Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist who holds his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is an atheist who speaks out against creationism, theistic evolution, and theism, widely and loudly proclaiming the incompatibility of faith with science.
In 2013, he published an essay at Slate magazine. His thesis in it is clear: there is no room for faith in science. The strongest apologetical tool that Christians have is their presuppositional apologetic. Coyne seems to anticipate the presuppositional challenge, especially regarding the nature of physical laws, so we should assess how well he defended his position.
Coyne claims that attempts by Christians or other religious people to reconcile faith with science by showing that science rests upon faith — faith in the value of reason, faith in the laws of nature, faith in anything — are wrong. He asserts this claim on the basis that there are different kinds of faiths. The religious person relies on one kind of faith to support their religious beliefs, but the scientist’s “faith” is something different altogether — so different, in fact, that it really shouldn’t be called faith at all. He claims religious faith amounts to “pretending to know things you don’t,” while scientific “faith,” on the other hand, means “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”
His main arguments are:
- The claim that scientists must have unevidenced faith in the orderliness of nature and unexplained physical laws is wrong because we can observe them. Since we can observe them, they aren’t things that need to be assumed.
- Scientists don’t have or need unevidenced faith in the value of reason because reason is a practical tool that has been shown to produce results and understanding. Because it works, we use it.
- Science isn’t based on faith in the truth because we prefer to be educated instead of ignorant. It’s our preference to seek out what is right because what is right just works. The results of science, when combined with reason, have been shown to “work” by allowing us to produce useful things like antibiotics and computers.
A PRAGMATIC APPROACH
Coyne’s explanation for the validity of reason and truth sounds conspicuously like the American pragmatism represented by philosophers like John Dewey. This is evidenced by the way Coyne equates “truth” with “what works”:
“Reason… is a tool that has been shown to work…We prefer to know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work. We don’t describe plumbing or auto mechanics as resting on the faith that it’s better to have your pipes and cars in working order, yet people in these professions also depend on finding truth.”
In other words, mechanics use reason and science in their professions to find “truth,” or rather, “what works.” Coyne is not alone in this position. The world’s most well known astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, has elsewhere adopted the same position that science will “win” over religion because “it works.”
Pragmatic philosophy developed as an application of evolutionary theory to philosophy. Since its inception in the 1870s, the goal of pragmatic philosophy was always to bring the hard topics of philosophy into close relationship with the scientific method in order to eliminate the difficult questions philosophers have endlessly debated. When seen from the perspective of the evolutionary worldview, this seems to make sense because, based on the principle of natural selection, humans should do whatever they can in order to gain control over their environment to ensure survival of their species.
Bypassing entirely the problems that arise from redefining “truth” from that which is in accordance with reality to “what works,” the quandary with pragmatic philosophy is that, in order to be able to determine “what works,” there must be a standard against which activities can be compared to evaluate whether they “work” or not. Jerry, and Hawking with him, appeals to “what works” as the direction which we should be traveling in, and he asserts that science takes us there, but he doesn’t answer the logical follow-up question: how do you know what works? In other words, once you perform an experiment and generate results, how do you evaluate them to know whether they will work or not? The pragmatic strategy seems like a sophisticated approach at first, but upon deeper inspection it throws the pragmatist right back into the midst of answering the age-old tough questions:
What is a good result?
How do we know?
How do we know that?
Coyne says science works because its results are useful. He contends that we synthesize reason and science in order to gain knowledge through testable, verifiable results. But the question is: how do we know that “what works” is the proper end? Why isn’t the goal of science to determine “what doesn’t work”? Why isn’t the goal of science to determine “if something is blue”? Maybe only blue things should be considered. Maybe only numerical findings that begin with the number 7 should be considered valid?
Solutions that begin with the number 7 might not “work,” but maybe “working” is the wrong criteria? Why, even, should “surviving,” in accordance with the the principle of the survival of the fittest, be considered the correct end? There are those who advocate population control and restricting economic growth in order to prevent harming the planet and depleting our resources. In that case, it seems that continually making scientific breakthroughs that lead to gains in economic efficiency would be contrary to those “zero-growth” perspectives.
