Gary Gutting goes after scientism in the NYT, calls Augustine an evolutionist

I’ve decided I don’t want to waste time extensively rebutting critiques of scientism: there are too many of them, and they all say the same thing. Instead, for those who maintain an interest in this topic, I’ll summarize them as briefly as I can.

In the September 18 “Opinionator” column of the New York Times, “Science’s humanities gap,” Gary Gutting (a philosophy professor at Notre Dame), wastes a lot of space complaining that people like Steve Pinker call for more sciences in the humanities, but never call for putting more humanities in the sciences. Scientists should, he says, learn more philosophy.

I take issue with that on two grounds: scientists are so pressed for time that we can barely get our own work done and, more important, the potential benefit of philosophy to the conduct of science seems less to me than the potential benefits of infusing humanities with science—benefits described out by Steve in his New Republic piece.

I am not saying that philosophy or the humanities are without value. Far from it. What I am saying is that the marginal benefit of adding more science to the humanities is greater than vice versa. I personally absorb tons of what could be considered “humanities,” including literature, nonfiction, art, and philosophy. They’ve enriched my life immensely—but I can’t say with confidence that they’ve made my science better, or different.  I’d still have published the same work on speciation if I’d never read philosophy, although I wouldn’t be writing this website.  My benefits are personal, not scientific.

But enough of that. What I want to say is that Gutting makes one statement that’s a blatant falsehood:

Pinker also claims that science has shown that all traditional religious accounts of “the origins of life, humans, and societies — are factually mistaken,” since “we know. . . that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history.” Here Pinker ignores the numerous religious thinkers, from Augustine to John Paul II, who have accepted an evolutionary account of human origins, maintaining that the process itself is the work of a creative God.

That’s just bullpucky.  Really? Augustine, who believed in an instantaneous creation of all existing species, a global flood, and a literal Adam and Eve—an evolutionist? You can see him that way only if you’re blinded by the tendentious blinkers of accommodationism. Does Gutting really need an atheist biologist to correct him on matters of religious philosophy?

As for Pope Paul II, his famous 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences does accept a form of evolution:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.*  In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

Sounds good, eh? Until you read more:

And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology. . .

What are those materialist and reductionist theories, much less the spiritual ones? I am aware of only one going theory of evolution, which, while it has its controversial parts, does not deal with “materialism vs. reductionism” much less “spiritualism.”

And this (my emphasis):

. . .the human person cannot be subordinated as a means to an end, or as an instrument of either the species or the society; he has a value of his own. He is a person. By this intelligence and his will, he is capable of entering into relationship, of communion, of solidarity, of the gift of himself to others like himself. St. Thomas observed that man’s resemblance to God resides especially in his speculative intellect, because his relationship with the object of his knowledge is like God’s relationship with his creation. (Summa Theologica I-II, q 3, a 5, ad 1) But even beyond that, man is called to enter into a loving relationship with God himself, a relationship which will find its full expression at the end of time, in eternity. Within the mystery of the risen Christ the full grandeur of this vocation is revealed to us. (Gaudium et Spes, 22) It is by virtue of his eternal soul that the whole person, including his body, possesses such great dignity. Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides non retimere iubet”). (Humani Generis)

As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

6. With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

Evolution and neuroscience haven’t yet found a soul, and all evolutionary progress has made without assuming there is some divine “ontological leap” between humans and other creatures.  Indeed, a genetic continuum is the assumption that’s produced our progress. But here John Paul is saying that consciousness and other features of human mentation are to be explained not by science, but by God.

Did I mention that the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is also that there was a historical First Couple—Adam and Eve—who were the genetic ancestors of us all?

The vaunted Pope was limning a watered-down theistic view of evolution, not the one held by scientists.  Even if your view of “theistic evolution” is one in which God simply created the conditions for evolution to occur, rather than steering it in certain directions (the Pope’s held the latter view), it’s still not a scientific view. It’s a metaphysical view laden with woo.

As for Augustine, Gutting should go back and read him again before putting him in the box with Darwin.


  1. jimroberts
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 5:31 am | Permalink


    • gbjames
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink


      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink


        • peltonrandy
          Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

          sub again

  2. Posted September 25, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink


  3. Romuald.
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    I’d say more humanities are needed in science. Maybe not in the scientific work itself, but at least in terms of cummunication with the outer world.

