Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

Reviewing Jerry Coyne, Part 2: Faith and Science.

Darwinist Dr. Jerry Coyne, in his New Republic article Seeing and Believing; The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail”, asks if religion and science can be reconciled. He notes:

…[T]here are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. 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? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.

Dr. Coyne’ s description of the beliefs of many Christians of the literal truth of the Bible as “the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities” is a perplexing slur. I disagree with young-earth creationists on the time-frame of history and biology, but I don’t believe that their beliefs are “primitive.” They understand Christianity differently than I do, but on the really important question — ‘is there teleology in biology and in the natural world’ — they are exactly right, in my view. I reserve the appellation “primitive” for the utterly unsubstantiated Darwinist belief that human beings arose literally from mud by a random process of ‘survival of survivors.’ Unlike Darwinists, young-earth creationists get the important part — the obvious evidence for design in life — right.
That aside, Dr. Coyne’s sloppy use of the terms ‘religion’ ‘faith,’ ‘science,’ and ‘revelation’ muddle the real issues.

‘Religion’ is so vague as to be meaningless in this context. If religion means belief in a particular ultimate reality, then all such beliefs — evangelical Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, materialism — are religions. If religion is taken to mean adherence to dogma, then it is the fervor and intractability with which beliefs are held that matter, and many ‘new atheists’ are more religious than many liberal mainline Protestants. The term ‘religion’ encompasses such a vast array of beliefs that the question ‘are religion and science compatible’ is meaningless. In addition, the term ‘science’ is horribly vague. Orthodox Christianity is certainly compatible with Newtonian physics, but it is not compatible with the inference to non-teleological biological evolution, which is Darwinism. The salient questions are ‘is belief in the God of orthodox Christianity and Darwinism compatible’ and ‘is belief in Theravada Buddhism and quantum mechanics compatible’ and ‘is belief in atheism and molecular genetics compatible.’ Various religious beliefs and various scientific beliefs are so profoundly different that the question about compatibility can’t be answered without a specific description of the beliefs. The proper answer to the question ‘are religion and science compatible’ is: which religion and which science?
Coyne’s use of ‘faith’ is similarly muddled. Speaking from a Christian perspective, faith doesn’t mean ‘belief in that for which there is no evidence.’ That has never been the Christian definition of faith. Faith means the belief in the implications of the evidence, even when some of the implications extend well beyond the raw evidence. Faith is fidelity to a unified understanding of reality, even though the evidence is necessarily incomplete. Chesterton explained his faith in Christ as a consequence of his experience that Christianity fits life ‘like a key fits a lock.’ For many aspects of belief, Christians accept the experiences of others, because it is not possible for each of us to have the full array of personal experiences, and we trust the experiences of others if those experiences are consistent with what we have personally come to understand.
Most — in fact nearly all — of what we believe in science is just the same kind of faith. Exactly the same kind of faith. None of us, not even the world’s leading scientists, have more than a sliver of personal experience of scientific truth. How many evolutionary biologists have personally seen evolution of a new species as a consequence of non-teleological heritable variation and natural selection? The answer is: none. How many cosmologists have seen the Big Bang? How many physicists have seen a quantum waveform collapse? Obviously, none have. Scientists believe in the implications of the evidence, even when some of the implications extend well beyond the raw evidence. Scientific faith is fidelity to a unified understanding of natural reality, even though the evidence is necessarily incomplete. Just like religious faith.
But many will argue that scientific evidence can be shown to others, and tested, and falsified, at least in theory, whereas religious faith is a personal experience that can’t readily be communicated or tested. Scientific beliefs are more likely to be quantified then are religious beliefs, but then religious beliefs are based on a much broader and deeper range of experience than are scientific beliefs. And the assertion that scientific beliefs are empirically verifiable in a way that religious beliefs are not is a mantra that does not withstand scrutiny. I point out that that process of evaluation of scientific evidence involves many years of education that is available to only a few, and even possible for only a few. Most people have not been trained in relativistic physics or in evolutionary biology to a professional level, and most people couldn’t understand to a level of subtlety these scientific disciplines even if they had the training available to them. Even leading scientists tend to specialize so intensely that much of the evidence in their own broader scientific field is outside of their personal experience.
