WEIT review: Kevin Padian sucks me back into into the religion/science quagmire

Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has done pathbreaking work on the evolution of flight, and on other paleobiological issues.  He’s also been a stalwart defender of evolution against creationism, and is the president of the National Center for Science Education.

In the latest issue of Public Library of Science Biology (known as PLoS Biology), Padian has written a  review of Why Evolution is True.  I wish I could say I was pleased with it.  After all, Padian did start the review by praising the book:

First, make no mistake: this is a wonderful book, as far as the explanation of many of the interesting lines of evidence and case histories for evolution go. . . Coyne hits all the right notes, without over-dazzling the general reader with too many molecular complexities or obscure examples. This is a very readable, companionable work that takes its place alongside other fine recent explanations of evolution such as Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero [3], and Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin [4], as well as a great many Web sites that explain the evidence for evolution. It would be an excellent text for a freshman or non-majors course in evolution, or for a local book group.

So why am I grousing?  Because his review is not about the science — or even about the book. Rather, it’s about a book that he wanted me to write but that I didn’t.  Padian spends most of his review calling me to task for not emphasizing strongly enough that evolution is compatible with religious faith.

First, a scientific quibble.  Padian criticizes me for not using strict cladistic terminology:  we should not say, for instance, that amphibians evolved from fish because “fish” is a term reserved for an ancestor and all of its descendants — which is not strictly true because some descendants of early fish became amphibians, and, ultimately, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This is the same criticism that Eugenie Scott leveled at the book in her review in Nature (that’s no surprise, because Scott is executive director of the NCSE and a close associate of Padian).  I can see their point from a cladistic stand, but it’s not necessarily the best way to present evolution to the public.  Under cladistic terminology, no group could have evolved from any other group!  All of us (including Neil Shubin, the discoverer of  the transitional form Tiktaalik) call the aquatic, lobe-finned ancestors of tetrapods “fish”.   It’s common parlance, and not misleading to the public.  What would Padian call those lobe-finned ancestors?  At any rate, I don’t think using common parlance is a serious crime here; in fact, it makes things clearer.  So we can agree to differ on this (see the comments by Greg Mayer and Nick Matzke here).  But that’s not Padian’s main criticism.

Padian says that “truth” (as in the title of my book) “is a personal thing.”   And he complains that I have not explained to the readers what I mean by saying that something is “true”:

Based on the title of this book I would have expected a bit more engagement with the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know something is true, and what do we mean when we say something is true? What could make us abandon our claims, and realistically, would we ever do so?

But Kevin doesn’t seem to have noticed the following passage in the first chapter (page 16):

Because a theory is accepted as “true” only when its assertions and predictions are tested over and over again, and confirmed repeatedly, there is no one moment when a scientific theory becomes a scientific fact.  A theory becomes a fact (or a “truth”) when so much evidence has accumulated in its favor– and there is no decisive evidence against it– that all reasonable people will accept it.  This does not mean that a “true” theory will never be falsified. All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in light of new evidence. There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they’ve finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature.  As we’ll see, it is possible that despite thousands of observations that support Darwinism, new data might show it to be wrong.

And on p. 222-223, at the end, I show why evolution qualifies as “true” under this definition, and also give examples of possible observations that could disprove evolution.

But his real point is the NCSE’s standing policy of courting religionists, as articulated by Eugenie Scott:  “This is not a problem that you can solve merely by throwing more science at it.”  You have to cater to believers.

Three points here:

1.  The Dover decision rested on throwing science at Judge Jones, not convincing him that you could believe in evolution and God, too.  You don’t have to be a believer to refute creationist claims or to show that they were inspired by religious belief.

2.  You can’t solve the problem without throwing science at it. That’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I was trained to do. So I’m trying to solve the part of the problem that I’m capable of addressing without hypocrisy.

3.  Twenty-five years of hard work by scientific organizations like the NAS and NCSE, involving pushing religion/science accommodationism, have had no perceptible effect in changing the public’s acceptance of evolution.  It stays at about 40-50%, no matter what. Yes, court cases are won, but minds don’t seem to be changed.  I have pondered this long and hard, and have concluded that these figures won’t budge much until the United States becomes, over what will be a long period, a more secular nation: much like the countries of western Europe.

