The first thing that needs to be said about Professor Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact, is that it gets right to the heart of the matter, in addressing the central conflict between science (or as I would say, scientism) and religion. Coyne views the conflict as an epistemic one: as he recently put it, “It’s a conflict between how you justify, or how you have confidence in, what you believe – or what you know.” Scientists accept hypotheses as true only after a rigorous process of testing, while most ordinary people (especially religious believers) would maintain that there are at least some beliefs which are warranted without any need for further testing on our part – for example, self-evident metaphysical truths (“Nothing comes to be without a cause”), observations which are supported by a sufficiently large number of eyewitnesses (“500 people saw the risen Jesus, so that settles it”), artistic judgments (“Beethoven was a better musician than Brahms”), moral judgments (“Adultery is wrong”), and certain intuitively obvious facts about human nature (“Children do best when raised by a mother and a father”), or about individuals whom we know very well (“My wife loves me”). Professor Coyne, on the other hand, would deny that any of these claims can be judged to be obviously true. First, Coyne doesn’t view artistic and moral judgments as statements about what is objectively true; rather, they simply express our own preferences (which may be shared by nearly everyone, but which are still preferences). Second, Coyne rejects metaphysical assertions on the grounds that they are too vague to be judged true or false: for instance, the claim that nothing comes to be without a cause assumes that we already know what a “thing” is, and what a “cause” is. Finally, Coyne would regard eyewitness reports, generalizations about human nature, and intuitive judgments about a particular individual as propositions which may well be true, but which cannot be known to be true until they are properly confirmed by rigorous testing. In the meantime, we should believe them only provisionally, if we believe them at all.
In today’s post, I will be defending the “folk” theory of truth, which is adopted by nearly everyone who isn’t a scientist. I’ll be arguing that Coyne overlooks a vital distinction: he is right to demand that we subject our beliefs to testing, but wrong to maintain that we cannot know them to be true until they have been tested. The lay intuition that we can immediately apprehend the truth of certain kinds of statements without needing to test them is correct. However, it turns out that these statements are not only abundantly confirmed by everyday experience, but also capable of being verified or falsified by further testing. Hence Professor Coyne’s attempt to show that belief in these statements is unwarranted fails.
This post will not be a book review of Professor Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact – a book from which I have only read brief excerpts – but rather, a critical analysis of the arguments Coyne advances in his book, and which he has defended elsewhere (see for instance here, here, here, here, here and here).
Professor Coyne’s flawed definition of faith
In a talk given to the James Randi Foundation in 2013, titled, Fighting the Fakers, Professor Coyne defined what he meant by religious faith:
And by faith, I’m going to use a definition – I mean, Mark Twain’s definition is, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” – but I’ll use a little bit more sophisticated definition from the philosopher Walter Kaufmann: “[Faith is] intense, confident belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person” – i.e. faith is believing in things for which there is no good evidence, no evidence, or counter-evidence.
I’ll use Dan Dennett’s definition of religion: it’s “a social system whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent whose approval is to be sought.” Now I know this doesn’t characterize everything we say is religion, but it does characterize the Abrahamic religions, which is mainly what I’m going to be talking about today. There are two aspects of religion which are important to my talk: first of all, it usually comes with a feeling that you have a personal relationship with a supernatural agent, and second, it usually comes – unlike science – with a code of conduct, which is the way that you’re supposed to believe, or the way that you should believe and behave.
Religion has a different methodology from science in finding out what’s true, and it’s basically based, as I said before, on faith: dogma, authority, revelation, and what makes you feel good. And again, this is encompassed in two statements from the New Testament: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” [Hebrews 11:1]. The assurance of things hoped for means: you find out what you want to find out. [Coyne also displayed a quote from John 20:29: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou has seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.“]
Professor Coyne repeated his faulty definition of faith in a recent appearance on the TV show The Agenda with Steve Paikin, to promote his new book, Faith vs. Fact. In the course of the interview, Coyne he disparaged the “faith that religious people have, which is basically, … described in Hebrews as the assurance of things you have not seen, the confidence in things that you don’t have any evidence for” (8:45).
What the Bible really says about faith
The problem with Coyne’s statement is that Hebrews doesn’t say that. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (New International Version). However, the letter goes on to praise people of faith (such as Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham) because they “did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13, italics mine). Hebrews 11:39 adds: “These [people] were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”
Two points need to be borne in mind here. First, these individuals genuinely believed that they had actually talked with God: according to the Bible, He actually spoke to them, and promised them a reward if they remained steadfast. For Noah, the reward was the everlasting covenant between God and Noah’s descendants; for Abraham, it was the promise that his descendants would one day be a great nation, as numerous as the stars visible in the night sky. Now, Professor Coyne may think it is unwise for someone to trust a Voice that appears to come from Heaven – after all, it might turn out to be a delusion. But at least it is evidence, for the person who hears it. Other people who didn’t hear the voice would be justified in ignoring this kind of evidence. However, if the voice made a very striking prediction (relayed by the person claiming to hear it) which was subsequently publicly confirmed, then it might be perfectly reasonable for these people to change their minds, and place their trust in the individual claiming to hear the mysterious voice.
Second, the author of Hebrews says that the people of faith whom it praises did actually see the things that they were promised, even if it was only “from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13). They saw these things, but they didn’t receive the benefits of them, during their lifetimes. In other words, they had foresight of what was to come. And that foresight, based on the evidence of a promise from God, is what the author of Hebrews praises as “faith.” It’s a very different thing from mere “wishful thinking” based on no evidence whatsoever.
The same applies to Jesus’ statement to Thomas in John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In the very next verse, the author of John’s Gospel goes on to explain why he wrote an account of Jesus’ life, highlighting the best attested signs and wonders worked by Jesus:
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Thus the first supernatural sign recorded in John’s gospel – Jesus changing water into wine – is declared to have taken place at a wedding in Cana, to which Jesus’ disciples had also been invited (John 2:1-2, 11): in other words, it was publicly witnessed. The same goes for the feeding of the five thousand, narrated in John 6.