    So that people without scientific training or inclination may understand better results of science, as “Boson of Higgs has been detected”, or “Evolution is true”, for example.

    Most scientific publications(the real ones) are very accurate, but accuracy is not enough. You have to conquer the hearts & the mind. That’s where the humanities lack.

    For the former Pope : what do you expect? The guy is big boss of the biggest religion in the world, defender of the speech of God, and he does NOT acknowledge that we have no beginning of proof of existence for God? Please be Serious : the guy acknowledges that many things are not written in the Bible, and even more, that the description made in it is not strictly accurate(a door open to many “reforms”). From someone in its position, you cannot expect more.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      I seriously doubt the OP expects more out of the pope. In any case you seem to be saying that therefore the pope shouldn’t be criticised. That makes no sense logically, ethically or in any other way you want to consider it.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      I’ve often advocated for more working across departments in universities because it’s my opinion that people are not scientifically or historically literate enough. I think to call yourself a literate person you should have the basics of science, literature, language, history and the ability to communicate well. I think universities do poorly in this regard. My alma mater required Engineers to take first year English which is horrible for them because they struggle with the amount of essay writing both during the year and on the spot in exams. A less intense course would be better. There are also math requirements that barred me from a lot of courses.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

        Speaking as an engineer, I think English (or an ability to communicate clearly) is extremely important – though essay writing is tedious, I’ll admit, and more likely to put people off the subject than encourage it. But from what I’ve seen, philosophers (well, many of ’em) lack that ability quite as much if not more than engineers or scientists.

        I like the Feynman quote – ‘Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.’ It can be nitpicked, but it’s more nearly true than anything Gary Gutting has said. I’d say history, literature and art would be of way more immediate value to any scientist (in his personal life, mostly irrelevant to his professional one) than philosophy.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 26, 2013 at 4:48 am | Permalink

          The tedium of writing essays for engineers is why I think they should have an English course for non humanities students that emphasize communication skills. Having been in IT for my whole career, I can see how this is needed (we are putting together support materials on a project and I had to teach people how to cite aources).

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

            OK I’d agree with that. It is often necessary to explain things to people and many folks (not just engineers) seem to lack the ability to put things clearly and concisely. So rather than “Write a thousand words on [some arbitrary subject]” it might be better to say “explain to a layman how a gearbox works (or an airfoil or a modem/router or any other technical thing the writer knows about) in as many words as necessary, but not more.” It’s actually surprisingly tricky.

    • Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree more. It seems scientists like coyne, dawkins, and myers want to have their cakes and eat them too. Accepting the central tenets of evolution is not good enough. They want complete and total apostasy. And if educating the public on evolution is the primary goal, then it is a strategic mistake to also try to quell any talk of God’s role in evolution that understandably happens within the god believing parts of the target audience. It’s counterproductive.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        They want complete and total apostasy.

        Sounds like a noble cause.

      • peltonrandy
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink


        You obviously haven’t a complete understanding of evolution. It is a completely materialistic, natural process. It is not guided nor influenced by God nor any supernatural agent. Talk of God’s role in evolution ought to be challenged because there is no evidence for a God nor evidence that any God has played even the tiniest role in evolution. Theistic evolution is just a watered-down version of creationism.

    • gbjames
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      There seems to be a bit of confusion wherein ability to communicate well is mixed up with being “in the humanities”.

      While better communication skills are highly desirable, there is no reason to think that taking a couple of courses in the Art History department (or pick your Humanities discipline) is an automatic way to acquire the missing skills. Good communication requires clear thinking. On what basis does one conclude that it is in high supply in the humanities?

      • couchloc
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        How about the fact that philosophy majors have high scores on verbal and analytical thinking compared to others, according to this data. Does that not count?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

          This obviously does not extend to French postmodernist philosophers (of which Mr Gutting appears to be a specimen). If they ever scored highly on verbal and analytical thinking it does not seem to translate into their writing, as Alan Sokal so memorably demonstrated.

          • couchloc
            Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

            References to postmodernism are not helpful here as it plays no role in mainstream philosophy departments. Think of Dennett, Grayling, and Peter Singer.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

              I brought it up because (as I said) Mr Gutting appears to be one. If postmodernism plays no part in mainstream philosophy then so much the better for philosophy, I guess.