The problem that pragmatism runs into is that while it claims to avoid needing to know what the truth is because the application of science will lead us to truth, in order to evaluate the experimental results we must already have knowledge of criteria against which to compare them.
A mechanic who experiments with different kinds of engine oil and discovers that one brand makes his customers’ engines run smoother is said to have used science and reason to find truth. He didn’t have faith that one oil would work better than others; he didn’t rely on wishful thinking. Instead, he applied the scientific method to systematically rule out bad oils in order to find the good ones. But the question is: how does the mechanic know that smoother running engines is the correct outcome? He had to already have the criteria of success determined in his mind before performing the experiments. He had to know in advance that he wanted to make the engines run smoother.
Well, did he perform experiments to determine whether it’s good that engines run smoother? Maybe he did, taking a customer survey and comparing results and applying statistics. But how did he know that it was right to make customers happy? Because happy customers produce greater profits. Well, did he do scientific experiments to determine whether higher profits are right or not?
Ultimately, one comes to the question of whether pragmatism itself is the right belief or not. How do you test that? Coyne said that we use reason because it produces results and understanding. The question is: how do we know that producing results and understanding is the correct end? He doesn’t say. What justification does he offer for believing in the rightness of the results of reason? None. Even granting that his is correct that “reason” is not an a priori assumption, he does not give reasons or evidence that increasing our understanding is not an a priori assumption.
Is he asking us to have faith that producing results and understanding are the proper ends? Is he asking us to have simple faith in an ambiguous notion of “what works,” an outcome based on individual preference that reduces to relativism? Without him providing any stronger argument than he has, or supplying evidence that “what works” or personal preference is the correct outcome, we can only conclude that his argument fails because it is arbitrary. It is merely Jerry Coyne’s opinion that “what works” is the proper goal of science. There is no evidence that Jerry’s belief in the validity of his own opinion is more than an act of faith on his part. In that regard, he fails to persuade us that faith and science are incompatible because he is clearly combining the two by resting on faith, not in the value of reason, but in the value of his own opinion to govern the results of science.
DANCING WITH A STRAW MAN
We must next investigate Jerry’s claim that we observe the orderliness of nature, voiding any need to make assumptions based on faith. He argues: “The orderliness of nature—the set of so-called natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation.” He then gives examples: we can measure the speed of light and the masses of protons and neutrons. These evidences are intended to justify that we can truly observe the laws of nature.
Unfortunately, he confuses cause for effect. He claims we are observing causation, but what we are really observing is succession – of events, measurements, etc. over the passage of time.
We don’t observe “orderliness” because “the orderliness of nature” is a principle, a belief about the underlying structure of reality, and principles are invisible things. Natural laws don’t grow on trees, and we can’t buy them at Wal-Mart. In other words, they aren’t physical objects that exist in the natural world.
What we actually observe are physical interactions — balls colliding with each other, a glass of water falling to the ground when knocked off of a table. What he claims we observe are the natural laws themselves. Natural laws are thought (assumed?) to undergird physical reality, made accessible to us through mathematical equations and physical measurements, but we can’t actually observe them. We can only observe their effects.
Ironically, what modern scientists like Coyne have observed is the evidence (measured observations) of things not seen (natural laws), a concept of faith Jerry rejects early in his essay as “wish thinking.” He is, to use his own words, pretending to know things which, by his very own requirement of strong evidence — observations — he can’t. By his very own criteria of knowing (empirical support), he cannot hope to discover evidence of the unseen natural laws. He can gain sense data that reveals interactions of various kinds, but he cannot gain sense data that reveal the invisible laws. He has to use his imagination to fill in the gaps between the physical interactions with theories of why the physical world behaves the way it does.