And in John 19:35, which records a marvelous sign (blood and water) that occurred after Jesus’ side was pierced by a Roman soldier following His death, the author states:
35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.
In other words, the author of John’s Gospel expected his readers to believe in Jesus only on the strength of reliable, eyewitness testimony, where the eyewitnesses would have been known to the first readers of the gospel.
Indeed, the Bible is full of examples of people asking God for a sign, so that they could know that it was He Who was addressing them. Look at the story of Gideon in the book of Judges, the classic story of asking for a sign. “Show me a sign, that this is really you speaking to me” (Judges 6:17).
In 2 Kings 20:8, King Hezekiah asks Isaiah, “What will be the sign that the Lord will heal me and that I will go up to the temple of the Lord on the third day from now?” God tells Hezekiah that He will make a shadow go ten steps backwards – something that no natural force could do.
In Isaiah 7:11, Isaiah says to King Ahaz: “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” The sign was intended to confirm Isaiah’s prophesy that the kings of Aram and Israel would not destroy Judah, as they had threatened to do: instead, the Lord would send the Assyrians to punish them and lay their lands to waste. King Ahaz demurred, saying that he would not put the Lord to the test, but Isaiah rebuked him for trying God’s patience (Isaiah 7:13) and insisted that Judah’s deliverance would come very soon.
And if we go back to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), we can see that it is full of signs. God gives Noah the sign of the rainbow. He gives Abraham a sign, by making an outlandish prediction that his elderly wife Sarah would conceive and bear a son. He gives Moses the sign of the burning bush. He gives Pharaoh numerous signs to manifest His power and convince him that he should let the Israelites depart from Egypt. In the desert, He gives the wandering Israelites the sign of a mysterious food that they can gather from the ground: edible manna which is deposited on the ground on every day of the week, except the Sabbath. And to guide the Israelites through the desert, God gives them the sign of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
These divine manifestations give the lie to Coyne’s absurd claim that the God of the Bible expects us to believe without evidence. Indeed, the Bible itself tells us: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The advice given in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 is even more explicit:
21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.
The real question that Coyne needs to address, then, is not, “Is it reasonable to believe supernatural claims without evidence?”, but rather: “Should we credit a supernatural claim purely on the strength of sufficiently striking evidence, or, should we credit a supernatural claim only after scientists can reproduce the effects under laboratory conditions?”
Coyne himself admits that evidence for the supernatural doesn’t need to be scientifically replicable – it just needs to be public and very striking
In a 2012 post, Professor Coyne described the evidence that he would accept for the existence of a divine being, and for the truth of Christianity, in a post titled, Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural” (November 8, 2012):
I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.
Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what? I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God” — particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief — until proven otherwise. What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more. In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.” That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t.
It is worth noting here that many of the items of evidence that would convince Coyne are incapable of being replicated – e.g. a message in the stars. If Coyne would be prepared to believe in God on the strength of a message which made a striking claim that proved to be correct, then how can he fault religious believers who credit the supernatural on the basis of similar evidence?
Indeed, Coyne himself admits, in another post titled, Ken Ham vs. Dawkins: On the nature of science and physical law (February 25, 2015), that scientific claims do not need to be replicable – they just need to be sufficiently striking:
…[O]f course many scientific contentions and hypotheses are “historical,” yet that doesn’t make them any less scientific. For if historical contentions can be tested, or can make predictions that can be examined, then they fall under the rubric of real science. For evolution, these include the prediction that humans evolved in Africa (first made by Darwin in 1871, not verified until the 1920s); that birds evolved from dinosaurs and whales from land-dwelling animals (predicted ages ago, verified in the last 30 years); that the first “real” organisms were simple ones, and only later did more complex ones evolve (the first organisms we see in the fossil record, about 3.5 billion years ago, are cyanobacteria), and so on.
Evolution is further “scientific” in that it alone, among all competing theories (especially [Ken] Ham’s creationism), is able to make sense of previously puzzling data. (I call this “making sense” notion “retrodictions”.) Such retrodictions include the explanation of biogeographic patterns like the absence of endemic mammals on oceanic islands, of vestigial organs like the tiny, useless hindlimbs on early fossil whales, and of embryological observations like the transitory hindlimb buds in dolphins. I discuss all of this in WEIT, so I won’t reprise it here.
The point is that if a hypothesis can be tested and supported using historical data, and competing hypothesis rejected, then that is a scientific endeavor.
It follows from Coyne’s own reasoning in the above passage that scientific evidence for the supernatural does not need to be replicable in a laboratory; nor does it even need to predict the future. Rather, what is needed is a sufficiently striking claim about the past, present or future, which can be publicly verified.
Are religious believers too gullible?
Now Coyne might reply that religious believers have never presented such striking evidence for the supernatural. But it is certainly true that they have attempted to do so, on many occasions. I presume that Professor Coyne is familiar with the classic works of eighteenth and nineteenth century Christian apologists, some of which are quite short and highly readable (see Dr. Timothy McGrew’s online library here). Or if Coyne wants something more recent, I could refer him to Drs. Timothy and Lydia McGrew’s online article, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. What the authors attempt to demonstrate is that there is “a small set of salient public facts” that strongly supports belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Taking into account only the eyewitness testimony of the women at the tomb of Jesus, his twelve apostles and St. Paul, they calculate that the facts in question are 10^44 times more likely to have occurred, on the assumption that the Resurrection of Jesus actually happened, than that on the assumption that it did not. However, their argument makes no attempt to calculate the prior probability of a man rising from the dead – a subject which I shall revisit below. Dr. Lydia McGrew was subsequently interviewed by Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism, and the McGrews have also responded to criticisms of their argument by New Atheist Dr. Richard Carrier. Finally, I should mention that in two very recent posts of mine which were written in response to Professor Larry Moran (see here and here), I have also discussed miraculous evidence for the supernatural, in considerable detail, focusing on the levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino, which are extremely well-documented and which took place on at least 1,500 occasions in thee seventeenth century.
