A work crunch and a week of travel–my last vacation before moving, having a book come out, and getting married–have prevented me from carrying on the dialogue with Jerry Coyne lately. It is nothing if not hard work to write the required posts with the rigor and consideration they deserve. But now, Coyne has directly addressed some questions to me, and as they’re relatively easy to answer, let me try.
In all these debates about the compatibility of science and faith, I have yet to see an intellectually respectable answer to this ultimate dichotomy between “ways of knowing.” Instead, people like Mooney go after us for our tone, for polarizing people, and so on. Does Mooney sign on to Hess’s statement that the faithful and the scientists are all really engaged in the same endeavor? If not, why does he call Hess’s column “great”? Instead of beefing about our “militancy,” why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true? Let’s hear about whether you can coherently accept a Resurrection on Sunday and then go to the lab the next day and doggedly refuse to accept any claim that lacks evidence. Now that would raise the tone of this debate.
So let’s field the questions: “Does Mooney sign on to Hess’s statement that the faithful and the scientists are all really engaged in the same endeavor?” Well, I’m sure some of the faithful think they are, and let us not forget that some of the faithful are also working scientists. But apart from this, no, I don’t really think they’re engaged in the same endeavor.
“Why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true?” I’ll address it. I don’t believe that faith can tell us anything true, or at least, anything that we can reliably know to be true. I don’t think we can know anything except based on evidence. In this I’m in full agreement with Coyne, Dennett, Dawkins, and all the rest.
But is that really the point at issue? I gather that it is for Coyne, who wants to know “whether you can coherently accept a Resurrection on Sunday and then go to the lab the next day and doggedly refuse to accept any claim that lacks evidence.” He obviously thinks you can’t.
Where I differ from Coyne is that I don’t really care about a little intellectual inconsistency in my fellow human beings, and indeed, I try not judge. God knows, we all have enough inconsistencies in our heads, and in our lives.
What’s more, I don’t see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with these complicated and personal matters of constructing a coherent worldview. Rather, from a political and public perspective, I want them all to integrate modern science into that worldview. And, from a civil libertarian perspective, I don’t want their religion telling me what to do. (Especially interfering with my access to alcohol on Sundays!)
Insofar as I’m an accommodationist, then, it’s not because I don’t see the incongruity between relying on faith, and looking for evidence, as bases for knowing. Rather, it’s because I know that many very intelligent people are struggling all the time to make their peace with this incongruity in their own way–a peace that works for them. And so long as they’re not messing with what our kids learn–or, again, trying to ram their views down our throats–then good on ‘em.
We need to encourage people to make a peace between religion and science that meets their personal needs without turning them into enemies of science or, essentially, theocrats.
To put it another way, it seems like Coyne wants everyone to be “intellectually respectable” to the last, and to make them rigorously justify everything. I don’t want to set that high of a bar because I don’t think it’s realistic, and I think criticizing people over things so rarefied gets us pretty far afield from what’s really important–which is how we all get along together in society, and whether we live in a science-infused culture.
This is why Coyne seems to want to hold Ken Miller’s feet to the fire about what he believes and whether he can justify it, whereas that approach just baffles me.
In the end, I am exceedingly close to Coyne in my views on just about everything. But our little difference over how far we need to push rationalism has very large practical consequences.
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