Tom Gilson

Jerry Coyne: Intellectual Dishonesty, Or … ?

This is not the first time I’ve had occasion to ask Jerry Coyne, which is it?  Is it culpable ignorance or is it intellectual dishonesty? In light of the accusation he makes of Alvin Plantinga, “Remarkably stupid remarks by a sophisticated theologian,” one is tempted to wonder whether another term fits Coyne even better, one he himself used there. But to call Coyne stupid would belittle the man, as it does any person; and it would also belittle the gravity of his error: for stupidity does not necessarily include a moral dimension.

He is clearly out of his field, and yet he acts as if he knows what he’s talking about. That’s what I mean by either culpable ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. Most professions have ethical standards that can be summarized under, “Don’t use your professional status to try to lead people to think you’re qualified where you are not.” Coyne speaks professorially, and by that rubric, unethically.

For example,

Science simply doesn’t operate on what Plantinga calls “basic beliefs,” by which he apparently means “beliefs for which one needs no empirical support.” If Plantinga wants to call theism more hospitable to science than materialism, than by all means let us include as “science” homeopathy, astrology, and spiritual healing. After all, for many those too are “basic beliefs.”

It’s really a bad idea to pronounce an idea stupid when you have no idea what it means.

The occasion of his post on Plantinga is this recent NY Times article, from which he quotes and then responds:

Mr. Plantinga says he accepts the scientific theory of evolution, as all Christians should. Mr. Dennett and his fellow atheists, he argues, are the ones who are misreading Darwin. Their belief that evolution rules out the existence of God — including a God who purposely created human beings through a process of guided evolution — is not a scientific claim, he writes, but “a metaphysical or theological addition.”

No, it’s a scientific claim. The scientific understanding of evolution is that genetic variation is created by a process of random mutation (there are a few other sources as well), which is then subject to natural selection or genetic drift. We have seen no evidence to the contrary.

Said evidence would be in the form of some sign of non-randomness in evolution, Coyne goes on to say, or else perfectly designed human bodies. That evidence is lacking, so clearly we have scientific disproof for Coyne’s conception of God. Fine. I don’t believe in Coyne’s conception of God either. So what? Coyne the disbeliever thinks he knows enough about God to tell us what God would be like if the God who doesn’t exist existed.

Sometimes Christians get accused of being narrow-minded for believing in one God. By disproving one non-God Coyne thinks he has disproved all conceptions of God. What could be more narrow than that?

Somewhere in the article he pronounces on having read some of Plantinga’s books and not being impressed by them. Apparently it wasn’t just that he thought little of them; it’s that he wasn’t thinking when he read them. Otherwise he never could have said,

“Sensus divinatis” is a fancy term for “lots of people believed and still believe in God.”

It’s really a bad idea to pronounce an idea stupid when you have no idea what it means. (Did I say that once already?) Is this ignorance or is it dishonesty?

Last time I called him on this he called it “fluffy lucubrations.” Tellingly, he never answered the charge. He just called me fluffy. I can handle that. Meanwhile I think he’s being either culpably ignorant or intellectually dishonest.

I’ll grant him the benefit of a question, though. Near the end of the article he says,

Many religious claims about the “truth” have already been disproven by science… But there’s not one instance of a scientific claim that’s ever been disproven by religion.

He handles the term “religion” in a ridiculously cavalier manner here, as if “religion” were one unitary entity; and even more so when he goes on to ask, “if religion lays claim to the ‘truth,’ then why can’t religious people agree on what that truth is?”

Setting that aside as much as we’re able, let’s try to treat this more responsibly by asking it in a different manner. Is there any scientific claim that has been disproven either by biblical theology or philosophical theology in the Christian tradition? What say you? Is this claim worth taking any more seriously than his other errors?

For extra credit: what difference does it make? What does it really mean for the truth of Christianity that “science” has disproven “religious” claims, and what difference would it make if “religion” did or did not do the same with “science”?

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18 thoughts on “Jerry Coyne: Intellectual Dishonesty, Or … ?

  1. I’m having a little trouble understanding just which religious claims science has disproven. I mean is he talking about things like geocentricity? Seems a bit of a straw man if he is. Geocentricity and other beliefs like that which existed before there was the science to understand them weren’t directly taught in the Bible.