What should I have written, according to Padian?  That “truth” is philosophical, not objective, and that we should recognize and respect the philosophical “truths” of the faithful:

Creationists—people who deny evolution because it conflicts with their religious precepts—often tell us that whether we accept a naturalistic or a supernatural explanation of the world around us is a philosophical choice: a belief. They’re not wrong. That first decision—what kind of “knowledge” is going to be privileged in your mind—is ultimately a question of belief, a leap of faith, a decision about truth, if you care to use the term at all. . . . .

. . . Coyne does a very good job in this book of presenting the actual evidence for evolution. He is less complete on the philosophy and methods that underlie science, particularly in specific disciplines. And one would have liked to see more
about dealing with people who are apprehensive about the “truth” of evolution.

But this is something I’m incapable of doing.  I can’t tell people that faith and science are compatible, because I don’t believe it, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  Nor do I want to pander to religion.  And I’m not so sure that it is a “philosophical” choice” or a “belief” “to “accept a naturalistic versus supernaturalistic explanation of the world around us.”  Is it a philosophical choice to take antibiotics when you have an infection, rather than calling on a shaman or Christian Scientist?  (I bet you do take antibiotics, Kevin–is that a philosophical choice?)  And is it a “philosophical choice” to say that AIDS results from drug-taking and a dissipated lifestyle rather than from a virus?  Is it a “philosophical choice” to believe that the world is 6,000 rather than 4.6 billion years old?  Well, if these are philosophical choices, one of them works and the other one doesn’t.

The postmodernist claim that accepting scientific rather than spiritual truths is simply a matter of taste is a claim of breathtaking inanity.  Science helps us understand the world — it works.  Religion can soothe us, but I don’t see it coughing up equivalent truths, nor have I heard a convincing argument for what “truths” faith presents to us, as opposed to those revealed by secular reason alone.  Somehow I can’t believe that in his heart Padian accepts this philosophical equivalence, but maybe I’m wrong.  What exactly is his position vis-a-vis the supernatural? Can cancer be cured by both shamans and chemotherapy? Is he perhaps saying that books defending evolution should go easy on those religious views from which he himself isn’t fully emancipated?

Finally, Padian makes the following statement:

All these are worthy and sensible statements. And yet Coyne begins his last chapter with the statement of an audience member to him after his public lecture: “I found your evidence for evolution very convincing—but I still don’t believe it.” Well, nothing says that our job is to convince people of the “truth” of evolution—I don’t think it’s my job—but we would like people to understand it.

This is a remarkable admission. Does it mean that The National Center for Science Education doesn’t care if Americans accept evolution?  All that money and work, just so people can understand a theory they reject?


  1. Emily
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I am very surprised that Kevin Padian thinks truth “is a personal thing.” Is evolution a personal thing? How did he miss the paragraph in the introduction explaining what you meant by “true”? I am curious what alternative title Padian might have suggested for your book.

  2. Don K
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    WEIT is spot on, regardless of Padian’s equivocating. I’m surprised/sorry to learn that he is accomodates the squishy “compatability” stance (I must read more). He could be in the wrong job.

  3. Bob Williams
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Although there are some slight forks in the scientific path (e.g., some give weight to punctuated equilibrium and some do not), science is straight-forward and consistent. Religion with its indefinitely varied varieties is the area where no consensus exists. How can anyone claim that the relativistic mess that religion is has any pretense to special standing?

  4. Reason be
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    “How can anyone claim…”, indeed. It repeatedly blows my mind that people can consciously choose nonsense over elegant understanding of life’s diversity on this rocky planet. Take, for example, the Texas Board of Education proto-mullahs.

  5. Badger3k
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Did you really use the Creationist term “Darwinism” in your book? Seriously?

    Other than that, yeah, postmodernist religious claims of equality is standard fare – look at the efforts to call evolutionary theory a religion (thus the “Darwinism” label), or the heard-from-Tesas-sadly-enough idea that the age of the Earth was a subjective matter.

    Personally, I hope Padian believes what he says, then at least he’d be an honest fool rather than a hypocrite.

  6. Posted April 1, 2009 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    My position on the evolution/creationism debate has always been crystal clear: creationists are either ignorant fools, cynical political operatives exploiting religious symbols for political gain, and probably both. So please don’t jump to conclusions when I say I disagree with you here.

    As you know, Padian was an important witness in Kitzmiller. He is no fool. I think we all know the answer he’d give to the questions you pose to him at the end of the post. I don’t think those answers have much to do with the issue he tried to raise.

