One of the problems with belonging to a faction that’s convinced it’s on the winning side of intellectual history is that it becomes easy to persuade oneself that one’s own worldview has no weak points whatsoever, no internal contradictions or ragged edges, no cracks through which a critic’s wedge could end up driven. This kind of overconfidence has been displayed, at various points in the human story, by everyone from millenarians to Marxists, inquisitors to eugenicists. But right now its vices are often found in a certain type of atheistic polemicist, and in a style of anti-religious argument that’s characterized by a peculiar, almost-willed ignorance of why reasonable people might doubt the scientific-materialist worldview.
Douthat is thinking of Coyne, who attacked something he wrote:
What’s striking about his response, though, is the extent to which its own account of the secular, materialist world-picture actually illustrates precisely the problems and tensions that I was talking about, in ways that even a casual reader should find obvious but which Coyne apparently did not. He can see the weak points in a religious argument, but the weaknesses of his own side of the debate are sufficiently invisible to him that his rebuttal flirts with self-caricature.
But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all? The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary. More.
Douthat probably doesn’t realize that Darwinism, Coyne’s chief devotion, means precisely that the human will CAN be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary. It means never having to be coherent.