Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jerry Coyne on the Intersection of Science and Faith

LGF points out a review of two books on science and faith by Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago, who concludes that the two cannot be reconciled. Let's see why. The two books in question are Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution and Kenneth Miller's excellent book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul.
He starts by pointing out somethin somewhat sobering that most of us know even we try not to think about it:

Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, "Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old."

He rejects Miller's idea that populism is to blame for the rejection of evolution in this country:

The resistance to evolution in America has little to do with populism as such. Our ornery countrymen do not rise up against the idea of black holes or the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. It is evolution that is the unique object of their ire, and for this there is only one explanation. The facts are these: you may find religion without creationism, but you will never find creationism without religion. Miller and Giberson shy away from this simple observation. Their neglect of the real source of creationism is inexcusable but understandable: a book aiming to reconcile evolution and religion can hardly blame the faithful.

This has led me to wonder about a challenge that was raised by someone, don't remember who, to wit: find me one person, just one, who does not believe in God but is convinced that the earth was created in the last ten thousand years based solely on the evidence. I think you would be looking a long time. He begins his conclusion thus:

Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.

I think that this sidesteps the role of the Spirit. For many of us who believe in God (and yes, it is belief, because we cannot prove it) the Spirit plays a more important role in our mental/theological lives than in our physical lives. The classic Christian construction is that our hearts and minds should be saved. It says nothing about our bodies. Those will die and decay.

Coyne also states one other thing that is perhaps true, perhaps not:

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow" book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Most protestant denominations and Catholics do not have a problem with evolution. It is only the very hard line evangelical community that dismisses it. As Conrad Hyers and others have taken pains to write, this proceeds from an untenable, literal reading of scripture that was simply not meant to be taken as a scientific guide to the creation of the universe.

Coyne is certainly right about how different people practice theology but he mistakenly dismisses all Christians who accept evolution as being "liberal theologians" when some of us aren't anything of the sort.


  1. When I talk with Christians about accepting evolution, the issue always arises that somehow I am diluting Christianity or the Bible in some manner. So I can understand how this man would think that is necessary to find a place of harmony between science and religion.

    Unfortunately, Coyne seems to think that theology needs to become liberal to the point of general deism to accept evolution. However, I (and hopefully a growing number of Christians) am able to continue to believe in a living God who is currently active in our world and lives, while at the same time still accepting the validity of evolutionary theory.

    Perhaps what the evangelical community needs right now is not a better science education, but a better understanding of the scriptures...

    On a side note: "The classic Christian construction is that our hearts and minds should be saved. It says nothing about our bodies. Those will die and decay."

    Yes and no, because the resurrection of the body is an important concept throughout the Epistles of the New Testament and the book of Revelation. According to our current situation on earth, I would agree with you, but in the larger context of eternity, the power of the Spirit to regenerate and restore the entire creation is important.

  2. Coyne is pretty clear to me. If you don't want your religion to become watered-down pantheism, if you want it to have personal relevance, then you are going to have to embrace certain statements as true that science very clearly indicates are false. I just don't see a way around it.

    If one doesn't use scientifically acceptable evidence to decide the truth of these statements, then what? Anything else we might use (personal revelation, historical precedent, for example) to decide the truth divinity of Jesus or reincarnation has had a terrible record in the past. Why would we think that they are going to be any better now?

  3. Don, doesn't that proceed from a strictly literal reading of Genesis, though? The point that I and others are trying to make is that a strictly literal reading of Genesis is not warranted by the text and that is what creates the problem. If you are willing to reject everything outside of the observable, then yes, you must accept Coyne's statements.

  4. Adam, you are correct. The power is obviously there but the emphasis is on the soul, not the body.

  5. Actually, I think Adam's "side note" is far more central to the main issue in this post and in Coyne's analysis. I'd say that the Xian faith is rather emphatic about the priority of the body.

    1. The end of this chapter in the story is the consummation of all things in a new heaven and new earth, with the "heavenly city" coming down to earth. In other words, embodied existence is the final state of things, not the elimination of the body or the material; i.e., a recreated earth is the ultimate destination of history.

    2. So, in the Apostle's Creed, we have the penultimate article being belief "in the resurrection of the body." The final article, "life everlasting," is thus embodied life.

    3. I don't think "literalism" is the problem in trying to understand the compatibility of Genesis and science on the subject of creation. If anything, I think a "literal" reading of Genesis tells us one obvious fact about God: he's a materialist. He can't get enough of it. He's committed to it. He was just getting started with all that speaking stuff into existence. He was really in top form when he got his hands dirty.