    His point in the essay seems to be that people differ about what they “privilege” as truth. Some privilege science, some religion, for example. We all do this, including you. You write:

    I can’t tell people that faith and science are compatible, because I don’t believe it [emphasis added]

    which is a perfect example of someone believing something to be true because he prefers it to be, not because it necessarily is. I could argue with you ’til we’re both blue in the face and I won’t change your belief that faith and science are inherently incompatible. I could argue – but I won’t – there’s no evidence that this is true because it is all but impossible to quantify what is meant when people use the term “faith.” If we use the term “faith” to describe mainstream Methodist beliefs and practice – which is a perfectly reasonable usage – then faith and science are indeed quite compatible; plenty of faithful, church-going Methodists have no problem working as scientists, using scientific discoveries, or enjoying reading about science.

    Now, I won’t argue with you about this not only because our argument quickly will devolve into arguing about the semantics of the term “faith” – which neither you nor I are qualified to argue – but because the entire argument about whether science and religion are compatible is ultimately a trivial one: plenty of people find them compatible, plenty don’t. The terms are so slippery one can define them to support one’s inherent beliefs, whatever they are – exactly as you did. End of story.

    More importantly, the compatibility/incompatibility of science and religion is irrelevant to the evolution/creationism war, because this not a war over truth. This is a political/cultural struggle over who will define truth for the mass culture. Again: It is not an argument about truth but who gets to say what is true.

    While Barbara Forrest may disagree with me, her book makes it quite clear that ID creationism is a political and cultural – not a religious – movement. Many of the people funding Discovery are long-time political operatives on the right. They happen also to profess extreme religious belief, but they are first and foremost political actors.

    What is also clear is that the US Constitution states that no religion can define truth for the country as a whole. That is what is meant by church/state separation.

    And that is why the id design movement is so insidious. It is not that they are wrong – although there is that, too. It is that they are, through their attempts to establish religious truths as universal, deeply anti-American.

  7. Badger3k
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Gah – “truth is a personal thing”? Only when it deals with my personal lifes (like my name, where I was born, etc). Opinion is not truth, Kevin. Anyone who starts out a scientific review by quoting the (anonymous) writer of a gospel, a religious book, that advanced the theological agenda of 2nd century proto-orthodox Christianity…well, why should I take anything he has to say seriously?

    Yeah, I know, I’ll look at the rest and read the evidence, evaluate it, and make a decision, but he’s lost points already. Sorry, Kevin, but unless I’m a godbot, appealing to fictional works does not make for a good start.

    Nor, apparently is this passage:
    “Is it most effective to tell
    them that evolution is “true,” implying that other explanations are “false”?”

    Perhaps not, but when the alternative is to lie to them so that they feel better, all in the name of expediency, is pathetic. We all can see how well that has worked in the past – just look at how well accepted scientific theories are (Kansas, Texas, Dover, etc).

    Personally, I’d rather be told if any of my beliefs are false, rather than be played like a fool. Give me honesty any day. Sometimes, when the facts are laid on the table, some beliefs are “false” – no implication, just cold, hard “non-personal” truth.

  8. Posted April 1, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    It’s only in the most trivial way that people find faith and science compatible. Yes, a person can live their life having faith and accepting science. This doesn’t saying anything about whether or not the two are compatible truths outside of the individual. Our brains do not explode when two mutually incompatible ideas inhabit them. It’s as simple as ignoring the contradiction.

    We don’t need to argue the meaning of “faith” to show that most religions and science are incompatible. Religion and science make many claims about the same things (ie how the universe came into being, how life came into being, whether or not virgin birth is possible, whether or not blood is magical, whether disease is caused by sin or by germs, ect.). These claims are incompatible. Either science is right, or religion is right. This is the meaning of incompatibility.

    A religion watered down enough to the point of not contradicting science at some level, is probably going to be very close to deism, which is to say, not really a religion at all. Faith in this kind of god is surely compatible with science, but it is the exception, not the rule.

  9. newenglandbob
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Padian says that “truth” (as in the title of my book) “is a personal thing.”

    – Horseshit! Karl Popper and others completely destroyed and debunked ‘relativism’ 50 years ago. The term ‘personal truth’ is yet another obfuscation by the religious. There is no logic behind it.

    The reason tristero in #6 above “…won’t argue with you about this” is because he will lose the argument hands down due to the overwhelming evidence against his position. Dr Coyne has written about all the reasons that religion and science are incompatible with facts and evidence to back his ‘belief’.