              But gbjames original point was “Good communication requires clear thinking. On what basis does one conclude that it is in high supply in the humanities?” Your reply implicitly assumed that humanities==philosophy, which of course it doesn’t any more than science==biology.

              I do think that (a) some carefully selected training in language/communications could help science graduates, and (b) some aspects of the humanities – whatever the scientist likes personally, actually – could broaden their horizons; but that’s not quite the same thing.

              • gbjames
                Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                I’m all for broadening horizons. And I’m in favor of well rounded liberal education. I’m just objecting to the idea that good communication is the province of the humanities more than it is of “the sciences”.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink


                I absolutely agree.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink

          Thanks for posting. I’ve saved this. It should be noted that a lot of English and Philosophy grads go into Law for these reasons.

          • Posted September 27, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

            It’s been shown philosophy grads are more successful in business, too.


      • couchloc
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        I should have included English in my comment as well.

  4. Latverian Diplomat
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    From Gutting:

    For example, Pinker opens with the claim that “the great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists,” mentioning, in particular, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Adam Smith. These thinkers were, of course, all interested in scientific questions, but they all quite correctly viewed themselves as philosophers

    This is disingenuous. “Scientist” as a word didn’t exist until 1834. All people doing science at the time considered themselved philosophers, which is why a doctorate in a science is still called a PhD.

    I have to believe that Gutting is not ignorant of this, and is using this argument, not because it is valid, but because he thinks it is rhetorically useful. One of the cornerstones of Philosophy was Socrates’ rejection of such purely rhetorical techniques (the Sophists). Gutting can’t even state his argument without betraying his own field.

    BTW, I think Pinker goes too far here, Descartes and Leibniz were definitely scientists (though their best work was in mathematics) I don’t know Kant well, but I don’t consider what I know of his work to be scientific at all. Hume, Locke, Smith, etc. definitely used empirical evidence, rationality and skepticism in their work, but the mathematical tools to do real social science just hadn’t been invented yet.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 5:50 am | Permalink

      Here’s a link for the etymology of scientist:

    • lkr
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Kant fits quite well in this list of Enlightenment natural philosophers. Many of his early works [1750s] were concerned with proposing naturalistic explanations for phenomena that had usually been credited to supernatural.

      For instance, he is usually credited as one of the first to propose the nebular origin of the solar system [eg, the Laplace model]. He had other astronomic interests, for instance, lunar craters, which he believed to be volcanoes. Less successfully, he proposed “pneumatic” models for earthquakes/volcanism [as shifting of subterranean gases, interaction of sulfur and iron] that were certainly a step beyond “God’s judgment”.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, very informative. I mostly knew Kant from his (dreadful, IMHO) categorical imperative idea.

    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      It also leaves out several points of self-identification which makes this sort of remark of Gutting’s a bit weird.

      For example, *Newton* at least one point calls himself a philosopher – as one would expect, given the terminology at the time.

      As for what humanities can do for the sciences: general concepts applicable to any field. Of course, they have to be cultivated in a science-aware manner and so the “can do” is reciprocal. (My recent talk to CFI-Ottawa about metaphhysics is about these points amongst others; logic and epistemology are parallel.)

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        Newton also (privately) considered himself quite the theologian – though he didn’t dare publish any of his writing on the subject for rear of being branded a heretic.

    • Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:09 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, it’s Pinker’s claim that is disingenuous, even if Gutting may not put it will. The fact of the matter is this: Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume. Rousseau, Leibniz and Kant are people who you will hear much about and have been very influential in philosophy, but whom you’ll hear very little about in science courses and haven’t really influenced science that much qua science; they may have had influenced on the method itself, but that’s what philosophy of science tries to do. On the other hand, Newton is hugely influential in science, and you won’t get through any serious scientific study without learning him, while he isn’t even mentioned in philosophy/theology.

      Thus, it seems reasonable to hold up the former as being primarily philosophers, since they influenced it greatly and science not much at all, while the latter should be considered a scientist for the same reason. Given this, there seems little reason for Pinker to simply toss out those names as scientists when he is talking about how science and the humanities should relate to one another; giving them their primary status as those who worked primarily in what would be part of the humanities seems only fair, given the context.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted September 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Three points.

