Faith vs. Fact? No, Jerry Coyne’s Theology vs. Whatever

Book ReviewCoyne

With all its sloppiness, error, and bias, it’s hard to know where to start in on evaluating Dr. Jerry Coyne’s latest book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Throughout the book I highlighted sentences and paragraphs where his facts were dubious or his reasoning questionable. My impression (I didn’t count) is that I averaged one of these “highlights” per page.

Maybe I’m off by a factor of two, and there was just one every other page. That’s still way too many. I couldn’t begin to cover all the territory that offers for criticism.

One quick example: in his review of the moral argument for God, he spent pages defending evolution’s ability to explain moral behavior. That’s fine, except apparently he didn’t know that the moral argument has nothing to do with moral behavior. It’s about moral facts, the human awareness that some things are actually right and some are actually wrong.

This is not about behavior but about knowledge, knowledge that’s hard to explain except by reference to some transcendent source of morality: God. “Moral behavior” sounds a lot like “moral facts,” though, which might be why Coyne thinks he’s being successful in attacking this argument for God.

It’s like a bomber pilot going off on a mission to bomb Atlanta (God forbid, but I had to choose a city that fits the analogy), dropping his ordnance a thousand miles offshore in the Atlantic, then flying home oblivious to the fact that what he’d accomplished was utterly irrelevant. The two destinations sound alike, after all.

That’s a mere detail, however, next to the fundamental error underlying the entire book. Coyne’s case rests on his contention that science is better than religion because it has ways to verify its knowledge. Somehow it escaped his attention that he wasn’t writing a science book.

The effects of that oversight are devastating, leading him in some cases to delve all the way into a theology of his own.

Coyne’s Theology

For example (p. 84),

Clearly, religions aren’t incompatible only with science: they’re incompatible with one another. And this incompatibility wasn’t inevitable: if the particulars of belief and dogma were somehow bestowed on humans by a god, there’s no obvious reason why there should be more than one brand of faith.

Of course followers of various religions know our beliefs are incompatible with each other’s. This is not news to us.

There are many things that could mean for religion. (I’ll return to one of them in a moment.) Here, oddly enough, however, Coyne goes straight to theology: if there were a god behind any of our beliefs, there’s “no obvious reason” humans should hold such a congeries of conflicting opinions about that god. But there’s also no reason Coyne should know what God might do if God exists. His point here depends on his view concerning some nonexistent (in his view) god. He’s doing theology, not science, and he’s doing it very badly.

Coyne’s Demarcation Problem: Science and Theology

He stumbles, too, when he discusses further questions flowing out of the multiplicity of religious beliefs. There’s a famous issue in the philosophy of science known as the demarcation problem, which has to do with, how do we define clearly what’s science and what isn’t? Coyne has a different demarcation problem: how do you know when you’re talking about ultimate reality and when you aren’t? It’s found on page 85, among many other locations:

This farrago of conflicting and irresolvable claims about reality [among the various religions] stands in stark contrast to science. While science itself has fragmented into different disciplines that use different tools, they all share a core methodology based on doubt, replication, reason, and observation. In other words, while there are different sciences, there is only one form of science, whose conclusions don’t depend on the ethnicity or faith of the scientist who reaches them.

This hints at some degree of ignorance concerning the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science. It fairly screams, however, Coyne’s blithe unawareness of a demarcation he has imposed on knowledge in general. He claims that science is the route to a general understanding of reality. This could only be true if there were no reality to understand except what’s accessible to science; or in other words, if natural reality were ultimate reality. This is a metaphysical view just the same as any religion’s metaphysical view. That makes it part of the same “farrago of conflicting and irresolvable claims.”

One gets the sense that for Coyne that there is no universal truth except for universally agreeable truth. Science can approach that; religion cannot. If humans in one culture, or with one set of moral opinions, disagree with humans in other circumstances, why, then, they’re both wrong! But this doesn’t follow. Disagreement doesn’t mean both parties are wrong: one could be right. Disagreement among thousands doesn’t mean all parties are wrong: one could be right.

I believe Christianity is true, and conflicting beliefs are false. The mere fact that there are conflicting beliefs is hardly sufficient reason to conclude that my belief is wrong.

I’m not the only one who thinks that among all the options, there’s one right belief. Coyne scientism is right and true, the one reliable guide to all reality. He doesn’t see that this one is part of the same “farrago.” It is, and his whole approach crumbles through his unawareness of that fact.

Faith vs. Fact, Indeed: There’s No Science Here

I could say so much more. What we have here is Jerry Coyne’s idiosyncratic theology and his own philosophy of science, conveniently selected and presented to reinforce his preconceived opinion.

I wonder what he would say in response to that. Could he claim immunity from bias, by way of being a scientist? No, for this is not a book of science. It’s a book lambasting theology as Coyne understands theology, faith as Coyne understands faith. It’s Coyne’s theology versus whatever he wants to attack with it.

His entire point is that there’s no reliable knowledge to be gained outside the sciences. If he really believed that he should have simply said so and stopped right there; for there’s no science here.