Upon critical examination of Jerry’s assertion that we can observe the orderliness of nature, we become free to dismiss his claim as false simply on the basis that he confused cause for effect and did not actually address the problem he claimed to address. In his attempt to defend the uniformity, or regularity, of nature from requiring a faith belief, he gets confused and ends up beating up a straw man. The original claim he tried to refute — that scientists have “unevidenced faith” in the orderliness of nature — remains standing.
But there’s more. The real problem is much deeper than this.
IRRATIONALITY BREEDS RATIONALITY
Discussing the orderliness of nature calls forth another great, classical problem of philosophy that was made famous by David Hume: the problem of induction, which asks what justification do we have to rely on past experiences for accurately predicting future ones? Predicting future outcomes based on past experiments is foundational to the scientific method, but Hume concluded we have no legitimate reason for doing so without violating logic and appealing to a fallacy. One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell, put it like this:
The inductive principle, however, is equally incapable of being proved by an appeal to experience…All arguments which, on the basis of experience, argue as to the future or the unexperienced parts of the past or present, assume the inductive principle; hence we can never use experience to prove the inductive principle without begging the question.
Appealing to experience is exactly what Coyne did in his essay: “You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out.” Russell’s argument, following Hume, is that we have no legitimate reason to expect the sun to rise tomorrow on the basis of past experience unless the inductive principle is valid. But the only way we can prove the inductive principle is by appealing to past experience, which is circular and thus logically fallacious.
Stephen J. Gould was not unfamiliar with this problem. He wrote:
Without assuming this spatial and temporal invariance [the principle of uniformity], we have no basis for extrapolating from the known to the unknown and, therefore, no way of reaching general conclusions from a finite number of observations. (Since the assumption is itself vindicated by induction, it can in no way “prove” the validity of induction — an endeavor virtually abandoned after Hume demonstrated its futility two centuries ago.)
The critical point is that the validity of the scientific method depends upon the validity of the assumption of the uniformity, or orderliness, of nature. If that assumption is invalid, so is the scientific method invalid as a reliable tool for gaining knowledge.
Jerry simply takes for granted that the principle of uniformity is true without justifying why we should believe in it. It may be true that I believe it is valid, and it might be true that he believes it is valid, but our reasons for believing can be totally different. If he were arguing from within the Christian worldview, it would make sense why he would believe the uniformity principle is valid: there is a sovereign, transcendent, creator God who continually upholds his creation and ensures that it operates in an orderly fashion so that mankind can understand it and take dominion over it. But Coyne is certainly not arguing from within the Christian worldview — in fact, he is arguing against it! So, what justification does he provide for assuming the validity of this age-old philosophical quandary?
He doesn’t give any.
This is an old problem that’s never received a satisfactory secular solution. Since there is no acceptable solution, the question is dropped. Scientists pretend that it has gone away, but it is the elephant in the room. In that regard, Coyne holds the party line well. Nevertheless, just because he (and the modern science establishment with him) ignores the problem and assumes it away does not excuse him from the responsibility of addressing it and supplying adequate justification for why we should take the uniformity principle, upon which all science rests, to be true. The scientific method is Coyne’s holy grail, and all of modern science with him. It is founded upon inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is founded upon the principle of the uniformity of nature. Coyne’s epistemology cannot justify itself except by an appeal to the logical fallacy of circularity.
Simply speaking, without having a good (justified) reason for doing so, simply assuming uniformity is an arbitrary act. One might just as well assume invisible elves carry the bits of matter to and fro in a predictable, law-like fashion.
Coyne doesn’t dive into this serious problem in this Slate essay, so you have to look elsewhere for his attempt to address it in rigorous depth. In a post by Ken Ham, Ham challenged Richard Dawkins on this very subject:
But in a random, material universe that supposedly arose naturalistically, where do set, immaterial laws of nature come from? And what makes these laws operate the same way tomorrow as they do today?
