An empty response to Jerry Coyne

Many of you probably know that biologist Jerry Coyne recently wrote a long article for The New Republic about the failed attempts on the part of theistic scientists to “harmonize” religion and science and that his two main targets, Ken Miller and Karl Giberson, wrote rebuttals, or at least responses, to Coyne’s claims.
I won’t review Coyne’s piece except to highlight something he says in his conclusion: that the reason these attempts–which, by the way, invariably stem from the theistic side, not surprising given that theists are the ones upholding a vital but scientifically untenable position–never cease is because they never work. As many have noted before Coyne, trying to pretend that faith-based thought and a scientific approach can coexist is a mindless and impossible chore that persists only because science and faith are both things that humanity deeply cherishes.
Anyway, a reader pointed out an article by Jim Manzi in The American Scene that also takes issue with Coyne’s piece. It ain’t good.


The article is brief, so I’ll summarize it in a paragraph. Manzi essentially tries to define “random” as being “not governed by physical laws” in order to refute a claim Coyne does not in fact even make (that humanoid consciousness could not have been inevitable); plays a relativist game with the purported inevitability of human intelligence posited by Miller and Giberson, claiming, in so many words, that just because we have no reason to think it was inevitable does mean we know it was not; plays word games with “truth,” “false,” and “falsifiability”; and in the end admits where he is coming from, openly stating that he doesn’t believe the scientific process is the only means by which people can reliably add to humanity’s knowledge (although what he actually writes–that Coyne implies all thought besides scientific thought is valueless and worthless–is a straw man anyway).
What Manzi writes concerning Coyne’s pointing out that the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe is no argument for God is both telling and ridiculous:

“Instead of simply pointing out this is an obviously unscientific assertion, Coyne’s feels the need to invoke alternative potential scientific explanations.”

I know, the nerve of scientists, always looking for scientific explanations for stuff!
Concerning Manzi’s conclusion, it highlights the glaring problem with the constant and obligatory retreat of would-be science-faith harmonizers into some hazy, “God-isn’t-this-but-that” mishmash wherein God is reduced in essence to what it is–nothing. A deity that does not listen, intercede, or care is not only unnecessary but unrecognizable to the 100 million or more Americans who pray to it. No one has produced a rresponse to this that does not invoke some degree of retreating into the baroque nonsense of historical figures in the church who were supposedly acting with science in mind.
Manzi’s attempt to portray the modern position of the Roman Catholic Church as being informed by a blend of materialsm and naturalism is a sad joke; what it is, is nothing more than what it will always remain–an effort to simultaneously march forward with the rest of human progress while keeping one foot firmly yoked to the epistemically useless rock of biblical exegesis.This column is exactly the kind of non-response and empty rhetoric Coyne places in the center of the pinata in his essay.

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  1. #1 by ivy privy on February 3, 2009 - 4:59 pm

    is a mindless and impossible chore that persists only because science and faith are both things that humanity deeply cherishes.

    This reminds me of Will Provine on the multitude of philosophy books about free will:

    Compatibilist-free will yields so little freedom to crow about in the first place, but the philosophers up on modern science want free will so badly that writing a whole book (or two of them) is the norm… They have to write whole book after whole book on free will, because they have chosen their problem in such a way as to require “free will,” which cannot be found or defined.

    If it made sense, there wouldn’t have to be so many books trying to explain it.

  2. #2 by ivy privy on February 3, 2009 - 4:59 pm

    is a mindless and impossible chore that persists only because science and faith are both things that humanity deeply cherishes.

    This reminds me of Will Provine on the multitude of philosophy books about free will:

    Compatibilist-free will yields so little freedom to crow about in the first place, but the philosophers up on modern science want free will so badly that writing a whole book (or two of them) is the norm… They have to write whole book after whole book on free will, because they have chosen their problem in such a way as to require “free will,” which cannot be found or defined.

    If it made sense, there wouldn’t have to be so many books trying to explain it.

  3. #3 by ivy privy on February 3, 2009 - 5:04 pm

    Manzi’s attempt to portray the modern position of the Roman Catholic Church as being informed by a blend of materialsm and naturalism is a sad joke…

    The Holy Roman Catholic Church? That medieval authoritarian organization which still insists on the literal (but not material) transubstantiation of the eucharistic host into the flesh of Jesus Christ?

  4. #4 by Jim Manzi on February 3, 2009 - 7:23 pm

    Thanks for your comments:
    You say that:
    Manzi essentially tries to define “random” as being “not governed by physical laws”
    I don’t think I ever said anything like that. What I said is that the evolutionary operators of crossover, selection and mutation do not add incremental randomness beyond that embedded in quantum-mechanistic physical laws.
    You say that I said:
    in so many words, that just because we have no reason to think it was inevitable does mean we know it was not
    Why is this false?
    You say that I:
    play[ed] word games with “truth,” “false,” and “falsifiability”;
    The possibility of falsity and falsifiability are very different concepts. How is this a word game?
    Best regards,
    Jim Manzi

  5. #5 by Rob W on February 3, 2009 - 9:22 pm

    @Jim Manzi: Kudos for coming here to respond directly; that’s pretty cool.
    I’ve read your article, but not Coyne’s yet; a few thoughts, anyway.
    This:

    Manzi essentially tries to define “random” as being “not governed by physical laws”

    …referred to this:

    In fact, even the “random” elements of evolution — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws. […] As a practical matter, we lack the capability to compute either a goal or the path of evolution, but that is a comment about our limitations as observers, not about the evolutionary algorithm itself.