        Descartes and Leibniz loom very large in mathematics, which is at least a fellow traveller to science. (Descartes also made some contributions to pre-Newtonian physics, though these are not as well known).

        Smith, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke and maybe others made contributions to areas now treated by the social sciences, and are at least mentioned there.

        Newton may not have written much influential philosophy himself, but the success of his theories and the boost they gave to a mechanistic and/or deterministic world view had tremendous implications for philosophy, and most philosophers should be aware of that.

        • Posted September 30, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

          What in this would justify Pinker claiming that they were scientists, or someone else simply calling Newton a philosopher? That Newton’s scientific work was useful for philosophy, that Descartes’ mathematics was useful to science, or that Hume’s philosophical work was or is useful to the social sciences is an argument for the different fields producing output that the other fields find useful, not for associating that work with the other fields themselves.

  5. Cara
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink


  6. Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Has anyone here read Gutting’s “What Philosophers Know”. I am insufficiently experienced and skilled in philosophy to make a judgement but in reading the book it seemed too good to be true that non-religious philosopher upon philosopher (Kripke, Quine for example) simply got it all wrong and cannot know what they claim to know but miraculously (and it seems miracles would need to be involved) certain christian philosophers such as Plantinga got it all right and really know what they know (i.e. the overt christianity in Platinga’s philosophy of religion). Anyway, any comments by anyone who understands this stuff would be really appreciated since this is the first time I’ve seen Gutting’s name appear.

    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure Kripke is a non-religious philosopher. Quine was, as far as I remember.

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Gary Gutting again? Is he trying to top his claim that Zeus actually existed?

    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      Hoo boy. Deep stuff there. He seems to be a living argument for a greater need for hard sciences training in the humanities.

      There’s no a priori reason to presume there is no such thing as sentient toenail scrapings on alternate Wednesdays… when nobody’s looking. So who is to say that this couldn’t possibly be the exact state of affairs?

      Maybe we should count ourselves lucky that such philosophers make no attempt to apply their ways of “knowing” to real-world situations…

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      “We may well think that our world contains little or no evidence of the supernatural. But that is no reason to think the same was true of the Greek world.
      On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded. There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption. Further, supposing that Zeus did exist in ancient times, do we really have evidence that he has ceased to exist?”

      Oh dear. There’s a whole column of that sort of thing. What can one possibly make of it? It looks like cultural relativism gone berserk, either that or Gary is trying to push some obscure philosophical theory to the point of absurdity. It’s only in Terry Pratchett’s excellent novels that existence is contingent on belief.

      “Reality is that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn’t go away” – one of my favourite taglines.

  8. Robert Bray
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    ‘I personally absorb tons of what could be considered “humanities,” including literature, nonfiction, art, and philosophy. They’ve enriched my life immensely. . . .’

    Prof. Coyne has written something similar to this several times in his essays. Yet the things he lists (with the possible exception of the arcane branches of philosophy) are all things that a human can encounter and understand without special training. Literature, for instance, requires only the ability to read; art, the ability to see; and music, the ability to hear. No one needs a professor with a PhD to explain to him or her how art and literature work: we already know because we can read and see and hear and have the emotional responses to ‘prove’ to us that ‘something important just happened’ because of art.

    What ‘humanities professors’ can do for their students is thus pretty much limited to guiding them to those texts and objects of art that seem (to the professors) to have the greatest artistic (and perhaps socio-political value)–a value, I must add, that does not appear to be amenable to objectification. Thus, in effect, I have nothing to teach Prof. Coyne and other scientists that they aren’t already capable of knowing on their own.

