Faith and science: on “two ways of knowing”

by Steve Douglas

July 13th, 2010 | 18 Comments

I’ve been watching the back-and-forth between Jerry Coyne and Karl Giberson. Apparently there has been a video produced for USA Today that features them in a conversation answering the question, “Are science and religion compatible?” that has not been put online yet. I think we know their answers, though.

Karl Giberson of the BioLogos Foundation, of course, finds faith and science completely compatible. Incompatabilist atheist Jerry Coyne actually insists that he does also, at least provisionally: “…if and only if ‘compatibility’ meant only this: ‘can someone be religious and also be a scientist/accept science? ‘” He goes on to clarify by reiterating that people are capable of inconsistency and holding beliefs that are in tension with one another, which is what he thinks science and faith are. Ever the incompatibilist, Coyne attacks the common Christian claim that there are “two ways of knowing”, one that is empirical and discernable only by observation, and one that does not depend upon physical observability. Says Coyne, “This—the disparity in ‘ways of knowing’—is the true incompatibility between science and faith.” He accuses Giberson and other compatibilists of failing to address attacks on the validity of the kind of religious epistemology that is “immune to rational scrutiny”. Because rational scrutiny is indeed applied to theology by believing theologians and philosophers all the time, he appears to be defining “rational” as laboratory-driven, or perhaps motivated by empirical evidence alone. He makes a point to dismiss the validity of holding beliefs merely acquired by culture and tradition, which of course any believer would do as well, but he implies that any beliefs initially acquired by any means other than deductive reasoning or empirical observation is necessarily invalid.

Although I’m sure he doesn’t believe this in all areas of his life, Coyne argues as though the only information a reasonable person should permit himself to accept is that which is demonstrable beyond a reasonable doubt in the laboratory or, somewhat incongruously, demonstrable beyond all uncertainty through logic and reason. The incompatibility between Giberson’s view and Coyne’s view is not between a faith perspective and a scientific perspective but between a qualified trust that what we experience may be real even if not empirically demonstrable and an implicit and unquestionable trust in the validity of only those experiences which are empirically demonstrable.

My thought is that instead of insisting upon “two ways of knowing” as compatibilists are indeed fond of doing, perhaps we should emphasize distrust in the adequacy, reliability, and universal relevancy of observation and empirical verifiability. If post-modernism has taught us anything, it’s that “knowing” is merely happening to be convinced of that which is true, and it doesn’t altogether matter how we are convinced. To be sure, some ways of becoming convinced are more useful for science than for daily life – and Giberson et al. would agree - but being convinced that your wife loves you and that harming children is wrong are beliefs that, if not “immune” to reason, at least show “rational inquiry” to be not unfailingly relevant or adequate to inform our experience. As long as scientists like Giberson promote science in scientific endeavors, Coyne should be happy with the underlying purpose of BioLogos, which is at bottom to bring more Christians on board with the rationalist “way of knowing” when approaching science. But perhaps there are things beyond brute facts that influence incompatibilists’ behavior.

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July 13th, 2010

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  • http://www.facebook.com/arnizach Arni Zachariassen

    One way of making this whole debate a lot clearer (a way that I'm sure Coyne would disagree with) is to clarify that science is not a philosophy. It's a methodology. When Coyne insists that we should only accept scientifically verified and verifiable knowledge, he's not doing science, but philosophy. The debate about whether science and religion are compatible is philosophical and theological, not scientific. Science derives its strength and veracity from the fact that it is mere method, meaning that both scientists like Coyne who see their atheism justified and inspired by the science and, on the other hand, Giberson who see their faith justified and inspired by their science, can do the same experiment and reach the same conclusion. Atheists like Coyne have a tendency to think that their atheism is actually scientific and forget that it is not. Their atheism is, to an extent, a philosophical and theological interpretation of their scientific methodology.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Well said. I have thought the same things. The distinction between
    “methodology to discern truths about nature” and “pursuit of meaning
    underlying nature” is the basis of compatibilism.

