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The Sciences

Why Evolution is True, But Coyne is Wrong About Religion, Part II: Lessons of Dover

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJune 5, 2009 8:54 PM


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At the outset of really digging into Jerry Coyne's stance on science and religion, let's pose a question: Why do we care whether or not the two are compatible? The answer is that one might care for many reasons. One reason--a very good one--involves what we take to be true. After we know all we can know about the world through science, is there still any room left for the supernatural or divine? Or must such elements be completely gone for everyone, just as they are for atheists like myself and Coyne? Another reason, however, is practical. After all, the question of how science and religion ought to interrelate has huge political implications, particularly for science education and the public view of science in America, something we might broadly call “scientific literacy.” For instance, if evolution is true, but also in some sense leads to or entails atheism (the Coyne/New Atheist view), then we are going to have a vastly harder time getting much of religious America ever to accept evolution. I believe the central reason we have such massive problems with the teaching of evolution to be precisely this—millions of America believe, incorrectly, that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept it. This misconception is highly prevalent, and is regularly reinforced in a number of ways: Through the media, by church leaders, by the New Atheists, and so on. If this incorrect view could somehow be dislodged, then, we might also have a better chance of defusing tensions over the teaching of evolution, and thereby improving “scientific literacy” (a term we define in more detail in the book, but that I won’t get bogged down with here). Such are some of the premises that I’m working from…. ….and I'm hardly the only one. Indeed, I would argue that this view basically prevailed at the historic 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania evolution trial. Kenneth Miller, Barbara Forrest, John Haught, and Robert Pennock—all folks whose testimony helped evolution triumph in that Harrisburg courtroom—are some of its leading articulants, as is the National Center for Science Education, which provided critical support to the pro-evolution case in court. These folks are not to be taken lightly. Jerry Coyne writes that “I’ll put my record up against that of either Mooney or Forrest in the fight against creationism…I’ve been writing and speaking against creationism since I got my first job.” I don’t dispute that he has done more than I have, having been fighting this battle for 25 years (but I’m only 31, just wait!). Forrest’s Dover testimony, however, and the research behind it, were critical to a historic court precedent in favor of the teaching of evolution. For this reason, I would say Forrest’s contribution to the “fight against creationism” is simply massive. Precisely what was decided in the Dover case? The full decision is here, but basically, Judge John E. Jones III unmasked “intelligent design” for the religious charade that it is. Underlying the decision, however, was a definition of science as a process of naturalistic—but not atheistic—inquiry. Or as Judge Jones put it, relying on Robert Pennock’s testimony as well as that of others:

In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. (9:21 (Haught); 1:64, 87 (Miller)). While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. (3:103 (Miller); 9:19-20 (Haught)). This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. (5:23, 29-30 (Pennock)). Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (1:59-64, 2:41-43 (Miller); 5:8, 23-30 (Pennock)).

In his post in response to me, Coyne remarks as follows of Dover:

…the progress that has been made [on evolution] is not in changing minds, but winning court cases, as in Dover. However, winning those court cases does not require that we show that science and religion are compatible. Rather, it requires showing that creationism and ID are forms of disguised religion.

Well, not exactly. Not as I read Jones’ opinion. While the latter demonstration is indeed fundamental to legal victory in a federal creationism case (due to the First Amendment’s establishment cause), the definition of science as methodological naturalism embraced here by Jones—and centrally articulated in Robert Pennock’s testimony—is also pretty integral to the logic of the ruling. And this definition inherently paves the way for a kind of reconciliation between science and religion—for as Judge Jones says, “while supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science.” Why is this a form of compatibilism? Jones and Pennock describe science, and its "ground rule" of methodological naturalism, as an inquiry into the workings of the natural world--one assuming the existence of natural laws that we can discern, and naturalistic processes that we can measure and describe. But, they add, there science basically ends. Is there a “supernatural” that is somehow beyond or outside of nature? Science just can’t say. Pennock's testimony, a key basis for all this, draws a core distinction between such methodological naturalism on the one hand, and “philosophical naturalism” (or atheism) on the other. The latter is a stronger view, and goes beyond the limits of science to claim that the natural is all there is, period. This view may well be true; indeed, I personallybelieve it to be true. But it is a philosophical view, not a scientific one. Or at least, so argues Pennock and also, as I read him, Jones. Crucially, such logic suggests that it is most emphatically possible to accept the results of science’s naturalistic methodology, and yet also retain supernatural beliefs that science cannot touch. Similarly, one can accept science’s naturalistic methodology but not hold any supernatural beliefs. Neither position violates science. Only confusions or inappropriate commingling of the two realms are a problem: Thus “intelligent design" violates science because it tries to transform religious claims into scientific ones and, indeed, to undermine methodological naturalism itself. ID tries to claim we can detect God’s supernatural action, in the world, through science. Due to such religious underpinnings--and such a grave category error--it does not belong in science class. Evolutionary science does belong there, for not only is it good science, but it isn’t atheism—this science, like any other, is religiously neutral. It looks to the world for naturalistic causation, but cannot say anything whatsoever about the supernatural. Such, anyways, is the logic of the Dover decision, based on the arguments of Pennock, Miller, Haught, and Forrest, and of course the very skilled lawyers who used them as key witnesses. So here’s the question: What if Coyne and the New Atheists are right, and evolution (or science itself) isn’t actually neutral? What if there really is a fundamental conflict between science and religion? What if methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism aren’t really distinct—but the former inevitably also entails the latter? The Dover case, as I read it, doesn’t explicitly say. Furthermore, I'm not a lawyer. But I fear that were the New Atheists to somehow prevail on this point, the anti-evolutionists might wreak some serious havoc in the courtroom in a later case. This is one reason to be concerned about the New Atheist position. I hasten to add, of course, that while I do find the methodological/philosophical naturalism distinction powerful and illuminating, its use in a legal ruling doesn’t suffice to determine its validity. Rather, one must make various philosophical arguments to establish that; this is the domain of the philosophy of science. For those who want to tease out its nuances, I recommend digging into Robert Pennock’s wonderful Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. I might also add that as I read Jerry Coyne, he is constantly violating the methodological/philosophical naturalism distinction--so persuasively articulated by Pennock, so fundamental to the Dover trial--as if it doesn’t matter. Certainly, I have never seen, in what I have read of Coyne so far, that he draws the distinction, not even to problematize it. But more on that in later posts. For now, however, this should be enough to show that legally, and also philosophically, the New Atheist position is problematic. Would that these were the only problems with it! But there are others. And I hope to explore those in later posts.

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