In a personal blog post on the subject, Coyne’s answer was effectively “We don’t know”:
Third, we don’t know where the laws come from, but some physicists like the late Victor Stenger have argued that many of them come from the assumption of observer invariance. Alternatively, they may stem from a deeper principle that we don’t yet understand (of course Ham would respond that that Deeper Principle comes from God)…As physicist Sean Carroll has emphasized, in the end we might have to be satisfied with the answer “because that’s the way things are” to the question, “Why do we have the laws of nature that we do, instead of another set of laws?”
He again confused cause for effect:
That doesn’t answer the question of why we have them—a question answered just as well with “I don’t know” as with “God made them,” for both are statements of ignorance—but it does explain why we observe laws.
By consistently confusing cause for effect, Coyne is able to bury the real problem and avoid addressing it. Obviously, there is an explanation to be found in the Christian worldview, but that option is unpalatable to Jerry. Christianity supplies a justified reason for assuming that nature is orderly. Without supplying an alternative, Coyne critically damages his own position. By being arbitrary in his assumptions, he opens the door for others to do the same. He may fool uncritical readers, but he will not have won his case legitimately.
MONSTERS UNDER HIS BED
It is amazing that Coyne demands reasonableness from people and then expects them to accept “I don’t know” as adequate justification for believing in crucial principles like the uniformity of nature, upon which all science is founded. This is the height of absurdity and a damning witness to the barren depths of what passes for critical discourse in the mainstream battle for the hearts and minds of people in the latest incarnation of the culture wars.
No one doubts that Coyne believes in the uniformity of nature, but the issue under consideration here is not mere belief, but justification. In the Slate article, he says that “We take nature as we find it, and sometimes it behaves predictably.” When challenged why he can justify believing in the laws of nature, Coyne has essentially replied “I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t even matter that we don’t know where the laws come from. We don’t need to know because we are out there doing science even though we don’t have an answer to that problem.”
As mentioned earlier, everyone wants to believe that they are reasonable and rational. But the truth of the matter is that people don’t always act purely on justified beliefs. They don’t wait until they have collected all evidence and explored all arguments and counterarguments and are 100% justified before they act. Children who become terrified in the middle of the night that there might be monsters under their bed aren’t justified in their belief, but that doesn’t stop them from believing it. Not only do they believe it without justification, but they act on that belief: they call for their mom or dad to come save them.
Acting on a belief without being justified in it is irrational. We excuse children of this fault because they are young and aren’t expected to be as mature as adults. But in adults, this particular intellectual sin is especially heinous. When someone cannot justify their beliefs, then they are being arbitrary. For all of the prestige and respect Jerry has amassed around himself, not to mention the money he has made selling popular books, he cannot cover a particularly glaring defect in his thought and, thus, his argumentation: the basis of his scientific beliefs is irrationality, believing in the uniformity of nature without being able to justify it.
PRESUPPOSITIONS THAT DO NOT COMPORT
Epistemology cannot be divorced from metaphysics. What you believe about the nature of reality impacts your epistemology. Someone who claims to be a materialist, meaning a belief that matter is all that exists in the universe, will automatically rule out beforehand any possibility of the supernatural (which is immaterial) — not on the basis of evidence, but solely on the basis of a prior commitment to materialism. That’s because, like in the discussion about pragmatism above, you have to have an idea about what is even possible. You can’t build an apple-sorting machine (epistemology) without already knowing what constitutes a good apple or a bad apple (metaphysics).
Jerry does not get into his metaphysical beliefs in the Slate essay, so again you must find them elsewhere to examine how well they comport with his beliefs about epistemology. You don’t have to go far, because he is not shy about his beliefs about the nature of reality. In the first minute and a half of his lecture at the Imagine No Religion conference in June of 2015, Jerry said this:
I’m going to challenge one of your deepest held assumptions…and that is the view that you are conscious agents who can make decisions, that is that you have free will…Now many of you probably don’t accept that; you don’t believe that you are robots made out of meat, which is what I’m going to try and convince you of today.
He is a determinist who rejects all possibilities of free will. At around ten minutes into the lecture, he gives his argument for determinism:
- We’re made of molecules.