  2. Tom:

    Is there any scientific claim that has been disproven either by biblical theology or philosophical theology in the Christian tradition?

    What, are you kidding? How can you, who reviewed Hannam’s book, also miss the same 800-lb gorilla these atheist pinheads miss?

    (I say this with a sympathetic and kind–NOT antagonistic–smile on my face.)

    First, the qualification: Aristotle’s “science” was a kind of proto-science (from today’s perspective of the MESs) because, among other reasons, it was not sustainable. It was a science from the writ large sense as the philosophy of nature. One of its weaknesses was that Idealism tended to trump empiricism. (In today’s world, with the pendulum swung WAY beyond in the opposite direction, empiricism illicitly trumps, well, everything–even itself.) Nonetheless, for the purposes of your question, we can certainly answer in the affirmative.

    Aristotle viewed the explanation for the continued flight of an arrow as an external efficient cause, i.e., the air had to be pushed away by the tip of the arrow to come around to the fins to “push” the arrow along. That was the scientific understanding for many centuries. However, as early as the Church Fathers people questioned Aristotle NOT on his definition of motion but his understanding of particular motion. John Philoponus (490-570) broke from the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic tradition, questioning methodology and eventually leading to empiricism in the natural sciences. Jean Buridan, a French priest of the 1300’s, solved the impetus problem (precursor to understanding momentum) by understanding that bodies have an immanent quality known as inertia (the metric of mass). These were Christian men in deeply Christian societies whose thoughts were animated by Christian themes and theology and philosophy.

    And that’s just one example. Hannam’s book (as well as others’ books) point out the 800-lb gorilla: it’s not just that Biblical theology or philosophical theology disproved “scientific” errors. It’s that they set the stage from which the MESs could arise as self-sustaining endeavors in the first place. If you’ve read the NYT article on Plantinga, that’s what makes Dennett’s remarks so ignorant, repugnant, and self-serving: to give Christianity its proper due as causal of the MESs would undermine their entire worldview.

    Psychologically, these guys simply can’t handle the truth. (No, I did not play the role of Col. Jessup…)

  3. What Coyne and his crew seem to avoid (typically with heated self-deception) is the fact that emergence (evolutionary or otherwise) is no different than revelation.

    This means that even if all the modern myths about evolution (a relatively impotent thing on the basis of actual evidence) are entirely true, this does not even begin to explain why the mysteries of life (a phenomenon assumed rather than explained by evolution) permitted those evolutionary pathways in the first place!

    This is particularly unavoidable in light of the (largely ignored) hard evidence that homo sapiens represent an evolutionary end-point!

  4. Good answers!

    I’m trying to catalog a list of religious (Christian, that is) beliefs that science has disproven.

    1. We’ve been forced to remove the Book of Ptolemy from our sacred canon.

    2. We’ve been forced to agree with Augustine that the world is older than a few thousand years, and that Genesis is not a science textbook.

    3. We’ve been forced to admit that the Bible is wrong in teaching the earth is flat. It’s probably worth noting that no one ever believed the world was flat, or that the Bible taught it was. But we’ve been forced to admit our error regardless. (Here’s a good article on that, even though it has a formatting error, on my browser at least.)

    4. We’ve been forced to admit that weather, earthquakes, etc. are never, ever personally directed by a provident God, because science has each each individual event completely explained and quantified, leaving no room for anything but deterministic natural processes.

    5. We’ve been forced to admit that thought, consciousness, rationality, qualia, intentionality, the experience of purposefulness and meaning, etc. can all be comprehensively explained in terms of brain events; not that science has accomplished this yet, but that’s of no consequence, we already know enough about it to safely draw that conclusion. Our evidence for this is clear: science, in all of its investigations of physical stuff, has only found physical stuff, therefore there is only physical stuff.

    6. We’ve been forced to acknowledge the ancients’ unscientific ignorance, for thinking that virgins could have babies and dead men could rise up and walk after three days. Silly ancients. How could they not have known? Maybe (I think I’m on to something here!) they didn’t realize how ancient they were.

    7. We’ve been forced to admit that religion has always persecuted science. Galileo is the prime example. The other example is… umm… err… well, anyway, Draper and White said it, so it must be true. (We’ll have to take the fact that it’s not true—and that even the Galileo story has been distorted—as nothing more than a minor inconvenience.)

