Over at his Website, Why Evolution is True, Professor Jerry Coyne is a vigorous defender of science against what he sees as the encroachments of religion. Professor Coyne has made many forceful criticisms of religion over the past few years, so I thought I would respond by writing him an open letter, in which I ask him questions under ten broad categories, regarding what I regard as key weaknesses in his own philosophical position. I look forward to Coyne’s response.
Question 1 – Is science the only road to knowledge?
Professor Coyne, you have repeatedly affirmed that science is the only road to knowledge, and you’ve argued (cogently, in my view) that faith cannot be equated with knowledge. So here’s my question: do you believe that philosophy can yield any knowledge, apart from what we can know through science? Specifically:
(a) Does science, in your opinion, presuppose the truth of certain synthetic a priori principles (as Kant would have called them), which are not merely logical or mathematical truths, but which can nevertheless be known through the study of philosophy, independently of science?
(b) In your view, is philosophy capable, at least in principle, of reasoning from the occurrence of empirical phenomena (which are known to science) to the existence of a Being that transcends the realm of the physical – by which I mean not only the observable spatio-temporal universe, but any multiverse whose behavior is regulated by physical laws? If you believe that philosophy can never (in principle) take us beyond the realm of the physical, please explain why.
(c) In your view, is philosophy capable of demonstrating, at least in principle, through a process of purely logical argumentation, that certain operations of the human mind cannot possibly be identified with, or caused by, processes occurring in the brain? Or does science automatically trump any philosophical argument, no matter how logically watertight it may seem? If so, why? (Everyone would acknowledge that scientifically demonstrating that A = B is possible when A and B are both external, third-person phenomena – e.g. the morning star and the evening star – but what gives science a privileged position over philosophy when A is an external, third-person phenomenon, but B is an internal, first-person phenomenon?)
Question 2 – The possibility of truths that only philosophy can demonstrate
Professor Coyne, I’d like you to consider the following principles of reasoning, which are often employed by scientists and by laypeople when arguing about origins.
(a) Things don’t just happen “out of the blue”, without any kind of cause.
(b) An infinite regress of explanations doesn’t explain anything.
(c) Anything complex demands an explanation for its existence.
The first principle is accepted by virtually everyone. No evolutionist would be brazen enough to explain the origin of the first living cell by saying that it just popped into existence out of nothing. And even virtual particles, which appear to do this, are properly explained as fluctuations in an underlying field: the so-called quantum vacuum, which is actually a quantum state with the lowest possible energy, and which is itself governed by laws of Nature, which means that it cannot be equated with “nothing.”
The second principle is frequently appealed to by Intelligent Design skeptics, when they ask: “Who designed the Designer?” The underlying presupposition is that all legitimate explanations have to stop somewhere.
The third principle forms the basis for Professor Richard Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit. Interestingly, many religious people would also agree that the existence of complexity requires an explanation; where they differ from Dawkins is that they don’t believe that God’s Intelligence requires Him to be internally complex, and they are unswayed by Dawkins’ inductive argument that all the intelligent beings that we’ve met so far happen to be complex beings.
I take it you accept the above three principles as true, Professor Coyne, and yet they are not scientific truths. They cannot be empirically demonstrated. Would you regard them, then, as philosophical truths which are presupposed by science, and without which scientists could not conduct their investigations of the natural world? Would you be prepared to call these truths synthetic a priori truths, to use a Kantian phrase? And would you then agree that philosophers can know at least some truths, independently of science?
Question 3 – The laws of Nature and the existence of God
The investigation of the laws of Nature constitutes a major part of the scientific endeavor. So my question is: how would you define a law of Nature, Professor Coyne? In particular, is it a merely descriptive statement which happens to hold true at all times and places, and which also happens to be a useful generalization for explaining physical phenomena, OR is it a prescriptive statement which tells us how objects should behave?
If you regard the laws of Nature as purely descriptive statements, then how do you account for nomological necessity? For instance, how do you explain the fact that for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction? (That’s quite different from merely saying that there is one.) If the laws of Nature do not bind us, then why is it impossible for us to break the laws of Nature?
