Coyne Replies; I Reply; I Think We're Getting Somewhere

By Chris Mooney | June 10, 2009 4:30 pm

Coyne has another post. He defends his view on methodological and philosophical naturalism, and basically says that there are supernatural things that science can address. Ah, but then are they supernatural any longer? This gets to the heart of my problem with Coyne’s approach….

But we’ll get there. For now,  Coyne posed a direct question to me at the end of the post, and I replied on his blog, so I’ll repost the back and forth:

Coyne: Let me pose this question to Mr. Mooney.  The “truth” claims of many faiths are flatly incompatible.  Christians, for example, believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God.  Muslims claim that this is not only untrue, but that anyone who believes it will burn in hell.  At most. only one of these claims can be true. Who is right? How do you decide?  And whatever method you use (whether you were born in Kansas or Kabul; whether you get a personal revelation), doesn’t it differ from the way that science finds out things?

Me: I will write more but in response to your last question, I am in agreement with you. Religions make incompatible truth claims and there is no intersubjective way for us to decide which, if any, of them are true. That’s why I reject all of them. That’s why I’m an atheist, a philosophical naturalist, etc.

But I still disagree with you on compatibilism and much else above….

Read Coyne’s whole post here. More when I can muster it–by tomorrow I expect. The point is that I think we may actually be getting somewhere….

Comments (69)

  1. Dave

    I just read Coyne’s blog, trust me on this, when it comes to his claims on “supernaturalism” – he doesn’t get it, and most likely he won’t get it. He will continue to go back to the Claims of something being “supernatural” (ie – someone claims something is “supernatural” therefore when testing, science is studying the “supernatural”, then there’s “oh, well there’s no clear definitions” and “you can’t define something out of existence” – they simply don’t get it, period, it doesn’t fit with the agenda). It’s also part of the claim that there is a “war between naturalism and supernaturalism”, which obviously makes little scientific sense. He’s absolutely part of a little cadre that don’t seem to realize that there’s a pretty clear understanding of the difference between mn and pn, just ask Pigliucci, in fact email him about it, maybe he would like to get in on this idiocy.

  2. Dave

    Perhaps to help out – Coyne also relies on extremely sketchy “philosophical” argument by others.

    Before you respond, go through these for an even “clearer” understanding of where Coyne is coming from.

    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/natural-and-supernatural-again.html

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/can-the-supernatural-be-studied-kiri-kin-thas-first-law-of-metaphysics/

    You may want to email a couple others over at cfi and try Shermer as well as Massimo, Mike had a nice response to Coyne’s, Seeing and Believing, which deals with this issue.

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/coyne09/coyne09_index.html#shermer

    Like I said though, don’t expect for him to get it and don’t fool yourself he/they’re open for dialogue on this issue. I was told my argument which mirrors yours (most likely to a large extent from what I’ve seen so far) was racism. You can email if you like and I will link you to the conversation, quite stunning really.

  3. If supernatural claims by definition cannot be tested by science, does that mean we let them off the hook? Does that mean anything goes?

  4. Dave

    CV, the claims can be tested, as long as there’s a way. I can CLAIM anything, I can claim my ESP is “supernatural”, we can scientifically test to see if I have ESP – what do you think science (the scientist) is doing? The other problem with these debates is the lack of understanding how one can make “supernatural” argument impenetrable to science. We need to use our reason and scientific understanding, that’s what we want people to do, I think…. or we can make unjustifiable claims like “science can study the supernatural” or the “supernatural is falsifiable”. Trust me, if you don’t do it, someone will in this discussion, start talking about the claim that God created the earth 6,000 years ago and then a flood etc. Then say, that claim was falsified, but will end up missing the point of what was falsified and how – what science has to say on such a matters.

  5. I cannot believe that Coyne made that comment about the Holocaust today. He’ s reckless.

    If supernatural claims by definition cannot be tested by science, does that mean we let them off the hook? Does that mean anything goes?

    Considering the precentage of the population who are religious, you seen everything going all around you? Mostly everything going is based on people stealing money and hurting people for reasons that are anything but supernatural. I’d guess the supernaturally motivated crimes are outweighed by the very materialistic ones by an order of tens of thousands to one.

    Like with science going to pot, this one is absurd. The few criminals who use the supernatural as an excuse seldom get away with it on those grounds.

  6. Jon

    Actually, according to 13th century Christian theology, anyway, you can be am lifelong Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Stoic, Platonist, etc. and still be saved (that’s not to say 21st century Christian fundies from Kansas think that).

    Also, it’s interesting that other systems like Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, often don’t claim to exclude other religious systems and often live alongside them.

    You really have to look at what science is trying to do and what religion is trying to do as separate projects.

  7. Jon

    Oops. That Thomas Aquinas link didn’t come through. Here it is: http://tinyurl.com/lw2nos

  8. Also, it’s interesting that other systems like Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, often don’t claim to exclude other religious systems and often live alongside them.

    Most of the liberal Christians and Jews I’ve known have been totally accepting of anyone, including atheists, as long as they didn’t express bigotry and advocate violence.

    When someone recently commented on the widespread acceptance of evolution in Japan, I wondered if they might not have a loud group of atheists telling Shintos that they were ignorant faith heads.

    I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read from the Atheists from Jesus. I seem to recall that the late John Mortimer was a member. I’d love to have gone to meetings with him.

  9. benjdm

    “He defends his view on methodological and philosophical naturalism, and basically says that there are supernatural things that science can address. Ah, but then are they supernatural any longer?”

    Of the conceptions that can be used of the natural / supernatural distinction, this one is the weakest. Supernatural is another word for ‘we don’t know yet’? The Pioneer anomaly is currently a supernatural phenomenon? Science is not a tool that can be used to investigate supernatural (currently not understood) phenomena?