- Molecules obey the laws of physics.
- Therefore, everything in us including the brains that make our decisions have to obey the laws of physics.
- The laws of physics are by-and-large deterministic, except with maybe a little quantum indeterminism thrown in. But neither of those means you can affect the workings of your brain by thinking about it.
He states in his lecture that, essentially, everything that has ever happened or ever will happen, including what you ate for lunch today, was basically determined at the Big Bang except for small variances due to quantum indeterminacy.
Don’t think that by mentioning “quantum indeterminacy” he is doing so to allow it room to rescue free will, similar to how Epicurus rescued free will from the grips of Democritus’ atomistic determinism by inventing the Swerve. Coyne is too self-conscious for this so he ridicules the notion, evident by the fact that he has ridiculed at least one other biologist for suggesting such.
And yet, elsewhere, Coyne exhorts us to use our rationality to understand determinism so that “we can put aside our childish emotions and adopt a truly humane approach to justice.”
On one hand, he tells us that this deterministic universe means that you cannot “affect the workings of your brain by thinking about it,” and yet on the other he calls us to affect the workings of our brain by thinking about determinism to put aside childish emotions in the name of justice. This is after insisting that criminals have no choice in doing what they do:
A criminal could not have done otherwise at the moment of his crime, just as we have no choice about whether to have a sandwich or a salad at lunch…But even criminals who sense that their own actions are “wrong” still have no choice in what they do. And their IQ is irrelevant, too. No matter how “smart” you are, your choices are just as constrained as anyone else’s.
He insists these ideas are not contradictory. His commitment to determinism renders humans incapable of choosing to behave differently than they do, and yet his commitment to a presupposed standard of social justice requires him to somehow be able to make choices and change minds in order to benefit society. His commitment to determinism nullifies the possibility of reforming penal sanctions, and vice versa. He tries to defend against the criticism that determinism makes it useless to try and change people’s minds by explaining that environmental effects also play a role in how you act and what you do. But his attempt is far from convincing, acknowledging that there’s an infinite regress and “turtles all the way down.” (See 25:06 in the lecture video.)
His commitment to determinism renders his epistemology incoherent as well. He says we live in a materialistic universe filled with nothing but matter, and yet this matter is governed by immaterial laws of nature, physics, etc. If the laws of physics are not material, then what are they in a materialistic universe? And yet, he relies on the laws of logic for reasoning — universal, invariant, immaterial entities which govern not only human thought, but the laws of nature as well.
Furthermore, in his Slate article he says that reason is also composed of “being critical” and “learning from experience.” We are supposed, on his view, to live in a universe where our thoughts are just bits of atomic matter under the governorship of the laws of nature. We have already seen him state that we cannot affect the workings of our brain by thinking about it. Given that, it is not clear how we can actively: conceptualize, reflect, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and do any other such thing required to perform “critical thinking” if we cannot affect our brain’s workings. Manipulating the laws of physics is our only hope of altering the molecular motion that creates our cognitive thought patterns. As he puts it in his lecture, “what’s deterministicly bubbling around in our brain is what conditions our behavior.”
I’m reminded by something the Apostle Paul once wrote: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22).
This conflict between metaphysics (the deterministic nature of reality and brain) and epistemology (scientific law and the human reasoning process) is characteristic of unbelieving thought. It is more evidence showing that Jerry’s thinking is irrational because it is internally inconsistent.
Let’s review the defects in Coyne’s thinking:
He provides no justification for his belief in concepts critical for the validity of science, like the uniformity of nature. Because he believes them without justification, he is irrational.
He holds a metaphysical belief that renders rational thought incomprehensible. Holding two opposing beliefs in your mind is irrational because it makes you schizophrenic.
He presented fallacious arguments that can be safely dismissed upon the basis that they do not meet the basic criteria for sound reasoning.
