After BioLogos wrote a three-part review of my book Why Evolution is True, I wrote a response, and one of their minions, Robert C. Bishop, has taken it upon himself to write a multipart response to my response. I’ve already discussed part one (see here), and now he’s come back with a jargony, postmodern part 2, excitingly titled “A response to Coyne (and contemporary atheists generally). Part 2.”
I hope this is the end of the parts. (This reminds me of a semi-smutty joke my father used to tell about an ad for a fictitious movie: “My Tuchus in Two Parts. Come tomorrow and see the whole!”). In fact, I fear writing even this analysis because it may prompt Bishop to write even more parts.
Bishop, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Wheaton College in Illinois (a religious school) is pushing a thesis that should now be familiar: scientists shouldn’t ask religious people to provide evidence, because that’s the wrong way to look at the tenets of faith. His thesis is twofold. First, the “naive evidentialism” that scientists use in their work cannot be applied to religious truth claims. Second, evidentialism is itself motivated by a deep ideological agenda:
“Jerry Coyne–along with other contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis)–writes about and analyzes religion using a fairly crude evidentialist epistemology. This epistemology, however, is animated by ethical ideals that have largely gone unnoticed and unexamined.”
Increasingly among accommodationists, we see these claims of “naive evidentialism” (which simply means that truth claims about the universe require evidence); Bishop also calls this a “fairly crude evidentialist epistemology,” and “unsophisticated forms of epistemology.” What this argument constitutes is, in effect, an attack on science, something that BioLogos isn’t supposed to be doing. Why is evidentialism misleading? According to Bishop, for two reasons:
- Science isn’t objective because it requires unjustifiable assumptions about its methods. And, relying on the senses, it’s also fallible.
” . . .no inquiry is rigorously objective because all inquiry requires some background assumptions. . . Coyne expresses such disguised ideology when he demands that religious convictions about God be formulated in clear, objective, publicly (i.e., scientifically) testable propositions for which “evidence” can be adduced. He cannot defend this adherence to natural science methods based on science or on the model of rationality he adopts because both of these already presuppose the very objectification in question.”
Well, if the desire to find out the truth is ideology, then so be it. But more important is the recurrent claim that science itself relies on values and practices that can’t be justified a priori.
I’ll admit that I often hear this claim, but I’ve never understood it. Do we really need to justify the scientific method philosophically when it’s proved so successful in understanding the universe? What is important is that it works! What do I mean by “works”? Simply this: science arrives at conclusions about the universe that everyone who follows the method agrees on, and those conclusions enable us to make further predictions that are fulfilled. That’s how we get spaceships to the moon, it’s how we can cure infectious disease, it’s how Bishop knows, when he gets in his car on Sunday, that when he turns the key it will get him to the church on time. There is no need for working scientists to justify their methods through some kind of philosophical analysis. Those methods work, and that’s all we need.
The rationale behind all this is, of course, that finding the truth is good (granted, a value judgment, but who wouldn’t want to know what is making him sick?), and the way to find the truth is through reason, evidence, empirical testing and observation, and constant questioning. This method is responsible for nearly all the improvements in human physical well being that we’ve experienced over the past 400 years. I have yet to meet a person, even a religious one, who claims that she doesn’t want to know what’s true.
Now contrast that with religious “methodology.” First of all, it also lacks a priori philosophical justification. The rationale is that adherence to revelation, dogma, and authority will tell us some kind of truth around the universe. Let us apply to that an epithet resembling Bishop’s: “naive revelationism.” Has it lead us to truth or understanding of the universe? No. We know no more about the existence, nature, or will of a god now that we did two millennia ago. Has it led to any increase in human well being? Well, some people undoubtedly find comfort in religion, just as they find comfort in many manifestly false beliefs. But the “truths” of different faiths, unlike the truths of science, are multifarious, conflicting, and incompatible. And of course their adherents fight and kill each other over these different interpretations; and even if there’s not outright violence, there’s always mutual suspicion. When you go to a scientific meeting, though, it’s pretty damn egalitarian, for we don’t differ in how we find out truth. Nobody kills each other over string theory.
So my question for Bishop is this: “relying as you do on naive revelationism, how can you be so sure that God exists, what he’s like, and what he wants?”
Bishop, of course, while excoriating naive evidentialism, fails to examine his own method of understanding God. Since it doesn’t work, at least in a way that it produces universal agreement among people, it requires even more justification than do the methods of science. To counteract this, Bishop simply goes after science, raising the old canard that we don’t understand things directly, but through our senses. This is, pure and simple, a way to attack science. It’s as if these people see the universe as one big optical illusion:
“Moreover, no forms of inquiry deal directly with objective realities as objects; rather, humans always experience and deal with their objects of inquiry as interpreted realities, where these interpretations are mediated by our theoretical and experimental practices.3 This holds true for Coyne’s investigations in evolutionary genetics as much as it holds for our explorations human action and God.”
Yes, we perceive the world through our senses. But that doesn’t make all our perceptions wrong or even questionable. Bishop questions whether my findings about evolutionary genetics are reliable because they are based on “interpreted realities”. I challenge him to tell me where I’ve gone wrong when I say that the X chromosome carries several genes affecting pigmentation between the two species of flies I work on. Is that a mistake? If Bishop repeats my experiment, I’m 100% certain he’ll find the same thing. In contrast, a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, using naive revelationism, comes up with a concept of God, and God’s will, different from those of a Christian in Alabama. And tell me this, Dr. Bishop: if you were to get a bacterial infection, would you prefer to take an antibiotic or trust in the ministrations of a shaman? After all, both of those methods rely on “interpreted realities.”