    So there you have it, friends: seven proofs that Coyne is right and Christians are wrong. I’m sure there are more besides these, so feel free to add to the list.

    Update 9:15 am: I’ve just decided to make this a separate blog post.

  5. Tom — that list is priceless. You could write a book. Too bad the title “Greatest Show on Earth” has already been taken. But do us a favor? Turn that comment into a full post (to make it easier to bookmark)? 😀

  6. “This is particularly unavoidable in light of the (largely ignored) hard evidence that homo sapiens represent an evolutionary end-point!”

    Doug, can you point me toward a resource so I can learn more about that? That’s honestly the first time I’ve seen it mentioned that homo sapiens represent an evolutionary end-point.

  7. As you may know, the “current best model” of human evolution involves ~5My and a stable population of ~25k for most of that time. With a “generation” of ten years, that means 12.5B organisms between the so-called “human-chimp common ancestor” (HCCA) and homo sapiens. With genome sequencing, we know that that accounts for a DNA divergence of 120M base-pairs (of which perhaps the majority are non-informative, so let’s say 12.5M “positive mutations”). That means one “positive mutation” (or at least HS-relative-to-PT mutations) per 1000 organisms.

    Well, here’s the problem: there have been ~75G modern homo sapiens on the planet in the last 6000 years. With everything being equal, that would imply SIX TIMES the number of “positive mutations” (or at least HS-to-“the next big thing” mutations) in the last 6000 years as was necessary to evolve a HCCA into a human. However, there are LESS THAN A HANDFUL of candidate “positive mutations” in that time-frame.

    Now there are certainly environmental factors in play, but the mathematics of population genetics simply don’t permit “environment” to account for such an immense difference in evolutionary change between two populations (many orders of magnitude reduction in positive mutations) — the “best hypothesis” (at least without invoking anything supernatural) to account for this difference is that HS represents some kind of “evolutionary end-point”.

  8. Sorry, I used “B” once, and “G” once — they mean the same thing: 12.5 billion organisms required to effect the evolution from HCCA to HS, and 75 billion modern homo sapiens within the last 6000 years.

  9. As you may know, the “current best model” of human evolution involves ~5My and a stable population of ~25k for most of that time.
    However, there are LESS THAN A HANDFUL of candidate “positive mutations” in that time-frame.

    Mutations would spread through a 25k population faster than they would through a population of millions, billions, etc. The reproductive generation has also slowed down… where it once may have indeed been 10 years, it certainly hasn’t been in quite some time. So more people + less reproduction means that any mutations would spread less quickly.

    After a bit of thought, the idea that we might represent an evolutionary “dead-end” could come to be in that we might consciously censor out those who do develop such mutations – whether consciously or unconsciously.

  10. @Sault,

    You are correct that “mutations…spread through a 25k population faaster than they would through a population of…billions.” You are also correct that the reproductive generation has been slowing down. But these are “fiddles” on the numbers. We’re not talking about a factor of two or three: we’re talking about SEVEN orders of magnitude. And if we treat positive mutation generation as a binomial random process (the most common model), the probability of even a four-order-of-magnitude difference (NB: there aren’t enough fiddles available to change the numbers by one OOM, let alone three) is truly astronomical.

  11. Of course, Coyne wins as he uses reason whilst his opponents depend on faith.
    We’re no end point as we are further evolving!
    Try to fathom Coyne without the blinders on or the well-trained eyes of prejudice!
    No evolution explains whilst that end point means ignorance at play,using false math- false assumption.
    What a stupid equivocation,because revelations, as are all religious experiences, mean nothing more than people’s mental states at play! To invoke Him for them would beg the question.

  12. Carneades, this is just silly.

    Does Coyne win for using “reason” when the reasoning he uses is invalid? Do I lose for depending on faith, when this post had nothing to do with that?

    You saw “faith” there somehow anyway. Do your well-trained eyes of prejudice not see how stereotyped it is for you to assume I was depending on faith in this discussion? Did I speak of revelations or religious experiences in this post? No. I showed how Coyne had no clue what he was talking about, and how incompetent and/or dishonest it was for him to pretend he did. Your assumptions about other things I think or believe have nothing to do with that.

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