Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 3

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 3

How do popular non-theists Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne define faith?


Transcript Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 3

KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. We are continuing a series of Dr. Craig’s interaction with an interview between Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne.[1] This is the third part of our series right now. Be sure you listen to the other two if you haven’t heard those yet.[2] We will pick it up where we left off last time. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are about to discuss the definition of faith.

DR. HARRIS: Say more about that. What really is the conflict between religion and science as methodologies and ways of arriving at truth claims?

DR. COYNE: Well, I have it all summed up in this aphorism I like to use which is that in science faith is a vice, and in religion it is a virtue. It basically comes down to faith. That is why I call my book Faith versus Fact. It is about religion and science, but religion is basically the most widespread instantiation of faith, which is belief without evidence sufficient to convince any reasonable person.

DR. CRAIG: [sigh] What do you do with people who are so blind to what religious thinkers actually believe so as to impose these caricatures on them? This sounds like the definition of faith from The Miracle on 34th Street where faith is believing in something that you don’t have any evidence for. That is not the way your typical Christian, at least, will define faith. Faith is not a way of knowing something. Faith is trusting in something that you have good reason to believe is true. As such there is no conflict between faith and science because if you have good reason to believe something is true then you can repose your faith – your confidence, your trust – in it.

DR. COYNE: Science is the most exquisite example of fact, which is, you know, how to find out what is real in the universe. Let me say a few words about why we even talk about science and religion. We don’t talk about why religion and sports are compatible, or why religion and business are compatible. That is not a question that people worry about. But they worry about religion and science being compatible. Now why is that?

DR. CRAIG: I don’t think that is true. Do you? I think people are interested in integrative studies between theology and ethics, theology and philosophy, theology and sport even, theology and economics/business. I think these fellows are just naïve about the sort of work that is being done in these other disciplines where one looks for an integrative view of the world. Certainly the interface between science and religion is enormously important given the importance of science and discovering the way the physical world looks as well as its cultural influence, but it is far from the only discipline or field where people are interested in the intersection of theology or religion with that field.

DR. COYNE: Both of those areas, as we’ve just discussed, make claims about reality. Any theologian worth his or her salt is going to admit that. You mentioned some of those realities – Jesus, the resurrection, the afterlife, hell, and things like that. So in a way, religion is a science in that it makes claims about reality and has hypotheses. But it’s a pseudo-science because its way of finding out what is real, its way of substantiating its claims, is based on faith, authority, dogma. It is not the same method that scientists use when they test their claims. The basic conflict is – when you make a claim about what is real, how do you find out whether that claim is true or not?

DR. CRAIG: I think the truth in what Coyne is saying is that religion, or theology, recognizes other ways of getting at truth, other ways of knowing things, than simply through scientific methodology. But that is also true, for example, of the metaphysician, the ethicist, the aesthetic philosopher, the logician. Different disciplines have different ways of getting at truth about reality.[3] I do think that it is possible to gain theological knowledge apart from the scientific method. But if one’s theology then comes into conflict with science that doesn’t mean that you can just ignore what science has to say. On the contrary, this is going to be a potential defeater for your religious beliefs that you will then need to address. But nothing that Coyne has said justifies thinking that the only way to get at truth is through science.

DR. COYNE: Science has its whole toolkit of methods – replication, peer-review, all kinds of appeal to nature, testability. And then religion has a whole set of its toolkit which is based on authorities, consulting ancient scriptures, personal revelation, etc. And they are basically incompatible ways. Science does find out stuff, and religion doesn’t. As far as I can see, theology has not progressed in understanding the nature of the divine, or even if there is a divine, in the past two millennia.

DR. CRAIG: Wait a minute! He hasn’t yet demonstrated that science and religion are incompatible. All he’s asserted is that they have different methodologies, different ways of getting at truth, but then he asserts that they are incompatible and he hasn’t shown that yet. Again, that is painting with far too broad a brush.