    Actual philosophical naturalists break it down like this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphysical_naturalism

    “Metaphysical naturalism, or ontological naturalism, characterizes any worldview in which reality is such that there is nothing but the natural things, forces, and causes of the kind that the natural sciences study, i.e. the things, forces and causes which are required in order to understand our physical environment and which have mechanical properties amenable to mathematical modeling…

    Metaphysical naturalism represents a particular view about reality and hence belongs to the philosophical field of ontology. It forms the philosophical foundation of the related but distinct methodological naturalism which represents a particular view of how one may think about reality and which hence belongs to the philosophical field of epistemology…

    What all metaphysical naturalists agree on, however, is that the fundamental constituents of reality, from which everything derives and upon which everything depends, are fundamentally mindless. So if any variety of metaphysical naturalism is true, then any mental properties that exist (hence any mental powers or beings) are causally derived from, and ontologically dependent on, systems of nonmental properties, powers, or things…”

    Supernaturalism is souls or spirits goo – stuff performing mental activities and providing causes without any smaller pieces-parts. The only other coherent definition is of a reality that never interacts with ours (which makes all discussions pretty moot.)

  10. Jon

    Here is Isaiah Berlin describing Giambattista Vico’s criticism of how Enlightenment thinkers tended to misread religion:

    According to Vico, our lives and activities collectively and individually are expressions of our attempts to survive, satisfy our desires, understand each other and the past out of which we emerge. A utilitarian interpretation of the most essential human activities is misleading. They are, in the first place, purely expressive; to sing, to dance, to worship, to speak, to fight, and the institutions which embody these activities, comprise a vision of the world. Language, religious rites, myths, laws, social, religious, juridical institutions, are forms of self-expression, of wishing to convey what one is and strives for; they obey intelligible patterns, and for that reason it is possible to reconstruct the life of other societies, even those remote in time and place and utterly primitive, by asking oneself what kind of framework of human ideas, feelings, acts could have generated the poetry, the monuments, the mythology which were their natural expression. Men grow individually and socially; the world of men who composed the Homeric poems was plainly very different from that of the Hebrews to whom God had spoken through their sacred books, or that of the Roman Republic, or medieval Christianity, or Naples under the Bourbons. Patterns of growth are traceable.

    Myths are not, as enlightened thinkers believe, false statements about reality corrected by later rational criticism, nor is poetry mere embellishment of what could equally well be stated in ordinary prose. The myths and poetry of antiquity embody a vision of the world as authentic as that of Greek philosophy, or Roman Law, or the poetry and culture of our own enlightened age, earlier, cruder, remote from us, but with its own voice, as we hear it in the Iliad or the Twelve Tables, belonging uniquely to its own culture, and with a sublimity which cannot be reproduced by a later, more sophisticated culture. Each culture expresses its own collective experience, each step on the ladder of human development has its own equally authentic means of expression.

  11. The fact that science poses a problem for supernatural claims is one of the main reasons why Hinduism and Buddhism have a much easier time accommodating science. A lot of their tenets don’t involve physical phenomena like resurrection and virgin birth but abstract concepts like the oneness of life with the universe etc. Plus, the fact that their main foundation is not based on some core and rather absolute set of rules like the Ten Commandments and can even accommodate atheism definitely helps.

  12. Coyne says: “And despite my admiration for Pennock’s book, which I still think is the best analysis of intelligent-design creationism around, I think he’s dead wrong when he says, “But we have no control over supernatural entities or forces; hence these cannot be scientifically studied.” Just because we can’t control God and how he responds to prayer doesn’t mean that we can’t study whether prayer works.”

    Such a fundamental disagreement with Pennock, IMHO, shows Ken Miller had a point when he said:

    “The genuine tragedy of Coyne’s argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly ideological crusade—a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, Jerry, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and you would do well not to turn them away.”

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/coyne09/coyne09_index.html#miller

    As for Rosenhouse, I appreciate that he’s trying to be an honest broker when he says:

    “By all means read Miller, Haught, Ruse and all the others on this subject. They have shown quite successfully that traditional Christianity is not flatly refuted by evolution, or by anything else in science. Coyne and the New Atheists have never claimed otherwise. The trouble is simply that their attempted reconciliations seem terribly implausible, to me and to a lot of others.”

    But Coyne wrote this:

    “Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.”

    Right there is Coyne, claiming otherwise.

    As for Coyne, it does appear to me that he’s dismissed the line from methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

    And on this whole debate about “accomodationalists,” the atheists I know aren’t painted by the broad brush that fundamentalists would like to use. When fundamentalist atheists try to co-op that brush and use it against people of faith that I know, they fail just as badly.

    So, personally, I will listen to the side that won in Dover – a team that included Pennock and Miller.

  13. Sorry if I don’t understand English correctly, this is not my first language. But it seems to me that, since the beginning, people here are missing the key word in Coyne sentence: he says Clearly some claims about the supernatural can be tested (and rejected) by science..

    I repeat, in bold: some CLAIMS about the supernatural can be tested by science. That is not at all the same thing as saying that supernatural can be tested by science.

    He also says in his New Republic article: You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural. It seems pretty clear to me, isn’t it?

  14. Hinduism and Buddhism have a much easier time accommodating science.

    This again? How do you explain that it was among Christians and Jews that modern science had its largest flowering in the past several centuries? And that it was among Moslems that a considerable part of it did before then? And now in countries with large Buddhist and Hindu populations though hardly unknown in Japan with its large Shinto population? And if you think Hindu and Shinto belief is non-theistic and that large amounts of Buddhist belief isn’t supernatural you are mistaken. Nibbana is certainly not an aspect of the natural world any more than heaven is. An irony of your statement is that in the gospels Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is spread on the Earth so it would, actually, be located in the world, though it’s meaning would be insusceptible to scientific detection.