  • http://www.sonlightblog.com Luke

    Brute facts, near as I can tell, rarely lead to behavior. Behavior is borne out of beliefs… albeit, often, beliefs about brute facts. [smile]

    ~Luke

  • Havok

    It's my understanding that by “science” Coyne means general rational enquiry, not limited to the so called “scientific method”. Under this umbrella I think Philosophy would also be housed.
    On other ways of knowing, Coyne would, I think, place revelation as something which has been found to be unreliable by “science”. Religion and theology seem to rely upon revelation (at least to some extent), and it is here that the incompatibility is found.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Welcome, Havok!

    It's my understanding that by “science” Coyne means general rational enquiry, not limited to the so called “scientific method”.

    I think you're right. He's made it clear that he doesn't think science and religion can coexist, and that we shouldn't tell people that it's ok to compartmentalize their epistemologies based on whether they're doing science or not. But I doubt that he or anyone else is really committed to evaluating everything strictly on a rational basis. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that Coyne has no interest in eschewing criticism of pedophilia as an irrational emotionalist or religious taboo of culture, even though if done with the child's naive consent it would seem to have no adverse effect on humanity's welfare and continued existence (and is that goal even a “rational” one?).

    If the point of Coyne's critique of non-rational “ways of knowing” is that such epistemologies are inevitably harmful, he's got his work cut out for him showing how the work of BioLogos, undertaken partially in the interest of ensuring the enduring relevancy of the Christian faith, is hurting science; in fact, it's committed to promoting science among those most skeptical of it! If his point is that all non-rational inquiry not defendable on the grounds of reason and logic is irrational, he's got to answer why he's not criticizing people for “irrationally” placing bans on consensual pedophilia, incest with birth control, or scientifically informed genetic cleansing, none of which are banned on pure reason alone and could conceivably be (and have generally been) acceptable in another culture somewhere.

    The compatibilist says that in order to get the most accomplished, we should encourage cooperation among those with shared goals rather than philosophical purity. I can understand why Coyne would want to criticize religion, but I don't understand why he'd be so dead set on sharpening the divide on all fronts. Seems hardly rational.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    I think you're right, Luke. Excellent statement.

  • Havok

    If the point of Coyne's critique of non-rational “ways of knowing” is that such epistemologies are inevitably harmful,

    It's not that they're harmful to science, it's that they're fundamentally irreconcilable (if I'm reading Coyne right).

    The compatibilist says that in order to get the most accomplished, we should encourage cooperation among those with shared goals rather than philosophical purity.

    And I think Coyne would agree (I do, at least). Where Coyne would (perhaps) disagree, is when people inject their faith based beliefs into science without backing evidence (ala Millers “quantum tinkerer”), or make claims that the scientific and the religious “ways of knowing” are compatible (in something other than a trivial fashion).

    This doesn't mean (I think) Coyne wants everyone to agree with him and trumpet openly that “science” and religion are incompatible, just that they shouldn't state that they are (when, on Coynes view, they're not, where I think he has a point).

    I can understand why Coyne would want to criticize religion, but I don't understand why he'd be so dead set on sharpening the divide on all fronts. Seems hardly rational.

    I rather think Coyne is aiming for consistency rather than sharpening the divide. If the NCSE, for example, simply never mentioned that “science and religion” are compatible and simply promoted the teaching of science (specifically evolution, I believe), then I think Coyne would be happy (as he's stated on his blog).

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    If you are correct in characterizing Coyne's specific beef, then I don't understand why so much friction exists between WEIT and BioLogos.org. When people like BioLogos say that “faith and science are compatible”, what they're trying to get across is that one needn't edge the other out. Giberson, Falk, et al. certainly seem to have no interest in positing divine tinkering here and there in the process. They are no slackers in their opposition to all forms of intelligent design. I have never read any of them advocating so much as a quantum tinkerer; that they may wonder if the universe's existence and these results we're in may have been undergirded by a divine intentionality, they have made it a point to favor fully natural processes as the means to any teleological ends. Their only point in emphasizing compatibility is to say that there is no logical contradiction between the idea of the universe beginning and running by fully natural, proximate processes and the idea of a being who stands as an ultimate cause, purposing it and providing meaning to it.

