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Coyne's Confusion: How a Prominent Scientific Atheist Can't Agree With Himself About Metaphysical Naturalism

Advocates of Intelligent Design and others who practice skepticism toward the pomposities of much of modern Darwinism can be forgiven a little amusement when they see their detractors engaged in an internal squabble that highlights the philosophical absurdities of the scientistic rationalism that pervades much of modern Darwinism.

Ever since the publication of Jerry Coyne's New Republic article, "Seeing and Believing," the Darwinists have been engaged in a three-way tug of war over the issue of "accommodationism." The gnawing and snarling has pitted three camps against each other in a contest over the right way to wage the PR war against the Intelligent Design movement for the hearts and minds of the scientifically naive.

The Three Non-Amigos
There are, first, those who, scornful of any public dissembling, declare outright their unapologetic commitment to metaphysical naturalism. Generally speaking, these are the New Atheists, whose online champion for several years has been P. Z. Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota who is perhaps most famous for his public desecration of the Eucharistic Host, a one-time publicity stunt that only temporarily overshadowed his more regular and customary nastiness toward those who consider his narrow scientific reductionism ... well, narrow. Coyne, a University of Chicago scientist, has recently joined Myers at the head of the pack.

On one hand this group has called on scientific organizations like the NCSE to take a neutral position in regard to whether Darwinism is reconcilable. On the other hand, they favor a wider war on religion as the only ultimately victorious Darwinist strategy. These are the crazy uncles of the movement -- those who the mainstream Darwinists would rather not let the neighbors see.

Second, there are those who adhere to metaphysical naturalism, but think it's bad for their public image, not to mention for their courtroom strategy, which has been premised on the assumption that Darwinism is only methodologically, but not philosophically naturalist. These are the more presentable people who set up shop at the National Center for Science Education, and who have enjoyed much of the media spotlight in the debate over Intelligent Design. Their message to the New Atheists has been, generally speaking, to keep their yaps shut so the public will not become alarmed over the atheism that lies behind much of Darwinist belief. They prefer singing the soft song of accommodation to the herd in order that there not be a full-scale stampede toward creationism.

And finally there are the theistic evolutionists, whose concern is to maintain the intellectual plausibility of their position, which is of course threatened if their views on the subject were to house two irreconcilable positions: that of an active theism and that of a metaphysical naturalism that can permit, at most, only a rudimentary, emasculated Deism. That is why many members of this group, such as Ken Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, tend to downplay the basic miracles of Christianity -- the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth -- that are at the heart of the issue between theists and the New Atheists, rather than offering any kind of intellectual defense of them. In once sense, they might be considered the accommodationists of the theistic movement.

Tied up in the debate is not only the public relations strategy of the anti-ID movement, but the questions of where methodological naturalism ends and metaphysical naturalism begins; whether science can claim exclusive right to being rational; whether the scientific method is the only avenue to truth; and ultimately whether science and religion are intellectually reconcilable at all.

Coyne's Confusion over Metaphysical Naturalism
The issue of methodological naturalism and its role in science has pervaded the whole discussion, and one of the charges made against Jerry Coyne is that he is confused about the distinction. One person making this charge is journalist Chris Mooney. Coyne's defenders (including himself and Jason Rosenhouse) have responded to Mooney's charge by pointing to statements Coyne has made in which he explicitly states the distinction. But if you say that someone contradicts himself -- which Coyne clearly does on this issue -- it is hardly an adequate defense to simply repeat one side of the contradiction.

In his original article in the New Republic, Coyne indeed articulates the principle of methodological naturalism:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature.
Fear not, he seems to imply, the naturalism you see is only a procedural rule for working scientists in the lab or out in the field. Not to worry. But then, responding to Ken Miller, who doesn't accept a literal creation account, but does accept the central miracles on which Christianity is based, Coyne goes on to say:
Why reject the story of creation and Noah's Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science? After all, biological research suggests the impossibility of human females reproducing asexually, or of anyone reawakening three days after death.
If there is no a priori naturalistic assumption in science, then how can these events be "at odds with science"? He goes on:
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. 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. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.
In other words, he suggests, science is not inherently materialistic, and yet only materialists are true scientists -- and this from a person who criticizes religious people for being irrational.

Natural Law and the Miraculous
The Christian claim is that Christ miraculously brought Himself back from the dead, and that He was born without a human father. These claims are miracle claims. A miracle is, by definition, a violation of the normal course of nature. In other words, a belief in a miracle not only does not imply that there is no normal natural behavior, it clearly involves the belief that there is: otherwise, there would be nothing amazing about a miracle. For someone to say "I believe the normal course of natural events was suspended on these occasions" does not imply that they don't believe in the normal course of natural events; in fact, it implies -- very explicitly -- exactly the opposite.

So if those who believe in miracles already believe in the normal course of natural events, then why does Coyne consider it a blow to the belief in the miraculous to point to the normal course of natural events? If believers in miraculous events believe in the normal workings of nature, what exactly is it that makes them unscientific thinkers? Obviously Coyne does not think that a theistic scientist cannot competently perform an experiment in the laboratory or identify a new species of plant or work an equation properly just because he thinks that a man who claimed to be God was born of a virgin and rose from the dead over 2000 years ago.