    It’s all as if history doesn’t matter with the new atheism isn’t it. But, as pointed out earlier, history is absolutely as much the way things happened as anything in evolution. It is the record of reality just as much as the evidence of evolution and known in a lot more detail. It’s as much an intellectual fallacy to reject history as unimportant as it is to reject evolution.

    Pascal Lapointe, no claim about the supernatural can be tested by science. Claims made about parts of the material universe can be, absolutely, which is why the literal truth of Genesis is known to not be true. But that statement about the Kingdom of God, which Jesus locates as spread upon the Earth isn’t.

    Coyne is the one who wants to redefine science and as the test at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog shows it’s pretty much a new atheist project to destroy the basis of science and logic in order to attack religion. If you don’t think that’s a valid statement you should go read what can get said about both on a ScienceBlog without anyone refuting it.

    I wonder how many other unfalsifiable truths Coyne wants to give up, like the wisdom of the separation of church and state and that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Those are no more susceptible to science than any non-material tenet of religion.

  15. (sorry about the previous fragmented comment, don’t know what went wrong – feel free to remove it, if it wasn’t tossed it out of the moderation queue already.)

    @Jon, #10: your quote appears to present the “religion is simply a form of expression”-argument. If this were really true, we wouldn’t be having this argument, would we? It’s not like we have heavy discussions about whether science is compatible with Lord of the Rings. Nobody uses its authority to support their positions on moral topics either. Clearly many people treat religious myths quite differently than they would treat Tolkien’s work, or other works of fiction. Saying that religion is merely a form of expression ignores all the other ways religion and religious beliefs are used in daily life.

    That doesn’t mean that religious texts are not a form of expression that is important to the culture it was produced in. The fact that many enlightenment thinkers and new atheists don’t bring it up is simply because it is not a point of dispute. It’s also not the trait of religion that causes social problems. That only happens when people start to regard religion as something more than fiction or poetry.

  16. Research into astronomy, mathematics and medicine occurred in Hinduism in parallel with that in Christianity and Islam, if not earlier. Before you assert yourself, are you familiar with the work of Aryabhatta, Bhaskaracharya and Sushruta? In any case, what I am making is a factual assertion about the current state of affairs. You simply see much less, almost negligible religious opposition to evolution, stem cell research and abortion in India for instance. There is a thousand-year old strain of Hinduism that is avowedly atheist and non-theist. Hinduism offers multiple paths for reaching a goal and no one set of rules is the right one. As an instance of the difference between Hinduism, Buddhism, and the monotheistic religions, take a look at pg. 202 of Sam Harris’s book where he compares the abstract analysis in Buddhism to concepts in the monotheistic religions. Also take a a a look at Ed Vishwanathan’s site (and book) What is Hinduism?
    http://www.boloji.com/hinduism/036.htm
    Anyway, this is not an argument about the superiority of any religion over the other, since all religions have major problems.

  17. That doesn’t mean that religious texts are not a form of expression that is important to the culture it was produced in. The fact that many enlightenment thinkers and new atheists don’t bring it up is simply because it is not a point of dispute. It’s also not the trait of religion that causes social problems. That only happens when people start to regard religion as something more than fiction or poetry.

    Oh, how reasonable. The new atheists only demand is that religious believers stop believing that what they believe is true. And they can have what’s left when they have done that. Well, what do you know. No problem at all.

    And then we can look at the bill of rights as fiction and poetry too. I read in one of his irrational posts Richard Dawkins wants to get rid of jury trials and replace them with some cognitive science mumbo-jumbo. And maybe he’ll reconsider his asking to have his signature removed from the petition that would have made parents who told their children about religion criminals, once those rights have been deemed of only poetic significance.

    It’s all so reasonable.

    By the way, I’m almost as sick and tired of people trivializing poetry as I am their disregarding history. Science isn’t the be all and end all of everything. When you look at what it actually is able to do with the resources its got, it covers a very small part of life. And a lot of the stuff in the behavioral sciences does a pretty bad job with their part of it. It’s supposed to be able to produce a high degree of reliable information about its subject, it doesn’t produce any information about anything it doesn’t subject to its requirements, and those are pretty demanding and mandatory.

  18. As an instance of the difference between Hinduism, Buddhism, and the monotheistic religions, take a look at pg. 202 of Sam Harris’s book where he compares the abstract analysis in Buddhism to concepts in the monotheistic religions.

    I’ve read Harris and I’ve read real scholarship on the subject and Harris is no scholar of Buddhism.

    You expect me to take him as an impartial source of information on the subject? Good grief. Maybe the new atheism is the product of the abandonment of liberal education. The guy’s a propagandist for his sect of atheism.

    You explain to me the scientific basis of the doctrine of Dependent Origination and No Self and maybe you’ll convince me that those are susceptible to falsifiability. You explain how believes such as Mara and parinibbana are not supernatural and I’ll admit that you are right.

  19. I am not citing Harris as a scholar of Buddhism. I am simply citing pg. 202 as an instance of a specific comparison of a concept in Buddhism and the monotheistic religions. Now that you have taken a look at pg. 202 we can move on. And you keep talking about history whereas I am talking about the present. Hinduism is as full of supernatural nonsense as any of the other religions. Where did I say that there is a scientific basis for all of that? I am only saying that it has much fewer problems with some important modern scientific issues and concepts like stem cell research and evolution. Plus it seems to be compatible with others like the Complementarity Principle, Wave-Particle Duality and the Multiverse. It’s interesting.

