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Evolution Has Not Been Kind to Jerry Coyne

Michael Egnor

Jerry Coyne

Professor Coyne, it seems, never evolved a divine sense organ, which he laments. Without a divine sense organ, Jerry Coyne cannot believe in God, though he doesn’t lament that. 

Writing at Why Evolution Is True, Coyne explains that because he cannot “sense” God, therefore God does not exist. Ironically, Coyne cites English broadcaster David Attenborough, a Darwinist who ought to be Coyne’s ally, who is agnostic because he muses about a hive of termites (Darwinists are always thinking in terms of insects). The termites work busily, not noticing Attenborough observing them, because they lack the sense organs to see him. Attenborough won’t commit to atheism because he thinks that his inability to see God may be termite-like. He’s missing the organ, so he might as well keep his options open. 

Coyne thinks he’s missing the same organ, but takes his evolutionary impasse as positive evidence of God’s non-existence. If God exists, Coyne reasons, He would have evolved Coyne better.  

The Ironic Part

The irony of the whole thing is that Coyne’s lament about his sensate inadequacy is itself the product of his capacity for reason, which is… his actual divine sense organ. It was right under his nose (or above his nose) all the time. God is immaterial spirit, and we can only know Him by reason and love Him by will. Our senses alone aren’t “evolved” to know or love immaterial Reality. 

I pointed this out to Coyne, with all the politeness I could muster given the nature of the argument, and I suggested that Coyne might use his newly located reason-organ more effectively. 

Coyne, still not using it effectively, replied:

There are many problems here. First of all, even if God is not a physical thing, nearly all Christians — the theistic ones — think that God interacts with the world in a physical way. After all, God sent his son/alter ego down to Earth as a scapegoat to be killed for our sins, thereby expiating us. IDers believe that GodThe Intelligent Designer either brought new species into being or made the requisite mutations to promote their appearance. Indeed, the very concept of Intelligent Design presupposes that empirical evidence — science and observation itself — inevitably brings us to the concept of an Intelligent Designer. And that evidence is “sensed by sense organs.”

Not Physical, but with Physical Effects

God is indeed not physical, but He has physical effects in the world. In fact, most things in nature are His effects, excepting chance and evil. Chance isn’t His effect because it is the un-designed conjunction of designed effects, and evil isn’t His effect because it’s the privation of His good, not a thing in itself. Even our free will is His effect, because He wills it to be free. This is all classical theology, to which Coyne’s newly discovered reason-organ is unaccustomed. 

We can infer God’s existence by his effects in nature just as we infer number in groups of things or primordial singularity by cosmic background radiation or evolution by the fossil record. Science infers immaterial things it can’t see by inferring them from material things it can see. Abstract reasoning is the cornerstone of science, just as abstract reasoning is the cornerstone of theology and philosophy. All abstract knowledge, observed Aristotle, originates in the senses, but it is the unique hallmark of the human mind that we can abstract concepts from concrete perceptions. Our capacity for reason — our intellect — is the mark of our humanity, and the “organ” by which we know God.  

Coyne continues:

In other words, ID itself refutes Egnor’s claim that GodThe Intelligent Designer cannot be sensed via an organ. The stupidity here (and I’m not pulling punches given that Egnor engages in name-calling) is to assume that a deity who is nonphysical cannot be apprehended through sense organs. If you’re a theist, that’s palpably ridiculous.

Inference by Reason

The design we infer in nature is an insight we abstract from our senses, but the inference itself is acquired by our reason. We infer design in nature by abstraction, not immediately by sense image. We see biological structures that have purpose and specified complexity, and using our capacity for abstract thought we reason that such structures imply a designer. Coyne does the same process, except he reasons that purpose and specified complexity imply the absence of a designer. Go figure. 

Coyne meanders to the diversity of religious belief, and he muses:

And why, over time, has “reason” turned more and more of the West into atheists? After all, God gave this reason to each of us, and gave it to us specifically so we’d know Him (or Her or Whatever). Are some people lacking in this reason? And that includes people who seem to have plenty of reason on other fronts: atheist intellectuals like Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Dan Dennett, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, and so on. And David Attenborough lacks it, too? Why did God give these people lots of ability to reason, but prevented that reason from apprehending His existence? Why are more and more people not using their organs of reason properly as time progresses?

Waning Reason

Reason can wax and wane, and I think we’re in a period of wane. If you doubt this, ask Coyne — a 21st-century “atheist intellectual” — to discuss Plato’s Timaeus or Aristotle’s Metaphysics — texts well-known to teenagers in Athens in the 4th century B.C. — or Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’ Summa Theologica — read by parish priests in 15th century Siberia. Evolved or not, contemporary reason-organs of late are missing the bus. 

Anyway, few people reason themselves out of, or into, belief in God. Reason provides a platform on which we stand, and reason may hinder us, or help us to see. The heart has reasons, for atheists and theists, and it is in the heart — in the will — that God is cherished or scorned. 

As for atheism seeping into modernity, Coyne speaks only of the capitalist West. Most of humanity — in Asia and Africa — is in the midst of an explosion of theism, mostly Christianity and Islam. The eclipse of totalitarianism deprived atheism of its natural form of government, and it scurries to attach itself to any new body that will have it. The reasons for the atheist infestation (insect analogy again) in the West are debated. My hunch is that it is due to material and technological narcosis. In our opulence and our electronic cocoon we live as atheists. A culture blind to God is like a drunk, dangerously oblivious to a cold night. 

Photo: Jerry Coyne on The Dave Rubin Show, via YouTube (screen shot).