    One of the definitions of belief:

    : conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

  10. Posted April 1, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    “It’s only in the most trivial way that people find faith and science compatible. ”

    There are plenty of people who see no problem with devoutly and deeply practicing their religion and truly understanding and accepting scientific theories. They simply don’t practice religious fundamentalism, which is a specific take on a religion that requires reading the texts in a very specific and selective fashion, and not necessarily the way the texts were meant to be read.

    Reform Jews, for example, are just as much Jews as the Orthodox, and many reform Jews would be deeply offended if you called their religious practice “watered-down.” It’s not, nor is it deism. And needless to say, many reform Jews have no problem accepting scientific theories and can come up with spectacular reasoning why that is so. You may believe they are rationalizations, but that is only your belief. They do not perceive the contradiction that you do because they don’t define religion as you believe it must be to count as “serious” religious commitment.

    Me, I honestly – and very passionately – don’t care. As mentioned, I think incompatibility/compatibility of science/religion is a trivial issue, or at best of theological interest. It’s not that I abstain from holding an opinion as to whether religion and science are compatible, separate “magisteria,” etc. It’s that I don’t feel it is worth a moment of my time to come up with one. Life is short and the more I studied the arguments swirling around compatibility/incompatibility of religion and science, the more I became convinced that having an opinion is irrelevant to the creation/evolution war, which I care deeply about.

    The real issue, the practical issue, is that far-right political operatives exploit religious symbolism in order to gain power. It is who gets to define truth that this battle is over, not about who is telling the truth. As a creationist said, “Who will take a stand against the experts?”

    I’m not going to argue with your belief – not your knowledge, but your belief – that “most religions and science are incompatible” because my point is that you have beliefs; we all do. I can easily work out definitions of religion and science – not to mention truth – that defend your position. And equally good ones that undermine it. There is no one perfect definition for any of these terms (which is not the same as saying the terms are meaningless or “anything goes).

    The point, again, is that such discussions are – within the context of what is actually going on in the creation/evolution war – besides the point. This is not about defining “truth” but about who has the authority to define it. Those are radically different things.

    Recognizing what your adversary is up to strikes me as a very good idea. So I repeat: Clearly, this is a battle over authority, not a battle over who is being more reasonable.

    Ultimately, the more reasonable side may win out, but in the short term – and that can be a long “short term” – the authoritarians can create an enormous amount of havoc.

    I’m not a Nisbet/Mooney. Coyne’s attitude is absolutely right. As is Dawkins and PZ, etc. I like them all. We need more voices, and more varied voices on our side. Including Kevin Padian’s. He’s not wrong, and he’s certainly not advocating that Coyne change his views or frame his views to make them palatable to anyone. He is saying that if Coyne uses a word like “true” in his title, he is all but inviting a serious discussion of what is meant by the term. Coyne simply defines it as meaning what it does in science. But there is more to the term true” than that.

    Sorry for being so prolix…

  11. Hempenstein
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    In re.:
    Twenty-five years of hard work by scientific organizations like the NAS and NCSE, involving pushing religion/science accommodationism, have had no perceptible effect in changing the public’s acceptance of evolution.

    It may be of some solace that it took Morris Fishbein about 20 yrs to put John Brinkley out of business, shortly before WWII. Brinkley was the one who went from KS to TX to Arkansas with his miracle cure of implanting goat testicles or emulsions thereof into trusting, aging males at $750 a pop. (Not surprisingly, Brinkley inveighed against Darwin in his radio broadcasts, too.)

    All this from “Charlatan” by Pope Brock (Recommended!).

  12. Posted April 1, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink


    Please read what I wrote. We’re in agreement on everything but where to focus.

    The reason I won’t argue is not because I think I will lose but because I don’t have an opinion one way or the other as to whether science and religion are incompatible. After a good deal of study, I decided I don’t care enough about the subject to formulate an opinion. The reason I don’t care is because it is irrelevant to the evolution/creationism war.That’s something I care deeply about.

    This fight is about the will to power: who has the authority to define the truth. The creationists are completely wrong on the facts. They are also advocating an anti-American cultural mandate: the privileged teaching of a specific religious doctrine.

    Now, those are issues I care about. I’ll leave the discussion of when a religion is not a religion but just deism, or whether or not it’s compatible with science up to those interested in theology. In this context, I’m a pragmatist, through and through:

    Creationism, including id creationism, must be defeated. If I felt that having an opinion on the compatibility issue would advance that goal, I’d hold one. But I don’t. I think it’s a distraction.

