The Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky runs a twice-yearly series of debates, the Bale Boone Symposia, on diverse topics. Last night I participated in a debate with theologian John Haught on the topic of “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?” Needless to say, I was on the “no” side.
It wasn’t really a formal “debate”: each of us talked for about 25 minutes and then answered audience questions for about 40 minutes. The crowd was large, as I expected given the topic: the room was filled and many people were forced to stand in the aisles.
Since the talk was filmed, and I’ll make it available here when it comes out, I won’t recount the debate in detail. I will say that I think our side came out well. I had read six books by Haught and watched nearly all of his debates and presentations on YouTube, so I think I was well prepared. Much of my talk consisted of explaining the foibles of theology and the mess it gets itself into when trying to harmonize itself with science.
I illustrated those foibles with quotes from Haught’s own books—not to denigrate the man, but because he is regarded as America’s leading theologian who tries to reconcile science and evoluton with religion (Catholicism in his case), and also because he was there and could defend and explain himself. (An encomium for the man: Haught testified on the evolution side in the Dover trial.)
Haught had not prepared to debate me in particular: he gave what seemed to me a canned presentation, not referring to my views at all. My take was that he seemed perturbed by my using his words against him. During the questions afterwards, took great pains to claim that all of the quotes I gave from him were taken out of context (they weren’t). He also argued that I was a victim of scientism and that I needed to “get out more” because I didn’t understand religion.
My response (my sole response to a direct accusation, since we weren’t addressing each other) was that his quotes were completely in context and accurate, and that Haught’s sophisticated brand of nearly-apophatic faith did not represent the religious views of most Americans. I claimed that Haught was the one who needed to get out more and see what most American really believe (nearly 80% of us, for example, accept the real existence of angels).
Haught made his usual claims that scientists themselves have a form of faith: a faith that truth itself is worth seeking for its own sake, and a faith that the world is comprehensible through scientific study. Both of these ideas, he argued, are evidence for God. Although I didn’t address these directly, I can’t comprehend his logic here; and when we continued the discussion with students and faculty at dinner, Haught flatly denied that he meant those asssertions as any kind of evidence for God. But he clearly did, and I think he was being intellectually disingenuous.
As for why we seek truth, I think it’s in some people’s nature to seek truth—but not everyone’s. One student, who was interested in music and poetry, said he didn’t really care that much about scientific truth, and we know that 64% of Americans (see previous post) would reject a scientific fact were it to conflict with their faith. And surely some of our truth seeking stems from our evolved nature to want to understand the world, for that understanding once helped us survive. Now our own scientific curiosity piggybacks on that ancestral desire to understand. (Religion, of course, was the way we understood the universe in our intellectual infancy.)
As to why the universe is comprehensible, well, I fail to see how that provides evidence for God. In fact, if there were a theistic God—and Haught is indeed a theist who thinks that God intervenes in the world—I would expect the universe to be not comprehensible, for God would be sticking his finger into the works continuously, destroying any physical laws or regularities The point is that neither a comprehensible nor an incomprehensible universe gives evidence for God.
As I said, Haught denied at the post-debate dinner that this comprehensibility, and the “faith” of scientists in the value of truth, was evidence for God. But he really does think that, and you can see that by reading any of his books (most of which, by the way, make exactly the same arguments). Given that, I accused him at dinner of adducing a God-of-the-gaps argument by implying that because the universe was comprehensible, and we don’t know why, that means that God exists.
My own response is that, yes, we don’t understand why there are physical laws, and the answer may be simply “because that’s the way it is.” But to interpolate God as an explanation is to do what Haught spoke against in his anti-intelligent design testimony at Dover: to use God as an explanation for something we don’t understand. He of course denied he was doing this.
At any rate, I didn’t have to argue much with Haught at the post-debate dinner, for the enormously bright and impressive “Gaines fellows” (all undergraduates selected for their drive and intelligence) pretty much took him down. I just had to sit back and watch these engaging and thoughtful students dismantle Haught’s fluffy ideas.
As for the debate, there was a standing ovation afterwards—the first, according to director Robert Rabel, ever given in these debates as long as he’s been running them. Twice (once after the debate and once at dinner thereafter), Haught attributed the standing ovation to “Jerry’s groupies—the young people.” I found this demeaning, and told Haught so: that I would like to think that insofar as the applause was for my side, it was due not to groupies but to the cogency of my arguments. But it’s clear that some of the approbation was for Haught, too, because there was applause for some of the points he made during his talk, and a few of the questions directed at me were hostile.
But I’ll post the video of the debate when it’s available and you can judge for yourself (I hope it includes the questions and answers).
In the meantime, today I’m off to the races: I’m watching the thoroughbreds run at the famous Keeneland Track near Lexington. Thanks to the generosity of a Gaines board member, the Gaines family (of pet-food fame, now engaged in horse racing and raising), and Robert Rabel, the genial and impressive head of the Gaines Center, I’ll be watching the races from the private box of the Gaines family (coats and ties required to enter the boxes!), and will partake of a fancy lunch that’s been arranged at the track. I’m keen to see the whole megillah, from the parading of the thoroughbreds before the race, to the saddling of horses and their mounting by jockeys, to the races themselves.
I’ll try to document this all with photos. This will be my reward for fighting superstitition in the South! In the meantime, here are Professor Ceiling Cat’s groupies:
h/t: Grania Spingies for the photo