predestined? Are you saved by faith alone, or by works? Did Joseph Smith really get those golden tablets that told of Jesus’s visit to America? There are millions of questions like this, not including the question of whether there actually are any gods, but nobody—including Bassham and his much-admired Sophisticated Theologians®, can answer them. We are as ignorant as was Aquinas, Maimonides, or any other theologian in history.

It is this point—whether religious knowledge can tell us empirical facts (Bassham argues that it can)—where we part most strongly. And I have to say, Bassham’s argument for the different “ways of knowing”, whereby religion apprehends such facts, is unconvincing. Here are a few excerpts from his paper:

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.

Yes, I should have written two books—or perhaps a big, fat, boring disquisition on religion aimed at theologians. That was neither my purpose nor my audience.

So here’s Bassham’s sophisticated evidence for God:

  • The world is orderly and beautiful (it’s also disorderly and ugly, and what order there is can be seen as resulting from natural processes)
  • We feel we have moral obligations (“objective” is a red herring here; nobody but philosophers worry about whether moral truths are objective)
  • People want eternal happiness (what people “want” is no evidence for what’s true; this is pure confirmation bias)
  • The “fine tuning” of physical constants (they say God, science says “they may not really be fine tuned by God, but a showing the weak anthropic principle or perhaps some underlying physical linking of “constants”)
  • Testimony of miracles. (SERIOUSLY? Has he read the even more sophisticated David Hume?)
  • Fulfilled prophecies (yes, and the Bible was redacted to make prophecies seem fulfilled. And which prophecies weren’t fulfilled, like Jesus promise that he’d return before some of his followers died?)
  • The credibility of Christ’s claim to be divine. WHAAAT? How is that credible, given that there’s no convincing evidence that a Jesus person, much less a divine one, ever lived)
  • “The literary and spiritual power of the Bible”.   Yes, and the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, and the Mahabarata have similar power. As does much of Dostoevsky. Which religion, pray tell, is true: the one with the most powerful scripture?
  • Religious experiences.  This is The Argument from William James, and can be dismissed by citing the many kind of experience, like UFO abductions, seances, and the like, that many people take as showing truth.

As for not saying enough about this, I wrote a trade book, not a tome on theology for scholars, and deal with both Sophisticated Theology® and the “theology” held by most believers, which isn’t Sophisticated.

So where does religion find its evidence? Bassham gives a few ways:

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.

Umm. . . if faith is truly a “way of knowing”, and reveals empirical truths, as Bassham avers, then how can these “conceptions of faith” possibly tell is what is true? They can tell us what to believe but they can’t confirm it. Or if he’s simply saying that there are conceptions of “faith” that don’t align with my definition of “belief in the face of evidence”, he runs into the same problem: how do these ways tell us which beliefs are true?

As for “ways of knowing”, Bassham seems to ignore my discussion when he lists the “ways of knowing” other than science:

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 claims that either historiography or philosophy was “incompatible” with science.

In fact, I deal with these issues at length in the book, and show that insofar as “revealing facts about the world and Universe” goes, empirical investigation (“science” writ large), is the sine qua non, and historians can’t declare truth by fiat. They need evidence, not authority. Philosophy deals with logic and rational contemplation, not empirical truth, though philosophy can contribute to finding empirical truths. Insofar as any of these disciplines declare what is empirically true, but not by using empirical methods (like “appeals to authority”), they are in conflict with science.

At the end, Bassham ignores the fact that I deal with, explain, and take apart Steve Gould’s NOMA idea, so I do not overlook or understate “the many ways in which science and religion are playing quite different ballgames.” I’d argue, in fact, that my analysis of NOMA is the most complete one in print.  Of course science and religion do play different ballgames, but some of the innings overlap, and that is where the two areas become incompatible.

Fourth and finally, in saying that religion and science “are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe” (xvi), Coyne overlooks or understates the many ways in which science and religion are playing quite different ballgames. In large measure, religion deals with questions of meaning, value, significance, purpose, beauty, finitude, guilt, anxiety, and ultimacy that science does not address. Moreover, the “tools” that religion uses (e.g. revelation and personal religious experience) are not necessarily faulty simply because they are unscientific. If God, as religious believers typically claim, wants to be known but not in ways that are overtly obvious or coercive, what “tools” would he provide so that even pre-literate peasants could have warranted beliefs about his existence and will? Presumably something very similar to the tools that believers claim that he has provided.