    Now, on the other hand, I as a ‘humanities professor’ cannot ‘read’ mathematics; so if I wish to learn science I need remedial work in a non-natural language, and I need specialist teachers to teach it to me. But even if I never reach fluency in mathematics (and at my age that’s very likely), I still require lots of second-hand knowledge of science, since science
    provides the best (most rational) account of what is the case with the universe and Homo

    What this suggests to me is that the humanities ought to learn more about science, and do so before we are forced out of business; while science has merely to encounter art and literature and music as all humans do, and may freely bypass the humanities classroom on the way to the lab.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      I figured I’d read a comment like this:

      Literature, for instance, requires only the ability to read; art, the ability to see; and music, the ability to hear. No one needs a professor with a PhD to explain to him or her how art and literature work: we already know because we can read and see and hear and have the emotional responses to ‘prove’ to us that ‘something important just happened’ because of art.

      and it is why I feel increasingly disheartened with this whole “scientism” debate which when people read Pinker becomes a bit of a tempest in a teapot and you get these odd responses from Gutter et. al. which inevitably lead to these conclusions because these repliers seem to sort of suck.

      When you study in the Humanities, you aren’t just reading a pile of books or looking at a bunch of art. You are actually analyzing. I’ve said this in posts elsewhere in response to these “Gutter-esque” replies that the job of Humanities professors are not to appreciate the aesthetics of art or enjoy reading a bunch of fiction or teach people how to write poetry but to analyze the art, literature etc. from a sociological, historical perspective. They are also charged with teaching what one would call rhetoric – learning to argue effectively, write quickly and well in an organized fashion and in essence to think critically. Anything you say, must be backed up with evidence. It is not anything goes. In essence, it is the belief of many professors (in my experience) that they will prepare you for a world that is in transition – that if you come out with critical thinking and communication skills as well as literacy, you will be able to adapt in the world as well as keep it honest because you can usually see bullshit pretty fast with the critical thinking skills you have acquired.

      I think it is also important to note that many science writers we are exposed to are what I’d call outliers. They are very good communicators and writers in addition to being (for the most part) outstanding and successful scientists. Don’t take this as the norm. There are thousands of science graduates who struggle with communication at this level (which is fine, their work doesn’t require it and they have skills elsewhere) just as there are thousands of humanities graduates that can’t do math. Those same math sucky grads probably exceed at language and are fluent in many, however.

      What bothers me is (as I’ve said as a response further up) there is a lack of fundamental knowledge about art, literature, history from the science side and lack of fundamental science knowledge from the humanities side. I love science so I made sure to educate myself. I think the same can be said for Jerry who made sure he understood literature, etc. This type of stuff needs to be formalized somewhat.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        When Jerry pointed us to Dane Dennett’s latest Edge article, I commented that I found this old article by Brockman informative. It relates the disappearing historical background of scientific illiterate “intellectuals”:

        “In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as “the intellectuals,” as though there were no others. This new definition by the “men of letters” excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

        How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of their work. Second, while many eminent scientists, notably Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, also wrote books for a general audience, their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the reigning journals and magazines.”

        Granted that scientists could need more education than simply being immersed in culture and, often, having availed themselves of more than general experience and knowledge. But I think the market is still skewed.

        And FWIW on this subthread, mathematics is not a language.

        Mathematics is a set of heuristics, i.e. empirical tools: how to count, measure, make statistics, make models, and above all how to formulate problems from what is known and what is needed to be known. Solving them is optional, other areas use more empirical methods than formalization et cetera, so that doesn’t translate well. But mathematics is a great inroad to the core of many empirical sciences.

        Mathematics uses a very compact techno-lingo for practical reasons, but that is legion and tangential.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 25, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

          What I mean with that formalization doesn’t work well is that at the university I first had to learn how to handle axiomatic methods (mostly math), then unlearn my enthusiasm for them. 🙂

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted September 25, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          On Mathematics as a language, I disagree a little bit. Certainly it’s not a language in the conventional sense, but it is a means of expressing and thinking about ideas. And those ideas are often much more difficult to express in English or any other human language.

          Mathematicians (and many theoretical scientists) think in terms of the equations and notation they use. The only similar example I can think of is musical notation, and not all musicians use (or even know how to use) musical notation for composition.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted September 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            Oddly I find math folks and language folks similar in personality. Further learning the two requires a lot of work in the sense that if you miss something early on, you could be forever lost and you tend to need to keep up on it doing work every night to enforce what you learn.

          • Richard Wein
            Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

            ‘Mathematics’ can be taken in several senses. In one sense it’s an activity. But it’s an activity that uses a language, mathematical language.