  20. Stem cell research and abortion rights are supported by the majority of Christians and Jews in the United States. Evolution has its problems, not with Catholicism, some evangelical christianity and with just about no liberal Christians.

    Wave-particle duality. Richard Lewontin once asked how the idea of the trinity (which I don’t happen to believe in, myself) is any more difficult to accept that wave-particle duality. Lewontin is a materialist, by the way. And a better scientist than Richard Dawkins ever was or could have been.

    I would have to wait till the public library opens to look at Harris again, I didn’t buy the thing. As a scholar of anything, the guy’s a fraud. Has he finished his PhD yet?

  21. @Anthony McCarthy, #17:

    Oh, how reasonable. The new atheists only demand is that religious believers stop believing that what they believe is true. And they can have what’s left when they have done that. Well, what do you know. No problem at all.

    Nobody’s demanding that anybody stops “believing that what they believe is true”. There is a huge difference between demanding that people give up their beliefs and trying to argue that your position is more valid than theirs. Aren’t you trying to do the same?

    Also, did you miss that the quote Jon posted actually criticizes the enlightened thinkers for not realizing that religion is a form of expression? Here it clearly is not the new atheists that attempt to limit what religion should be, but rather the people who try to claim that religion and science are not conflicted, as they are completely separated. Few new atheists would agree with that statement – Dawkins certainly doesn’t.

    By the way, I’m almost as sick and tired of people trivializing poetry as I am their disregarding history. Science isn’t the be all and end all of everything.

    Where did I say anything that trivializes either poetry or history? And where did I say that science is the “be all and end all of everything”?

  22. Jon

    Saying that religion is merely a form of expression ignores all the other ways religion and religious beliefs are used in daily life.

    Yes, but that quote also talks about institutions. That would include government. Our government and our institutions “express” our values. Expression can be serious business.

  23. I meant the latter in half-joking tone. I am not one of those who actually buys the goods that the likes of Zukov and Capra sell. And while some liberal Christians support stem-cell research and evolution, I am only saying that the relative opposition to evolution in Hinduism is negligible compared to Christianity because it does not say anywhere that God created the heavens and the earth any number of years back. And I have to admit that I too was left scratching my head about the quip regarding poetry. Also, I know you loathe Harris but some of his analysis of stem-cell research and abortion is very well-argued. Please take a look. Let’s not consider the entire stock of barrels tainted because we happen to believe a few (or even many) apples are rotten.

  24. Davo

    Anthony McCarthy seems to be fond of attributing things to people that they have not said. This is not the first time I have seen this. He is all over the place.

  25. @13. Pascal Lapointe:

    Sure, but then he goes on to detail the experiment he thinks he can conduct and that’s where he fails.
    Prayer appeals to a supernatural entity to perform something in the natural world. Whether you believe that’s even possible is besides the point. It’s the classic problem that you can’t control a supernatural entity, especially if we’re talking about an entity about which it has been said should not be tested.
    So regardless of the experiment’s outcome, you can’t disprove the idea that the supernatural entity simply chose not to participate in the experiment. Thus the whole premise is unfalsifiable and so not science.
    If you really want to persist, probably the only thing you can end up proving is that supernatural entities don’t take part in prayer experiments.
    And really, the thing you have to be concerned about is whether people are relying on prayer INSTEAD of science, like someone who refuses to take their child to a doctor when they’re sick.
    But I don’t have a problem with someone in a hospital waiting room who says a prayer out of concern and love for someone undergoing an operation. Who is to say it doesn’t do some good?

  26. Jon

    The people who try to claim that religion and science are not conflicted, as they are completely separated.

    No, I’m not arguing that. There’s going to be conflict. What I am arguing is that the New Atheists make the conflict categorical–that they *must* conflict in just about all cases. This is a dangerous exaggeration.

    The danger is that 1) the less informed religious people are are a good chunk of the population and don’t like to be told what to believe by “smart” people, making the fight you’re picking politically unwise, and 2) the more informed people (religious and non-religious) know that there are perfectly good, enduring arguments against rationalist, proselytizing atheism, and that these arguments are centuries old, and they aren’t going away any time soon.

    I think the case that religion and science are for the most part separate is pretty easy to make. For instance, here’s philosopher Charles Taylor on the matter:

    Science and religion are not quite totally non-overlapping magisteria, but [SJ Gould] is right in the sense that if anybody said, ‘I’m going to solve all the problems of the meaning of life, by only looking at the evolutionary view,’ they would be mad, they do not understand the limitations. Or, on the other hand, reading the Bible to understand how human beings evolved, that’s equally unrealistic.

  27. Anthony McCarthy

    Davo, you’re the one who said that the problem is that religious believers believe their beliefs are the truth. What other conclusion is there to be drawn from that?

    Tim Broderick, that’s a good point, that God doesn’t sign consent forms before people decide to test him. There is some biblical precedence to the effect “You will not put the Lord your God to a test.” It might be reasonable that God would have had other plans than those of the researchers to start with, which would be insurmountable for the “test”.

    But the problem of testing “prayer” is that you can’t define it, you can’t detect its presence or if it comes in more effective and less effective forms….. The idea of testing prayer shouldn’t have gotten past the first review of the proposal.

  28. Jon

    As I posted in the other thread, there have been neuroscience experiments done on prayer:

    http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/08/22/is-this-anything-or-is-this-nothing/

  29. Anthony McCarthy

    What I am arguing is that the New Atheists make the conflict categorical–that they *must* conflict in just about all cases. This is a dangerous exaggeration.

    They also claim that any alleged conflict is an enormous problem when there isn’t any evidence of that. Where is religion flooding into scientific publications and proceedures? Where has the wall keeping the supernatural out of science broken down? One place is where the new atheists have tried to make science badly go where science should never have gone beforoe in order to make it a tool against the non-material claims of religion.

