On Reading “Faith vs. Fact” by Jerry A. Coyne

In an unpublished lecture note that sits in the manuscript archive at the Yale University library, Alfred North Whitehead is quoted as saying:

Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.

This quote is a spot-on description of Jerry A. Coyne‘s book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. 

Although Coyne’s book critiques religion generally in a way that is similar to other works published in the last 20 years (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris), it is different in significant ways. Perhaps most significantly, it avoids the tone of an intentionally offensive diatribe such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is Not Great. Instead, Coyne presents what he believes to be a reasoned, compelling case against a religious worldview (specifically theism) and in favor of his own worldview, which is materialistic naturalism.

Although I appreciate the (mostly) civil tone of Coyne’s book, as can be expected, as a Christian theist, I cannot help but find a number of flaws in his arguments. Of course, it’s impossible to give a full treatment to everything in Coyne’s book in one blog post — doing so would require a book in itself. Nor am I concerned with parroting other critiques that have been published (you can find examples here, here, and here. You can also see his responses to some critics here). Rather, I’m going to highlight a few of the most serious flaws that I found which haven’t been fully dealt with in other forums I’ve come across.

Naturally, I recognize this book was first published four years ago and I’m somewhat late to the party. But I work full time, have a family, and I’ve been in graduate school for the last year, so give me a break!

The first flaw I noticed relates to Coyne’s stated purpose. Early on, he claims that he doesn’t want to get bogged down in philosophy. The problem with this claim is that the book consists almost entirely of presenting a philosophical argument. Specifically, Coyne is making an argument about epistemology. Briefly stated, epistemology is the philosophical area concerned with knowledge — what is it, how do we obtain it, when are we justified or warranted in believing something, and when, if ever, can we say our beliefs are true?

Coyne’s book is a philosophical argument because his stated thesis is that religion and science are incompatible because their epistemic methodologies are different. His argument hinges on the idea that religion obtains its knowledge entirely through faith (which he defines as “belief in matters for which there’s no convincing evidence”) whereas science obtains its knowledge entirely through facts (which, contextually derived, he would probably define as something along the lines of “information or knowledge obtained through empirical methodologies”).

The problem with this, at least superficially, is not the distinction Coyne makes between religious and scientific epistemology. On the surface, his assertion is largely correct. Religion and science do not obtain knowledge using the same epistemological methods. People don’t believe religious claims because they’re able to verify those claims empirically. The inverse proposition, that scientists don’t exercise faith in obtaining knowledge, cannot be said, however.

Coyne does make an effort, in a number of places, to attack this theistic claim — that materialists and naturalists themselves must exercise faith in order to hold their beliefs. Coyne’s attempted refutations might be successful, except that his definition of faith is fundamentally flawed. He defines faith as “belief in matters for which there’s no convincing evidence” because that’s what he wants faith to mean. His argument hinges on that definition. Although there are probably many fideist Christians out there who are inclined to agree with Coyne, like him, they are wrong.

Because I am a Christian, I base any definition of religious terminology on biblical evidence. Thus, in defining the term faith, I ask “How does the Bible — as a totality — define faith?” And the most acceptable definition based on legitimate exegesis approximates what the Holman Bible Dictionary says is a “trusting commitment of one person to another.” But what would cause someone to trust another? Without going into a long, philosophical explanation, the answer is evidence. I trust my wife because I have evidence of her trustworthiness. The same could be said of friends, relatives, coworkers, my local fire department, whatever. To have genuine faith is to have genuine evidence for that faith.

And this is where the plot thickens.

Coyne might reply to this argument that, although I claim to have evidence for my faith, my evidence — per his definition — is not convincing.

Says who?

The point is that what one person finds to be convincing evidence another person is free to reject. Coyne goes through great pains to emphasize the oft repeated claim that science is wide open from an evidentiary perspective (they love to use the term falsifiable). Implicit within this claim is the debatable nature of evidence. Coyne is a vocal proponent of determinism. Other scientists are not. Their debates regarding the issue of free will revolve largely around the interpretation of evidence, some of which, we can presume, Coyne finds unconvincing. Are his opponents in this debate lacking in scientific rigor?