  13. bsk
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, your comments on the science/religion compatibility debate are refreshingly lucid. I still struggle to understand how postmodernism has so many defenders among otherwise rational people.

  14. Posted April 1, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry, I may have been too assertive in my claim that “most religions and science are incompatible.” However, let’s look at your specific example:

    “If we use the term “faith” to describe mainstream Methodist beliefs and practice – which is a perfectly reasonable usage – then faith and science are indeed quite compatible; plenty of faithful, church-going Methodists have no problem working as scientists, using scientific discoveries, or enjoying reading about science.”

    Jesus was either born of a virgin or he wasn’t. This is a question we may not be able to answer, but there is an answer. Science says that a human cannot be born of a virgin, and faith, in your definition above, says that a human can be born of a virgin. These are mutually incompatible claims, but one is true. Just because people can live with these incompatible claims, does not mean that they are compatible.

  15. SLC
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    1. The Dover decision rested on throwing science at Judge Jones, not convincing him that you could believe in evolution and God, too. You don’t have to be a believer to refute creationist claims or to show that they were inspired by religious belief.

    Come on Prof. Coyne. Does Prof. Coyne really believe that the plaintiffs in the Dover case would have made out as well if Prof. Coyne or Prof. Myers had led off their case instead of Ken Miller?

  16. newenglandbob
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    SLC @ 15

    To answer your question: undoubtedly so. Have you read anything they have written? Have you listened to an interview with either of them?

  17. Posted April 1, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Karl Peterson,

    I agree: the assertions of Jesus’s virgin birth by Methodists clearly flies in the face of everything science knows about human reproduction.

    What I don’t understand is why you care one way or the other to go to the trouble to point that out. Do Methodists want this taught in US public schools? I don’t think so. Are they trying to convert you? I don’t think so. What’s the big deal?

    Look, the Methodists say a lot of things. Go here. Among the things they say are “The most fundamental distinction of Methodist teaching is that people must use logic and reason in all matters of faith.”

    That’s good enough for me. I’m not saying I’m a Methodist(or not). I’m saying that this is nothing to get worked up about one way or the other. What’s the big deal about the assertion, within parenthesis no less! about a virgin birth? It’s strikes you as weird. Agreed. So?

    Let me put it another way:

    We all believe cockamamie things, but that doesn’t mean we put them front and center all the time. If Methodism does mean that logic and reason determine faith, then those principles, rather than miracles and faith healing, or evangelism, or political activism, are central. And since all I care about is defeating and marginalizing creationists and their ilk, I see no reason to focus on a parenthesis.

    Is Methodism an arch-enemy of science and a scientific worldview? To the extent that any belief system accepts clearly preposterous things as physical fact, you have a point.

    Or maybe you don’t. In fact, I can easily see that the Methodist emphasis on logic and reason would encourage Biblical exegesis, leading perhaps to a question as to whether “young girl” was mistranslated “virgin.” And that could lead to a revision of the Methodist creed. In any event, the entire question of Jesus’ virginity is not the crucial point to Methodism, according to Methodists themselves. And most important of all, they’re not trying to get it taught in my daughter’s school!

    I’m serious, I don’t care. It’s not Methodists who are going around wanting to teach id creationism to my kid. Therefore, what they believe is their own business.

    Which brings me back to what really is central. Despite appearances, this is not a secular/religious struggle. It is a battle between a far right authoritarian movement and the rest of the US in which religious symbols are exploited for political gain.

  18. SeanK
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I can’t think of a single reason why scientists should tiptoe around the issue that religious people can’t support their claims because they lack evidence. If you choose to believe in something in the face of mountains of evidence contradicting your belief, then you’re either stupid or a fool. All the crying and accusations of hurt feelings won’t change a thing; and it’s not going to make your position any stronger.

    Coyne doesn’t have to ‘respect’ the beliefs of anyone. He didn’t write about his own personal beliefs of why evolution is true – he wrote a book about the scientific proof of evolution. Anyone is free to look at the evidence and make their own judgment call, but seriously, you’d have to be pretty ignorant if WEIT doesn’t convince you of the obvious.

  19. Posted April 1, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    “What I don’t understand is why you care one way or the other to go to the trouble to point that out.”