Presented with this evidence, some skeptics may grant that any naturalistic explanation for these bizarre sightings will be a far-fetched and highly improbable one, but they will also maintain that a highly improbable naturalistic explanation is preferable to an even more improbable supernaturalistic one. Coyne, however, does not take this tack: he’s prepared to allow that if the evidence for the supernatural were overwhelming enough, he would be prepared to accept it. Coyne is an intelligent skeptic: he realizes that naturalism is a provisional hypothesis, which scientists adopt because it has worked successfully in the past. To claim that the probability of a supernaturalistic explanation is zero (or infinitesimal, which is effectively the same thing) is to beg the question: we simply don’t know that. What’s more, given that the number of law-governed, natural events we have observed during the course of human history is finite, it follows that the prior probability of supernaturalism (given our background knowledge of Nature) will always be measurably greater than zero. Additionally, it needs to be borne in mind that the evidence for naturalism is cumulative: as more and more law-governed events are observed, the antecedent probability that the next event we observe will fall outside the laws of Nature steadily declines, since it is inversely proportional to the number of observed law-governed events, N. (Readers who are familiar with Laplace’s famous sunrise argument will grasp the point I’m making here.) Now, I have argued elsewhere that the maximum possible number of law-governed events that could have been observed by humans over the course of history is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 10 to the power of 21, so the antecedent probability of supernaturalism cannot be lower than 1 in 10^21. However, the probability that a bizarre sighting (e.g. of a levitation, or a resurrection) is a hallucination will decrease geometrically, as the number of independent witnesses increases: it will equal the probability that a given witness is seeing things, raised to the power of N, where N is the number of eyewitnesses. It follows that even the prior improbability of a miracle can be overcome by the testimony of a sufficient number of independent eyewitnesses: as the mathematician Charles Babbage showed in Chapter 10 and Chapter 13 of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. For a sufficiently large number of eyewitnesses, the probability that they are all hallucinating will fall below any threshold that we set, such as the 1 in 10^21 threshold that I set above. As Babbage put it: “provided we assume that independent witnesses can be found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will, according to Hume’s argument, prove the truth of a miracle.”
Now, a skeptic might reply that the foregoing argument treats the probability that witness A and witness B will hallucinate as independent occurrences, when there may in fact be a common explanation for why these eyewitnesses are all seeing things – e.g. a local magnetic disturbance which is affecting everyone’s brains. The skeptic might also contend that this far-fetched naturalistic explanation is more antecedently probable than a supernaturalistic explanation. But if the kind of bizarre naturalistic occurrence posited by the skeptic has never occurred before in the history of the cosmos, then on purely Bayesian grounds, it is just as improbable as a supernaturalistic explanation. And if the bizarre natural occurrence posited by the skeptic presupposes a confluence of highly improbable events X, Y and Z, then the calculated probability of those events occurring in tandem may turn out to be even lower than the 1 in 10^21 threshold that we assigned to a supernatural event. I conclude that skeptical arguments aiming to show that belief in miraculous occurrences is unwarranted on probabilistic grounds are without merit.
Professor Coyne could still object that even if there were striking evidence for the supernatural (such as the evidence I presented above), the vast majority of believers have never personally encountered it: instead, they believe on the basis of secondhand testimony from other individuals who claim to have seen this evidence. That may be so. But trusting the testimony of other human beings is something that we do all the time. Scientists do it, too. I’m quite sure that if a dozen Nobel Laureates were to tell Coyne that they’d just found a message inscribed in the DNA of every human being, he’d believe them, without bothering to check it out for himself. In short: there is nothing irrational in a person believing a supernatural claim on the basis of what appears to be reliable human testimony, so long as they are prepared to give up their belief should the testimony turn out to be false or highly dubious.
Lastly, Coyne might argue that it could never be rational to place credence in miraculous evidence for the supernatural, where the eyewitnesses to this evidence are all dead and there are no contemporaneous documents. The earliest confirmed fragment of the Gospels is the Rylands papyrus, dating from 125 A.D., which over 90 years after Jesus’ death, and the earliest complete manuscript dates from 250 A.D. which is more than two centuries after the Resurrection is supposed to have taken place. With the Old Testament (or Tanach), the gap between the miracles recorded and their commitment to writing is even greater: several centuries. Is it not the height of credulity, Coyne might argue, to base one’s faith on such meager evidence? However, a simple thought experiment is sufficient to rebut this argument.
Let us imagine that scientists around the world managed to find a striking prediction (about a future event) that was recorded in the DNA of every human being, and which later turned out to be correct, and suppose also that many of these scientists subsequently wrote articles in scientific journals discussing the significance of this evidence, and tentatively concluding that the message must have had a supernatural origin, since the message’s author must have been able to predict people’s choices. And now suppose that over the course of time, the original scientific journals reporting this discovery were lost, but that the articles from those journals had fortunately been copied into some electronic medium – or for that matter, microfiche (I know, I’m showing my age, here). Suppose finally that a nuclear war then took place, and that in the ensuing chaos, the transmission of knowledge was massively disrupted, but that several electronic (or microfiche) copies of the original journal articles were still available in various locations around the world, and that these copies were passed down to future generations. Would it be reasonable for historians of the future, piecing the evidence together, to conclude that since the copies could be found in many different places around the planet, the likelihood of them having been forged by a single group of conspirators was astronomically low, and that therefore, the events they recorded must have actually taken place, and that scientists in a previous century had indeed found persuasive evidence for the existence of a supernatural being? I submit that it would be perfectly reasonable to draw this conclusion, if the weight of the historical evidence were strong enough to support it.
In his recent appearance on the TV show The Agenda with Steve Paikin, where he talked about his new book, Faith vs. Fact, Professor Coyne took another side-swipe at religious faith when he remarked that “faith is not a way of knowing anything” (19:07). He added:
…I think the underlying problem is the notion of faith as a virtue, in America. If I were to characterize the difference between science and religion, I would say: in religion, faith is a virtue; in science, it’s a vice.