But if you agree that we are bound by the laws of Nature, then it seems you must regard them as prescriptive statements which define the way in which objects should behave when acting according to their dispositions. In other words, you must think that the laws of Nature are normative, and that they lay down the rules of physical reality. So my question is: if Nature actually contains rules in its very warp and woof, then how can there not be a Rule-maker – i.e. a Mind Who is either in, or behind, or beyond, Nature? In other words, doesn’t that take us to some sort of God?
So it seems, Professor, that you face a dilemma. Either there is a God Who makes the rules of Nature – and Who may, for all we know, be able to suspend or over-ride them on rare occasions – or there are no rules, in which case we can have no grounds for saying that the world must continue to behave in a law-governed fashion. Which horn do you choose?
Question 4 – The problem of induction
As a scientist, Professor Coyne, you believe that the laws of Nature hold true at all times and places. In particular, you believe in the validity of induction. Why?
Now, you might argue that the laws of Nature are generalizations which have been repeatedly confirmed. True, but the same evidence which you cite as confirming the laws of Nature (e.g. the fact that the Sun has risen every day) is also compatible with an infinite number of alternative outlandish hypotheses, regarding events in the distant future – e.g. the hypothesis that the Sun will rise every day until December 21, 2012, after which date it will start to zig-zag randomly around the sky, or the hypothesis that the Sun will turn into a green dragon on January 1, 2400 but behave regularly until then. Since the hypothesis that Nature will behave consistently in the future is only one of an infinite number of possibilities, how can it possibly be rational to claim that this “scientific” hypothesis is more probable than all of the other hypotheses put together?
To make matters worse, the true hypothesis (that the Sun will keep rising until it swallows up the Earth in about 7 billion years) is not even the simplest hypothesis. The simplest way of explaining our past observations is to assume, as Aristotle did, that the Sun is everlasting, and that it has always risen every morning in the past and will always keep rising every morning in the future – a hypothesis which we now know to be false. So not even simplicity is an infallible guide to scientific truth.
You might respond that Aristotle’s hypothesis cannot explain the observation that the Sun is burning its supply of hydrogen into helium, which means that it won’t keep shining forever. You might then attempt to broaden your principle of parsimony, by universalizing it. That is, we should always pick the simplest and most elegant hypothesis that explains all of the known facts about our cosmos.
That’s a nice move, but again I ask: why? Searching for the simplest and most elegant hypothesis would be a rational thing to do, if Nature had been created by an Intelligent Agent Who wished His rational creatures to be able to comprehend it. But if there exists nothing except blind and pitiless Nature, then I ask: why should we presume that Nature is simple and elegant?
You might argue that science simply is (by definition) the quest for simple, elegant explanations of natural phenomena, and that “green dragon” hypotheses could not (by that definition) be a part of science. But then, that invites the further question: why, then, do you think that scientific generalizations which have been repeatedly confirmed in the past are objectively true, and that scientific predictions for the future will actually come to pass? Remember: there are an infinite number of junky, inelegant alternatives to any scientific hypothesis about the future. Nature doesn’t have to be science-friendly, and it would be very odd (in a godless world) if “She” were.
You might also argue that if Nature weren’t regular, we wouldn’t be here. But all that argument proves is that Nature must have been regular up until now. It doesn’t prove that Nature will continue to be “human-friendly” in the future.
Finally, you might argue that as a human being, you are so constituted that you simply can’t help believing in the principle of induction, whether you want to or not, and that the belief served your primate ancestors perfectly well, when fleeing danger. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me,” you might say. But you face a host of cognitive challenges that your primate ancestors never had to face, Professor. In particular, you have to grapple with theoretical questions for a living – such as whether the hypothesis of group selection makes any sense or not. I put it to you that a cognitive mechanism which assists in the pragmatic matter of everyday survival (i.e. our tendency to form inductive hypotheses) may or may not be a reliable tool for answering theoretical questions about what the universe is really like. And even if it is, there’s no way of knowing that it is.
So I ask again: how do you know induction is scientifically valid? Or don’t you?
Question 5 – Miracles and the laws of Nature
Professor Coyne, I understand that you are strongly inclined to discountenance miracles, because you believe that the laws of Nature hold true at all times and places. However, unlike Professor P. Z. Myers, you regard miracles as highly improbable, but not impossible. My question is: how improbable do you think miracles are? Probability, after all, is a matter of numbers.
