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“Science is done by ignoring God” – Professor Coyne’s newfangled naturalism


Over at Why Evolution Is True, Professor Jerry Coyne is in high dudgeon over a sign that has just gone up in front of the new Nature Lab at The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which is a public museum. The sign reads as follows:

“The Nature Lab is a gift to Los Angeles to celebrate all of God’s creatures and to enable NHM to broaden our understanding of the natural world through the process of scientific discovery.” Anonymous donor – 2013

Despite the fact that the Museum has an official statement endorsing evolution as “a central concept in modern science” and as “no more controversial among scientists than are the theories explaining gravity, light, sound, or electricity,” Professor Coyne complains that the quote on the sign “undercuts the mission of Nature Lab: to teach people how science is done.” In an email to Dr. Jane Pisano, the president and director of the museum, as well as the education and public programs office of the Museum, he writes that “it’s not perfectly clear that this quote comes from the donor” (despite the fact that several of the commenters at Professor Coyne’s Website thought it was perfectly obvious that this was the case) and he adds that “the invocation of God in a public museum could be seen as be a violation of the First Amendment” (although as one commenter pointed out, that argument won’t fly in court: California’s own constitution contains an invocation of God).

In his email to Dr. Pisano, Coyne writes: “I needn’t remind you that science is done by ignoring God, and has never given the slightest bit of evidence for the intercession of God in the origin, evolution, and diversification of life.”

The methodological naturalism which Professor Coyne is advocating here is not, as is commonly assumed, part-and-parcel of the scientific enterprise. On the contrary, it is essentially a newfangled innovation, which only became an accepted part of “how science is done” in the late nineteenth century. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to from a careful study of the evidence, and I’ll be putting up a post before the end of this year, providing my reasons for accepting that view. But for now, I’ve like to whet my readers’ appetites by quoting from three prominent scientists in the late nineteenth century, who quite obviously didn’t share Professor Coyne’s belief that “science is done by ignoring God.”

First, here’s a quote from William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin OM, GCVO, PC, PRS, PRSE, a world-renowned mathematical physicist and engineer. Lord Kelvin gave a presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Edinburgh, August 1871) On the Origin of Life. In the speech, he favored the hypothesis that the first living organisms on Earth originally came from outer space (the hypothesis of panspermia). Lord Kelvin was quite willing to allow that this primitive life had evolved into the modern life-forms that we see today. However, he objected to the notion that natural selection had been responsible for the evolution of life, and stated his belief in “intelligent and benevolent design.”

Here is Lord Kelvin discussing panspermia and the subsequent evolution of life on Earth in his address:

Sir John Herschel, in expressing a favourable judgment on the hypothesis of zoological evolution, with, however, some reservation in respect to the origin of man, objected to the doctrine of natural selection, that it was too like the Laputan method of making books, and that it did not sufficiently take into account a continually guiding and controlling intelligence. This seems to me a most valuable and instructive criticism. I feel profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations. Reaction against frivolities of teleology, such as are to be found, not rarely, in the notes of learned Commentators on Paley’s “Natural Theology,” has I believe had a temporary effect in turning attention from the solid and irrefragable argument so well put forward in that excellent old book.
(Kelvin, Lord. 1871. “Address of Sir William Thomson, Knt., LL.D., F.R.S, President,” in Report of the Forty-First Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Edinburgh in August 1871, pages lxxxiv-cv. Reprinted in Kelvin’s Popular Lectures and Addresses, Macmillan and Co., 1894, p. 132-205. )

Let’s stop right there. Despite believing in evolution, Lord Kelvin was a fan of William Paley! But there’s more. Lord Kelvin concludes his address with these words:

Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all around us; and if ever perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific, turn us away from them for a time, they come back upon us with irresistible force, showing to us through Nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one ever-acting Creator and Ruler.

(Kelvin, Lord. 1871. “Address of Sir William Thomson, Knt., LL.D., F.R.S, President,” in Report of the Forty-First Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Edinburgh in August 1871, pages lxxxiv-cv. Reprinted in Kelvin’s Popular Lectures and Addresses, Macmillan and Co., 1894, p. 132-205. See also Ralph Seeger, 1985, “Kelvin, Humble Christian,” in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37 (June 1985), pp. 100-101).

