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Ross Douthat Gets In on the Fun of Dismantling Jerry Coyne

This morning on the drive into work I heard our friend Dennis Prager warning about how anything you really enjoy, especially if it's something easy like popping chocolates in your mouth, should make you ask: At what cost do I enjoy it?

Needless to say, Dennis is right.

Sometimes in the course of those lengthy editorial staff meetings we're constantly having here at ENV we agonize over the question: Is it too enjoyable to make fun of Jerry Coyne? Too easy? Some say yes, some say no. The stalemate is typically broken by the observation that after all, Dr. Coyne is approaching the Dawkins stage of his development as an evolutionary spokesman and defender, leaving the scientific debate behind entirely and becoming a total self-parody of religion-bashing and cat-fondling. At that point, as with Dawkins, interest in him will drop off completely. So we'd better have our fun while we can.

Nevertheless it's always good when outsiders pick up the mantle and allow us to enjoy the dissection of Dr. Coyne's blog posts as mere spectators and appreciative readers. In that spirit go read Ross Douthat's post at the New York Times today utterly decimating Coyne on the incoherence of his materialist faith with all of Coyne's other social and political commitments, calmly explaining how Coyne "flirts with self-caricature."

In a nutshell, Coyne doesn't understand why saying "our sense of self is a neuronal illusion" contradicts his other position that this same illusory "self" creates real meaning and purpose in life in the absence of -- well, intelligent design.

Douthat, who's not merely very smart but wise, writes:

What's striking about his response, though, is the extent to which its own account of the secular, materialist world-picture actually illustrates precisely the problems and tensions that I was talking about, in ways that even a casual reader should find obvious but which Coyne apparently did not. He can see the weak points in a religious argument, but the weaknesses of his own side of the debate are sufficiently invisible to him that his rebuttal flirts with self-caricature.

ENV's Dr. Mike Egnor has made this point in his always enjoyable wrangling with Coyne, but Douthat says it his own way:

It's true that even if the conscious self is an illusion, human beings would still have purposes in the sense that any organism has purposes, and our movements -- all that travel and reading and dining, in Coyne's case -- wouldn't just be random or indeterminate. But just as nobody would describe a tree growing toward the sun or a bee returning to the hive as "forging their own purposes" in life, so too Coyne's promethean language about human agency implies a much higher conception of what a human being IS -- both in terms of the reality of consciousness and the freedom afforded to it -- than his world-picture will allow.

Douthat concludes:

I can't imagine a permanent intellectual victory for a worldview as ill-served by its popularizers as atheism is by Jerry Coyne.

Yes, exactly. Go read the rest -- I'm not doing justice to the style and seriousness of Douthat's column.

Meanwhile...I am not going to tell you about the other evening when I shared some of Coyne's cute-animals videos, of which you have to admit he's an excellent curator, with a couple of our kids. They enjoyed them, too much -- especially the one with the emus chasing a weasel-ball -- while of course paying no attention to the surrounding texts. Exclaimed 10-year-old Naomi, "I like this guy!" Urgh!

H/t to Denyse O'Leary.