Now let’s take the following five Biblical miracles, all of which relate to biology:
(a) the formation of Eve from Adam’s side;
(b) the Multigermic hypothesis proposd by one of your contributors, Drew – namely, that God tinkered with Adam’s and Eve’s bodies, imparting them with many germ line cells, each carrying a different genome, thus allowing each of Adam and Eve’s children to inter-breed without running the risk of having children with defects, and thereby reconciling the genetic diversity we observe in humans today with their descent from an original couple, Adam and Eve;
(c) Elisha’s resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s dead son, after praying to God and lying over the boy’s still-warm corpse, as recorded in 2 Kings 4:8-37;
(d) the virginal conception of Jesus, which I presume would have involved duplicating the chromosomes in one of Mary’s ova, converting one of the X’s into a much smaller Y and getting rid of the leftovers, activating the SRY gene on the Y-chromosome and deactivating the FOXL2 gene on chromosome 3; and
(e) the resurrection of Jesus’s dead body to an immortal and glorious state, after it had been in a tomb for 36 hours and remained free from any kind of bodily decay during that period.
How many reliable, living eyewitnesses would it take to convince you that each of these miracles had happened? (Assume that said eyewitnesses are prepared to endure a fair amount of hardship, poverty and public ridicule for claiming to have witnessed these miracles, which means that they are probably sincere.) Or if no amount of eyewitness testimony would sway you, what would?
Can you put an upper or lower bound on the antecedent probabilities of any of these miracles, in the absence of any evidence? I’d like some actual numbers, please – e.g. 1 in 10^50. Alternatively, can you at least rank them in order of difficulty, as a biologist?
I’m guessing that you ranked (e) as the hardest (or the least antecedently likely), since it involves not only bringing a body back to life, but giving it a new, indestructible mode of life. And I’m guessing that you decided that (b) or (d) were the easiest from a biological perspective.
So I’m very curious, Professor, as to why you think that recent articles published in scientific journals, demonstrating that monogenism (the descent of humankind from an original couple) is scientifically absurd, should disturb Jewish and Christian believers. After all, science can only show that such a scenario is vastly improbable, given the available evidence. But if religious believers are prepared to accept the occurrence of events which are much more improbable, by many orders of magnitude – such as a resurrection from the dead – then why should a one-off tinkering by God with Adam and Eve’s germ lines faze us?
Now, you might object that an appeal to miracles is a scientific cop-out: miracles can explain anything and everything. Not so fast, Professor. There are miracles and miracles. Some are much more improbable than others. For instance, the reason why I don’t believe in Flood geology as an explanation for the geological column is that it would require an extraordinary number of extraordinarily complicated miracles in order to produce a geological column (complete with fossils) like the one we see in the rocks – not to mention the problem of accounting for the isotopic ratios we find in rocks, as well as the problem of accounting for the missing heat generated by the Flood. Even a bodily resurrection looks simple in comparison with the hideously complicated planetwide feat that God would have needed to work, in order to generate the “record of the rocks” as we see it today. By contrast, monogenism requires only a one-off tinkering by God with Adam and Eve’s germ lines – which is not such a big pill for religious believers to swallow, especially when most of them already believe that God either created the first human beings, or deliberately tinkered with the genes of their hominid ancestors in order to produce them.
While we’re on the subject of miracles, Professor, what do you think would be an appropriate conclusion for a scientist to draw, if claims made by Dr. Douglas Axe, director of the Biologic Institute, that the odds of a medium-length functional protein of any kind whatsoever forming by stochastic processes are astronomically low (less than 1 in 10^159), or that even a modest change in the function of one enzyme would require a trillion trillion years to happen naturally, actually turned out to be true?
I presume your first reaction would be to tell the scientist not to give up, but to keep looking for some hitherto unknown laws of Nature, which would make protein formation and enzyme evolution reasonably probable occurrences, within the last 4.54 billion years of Earth history. So here’s my question for you. At what point would it become rational for the scientist to give up the search as futile, assuming that he/she had encountered repeated failures along the way, in the quest for these hidden laws? What kind of scientific evidence (or lack of evidence) would it take to overthrow the paradigm of undirected evolution, and make Intelligent Design a scientifically worthwhile research program, in your opinion?