In a much later speech, Science Affirms the Creative Power, given by Lord Kelvin on May 1, 1903, as a vote of thanks following a course of lectures on “Christian Apologetics” given at University College, London by Rev. Professor Henslow, Lord Kelvin declared:

We only know God in His works, but we are absolutely forced by science to admit and to believe with absolute confidence in a Directive Power in an influence other than physical, or dynamical, or electrical forces. Cicero, editor of Lucretius, denied that men and plants and animals could have come into existence by a fortuitous concourse of atoms. There is nothing between absolute scientific belief in Creative Power and the acceptance of the theory of a fortuitous concourse of atoms. Just think of a number of atoms falling together of their own accord and making a crystal, a sprig of moss, a microbe, a living animal.

I admire throughout the healthy, breezy atmosphere of free-thought in Professor Henslow’s lecture. Do not be afraid of being free thinkers. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all Religion. You will find science not antagonistic, but helpful to Religion.

In a subsequent letter to The Times, dated May 4, 1903, Lord Kelvin published a minor amendment to his address: he acknowledged that “while ‘fortuitous concourse of atoms’ is not an inappropriate description of the formation of a crystal, it is utterly absurd in respect to the coming into existence, or the growth, or the continuation of the molecular combinations presented in the bodies of living things.” He continued:

Forty years ago I asked Liebig [Justus von Liebig, a German chemist and father of the fertilizer industry – VJT], walking somewhere in the country, if he believed that the grass and flowers which we saw around us grew by mere chemical forces. He answered, “No, no more than I could believe that a book of botany describing them could grow by mere chemical forces.”

Every action of human free will is a miracle to physical and chemical and mathematical science.

Evidently Lord Kelvin was a “mind creationist,” too!

I invite my readers to ask themselves: are these the words of a man who believed that “science is done by ignoring God”?

But there’s more. James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE, was a Scottish physicist and mathematician, whose greatest achievement was the formulation of classical electromagnetic theory, which united all observations, experiments and equations of electricity, magnetism and optics into a single, consistent theory. Maxwell’s equations explained how electricity, magnetism and light could all be understood as manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field.

In his famous Discourse on Molecules, delivered before the British Association at Bradford in September 1873, Maxwell put forward a scientific argument for the existence of a supernatural Creator:

A molecule of hydrogen, for example, whether in Sirius or in Arcturus, executes its vibrations in precisely the same time.

Each molecule therefore throughout the universe bears impressed upon it the stamp of a metric system as distinctly as does the metre of the Archives at Paris, or the double royal cubit of the temple of Karnac…

None of the processes of Nature, since the time when Nature began, have produced the slightest difference in the properties of any molecule. We are therefore unable to ascribe either the existence of the molecules or the identity of their properties to any of the causes which we call natural.

On the other hand, the exact equality of each molecule to all others of the same kind gives it, as Sir John Herschel has well said, the essential character of a manufactured article, and precludes the idea of its being eternal and self-existent.

Thus we have been led, along a strictly scientific path, very near to the point at which Science must stop, – not that Science is debarred from studying the internal mechanism of a molecule which she cannot take to pieces, any more than from investigating an organism which she cannot put together. But in tracing back the history of matter, Science is arrested when she assures herself, on the one hand, that the molecule has been made, and, on the other, that it has not been made by any of the processes we call natural.

Science is incompetent to reason upon the creation of matter itself out of nothing. We have reached the utmost limits of our thinking faculties when we have admitted that because matter cannot be eternal and self-existent it must have been created. It is only when we contemplate, not matter in itself, but the form in which it actually exists, that our mind finds something on which it can lay hold. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

What Maxwell is proposing here is an interesting design argument for a Creator, on scientific grounds: the fact that molecules are perfectly identical to one another suggests that they were manufactured according to an intelligent plan. What he had in mind was a “uniformity intended and accomplished by the same wisdom and power of which uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan are … important attributes…” as he wrote in a letter to a friend. (See E.Garber, S.G.Brush, and C.W.F.Everitt, (Eds) Maxwell on Molecules and Gases, 1986, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, p. 242.)

