I saw that Ed Feser wrote a review of Jerry Coyne's book, Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, which is posted in First Things, and I was interested to see how Feser would address the issues raised by Coyne. Upon reading it, I realized that this "review" was little more than a diatribe against Coyne, and does little or nothing to satisfy the questions of someone who is interested in hearing arguments against Coyne's central thesis: that science and religion are incompatible.
Since it is a brief review, consisting of 12 paragraphs, I'll take a look at the the entire article here.
Faith versus Fact is some kind of achievement. Biologist Jerry Coyne has managed to write what might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre. True, the competition for that particular distinction is fierce. But among other volumes in this metastasizing literature, each has at least some small redeeming feature. For example, though Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing is bad as philosophy, it is middling as pop science. Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great was at least written by someone who could write like Christopher Hitchens. Though devoid of interest, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is brief. Even PZ Myers’s book The Happy Atheist has at least one advantage over Coyne’s book: It came out first.This amounts to an ad hominen attack on Coyne, leaving the reader with no choice but to conclude that he is the worst of the "New Atheist" authors mentioned, since their works each have some "redeeming feature" (as Feser notes by damning them with faint praise), but Coyne's does not.
The book flies off the rails before it reaches page one. In an unintentionally comic passage in his preface, Coyne explains what he has in mind by “religion.” First, he tells us that his main target isn’t religions that emphasize practice, such as “the more meditation-oriented versions of Buddhism.” Rather, it is religions that emphasize controversial truth claims about the world—in particular, “theistic faiths,” those that affirm the existence of a God or gods. But even more specifically, he says, he will “concentrate on the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.” Two sentences later we learn that in fact it is “mostly the various brands of Christianity that occupy this book.” But far from all the brands, since in the very next sentence he adds that, actually, he “will talk mostly about science and religion in the United States.”So Coyne informs us that he's talking mainly about the kind of religion that is found in the US, and Feser finds this to be comic, and even flying "off the rails". Perhaps there was some particular passage that set Feser off, but the ones he quoted don't seem overly bizarre, so we can only wonder what his beef is. "Off the rails" seems a bit over-the-top as a description.
By the following page he qualifies this even further, indicating that the views of “regular believers” interest him more than do the fancy arguments of theologians. Next it is conceded that it is “only a few specific areas of science,” such as Darwinism, that are rejected by religious believers. Yet, as Coyne admits, even “evolution . . . is accepted by many Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and liberal Muslims.” In short, when all the qualifications are in, it seems that Coyne’s paradigm of “religion” is Bible Belt creationism. Apparently, he was absent the day his college statistics class covered the notion of a representative sample.Coyne's mention of believers who reject evolution does not narrow the field to any one brand or denomination of believers, as Feser seems to think, and it does not limit his discussion to something that constitutes less than a representative sample. I think Feser believes the book is not representative because it doesn't specifically address his own scholastic Thomism, which is held by a subset of Catholics.
But to be fair to Coyne: He doesn’t always use the term “religion” in this idiosyncratic way. And that’s the problem. He has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by “religion.” Forty pages later, he’ll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by “religion.” If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.Feser continues with his rant about what kind of religious beliefs are the subject of the book. It seems he can't stand the fact that the Thomistic classic theological conception of God is not considered typical religious belief, but the fact is that even most Catholics do not share that conception. And he completely misses the boat on Coyne's discussion of the unfalsifiable nature of church dogma, and how is it only subject to change when the church has backed itself into a corner by holding to a belief that defies common knowledge as revealed by science. This is not special pleading. It is at the very center of understanding why religion is incompatible with science.
Coyne speaks repeatedly of “religion’s methods,” as if there were some common technique applied by scholastic logicians, Buddhist monks, and Appalachian snake handlers. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, Hindu nationalism, the cargo cults of Melanesia, Scientology—all of these and more are casually lumped together as examples of religion, as if the differences weren’t at least as significant as whatever similarities Coyne thinks he sees. This is like pulling random lines from a physics textbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and an episode of Star Trek and then putting them forward as equally typical illustrations of “science” and of “science’s methods.”So after berating Coyne for limiting his discussion to an overly narrow subset of religious beliefs, Feser now berates him for being too inclusive. Go figure. I think that Feser, being overly focused on finding fault in every word written by Coyne, simply wasn't listening when he discussed what kind of religious beliefs were the subject of his discussion.
Coyne’s own method, then, is to characterize religion however he needs to in order to convict it of irrationality. Nor is “religion” the only term Coyne uses in a tendentious way. The question-begging definition is perhaps his favorite debating trick. He characterizes “faith” as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence” and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts. Naturally, he has no trouble showing that faith so understood is irrational. But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology. For example, for scholastic theologians, faith is assent to something that has been revealed by God. And how do we know that God exists and really has revealed it? Those are claims for which, the theologian agrees, evidence needs to be given.Has Feser finally finished harping about what Coyne means by "religion"? Now we turn our attention to "faith". Again, Feser is upset that the definition doesn't match the apologetics' definition that attempts to make faith sound as if it is based on evidence. But Feser's apologetic understanding of faith does not match what you typically find among ordinary believers. I often hear things like "nothing can ever make me lose my faith". This is not evidence-based belief. It is blind faith despite any and all evidence to the contrary. And this is quite typical, even if Feser doesn't think so.