Note, too, that in the last three sentence Bassham admits that religion uses revelation and personal experience as reliable ways of knowing. The last two sentences make a virtue of necessity: we see no evidence for God, so Bassham argues that God deliberately made Himself hard to find, ergo only revelation and personal experience, things that can happen to even “pre-literate peasants”, constitute evidence. I guess the same goes for UFOs, Sasquatch, and leprechauns.

I tried to find a picture of a bass and a ham, and came up with these bass and ham cakes, whose recipe is given in Field & Stream. I don’t like the idea of fishcakes with ham, but I’d find them more palatable than Sophisticated Theology® any day! And Sophisticated Catholic Philosophy® is among the worst species in the genus.



Science broadly construed

December 13, 2019 • 8:30 am

Last night I found this quote in one of my favorite popular science books, in which Carl Sagan tells us what he construes as science. It jibes nicely with my conception of “science broadly construed” that I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. And when I’ve argued that car mechanics practice science when diagnosing a problem, or that plumbers practice science when locating the source of a leak, I’ve angered those philosophers who busy themselves with the “demarcation problem”: what is science and what is not science. While philosophers tie themselves into knots about this semantic issue (I guess they have nothing better to do), some of them simply know that plumbing and auto mechanics aren’t science. So to Massimo Pigliucci and all those philosophical pecksniffs who can’t stand the idea of plumbers doing science, I offer this quote as evidence that you’ll have to go after not just me, but Sagan as well. In fact, Sagan’s construal of science is even wider than mine.

One of the reasons for its success is is that science has a built-in, error correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 27

Neglected at the Hyde Park Book Fair

October 12, 2019 • 3:49 pm

Today’s the day when the denizens of Hyde Park congregate in the open-air plaza at the Hyde Park Shopping Center, looking for used books. Cardboard boxes of books, roughly divided by subject, sit atop folding tables, awaiting the senior citizens who will buy them (yes, the demographic at the book fair skews OLD).

As I was taking my walk, I chanced upon the Fair and stopped abruptly at the sight below. I did not move my book; this is exactly as it was when I photographed it in the “Religion and Theology” section.

There my work sits, next to the Apocryphal New Testament. Worse, I opened the book to inspect it, and IT SEEMS TO BE UNREAD. Oy! Nor was there a price in it.

So, if you live in my area, you may be able to get a good bargain on this book in brand-new condition. And, to show this poor unread book some love, if you buy it and bring it to my lab, only a 15-minute walk away, I’ll sign it and draw a cat in it for you. (The Religion section is right along 55th Street at the south end of the plaza.)

UNREAD! That’s like a knife in the gut. . .

A Templeton-funded researcher recommends five books on science and religion. Guess what take they have?

August 27, 2019 • 9:00 am

Five Books is generally a good site, and I’ve done at least two interviews with them. The site’s object is a good one: to get an expert in some field to recommend five books in their area of expertise, books from which the general public could profit. I did interviews about evolution and the incompatibility of religion and science, and in the latter recommended the following books:

I was of course being tendentious, as my subject was “The incompatibility of religion and science.” Now there’s a sort of counter-post, with historian Peter Harrison recommending five books on the history of science and religion (click on screenshot):

This, too, is a tendentious list, but that’s not clear from the title alone, since some books on the history of science and religion, like a couple I recommended in my piece, advance the thesis that these areas are incompatible. Harrison, however, thinks that’s bunk: that while there were occasional areas of conflict, by and large science and religion are not only compatible, but religion helped science advance in the West.

First, his background. Five Books gives the following bio:

Peter Harrison is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Before coming to UQ he was the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford. He has published extensively in the area of intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Yale and Princeton, is a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

But I also remembered that I posted about Harrison before, in 2017 when, as I wrote, “In the new issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books (link below), Peter Harrison, in a piece called “From conflict to dialogue and all the way back“, purports to review Yves Gingras’s recent book on science and religion, a book whose thesis is that no useful dialogue is possible between science and religion.”