    The problem of keeping creationism outside of the public schools isn’t even a scientific problem, it’s a political problem. In order to win a political fight you need to convince an effective majority of the population of your point of view. The new atheist pipe dream of converting a voting majority to atheism is impractical, if nothing else. In the world as it is now, most people, even those without a formal religious affiliation are not atheists or agnostics. Those are the people you have to convince to win politically. You won’t do that by insulting them and saying clearly bigoted and false things about them and their beliefs.

    Davo might have noticed that I haven’t said a word about why someone should not be an atheist or to promote the belief in a particular religion. That’s because it isn’t my purpose, it is to show how wrong the new atheists are, how unsupported their assertions are and how damaging they can be to the effort to keep creationism out of the schools and to promote science in the general culture. From what I’ve read of them and especially the culture of the new atheism as manifested on blog threads, their bigotry against religious people even overrides the practice of logic and science. Most of the new atheists would seem to be about as ignorant of real science as the general population.

    I was a political blogger, I think politics are more important than this cultural fad. I’m politically a leftist, I think that the new atheists have the potential to hurt the left in elections. That is why I’ve taken my vacation time to get into this argument. I will continue but not at the level of participation I’ve had this past two weeks.

  30. But the problem of testing “prayer” is that you can’t define it, you can’t detect its presence or if it comes in more effective and less effective forms….. The idea of testing prayer shouldn’t have gotten past the first review of the proposal.

    And yet, prayer has been used as a commodity in the past, and probably still is. Also, clearly, many people still believe that they can tell God answers their prayers. Who is right? Either you can tell, which means you can keep records, and thus perform at least some rudimentary science, or you can’t tell at all, in which case indeed science is useless – but so is prayer. You can’t have it both ways.

  31. Jon

    Where has the wall keeping the supernatural out of science broken down?

    Well, here I’ll disagree with you. All you have to do is look at the government George W Bush built. Look at Chris’s *Republican War…* book for the details on this.

    But I think the New Atheists put too much emphasis on the Religious Right for the problem with this. I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. I think the intellectual architects of the conservative movement are more to blame.

  32. Jon

    The religious right are important, but more as the grunts.

  33. @ 30 Deen

    The act of keeping records would be testing. And, again, since the supernatural agent exists in the past, present and future, there would be no way of testing it since the supernatural agent does not participate in tests and cannot be made to do so.
    Now, Coyne is certainly free to assert otherwise and people are free to argue for or against as much as they want. But a long time ago I stopped being entertained by watching people talk past each other.

  34. Anthony McCarthy

    Jon, I said that the new atheist attack on the wall was only one. I read Chris Mooney’s book and hae told him how much I admire it.

    Now, Coyne is certainly free to assert otherwise and people are free to argue for or against as much as they want. But a long time ago I stopped being entertained by watching people talk past each other.

    Tim Broderick, I think it’s fair to require Coyne to lay out his methodology for how he would test for the supernatural. I’d really be curious to see his experimental design and to look at the intellectual and logical underpinnings of it. To really know, you’d have to run the test and see if it could withstand review and replication, I’d think. Or is what I’ve always been told about how to do science wrong? Since it’s Coyne and his friends who are saying you could do it, let’s see them put up their evidence in real life instead of merely in words.

  35. Anthony McCarthy

    And yet, prayer has been used as a commodity in the past, and probably still is. Also, clearly, many people still believe that they can tell God answers their prayers. Who is right? Either you can tell, which means you can keep records, and thus perform at least some rudimentary science, or you can’t tell at all, in which case indeed science is useless – but so is prayer. You can’t have it both ways.

    Science was invented to find a means of getting very reliable information about the material world. It has stringent requirements to get that reliable information. The more complex and undetectable something is, the harder it is to subject to science. You are far less likely to get reliable information in those cases. Behaviors are among the most complicated, unobservable and variable “things” there are.

    In the case of prayer, especially silent prayer, you would have to entirely rely on the testimony of the person doing the praying that they were praying. There would be no way of knowing if two people who believed they were praying in the same way, were actually doing the same thing. There wouldn’t be any way of knowing if one person was doing the same thing twice in a row. Even if they were saying the same words, you wouldn’t know if what was going on in their minds was the same thing. In Hamlet, Claudius says, “My words fly up, My thoughts remain belowWords without thoughts never to heaven go”, That’s a pretty big obstacle for science to get over. I don’t think even with what you’d get from brain scans you could be certain of it.

    And there is the issue of whether or not God cooperates. My mother always said, God answers all prayers but the answer is often no.

  36. Dave

    Hah! I knew it was going to happen, just didn’t know how. Chris Mooney, I’m telling you, Coyne doesn’t get it, take a look at his “quote of the day” and tell me that isn’t pointed at you, and others?

    He quotes Harris, here’s the important part: “Many atheist scientists believe that, while they can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to delude themselves about God. Inevitably, people holding this opinion fail to notice how condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic a view this is of the rest of humanity — and of generations to come.”

    It doesn’t matter how much work you do to try and forward and defend science and reason, this idea will be thrown around as an accusation to all that don’t follow the Coyne type agenda to the T (though at rare times they will try to deny that) – I have come to the realization that my thoughts on this are a fact. Coyne is throwing a wide net and he simply doesn’t care how reckless he is, anything, and I mean just about anything that has a hint of “accommodation” towards religion is subject to sweeping accusations, irresponsible claims regarding the nature of science and charges of doing harm to humanity. You *need* to understand Chris, they/he is viewing himself as saving humanity, the cause is greater than worrying about claims regarding the nature of science or accusations about people, including you. See Chris, you’re not making progress, Coyne will view you, and most likely will say it at some point perhaps (or quote someone else to do it for him) that you are being dishonest, that your approach is dangerous and harmful. You Chris, are viewed as part of the problem, you need to approach this debate knowing that as a fact.

