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.
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”?