For anyone who might have choked on their coffee while reading that headline, let me state up-front that Professor Coyne has not undergone an overnight conversion. Instead, what he has done is give the Intelligent Design movement a perfect Christmas gift. Santa Claus himself couldn’t have picked a better one. And here it is: an airtight legal argument for allowing Intelligent Design to be taught in public schools.
But wait, there’s more! A second present from Professor Coyne! An open admission that public schools should be teaching our kids that they are machines. Thank you, Professor Coyne!
Readers who are inclined to doubt Professor Coyne’s munificence might like to take a look at his recent post, Ruse: the gift that keeps on gibbering over at Why Evolution Is True . In the course of his lengthy post, Coyne charges fellow-atheist, fellow-Darwinist and fellow-ID critic, Professor Michael Ruse, with several heinous crimes, because of an article he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, dated 22 December 2010, and entitled, From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion? Professor Ruse’s piece was written in response to a very strongly worded article by an evolutionary biologist, Professor David Barash, entitled, NOMA? No thanks! at his blog in the same journal.
Near the end of his reply to Ruse, Professor Coyne hands the ID movement the perfect legal defense against the common charge that is nothing more than religion in disguise. I’ll come to that anon.
But let us return to the accusations Coyne makes against Professor Michael Ruse. What, you may ask, are the crimes of which the accused is charged?
Professor Coyne: Yes, we are machines, and science says so!
The first crime of which Professor Ruse is charged is that of equating science and faith by claiming that science, too, is based on a metaphor – namely, the metaphor of a machine – and that this metaphor limits science’s ability to answer some of the big questions about life that people like to ask. Comments Coyne: “I believe Ruse uses the word ‘metaphor’ here to denigrate science, putting it on the plane of religion, which for many is based on regarding sacred texts as metaphors.” Science is not to be slighted – that’s the ultimate blasphemy.
Coyne attempts to rebut Professor Ruse’s claim, as follows:
First of all, science is not based on a “metaphor”, which my online dictionary defines as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.” … Instead, science is based on the idea that we can gain understanding of our universe by applying principles of logic, observation, experimentation and reason. That’s not a metaphor. Yes, Descartes analogized organisms as machines, but we don’t think of that as a metaphor – it’s a reality.
Let me spell this out for readers. According to Professor Coyne, science tells us that organisms are not just like machines; nor are they just composed of mechanical parts; nor are they machines in certain aspects, but not others. No. Organisms are machines, period. That’s “a reality.” However, biology also teaches us that human beings are organisms. It follows that according to Coyne, the statement that human beings are machines, and in particular, that high school students are machines, belongs in the science curriculum. It’s a perfectly valid deduction from two scientific premises, both of which, I am sure, Coyne would want to include in the school curriculum. Since this conclusion is arrived at “by applying principles of logic,” Professor Coyne can hardly fault it.
Well, I bet that John and Jane Doe would just love to hear that it is perfectly legitimate for a science teacher to tell their daughter in high school that she is a machine. Now that’s what I call a real vote-getter for the NCSE. (Hey, if you want to donate, just click here!) I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Professor Coyne for clarifying this point. No wonder so many Americans don’t like Darwinists.
Let me mention in passing that many scientists who really know something about the human brain would totally disagree with Professor Coyne’s claim that human beings are machines. I’ll mention just one: Professor Raymond Tallis, who is, incidentally an atheist and humanist, who has written (among other things) a book entitled, Why the Mind is not a Computer. I’d also recommend his article Neurotrash in
“New Humanist,” Volume 124, Issue 6, November/December 2009, and In Search of the G-spot in “New Humanist” Volume 125, Issue 1, January/February 2010.
Professor Coyne on the war between science and religion
The second crime of which Professor Ruse stands accused is that of denying that science and religion are at war with each other. Indeed, Ruse goes so far as to deny that authentic, traditional religion has everclashed with science. When there has been a conflict between science and religion, the reason for the conflict “is not traditional religion but (in the case of Christianity certainly) stuff added on, mainly in the 19th century for social and political reasons.”
The basis of Professor Ruse’s belief that authentic science and religion cannot conflict is his conviction that science and religion answer completely different questions about life, and about the world we live in. Ruse is an ardent proponent of Stephen Jay Gould’s hallowed “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) principle, which states that: “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap…” (Stephen Jay Gould, Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22.) Indeed, Professor Ruse deployed the NOMA principle very skillfully in his testimony at the 1981 Arkansas creation trial (McLean vs. Arkansas). The arguments of Gould and Ruse certainly convinced the federal judge, who ruled that the teaching of creation science in public schools was unconstitutional.
For my part, I believe Gould was profoundly mistaken on this point. Religion and science do make claims about the world which are capable – at least in principle – of coming into conflict. For example, if you believe the universe had a beginning, then your faith will be falsified if science one day discovers that the universe always existed. And as an ID proponent who personally accepts common descent, I would also argue that while certain versions of evolution are quite compatible with Christianity, Darwinism and Christianity are totally incompatible.
The only satisfactory ground one could have for believing that the authentic teachings of science and religion cannot come into conflict is the belief that the God who made our universe is Someone Who wants us to use our intelligence to explore the cosmos, and Who has providentially designed the cosmos to make scientific investigation possible. Professor Coyne does not share this belief, so I can certainly understand why he thinks science and religion are at war with one another. To him, science and religion represent two fundamentally incompatible ways of answering life’s big questions: experimentation vs. revelation. I see these ways of knowing as compatible, so I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.
