After watching the Haught-Coyne debate I am left wondering what reason Haught had to be so stirred up that he had refused (though he has now recanted, and the video is accessible here) to have the video of the debate posted online for others to see. Of more concern are the reasons he gives. In his open letter to Jerry Coyne Haught says this of his reasons for being reluctant to have the video of the debate made public:
It has to do with you alone, Jerry, not anyone else, including myself. I have had wonderful conversations with many scientific skeptics over the years, but my meeting with you was exceptionally dismaying and unproductive. I mentioned to you personally already that in my view, the discussion in Kentucky seldom rose to the level of a truly academic encounter.
Quite aside from the fact that this is an invidious public attack on Professor Coyne; to anyone who has watched the encounter this is simply ludicrous. I can see why he would not have wanted his own contribution widely disseminated. It is flat, turgid, and scarcely intelligible.
It is hard to credit Haught’s suggestion that Coyne
… did not want to debate me, but simply to lay out [his] own way of looking at science and religion.
But then to go on to suggest, as he does, that Jerry Coyne’s speech is a personal attack, is a ridiculous accusation. Coyne goes out-of-the-way to draw the fangs of his own debate, by remarking at the outset that he intends to address questions raised in Haught’s books, “not to go after him personally,” but because he a pre-eminent scholar of the relationship between science and religion, and also because he was there to defend himself. Haught doubts whether he is pre-eminent in this domain in the United States, but he is unquestionably very prominent. Here is a list of books published by Haught which directly address the relationship of science and religion:
Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life
God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens
God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution
Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution
Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature
Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation
Is Nature Enough?: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science
Science and Religion: In Search of Cosmic Purpose
Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution
The Promise of Nature: Ecology and Cosmic Purpose
Nested Ecology: The Place of Humans in the Ecological Hierarchy
The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
Haught’s books are a matter of public record. Many of them address directly the question at issue in the debate about the relationship of science and religion. Not to have referred to Haught’s extensive writings on the subject would have been an oversight so egregious that it would have appeared as a failure of nerve on the part of Professor Coyne.
Haught has gone out of his way to attack (I do not think this is too strong a word) the new atheists with whom Coyne associates his own thought on matters of science and religion. To take no notice of this attack, and to speak about the relationship between science and religion in purely general terms, would have been not only to fail to address questions of great contemporary interest and importance; it would also have been to avoid the thoughts of the man he was debating, thoughts which Haught has been at great pains to explain at length in a series of books. What possible reason could Haught give for suggesting that Coyne should have simply ignored the public record in this way? And in what world would trying to understand his statements and arguments be thought sneeringly ad hominem?
Haught’s open letter is a tempest in a teapot. (Perhaps it is the one orbiting the sun, somewhere between Earth and Venus, undetectable by any known radio telescope or other optical device.) In any event, his animadversions concerning Coyne’s rhetorical technique and what he considers Coyne’s failure
… to develop constructively your own belief that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict, you were content simply to ridicule rather than refute several of my own ideas, as you interpreted them,
are simply breathtaking. I did not hear the sneering or the condescension in Coyne’s words or in his speech, though by at first refusing to make the video public, and then relenting on condition that he be permitted to be sneering and condescending in turn, Haught simply turns the focus of attention on to himself and his arguments, which represent, it has to be said, a rather comprehensive failure to make his point.
In fact, most of Haught’s speech is irrelevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion. He suggests that the problem with science is that it is inadequate precisely its failure to see any meaning or purpose in the universe itself, and he quotes a number of scientists to this effect. “Science decided, at the beginning of the modern age,” he says, “that it would not talk about god, meaning, purpose, value; it was going to leave all those things out. Science is a self-limiting method which tells us a lot of important things about the world, but not everything.” “The question,” he says, ”is whether science is wired to detect any deeper meaning.” However, this not entirely true, as so many writers in the bogus discipline of “Science and Religion” claim, and the early scientists, like most of their neighbours, were religious, and felt that science was actually helping them to discern the work of God himself by learning the truth about the laws governing the natural world. As these scholars continue to point out, nothing in early modern science suggested that the universe was composed entirely of physical processes, without inherent meaning and purpose. This is something that became more and more evident as science advanced, particularly when the nature of life as the product of evolution came to be more fully understood. As science progressed it became more and more obvious that there is no role for a god to play in the workings of the universe.