I used “purported” because Harrison strayed from criticizing the book to defending the Templeton Foundation, which itself was denigrated in Gigras’s excellent book. (In my own mini-review of Gingras’s book, Science and Religion, an Impossible Dialogue, I deemed it “essential reading for those interested in the fraught relationship between science and religion.”)

The problem is that in Harrison’s defense of the Templeton Foundation (which of course promotes the “no conflict” accommodationist thesis), he admits that much of his work—but not, he says, his books— were supported by Templeton. As I said, this doesn’t save him from accusations of conflict of interest:

If you want to see Harrison’s involvement with Templeton, check this Google search. He has given Templeton-sponsored lectures, attended Templeton-sponsored conferences, and accepted grants from the Templeton Foundation. In fact, in Templeton’s Stable of Prize Thoroughbreds, there’s a special stall labeled “Peter Harrison”. He knows which side his oats are buttered on.

Okay, that’s snarky, but true, as even this year Harrison was supported by Templeton, through both grants and Templeton-funded lectures. (If you want to see Gingras’s response to Harrison’s criticisms, and Harrison’s counter-reponse, go here.)

But on to Harrison’s Five Books piece. As you might expect, he still wants his oats, and so his recommended books are all accommodationist ones. And, in describing them, Harrison makes many of the usual (and weak) arguments that science and religion don’t just get along, but are best buddies. Here are a few of his claims (his statements are indented):

A.) There have been apparent conflicts between science and religion, but they’re really about other things.

For example, this is how he minimizes the most obvious conflict: between creationism and evolution. (In the Q&A the questions by interviewer Charles Styles are in bold, and Harrison’s answers in plain text).

But there are some religious approaches that do hold that science and religion compete for the same intellectual territory. Young earth creationism is the go-to example. Here, religious beliefs conflict directly with scientific theories. For creationists, a literal interpretation of Genesis is taken to defeat modern evolutionary theory as an explanation for the variety of life and the age of the earth.

We should be clear that when historians deny that there is perennial conflict between science and religion, they do not deny that there are episodes of conflict. With young earth creationism, there is clearly a competition to attempt to explain the same thing: the complexity and diversity of life and where it came from. Young earth creationism sees these essentially scientific questions and attempts to give an answer based on the Bible. Of course, you’re going to get conflict there. There’s no doubt about that. It’s interesting to recognise that young earth creationism is not a modern vestige of a longstanding thing. It’s a very new phenomenon—a literal reading of Genesis and the idea that Genesis teaches us something about science is a 20th-century thing.

The idea that a literal reading of Genesis is “a very new phenomenon” is bunk: all the Church fathers, from Augustine to Aquinas and thereafter, thought the Bible was literally true, including the stories of creationism and Adam and Eve, and the literal existence of heaven and hell. (Some of them also thought that there were metaphorical interpretations to be had from the literalism.) I can’t understand why anybody who has read these theologians doesn’t recognize that. And of course the conflict with Genesis couldn’t arise until Darwin proposed an alternative theory of “design” in 1859.

So Harrison’s way out of this is to insist, as he does throughout the interview, that the real conflict between religion and science didn’t exist before the modern era. Well, that’s not strictly true, as the Galileo story shows, but in general science didn’t begin dispelling the myths of religion until modern times, simply because science was rudimentary until the 17th century. When science started growing muscle, then the conflict began.

But what about Galileo? Here’s Harrison’s take;

B.) The Galileo controversy was more about science versus science than science versus religion. Another factor promoting conflict with the Church was Galileo’s misguided use of theology rather than his scientific refutation of geocentrism.

These episodes [Harrison includes Darwinism here, maintaining that evolution was a problem for religion not because of evolution itself, but because of natural selection, which isn’t wholly true] are paradigmatic in the sense that we encounter them time and time again in the conflict narrative. They are taken to be exemplary instances, and this really goes back to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosophes in France used Galileo as an example as a perennial battle between the church and knowledge. The Galileo case is quite complicated, but what’s going on there is that Galileo is arguing for a Copernican view. There’s some telescopic evidence for it, but it’s not conclusive.