Professor Coyne’s Christmas gift to the Intelligent Design movement
The third and final crime of which Professor Coyne accuses Professor Michael Ruse is that of tying the teaching of science in American public schools to scientists’ public affirmation of NOMA. According to Ruse, we must acknowledge that science and religion can coexist, because the American Constitution prohibits discrimination against religion in public schools. If science is taken to imply that God does not exist (which, according to Ruse, is just as much a religious claim as the statement that God does exist), then American courts would then be required to eject science from the school curriculum – which of course, Professor Ruse doesn’t want to see happen. So he poses a provocative question:
So my question (and it is a genuine one, to which I don’t have an answer) to David Barash is this. Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept – is false. Is it then constitutional to teach science?
The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution separates science and religion. (Don’t get into arguments about wording. That is how it has been interpreted.) You cannot legally teach religion in state schools, at least not in biology and other science classes. That was the issue in Arkansas and Dover. (I am not talking about current affairs or like courses.) But now ask yourself. If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?
Professor Coyne responds:
Here’s your answer, Dr. Ruse. It is indeed illegal, as it should be, to teach in the public schools that evolution – or science in general – implies that “God does not exist.” (I believe that this is a reasonable conclusion from science, which implies that certain types of Gods do not exist, but I never mention it in class.) But teaching science is not the same thing as explicitly teaching atheism. If students want to draw a conclusion from the palpable facts about the world, so be it. The purpose of science classes is to teach science, not religion or anti-religion, but it’s not our place, as teachers, to prevent students from thinking outside of class. Some students may become atheists after learning about evolution, while others may simply, like BioLogos, incorporate the science into their existing faith. Not everyone agrees with the proposition that science implies that God doesn’t exist. But even if they did, that’s no reason to kick science out of the public schools. Atheism is the notion that there’s no evidence for the existence of God. That’s not the same thing as science.
Now, as an ID proponent, I strongly believe that science supports the conclusion that life was designed. I believe that books like Don Johnson’s The Programming of Life (which describes how each cell of an organism contains millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information, using digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information), papers like this one by Dr. Douglas Axe, and conundrums like this one about the origin of animals, put the ball in the Darwinists’ court. If they want to maintain that natural mechanisms are sufficient to account for the origin of cellular life, and of complex organisms like ourselves, then the onus is on them to prove it.
Now let me play around a little with Dr. Coyne’s reply. I’m going to change just a few words, and – hey presto! – readers will get to see Dr. Coyne’s lovely Christmas present to the Intelligent Design movement. If Dr. Ruse (or Dr. Coyne for that matter) were to ask me why teaching Intelligent Design in public schools is not equivalent to teaching religion, I would answer them as follows:
Here’s your answer, Dr. Ruse and Dr. Coyne. It is indeed illegal, as it should be, to teach in the public schools that intelligent design – or science in general – implies that “God exists.” (I believe that this is a reasonable conclusion from science, which implies that a certain type of God does indeed exist, but I never mention it in class.) But teaching science is not the same thing as explicitly teaching theism. If students want to draw a conclusion from the palpable facts about the world, so be it. The purpose of science classes is to teach science, not religion or anti-religion, but it’s not our place, as teachers, to prevent students from thinking outside of class. Some students may become theists after learning about Intelligent Design, while others may simply, like the Raelians, incorporate the science into their existing atheistic faith. Not everyone agrees with the proposition that science implies that God does exist. But even if they did, that’s no reason to kick science out of the public schools. Natural theology is the notion that there’s scientific evidence for the existence of God. That’s not the same thing as science.
So there we have it. A perfectly good legal defense for Intelligent Design, as well as an implied admission from a well-respected scientist that he believes the statement “Human beings are machines” can be legitimately taught in public schools. Two Christmas presents from Professor Coyne! Wonderful!
Professor Coyne’s breathtaking invective
I’d like to close with a comment about professionalism in public debate. While reading Professor Coyne’s post, I was utterly appalled at the sheer savagery of his personal attack on Professor Michael Ruse. The invective in the opening and closing paragraphs of Professor Coyne’s post is so staggeringly disrespectful that it has to be seen to be believed. I shall reproduce it here for the benefit of readers:
I try to keep this website classy, so, in response to Michael Ruse’s latest public display of stupidity, I’ll refrain from calling him a “clueless gobshite”. Let’s just say that his brain has passed its sell-by date. And just when you think his arguments can’t get any loonier, he comes up with a new one. This time he argues that anyone who maintains that science and religion are at war, and are mutually exclusive constructs, is begging for the courts to ban science from public school classrooms.
I don’t know anyone save a creationist who can pack as much stupid (sic) into a 1200-word piece as Ruse did in his essay. It’s amazing to think that at one time people took him seriously as a philosopher.
Professor Ruse is currently the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy (2000-present) at Florida State University. He is also a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is one thing for Professor Coyne to criticize what he regards as the “breathtaking inanity” of Professor Ruse’s arguments, which he regards as “monumentally idiotic.” But for Professor Coyne to use language like “his brain has passed its sell-by date,” when talking about an academic of the caliber of Professor Ruse, is discourteous and unprofessional, whatever you may think of Ruse’s views. It’s just not done.
I hope Professor Coyne reconsiders his remarks over a nice glass of Christmas champagne, and I’d like to wish him, Professor Ruse and everyone in the Intelligent Design movement a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.