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Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 2

November 29, 2015     Time: 18:17
Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 2


Does the scientist exercise faith in the laboratory and in daily life?

Transcript Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 2


KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome back to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. We've been going through the highlights of an interview between Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne[1] which is mostly about the alleged conflict between science and religion. You will not want to miss any of this series. Believe me when I tell you it is getting better and better. It hits upon some of the most sensitive nerves in culture today with regards to the study of God and the place of theology, philosophy, and science. We pick it up here as Sam Harris talks about how many try to get around what he and Jerry Coyne see as a conflict between science and religion by just being an accommodationist or denying that, for instance, the Christian is making truth claims about reality but is somehow making a vague faith claim which may or may not correspond to reality.

DR. HARRIS: This is a double standard that people like Atran and Armstrong and everyone else has not copped to because they never ask that we justify or that we doubt the political or economic rationales put forward for human behavior.


DR. HARRIS: For instance when someone like a member of the KKK says, I am doing all of this stuff because I hate black people. I am really a racist and this is my core political ideology, nobody doubts that racist hatred of black people is really motivating this person. We would never try to look for an underlying motive there that negates the claim that he is, in fact, really racist. But when we have someone expressing their religious opinions or their religious expectations (the idea that they are going to get into paradise if they behave in a certain way, or the idea that homosexuality is anathema to God) accommodationists insist upon finding some layer below that which is the true reason why a person is behaving as he is.

DR. CRAIG: You know where else I see this same phenomenon occurring? It is with atheists themselves when you point out that atheism is a sort of religion, and that this religion has been responsible for untold millions of deaths and suffering in the world from monsters like Stalin to Mao Tse-tung. What the atheist will typically say in response to that is, They are not motivated by their atheism. It is not really their atheism that caused them to do it. It is these deeper issues. They do exactly the same thing that Coyne and Harris are accusing religious believers of doing.

DR. COYNE: This is a good example of confirmation bias. Theologians behave the same way. They will accept evidence that substantiates their religious beliefs, but anything that goes against it they reject or work it into their worldview somehow – these accommodationists – in terms of politics and religion.

DR. CRAIG: Again it is useful to remind ourselves that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and that atheists can suffer from this same confirmation bias, too, seeing the evidence that they like confirming their worldview but then ignoring any evidence that might cut against it. That is also something that atheists need to be conscious of.

KEVIN HARRIS: The sword cuts both ways.

DR. CRAIG: It cuts both ways.

DR. COYNE: I can't help but believe that this is just one more symptom of the unwarranted respect that people have for religion and faith. They just cannot bring themselves to claim that religion could make anybody do anything bad. If people like us could admit that religion can sometimes make people do good, I don't see why they can't admit the same thing on their side.


DR. CRAIG: Now wait! Why are we focusing on bad? If religion motivates people to do good then religion does affect human behavior as Coyne and Harris say. But why are they focusing on bad behavior? It seems to me that we can say that religion can have a leavening affect upon culture that can bring about tremendous goods. That would equally refute the view that religion is irrelevant and doesn't affect behavior. It can affect it for great good.

KEVIN HARRIS: They seem to be critiquing the left and neo-liberalism for saying that this is why you can't criticize religion because they don't really mean it. It is something else a little more nebulous.[2]

DR. CRAIG: I think they are not only criticizing the neo-liberal person, but they are going after their own in-house atheists and agnostics who are, in their view, insufficiently aggressive and insufficiently critical. Look at the inordinate amount of time they spent in this interview attacking a view that virtually no biblical Christian would agree with – namely that religion is irrelevant and doesn't make factual claims. Why are they spending so much time on this unless this is an in-house problem for the non-theist and therefore they feel obliged to address it?

DR. HARRIS: :Let's put a finer point on that, because I freely admit that religion can cause people to do extraordinary things which are good and many of which could be unthinkable but for that specific person's religious beliefs. It is certainly possible that there are people who would only go to Africa to aid in a famine because of what they believe about Jesus and about the importance of spreading his word.

DR. CRAIG: OK, in fairness then, it is good to see that they do recognize that. I don't want it to make as though we've overlooked this point. They hadn't made that point up to now, but now they have.

DR. HARRIS: What do you make of someone like Francis Collins? Obviously one argument that we hear for the compatibility between science and religion is essentially an existence proof in the person of someone like Francis Collins. Here you have a scientist who is a working scientist who is in fact (in Collins' case) an evangelical Christian. So there it is – proof that science and religion are compatible. He says that they are not only compatible but mutually supportive. What do you make of the riddle of his mind?

DR. COYNE: There are two claims there. The first one is compatibility; the second is mutual support. I would take the second one first and say that that is not true at all. If you look at what science does to religion, it doesn't support it because it never substantiates the claims of religion. The history of science is an incursion into religion. It is simply to whittle away its truth claims to almost nothing. I don't know how anybody can claim that science supports religion these days.

DR. CRAIG: Obviously this will depend upon whether or not arguments based upon the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of life, the complexity of the biological world, and so on and so forth are good arguments. That needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. These fellows aren't convinced. I am convinced of some of those arguments. Let's have a debate about it.