There are very powerful scientific arguments against it—such as the lack of observable stellar parallax. This is the key scientific objection which wasn’t solved for some time. Crucially, there’s also a hypothesis that Galileo leaves out of his consideration: the Tychonic view of the solar system. This actually satisfied much of the observational data that Galileo had, without getting into the physical problems of putting the earth into motion which was really impossible given the contemporary physics. So, there was a science versus science element involved.

The other aspect is that Galileo also got into trouble because he attempted to do some biblical interpretation to support his view. As soon as he did that, he stepped into the camp of the theologians and that was the point at which he was regarded as having gone too far. It wasn’t just Catholicism moving into the territory of science—which they certainly did by forbidding Galileo to defend the Copernican view. Galileo had also moved into the territory of biblical interpretation. To Catholics, he took a Protestant position because Protestants claimed that they could interpret Scripture for themselves. In the context of most Reformation controversies, Galileo looked dangerous in a way that Copernicus—who actually authored the hypothesis—didn’t. The Copernican hypothesis had been around for 50 years or so before it started to appear to be problematic.

Yes, yes, it’s always that l’affaire Galileo was “nuanced” or “complicated”. Note that Harrison doesn’t even mention a conflict between scripture and science here, which is simply bizarre. The idea that Galileo was threatened with torture because he was “taking a Protestant position” is new to me, and even amusing, but seems a post facto confection to exculpate religion from the conflict.

C.) Religion was actually responsible for the rise of science in the West. In fact, religion was necessary for the rise of science. Religion, says Harrison, promoted a culture, a space for science, a valuing of empirical results (!), and, most important, a conviction that there were physical laws given by God—all of which promoted science. A few quotes:

My own view is that there is more to the harmony story than to the conflict story. If we ask why science emerged in the West when it did, religion gives us much of the answer to that question. If you want to know what the key cultural ingredients are needed to get something like a scientific culture up and running and, crucially, give it social legitimacy, religion provides an important element of that. But there are crude versions of the harmony story that I think are problematic as the conflict narratives.

Merton’s book, which Harrison recommends, also claims that “Puritan values” (i.e., religious values) helped promote the spread of science.

[Merton] argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.

Of course Harrison means religion here. But this thesis—that religious values make us appreciate science and in fact make science possible and important—is palpably wrong. Were it true, most important scientists would not be atheists, and atheists are not driven by “religious values” to do science. They are driven by pure curiosity. (I’ll add as an aside that repeated surveys show that Americans trust clergy far less than researchers, doctors, or other STEM-related people.)

As for the rise of science (which of course came well after the hegemony of Christianity during the so-called Dark Ages), the lack of coincidence is one argument against religion being a pivotal contributor to the rise of science. As Steve Pinker and others have noted (and Harrison grudgingly admits), the rise of science in the West was likely due to the proliferation of both technology and information-spread (via the printing press). After all, while science got a start in Muslim countries, it fizzled out there despite the hegemony of religion. Is there something about Christianity as opposed to Islam that spread science-congenial “values”?

But Harrison goes farther than just saying religion promoted science; he says it was necessary for the rise of science:

One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?

I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.

Harrison’s answer is again bizarre. If theology was necessary for the advent of science, then science would have arisen much later in a society in which there was no religion. While we can’t do that experiment, I’d guess that simple curiosity, unimpeded by religious claims, might have led to science evolving faster without religion. For so long as there were religious or supernatural explanations for phenomena like infectious disease, lightning, epilepsy, and magnetism, people didn’t have to look for other explanations. And of course science is speeding along faster than ever, with most productive scientists being atheists—far less religious than members of the general public. But wait! There’s more!

D.) The idea of scientific laws came from religious views of God’s omnipotence.  Harrison says this:

Can you give an example of how ideas about God’s omnipotence or omnipresence could be linked to scientific thinking?