    I think it's quite plausible to be a Xian and a materialist (and I know a few philosophers who are). But (and this is a big 'but'): since 'matter' (or "the material" generally) is a basic concept, we need to be quite sure that we have a proper understanding of it. The problem as I see it is that concepts such as 'matter', 'nature', and the 'physical' (might as well include 'space' and 'time' in there, too) are theory-laden already when we pick them up and use them. We should not assume that these concepts are given to us with perfect self-evidence. For example, there is good reason to disentangle the notion of brute stuff, general "stuffishness," when we are trying to explain matter *glancing at quantum mechanics here*.

    What does contemporary physics tell us about the universe? Is it a whole, a continuum or an aggregate? Fixed or in flux? A system determined by necessary regularities or a set of sequential phenomena of contingent, cumulative differentiation and distribution (i.e., a history)? Does physical reality have a definable nature in the sense of determinable constitutive identity, or shall we extrapolate from the way subatomic physics is going and conclude that there is no basic physical materiality, given that all that has been so far "really" found is a transformational series of physical structures that extend indefinitely in the direction of the unimaginable large and the unimaginably small? The radical redescription (some would say rejection) of mechanistic physical theory should have some effect on the way one might consider the place of living processes in a universe of lifeless matter (and of course the presumed priority of the latter as the "natural" state of things).

    Of all disciplines, biology should give us pause when we presume to conceive 'nature' according to the strictures of reductive materialisms that fail to come to terms with living matter as distinct from "dead" matter, or further, as intrinsically developmental and intrinsically context-integrated. Well, further elucidation and defense of those claims is needed, but suffice to say that biology impels us not to conceive another reality, but to develop another way of understanding the only reality there is, now via the lessons of living reality. This other way of understanding "the physical" or "nature" so as to include living being takes being as neither monistic nor reductionist nor univocal, but many-ordered. Let me get to my point in a hopeless attempt to tie these subjects together...

    What I'm suggesting is a way of thinking through the relation of science and religion in terms of analogy. And I suggest this because I find the same thing going on within science itself. What science in its many disciplines does is differentiate kinds of analysis, orders of analysis. For example, one kind is centered on descriptive entitative structure. Another kind is centered on kind of entity and relations of entities. A specific example: behavior and organic structure. Is the former explained by the latter, or the latter by the former? Which is made sense of and which finds its point in the other? That is, is an animal a system of processes and activities, or an assemblage of material components? (Another way of asking the same question: is it structure or function that characterizes animal life?) Can an "either-or" like this properly apply here? I don't think so. Why should we presume that structure and function are separable? The explanation concerns a situation that is both behavioral and biological, two kinds of analysis that are irreducible to one another, but not independent of one another either. Physics and biology are analogous to one another precisely because full systematic determinacy of their respective phenomena requires multiple kinds of analysis.

    So, in an important sense, science and theology are incompatible, but not because they are alternative and mutually exclusive ways of describing the same phenomena. They are different orders of analysis altogether and whilst their phenomena may occasionally overlap (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus is both an empirical and a theological datum), their claims are not mutually exclusive (necessarily) nor reducible to one another, nor understandable in terms of the other. So just as the biologist will not take living being as nothing but the rearrangement of "dead" matter, and thus reduce biology to a subdepartment of physics, so the theist need not regard naturalistic explanations as ultimate nor scientific conceptions as properly basic for what they have to say about reality. By the same token, I think the non-theistic scientist need not forego a methodology that excludes "spirit" or something "above" nature. While science and theology are irreducible to one another, if they proceed on the shared understanding that their respective disciplines require different orders of analysis because the phenomena studied are themselves many-ordered, then they need not demand that all systematic and theoretical work worthy of consideration must operate from a univocal and fixed set of a priori conceptions. If physical reality is many-ordered, then so can (and should) be our kinds of analysis.

    Will our explanations arrive at the same terminus or produce the same expressions (just in different languages)? No way! It is precisely because we are starting from different fundamental conceptions of reality that such naive synthesis is impossible. Whatever answers we give imply a presupposed conception of what makes the real real. Who has the final say in that presupposition? Instead, we should challenge one another with a persistent question: does contemporary physics (or any of the sciences) have the capability of determining what fundamental conception legitimately to assert of reality? Does philosophy? Does theology? Do any of these alone have this capability? Or the right?