Seeing and Believing

By 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. Giberson
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?

Karl 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 research."

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 demands it.

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

Lawrence Krauss:

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 process.

Howard Gardner:

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.

Lisa Randall:

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.

Patrick Bateson:

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.

Daniel Everett:

Religion is 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 people.

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 fantasies.

Lee Smolin:

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 and hopes.

George Dyson:

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.

Emanuel Derman:

I think 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 reality.

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 conversation.

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 deeper questions.

Sam Harris:

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."

Patrick 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.

Steven Pinker:

Jerry Coyne 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.

Michael Shermer:

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 natural means.


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.