Seeing and Believing
Jerry A. Coyne
The New Republic, February 4, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W.
HarperOne, 248 pages
Only A Theory: Evolution and the
Battle for America's Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
Viking, 244 pages
The National Academy of Sciences, America's most prestigious scientific
body, says: "Science and religion address separate aspects of human
experience. Many scientists have written eloquently about how their
scientific studies of biological evolution have enhanced rather than
lessened their religious faith. And many religious people and denominations
accept the scientific evidence for evolution."
But the real question
is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and
science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory
nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two
institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?
Giberson is a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, a Christian
school, and has written three books on the tension between science and
religion. Kenneth Miller is a cell biologist at Brown University. As one of
the most ardent and articulate defenders of evolution against creationism,
he is also an observant Catholic.
As recounted by Giberson, the
history of creationism in America has itself been an evolutionary process
guided by a form of natural selection. But all creationists believe in God,
claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, agree
that God created humans, and appeal to "irreducible complexity."
Miller dismantles Intelligent Design by taking its "scientific" claims
seriously and following them to their illogical conclusion. He concludes
that "the hypothesis of design is compatible with any conceivable data,
makes no new testable predictions, and suggests no new avenues for
Giberson and Miller assert that the evolution of humans,
or something very like them, was inevitable. Given the way that evolution
works, they claim, it was certain that the animal kingdom would eventually
work its way up to a species that was conscious, highly intelligent, and
above all, capable of apprehending and worshipping its creator.
Evolutionists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable
evolutionary march toward greater complexity that culminated in humans. To
support the inevitability of humans, Giberson and Miller invoke the notion
of evolutionary convergence.In fact, there are good reasons for thinking
that the evolution of humanoids was a priori improbable. Giberson and Miller
proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity
Miller raises another argument also used by creationists:
the fine tuning of the universe. Life as we know it depends heavily on the
size of certain constants in the laws of physics. We inhabit a "Goldilocks
universe," where nature's laws are just right to allow life to evolve and to
thrive. This observation is called the anthropic principle.
Scientists have other explanations. Perhaps some day we will see that a
theory of everything requires our universe to have the physical constants
that we observe. Alternatively, a "multiverse" theory may invoke the
appearance of many universes, each with different physical laws. The
existence of a multiverse does not require a leap of faith nearly as large
as that of imagining a God.
The most common way to harmonize science
and religion is to contend that they are different but complementary ways of
understanding the world. That is, there are different "truths" offered by
science and by religion that, taken together, answer every question about
ourselves and the universe.
Giberson confuses the strategic
materialism of science with an absolute commitment to a philosophy of
materialism. Scientists rely on materialistic explanations of nature because
this is the best research strategy that has evolved from our experience with
nature. We have learned that the idea "God did it" has never advanced our
understanding of nature, and we abandoned it.
There is a fundamental
distinction between scientific truths and religious truths. The difference
rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? As
with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could
kill Darwinism. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to
accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune
to ugly facts.
Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will.
Both of their books are worth reading. Yet in the end they fail to unite
faith and evolution. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of
your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by
agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your
brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. The price
of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance.
This disharmony is
a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and
professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly
harmonious. This is why groups such as the National Academy of Sciences
claim that religion and science do not conflict. But scientists are growing
ever more vociferous about their lack of faith.
Edge Reality Club
Comments by Lawrence Krauss, Howard Gardner, Lisa Randall, Patrick Bateson,
Daniel Everett, Daniel C. Dennett , Lee Smolin, Emanuel Derman, Karl W.
Giberson, Kenneth R. Miller, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer
Edited by Andy Ross
Religion is irrelevant to
science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest
to theologians but it simply doesn't matter to scientists. What matters are
the important questions science is dealing with, from the origin and future
of the universe to the origin and future of life. Theologians have to listen
to scientists, because if they want to try to create a consistent theology
they at least need to know how the world works. But scientists don't have to
listen to theologians, because it has no effect whatsoever on the scientific
If you believe in the scientific
method and the scientific enterprise, you will have little patience for
belief in revelation. For me, the important line in the sand is not between
those who believe in religion/God and those who don't. It is between those
who are tolerant of others' beliefs, so long as they dont interfere with
one's own belief system, and those who will not tolerate those whose belief
system is fundamentally different. I'll settle for mutual tolerance.
By sheer coincidence the day I read this Edge question,
a charming young actor sat next to me on my plane to LA and without any
prompting answered it for me. Science and faith are entirely different
methods for trying to approach truth. You can derive a contradiction only if
your rules are logic. If you believe in revelatory truth you've abandoned
the rules. There is no contradiction to be had.
Attempting to reconcile religion with science is a pointless exercise.
If you live comfortably and are surrounded by good friends and endless
opportunities for a stimulating and interesting life, then your need for
belief in an omniscient and all-caring being is not great. But if you have a
wretched life with nothing to be happy about, you may well want something to
cling onto. It seems staggeringly insensitive to tell such people that they
are fooling themselves.
philosophically incompatible with science. I believe that theology is a
waste of time. However, scientists belong to societies. No one practices
science in a vacuum, culturally, financially, or even religiously. It is
important to maintain respectful dialog on what the proper relationship of
science is to religion if for no other reason than the fact that the
National Science Foundation is hugely subsidized by the taxes of religious
Daniel C. Dennett:
Jerry Coyne nicely dissects the
urge of many people to persuade themselves that their religion can coexist
peacefully with science in general and evolutionary biology in particular.