  37. No, I’m not arguing that. There’s going to be conflict. What I am arguing is that the New Atheists make the conflict categorical–that they *must* conflict in just about all cases. This is a dangerous exaggeration.

    I think your guilty of a little exaggeration yourself here. All New Atheists (as far as I know) agree that there do in fact exist religions that don’t contradict science, and have explicitly said so. It is also generally acknowledged that many people appear to believe in God and in evolution at the same time. When discussing conflicts between science and religion, it’s just not really that interesting to dwell too long on these facts.

    On the other hand, religious beliefs don’t have to be directly contradictory to science to cause conflict (although I admit it’d be a much milder conflict, at a much more philosophical level). Take theistic evolution, which many people believe in, in one form of another (I did too, at some point): the idea that God guided evolution to produce humans as the ultimate end goal. This does not directly contradict evolution, but it does add a scientifically unwarranted assumption to evolution (evolution has an ultimate goal), for which it gives an unfalsifiable explanation (God did it). Here, religion tries to modify (or at least re-interpret) evolution in an inherently unscientific way. Those scientists that support theistic evolution are clearly not applying the same standards to their theistic evolution beliefs as they apply to their scientific beliefs.

    And that’s pretty much the extent of criticism that Coyne and others are offering. If you are afraid that believers can’t deal with that sort of criticism, doesn’t that sound somewhat condescending?

  38. Dave

    Chris, the other important thing to realize is that Coyne putting that quote up today is a not only a message to you and others, it is also to deflect whatever you may say on the nature of science. What he is doing is reinforcing his position that will be his grounding point, NO MATTER what you say. It also allows others, including himself, to filter the debate through this idea in the quote, the truth value of the accusation doesn’t matter, what he claims about the nature of science doesn’t matter, it is how he is framing the debate that matters to him, and the message he wants to send.

  39. Inevitably, people holding this opinion fail to notice how condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic a view this is of the rest of humanity — and of generations to come.

    Harris said that? Two words, Harris, gnothi seauton.

    What he is doing is reinforcing his position that will be his grounding point, NO MATTER what you say. It also allows others, including himself, to filter the debate through this idea in the quote, the truth value of the accusation doesn’t matter, what he claims about the nature of science doesn’t matter, it is how he is framing the debate that matters to him, and the message he wants to send.

    Dave’s observation seems to be supported by Coyne’s unrefereed production at his own blog. He’s not interested in any discussion unless he rigs the rules so he always wins. H. Allen Orr, in a dispute with Daniel Dennett called this “Heads I win, tails you lose”.

  40. @ Deen

    “theistic evolution, which many people believe in, in one form of another (I did too, at some point): the idea that God guided evolution to produce humans as the ultimate end goal.”

    Actually, the term theistic evolution is used to describe a range of views. Miller and others, for instance, do not believe that God actually guided evolution and completely accept that theology must give way to methodological naturalism.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theistic_evolution
    “The term was used by National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie Scott to refer to the part of the overall spectrum of beliefs about creation and evolution holding the theological view that God creates through evolution. It covers a wide range of beliefs about the extent of any intervention by God, with some approaching deism in rejecting continued intervention. Others see intervention at critical intervals in history in a way consistent with scientific explanations of speciation, but with similarities to the ideas of Progressive Creationism that God created “kinds” of animals sequentially.”

    @ 38 Dave
    I agree

  41. @Tim, 40: I did mention that there were many forms :) I never claimed all Christians who accept evolution also accept that man was the ultimate end goal of evolution, or even that man was made in God’s image – without these assumptions, you wouldn’t need divine intervention at all. This was just one example I used to illustrate my point: even relatively common, moderate Christian beliefs can create tension with science.

  42. Anthony McCarthy
  43. Anthony McCarthy

    Did that cure the slanties?

  44. Anthony McCarthy
  45. Anthony McCarthy

    Anyone know how to fix that html problem I apparently set off?

  46. – Does that get rid of the italics?

    @41 Deen

    No, I appreciate what you said. You qualified theistic evolution – ” in one form of another ” – but then specified it – “the idea that God guided evolution to produce humans as the ultimate end goal.” It seemed a bit too vague, so I wanted to make sure there was some understanding of the range of views. But, good, sounds like we agree.

    As for any tensions religion has with science, that’s a theological problem isn’t it? I agree with Larry Krause in this: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/krauss.html

    It seems to me that Coyne doesn’t.

  47. Albert Bakker

    Claims about supernatural phenomena, are they scientifically testable or not?

    To test a claim scientifically it must be measurable. This falls into two questions: 1) Is something you can measure automatically part of nature? 2) If the answer is yes, then are the conclusions you can draw from those natural measurements automatically only valid with respect to natural phenomena?

    Suppose somebody claims a particular statue of Maria is weeping blood every second wednessday of the month. With “weeping” is meant something supernatural: the statue is expressing emotion.

    Statues don’t weep and they most certainly do not posess the ability to express emotions. That this fact is recognized by the claimant as his intended audience is of course the whole point of the exercise. The claim is one of a supernatural phenomenon, otherwise the claimant wouldn’t bother.

    Now you cursed unbelievers examine the statue and you’ll find a perfectly natural explanation for the observed phenomenon, like for example wax melting because there is some heat producing activity in the vincinity of the statue with a corresponding frequency or whatever. You generate some heat on tuesday and once again on a friday and lo and behold Maria cries on command.