These remarks betray a fundamental confusion on Coyne’s part, about the epistemic status of faith. It is of course perfectly true that merely believing in something doesn’t give you the right to say you know it. Knowledge requires evidence, and belief is not evidence. But Coyne is profoundly mistaken when he characterizes faith as mere belief, or believing in something because you want it to be true. As we have seen, Biblical faith is belief grounded in visible signs, which one has personally witnessed, or which have been witnessed by persons of unimpeachable integrity. That’s not an epistemic vice; it’s an epistemic virtue. Under such circumstances, it is refusal to believe which constitutes a vice: either the vice of obstinacy, or of totally unreasonable hyper-skepticism.
To sum up: Professor Coyne himself would have to agree that the epistemic differences between himself and religious believers are differences of degree rather than kind. Coyne personally does not believe that the miraculous evidence presented for the supernatural is suasive, let alone compelling; however, the problem here is not the kind of evidence presented in support of supernatural claims, but rather, the meager quantity of such evidence, as Coyne views it.
Why, then, do different religions disagree?
On many occasions, Coyne has cited the lack of agreement – or even convergence – between the world’s different religions as evidence that there is no rational basis for their claims, and hence that they cannot offer us another way of knowing. For instance, In a talk given to the James Randi Foundation in 2013, titled, Fighting the Fakers, Coyne remarked, “I don’t think religion has found out anything in the 20,000 years that it’s been going” (4:08). And in an appearance on the TV show The Agenda with Steve Paikin, where he discussed his new book, Faith vs. Fact, Coyne declared:
We have faith in science because the methods that we use have produced results, whereas the religious ways of knowing, as you know, because every religion has a different set of truths that they hold, and they’re all in conflict with one another, and they haven’t arrived at any universal or generally accepted truths about Nature.
Now, I have pointed out in a previous post that there is in fact a high degree of agreement about morality among the world’s different religions, and that over the course of time, most religions tend to converge in their judgment that a particular practice (e.g. slavery) is wrong. I also pointed out that there is much more agreement among religious believers regarding the nature of God than there was, say, 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, when polytheism and various forms of cosmic dualism (Manichaeism) were widely accepted: half the world’s population is now Jewish, Christian or Muslim, and Hinduism is also monotheistic (or at least, henotheistic): while it acknowledges the reality of lesser gods, it recognizes only one Supreme Being or Reality.
But if Coyne wants to know why the world’s religions disagree, then I would suggest that it’s because they all have subtly different epistemic standards. For Judaism, it’s the Kuzari Principle, which Rabbi David Gottlieb defines as follows: “for an event which if it had occurred would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence, and didn’t occur, you can’t get people to believe in it.” Rabbi Gottlieb applies this principle to an alleged historical occurrence: God’s revelation of Himself to the entire Israelite people at Mount Sinai. As the Rabbi puts it, “there are two possibilities: Either the event took place or it was made up. But it cannot be made up since people will not believe in an event whose necessary evidence is missing.” Ergo, it must have happened.
For Christianity, the epistemic principle invoked is that one should accept a miracle claim if it is the best explanation of facts which are multiply attested by independent, early sources. The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig argues that since Jesus’ burial, the discovery of His empty tomb, and His post-mortem appearances to His disciples (which convinced them of His resurrection) are all historically well-attested facts, we should accept the best explanation of those facts: that Jesus rose from the dead. Christians then go on to argue that if Jesus rose from the dead, then His message must have been from God.
The best argument for Islam has been summarized by Christian apologist (and former atheist) David Wood as follows: “if you can’t write something as good as a chapter of the Qur’an, you should quit doubting and accept it as the divine word of Allah.” In syllogistic form: (1) If unbelievers can’t produce something comparable to a chapter of the Qur’an, then it must be from God. (2) Unbelievers can’t produce something equivalent to a chapter of the Qur’an. Therefore (3): the Qur’an must be from God. The question of whether Islam is true therefore boils down to whether the allegedly sublime passages in the Qur’an could have been written by a human author, without Divine assistance.
For its part, Buddhism makes no supernatural claims: it declares that its Four Noble Truths can be discovered through introspection alone. However, it assumes that the universe is governed by the law of karma – what goes around comes around – which in turn implies that we will never escape from the wheel of birth and rebirth until we free ourselves from selfish thoughts, words and deeds. Hinduism, like Buddhism, asserts the reality of karma and of the wheel of rebirth, but it grounds these claims in an underlying metaphysic which Buddhism rejects as egocentric, but whose denial Hindus would regard as utterly incoherent: it is I who am condemned to be reincarnated if I perform evil deeds which merit bad karma. Thus a Hindu would argue that belief in a soul or essential “self” is the only way to explain the fact of karma, while a Buddhist would reply that it is precisely this belief which is the cause of our spiritual woes.
A Jain, on the other hand, conceives of the action of karma in wholly mechanistic terms: it does not require the action of a conscious agent in order to achieve its result. Thus Jainism is atheistic: on its conception of karma, there is no need for a creator God to ensure that evildoers get their just deserts. However, it goes on to add that each person who attains enlightenment will achieve infinite knowledge – which is why it might perhaps be better described as transtheistic, rather than atheistic. Finally, I should mention that Jainism rejects all forms of dogmatism, and its followers often appeal to the parable of the blind men and an elephant to show that no-one can possibly have a complete an all-embracing view of reality.
Despite its non-dogmatism, Jainism has attracted a fair amount of criticism from the very beginning. Hindu polemicists rejected the Jain conception of karma on the grounds that no blind, impersonal process could ever ensure that everyone gets their just deserts; only an intelligent, supernatural agent could ever bring that about. For their part, Buddhists strenuously objected to the Jain assertion that one can violate karma even by actions which are performed unintentionally, such as accidentally crushing a sentient creature. According to Buddhists, it is one’s intentions, and the attitudes of mind and heart accompanying one’s actions, which determine their moral character.