Of course, Coyne will disagree about whether the evidence really shows what theologians say it does. The point, though, is that whether we should have evidence for what we believe is not what is in dispute. Coyne acknowledges that “theologians intensely dislike” the definition of faith he proposes. So, he not only attacks a straw man but implicitly admits that that is what he is doing. Indeed, you will find in Coyne’s book more straw men than you would at a casting call for The Wizard of Oz. Coyne mocks John Paul II’s claim that “truth cannot contradict truth,” insinuating that the pope sought merely to conform science to religious doctrine. In fact, the pope was no less concerned to emphasize that theology has to take seriously the findings of science.I think that Coyne is quite correct here. The church holds to its dogma until it is forced to change it, as discussed above. In matters where there is still some room for doubt, dogma continues to take precedence over science. The science of cognition is an excellent example of this. Church dogma flatly rejects all scientific understanding of it, and will continue to do so, despite the ever-expanding wealth of evidence that already exists, until the day it finally becomes absurd to cling to the superstition in the face of indisputable scientific knowledge.
If Coyne can’t get his story straight about what he means by religion, neither does he offer a coherent account of science. In the preface, he tells us that “science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others).” That makes it sound like he rejects scientism, the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge. Yet he immediately goes on to add that science is “the only [form of rationality] capable of describing and understanding reality.” And in chapter 2 he emphasizes that the strength of science is its falsifiability, adding that “any ‘knowledge’ incapable of being revised with advances in data and human thinking does not deserve the name of knowledge.” That makes it sound like he does endorse scientism. Except that two pages later he concedes that “absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic,” which he distinguishes from science. So, it seems that there is, after all, knowledge to be had—indeed, “absolute and unalterable” knowledge—outside science. And in chapter 4 he indicates that “the humanities, social science, art, music, literature, philosophy, and mathematics” can also be forms of knowledge distinct from science.In my opinion, this is where Feser goes off the rails. In his mind, Coyne is guilty of "scientism", which Feser defines as "the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge", but he is frustrated by the fact that Coyne says that he finds knowledge in other places. Feser is apparently unaware that his view of "scientism" is a straw man and that Coyne isn't obliged to confine himself to such a narrow view.
Except that he immediately goes on to say, in the same chapter, that if any of these fields do yield genuine knowledge, then they must be “science broadly construed”—never mind that he earlier characterized logic (which is a branch of philosophy) and mathematics as areas of knowledge distinct from science. So Coyne really does embrace scientism, right? Not necessarily, since a couple of pages later he acknowledges that philosophy constitutes a “kind of knowledge,” and indicates that it is distinct from science but can be “useful to scientists.” Furthermore, he dismisses the accusation of scientism as a mere “canard” ritualistically flung at New Atheists. And so his settled position—at long last, the reader thinks—would seem to be that scientism is false and that there is knowledge to be had outside the boundaries of science.Feser continues to be hopelessly confused and frustrated, because Coyne doesn't comply with his straw man of "scientism".
But not so fast, because a couple of pages after that he says that if scientism is the view that science is “the only reliable ‘way of knowing,’” then “most of my colleagues and I are indeed guilty of scientism” and “scientism is a virtue”—never mind that he has just dismissed the accusation of scientism as a “canard.” Reading Coyne trying to do something as simple as defining his terms is like watching him play tennis with himself. And losing.Coyne is saying that if "scientism" is defined in a manner that is more consistent with what actual scientists believe, then it is a virtue, and not at all the canard that people like Feser make it out to be. Feser is so stuck on his own straw man that he utterly fails to see the distinction. Feser's definition of scientism is the canard. A more realistic and nuanced view of what scientists actually think reveals the virtue to which Feser is blind.
Then there is the problem that to appeal to science alone in order to show that science is reliable is to argue in a circle. Coyne is aware of the problem, but answers, “I’ll pay attention to the circularity argument when someone comes up with a better way to understand nature.” Yet the only criteria of better and worse that Coyne will accept are scientific criteria. Hence his response to the charge that he has given a circular argument is to repeat the same circular argument.Coyne rightfully dismisses the accusation of circularity because it seems he has a better understanding of epistemology than Feser does. Coyne understands that in epistemology, beliefs based on the evidence of the senses are regarded as "properly basic belief". In other words, they are foundational knowledge. Beliefs based on empirical evidence are therefore considered to be epistemically justified, and resorting to the evidence of the senses as a basis for justifying scientific beliefs should not be regarded as circular reasoning. Contrast that with Thomism, which is founded on the bedrock of theistic assumptions, which are used as the basis to justify theistic beliefs. Feser lives in a glass house.
Viking Press has apparently cornered the market on paper and printer’s ink and had some overstock it needed to get rid of in order to free up warehouse space. There seems to be no other explanation for how this book came to be published—unless the press is subtly aiming at the market for critical-thinking and logic textbooks. For considered as an omnibus of concrete examples of elementary logical fallacies, Faith versus Fact is invaluable. Given Coyne’s standards of scholarship, I fully expect to see the last half of that sentence used as a blurb for the paperback edition.Honestly? Attacking the publisher for printing the book? Snidely insinuating that it is a textbook of logical fallacies? Feser would do well to take a closer look at himself. What are the chances of that?
After reading this review, I was left flat. I knew better than to expect an objective evaluation of the book, but I thought at least it would give me a sense of the main points made by Coyne, and of Feser's response to those points. I came away with neither. Feser seems to be so obsessed with trying to belittle Coyne, that he forgot to highlight and address the main issues of Coyne’s arguments. And frankly, I was a bit surprised to see how juvenile it was.
In Part 2, I'll have more to say about this review, and the irrationality of Feser and his cultists. Stay tuned.