Jerry Coyne has published in The New Republic a brilliant, profound article reviewing some recent books on evolution and its relationship to religion. This will once again start up the now dreary furor over reconciling religion and evolution, a dispute that usually ricochets quickly in some irrelevant direction. And there are indications of that already in some of the comments posted about Coyne’s essay on Edge.
What’s essential to see is that the argument here is not really about evolution at all. The conflict over evolution is a proxy war for the conflict between reason and faith. It’s a dispute over epistemologies. Is valid knowledge always and only a product of reason—of logical inference from observable, objective fact? Or can we appeal to faith—to a method of knowing that is purely personal, that is not amenable to any test in reality, that derives its authority from the say-so of a supernatural Being and His purported spokesmen on earth? Anyone who turns away and claims that the debate is only over the factual conclusions of scientific research is (for whatever motive) seeking to ignore the crux of the dispute, like a man who stamps out a cinder while ignoring the fire consuming his house.
The opponents of evolution education are not disputing the facts of any particular scientific conclusion—that’s why they don’t do experiments, or publish research. What they are want is “equal time”: equal time between religious dogma and science—between faith and reason—between provable theory and unprovable assertion. The basic principle they are seeking to establish is the equivalence between the approach of reason and science on one hand, and the approach of tradition and mystical revelation on the other—and that means, between the careful, precise process of science on one hand, and the emotive utterances of religious authorities on the other. They want to snatch the mantles of respectability that science has earned, and wrap it around the pronouncements of their prophets.
What would this equivalence mean in practice, if it were followed consistently? For one thing, it would mean the end of political freedom in America. Political freedom demands a skeptical populace, open to dissent and reasoned discussion; it is incompatible with the intellectual attitude of authoritarianism, dogma, and enforced tradition.
It is deeply unfortunate that even otherwise outstanding defenders of science—even many scientists themselves—are willing to accept that compromise. Unable or unwilling to defend the reliability of reason, they hang it up with their lab coats when they leave for the day. They understand that one cannot operate a particle accelerator on faith; that one cannot interpret a fossil by asking some prelate to pronounce on the issue in Latin; that one cannot predict how a medicine will work by consulting a 5,000 year old scripture. Yet when it comes to the nature of reality, let alone morality, they are willing to defer to just these things. As Coyne writes, “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.” While these scientists apply the tools of reason to everything from the atoms to psychological reactions, they are willing to accept the baseless claims of religious authorities on equal terms. They turn off the skepticism just when it matters most. And that is all that religious authorities demand of them.
If science is ever destroyed, this will be why. It will be because the defenders of science opened the city gates from within to the forces of unreason, admitting them on the terms of this false equality.
Keep the issue in mind: the question is not whether it is possible for someone simultaneously to hold unproven, baseless beliefs about a supernatural dimension and scientific, reasoned conclusions with regard to observed phenomena. It is possible for all sorts of people to believe all sorts of things—just as Humpty Dumpty practiced every day believing six impossible things before breakfast. But it is not possible to do these things and still have intellectual integrity. It requires instead intellectual dis-integration: the skill (if it can be called a skill) of not thinking about the possible connections between the phenomena of the universe. That is, it requires precisely the opposite effort that science requires. It requires one not to think. Alas, as Coyne observes, this effort is officially endorsed by many organizations motivated by political expediency:
It is in [scientists’] personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence—the existence of religious scientists—is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith.
But it’s not just that there aren’t as many religious scientists as some claim. It’s the fact that these two ways of knowing are and always have been, incompatible by their nature, and that those who pledge allegiance to both are either dishonest or simply wrong.
Now look at some of the reactions to Coyne’s essay. Lawrence Krauss starts out claiming that “Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn’t matter to scientists.” Could any claim be more thoughtless? Whether or not religion contradicts science certainly does matter to scientists—whether they know it or not, nothing could matter more to them, both now and in the long term. In a practical sense, it mattered to Galileo; it mattered to Darwin; it matters to scientists working on stem-cell research today. It matters to all those minds who might have grown to be great scientists—except that they were born into theocratic dictatorships in the Middle East.
Krauss’ statement is criminally short-sighted. It is simply the claim that epistemology is irrelevant to science—when in fact epistemology is the most important point. As Jacob Bronowski used to say, the greatest discovery of scientists is science itself: science as a method of knowing that doesn’t rely upon untestable assertions by authority, but demands reason and evidence and argument and persuasion and tests in reality to establish its truths. Science is not a notebook full of practical conclusions: it is a process for learning about the universe in which we live. Krauss claims that “scientists don’t have to listen to theologians, because it has no effect whatsoever on the scientific process.” But who gave scientists that freedom, Dr. Krauss? Not the theologians! The right to ignore theologians is a luxury enjoyed only by the people of secular western-influenced societies, societies in which the tradition of Enlightenment science has written itself into the founding documents—the same Enlightenment science that gave the Royal Society its motto, “Nullius in verba.”
Howard Gardner’s comment is little better: “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 don’t interfere with one’s own belief system, and those who will not tolerate those whose belief system is fundamentally different.” But that tolerance was not theology’s gift; it was the work of people who believed that reality can be understood only through test and experiment, not through assertions of perfect and unprovable truth. Openness and dissent are the marks of scientific culture, not of the culture of religion.
Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!
He accomplishes this, among other ways, through a complete non sequitur: respect for science, he says, “does not preclude the scientist from stepping back…and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and if existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering.” Certainly they are genuine questions, and questions that are worth answering. But it does not follow at all that these questions are to be answered by faith in a supernatural dimension and in a realm inaccessible to reason. They are to be answered through philosophy—not through the arbitrary and baseless assertions of religious faith.
Science is one aspect of a commitment to reason—a commitment to using the mind to discover reality through the reliable and non-arbitrary means of observation and logical inference, and experimental, objective testing. That means not asserting the unprovable existence of a supernatural realm beyond reason. Most of all, it means not equating the validity of knowledge gained through the precise methods of science—methods at once delicate and robust—with the blunt assertions of mysticism. So long a intellectual leaders accept that these are equally valid ways of knowing, everything from our intellectual openness to our political freedom to our economic prosperity to the future of our very civilization is at risk.
Update: Welcome Richard Dawkins readers. Allow me to say how much I admire Dawkins' work (despite some serious differences), and particularly Unweaving The Rainbow, one of my top ten books of all time.