    “To the extent that any belief system accepts clearly preposterous things as physical fact, you have a point.”

    I care because, whether we are arguing the truth of the virgin birth, or the truth of evolution, science will have one thing to say and faith will have another. Since science is founded in the physical world, and faith is by definition unfounded, they will disagree. I think it is an important difference to look at and to talk about.

    “It’s not that I abstain from holding an opinion as to whether religion and science are compatible, separate “magisteria,” etc. It’s that I don’t feel it is worth a moment of my time to come up with one.”

    I think this is where we really disagree, and I’m happy to leave it at that. You don’t want to waste your time on it, but I find it interesting and important. That truly is a subjective difference. If this is all you were trying to say, then I apologize for the miscommunication.

  20. SLC
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Re newenglandbob

    In response to Mr. newenglandbobs’ response to my question, apparently the lawyers for the plaintiffs didn’t think so. They put Ken Miller first on the stand for the specific purpose of warding off any claims of evolution = atheism by the defense lawyers. And yes, I have read Prof. Millers testimony, both direct and cross and, IMHO, the cross examination was totally ineffective. IMHO, cross examination of Prof. Coyne or Prof. Myers would have been far less ineffective. The claim of evolution = atheism was really the only leg the defense had to stand on and Prof. Miller cut that leg off quite well.

  21. Peter Clemerson
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    “The postmodernist claim that accepting scientific rather than spiritual truths is simply a matter of taste is a claim of breathtaking inanity.”

    I have often read equivalent statements that this is what Post Modernists claim but have not come across any major thinker who adheres to and defends the position that Coyne criticizes. Has anyone else and if so, can you give me references?

  22. Posted April 1, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    See Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense for many examples.

  23. Posted April 1, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    What I want to know is whether the truth, or otherwise, of the claim that “truth is a personal thing” is a personal thing.

  24. MelM
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    They’re not wrong. That first decision—what kind of “knowledge” is going to be privileged in your mind—is ultimately a question of belief, a leap of faith, a decision about truth

    I’m shocked! I thought the NCSE position was an unfortunate ploy. It seems to go much much deeper and is echoed by the pious. The religious version of this is called “presuppositional apologetics”. I see it coming up over and over again in the debates with holy men and in their articles. (Note the “starting points” business in the YouTube talk between Dr Michael Shermer and Dr Georgia Purdom–a YEC–at the Creation Museum.) The point of it all is to neutralize reason, thus destroying it’s ability to attack religion. If reason has nothing to say that isn’t just as much “faith” as their batshit crazy fantasies, religion can go safely on its way for yet more centuries.
    Wikipedia link for “presuppositional apologetics”:

    If someone wants to advocate the compatibility of religion and science, I suggest that they append “God willing” to the end of every theory or equation.

    This Padian incident is something of a wakeup call; my growing view that the issue here is epistemology has gotten a huge confirmation that I hadn’t expected. Any form of epistemological neutrality is toxic and I’m really happy to see Prof. Coyne going into battle against it.

  25. newenglandbob
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    SLC @ 20:

    I asked if you read Coyne’s writings like WEIT or any any of Myer’s writings or listened to interviews of either of them. If you have then I can not fathom why you think they would not have given the evidence of evolution. Atheism has no relevance to the trial. That line of inquiry would have been objected and banned.

  26. MelM
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink


    The book “The Flight From Science and Reason” (ed. Paul R Gross….) is where I’ve learned most. It includes much more than Postmodernism.

  27. James F
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Looking at the various comments on compatibility, I think it’s important to acknowledge a continuum, starting from Eugenie Scott’s statement that “[M]odern science operates under a rule of methodological naturalism that limits it to attempting to explain natural phenomena using natural causes.” If there is no objection to this initial assertion, then with methodological naturalism as the neutral philosophy, in the practice of science there is clearly no conflict with philosophical naturalism. Deism has essentially the same lack of conflict.