    For Coyne to keep coming back to the contention that there is incompatibility in science's and religion's epistemological approaches, as you think he does, is to change the subject and keep on arguing as though he hadn't; and since he's too smart to not realize this, I can only assume that he just doesn't like the idea of theists doing serious science. But maybe I'm wrong.

  • Havok

    Their only point in emphasizing compatibility is to say that there is no logical contradiction between the idea of the universe beginning and running by fully natural, proximate processes and the idea of a being who stands as an ultimate cause, purposing it and providing meaning to it.

    Wouldn't holding such a position make them Deists rather than Theists?

    For Coyne to keep coming back to the contention that there is incompatibility in science's and religion's epistemological approaches, as you think he does, is to change the subject and keep on arguing as though he hadn't

    A lot of it seems to be talking past each other, with many so called “accomodationists” claiming that of course science and religion are compatible – look at these theistic scientists, look at the great science they do.
    My read of Coyne claims is simply that, as you say, the epistemological approaches of each are not compatible, and therefore people shouldn't make claims and act as though they are.

    and since he's too smart to not realize this, I can only assume that he just doesn't like the idea of theists doing serious science. But maybe I'm wrong.

    I don't think that's quite the case. When people like Collins do top notch science, and then claim (as he does, I believe, in “The Language Of God”) that “science” points to a Creator, is where I think Coyne takes issue.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Even as an atheist, I feel “knowing” is a complex thing for which humility is crucial. We need to use as many ways as possible to triangulate to the truth.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    You mean, like “triangulations”? ;-)

    Thanks for the comment, Sabio.

  • RBH

    There's a whole lot of “what Coyne thinks” in this thread that I have trouble finding in what I read from him. Here is the most egregious example from Steve

    I can only assume that he just doesn't like the idea of theists doing serious science. But maybe I'm wrong.

    Yes, I think you're wrong about that. Flat wrong. I've never read anything from Coyne that suggests it, so I'm going to need some pretty clear citations to believe it.

    Havok wrote

    My read of Coyne claims is simply that, as you say, the epistemological approaches of each are not compatible, and therefore people shouldn't make claims and act as though they are.

    Precisely. I think there's more–Steve wrote

    Because rational scrutiny is indeed applied to theology by believing theologians and philosophers all the time, he appears to be defining “rational” as laboratory-driven, or perhaps motivated by empirical evidence alone. (Italics original)

    Again, I've never seen that from Coyne. What I have seen is the identification of responsiveness to evidence as a clear difference: Science is rational in part because its explanations are in the end responsive to evidence, while theological 'explanations' of phenomena (at least as represented in a large segment of American Christianity) treats evidence as subordinate to revelation, to be accepted or disregarded according to how well it comports with some religious tenet. That is a genuine epistemic difference that can't be papered over by pointing to individuals who manage to somehow accept both positions through some sort of cognitive contortions I have trouble following.

    Havok wrote further

    When people like Collins do top notch science, and then claim (as he does, I believe, in “The Language Of God”) that “science” points to a Creator, is where I think Coyne takes issue.

    Yup. The subtitle of Collins' book is “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Well, that's baloney: Collins' “evidence” consists of asserting that science can't account for Moral Law (Collins' capitalizations) or abiogenesis. That's it. That's his “evidence.” That's not a “scientist” presenting evidence, it's an apologist making a God of the gaps argument. And when pressed on it (as I did a couple of years ago) Collins is willing to abandon then, calling them (in my presence) “indications” rather than evidence.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    RBH! Good to see you.

    So, do you disagree that — or disagree that Coyne believes that — empirical evidence is the sole acceptable source of data for rational thought? I'd be happy if that's the case.

    Science is rational in part because its explanations are in the end responsive to evidence, while theological 'explanations' of phenomena (at least as represented in a large segment of American Christianity) treats evidence as subordinate to revelation, to be accepted or disregarded according to how well it comports with some religious tenet.

