Monday, July 13, 2015

On Jerry Coyne's New Book "Faith vs. Fact"

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne lays out a straightforward premise in the title of his new book, “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”

He gets right to the point with his thesis: “… religion and science compete in many ways to describe reality — they both make ‘existence claims’ about what is real – but use different tools to meet this goal. And I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion — including faith, dogma, and revelation – is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion rends itself incapable of finding truth.”

The conflict between science and religion is a pressing issue in American culture, one that will not subside any time soon. And this conflict has real-life consequences. When children are taught that evolution by natural selection is not true because their ancient text says otherwise, they grow up with an inability to differentiate between evidence and conjecture. Rejecting climate change on purely religious grounds (in defiance of all evidence) makes it much harder for the rest of us to move forward and address a very real crisis.

What’s important to note about faith-based rejections of science is this: Theists don’t disregard science because they have assessed the evidence and found it lacking, rather, they disregard science because they believe it contradicts their faith. Coyne cites a 2006 Time Magazine/Roper Center poll that found, “if science showed that one of their religious beliefs was wrong, nearly two-thirds of the respondents (64 percent) said they’d reject the findings of science in favor of their religion.”

Moderate theists accept science as the best way to achieve knowledge about how the world works, but these same people push back against the authority of scientific evidence when it challenges their religious faith. Coyne objects to the notion that science and faith are simply different “ways of knowing,” different ways of answering different questions. Instead, Coyne points out that “most religions are grounded in claims that can be regarded as scientific.”

Perhaps science and religious faith could be segregated into different ontological realms if the religious faith in question is pantheist, pagan or, as Coyne says, some kind of watery deism where the purported god doesn’t intervene in the universe. But the theist believes that god intervenes in the universe. The creationist claims Noah’s ark as an historical reality. The evangelical claims Jesus rose from the dead in a physical sense. The average Christian believes intercessory prayer actually works. The theistic evolutionist believes God guides the evolutionary process. Coyne argues (very well, in my opinion) that such claims are not outside the realm of science. Rather, these assertions are made with the certainty of scientific fact and they should be subject to scientific scrutiny. Most religious claims are empirical claims about reality and, as such, they should be scrutinized like any other claim, such as, “This medicine works to solve this problem,” or “This chemical is harmful to the respiratory system.” These assertions must be tested if we are to determine their validity.

“[A]lthough some may be hard to test,” Coyne admits, “they must, like all claims about reality, be defended with a combination of evidence and reason. If we find no credible evidence, no good reasons to believe, then those claims should be disregarded.”

Coyne spends a lot of the book contrasting not only the means of acquiring scientific vs. religious knowledge, but the nature of these different types of knowledge. He explains, “scientific knowledge is often transitory: some (but not all) of what we find is eventually made obsolete, or even falsified, by new findings. That is not a weakness but a strength.” On the other hand, religious knowledge is, “incapable of being revised with advances in data and human thinking [and] does not deserve the name of knowledge.” Quoting Michael Sherman, Coyne says science is “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.”  Coyne explains: “The doubt and criticality of science… prevent us from believing what we’d like to be true,” which is, “precisely the opposite of how religion finds truth.”

Coyne’s argument is both complex and easily understood. Essentially, "scientific truth is never absolute, but always provisional.” While some theists try to exploit this reality as a weakness of the scientific method, as Coyne says, it is a strength because knowledge must always be open to reexamination in light of new evidence. Religious “knowledge” on the other hand, claims the status of absolute certainty, a knowledge complete and incapable of disruption by evidence and reason. “Living with uncertainty is hard for many people, and is one of the reasons why people prefer religious truths that are presented as absolute.”

In a growing field of atheist and biologist thinkers, Coyne speaks in his own unique voice. This book isn’t about attacking religion (although Coyne rightfully takes on many weaknesses of theistic arguments), rather I view this book as an apologetic of the scientific method, a defense of evidence and reason. Coyne makes cogent arguments, lays them out with precision, and has enough wit to make age-old questions appear renewed and relevant. I thought this book was a fantastic read.

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