I won’t attempt to articulate the epistemic basis of Confucianism, as its teachings are primarily ethical in character, and only secondarily religious. Confucian precepts rest on cultivating an attitude of respect for others – especially one’s parents, teachers and elders – and adhering to the Silver (if not the Golden) Rule in one’s everyday conduct: don’t do to other people what you would not like to have done to you. For Confucius, the objective basis for these ethical claims lay in the cosmic order itself: to behave unethically is to violate the order of Nature.
How are we to adjudicate between the competing epistemic principles underlying each of the world’s major religions? I would argue that Hinduism is the most logical of the religions arising in India, due to its recognition that no impersonal process could ever guarantee that everyone gets their just deserts; however, it fails to provide any grounds for believing that we actually live in a universe where people do get their just deserts. Among the Abrahamic religions, Judaism has the highest epistemic bar with its insistence that only national revelation should be deemed creditworthy; while the claim of Islam that the style of the Qur’an is inimitable appears to be empirically false, as Christian apologist (and former atheist) David Wood has convincingly argued. The evidence for the claims of Christianity would certainly be much more compelling if the Resurrection had been witnessed by the entire Jewish people living in the time of Jesus; nevertheless, the number of witnesses (500, according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15) is large enough to warrant belief in their veracity, on Bayesian probabilistic grounds. I conclude, then, that Judaism and Christianity appear to be the most rational of the world’s religions, although there is something to be said for Hinduism as well.
Professor Coyne’s lax definition of science
In a talk given to the James Randi Foundation in 2013, titled, Fighting the Fakers, Professor Coyne defined what he meant by faith and what he meant by a scientific fact:
I think of science not as a body of facts but as a methodology for investigating the universe – a methodology that relies on doubt, replication, being subject to the review of your peers, logic, reason and prediction. Science is just basically a methodology to get the best guess about what’s going on in the universe. And I think that if you construe science broadly, then even things like plumbing or auto mechanics can be seen as science. I mean, when your mechanic is fixing your car, he or she goes about that perfectly scientifically. And when your plumber finds a leak, [he or she does that] perfectly scientifically, using principles of hydraulics and gravity, and things like that. Science’s conclusions are always tentative, although some are more tentative than others; our truths are always provisional. But it’s a methodology. And the best way to describe this methodology, which has been exquisitely honed during the past two centuries, is by Richard Feynmann, who said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Now you’ve seen lots of that over the past couple of days [at this skeptics’ conference]. So you have to be very careful about that. Science is a very exquisitely honed body of practices to keep you from fooling yourself – to keep you from finding out what you want to find out. This of course is the exact opposite of religion, which encourages you to find out what you want to find out.
A scientific fact is something which is so blatantly true that you would be foolish to reject it. That’s what we scientists regard as a scientific fact.
Professor Coyne also discussed the nature of science in an appearance on the TV show The Agenda with Steve Paikin, promoting his new book, Faith vs. Fact. In the course of the interview, Coyne remarked:
…[A]s you become a scientist, as you learn to instill in your psyche the habits of doubt, of questioning, of demanding evidence for what you believe, you basically give up the “childish things” that represent the supernatural and the divine.
I’d also like to recall Coyne’s remarks on the historical sciences, which I quoted above:
…[O]f course many scientific contentions and hypotheses are “historical,” yet that doesn’t make them any less scientific. For if historical contentions can be tested, or can make predictions that can be examined, then they fall under the rubric of real science.
Let’s return to Coyne’s definition of science: “a methodology that relies on doubt, replication, being subject to the review of your peers, logic, reason and prediction.” We saw above that Coyne himself admits that replication is not an essential feature of science; rather, what matters is that a scientific hypothesis should make striking predictions (about what happened in the past or will happen in the future), which are testable and publicly falsifiable. However, a definition of science which makes testable predictions its hallmark feature is too broad for Coyne’s purposes, for it could encompass religion as well – which would negate Coyne’s central thesis that science offers us a reliable way of knowing, while religion does not. After all, Deuteronomy 18:22 explicitly admonishes us to test prophesies: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.” And while many religious claims – e.g. about what will happen when we die – are untestable on this side of eternity, a believer might argue that they could be falsified in the hereafter: if, for instance, we were to discover after our deaths that reincarnation is true, that would falsify Christianity and lend support to Hinduism, Buddhism and/or Jainism.
Coyne might reply that even if religious claims are testable in the grand scheme of things, religion does not possess the other marks of science: religion does not resort to logic, reason, doubt and peer review. Again, this is simply not the case: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is rigorously logical, and its author addresses every question – including the question of whether God exists – by marshaling all the arguments he is aware of which seem to contradict the conclusion that he argues for, before proceeding to refute those arguments. Doubt is part and parcel of Aquinas’ approach to philosophy. As for peer review: once again, has Coyne never heard of ecumenical councils, where proposed theological formulations are subjected to open and at times fierce debate, before being finally adopted by a vote?
If testable predictions, logic, debate and doubt aren’t enough to distinguish science from religion, then it seems that science’s subject matter must be what makes it distinct from religion: science deals with empirical phenomena, while religion deals with the transcendent. But it is noteworthy that Coyne himself rejects this view: he asserts that many religious statements are empirically falsifiable, and he even claims in his posts that some (e.g. the dogma that humanity is descended from a single couple, Adam and Eve) have already been falsified. Coyne also contends that science could provide at least tentative evidence for the existence of a transcendent, supernatural Deity, if the Deity left visible signs of its existence.
The upshot of all this is that Coyne’s attempt to draw a sharp line between science and religion fails, and that his definition of science is too broad to do the job. This is an embarrassing result – to put it mildly – for an author who is currently hawking a book which confidently declares that science and religion are completely different in their respective ways of sorting out what’s true from what’s false.