    It seems like an accurate paraphrase — you’re saying that “random” elements can’t accurately be called that if they’re governed by normal physical laws; they should be called “pseudo-random” (which then gives some support to your idea that perhaps the course of evolution could be charted, we just aren’t capable of it). If that’s not what you meant, I don’t see any point in that entire paragraph. Why is Coyne’s response “quite problematic” if randomness actually does exist? And on top of that, if randomness exists, how can evolution have any inevitable result?
    About this:

    You say that I said:
    in so many words, that just because we have no reason to think it was inevitable does mean we know it was not
    Why is this false?

    It’s playing with words, not making any actual point. We have no reason to think there’s a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars, and so on. If you want to suggest that the evolution of humanoid intelligence may have been, possibly could have been, or even was probably inevitable, you need to at least hint at a way that could be possible when even just the random factors involved point pretty obviously to the opposite.

    You say that I:
    play[ed] word games with “truth,” “false,” and “falsifiability”;
    The possibility of falsity and falsifiability are very different concepts. How is this a word game?

    The gist of a word game is that you tinker around with words and critique word choices as a way to avoid actually grappling with the arguments. Here, Coyne references some potential scientific explanations as part of his point that a deity isn’t the only possible answer to universal constant values. Then you go off on the limits of the multiverse theory, as if that was a central part of his argument (which even from your summary it clearly wasn’t).

    It’s oogedy- boogedy for the Hyde Park set.

    It seems more like he was saying “we don’t know much, but we’re working on it.” As you acknowledge. Oogedy-boogedy? You seem to admit you don’t have a point, but then you make it anyway.

    Anything touted as a “truth” must come with a method for being disproved — a method that does not depend on personal revelation.

    Coyne here confuses the “possibility of falsity” with falsifiability. He goes on for several paragraphs in this vein.

    Here, playing with words — you’re skipping past his point about personal revelation as a source for “truth” in favor of calling him confused again, and getting into the concepts of falsifiability (which he wasn’t arguing against…). To your credit, you get to it later:

    But what Coyne is implying here is that scientific truth is the only form of truth; that no other way of knowing anything has any value or worth. Let’s just say we part company there.

    …but you avoid the argument? Why “just say we part company there”? Do you support personal revelation as access to scientifically-inaccessible truth? That’s what he’s arguing against, but you don’t defend it.
    That’s the gist of it, anyway.
    On the belief systems of “most Americans”… if you want to know, the best way to find out is to ask them, not read what the Pope says.

  6. #6 by Jim Manzi on February 3, 2009 - 11:24 pm

    Rob W:
    Thanks for the very thoughtful comments.
    If the randomness in the process is created by QM underpinnings of the laws of physics and evolution adds no incremental randomness, then contra Coyne, contingency (at this philosophical level) is independent of evolution.
    But at a philosophcal level, Coyne is making a very strong claim – that we know it was not inevitable. If his argument that evolutionary operators (mutuation, crossover, etc.), then he has made no valid argument.
    Falsifiability is very specific philosophical concept – roughly 9and as you may know, I’m not trying to be pedantic) that there is a conceivable experiment that could disprove the claim. Saying that for something to be true, there must be the possibility of falsity is one thing, but to claim that this implies it must be a falsifiable statement is a huge leap. Lots of things (IMHO) the ONLY things religion ought to be concerned with are non-falsifiable. It’s when religious leaders / thinkers / whatever start to make assertions about falsifiable statements that they overlap with topics that science addresses and are going to get in trouble.
    There’s a very long comment thread at the post that goes into the “what the Pope said vs. what people say” issue (as well as the other topics you raise here).
    Best regards,
    Jim Manzi

  7. #7 by csrster on February 4, 2009 - 3:29 am

    I think you’re missing an important element in your set of “evolutionary operators” which is the external environment. If we take the not-unreasonable assumption, for example, intelligent life only became possible after the KT-extinction event then it’s very easy to imagine that a quantum-level event during the formation of the solar system could have deflected that asteroid just past the Earth and you and I would now be hunting earwigs through the leaf-mold instead of engaging in erudite and abstract discussions about contingency. Evolution, like the weather, is an amplifier of the effect of randomness rather than a source of it.

  8. #8 by hopper3011 on February 4, 2009 - 5:34 am

    Jim;

    But at a philosophcal level, Coyne is making a very strong claim – that we know it was not inevitable. If his argument that evolutionary operators (mutuation, crossover, etc.), then he has made no valid argument.

    I think there is something missing here: “If his argument that evolutionary operators”? Evolutionary operators what?

  9. #9 by Rob W on February 4, 2009 - 9:04 am

    Jim Manzi: I’m reading the Coyne article now, and your arguments don’t get any clearer to me.
    You said:

    If the randomness in the process is created by QM underpinnings of the laws of physics and evolution adds no incremental randomness, then contra Coyne, contingency (at this philosophical level) is independent of evolution.

    You’ll have to point to where Coyne says anything like this. He claims that evolution must add some incremental randomness on top of what already exists in the universe?
    You said:

    But at a philosophcal level, Coyne is making a very strong claim – that we know it was not inevitable.

    No, here’s what he actually said (p. 4):

    In the end, the question of whether human-like creatures were inevitable can be answered only by admitting that we do not know–and adding that most scientific evidence suggests that they were not. Any other answer involves either wishful thinking or theology.

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