    Now let’s move it up to a sort of “hopeful theism,” where the Deity is aware of us and may also take in our souls/spirits after death, but no claims are made about historical miracles. This sort of supernaturalism is a belief held out of desire, not due to empirical evidence, yet in practice there’s essentially as little conflict as there is for the deist. Next we move to belief in isolated historical miracles – virgin birth and other features associated with the divinity of prophets. The believer has made a special exception that defies rational explanations, and their religion has now started to conflict with science. I would argue, however, that these beliefs have little impact upon the individual’s ability to learn and practice science – this is the realm of people like Ken Miller, Francis Collins, John Haught, even George Coyne. Then there’s a sharp divide (at least it seems that way to me) in the perception of science when you get to the fundamentalists and Biblical literalists: outright denial of entire bodies of evidence (ranging from the extreme of young earth creationism to the old earth creationism-like stance of ID proponents), denial of medical treatment in favor of prayer, and so on. In the last two cases, there is conflict between science and faith, but only in the extreme form does it have an impact in how we learn and practice science. No postmodernist argument need be invoked about “truth.” Perhaps this is a better context (I won’t say the f word) for the discussion?

  28. Posted April 1, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    MelM said: “This Padian incident is something of a wakeup call; my growing view that the issue here is epistemology has gotten a huge confirmation that I hadn’t expected.”

    I agree. It’s disheartening to see someone like Padian buying into an incoherent theory of truth-relativism. It’s bad enought to see variations of truth-relativism or radical epistemological scepticism relied upon by opponents of science. When advocates of science start to accept such ideas and to criticise others for not doing so – I almost despair.

  29. MelM
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I want to point to what I think is one of the most profound statements in history. It’s by Aristotle and it’s included in a section on his metaphysics on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web site. The section is titled: “4. The Fundamental Principles: Axioms”

    Note the phrase: “…and it is not just a hypothesis.”

    Religionists try to say that the “knowledge”, “objectivity”, “reason”, “perception”… of a scientific world view are unprovable and therefore matters of “faith”–just like religious bullshit. Indeed, they’re not provable since they are assumed by any proof. That does not, however, mean these concepts are arbitrary. I think they are axiomatic or near to it. No one can consistently attack these without at the same time assuming them. Ken Ham, for example, says there is no objective knowledge. (I define such knowledge as knowledge uncorrupted by feelings or whatever.) To make such a claim, he would have to use an objective process. Plenty of nutters want to make the truth of the Bible into an “axiom”. A highly complex system of ideas as an “axiom” that can be rejected in total without contradiction? I don’t think so! Religion hammers at the “faith” foundations of reason and science 24/7 and, unfortunately, I think they’ll get away with it for many years to come.

    If this issue doesn’t seem to matter, let me point out a sentence in the introduction to a theology book (“The Reason For God” by Timothy Keller) that I’m reading now (because it looked like it was going to be “meaty” on this very issue). Keller: “Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.”
    BTW, Keller filled Wheeler Auditorium on the U.C. Berkeley campus just a couple of days before Dawkins spoke (also filling the auditorium). I think Keller and others know what their doing; Aristotle’s view on axioms provides a lead to a good answer.

    BTW, it’s a kick to see Keller fill in gaps in cosmology with his god. A god that can do anything turns out to be sooo handy–and no evidence is required.

  30. Peter Clemerson
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    My thanks to Gregory Mayer (@22) and MeIM (@26) for your references.

  31. MelM
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    @28 Russell Blackford,

    “- I almost despair.”


    There is no way to save science by handing philosophy–including epistemology–over to religion or to Protagoras and his heirs.

  32. MelM
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Deism not in conflict with naturalism?


    Deism is a theological position (though encompassing a wide variety of view-points) concerning God’s relationship with the natural world which emerged during the scientific revolution of seventeenth century Europe and came to exert a powerful influence during the eighteenth century enlightenment. Deism holds that god does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that he configured when he created all things

    I don’t see the “Grand Cosmological Theory” of the future not in conflict with “God created the universe and even configured it.” (These happen to be two of Keller’s gaps that he so easily filled with his god.) Deism was not about a god that never ever had anything at all to do with reality.

  33. SLC
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Re newenglandbob

    Mr. newenglandbob is getting rather tiresome. Yes, I read this blog and PZs’ blog regularly. I have also read all of Richard Dawkins books. I also read Pandas’ Thumb regularly.

    I would suggest that Mr. newenglandbob read the direct and cross examinations of Dr. Barbara Forrest. In the direct examination, she was very careful to make the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, i.e. between science and atheism. The cross examination tilted heavily to pointing out Dr. Forrests’ atheist views, including her association with various humanist organizations. The fact is that the judge, quite wisely in my view, allowed virtually all testimony, given that there was no jury. He gave both sides every opportunity to make their case so the notion that the defense would not have been allowed to cross examine PZ Myers or Jerry Coyne on their atheist positions is piffle. The question as to whether the judge would have been influenced by such testimony is another matter. Hindsight tells us that the answer is no. However, that’s Monday morning quarterbacking. Given the fact that the judge was recommended by right wing whackjob Rick Santorum, is a regular churchgoer, and was appointed by President Bush, the plaintiffs were well advised to proceed with caution. Remember what Bill Dumbski said about Judge Jones before the trial.