Haught talks a lot of malarkey about the old Christian hierarchical paradigm, where creation is imagined as a layered structure of hierarchically ordered planes of being, each graded in dignity of being from the lowest form of insensate matter at the bottom to higher and higher forms of being, insensate life, sentient life, consciousness, the realm of angels, and on, by degrees, up to ultimate being in God himself, and he wonders whether this hierarchically ordered chain of being in which cosmic purpose was thought to be discerned can be mapped onto “the new cosmic story that science has very recently brought to our attention.” That is, is there room for religion in the context of science?
But this is precisely where he goes off the rails. Instead of trying to find out what it might mean to map the old hierarchical view of the universe onto the new cosmic story, he goes straight to the Christian concept of God, pointing out that Christians have been taught, in their thought about God to begin with the man Jesus; and then he goes on to say that Christians should not be ashamed to talk in terms of their own beliefs, they should “start with and finish with a Christian understanding of God.” Then he explains the Christian concept of God in terms of God’s kenosis or self-emptying in the man Jesus (which of course quietly assumes the hierarchy of being, since this is what makes the kenosis of God in Jesus meaningful). It is at this point he introduces what he thinks is the most important piece of religious lore coming out of the old conception of the chain of being. He tells us each level of the chain of being is unable, without using analogical and other indirect forms of thought, of comprehending or coming to know the next higher level of being, and certainly to know the highest or ultimate level of being, which is God. It takes a form of personal transformation before we will be capable of comprehending levels of being (and meaning) superior to our own; and it is precisely here that Jesus comes in; and so, Haught suggests, we should read the gospels and allow ourselves to be transformed by them. Unfortunately, this effectively means that we must first believe in order to know, which is really begging the question.
It is just here that Haught trespasses on my own concerns regarding suffering and death, so I think we need to have his full account of the significance of Jesus.
I have to say at once that this is not a contribution to the debate about religion and science. One of the advantages of speaking the language of Aristotle and Aquinas is that it actually refers, or at least claims to refer, to the universe as we know it, and to explain how that universe came to be as it is. This is what science does, but Aquinas held that the universe as we know it could only have come about by the action of God which either brought the universe into being, and/or sustains it in being from moment to moment.
However, as we can see here, Haught wants us to begin with the man Jesus. He speaks about the self-emptying of God in Jesus, as if doing this were completely unproblematic from the standpoint of what we can know about the universe as science presents this knowledge to us; but there is an illegitimate step involved here. We are, he says, to read the gospels and allow ourselves to be transformed by them, but surely, if we want to have some idea of how science and religion are related one to the other, we must first have some understanding of how the gospels came to be, and whether, in fact, there is some assurance that these writings provide an accurate account of what happened in first century Palestine. However, it seems obvious, given the critical study of these texts, that they cannot be taken without qualification as reliable witnesses to early first century events. Haught cannot simply help himself to the facts before establishing that they are facts, and allowing a story to transform us, before we know whether or not that story is a reliable account of events described therein, is simply to put the cart before the horse. Haught believes that, in order to have any cognisance of God, we must be personally transformed. From what he says, it is clear that he takes this as an epistemological requirement. But to be transformed by a story which cannot in any reasonably critical sense be thought to reliably tell us of the events which are recorded in it, is not to provide an adequate foundation for knowing anything, let alone to give us access to knowledge that is beyond the inherent capacity of the human mind to grasp, as, without personal transformation, Haught takes knowledge of God, and cosmic meaning and purpose, to be.
But we need to take that one step further. Not only does the story of Jesus, Haught says, put us in contact with the very nature of God, but also with the very nature of being itself, in which, presumably, we participate. We find it, says Haught, quoting from John Paul II, ”inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and expects nothing in return.” But this is simply nonsense. Of course, we can conceive of this. Indeed, it has often been done, that people have given their lives for the sake of others. It is a perfectly human thing to do, but by insulating it like this, and making it into a mystery, what John Paul II did, and what Christianity does, is to sanctify suffering and death in an unacceptable manner. It is to put death at the centre of human purpose and meaning, and that seems to me not only offensive, but offensively dangerous. Nor does it contribute anything at all to an understanding of the relationship between religion and science. Indeed, science can provide many examples where living organisms function “kenotically” for the sake of others, from bees and ants to the much more self-aware actions of human beings who risk all to protect their loved ones from harm and death. It is largely through the mystification and sanctification of suffering and death as experienced by Jesus on the cross that has led further to the refusal of assisted dying to those who are suffering intolerably at the end of life. It is a totally repugnant conception of the role that suffering plays in the process of evolution, which, as Jerry Coyne points out later in the debate, is an extremely cruel and wasteful process. And to the extent that Christians are grasped and transformed by this image of suffering and death, they have a tendency to distort the sense and meaning of human life. We can do without this particular transformation.