Scientific belief and religious belief are both based largely on faith, understood as the belief in the implications of the evidence, even when some of the implications extend beyond the raw evidence.
To what extent can the rational basis for scientific faith be tested by a personal encounter with the evidence? It is perhaps true that I would have faith in the Darwinian understanding of biology if I were to obtain a PhD in evolutionary biology and conduct original research for many years. Yet it is perhaps true that Dr. Coyne would have faith in Christ if he were to enter a seminary, be ordained, obtain a doctorate in theology and pray in a monastery for many years. Faith of both kinds — Darwinian and Christian — can be tested to some extent by personal experience.
Coyne’s use of ‘science’ is similarly muddled. Science is the study of the natural world, and specifically, it is the study of natural effects. There is nothing in science or in the philosophy of science that coherently rules out extra-(super) natural causes. In fact, extra-natural causes are the basis for some of our most successful science. Cosmology is based on Big Bang theory, which posits creation ex-nihilo, which by definition is extra-natural. There is no reason to insist that effects in the natural world must be the result of natural causes. And if extra-natural causes are necessary to explain nature (as is the case for the origin of the universe), then religion, understood as the study of the broader metaphysical issues, seems necessary to science.
Finally, Coyne’s invocation of ‘revelation’ is disingenuous. Belief in revelation simply means belief in that which we have not personally encountered based on trust in the authority of others and an acceptance of the compatibility of the revealed information with what we have personally encountered. Most of science is revealed, in the sense that most of what we believe in science are things we have not personally tested. I don’t know personally that the gravity on Jupiter is much stronger than the gravity on earth. I accept the authority of physicists and astronomers who have told me. Yet for me, it’s revealed truth, not my experiential truth. Evolutionary biology is for most of us revealed truth as well. We have not seen evolution in the Cambrian, and most of us have not professionally examined the fossils. Those who have faith in the Darwinian explanation for evolution accept this revelation based on authority (they trust evolutionary biologists to get it right) and based on the congruence between the Darwinian explanation for evolution in the Cambrian and their own personal worldview. Belief in the Resurrection of Christ and in evolution by random variation and natural selection are both based on a combination of revelation, evidence, and congruence with a larger world-view. A Christian might even suggest that the evidence for the Resurrection is stronger than the evidence for Darwinian mechanisms in the Cambrian, because the Resurrection is a much more widely-held belief, it’s a much more recent event and, unlike evolution of species, there were witnesses.
My view is this: religious beliefs and scientific beliefs share much in common. Coyne’s proposed incompatibility is based on his own profound misunderstanding of theology and of the philosophy of science. Atheists such as Dr. Coyne have ideological reasons to ascribe a different standard of credibility to their own beliefs than to those of others. If Darwinism were subjected to rigorous critique on a level with other religious/scientific beliefs, it would collapse in short time. Darwinists need to insulate their theory from criticism, so they misrepresent the religious nature of Darwinism — by insisting that it is pure ‘science’ — and they use the federal courts to prohibit any discussion of Darwinism’s weaknesses in public schools. Their reluctance to permit even a whisper of critique of their theory in schools speaks to the fragility of their ideology. It’s evident that they believe that Darwin’s theory won’t even withstand the scrutiny of schoolchildren.
To answer the question ‘can science and religion be reconciled,’ one must first ask it in a way that can be answered. Can evolutionary change be reconciled with Christianity? Can biological information be reconciled with atheism? Coyne elides these essential subtleties. He doesn’t even ask coherent questions.
I suspect that Dr. Coyne, an atheist, understands these questions all too well, and doesn’t like the answers.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.