What we can learn about human nature from studying ethics, art and literature
In Professor Coyne’s view, the study of ethics, art and literature, while interesting, yields no new knowledge of the human condition. Science, for its part, can tell us about everything there is, even if it cannot tell us what ought to be the case. As Coyne put it in an appearance on the TV show The Agenda with Steve Paikin, where he discussed his new book, Faith vs. Fact:
I for one have no problem with saying that science can’t tell us anything about what’s right and what’s wrong; it can tell us what is. There are a few people that disagree with me, like Alex Rosenberg, but by and large, we can’t do that. As far as the arts and literature [are concerned], I’m a big fan of art and literature and music. My contention is that they can’t tell what’s true about the real world; I mean, you can’t learn anything about the nature of the cosmos by reading War and Peace, but you can immerse yourself in the fellow feeling of humans and stuff like that, so, you know, “scientism” is just a way that religious people try to denigrate science.
…[W]hat I call science broadly construed, … is not just the activities of professional scientists, but the kind of science an auto mechanic uses when he tries to find out where the short is in your car, or a plumber: the combination of reason and empirical investigation and testing, and things like that. Is there anything we can learn about the universe beyond that notion of science broadly construed? And my answer was no, I couldn’t think of anything. And I posed this question to professors of English literature as well: “Can you tell me anything that we can learn about the real world, that’s verifiable from literature alone, from music alone, from art alone?” And I could never find a yes answer.
A few comments are in order here. First, Coyne seems to be denying that science is capable of making value judgments of any sort: in his own words, science can only tell us what is. Coyne seems to be suggesting that when you call something “good,” all you mean is that it’s something you like. This view, known among philosophers as emotivism, was put forward by A. J. Ayer around eighty years ago in his work Language, Truth and Logic (1936) and subsequently developed by C. L. Stevenson (although the Scottish philosopher David Hume had previously suggested something similar). However, the problem with emotivism is that it leads to absurd implications: if a good X is simply an X that you happen to like, then a good argument is simply an argument that you like, which means that there are no objectively bad arguments. Likewise, a good experiment is simply an experiment that you happen to like. Such a view would be profoundly destructive of science itself – and also of Coyne’s thesis that science offers us a reliable way of knowing. Science must, then, be capable of making at least some normative pronouncements.
Perhaps Coyne might respond that science is capable of making stipulative norms – e.g. “This is the way that science should be done” or “This is the way that an argument should be evaluated” – but not objective norms about how things in the real world should act, or about how we should evaluate the things we observe. This would imply that we can criticize illogical arguments or poorly performed experiments without thereby committing ourselves to making value judgments about the world. But it would also have the undesirable consequence of reducing science to a mere game: to play the game right, you have to play it this way. It would leave us with no guarantee that following the scientific method will tell us anything about the external world, or that it will actually succeed in “carving Nature at its joints,” as the philosopher Plato put it in his Phaedrus (265d-266a). And even if one attempts to find consolation in the fact that the scientific endeavor has succeeded so far, Coyne offers us no reason to believe that it will continue to work. All we can say is that if it ever stops working, we’ll know about it soon enough. I have discussed the problem of induction at further length in my 2013 post, Does scientific knowledge presuppose God? A reply to Carroll, Coyne, Dawkins and Loftus (November 23, 2013), where I defended the view that only by postulating the existence of a personal God Who wants His existence to be known can we render scientific inferences about the future rational.
A second problem with Professor Coyne’s argument is that it construes moral statements as expressions of subjective preference – either one’s own, or that of the community to which one belongs. But if that were the case, then the statement, “Scientists should not cheat when conducting experiments” is also merely a statement of preference (albeit a widely shared one). For science to work as an enterprise, however, it needs to be something much stronger than that. In any case, the assertion that all of our ordinary moral utterances can be boiled down to expressions of preference is wildly implausible. For example, when someone declares, “We should not repay evil with evil,” they are not expressing a preference, whether individual or social; they are uttering what they believe to be a universal norm or standard, to which we must all conform if we are to qualify as virtuous. And normally, when we talk about morality, that is what we do. Likewise, the people who believe in gay marriage aren’t merely saying that most people in our society happen to support it, and that therefore it should be legal. Rather, they fervently believe that in any society, people should be free to marry whomever they like: on their account, it’s a universal human right.
In his book, Faith vs. Fact, Coyne argues that morality must be subjective, on the grounds that (a) different cultures have different standards of morality, and (b) it is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” The first argument is easily disposed of: in his best-selling book, The Abolition of Man, academic and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis argued forcefully that there is in fact a set of objective values that have been shared, with relatively minor differences, by every culture: “the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew.” Lewis referred to this common morality as the Tao, and in his appendix to The Abolition of Man, Lewis listed a number of basic values that he saw as parts of the Tao, supported by quotations from different cultures from around the world. I should also point out that as cultures come into contact with one another, it frequently happens that conflicts between these cultures on moral issues are resolved through dialogue. For instance, infanticide was common two thousand years ago and is still practiced in parts of the world today; but no-one defends the practice any more. The same goes for slavery.
Coyne makes a valid philosophical point when he observes that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” But an Aristotelian moralist would argue that there is no need for us to derive “oughts” in this way; they are simply built into the fabric of reality. In other words, they are part-and-parcel of the essences of things. To be a thing of a certain kind means to have a built-in goal, or telos. What the Aristotelian would claim is that moral “oughts” can be derived from those biological and psychological and sociological “oughts” which define human nature. It is a fact, for instance, that newborn babies need milk; that each human being has an inquiring mind which is capable of being taught through instruction in his/her mother tongue; and that humans thrive in societies where they can live and work together. From these simple statements we can draw moral inferences: for example, that depriving babies of milk is morally wrong because it stunts their growth, that denying children an education is also wrong because it stunts their intellects; and that attempting to destroy a human society is fundamentally immoral, since it jeopardizes the conditions required for humans to thrive. Why, one might ask, did Coyne never even consider this Aristotelian response? The only answer I can think of is that it is foreign to his whole way of thinking as a Darwinian biologist who rejects teleology of any kind, and who regards talk of “essences” as quaint. In short: Coyne’s skeptical conclusions about morality are driven by his a priori rejection of teleology and his anti-essentialism, for which he offers no justification. (The fact that species evolve over time need not undermine belief in essences, if we define “essences” as clusters to characteristics found in a population of organisms, which tend to remain stable over long periods of time. At any given point in time, living things can be classified into different kinds, even if each of these kinds changes very slowly over the course of time.)