Question 6 – The possibility of reasoning to a supernatural Being
Professor Coyne, you may have heard that the cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin of Tufts University in Boston has recently argued that not only the observable universe, but the entire multiverse, must have had a beginning.
In addition, there is the startling fact that the laws of Nature are breathtakingly beautiful and stunningly elegant, from a mathematician’s perspective – see my Uncommon Descent posts, Beauty and the Multiverse and Why the mathematical beauty we find in the cosmos is an objective “fact” which points to a Designer, for a defense of the idea that mathematical beauty is an objective fact, and that the laws of our universe possess this quality. The key point here is that even if you believe in an infinite multiverse, the beauty of the laws of Nature in our universe is still a very odd and surprising fact. Here’s why. Even if we leave aside those possible universes that cannot support life and limit ourselves to those that can support life, the vast majority of these universes will still have laws that are far less beautiful than our own. So why is our universe so elegant?
Given that even the multiverse which contains our universe must have had a beginning, and given that our own universe possesses the surprising property of mathematical beauty, would it be rational, in your opinion, for a scientist to conclude (at least tentatively) that a supernatural Being created the multiverse, and designed our universe to be a beautiful one? If not, why not?
Question 7 – The nature of mind and the concept of truth
Professor Coyne, you believe that evolution is true. The concept of truth is an abstract one. Human beings are capable of forming this abstract concept.
You’re also a materialist. That is, you equate each and every mental act – including the act of forming an abstract concept – with some physical process.
So here’s my question for you: is it even meaningful to equate an abstract concept with a physical process? One might just as well equate the concept of a joke with a pile of sand, or the concept of love with a blade of grass. The equation makes no sense. To make such an equation is to commit what philosophers call a category mistake. I conclude that materialism is nonsense of the highest order. If you disagree, please explain why.
Another puzzle facing materialists is intentionality. Thoughts have meaning and semantic content, in their own right. For instance, my thought that Tom looks drunk means that I think Tom is drunk. Physical processes, by contrast, don’t possess meaning or semantic content in their own right. Neither the flow of water in a stream, nor the flow of neurons in the brain, can possibly mean anything in its own right. How then can a thought be a physical process, when the two have such fundamentally incompatible properties?
Please note that I’m not denying that certain physical processes – e.g. the processing of sensory information in the brain – are necessary in order for rational thought to take place in human beings. But necessity is not the same thing as sufficiency, and a pre-requisite for rational thought is not the same thing as thought itself.
Question 8 – The nature of morality and the source of our moral code
Professor Coyne, do you believe that there are any ethical truths, or are they simply useful conventions for building and maintaining a society in which the greatest happiness of the greatest number is realized?
I’m a bit confused about your views on ethics, Professor, because on the one hand, you regularly invoke the Euthyphro argument in order to discredit the view that morality is grounded in divine commands, and additionally, you appear to regard the capital punishment of adulterers and homosexuals as objectively wrong; and yet, on the other hand, you defend the view that morality is a social construct, built on the bedrock of our evolutionary past, which gave us altruistic as well as selfish impulses. Even more puzzlingly, you appear to defend both views of morality in the same article!
However, the latter view would render morality subjective rather than objective. On this view, there would be no ethical truths as such, but merely political truths about what kind of code the majority of citizens at any given time happen to want to live under. If you hold such a view, then I find it hard to grasp why you are so critical of societies that lived thousands of years ago, whose citizens had a preference for an altogether different set of moral rules from those which apply today. I’d also like to know how you get from the premises, “People have altruistic impulses” and “Our society has developed a moral code” to the conclusion, “Breaking our society’s moral code is wrong.” How does this follow? The first two premises are purely factual; how does one derive an ethical norm from them?
But if you believe that there are objective ethical truths, then how do you claim to know them? Is your knowledge scientific? If so, then you will have to acknowledge that some ethical norms are built into the fabric of Nature, which raises the question of Who or What generated these norms in the first place. If, on the other hand, you contend that our ethical knowledge is not derived from science, then you have conceded that not all of our knowledge is scientific – which contradicts your earlier claim that science provides us with all of our knowledge.