    Is the claim now falsified?

    The real believer might decide it is not, holding the view that the supernatural crying is still real but concede it is possible to fake it, to simulate the real crying.
    The New Atheist might say duh, statues don’t cry and people who believe they do, border on insanity, but say it in a nice and respectful manner.
    And the “Old Atheist,” Accomodationist or whatever label one prefers, might say that the claim wasn’t supernatural in the first place because in this case it could be investigated with earthly means, which are methodologically unsound for determining real supernaturally crying statues and walk away from the issue with a real sense of statisfaction for being so nuanced.

  48. One thing I’ve learned from all of this, if nothing else. Biologists are poor philosophers.

  49. Biologists are poor philosophers.

    My old blogging partner, a “recovering economist”, has complained about economists pretending they’re biologists. Since the adaptationist mania took off everyone’s pretending to be biologists.

  50. One key to it is what follows from these of Coyne’s words:

    I reiterate: the incompatibility between faith and science rests on how they determine “truth.” To quote from my New Republic article:

    In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong?

    Left unsaid is that Coyne finds it distasteful for a person who employs a religious methodology for finding the truth to also employ a scientific methodology – he believes (in my view rightly) that such a person is “inconsistent”. I don’t share his distaste in such inconsistency – I recognize that everyone, no matter how scientific, will use inconsistent means for arriving at the truth since the rigor of experiment is impractical in many every day situations… and I recognize that humans have a number of modes of thinking – non-identical, and in that respect “inconsistent” with each other. More importantly, I recognize that this “inconsistency” is a meta-character. It is not a character of science or of religion, but of the person who practices both. It is, therefore up to that person to work out the epistemological weight she will apply to one method or the other and which questions to settle by which method. It is not up to the scientist to proclaim that, because of this philosophically perceived inconsistency, religion can never be used for any question, and can never be given any epistemological weight. Such a claim is a departure from what science does well – providing naturalistic answers to questions about the workings of nature – and an incursion into manipulative psychiatry.

  51. Anthony McCarthy

    smijer, answering someone on a thread down below. Daniel Dennett proves that a philosopher can make a really, really lousy biologist.

  52. @25 Tim: Well, that only proves that Jerry Coyne is right in saying that SOME claims of the supernatural can be investigated scientifically. Prayer is a good example: in health, we can experiment if people who are praying have an health effect. At the end, it is possible to disprove the supernatural explanation, if people who are praying and people who are not have the same health effects.

    Of course, there are claims impossible to investigate. But the important thing here, relating to the Jerry Coyne article, is that these are CLAIMS of the supernatural that can be investigated, not the supernatural. This is what Coyne is saying, when we read Clearly some claims about the supernatural can be tested (and rejected) by science.

    Result is, we are at this moment in an etymological debate, rather than a philosophical one. This is not the best way to advance the larger science vs. religion issue.

  53. Prayer is a good example: in health, we can experiment if people who are praying have an health effect. At the end, it is possible to disprove the supernatural explanation, if people who are praying and people who are not have the same health effects.

    How big a sample would you need to take into account the fact that you couldn’t know if any two people were doing the same thing when they were “praying”. How could you know if there weren’t people who were better and people who were worse at it?

    How would you set up a control group? How could you keep them from praying for themselves? How could you make certain that other people weren’t praying for them? How would you assure that these weren’t people God or whatever agent of the proposed healing didn’t have other plans for or that maybe they might take pity on them for being chosen to be denied a benefit?

    The idea of studying the efficaciousness of prayer in that way is ludicrous. That it’s been attempted is a red flag of warning about a major problem in science, I’d look for the behavioral sciences as the source of infection.

  54. Anthony: sure, you can always add new constraints and new rules to make an experiment better. But it would be the same thing to almost any investigation on any matter, if you only want to make it difficult.

    My point is that some CLAIMS about the supernatural can be investigated, which is not the same thing at all as saying that the supernatural can be investigated (it can’t).

  55. An individual claim of a cure could. And that could only show you if there was any possibility that prayer worked in that case.

    But only to see if there was a cure or evidence of a condition before the alleged cure happened. But to do a statistical analysis of “prayer” would be extremely unreliable for all those reasons. I think I came up with about twenty problems when I wrote a post about the “prayer studies” a few years back.

    Those aren’t minor obstacles. I don’t want to make it difficult, I don’t want to read some nonsense in the paper purporting to be science.

    http://echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com/search?q=swingers+

  56. Albert Bakker

    The whole point of the supernatural good stuff is the idea that it can interact with the real world. If it wouldn’t (as it doesn’t but refuse to acknowledge) it has no connection to the real world and can be ignored and forgotten. Believers have no use for an autistic God.

    Now, when you investigate if dancing shamans really can make it rain or certain African medicine men can perform magic rituals that really make you impervious to bullets, or test that if you can guess the “real” name of a disease you can chase the corresponding supernatural being away by pronouncing it’s name just right as the Ancient Egyptians thought, or lots of these really, really stupid things. We don’t need to come up with all kinds of excuses and long lists of far fetched methodological problems to explain why the conclusions so consistently point out that it is all nonsense.

    But how different and much more difficult and delicate and impossibly demanding it all suddenly becomes when we have to test if praying to a christian “God” works or not. Is that perhaps because the christian God is so powerful and benevolent that “He” wishes to further our human capacity to make simple things seem impenetrably difficult?

  57. Prayer is a good example: in health, we can experiment if people who are praying have an health effect.

    This is wrong and is a complete misunderstanding of how religious people describe prayer. Prayer i’s a request for intervention without any guarantee of success, or repeatability. It isn’t supposed to work like a physics problem.