Note that the dividing line between science and religion is quite different for Maxwell than it is for modern scientists. For Maxwell, science could not explain the modus operandi of the Creator (especially the creation of matter out of nothing). But Maxwell felt quite confident in pronouncing, as a scientist, that certain entities (hydrogen atoms) did not have a natural origin.

Finally, I’d like to mention James Joule, an English physicist who studied the nature of heat and discovered its relationship to mechanical work, which led to the formulation of the law of the conservation of energy (with which he and Helmholtz are jointly credited). This law is also known as the first law of thermodynamics.

Along with 85 other Fellows of the Royal Society, Joule signed a remarkable manifesto entitled, Declaration of Students of the Natural and Physical Sciences, issued in London in 1864, in which the signatories affirmed their confidence in the scientific integrity of the Holy Scriptures.

The reader may be wondering what was in the declaration which Joule signed. Here it is:

We, the undersigned Students of the Natural Sciences, desire to express our sincere regret, that researches into scientific truth are perverted by some in our own times into occasion for casting doubt upon the Truth and Authenticity of the Holy Scriptures. We conceive that it is impossible for the Word of God, as written in the book of nature, and God’s Word written in Holy Scripture, to contradict one another, however much they may appear to differ. We are not forgetful that Physical Science is not complete, but is only in a condition of progress, and that at present our finite reason enables us only to see as through a glass darkly, and we confidently believe, that a time will come when the two records will be seen to agree in every particular. We cannot but deplore that Natural Science should be looked upon with suspicion by many who do not make a study of it, merely on account of the unadvised manner in which some are placing it in opposition to Holy Writ. We believe that it is the duty of every Scientific Student to investigate nature simply for the purpose of elucidating truth, and that if he finds that some of his results appear to be in contradiction to the Written Word, or rather to his own interpretations of it, which may be erroneous, he should not presumptuously affirm that his own conclusions must be right, and the statements of Scripture wrong; but rather, leave the two side by side till it shall please God to allow us to see the manner in which they may be reconciled; and, instead of insisting upon the seeming differences between Science and the Scriptures, it would be as well to rest in faith upon the points in which they agree.

I rest my case. Could a methodological naturalist have approved those words? I think not.

Given the testimony of these three great scientists, Professor Coyne’s statement that “science is done by ignoring God” stands exposed for what it is: a hollow piece of dogmatism. No, Professor Coyne, science is done by following the evidence wherever it leads.