And he shows just how hopeless this quest is. The question remains: why is
this urge so strong? We can continue to respect the good intentions of those
who persist in professing belief in God, but we'll be doing them a favor if
we stop pretending that we respect the arguments they use to sustain these
Any attempted reconciliation between a
believer of monotheistic religion and a scientist is bedeviled by a
troubling asymmetry. No scientist would deny to someone who doesn't believe
in natural selection the lifesaving benefits of medicines developed based on
its premises. But this generosity is not reciprocated. The greatest gift
revelatory religions have to offer is the promise of heaven. Were they to
practice the brotherhood that they preach this would be offered to all,
irrespective of belief. We scientists, who are lucky to be members of the
most inclusive and diverse community on the planet, should understand the
need of others to be bound in communities with people who share their values
Science and religion are here to
stay. That an incessant stream of books attempting to reconcile science and
religion keeps rolling off the assembly line is a testament to the success
of the Templeton Foundation.
scientists should stop wasting their time trying to beat up on the idea of
God in the name of science. Professional scientists have no special
expertise other than at science. The universe may indeed have started in a
big bang, but that doesn't negate anything deep. Mental reality is as real
as physical reality, and a necessary precursor to theorizing about physical
Karl W. Giberson:
Coyne speaks of "theologians with a
deistic bent" who inappropriately presume to "speak for all the faithful."
The implication is that the faithful are the more authentically religious
and the theologians are an aberration. This seems unfair to me. The great
masses of these faithful should be juxtaposed with the great masses of
people who believe in science but are not professionals. Most Americans
believe in science. What do you suppose science would look like, were it
defined by these believers? Science as "lived and practiced by real people"
is quite different from the science promoted by the intellectuals in this
Empirical science does indeed trump revealed truth
about the world, as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But
empirical science also trumps other empirical science. How is it that
science is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best
informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to
circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the
ancient baggage carried by its least informed?
The world disclosed by
science is rich and marvelous, but most people think there is more to it.
Our religious traditions embody our fitful and imperfect reflections on this
mysterious and transcendent intuition. There is a widespread fear on
America's main streets that evolution is destroying a cherished belief in
God. I wonder what would happen if, in the name of pluralism and diplomacy,
we could all agree that it was OK for people to believe that evolution was a
part of God's plan.
Kenneth R. Miller:
Jerry Coynee believes
that God does not exist, and that any reasonable person should think as he
does, rejecting the elixir of faith as pointless delusion. Coyne flatly
states that faith and science are not compatible, arguing that the empirical
nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. Evolution
produced the fabric of life that covers our planet, including our own
species. If God is the creator of that world, then it would be perfectly
reasonable for a religious person to see our emergence as part of God's plan
for that universe.
Science does require methodological naturalism. We
live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the
way nature works. By definition, that confines science to purely
naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those
have validity as science. But the real issue is whether a scientist's view
on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly,
it is not.
Coyne's entire critique is based upon the assumption that
science is the only legitimate form of knowledge. To Coyne, any deviation
from that view is adultery. But one can embrace science in every respect and
still ask a deeper question. Why does science work? The true vow of a
scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his
scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping
back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the
It is a pity that people like
Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett can't see how easily religion and science can
be reconciled. Their fundamentalist rationality has blinded them to deeper
truths. Hindus worship a multiplicity of gods. Muslims acknowledge the
existence of only one, and believe that polytheism is a killing offense. Do
Hinduism and Islam conflict? Only "if your rules are logic."
Bateson tells us that it is "staggeringly insensitive" to undermine the
religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree
completely. I realize the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the
sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public
expression of his faith?
Kenneth Miller delivers the perspective of a
genuine believer. He is especially good at separating scientific rationality
from every other form of human cognition. The universe is rationally
intelligible because the God of Abraham has made it so. This God instilled
in us the cognitive ability to subsequently understand the cosmos in
scientific terms. As to why science has been the greatest agent for the
mitigation of religious belief the world has ever seen, and has been viewed
as a threat by religious people in almost every context, this is a final
mystery that defies human analysis.
applies rigorous standards of logic and evidence to the claims of religion
and to the attempts to reconcile it with science. Many scientists who share
his atheism still believe that he is somehow being rude or uncouth for
pressing the point. But he is right to do so. Knowledge is a continuous
fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in
which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of
evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric. The reconciliationist arguments
depend on theological propositions, and there is no reason that they should
not be subjected to the standards of reason.
I don't think a union between science and religion is possible for a logical
reason, but by this same logic I conclude that science cannot contradict
religion. To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation
of A is A. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. In a natural
worldview, there is only the natural and mysteries left to explain through
AR "I am that I am," said the God of our
fathers. This is the key to an evolutionary explanation of the astonishing
success story of the Abrahamic monotheisms. Genes drive us to genuflect to a
revelated transgenerational superself. Goofology corroborates
genocentricity. Goof is great, and Dawkins is his prophet.