While we’re on the subject of morality, are there certain acts which do not cause suffering and which do not thwart the pursuits of any sentient beings, but which you would nevertheless consider morally abhorrent because of their disordered character? Or are you a thorough-going utilitarian, who cannot conceive of a wrongful act which does not cause suffering or thwart anyone’s pursuit of happiness? Are there any ethical norms governing how we ought to treat dead bodies, for instance, regardless of whether the people they once belonged to have any living relatives? If you answer “Yes,” then you’ve conceded that considerations of pain and pleasure are inadequate to ground our moral norms.
So if moral norms are not grounded in pleasure and pain alone, then what do you ground them in? Human nature, perhaps? Fine; you’re an Aristotelian atheist, like the late Philippa Foot, whom I wrote about here. I can respect that position. But there’s one problem I see with it: it can’t answer questions relating to actions in which people try to fundamentally alter their natures? For instance, would it be wrong for me to turn myself into (a) a sub-rational animal who was incapable of feeling anxious about the future, by having most of my pre-frontal cortex surgically destroyed; or (b) a super-rational being who was many times smarter than a normal human being, but whose brain lacked the areas associated with altruism in human beings, and who was therefore incapable of feeling pity? I can’t see how Aristotle would answer these questions without invoking some principle that we should respect the nature that we’ve been given – which of course only makes sense if you’re a theist who believes that God made you for a purpose.
Are there any depraved acts which you would consider morally wrong, irrespective of how much suffering could be prevented or how many lives could be saved by performing them? (Think of a psychopath in control of a large number of hostages, who tells one of them to perform a hideously degrading act, or he’ll kill a certain number of people, and you’ll see what I’m driving at.) You’re probably familiar with Dan Barker, who says that even child rape could be moral if it were absolutely necessary in order to save humanity from evil aliens, and you’re also familiar with Dr. Sam Harris, who says that pushing an innocent man into the path of an oncoming train is OK, if it is necessary in order to save a greater number of human lives. What’s your take on these cases? Are you a utilitarian atheist, or a Kantian atheist who contends that each human beings possesses intrinsic moral value which may never be sacrificed to some “greater good”?
Question 9 – God and the problem of suffering
Professor, I understand that you are deeply moved by the suffering we observe in Nature, and you argue that a benevolent, omnipotent Deity wouldn’t have designed the natural world in this way. Fair enough. Now consider an example of a particularly painful death in the animal world – e.g. the death of a deer in a forest fire, or alternatively, the slow, lingering death of a deer in a drought.
Here’s my question. Suppose for argument’s sake that God exists, but that it is not possible for Him to make a world of sentient beings which was wholly free from suffering. Suppose that the best He can do is to make a world which would be extremely pleasant for the vast majority of creatures, but very painful for a few – such as the deer that died in excruciating agony. In your view, would it be morally permissible for God to make such a world? Or should He refrain from creating altogether, rather than create a world where even a few animals died in agony?
If you believe that God should refrain from creating altogether rather than make a world where even one animal suffers in agony, then how would you differentiate agony from suffering in general? Or do you think that God is morally obliged to prevent the existence of any suffering in the world, if He decides to create one? What is your position?
As you’re well aware, the vast majority of sentient beings have no ongoing “sense of self,” and autobiographical memory is, as far as we know, confined to human beings, although there is some evidence of episodic-like memory in hummingbirds, scrub jays, pigeons, rats and primates. In your view, is God (supposing Him to exist) morally obliged to prevent suffering, even in sentient beings which lack a sense of self?
Generally speaking, what duties do you think an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient Deity would have towards sentient creatures, and towards sapient creatures?
I take it, Professor, that you’re familiar with Rev. William Paley’s theodicy, developed in his Natural Theology. One of Paley’s arguments was that in any universe governed by laws, some evils would necessarily arise, as laws “often thwart and cross one another”:
Of the ORIGIN OF EVIL, no universal solution has been discovered; I mean, no solution which reaches to all cases of complaint. The most comprehensive is that which arises from the consideration of general rules. We may, I think, without much difficulty, be brought to admit the four following points: first, that important advantages may accrue to the universe from the order of nature proceeding according to general laws: secondly, that general laws, however well set and constituted, often thwart and cross one another: thirdly, that from these thwartings and crossings, frequent particular inconveniencies will arise: and, fourthly, that it agrees with our observation to suppose, that some degree of these inconveniencies takes place in the works of nature.