A third problem with Coyne’s view is that it would not only render science incapable of making moral judgments; it is would also render it incapable of making aesthetic judgments. Beauty, on this view, is purely subjective. However, in practice, scientists themselves (especially physicists) often reject theories simply because they are not beautiful.
In his 1753 classic The Analysis of Beauty, William Hogarth argued that simplicity with variety is the defining feature of beauty, as illustrated by a line drawn around a cone. Hogarth claimed that simplicity apart from variety, as illustrated by a straight line, is boring, not elegant or beautiful. On Hogarth’s definition, beauty is something objective, but it takes a mind to recognize and appreciate it.
And in practice, we find that there is a surprising degree of agreement among human beings regarding judgments about beauty. To take an example dear to Coyne’s heart: nearly everyone would agree that the Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a better album than Rubber Soul, although opinions might differ as to whether it is better than Magical Mystery Tour (my personal favorite). And while the Rolling Stones are greatly to be admired for their long musical career, I think it’s fair to say, with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, that their 1968 album Beggars Banquet wasn’t as good as Sergeant Pepper, although it did have some pretty good songs (notably “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man”).
Fourth, it is simply not true that art and literature cannot teach us about the human condition, as Coyne contends. I would invite skeptics to read Ryan Holiday’s thoughtful article, 24 Books You’ve Probably Never Heard Of But Will Change Your Life, over at Thought Catalog, or Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster’s article, 9 Things you can learn from ‘Hamlet’.
I would contend that literature can teach us many things about the human condition, which science can only test very indirectly, if at all. Consider the following excerpt from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (Act 3, Scene 1, lines 71-84).
The alert reader will notice that all of the reasons put forward by Hamlet to justify suicide – “Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,” – have to do with what other people think about you. Note the marked contrast with the deterministic model of human action favored by Coyne, which envisages us as being acted upon by opposing forces which pull us this way and that, and as “choosing” whatever the strongest of these forces impels us towards. A scientist adopting such a view might locate the causes of suicide in unpleasant external circumstances such as poverty, loneliness or emotional abuse. It would never occur to the scientist that the causes of suicide may be more closely tied to internal factors, such as what I think other people think of me. These are the factors that drive people to take their own lives, according to Shakespeare. And I am inclined to think he is right: suicide rates in poor regions, such as Latin America, are often lower than in rich countries (especially in Asia).
Another problem with this deterministic model of human action is that it is utterly incapable of quantifying the relative “strengths” of other people’s competing opinions of oneself: for instance, will I take my own life if my best friend esteems me as an admirable fellow, while my boss thinks I am an unreliable good-for-nothing? Thus even if social scientists could devise an experiment to show that suicide rates are more related to internal than external factors, their model would be unable to make any concrete predictions about situations which would push someone over the edge.
Hamlet also declares in his soliloquy that fear of adverse consequences in the hereafter can deter people from suicide. On this point, Shakespeare is surely correct, and the secular historian William Lecky, in his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, acknowledges as much: he writes that “Direct and deliberate suicide, which occupies so prominent a place in the moral history of antiquity, almost absolutely disappeared within the Church” (p. 50) due to its “very emphatic condemnation of suicide” (p. 43), and he adds that Christian “doctrines concerning its penal nature and concerning the future destinies of the soul” (p. 45) also had a deterrent effect, while “the hope of future happiness, which casts a ray of light upon the darkest calamities of life,” (p. 45) provided protection against despair. This may explain why suicide rates tend to be high in countries where unbelief is high – a finding which would not have surprised Shakespeare in the least.
Good literature, then, can yield valid insights into human nature which science is poorly equipped to test. For Coyne to suggest that we should not place any credence in these insights until they have been confirmed by laboratory experiments is simply risible. Sensible people don’t wait for scientific confirmation of truths which they can perceive at once, upon reading a work by a great author, such as Shakespeare.
In defense of intuition
The final source of knowledge that I would like to defend in this post is intuition. Intuitions may be either general (relating to human nature) or particular (relating to this or that individual).
I’ll discuss general intuitions first. It is true that there are certain beliefs that each of us has about human nature which subsequently turn out to be empirically false. Someone living in the 1950s may have believed, for instance, that the well-being of children would invariably suffer if their mothers went out to work. Longitudinal studies by scientists may discredit many of our widely held assumptions about human nature. But that does not mean that intuition cannot yield genuine knowledge of human nature; all it shows is that human intuition (like the scientific method) is fallible: we all make mistakes sometimes. It would be a fallacy to argue that because an alleged source of knowledge is fallible, it is therefore incapable of yielding knowledge. The philosophical fallacy here is the assumption that “knowledge” presupposes absolute certainty. We do not need a scientist to tell us that a child who loses their mother at a young age will suffer a massive psychological trauma. And we should not need a scientist to tell us that children would not thrive in a society modeled along the lines of Plato’s Republic, in which parenting was communally shared. It should be obvious to any thinking person that children do best if they are brought up by two married parents – even if they sometimes do well under alternative family arrangements. Scientific studies confirm this intuition; but the point I wish to make here is that we should not need scientists to tell us what we already know.
The same goes for particular intuitions about individuals whom we know very well. Once again, these intuitions are fallible: sometimes a spouse is shocked to discover that their partner is cheating on them. Nevertheless, in the ordinary course of events, our intuitions about people whom we know very well tend to be reliable. We do not (and should not) need a scientist to tell us that someone whom we know very well is trustworthy, or that someone in our family loves us. These judgments that we make about particular individuals are intuitive rather than scientific: often we may be quite certain of them, even though we are unable to articulate the grounds for our certainty.