    Again, I go back to Coyne's criticism of the BioLogos crowd more than his criticism of ID or full-on creationism. Do you think that Collins, Giberson, Falk, etc. are derelict in their responsiveness to evidence? Isn't the criticism of them generally directed at their proclivity toward overlaying their wholehearted acceptance of scientific evidence with a presumption of meaning? Have you ever observed those men subjugating scientific data to “revelation” of any kind?

    Although “evidence” can be used some what neutrally since it is only rarely diagnostic for a single explanation, I agree that the subtitle of Collins' book was mostly unfortunate and just as likely to have been a decision by the publisher (by the way, Collins expects abiogenesis to be explicable by purely naturalistic means). Do you see cause for scorn in BioLogos's commitment to refer to “pointers” rather than “evidences”?

    Upon reflection, I recognize that “compatiblism” and “accomodationism” aren't exactly the same things, and the latter is what Coyne feels most strongly about. Inasmuch as science advocates seek to “accomodate” religion by pretending they never come into conflict in their claims (e.g. biblical inerrancy plus evolution), there is a major problem. But I just don't see Giberson doing this. So what's Coyne's beef with him in your understanding?

  • RBH

    Hi, Steve. You asked

    So, do you disagree that — or disagree that Coyne believes that — empirical evidence is the sole acceptable source of data for rational thought? I’d be happy if that’s the case.

    I’m not into channelling Coyne (nor long-dead shamans or warriors!) but I suspect he’d agree that empirical data are the sole acceptable source of reliable evidence for rational thought. Granted, the most reliable empirical evidence we have on a given issue at any given time may be sparse or fragmentary, forcing us to operate on incomplete and possibly mistaken grounds, but it’s far and away the best we have.

    You asked

    Do you think that Collins, Giberson, Falk, etc. are derelict in their responsiveness to evidence?

    I think there’s a peculiar disconnect sometimes, as for example when Kenneth Miller speculated about God intervening at the level of quantum events where it’s undetectable. That’s worse than operating on fragmentary evidence, it’s operating on zero evidence. Collins’ comments about Moral Law are incoherent and caricature the research on the evolution of morality/altruism/mutualism. There he’s either ignorant of or derelict in his responsiveness to what fragmented evidence we have. To be fair, as I think I said somewhere, in person he recast Moral Law and abiogenesis (at that time several years ago he was still including abiogenesis) as “indicators,” and not evidence, and said he’d be willing to give them up if persuasive explanations emerge from science. And I don’t see characterizing them as “pointers” as cause for “scorn” necessarily, but for massive skepticism firmly expressed. :)

    Inasmuch as science advocates seek to “accomodate” religion by pretending they never come into conflict in their claims (e.g. biblical inerrancy plus evolution), there is a major problem.

    Sure, though inerrancy isn’t a necessary property of a theism that has major problems. Those problems, though, tend to be theological, not scientific. See this critique of Dembski’s new book by Ken Ham, this critical review of it by a YEC theologian at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and this reply to the review by a YEC colleague of Dembksi at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. For those folks, Giberson is beyond the theological pale.

    But I just don’t see Giberson doing this. So what’s Coyne’s beef with him in your understanding?

    Again, I don’t do channelling. But there’s a whole lot of slippage between what you’ve correctly identified as two quite separate issues: compatabilism vs. accommodationism. Where I (and I think Coyne) get edgy is with the “two ways of knowing” business. “Knowing” means something very different in science and religion, at least religions like Christianity that depend on revelation for a basis of knowledge. When I say, for example, that I “know” that natural selection is a driver of adaptive evolution, it means something quite different from what is meant when a theist says “I know Christ rose from the dead.” One refers to a justified belief based on reliable evidence accessible to everyone that doesn’t depend on idiosyncratic subjective experience, while the other is belief based solely on idiosyncratic subjective experience. The subjective certainty associated with the latter is often very high, but as knowledge it fails every test I can think of.

    (I sure wish there were a Preview: I’m tired and fear for my formatting!)

  • RBH

    I'm not sure what's going on, but I posted a long response to this several days ago, got the appropriate notification from Disqus, but don't see my response here now.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    It got caught in my spam filter for some reason. It's been approved now. Thanks for the heads up.

  • RBH

    Thanks!