In his blog post to Ken Ham, he wrote:
The answer, my dear Ham, is that science doesn’t know the answers to these questions, although one of them might be “that’s simply the way things are.” Ham’s own explanation, of course, is God, but then, as Hitch used to say, all the work is still before him. What is the independent evidence for that God? Surely it can’t be the uniformity and constancy of the laws of physics, for then one has to explain why that would show there is a God. Why couldn’t God make the laws differ over space and time?
On the contrary, all the work lies before Jerry Coyne and his fellow atheist members of the science establishment. We have shown that Coyne, and anyone like him who holds similar beliefs, is irrational. Because they are irrational, first of all, they have no right to demand anything except incoherence from anyone else. That they do is a clear double standard. Second, it is easily shown that the proof of the Christian worldview is the impossibility of the contrary. All the problems of classical philosophy are resolved in biblical Christianity. The universe would literally make no sense if it truly existed the way Coyne imagines it to.
It is not just any God that we argue for, but the Triune God of Christianity. The validity of the uniformity principle and the laws of logic are substantiated by the testimony of Scripture. Coyne rejects the Christian worldview. We ask: what’s the alternative, smart guy? Only Christianity supplies what we call the preconditions of intelligibility. What would have to be true for the world to work the way it does?
It is easily seen that, without resting upon that foundation, any attempt to justify even the most fundamental beliefs sucks its host into the chaotic sea of irrationality. At that point, it is absurd to pretend to be a proponent of “reason.”
It’s not just that Coyne holds beliefs without justification. The real issue is that he believes in the uniformity of nature, the laws of logic, and man’s ability to reason and use his mind because the Bible says he believes in God. More than just believing in him, Jerry knows him. Holding a particular belief rationally requires strong evidence to justify that belief, so Coyne is not off base for believing as he does. He has been given strong evidence. This is the logical conclusion given Paul’s discourse:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)
Coyne claims to not know where the laws of nature come from, but that is because he is involved in a complex charade of self deception. He suppresses the truth, claiming ignorance instead.
He tries to paint the Christian with the same brush: “But that’s no worse an answer than ‘God did it,’ which is like saying ‘Fred did it.'” But these are two different situations. The Christian doesn’t believe that God upholds the universe and establishes its regularity without justification. First, the Christian worldview is the only reasonable worldview there is. If it weren’t true, then no one could prove anything. Second, Christians have evidence to justify their reasoning: Scripture.
If the universe were created by the Triune God who is described in the Bible; and that God revealed himself to his creation through the Bible, a collection of texts written by men speaking from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit; a God who is providentially preserving his inscriptured Word throughout history; then Christians are completely reasonable for believing the Bible’s content and, thus, the uniformity principle, laws of logic, etc. In fact, if that were the case, anyone who did not believe its account would be foolish and unreasonable to try and contradict it. Arguments against authority would crumble into absurdity. As it turns out, creation confirms the testimony of the Bible, as do the incoherent worldviews espoused by unbelievers.
Greg Bahnsen wrote that, regarding worldviews, “One of them requires speculative and self-defeating assumptions; this is seen in the case of evolution…The other worldview gives a basis for an orderly world that can be explored and subdued to God’s glory, a basis for rational understanding and application, and a basis for bringing the facts and reason into fruitful, meaningful, non-arbitrary relation. The former worldview moves from foolish speculation to a worship of the creation in some form. The latter brings one to bow before the transcendent and immanent Creator and Redeemer of the world. Men assuredly know that the latter worldview and procedure is the one that is true and ought to be followed. With respect to origins, the question is beyond scientific speculation and a matter of divine revelation and religious faith. The natural world communicates the truth to all men from God (Rom. 1:l9-20). As a result of man’s epistemic and moral condition, faith (indeed, saving faith) is the basic requirement for a proper acknowledgment of the answer to origins: ‘Now faith is… a conviction of things not seen…. By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which appear’ (Heb. 11:1,3).”
As much as men like Coyne swear that science and religion are incompatible, they can’t help but to justify their view by making arbitrary leaps of faith. Science “works” because Christianity is true. If that weren’t the case, there’d be no science.