Simply stated, two people can look at the same body of evidence and reach different — even opposite — conclusions. This fact plays out in every human field of inquiry — science, law, textual criticism, art history. In relation to Faith vs. Fact, the most obvious example of this is the debate over design and apparent design. Two people can look at the structure of the natural world and natural systems and infer a design or designs, and therefore a designer. Others can simply argue that this is apparent design, not true design because there’s no designer. Both of these are rational conclusions (see appended item #1 below), whether Coyne is willing to admit it or not. Primary in considering this is one’s starting presuppositions. Coyne, in this book, is — for lack of a better term — dishonest with his reader. He starts with certain presuppositions that he’s not entirely up front about.

Coyne begins with a thesis based primarily in epistemology but he quickly moves into the larger philosophical area of metaphysics — the philosophical area concerned with the very nature of reality.

On page 61, in arguing for the wide open nature of scientific inquiry, Coyne writes that “there are no ‘nonnegotiables’ in science.” Of course, he’s just recapitulating the common refrain about the falsifiability of science and the claim that knowledge that isn’t falsifiable isn’t legitimate knowledge. In reality, these are metaphysical, not scientific, claims and are, thereby, subject to metaphysical critiques.

This brings us back around to Whitehead’s quote at the beginning of this post. Coyne isn’t just concerned with the incompatible nature of religious versus scientific epistemology. As I stated, such a thesis is, largely, uncontroversial. What Coyne’s real thesis should be is that he’s advocating for a certain metaphysical worldview: Naturalism.

I’ll leave it to the reader to conduct their own research into the naturalistic worldview. But for the purposes of my own argument, I’ll offer this brief definition: metaphysical naturalism is the attempted extrapolation of scientific, methodological naturalism into a comprehensive worldview. Inherent in this claim is that the material contents of the universe comprises all of reality — a presuppositional claim based on absolute trust in empiricism (i.e., an act of faith).

While it may be true, methodologically speaking, that there are “no nonnegotiables in science,” when it comes to the metaphysical claims of a naturalistic worldview, there is one metaphysical nonnegotiable: that reality consists entirely of the material. This, whether Coyne is willing to admit it or not, is a metaphysically non-negotiable element of his worldview, a worldview that Coyne is trying to convince his reader to adopt.

And there’s nothing wrong with Coyne’s desire to engage his readers in that argument. However, it is disingenuous to hide the distinction between his methodological claims and his metaphysical claims. He’s essentially asking his readers to accept the claim that one must adopt metaphysical naturalism if they in any way accept methodological naturalism, but this is simply not true. It is an entirely rational position to posit that naturalism is an effective (even necessary) proposition for doing science without agreeing that naturalism (or materialism) comprises the totality of reality itself.

Another problem with this position, which Coyne naturally disagrees with, is its self-refuting nature. Metaphysical naturalism essentially claims that the material comprises all reality, therefore naturalism is the only route to knowledge; and since the only route to knowledge is naturalism, the material is all that can be accepted as real. Besides this self-referential fallacy, it’s also incapable of being verified empirically. Coyne — incorrectly — asserts that the supernatural is subject to scientific verification, thus that must necessarily mean that it is subject to scientific refutation also. Coyne disagrees with the commonly repeated quip that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but equally true is that the claim that strict empiricism cannot be proven empirically. It’s more honest to simply state that one presupposes materialism and naturalism, therefore one only accepts empirically derived knowledge. Besides, it’s difficult to label something supernatural (i.e., outside or independent of nature) but then claim it’s subject to natural investigation.

Although I disagree with Coyne’s worldview, my purpose here is not to attempt a refutation of it. Rather, my point is to bring attention to the unwarranted privilege Coyne seems to assert for the naturalistic worldview. Just because someone accepts the results of empirical science does not necessitate the extrapolation of those results into a comprehensive worldview. His belief that all of reality is contained within knowledge gained through empiricism is an act of faith in empiricism itself — a metaphysical claim.

But like Whitehead points out, many scientists — Coyne among them — do not like to have their own metaphysics brought into question. And that is exactly what religion (particularly philosophically grounded theism) is capable of doing. Naturally, many scientists — Coyne among them — attack the attacker. And again, that’s fine.

Whether Coyne is willing to accept this fact or not, it is a fact: Religious faith can be (should be) and very often is rationally grounded in a reasonable examination and interpretation of evidence. Anyone is free to reject or disagree with the evidence and/or its interpretation. But Coyne’s assertion that faith is always necessarily irrational is false and, in its own way, irrational. That doesn’t mean some people don’t hold irrational beliefs, but irrational religionists don’t invalidate all religion, just like — as Coyne points out — irrational scientists don’t invalidate all science.