(Natural Theology, 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVI, p. 492)
Do you concede Paley’s point, Professor, or would you argue that God is morally obliged to miraculously intervene, if necessary, in order to prevent each and every instance of animal suffering which does not biologically benefit the animal itself – e.g., by rendering an animal unconscious in its final moments in order to spare it the agony of being devoured alive by a hyena, for instance?
Finally, how would you respond to Paley’s argument below, that death by predation, horrid though it may seem, is far more merciful than the alternatives, such as death by disease or starvation?
Immortality upon this earth is out of the question. Without death there could be no generation, no sexes, no parental relation, i. e. as things are constituted, no animal happiness. The particular duration of life, assigned to different animals, can form no part of the objection; because, whatever that duration be, whilst it remains finite and limited, it may always be asked, why it is no longer. The natural age of different animals varies, from a single day to a century of years. No account can be given of this; nor could any be given, whatever other proportion of life had obtained amongst them.
The term then of life in different animals being the same as it is, the question is, what mode of taking it away is the best even for the animal itself.
Now, according to the established order of nature (which we must suppose to prevail, or we cannot reason at all upon the subject), the three methods by which life is usually put an end to, are acute diseases, decay, and violence. The simple and natural life of brutes, is not often visited by acute distempers; nor could it be deemed an improvement of their lot, if they were. Let it be considered, therefore, in what a condition of suffering and misery a brute animal is placed, which is left to perish by decay. In human sickness or infirmity, there is the assistance of man’s rational fellow-creatures, if not to alleviate his pains, at least to minister to his necessities, and to supply the place of his own activity. A brute, in his wild and natural state, does every thing for himself. When his strength, therefore, or his speed, or his limbs, or his senses fail him, he is delivered over, either to absolute famine, or to the protracted wretchedness of a life slowly wasted by the scarcity of food. Is it then to see the world filled with drooping, superannuated, half-starved, helpless, and unhelped animals, that you would alter the present system, of pursuit and prey?
(Natural Theology, 12th edition. J. Faulder: London, 1809, Chapter XXVI, p. 473-474)
Question 10 – Determinism and Insanity
Skeptics are fond of pointing out to religious people that someone’s desire to believe something is not a valid reason for them to believe it, and that a sincere seeker after truth is obliged to follow the facts, no matter where they lead, even if the conclusion of the search for truth proves to be painful and disappointing. There is a certain nobility in that stance.
But now I ask you, Professor: would you still wish to pursue the truth, if you knew that discovering it might literally make you insane? And would you consider it an epistemic virtue to do so? For my part, I wouldn’t. I consider it a vice to embrace any idea which threatens one’s sanity, unless its truth is inescapably certain. For one thing, adopting such an idea betokens a lack of prudence. You only have one mind, and it’s sensible to take care of it, to the best of your ability. Adopting intellectual positions that can literally drive people mad is like trying to drive your car at 500 kilometers per hour: something is bound to burst in the effort.
I put it to you that determinism is a view that can drive you insane, if you stop to think about it for long enough – as some of us can’t help doing. It means that your every thought, word and deed is ultimately determined by circumstances beyond your your control. It is hard to retain any enthusiasm for living in the face of such a paralyzing doctrine. “Why bother?” one might ask. “Why not?” you might reply. “You can still enjoy life, even if your actions aren’t free.” Well, I’m afraid I can’t. I can’t enjoy anything, knowing that my every action and my every feeling are determined in advance. That takes all the fun out of everything. And I suspect that there are lots of people like me. Trying to persuade the people – and in particular, the young students of America – that determinism is true strikes me as the height of folly. The mental health consequences of people adopting such a doctrine en masse can only be imagined. Even in godless Europe, I doubt that there are many thorough-going determinists in the general population, as yet. The worst is yet to come.
Now, if you had knock-down or even good arguments for the truth of determinism, you could at least appeal to the virtue of Truth, in defense of your quest to convert the world to determinism. But the arguments for determinism are far from compelling, as I explained in my recent online article, Is free will dead? So my question is: why mess with people’s sanity when there aren’t even any convincing arguments for determinism?
Well, I guess ten questions is enough for one day, so I’ll leave it there. Over to you, Professor Coyne.