            But mathematical language is not completely distinct from natural language. If you see them as quite distinct, then you have to decide whether the following words are words of natural language or mathematical language: one, two, add, equals, circle, etc. If you think that ‘one’ and ‘two’ are specifically mathematical words, then what about words like ‘a’ and ‘both’? There seems no point in trying to draw a hard line of demarcation between natural language and mathematical language. The nature of science and mathematics becomes much easier to understand when we see these as particularly methodical extensions of our ordinary ways of thinking, and not as something absolutely distinct.

            • Latverian Diplomat
              Posted September 28, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

              I think you missed my point.

              Certainly any mathematical statement can, with sufficient care and usually with significant verbosity, be translated into English.

              My point is that mathematicians use a specialized language that makes doing mathematics easier, and mathematical thought is largely done in this language, not their native language, by experienced practitioners.

              While many fundamental mathematical concepts are inspired by natural language (because counting, measuring, distance, shape, set membership, etc. are important in many everyday activities) dependence on an intuitive, natural language based understanding of a concept can lead to difficulties or even paradoxes. “Does the set of all sets that do not contain themselves contain itself?” or “What is the length of the coast of Great Britain?” or “Are there more rational numbers than integers?”

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Gutting seems to be confusing scientific theories with philosophical ideas about. There is only one scientific theory of evolution. Philosophers have lots of ideas about its moral/metaphysical consequences.

    Augustine was very much against Biblical literalism, but believed in an instantaneous creation of all species (as Jerry observes above) due to his commitment to Neo-Platonism. However, he thought creation was not static, but contained seeds of its own development, but this is sort of but at best only a primitive prototype of evolutionary thinking in its modern sense. The notion that this is compatible with modern evolution was heavily pushed by Alister McGrath (who has debated Dawkins) in his book “Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution”.

    Augustine was influenced by Gregory of Nyssa who according to Wikipedia “taught that the Creation was potential – that God imparted to matter its fundamental laws and properties, but that the objects and completed forms of the Universe then developed gradually, under their own steam, out of primordial chaos.”

    IMO, Augustine’s frame of thought could be modified to accomodate a truncated/watered-down form of Darwinian evolution but you would have to remove a lot of the Neo-Platonic presuppositions especially the instant creation of all species!! The relevant text by Augustine is “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” (which he opposes).

    The notion that Augustine posited a kind of prototype of the theory of evolution is also claimed in Walter Miller’s well-known science-fiction novel “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, so the meme goes back a ways. Walter Miller was a Roman Catholic (though I think no relationship to Ken).

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    IMHO this website serves as science education, so within the mesoscale idea of science away from the narrow scale lab bench or field research (even before the idea of science writ large that Jerry promotes).

    The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

    Besides breaking evolution twice over, in inserting magic as phenomena (“spiritual realm) and as mechanism (“designs”) into a fully natural theory, this is asking for an illusory point within a gradual process. When did “human life” start? Especially, no first breeder pair, remember!

    Let me pontificate an equally valid alternate:

    ‘The moment of passage into the trunk realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically elephant life. But the experience of metatrunkular knowledge, of self-grasping and self-trunkation, of moral trunk handling, of free trunk handling, or of aesthetic and religious trunk handling—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.’

    Seems to me this sect has missed a whole lot of potential disciples of all species.

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Back in college I used to piss off my friends who were Political Science majors by saying that Poli Sci was History without the facts (which I did and do believe). I have come to a similar conclusion about Philosophy: it’s Science without the facts. At the end of the day, Philosophy can never prove anything without recourse to investigation of the physical world.

    • compuholio
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I’ve made similar statements about philosophy and of course had some heated debates with philosophers about this matter.

      And although I am usually very dismissive about philosophy deep down I am little bit torn on this position. On the one hand I could not imagine a single thing where philosophy might be of any real use to my subject (computer science).

      On the other hand I would deny history if I claimed that philosophy never made any real contributions. For example the roots of temporal and modal logic are found in philosophy which is tremendously important for computer science.

      But again on the flipside: I don’t see any philosophers doing further research in those areas. If logic really does belong to philosophy (as philosophers often like to claim) one has to wonder why you get so little input from the philosophy department. Computer scientists and mathematicians have long taken over research in this area.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        I think dismissing philosophy completely is short sighted. It is valuable for critical thinking and ethics so where science has taken over where philosophy began, it still continues in other useful areas. Indeed I think Peter Boghossian’s efforts around critical thinking are essential and very useful in society.