No doubt, Coyne would reply that he’s successfully dealt with these objections, but I respectfully disagree. He cannot simply cite the successes of the scientific method and expect his readers to, by default, accept his metaphysical claims. That is not rational.

There are a number of other issues I have with claims that Coyne makes which are less globalized than this metaphysical versus methodological distinction. I don’t have time nor space to address them all, but here’s a brief sample:

(1) Throughout the book, Coyne uses rational and empirical as synonyms. I don’t think, especially after the above critique, that I need to give a ton of space to explaining why this is a false equivocation. There are rational approaches to evaluating evidence that don’t involve empirical methods. Likewise, there it is conceivable that one could engage in an empirical methodology in an irrational way. Coyne should be more careful about precision of terms (c.f., my argument regarding the definition of faith above). The OED is not a valid comprehensive reference for philosophical terms. You will find two philosophical discussions of faith here and here.

(2) Coyne claims he’s not advocating a world that is dominated by cold, clinical science, but his arguments against religion could also be applied to politics, government, western legal systems, philosophy, and any other field of human endeavor that does not rely on empirical methods for the acquisition of knowledge.

(3) Coyne states (pg-65) that “science prizes doubt and iconoclasm” and “rejects absolute authority,” but the totality of his argument mitigates against this claim. Not only is he concerned with the superiority of science, but he’s arguing against other fields of study that seek to play the iconoclastic role against it. He may not agree with Intelligent Design or compatibilist theories (like theistic evolution or NOMA), but why attempt to relegate them to epistemic nothingness if science is always hankering for a challenge?

(4) On page 67, Coyne remarks that “science has no apologists,” but then, what is Coyne doing in this book?

(5) On page 70, Coyne writes: “Neither scientific texts nor scientists themselves are considered inerrant.” But Coyne, and others in the New Atheist guild, swear to the inerrancy of empirical methodology which they claim will guide us into all truth. The disconnect should be obvious. But simply ask yourself, “Is everything I know empirically verified by scientific methodologies?” I doubt your answer (or Coyne’s, if he’s being honest) is an unequivocal “yes.”

(6) On page 110, Coyne claims that “serious scholarly discussion of ethics really began as a secular endeavor in ancient Greece, continued in a nonreligious vein through philosophers like Kant and Mill.” Neither the Greeks nor Kant and Mill could conceivably be called “secular” by the standards of today, which is what Coyne is implying. Like his hidden metaphysical agenda, this is disingenuous. He also fails to address the inherent metaphysical nature of ethics generally. As on page 134, making the claim about the (proposed) evolutionary origins of morality, he fails to point out that science cannot tell us which results or options should be preferred and why.

(7) Coyne, despite his insistence that he’s read widely in philosophy and theology, appears to be ignorant of many distinctions (both fine and gross) in both of those fields. For example, he calls Christian Science a mainstream branch of Christianity. This is prima facie false if one understands orthodox Christianity versus Christian Science. Christian Science is neither Christian nor science. His attempt to paint most believers as inclined to reject things like modern medicine are inaccurate. Additionally, his overarching philosophical claim is thus subject to philosophical critique. He cannot justifiably make metaphysical claims and then expect no metaphysical response.

(8) Coyne cites the growing secularism of Europe as evidence for the assertion that morality and social stability can exist absent a religious backdrop. I don’t disagree that non-religious people can be moral. But what Coyne ignores is the fact that the social, political, and cultural structures of Europe were largely laid down by theists, specifically Christians, and remain unchanged, even if a large percentage of Europeans no longer identify as Christian (or religious generally). For example, he is opposed to free will on naturalistic grounds, but our moral and legal structures presume free will. So even if people stop believing in free will, they still have to act like they believe it, which is a gift of philosophy and theology, not Coyne’s strict empiricism.

I could address more, and perhaps I will at a future date. But for now, this brings up my most serious problems with Coyne’s book. That being said, I’m glad to have read a (mostly) civil argument. Coyne does come across as smug in a few places, outright dismissive with no supporting evidence at others, and a bit vitriolic at times, but I welcome his critiques and point of view.

My final point would be this. If one’s faith is properly grounded in reason, one can and should welcome critiques such as Coyne’s.

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