Let me start with omnipotence, because that’s a slightly simpler case. The concept of laws of nature is a modern concept that we see most explicitly articulated first by Descartes. Descartes talks about laws of nature as God directly impinging on natural order, immediately moving objects around in lawful fashion according to his choice of a particular set of laws. So, the idea of a law of nature is that God chooses to instantiate regularities in the world and we need to go out and discover what they are.

This is very different from Aristotle’s idea that the order of the world is a function of the inherent properties that things have. To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.

Well, I’m not sure that the idea of physical laws came from the idea that God was omnipotent. Certainly there were scientists, perhaps including Newton, who believed that laws reflected God’s will (ergo his “omnipotence”). But one could also argue that empirical investigations of the world, which would have occurred without religion as a product of simple curiosity, would have disclosed the laws as empirical regularities. And certainly modern physics, many of whose advances were made by nonbelievers like Feynman, Neils Bohr, and Paul Dirac, involved a search for laws by people who were motivated by simply trying to figure out whether there were laws, and what those laws were. They were not driven by the idea that they were elucidating God’s designs. (There is a very useful article on “Lists of atheists in science and technology” on Wikipedia, which is most enlightening.)

I should add that religion has impeded the search for laws when it imputed supposed irregularities in laws or theories to the supernatural. Newton proposed that the orbits of planets were unstable and had to be maintained by God’s action. Only later did Laplace show, using naturalism, that God’s help wasn’t necessary. And of course it’s religious people who promote the idea that Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the diversity of life, and that an Intelligent Designer is needed to explain the advent of “complexity.”

Too, the idea of regularities in biology was promoted by nonbelievers. Darwin, of course, was at best a deist, and would probably be an atheist if he lived today. Watson and Crick were atheists, and in fact Watson told me that Crick, a militant atheist, was driven to search for the structure of DNA to show that the “secret of life” had nothing to do with God, but was purely the result of molecular interactions.

E.) The hegemony of naturalism in science actually slows the progress of science. Here is where Harrison shows his real agenda—and Templeton’s as well. Read his preposterous claim that pure naturalism narrows the scope of science, and that more progress is made when science and religion work together:

The question for me is: what makes science fruitful? Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.

. . .The agnostic or atheist response to that would be that once science is removed from a religious metaphysics, then the presuppositions that limit the investigation are widened because it doesn’t have to operate within the boundaries of religious belief.

But we can also look at that the other way around. I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.

It would be helpful here if Harrison gave us ONE example of how naturalism impeded science: how the assumption that supernatural influences didn’t play a role in nature actually delayed a scientific discovery. I can’t think of any. But of course here he’s expounding the Templetonian view that religion somehow gives us empirical truths and science gives us evidence for the divine. Both of these notions are false.

But that brings us to the crux of what I see as the true incompatibility between science and religion: the argument I make in Faith Versus Fact. I don’t have to make it here, as Harrison inadvertently makes it in his interview:

As well as conflict, harmony, and complexity, there are also people who argue for an “independence” thesis. This is the idea that science and religion are completely independent, with separate, non-overlapping domains. It seems more of a normative claim—that religion and science should keep to themselves and not interact—than a descriptive one. But let’s suppose there was a skeleton found in Jerusalem forensically proved to be Jesus of Nazareth (in other words, that a bodily resurrection didn’t happen). That seems to be a case where scientific research would have immensely significant religious implications.

It’s partly a descriptive claim because very often science and religion go their own way. But you can’t avoid the fact that if the propositional claims of the various religions are true, then empirically they must make some difference to how the world is. There will necessarily be some touchpoints in that case because science deals with the empirical facts. Unless a religion is restricted purely to the realm of the moral, it will make at least some substantive claims about empirical reality.

At least Harrison admits here that religions do make empirical claims: statements about the way the world is and was. And if you make that admission, you must make the further admission that religion has no way to adjudicate its empirical claims, while science does. Further, science has repeatedly disproven the truth claims of religion, but it doesn’t work the other way round. Science, but not religion, has a way to decide whether your truth claims are really true. In fact, that could be the definition of “science.”

This disparity in judging the soundness of your claims is the thesis of Faith Versus Fact, and it’s the reason—along with the admission that religion does make truth claims—why science and religion are at bottom incompatible.