  12. Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Prof Jerry Coyne wrote,
    “Evolution and neuroscience haven’t yet found a soul…”

    In my humble opinion, I would not let the word “yet” ever be used in connection to the notion of “soul”. I feel the “yet” in this context, is akin to using it, as follows:

    “They haven’t yet found an elephant waking around at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, but, you know, it =is= very dark down there!!”

    I think it is more correct to simply delete “yet” as a modifier. Typically, religious folk grab onto even the smallest areas of purported uncertainty, and then feel no affect from the truth.

    No one has created an up-close, detailed study of what goes on at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in the Marianas Trench. Yet it has features, such as extreme pressures, that precludes certain possibilities that our minds -can- conjure, but in reality, have zero possibility of existing. In the same manner, it is known with 100% confidence that there is no “soul”.

  13. Vaal
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink


    I happen to be arguing in another forum at the moment with people defending Gary Gutting’s 2010 NYT “take-down” of Richard Dawkins arguments from the God Delusion.

    In that article, Gutting never actually provides a rebuttal to Dawkins’ argument but instead only appeals to the fact “some people believe otherwise” and “people have argued the opposite, elsewhere”…as if pointing to those fact amounts to an argument that Dawkins argument is faulty.

    I don’t think I can be bothered with this new Gutting article, especially as Jerry looks to have eviscerated it already.


    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      To be honest, I didn’t think this article was so bad. It wasn’t the “down with science”, “other ways of knowing” kind of garbage you get from religious anti-scientismists (say that five times fast). It was more of a “hey, Pinker, look in the mirror, bub” kind of article. We can argue about which side needs more help from the other, or whether it’s even appropriate to talk about “sides”, but I don’t think you could call what Gutting wrote here an attack.

  14. Gordon
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Down here in New Zealand in recent days there has been some discussion whether science should be compulsory in schools at year 10-11 with at least one headmaster say it “wasn’t accessible for all students” and many prefer humanities and art. I suspect we have along way to go in developing science literacy before we enter the scientists need more humanities debate.

    Might I also thank Jerry for dredging through the type of stuff above. I suspect most of his readers would have gone made years ago doing this.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Science was mandatory until grade 10 for me (those were good times too save for the mad dash to limited lab equipment). I continued on further for more good times. 🙂

    • Posted September 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Then bloody well make it accessible!


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 25, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately “accessible” is likely to mean, in practice, dumbing it down to the point where anyone with a natural feel for anything scientific is bored out of their tree and loses interest, while still not conveying anything useful to the scientifically illiterate. I agree that shouldn’t happen, but I’m afraid it probably will.

        Ummm, “energy makes it go”. See Richard Feynman’s great rant on dumbed-down textbooks here:

  15. Glynn Davies
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I am extremely grateful to Professor Coyne for his exposé John Paul II’s weasel words on evolution.

    I am fond of the Anglican style of religion but frankly I find some other versions of Christianity unattractive on a range from unpleasant to frightening.

    Like the majority of the Church of England members (no creationism in C of E schools) I would have no difficulty in opting for evolution over the Book of Genesis in the unlikely event that I ever found myself chatting in the pub about human origins.

    So I had taken Stephen Jay Gould’s assurances in Rock of Ages that the Vatican have accepted the validity of evolutionary theory to heart. It seemed encouraging evidence that at least Catholic Christianity was taking a step in the right direct by emerging, blinking into the blinding light of 19th Century modernity.

    Thanks to Professor Coyne’s revelatory reading of the Pope’s 1996 missive, I now realise – with a sinking feeling- that I was dead wrong.

    • peltonrandy
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      I am unclear as to what you mean when you say you are fond of the Anglican brand of christianity. Does this mean that you believe in God, but a version unlike the biblical version? You say you opt for evolution over the Book of Genesis concerning human origins. I am curious, however, as to whether you think God has in some way initiated or guided the process of evolution. Are you a theistic evolutionist? I ask these questions because your answer to them says something about how fully you have accepted evolutionary theory. I am not criticizing or attacking, just seeking clarification.

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