On previous occasions (see here and here), Professor Coyne has acknowledged that people make these intuitive judgments, but has argued that they are nonetheless scientifically testable. For instance, the behavior of your spouse over the course of time can lend strong evidential support to the hypothesis that they love you. If we construe “science” in the broad sense of forming and holding one’s beliefs on the basis of evidence that a reasonable person would accept, then the hypothesis that my spouse loves me is a scientific one, after all. In Coyne’s own words: “Truth isn’t truth, even if it’s suggested by intuition, until it gets science’s stamp of approval.”
But what Coyne overlooks here is that even if statements like “My spouse loves me” are testable, we typically come to believe in their truth long before we have subjected them to systematic testing. Coyne’s view of knowledge would imply that my initial certitude that my spouse loves me is misplaced, because it has not been confirmed by the right kind of evidence. My strong assurance that my wife loves me may not be epistemically justified until years afterwards, when I can point to evidence of her love that an impartial observer would deem to be adequate. If Coyne is right, then, most of us (at one time or another) hold beliefs about people who are near and dear to us which are fundamentally irrational. That, I have to say, strikes me as a very arrogant claim.
The flaw in Coyne’s argument lies in his demand for evidence that would satisfy a reasonable outsider. (Coyne has on previous occasions highly praised John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith,” which proposes this requirement as a way of distinguishing legitimate religious claims from bogus ones.) Coyne’s demand is a perfectly sensible one, where the claims in question relate to the external world, which any observer can go and investigate for themselves. But where the claims in question relate to what another person thinks and feels about you, then surely the best person to assess those claims is you, yourself. For someone to refuse to believe that their own spouse loves them until a fair-minded outsider concurs with their judgment on this matter would constitute a craven lack of confidence in their own cognitive abilities.
It is perfectly reasonable, then, for you to rely on your own intuition, and no other person’s, when forming assessments about what other people think and feel about you.
Can we know a priori metaphysical truths?
One corollary of Coyne’s account of knowledge is that since all knowledge comes to us through the senses, there can be no knowledge which is independent of the senses – and hence no a priori metaphysical truths. Coyne is half right here: Aristotle declared that “nothing is found in the intellect which was not found first in the senses,” and Aquinas echoed his sentiment. But an Aristotlean metaphysician would argue that there are certain truths which we can know, given the mere fact that we live in a world where science is possible. Perhaps the most basic of these is the truth that there must be things (or entities, or substances) of some sort, which fall into fairly well-defined categories (“essences”) which are characterized by certain distinguishing properties. If this were not the case, there would be no “scientific enterprise” as such. Science, in other words, presupposes an essentialism of some sort. Exactly what these essences may be is of course an open question: in the domain of physics, it seems that fields are the fundamental realities; and in chemistry, the periodic table of elements accords very well with essentialistic thinking. Biology is thought to be a field of science which eschews essences, but Professor Coyne has written: “My — and most biologists’ — notion of species are groups that cannot exchange genes because of evolved, genetically-based barriers to gene flow.” And again, in another post, Coyne writes:
…[I]t’s not that biologist haven’t looked for hybrid species: in many groups we have, and simply haven’t found them. There are several thousand species of the fruit fly Drosophila, for example — it’s probably the most heavily-studied group of animals on Earth, at least from a genetic point of view. And not a single species is a hybrid between two others. Indeed, we have only a half-dozen or so cases of any interspecific hybrids at all being seen in the wild, and almost all of those are not only one-offs, but the animals are completely sterile (and hence evolutionary dead ends that cannot produce new species).
I have to say that sounds pretty essentialistic to me, even if we allow that these essences can change gradually, over the course of time.
The metaphysical insight that nothing comes to be without a cause (also known as the principle of causality) has taken a beating in recent decades, with the discovery of particles that pop into existence (and rapidly disappear) within the quantum vacuum. However, it is worth bearing in mind what physicist David Albert wrote, in his evisceration of Lawrence Krauss’s best-seller, A Universe from Nothing:
Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.
Coyne might object that David Albert’s defense of the principle of causality does not make it metaphysically necessary; at most, it merely renders it plausible, and in the end, it is still science’s job to adjudicate whether or not it is true. However, it can be argued that causality, too, is a presupposition of there being any kind of science at all. As we have seen, things belong to various kinds, which are characterized by essential properties. However, individual entities have many properties which are non-essential, including their location in space and time, their size and their duration. While a scientist might take the essential properties of a given kind as a fact which admits of no further explanation, the situation is quite otherwise when it comes to non-essential properties. For these properties are contingent states of affairs. And if contingent states of affairs do not fall within the purview of science, then I can only ask: what does?
A thing’s coming-to-be at a particular point in space and time is not an essential property that it possesses because it is the kind of thing it is – after all, other things of the same kind arose at different times. So for any particular entity, it is scientifically legitimate to ask: why did it come to be, here and now? No science which is worthy of the name can afford to ignore this question.
In his book, Faith vs. Fact, Coyne emerges as a stalwart defender of the claim that the scientific method offers the only sure route to knowledge about anything, and that we should not place any credence in other methods which are said to arrive at knowledge – especially the method of relying on faith. In this essay, I have argued that religious people do not simply rely on faith; they have their own epistemic criteria for sifting true from false claims, and many religions also encourage rigorous testing of those claims, as well as open intellectual debate on religious matters. I have also defended the claim that ethics can make factual assertions about the world, that we can make aesthetic judgments which are objectively grounded, and that we can learn something about the human condition which science is incapable of teaching us, by studying the great works of literature. Finally, I have argued that intuition is a valid source of knowledge about human nature in general and also about people whom we know very well.
I conclude, then, that Professor Coyne’s attempts to discredit other sources of knowledge fails, and that there indeed “more things in heaven and on earth” than Coyne’s science will ever reveal.