DR. COYNE: When he enters his laboratory to do work, or I presume supervise his sequencers, he leaves God at the door. You don't get anywhere in science by assuming that there is any kind of divine or numinous reality.

DR. CRAIG: What he is talking about here is that the working scientist assumes methodological naturalism. Even a theist like Collins, when he goes into the laboratory, is going to be looking for natural causes. But the assumption of methodological naturalism makes no metaphysical claim whatsoever. This is merely a methodology that one has adopted in doing one's professional work. Therefore, it cuts no metaphysical mustard at all.

The way I have expressed the support which science might lend to theistic belief is not to say that science proves God or that you introduce God as a hypothesis into a scientific theory. The way I put it is this: science can provide evidence in support of a premise in a philosophical argument leading to a conclusion that has theological significance. Take, for example, the kalam cosmological argument:

1. If the universe began to exist, the universe has a transcendent cause.

2: The universe began to exist.

3: Therefore the universe has a transcendent cause.

Science can provide good evidence for the second premise that the universe began to exist. That is a theologically neutral statement that can be found in any textbook on astronomy and astrophysics. I think that the scientific evidence goes to support that. That, in turn, serves as a premise in a philosophical argument leading to a conclusion that is, I think, pregnant with theological significance – namely, there is a transcendent cause of the universe.[3] So it is not a matter of introducing God as a hypothesis into science or of upending methodological naturalism. It is simply saying that science can provide evidence that supports a premise in an argument that leads to a theologically significant conclusion.

KEVIN HARRIS: What are the philosophical ramifications or inferences of raw scientific data? Right? Wouldn't that be as well? We have calculations in science. We have discoveries in science. It is a philosophical question as well. What the inferences are, what that infers, what that points to.

DR. CRAIG: This is interesting because I think that these fellows do fail to realize that there is another dialogue partner here – a kind of silent partner – that is being ignored. That is, in addition to science and theology, there is philosophy. It will be philosophy that tends to be, I think, the mediator between science and theology by doing what you just suggested – drawing out implications and ramifications of purely scientific work – that then might be theologically significant. By ignoring that mediator (philosophy) it makes the gap between science and religion look unbridgeable in the minds of these gentlemen.

DR. COYNE: About the claim that science and religion are compatible because one person can do both, or that there is a lot of religious people who are friendly to science, or a lot of religious scientists – all of that is true – to me that just shows a form of compartmentalization rather than compatibility. People can have two divergent worldviews in their head at the same time and somehow manage to live as a unified person in that way.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is incredibly condescending. When you look at the writings of famous scientists who are also theists like George Ellis, Christopher Isham, Donald Page, Francis Collins, I think it is really insulting to say this is just evidence of compartmentalization on the part of these people. These folks, I think, would all probably reject the non-overlapping magisteria view. They would see their science and theology as integrated together. These folks don't adhere to the view that Harris and Coyne are rejecting – the non-overlapping magisteria view. Therefore, it is, I think, just inaccurate as well as insulting to suggest that these persons don't see science and theology as parts of an integrated worldview.

KEVIN HARRIS: Christians generally say you shouldn't have this kind of compartmentalism in your life. I once heard a youth specialist say, This is my faith, these are my beliefs, but this is my life – this is my girlfriend. These are my beliefs, and the two will not meet. I go to church on Sunday to the belief museum to visit my beliefs. But during the week I leave those at the museum.

DR. CRAIG: As I say, the biblical Christian will be agreeing, by and large, with what Coyne and Harris have said so far – religion and science have overlapping areas of interest, that religion is highly relevant and can motivate behavior for good or for ill. There is very little to disagree with here so far from the biblical point of view.

DR. COYNE: After are, there are some scientists who are creationists. Not a lot, but there are some. To me, that is an argument for compartmentalization not compatibility. My view is not that you can hold both views at the same time as an example of compatibility, but that two spheres approach their ways of finding truth in completely different manners. That is what I define as compatibility – how you seek and find out what is real in the universe.

DR. CRAIG: Wait a minute here. Is he suggesting that compatibility implies that the way you seek and discover truth is the same in all disciplines? If that is his claim that is obviously false. Someone who is doing mathematics, for example, isn't going to follow the same kind of methodology as the experimental physicist or the biologist. Somebody doing ethics or aesthetics or even, say, literary criticism or history, is going to follow different methodologies that are appropriate for that discipline.[4] It would be outrageously naive to think that there is one sort of method that you could superimpose over every discipline so as to say this isn't a scientific methodology therefore this discipline doesn't get at truth or make objective truth claims about reality.

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: 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.

DR. CRAIG: In science faith is a vice, and in religion faith is a virtue. OK. This is almost funny. The very differentiation between vices and virtues is a philosophical, not a scientific, distinction, and science is fraught with assumptions that cannot be proven scientifically. So faith is operative in science in many different ways in terms of belief in the validity of inductive reasoning, in belief in the laws of logic, in belief in mathematics, in the ethical values that guide scientific research and reporting, in the belief that we are able to have knowledge of an external world rather than merely an illusion. It is outrageously naive to think that science operates without faith.[5]