So what's his problem?

His problem is that, despite protestations that he believes science does not necessarily involve an a priori materialistic commitment, he really thinks it does, and clearly says so -- in the same article in which he says he doesn't. And in fact much of what he says about his rejection of miracles makes no sense without taking into account his metaphysical naturalism.

This penchant for saying one thing and then arguing as if you believed the exact opposite is characteristic of New Atheist scientists. Sean Carroll, physicist at the California Institute of Technology, who comes to Coyne's defense, joins in the spirit of Coyne's confusion:

Science never proves anything. Science doesn't prove that spacetime is curved, or that species evolved according to natural selection, or that the observable universe is billions of years old. That's simply not how science works.
This statement comes just after he remarks:
The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions ... Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like "God made the universe in six days" or "Jesus died and was resurrected" or "Moses parted the red sea" or "dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden." And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.
Science never proves anything, says Carroll, except it proves that miracles don't happen. The only place I can think of that this kind of reasoning makes sense is at New Atheist gatherings and on the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

Lurking behind the comments of Coyne's and his allies is the idea of inviolable natural law. As Carroll seems to admit (before he takes it back), we cannot prove that the laws of nature always apply, for the simple reason that we haven't been there to observe the laws at every instant of their application. We employ inductive reasoning, and conclude, based on an infinitesimally small sampling of events that have ever happened in the world, that things seem to follow certain patterns.

But if someone produces evidence of an irregularity, it is no argument against it to say that nature is uniformly regular, since nature is uniformly regular only if there are no irregularities. If there are, then the claim that it is uniformly regular is shot to pieces.

Can Science Say Anything about the Christian Miracles?
Coyne claims that science is set up to handle such possibilities (which he doesn't really admit as possibilities):

Despite [Stephen Jay] Gould's claims to the contrary, supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces ... if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.
To which the only acceptable response is, "Yeah. Right." Coyne and his fellow scientists may claim that they would only believe a miracle if they saw it with their own eyes, and that's fine. For my part, I'll only believe they would believe a miracle if they saw it with their own eyes if I saw it with my own eyes.

Of course it's hard to conceive of how Coyne can adjudicate historical miracle claims which, practically speaking, are the only kind of miracle claims there ever really are. It certainly doesn't cover Christianity's miracle claims. And so, ironically, Coyne's position in opposition to miracles commits the cardinal scientific sin: it is unfalsifiable.

When someone in history claims to have witnessed an exception to the law, particularly one performed by someone who was purported to have previously performed a number of them in public; and which was witnessed by hundreds of people; and which was supported by myriad documentary evidence -- and when even the contemporary detractors, of whom there were many, never even appeared to contest it; one wonders then what "science" can profitably say about it.

Scientists, qua scientists, can't say anything about whether these events were exceptions to natural laws precisely because they weren't there to observe them. One could say that makes them "unfalsifiable" and therefore "unscientific," to which the answer is, "So what?" The only person to whom such a statement would any force anyway was someone who thought that science was the only methodology that yielded truth. But, with the apparent exception of a few scientists cloistered in their academic departments, no one really believes that anyway.

And since when did anyone consider history "scientific" in the normal sense? Historical events are unrepeatable, they can't be studied in a laboratory, and they can't be quantified. The rules of historical research bear little resemblance to what is done in biology or chemistry or physics. Coyne can't say history is "scientific" in his sense any more than he say religion is scientific.

There are only two things anyone can say about any miracle. The first is that it can't happen, and the second is that it didn't happen -- and neither one of these is a scientific statement. The first is a philosophical statement, and the second is a historical statement. The first statement is a statement of metaphysical naturalism, which Coyne himself says (right before he unsays it) is not inherent in science itself. It is a philosophical assumption masquerading as science. The second is a statement if historical skepticism. Coyne can only be saying one or the other, and in fact does both, but without offering any philosophical or historical argument for his conclusions (the only two things he can legitimately do). He instead does the one thing he has no justification for doing: he waves his hand and declares them unscientific.

The question of the miraculous is a philosophical and historical question. It is not a scientific question.

The scientific manner of dealing with miracles is really quite impressive as a rhetorical phenomenon: it gets the scientific rationalist out of having to do any intellectual heavy lifting. It involves making metaphysical and historical assertions without actually making any metaphysical or historical arguments. G. K. Chesterton spotted the method behind it a hundred years ago:

The philosophical case against miracles is somewhat easily dealt with. There is no philosophical case against miracles. There are such things as the laws of Nature rationally speaking. What everybody knows is this only. That there is repetition in nature.

... The historic case against miracles is also rather simple. It consists of calling miracles impossible, then saying that no one but a fool believes impossibilities: then declaring that there is no wise evidence on behalf of the miraculous. The whole trick is done by means of leaning alternately on the philosophical and historical objection. If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, "Yes, but there is no evidence for them." When we take all the records of the human race and say, "Here is your evidence," they say, "But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things."

In other words, when you show that it did happen, you are told that it doesn't matter, because it can't happen; and when you show that it can happen, you are told that it doesn't matter, because it didn't happen.

Remember that the next time you are told how rational modern scientists are.