    To give a down to Earth example: A boy might ask his mother to buy him a motorcycle. The fact that he never gets a motorcycle doesn’t prove his mother don’t exist, it simply means she didn’t grant his wish.

    On the other hand, she might often buy him a toy when he asks for one. But if he tries to show off his ability to get toys to his friends she may refuse simply to teach him respect for his parents. That’s what it means when people say that you shouldn’t put God to the test.

    God is supposed to be the boss, not you.

  58. You could also add that miracles are held to be improbable and outside of the natural order of things. They wouldn’t be held to be miraculous if they weren’t. I wonder how those two things could be handled by probability but I got into one fight about that this week already.

  59. An individual claim of a cure could. As well as an individual who claims to possess telepathic abilities, or being able to bend a spoon with his mind, or to predict the future, etc. These are all claims about the supernatural that can be investigated (and have been – the Skeptic’s Associations love this!), but these are not investigations of the supernatural (which can not be done).

    Now, that being said, aren’t we far away from what the original discussion should be?

  60. Costanza

    Daniel Dennett proves that a philosopher can make a really, really lousy biologist

    The last time I read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea I thought Dennett had a pretty good understanding of evolution.

  61. @ 53 Pascal

    No, (respecfully) I don’t think you understand the problem. Yes, some claims about the supernatural can be studied. But Coyne goes beyond what is possible in science to claim the results of an experiment regarding prayer is falsifiable, and so is science. It’s simply not, for the exact reasons I’ve outlined.
    And, I completely agree with your point in @60

  62. Albert Bakker

    Jinchi, the reason why in a scientific setup we use groups and repetition under different circumstances and all that is that it isn’t allowed to extrapolate a single anecdotal result to a single conclusion.

    While it might be true that believers regard prayer as a request, they nevertheless expect it to work. If some religion says it works it should work at least for some people some of the time, above the level of pure random chance. So your objections to subject this particular claim of supernatural intervention to the test are irrelevant.

    Translated into your examples it means that with such a result about a large enough sample of asking and silent boys and their mums we can scientifically establish whether boys will be more likely to get a motorcycle from their mums when asking for it or not. I grant you that it doesn’t, cannot say anything about whether mums don’t exist or not. But it says something about all mums nevertheless. It says mums don’t give motorcycles to their sons when they ask for it.

    When comparing between an omnipotent, omnicient and omnipresent all benevolent (at least toward certain people) God and a mum with respect to asking for favours methunk it would also be much fairer to ask bigger things and have higher expectations of positive results with Gods than with mums. Nevertheless reality is that some lucky boys do get motorcycles and more boys get parts of them from their mums, while praying to God won’t even get you the air to inflate the tyres or it will be as effective as a shaman beating his squirrelskin drums and mumbling spells, while chewing on a snake arse to make the motor run faster on toadpiss.

    So I agree with you a full 2i %

  63. Pascal Lapointe, I’ve actually studied organized “skepticism” and am pretty unimpressed by their “science”. About the only thing I’ve noticed is that they’ve duped a lot of ignorant people into thinking that James Randi is a figure in science.

    The old CSICOP conducted exactly one “scientific” study, the notorious sTarbaby fiasco, which only proved that Paul Kurtz and several of the other original CSICOPs were incompetent and dishonest. Dennis Rawlins, who happens to be a rather bigoted atheist himself, though a real scientist, wrote an exhaustive if rather eccentric account of it.

    In a period when Richard Dawkins has managed to put some of the worst excesses of the social sciences on the back of real evolutionary science, I really don’t think mimicing the pseudo-skeptics is going to produce better science.

    You might want to look up Marcello Truzzi, I’ve had to suggest that to many of the new atheists who don’t seem to have much more of a clue about skepticism than they do science.

  64. Jinchi, the reason why in a scientific setup we use groups and repetition under different circumstances and all that is that it isn’t allowed to extrapolate a single anecdotal result to a single conclusion.

    I know that. My point is that prayer as defined by most people simply isn’t amenable to that kind of analysis.

    While it might be true that believers regard prayer as a request, they nevertheless expect it to work

    No, they hope it will work. And by work, they mean that:
    (1) preferably their problem will be instantly resolved or
    (2) failing that, that they will be given some insight into finding a solution themselves or
    (3) failing that, that they will be given the strength to bear their burden.

    This is how prayer is typically described and any scientific study would have to allow for each of those possibilities.

    You also have to take into account that in the religious world “God” is considered a person who can simply decide not to take part in your experiment.

  65. Albert Bakker

    Yes, Jinchi, we are more in agreement than might seem on the surface.

    You take the position it cannot be proved that prayer works and I say it can, has been done and when done properly, consistently says it doesn’t.

    In the American Heart Journal of april 2006 (volume 151, pages 934-942) you can read about such a controlled study of prayer for example. You can find freely accessible reprints and pdf’s of the study on the net, eg
    http://www.mowatresearch.co.uk/uploaded_documents/Benson.pdf

    I’ll quote the executive conclusion in full, because it is so deliciously clear:

    “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG (coronary artery bypass graft), but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”

    “God” apparently didn’t decide to simply not take part in the experiment, instead “He” mysteriously shows aversion against people recovering from heart surgery who are in the know they are being prayed for.

  66. Anna K.

    Hmmm. If I found out I was being prayed for after heart surgery, I would think, “Oh %*($, my prospects for recovery must be worse than the doctors are telling me.”

    Then I would go into a nocebo-induced decline.

  67. Albert Bakker

    Seems to me a much more plausible explanation for such an unexpected result indeed than say, a grumpy God, Anna.

  68. Anna K.

    Not to mention the difficulties of getting an omnipotent, omniscient spiritual being to agree to play by the rules of the IRB committee . . .

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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