But then the second claim is the idea that there is no progress in theology. I think that, again, just manifests the ignorance of these gentlemen of the field of theology and particularly philosophy of religion – philosophical theology. There has been tremendous progress in that area, particularly over the last half century or so. Just to give a couple of examples. The so-called logical version of the problem of evil, which has been propounded since the time of Epicurus is now largely regarded as having been solved. One is not able to demonstrate any sort of logical inconsistency between God and the suffering and evil in the world. Another example of progress would be in the conception of God and the divine attributes – conceptions of God’s eternity, simplicity, omnipotence, divine necessity, and aseity. All of these have received extensive philosophical analysis in recent years that has greatly enriched and advanced our concept of the divine. The renaissance of the ontological argument would be another example of progress that has been made in understanding God and in arguments for the existence of God. These fellows, I think, are just exhibiting a kind of myopia where, as scientists, they know their field but they’ve exerted very little effort and spent little time trying to understand the field of theology that they are criticizing.

KEVIN HARRIS: I hear people say this a lot – there has never been any progress in philosophy. If that is true then that is a philosophical insight, and that’s progress! [laughter]

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, because in the past people always thought that there was!

KEVIN HARRIS: So at least we have that!

DR. COYNE: So that’s the basic incompatibility. It’s that they are competing because they make statements about reality, but only one of those branches (science) has a way to find out whether what you say is true.

DR. CRAIG: That shows incompatibility? They make claims about reality and science is the only way to test those claims to determine that they are true, and that shows it is incompatible? That is just illogical. That doesn’t follow at all. It would only be if, as a result of those scientific tests, you were to falsify the religious claims. Right? But that has not yet been done. It hasn’t been said in the interview. Suppose science tests these theological claims and it confirms them – that the scientific evidence supports the religious claim? Has that then shown incompatibility? Obviously not. Even if they were correct that science is the sole means of testing these factual claims made by religion, that doesn’t demonstrate incompatibility.

DR. HARRIS: It also seems to me that only science really focuses on the problem of confirmation bias and wishful thinking and motivated reasoning and all of the other judgment errors we make when we are committed to certain things being true while investigating whether or not they are. It is only in science where you really see the necessity of getting your agenda out of the way and testing to see whether you have fooled yourself.[4] It is Richard Feynman’s famous line that science is the art of not fooling yourself and you have to remember you are the easiest person to fool.

DR. COYNE: I love that.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is obviously wrong because religions, because they make incompatibility claims about reality, have a very strong interest in knowing which religion is making the right claims. Is it Hinduism? Is it Islam? Is it Buddhism? Is it Christianity? Is it atheism, which is, I say, a kind of religious worldview. We will obviously have an interest in confirmation bias, whether or not those who hold to a differing religious view of the world are suffering from it or whether we are. That will, again, include the atheist himself. He also needs to ask those same questions about himself. Given the diversity of religious views in the world, there is going to be the same sort of interest in seeing which one is true, if any.

DR. COYNE: Science is basically a set of tools that have been honed by experience to find out what is real. And part of it is you have to brutally eliminate the desire or any kind of manipulation which would help you find what you want to be true or what you believe to be true or what you find emotionally satisfying.

DR. CRAIG: And that includes the philosophy of atheism as well. That can be the result of this sort of confirmation bias.

KEVIN HARRIS: Or scientism.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, or scientism. The interview, as it has gone on, has become very clear, I think, that what is driving this is a kind of scientism that thinks that science is the only way to get at truth, and therefore any field of inquiry that is not science (such as mathematics, logic, aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, theology) are spurious. This is really little more than the old logical positivism and verificationism of the 1930s and 40s which is now recognized universally in philosophy as untenable and as an obsolete and unsupportable epistemology. Yet these fellows, I think, are presupposing this sort of scientistic view in what they are saying. In terms of extolling the value of science and seeing it as such a valuable tool in getting at the way the physical world is, we will agree with them 100% on that. But that doesn’t mean that all truth is scientific truth and that there are not truths that can be known and arrived at through means that are non-scientific.