  34. Pdiff
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    SLC – Your argument is off base here. The question was whether science was the effective weapon at Dover, i.e. Jerry’s point. Yes, Ken Miller the accommodator, was put up for all to see, but he used Science there, not accommodation. Perhaps the good guys won a battle with his “I can live with both” reputation, but the war was won with science and only science. PZ would be a poor choice in any case as he is too undisciplined for the job. But a Dawkins, as a non believer, would have been just as, if not more, effective.


  35. Posted April 2, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Creationists—people who deny evolution because it conflicts with their religious precepts—often tell us that whether we accept a naturalistic or a supernatural explanation of the world around us is a philosophical choice: a belief. They’re not wrong.

    Padian ought to learn some philosophy, if he thinks that “naturalistic” and “supernatural” have anything but contingent meanings. Most philosophy finds that “distinction” to be worthless, other than as shorthand for more complicated empirical stances.

    In some sense it is true, however, that taking an empirical approach is a philosophical choice. The trouble with that weasel is that almost no one in our society has decided not to agree to use the empirical approach–other than where they want to make exceptions in order to save their a priori beliefs.

    I could respect a thorough disagreement with empiricism, were it consistent. I would find it to be useless for knowing anything, but I could respect it. Simply demanding that we throw physics overboard when it conflicts with their religious views of life, however, is hardly a respectable stance.

    And one could say that truth is personal, certainly in a philosophical sense (Popper notwithstanding). Yet what we typically refer to when discussing “what is true” is exactly what is not personal, it is the “objective” or the “intersubjectively sound” that we most normally call “true” (not, of course, “True”).

    Clearly that is the meaning used in court when we swear to “tell the truth,” rather than some “personal truth” in which gray might be green.

    I doubt many would fault the claim that “God is my truth” as stated by a religious person. That is fine, and I also have conceptions that I consider to be true which are not what all honest humans would agree are truth.

    But evolution is indeed “true” in the normal sense of the word. Courts use it and its underlying conceptions because they are truths that all–except for the ignorant and the prejudiced–will agree fits the evidence.

    This does not mean that one could not say that “truth” in his view means that the Bible and/or God trumps the evidence, and thus evolution may not be “truth” to said person. Such exceptions are understood, and do not stand in the way of understanding evolution to be true in the usual vernacular meaning of that word.

    Glen Davidson

  36. SLC
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Re Pdiff

    In hindsight, Mr. Pdiff may be correct that Dawkins or Coyne would have been just as effective as Miller. However, that’s hindsight. In hindsight, Tommy Lasorda should have walked Jack Clark. Going in, there is no way that the plaintiffs’ attorneys could have known that, given the provenance of the judge. I suspect that Mr. Pdiff would have great difficulty in finding an attorney who would have put Dawkins or Coyne on the stand instead of Miller.

  37. newenglandbob
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Pdiff, thank you for expanding on my points. Science wins the battle, science wins he war. Knowledgeable scientists like Coyne, Myers and Dawkins would have given outstanding performances regardless of their personal religious (non-) affiliations or their sexual preferences or stance on orbital teapotism or any other irrelevant subject.

  38. Posted April 2, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why my posts are either delayed or eliminated, but I’ll try:

    There’s a very good reason why Miller was on the stand at Dover. That reason is that he wrote the textbook to which the creationists were opposed.

    It is not obvious (from what I know, anyway) that his being religious had anything to do with his being chosen, although the plaintiffs did make use of that fact.

    Glen Davidson

  39. Pdiff
    Posted April 2, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    SLC: Yes, the lawyers were clever and put “Mr. Religious” on the stand. And yes, they were smart to do so, as a well paid lawyer should be. But even when they did so, Dr. Miller used science as his argument, not “Hey, I can be both, so Evilution must be ok.” Clever lawyer trick, but not the main argument, as was Coyne’s point.

    It’s time for NOMA to die. It was a stupid idea when Gould proposed it and it’s even more pointless now. Let it go straight to their Hell (TM).


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