But I’m sure the Templeton Foundation is still pleased as punch with Harrison’s interview.

h/t: Matthew Cobb (who alerted me to the article).

Faith vs Fact in a reader’s diorama

December 20, 2018 • 11:45 am

Reader Mark Richardson makes superb military dioramas in miniature, and you can see them on his website Mark-Armor. He made one several years ago featuring a tiny copy of my book Why Evolution is True, and now he’s done it again with the latest book. I’ll post his photos and words (indented) below:

As it goes, I continue to create dioramas that require books: stacks of books, burned books, shelved books…or just a single placed book to complete the look.  Since books are ubiquitous in modern times and come in all sizes and shapes they are perfect diorama objects that create the illusion of recognizable “stuff” in a chaotic scene. Books are also a detail that are rarely an anachronism. Except for covers, of course.

So…in line with the smallest WEIT so far known to man (which also first appeared in a WWII diorama), may I present upon a dusty desk in a ruined French Garage during France’s WWII liberation another wee and anachronistic book.  Faith vs. Fact  (Viking, US ed.), 4mm x 6mm.
The stark and bold cover of FvF made for an easier macro rendition than the colorful and image heavy cover of WEIT.
Thanks for writing a couple of books that I could incorporate in my dioramas and make them more personal, ironic, and just plain cooler.
The first photo is the close-up, and then they zoom-out. The third photo is the entirety of the back-view and a cross-section of the tank-demolished garage. FvF lies upon the desk on the top floor.



For the whole diorama, I’ll supply the link, which is here:
Yes, it’s anachronistic, but it’s also fantastic and I’ll take it. Thanks, Mark!  And to remind you, here’s the copy of WEIT in the earlier diorama from Mark (my post on it is here):

And the WEIT sighting—”Soldier Sitting on Greyhound Armored Vehicle”:


My interview at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and a note on folk medicine

November 11, 2016 • 11:30 am

Last night I had an hour event (45 minutes of conversation about Faith Versus Fact and 15 minutes of Q&A) at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, co-sponsored by the Hong Kong Skeptics. You can watch it by clicking on the screenshot below.

The interviewer is Mike Bigelow, a businessman, former Jehovah’s Witness (now a nonbeliever), and officer of the Hong Kong Skeptics Society; he had some great questions. The taping was done by Andrew Davidson, who kindly recorded it on his phone and posted it on Periscope.

My thanks as well to Phillipa Milne, head of the Literary Festival, to David Young, one of my “handlers” who extended me warm hospitality, and the other Literary Festival and Hong Kong Skeptic folk who dealt with the logistical hurdles.


I was gratified that the event was sold out, that the audience seemed enthusiastic, and that many people bought books (WEIT was also on sale).

After the event I got to talk to some of the audience, and I was especially interested in what four young Hong Kong medics—practitioners of modern scientific medicine—had to say.

One thing I’ve learned is that although many people in Hong Kong and China are not conventionally religious, they are often deeply superstitious, not only relying on untested or disproven forms of medical treatment (acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine), but having a belief in feng shui, lucky numbers (many buildings don’t have fourth floors), ghosts, and the like. Since the last chapter of Faith versus Fact was about the dangers of faith healing, I wanted to know whether these dangers applied to non-religious but untested Chinese folk medicine.

The medics instantly said “yes,” and noted that they’d come across many cases of people who had been severely damaged by relying on folk and traditional cures rather than scientific medicine. One, an oncologist, told me grisly stories about women with breast cancer who had tried to cure themselves by rubbing herbal creams on their tumor-ridden breasts, which of course only got worse and worse, often over years. By the time they sought Western treatment, it was too late, though many could have been cured had they consulted a real doctor early on. The oncologist said the same thing about lymphoma: it’s often a treatable and curable form of cancer, but becomes terminal if treated with folk nostrums.

So yes, there is lots of ineffective “faith healing” in which the “faith” devolves not on gods and their wills, but on untested remedies. Belief in untested forms of medicine is itself a form of faith, for there’s no systematic evidence that they work. But I suppose we knew that already. I just wanted confirmation from local doctors, and got it in spades.