DR. COYNE: Religion on the other hand is precisely the opposite. It’s set up to help you fool yourself, to give you confirmation bias. And if there is anything that goes against your religion, you somehow either turn it into a metaphor so it is still there to buttress your religion in some sense or you just reject the fact period. So, that’s why I call religion a pseudo-science. In effect religious people are like – they are not going to like hearing this – but they are like people who claim they were abducted by UFOs or people who believe in ESP or telekineses or conspiracy theorists. They have this view which they find emotionally satisfying, it is a hypothesis about reality, but when it is disconfirmed they have all these tools that they use to reject that disconfirmation.

DR. CRAIG: Again, this is incredibly condescending and insulting to not only great scientists who are theists like Isham and Ellis and Collins and others but also to great philosophers who are theists like Plantinga and van Inwagen and Adams and Alston and Swinburne and so many others, as well as theists in other fields. What he is saying, again I am repeating myself, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This is true for the atheist as well. He can be fooling himself by repressing any evidence that doesn’t fit in with his atheistic worldview and only accepting the evidence that he wants to have. I think you and I have seen atheists doing that all the time when confronted with a theistic argument. I have found that in some cases atheists are willing to accept the most outlandish and absurd beliefs just out of a desire to avoid theism.[5] For example, to believe that the entire universe just popped into being uncaused out of nothing, which is worse than magic.

DR. COYNE: So in many ways, theologians behave exactly like ufologists behave. The ways that they reject information that they don’t like are very similar.

DR. HARRIS: The flip side of that is they use the consoling experience they get from believing certain things as evidence of the truth of those propositions. There is this lack of attention to the difference between believing something because you have good reasons to believe it, and believing it because of the way its being true would make you feel.

DR. COYNE: Yeah that’s the whole revelation bit. And I guess that is the subject of The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James’ great book. The religious experience is a personal experience. You’ve had a revelation, and it has made you feel good.

DR. CRAIG: That is an utter mischaracterization of William James’ view that just again shows ignorance of the view that they are criticizing. James was attacking precisely the sort of empiricism and evidentialism that these two fellows are propounding. What James argued was that in a situation where the evidence is equal and doesn’t incline one way or the other and the decision as to what to believe is momentous, has a huge impact on your life, it is forced upon you, it is urgent, then he says you are perfectly rational to make a decision to believe one of those rather than the other even though the evidence doesn’t propound either way. I think James’ argument in The Will to Believe is a very good argument which shows the weakness of the kind of evidentialism that 19th century figures like Clifford was advocating.

DR. HARRIS: You can have personal experiences that would be evidence of something. They don’t equip you to say anything about the universe at large, but you can have a personal experience of a radical change in your life which tells you that something has happened.

DR. COYNE: Yes.

DR. HARRIS: Whether meditating or praying or fasting or whatever precipitated it. The utility of that practice may then be easily demonstrated by just noticing changes in your experience. It is not that experience is of no value in considering what is worth paying attention to and how you want to live. It is just the idea that among the reasons for believing something to be true is how that truth makes you feel, that is something which science ruthlessly and quite appropriately dissects out of the truth-gathering enterprise.

DR. COYNE: True.

DR. HARRIS: Whereas religion makes a virtue of that very delusional mechanism where I am seeing the universe the way I’m seeing it because I want it to be that way. I wouldn’t want to live in a universe where there was no God.

DR. CRAIG: Oh my goodness, that is almost a paraphrase of Thomas Nagel’s statement: It is not just that I don’t believe in God. I don’t want God to exist. I don’t want to live in a universe like that.[6] The points they are making cut both ways. In the same way your desire for feelings of autonomy and independence and being the captain of your soul and all that doesn’t do anything to show that atheism is true.[7]



[1] See http://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/faith-vs.-fact (accessed November 30, 2015).

[2] See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/sam-harris-and-jerry-coyne-science-vs-religion-part-1 and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/sam-harris-and-jerry-coyne-science-vs-religion-part-2 (accessed December 10, 2015).

[3] 5:02

[4] 10:11

[5] 15:00

[6] “I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” from Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press: 1997) pp. 130-131.

[7] Total Running Time: 19:25 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)