It’s at this point that Haught gets caught up in a lot of hocus-pocus, despite his dismissal of the idea of God as the ultimate magician. Revelation, he says, has nothing really to do with dogmas or doctrines, but with the self-communication of the infinite to the finite world. And faith itself, he has already said, is really a matter of being grasped by ultimate reality. He doesn’t explain how this sense of the self-communication of the infinite gets transformed into doctrines and dogmas of the kind that are expressed with so much certainty and detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or how being grasped by the infinite needs to be cashed in in these very specific terms, so that we can say, without qualification, that women cannot be priests, for example, or that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” (CCC, 2357) How does the infinite self-communication get spelled out in such specific ways? If, as Haught says, the best expression of our encounter with the infinite is silence, by what act of legerdemain does the church dare to break that silence to give us such specific and uncompromising directives as to the order of the church’s ministry as well as the shape of our sexual lives?
But what about ultimate purpose and meaning. Yes, of course, we know that science does not detect an overarching purpose beyond the physical processes of nature. The fact that human beings have evolved and have developed the ability to discover truths about the world which leave no room for cosmic purpose and meaning suggests that there is no such meaning, that the meaning of our lives is local and self-generated. Haught assures us that the early theologians — and philosophers too — would be deeply sceptical of science, because they perceived the need for personal transformation, and science, which is self-limited to things that can be demonstrated by means of empirical evidence alone, cannot, by this very self-limitation, have access to the meaning and purpose that is hidden in the depth of things.
The problem here is that there is no clear means of making a distinction between false and true apprehensions of this supposed depth. One thing that Jerry points out so well is that there are simply too many competing claims about the hidden depth of things. Islam, for example, claims that it is true because it is the last of revelation of the truth about the meaning of life, but Islam itself is so rebarbative and cruel in its understanding of this meaning that, whether last or first makes no difference. It condemns itself by its own conception of itself. But Christianity has no more claim to have really plumbed the depths of the meaning and purpose of the cosmos, and the role that individuals play in it. It is one thing to talk about love and self-giving, and possibly these are elements of what might be a good and meaningful life, but it seems idiotic simply to confine ourselves to love and self-giving out of all the variety of things that can give life meaning. Surely, Aristotle’s claim, in the Metaphysics, that all men by nature seek to know, is as valuable and, arguably, more valuable than love and self-giving, for without knowledge love and self-giving can be dangerous and destructive, especially when they undertake to intrude themselves, unwelcome, into people’s lives.
We are still left, by the time Haught comes to the end of his speech, wondering what the relationship of religion and science can possibly be. By insisting on speaking as a Christian, and with the specifics of Christian belief deriving from stories of the life of Jesus and his death, interpreted as an act of self-giving love, he has really failed to make a plausible case for the relationship of religion and science. Religion is a diverse phenomenon. It cannot be defined in terms of Christian doctrine, and so whatever relationship Haught may see between Christianity and science — which is very little — cannot satisfy the requirements of the claim that he is making that there is a relationship between religion and science. In order to show this by taking Christianity as an example, he must be able to show, not only that the story of Jesus as recounted in the gospels is true, he must be able to show both that other religions are wrong and why they are wrong.
In view of this failure, Haught’s complaint that Jerry Coyne’s contribution to the debate was merely an ad hominem attack on Haught and his work is simply laughable. At no point, that I could see, did Coyne address himself in an ad hominem way to Haught’s arguments or conclusions. For example, he refers directly to the point that Haught makes about the deliberate self-limitation of science to empirical evidence, that is, to the natural. Science assumes that the nature of things can be explained without introducing the idea of a god or gods. The problem here is that, even if there were some way of being grasped by the infinite, we would need words in which to express what this means. Haught says that we should start with Jesus. Instead of thinking of God as a great magician, he says, we should start with Jesus. This means, of course, that what we know about Jesus must be true; but how do we know that? As Coyne points out, the Bible is used in incompatible ways, and no one seems to be able to tell us how we are to distinguish between those things that are to be understood metaphorically, and other things that must be taken au pied de la lettre, as he points out dramatically in the following:
This is a question of great importance, which religious believers have yet to answer.