or it can mean refusing to seriously consider God as a possible explanation for what one discovers. The latter attitude is truly poisonous to science
Dr.vjt, You and others have pointed out in other threads that God can create His own rules because it is His own universe, so don't you think if God is considered as a explanation or solution for a phenomenon, it will lead to wrong conclusion? If there is no invariant rule, it is like tampering with the evidence to fit a preconceived solution. selvaRajan
Hi tjguy, Thank you for your post. I would say that "ignoring God" can mean one of two things. It can simply mean refraining from explicitly referring to God as one goes about one's work (which is true for experimental science, as you point out), or it can mean refusing to seriously consider God as a possible explanation for what one discovers. The latter attitude is truly poisonous to science. vjtorley
Coyne's intent isn't any intellectual discussion regarding science, but rather an attack on faith in general. Nowhere does the placard didn't suggest invoking "God of the gaps" arguments, or condemn standard scientific methods or scientists. Coyne isn't elucidating something wrong with science, but wading into the fallacy waters to erect a strawman, shouting, "no true scientist believes in God!" It's sophomoric at best. This is proof that simply because a person has a PhD, it doesn't mean said person is intelligent, or wise. TSErik
science is done by ignoring God.
Coyne is right unfortunately. This is not a problem though for modern science. As long as it is science that uses the scientific method, that works fine because we can observe, hypothesize, devise an experiment, test, and verify/falsify our ideas. An atheistic scientist can do this type of science just as well as a believing scientist. However, when it comes to discerning the unobservable, unrepeatable, untestable past, then ignoring God becomes more problematic. We make lots of assumptions and then build our theories on top of these assumptions. Methodological naturalism is not dependable when doing historical science. You can make your interpretations of the evidence using that framework, but by ignoring God, you must realize that your conclusions could be way off base if there is a God. This is why scientists believe that evolution can produce new genes, information, and proteins even though it has never been observed. They assume it all happened naturally because they ignore God. So even if they can't explain it now, they hope against all hope that someday new scientific discoveries will make that possible. Their faith is in natural random processes and science itself and there is no room for God in their worldview. That's fine, but that is a philosophical commitment that cannot be proven. It is not science. Simply assuming there is no God does not make it so! tjguy
=>LarTanner , you may not be addressing Coyne’s argument. =>Why is he making a mountain of a mole hill? What's there to argue about a simple sign? Is is frightened that the term 'God's creature' is going to ruin his career and destroy the world? Even if is doesn't believe in God, the donor believes in Him. Coyne should respect everybody's views. coldcoffee
I guess that Coyne wont like that God asked Job if he could loosen orion's belt either at a time when no one knew this would be happening at a later date, but of course Coyne cant accept this as he cant let any evidence for God seep into his dogmatic atheistic worldview. People like him have confirmed yet again that atheism is a cult and not a worldview based on honest truth seeking, logic, reason or science. Scientism anyone? lol http://wwwramblingsoflista.blogspot.com/2011/06/constalations-orion-pleiades.html Job 38:31-32 - "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? First, let’s take a look at what God says about Orion; 'Canst thou . . . loose the bands of Orion?' God is talking specifically about the three stars that form the belt on the Orion constellation. These three stars appeared to be fixed on our sky, rigidly aligned to form a relatively straight line. Yet God asks Job, 'Hey do you think YOU can loosen this band?' It’s as if He is saying, 'Well, I can buddy!' It may seem as though the band of stars is fixed, but Garrett P. Serviss, the noted astronomer, wrote about the bands of Orion in his book 'Curiosities of the Sky'. Today, this band consists of an almost perfectly straight line of second-magnitude stars that are equally spaced and very beautiful. In the course of time, however, the two right-hand stars, Mintaka and Alnilam, will approach each other and form a naked-eye double; but the third, Alnitak, will drift away eastward so that the band will no longer exist. In other words, one star is traveling in a certain direction at a certain speed, a second one is traveling in a different direction at a second speed, and the third one is going in a third direction and at a still different speed. As a matter of fact, every star in Orion is traveling its own course, independent of all the others. As time passes, this band of stars will indeed be loosened, just as God told Job. wallstreeter43
Do any of the quotes offered speak on the scientific necessity of invoking God in order to learn and understand how nature works? This I think is ultimately Coyne’s point, that (following Laplace) we have no need of that hypothesis.
I don't think that's Coyne's point at all. His point is that invoking God is a hindrance to science. Funny that it did not stop either Isaac Newton or Max Planck (both of whom frequently invoked God in their writings), two of the pillars of modern science. Mapou
Do any of the quotes offered speak on the scientific necessity of invoking God in order to learn and understand how nature works? This I think is ultimately Coyne's point, that (following Laplace) we have no need of that hypothesis. Unless you have some arguments speaking to this necessity -- and perhaps some that come in within the past decade or at least the past century -- you may not be addressing Coyne's argument. Kelvin, of course, was famously wrong in his determination of the age of the earth. Perhaps this is a case study in why God can be counter-productive to "following the evidence wherever it leads." P.S., maybe it's time for a moratorium on the trite expression "following the evidence wherever it leads," eh? LarTanner
It used to bother me whenever busybodies like Coyne went out of their way to make total asses of themselves. It was always obvious to me that it was really the work of one religion doing its best to impose itself on others through the force of law and the threat of police action. Just ugly fascism in a cute outfit. And then I realized that it is all part of a God's greater plan to put them to shame at the appropriate time. I have said this before and I'll say it again (regardless of the consequences). The most earthshaking scientific breakthroughs of this century will come straight from the one place that they hate and fear the most, the Bible. LOL. What a surprise it will be. Not even Christians suspect the wealth of scientific knowledge that is hidden in Biblical metaphors. I'll be watching the whole thing unfold with a glass of beer in one hand, a bag of Cheetos in the other and a smile on my face. Sweet recompence indeed, coming soon. Mapou

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