Why is “naive evidentialism” inappliable to religion? Although Bishop makes a mighty effort to answer, his conclusion is lost in his dreadful postmodern prose:
“Objectification may be a thoroughly appropriate stance to take towards understanding the properties of electrons, molecules and genomes. However, when applied to human activities and our ways of understanding our world, objectification distorts the human phenomena we are trying to understand by treating self-interpreting beings as if we are no different in kind from electrons, molecules and genomes (a value judgment if ever there was one!). For instance, one may be able to investigate and describe the geological properties of volcanoes without implicitly or explicitly judging whether it would be better if the volcano formed in a different way or place. But when investigating and describing human activity and commitment to God, such judgments about what is good are unavoidable. . .
What? God is a “self-interpreting being”? What does that mean? Does it mean that humans can’t interpret him, even through revelation? And if that’s true, then we can we know anything about the divine? What other ways are we supposed to understand it? As we know, naive revelationism doesn’t work.
. . . Coyne’s naive demand for “evidence that there is a god” betrays his lack of understanding that the ideal of objectification towards the human realm, religious practices or God is deeply connected with ethical ideals.5 For instance, Richard Bernstein shows how adherence to natural science ideals of objectification in human inquiry, though purportedly fostering “value-neutral, objective claims subject only to the criteria of public testing,” turn out to harbor “disguised ideology.” These “proposed theories secrete values and reflect controversial ideological claims about what is right, good, and just” reflecting a “total intellectual orientation” anchored in a complete package of tendentious high Enlightenment ideals such as individualism, autonomy, instrumentalism, and emancipation.6
Which brings up Bishop’s second charge against “objectification” and “naive evidentialism”:
- The demand for evidence for God and for the assertions of faith is based on values, namely, a conviction that religion is bad and should be smited.
“Instead, [Coyne’s] reasons for demanding this naively evidentialist line of inquiry are rooted in his desire to free people from what he takes to be illegitimate authorities, superstitions, false beliefs and irrationality. . .”
” . . . These ethical ideals may help explain various tendencies of Coyne (e.g., pursuing naive views of falsification and overly simplistic readings of the Bible in contrast to nuanced readings of nature, adopting unsophisticated forms of epistemology in his treatment of “the God question” that would not otherwise be tolerated in his biology research). The ends of freeing people from what he considers to be false beliefs and irrationality mask the adoption of lower intellectual standards as means to achieving these ends. Although rhetorically effective (perhaps only with the atheist choir!), the cost in intellectual integrity is high and quite damaging to the reputation and understanding of science (and to atheism!).
Here the accommodationist program is laid out. Attempts to falsify religious claims are useless because they’re based on “overly simplistic readings of the Bible in contrast to nuanced readings of nature” (i.e., if you read the Bible the way Bishop does, you’ll see that there’s no need to get evidence for God. His existence and character and will are just evident!) Actually, I would use the same standards for testing religious claims as I do when working on my flies: how do I know what is true? Does it make predictions that can be tested? Can I, or others, repeat my results? That’s how we know that prayer doesn’t work, a conclusion that came from a purely scientific double-blind study.
Is our demand for evidence in religion contaminated by ideology, as Bishop claims?
A key reason for objectification’s failure when applied to the human domain is that it represents as much a moral as an epistemological ideal. This moral ideal can be seen, for instance, in contemporary atheists’ insistence that moral good comes from objectifying the God hypothesis and religions phenomena in general (e.g., liberating people from antiquated superstition and false authorities, or making the world a safer and less violent place to live). Such moral implications derive from a viewpoint already animated by a moral vision of the good life for human beings, not from a scientific viewpoint.
Well, of course I think that, in the main, the effects of religion and superstition are bad. And although that is a value judgment, it can, as Sam Harris argues, be informed by reason. If Muslims gave up their faith, and stopped killing infidels (including other Muslims of different sects) and girls who want to go to school, and stopped oppressing women and marrying underage girls, wouldn’t that be a good thing in terms of people’s well being? And wouldn’t it be good if people in Africa, contrary to the Pope’s orders, started using condoms? Or is it better for them to suffer and die of AIDS? Wouldn’t it be good to stop threatening young children with the idea that they’ll burn in hell if they masturbate? Or does that threat have some salutary effect on society?
We can test these assertions in principle: simply get rid of religion and see what happens. What you get is what you see in Denmark, Sweden, and much of western Europe: healthy societies that take care of their citizens and aren’t plagued by lunacy about abortions, stem cell research, and creationism. So yes, it is my value judgment that societies without religion would be better, and that’s why I work against faith. But at least we can see what happens when faith disappears—and it seems pretty good to me.
In the end, Bishop succeeds only in making ludicrous and misguided attacks on science, not in defending his own “way of knowing”. And despite his assertion that “naive evidentialism” damages science and atheism (thanks for the advice, Dr. Bishop!), the greater damage is to religion. For, to the open-minded, naive revelationism is no way to find out anything. The world is full of people—the religious, the deluded, and the ideologues—who claim that they simply know what the truth is, and don’t require evidence. Does anybody think that’s a good idea?