In his comment — which he asked Jerry Coyne to publish on his blog — Haught says this about Coyne’s strategy in the debate:
[Y]our strategy was to show that if the principal figure [that is, Haught himself] is stupid, then you need not take his subordinates seriously either. This is a convenient method for shrinking the territory that needs to be covered, but it is hardly a fair way of dealing with all the other theological alternatives to your own belief system.
But this is a caricature of what Coyne actually does with quotes from Haught. Consider the following:
Now, without a doubt, this is not flattering, but it can scarcely be called ad hominem. If religion claims to answer the big questions, then there must be some way of determining what constitutes the truth in answer to these questions. And yet, as Haught himself seems prepared to acknowledge, the questions themselves defy our attempts to answer them. Coyne is not saying that Haught is stupid, as Haught alleges; he is merely pointing out the attempt of the religions (plural) to give an answer (singular) to the big questions has so far not met with success, and that Haught himself acknowledges the fact that the answer to the question about the point and purpose of the universe seems to elude even the theologian.
Coyne, being an expert on genetics and evolution, points out that evolution is perhaps the heaviest blow that science has ever delivered to religion, because it undercuts religion’s strongest argument for the existence of a god, the design argument. This was the argument that perplexed Hume, although he was prepared to say that, if the universe is designed by God, it shows evidence of bad design, so that, seemingly, it must be the product either of a novice god, or of a superannuated one. What theology does now is to say, as John Paul II said, that evolution was simply the means by which God created the world as we know it.
The problem with this, of course, is that evolution is a particularly nasty way to create things, because it is so wasteful and cruel, as Jerry points out. This expedient does not serve the theologian well, since it makes the problem of evil — that is, theodicy, the justifying of the ways of God to man – an even more serious problem, but it is the solution that is forced on the theologian who does not want to contradict the findings of science.
What theology does is to rationalise things in such a way that theology, as Coyne says, comports with science, but the claim that this shows that science and theology are actually compatible is specious.
All in all, then (since this post is already overlong), what can we say about Haught’s complaint that Coyne is merely using ad hominem arguments to make his point? I do not think that he makes his case. Coyne, of course, finds fault with Haught’s position. I think it is clear that Haught himself was deeply hurt by Coyne’s arguments, but he should certainly have expected them, since Coyne actually carried on a running conversation on his website about precisely these issues as he was preparing for the debate. The nerve of Haught’s complaint is, I think, however, cut. Here is his accusation:
Rather than answering my point that scientism is logically incoherent–which is really the main issue–and instead of addressing my argument that the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation, or for that matter instead of responding to any of the other points I made, you were content to use most of your time to ridicule several isolated quotes from my books.
I didn’t hear the argument that scientism is logically incoherent, nor did it seem to me that Coyne took quotations from Haught’s books out of context. He certainly disagrees with Haught, but this, I think, we could take for granted from the start. In any event, it is not clear that Coyne at any time adopted a scientistic point of view, that is, the view that science is the only source of truth (if by science we refer narrowly to the various scientific specialties that are represented by departments in the unversity: chemistry, physics, biology, etc.), for there are clearly truths that are not scientific: truths about personal feelings, history, biography, about literary characters and the meanings of words, and so on, though, in fairness to the position that Coyne adopts, empirical evidence is still necessary for establishing truths of this sort. And, as for the logical coherence of claiming that truth requires empirical support, there is nothing incoherent about making this claim. It is not incoherent in the way that logical positivism was incoherent. Logical positivism held that meaningful statements are limited to the class of verifiable propositions. But, since this claim is itself not verifiable, it is meaningless. Therefore, logical positivism is logically incoherent. But evidence for the claim that in order to make a claim to truth, the claim must itself be verifiable, is available. Without empirical evidence we cannot achieve agreement about what is true, and the outcome of this disagreement is social discord and incompatible theories as to how the world works or about the meaning of works of fiction, and so on. Science will win, as Hawking says, and Coyne repeats, because it works. And theology, it might be added, will lose, not because it is not scientific, but because it is not based on anything that is accessible to empirical corroboration.