Sunrise over the Dead Sea seen from Masada, Israel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
I’ve written previously about Christopher Hitchens’ challenge: “Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.” Professor Jerry Coyne has come up with a new challenge of his own: “Tell me exactly what ‘knowledge’ religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.”
I’d be happy to oblige. I’ll submit two statements. The first is known to everyone. The second is taken from Professor Coyne’s own blog.
1. The sun will rise tomorrow.
2. Killing an unarmed man who does not resist arrest in a way that endangers his captors is murder and therefore wrong, even if that man happens to be Osama bin Laden.
For the record, I think Professor Coyne is right about the second statement, and I applaud his courage for making it. While I’m quite sure that Osama bin Laden got his just deserts, he should have also gotten a trial, if it was possible to capture him alive.
Now, Professor Coyne seems to be quite sure about the second statement, so I presume he would count it as “knowledge.” So my reply to Professor Coyne’s challenge is: can you derive either of the above two statements from secular reason?
Professor Coyne is a very intelligent man, and I’m sure he will try to turn the tables at this point. He may ask me: “You say you believe in God. Please tell me how belief in God enables you to derive either of the two statements listed above.”
Sorry, but I’m not biting. Here’s why. Either I can meet his challenge or I can’t. If I can, then the ball is back in his court. If I can’t, then the ball is still in his court. Does he claim to know these things or doesn’t he? If he does, then how does he know them? But if he doesn’t know them, then shouldn’t he have the modesty to admit as much?
I’m going to focus on Professor Coyne’s first statement in this post. As a scientist, he would claim to know that the sun will rise tomorrow, and he would presumably base this claim to knowledge on the laws of Nature. I have previously argued that the laws of Nature provide no assurance about future events. In a recent article, Seven questions for Professor Carroll, I posed the following question to the physicist Sean Carroll, Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology, in response to his article, Does the universe need God?:
Do you believe that rules, which prescribe the behavior of objects, are a fundamental and irreducible feature of the cosmos, even in the absence of human observers?
There are only two possible answers: Yes and No. If the answer is “Yes,” then this invites the further question, which I posed to him: “How can rules exist in the absence of a Mind that made these rules?” But if the answer is “No,” then we face a further dilemma. As I wrote:
If … rules are not a fundamental feature of the cosmos, then why is it rational for scientists to believe that the universe will continue to conform to the laws of nature in the future, instead of violating them? Specifically, why should I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow at the forecast time, when there is no rule saying that it should rise, and when there are innumerable ways in which it could fail to do so?
I hope you will resist the temptation to answer: “Because it’s simpler.” It’s one thing to try and order the observations you’ve already made in the simplest way you can. That’s what scientists do. But it would be naive to expect the universe to go on behaving simply in the future, simply because it would fit your favorite theory better if it did. That would be an anthropomorphic projection of human wishes onto the cosmos. In a cosmos without rules, it simply makes no sense to say that our remarkably lucky run of sunrises every day for the past 4.5 billion years should continue in future, and it would surely be very surprising if they did continue.
I hope you will also resist the temptation to answer: “It’s rational to believe that the cosmos behaves in a reliable fashion, because we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t.” That’s a perfectly good reason to believe that the cosmos has behaved reliably in the past, but it doesn’t constitute a reason for believing that it will behave reliably in the future.
Professor Carroll is a very busy man, and he hasn’t answered my question to date, although he was courteous enough to acknowledge my post in an email. So I would like to ask Professor Coyne the same question: how do you know that the Sun will rise tomorrow? To me, it really seems like an anthropomorphic projection. You desperately want the sun to rise tomorrow (don’t we all?), and as a scientist, you would like to say that you know it will (for if scientists don’t know that, then what do they know?) So you hang your hopes on the laws of Nature. But to me, trusting in a law of Nature sounds like a funny thing to do. If a law of Nature is a mere regularity, then there is no reason to trust it. To use an old example: every lump of gold out there in the cosmos has a volume of less than one cubic kilometer. That’s a regularity, if it’s true (which it probably is). However, we wouldn’t think for a minute of trusting it to hold. On the other hand, if a law of Nature is more than a mere regularity, then what is it? Does it have a normative content or not? And if it does, where does the norm come from, if not from a Mind?
As regards Professor Coyne’s second statement, I suppose he will try to justify it by appealing to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is certainly true that if I were accused of a crime, I’d like a trial. But I find it impossible to answer the question: “Would you like a trial, if you were a mass murderer?” because I find it very hard to put myself in a mass murderer’s shoes. Appealing to such an extreme counterfactual seems like a shaky justification to me.
What I think underlies Professor Coyne’s abhorrence of State-sanctioned murder – even the murder of mass murderers – is his deep-seated belief, which he perhaps has not even articulated to himself, that a person is somehow a sacred object, and that people do not lose their sacredness by doing bad things. A person’s a person, no matter how bad. I agree. Religious people know exactly what the word “sacred” means, of course. But how does Professor Coyne, an avowed secularist, claim to know that people are sacred in this way, and that their sacredness is inalienable? Why can’t it be forfeited? There’s only one answer I know: because we are made in the image and likeness of God. But Professor Coyne doesn’t believe in God. Or does he?