I think we need to begin this with a clip from the Q&A session to start us off. In his address Dr. Haught said, as I recorded earlier:
Science decided, at the beginning of the modern age, 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.
This is, as Jerry Coyne points out, completely untrue. Science decided no such thing. Indeed, those who deal with the history of science from a religious point of view insist that the foundations of science were laid by Christianity. While I think this is untrue, at no point was it decided to leave out god, meaning, purpose and value. As Jerry Coyne points out, the god hypothesis was only abandoned gradually:
This is very important. The assumption that science decided to leave out questions of god, meaning, purpose and value is a caricature of the history of science, and Haught, who claims to be making a serious attempt to show the compatibility of science and religion, must know this. If he doesn’t, and he really thinks that science made such a decision — how does “science” do this, by the way? — then his misunderstanding of the relation of science and religion is total.
When Haught turns around, then, and castigates Jerry by saying that everything that he said was a caricature, that every quotation that Jerry took from Haught’s work was taken out of context, and that instead of reading carefully and thoughtfully Jerry got his idea of god and theology from creationist websites, this was undoubtedly the most aggressive and impolite move of the whole debate. Listen to what he says:
Given the fact that Jerry Coyne took this debate with Haught seriously, and read quite widely to that end, and that, in his comments on theology and theologians on his website he has referred to a surprising number of different theologians, this is simply outrageous! And Haught is the one who complained that the whole problem was Dr. Coyne!
The real problem is that Haught is so vague and ambiguous that there is no way that anyone could possibly characterise his theology accurately. Haught himself is clearly unsure. For example, on the one hand he says that in talking about God the Christian must start with Jesus, who exemplifies God’s self-emptying love. But he also says that God is that towards which all things are evolving. He also speaks of God as the infinite and the ultimate, claiming, what is surely false, that the ultimate is one by definition. He even characterises theology as follows:
Clearly, if, in talking about God, Christians must begin with Jesus, and our talk about God is somehow related to theology (which is the “logos”, or word, about God), then theology is about much more than just making the presupposition of an ultimate explicit. Quite aside from the fact that one of the virtues of science is not to take its conclusions as ultimate, but to go on seeking for further answers and deeper complexity, simply talking about the fact that we are never satisfied, does not lead necessarily to the famous prayer of Augustine which speaks about our restlessness, and that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. Shopping is not empirical proof that we are seeking the ultimate or the infinite.
Indeed, I would go further. By speaking about Jesus as he does, as God’s self-expression in taking the form of a slave — an image that should disturb Haught much more than it seems to — Haught is, in effect, undermining the escape route that so many theologians prepare beforehand. Haught says that every quote that Jerry Coyne took from his books was taken out of context. (He merely asserts this, by the way; nowhere does he show them to be so.) But Coyne’s point is that either there is empirical evidence for God, or there is no evidence for God. Haught may speak vaguely enough to set our critical minds at rest, but it is vital to his position that Jesus’s being God’s communication of himself, Jesus’s life being an expression of God’s self-emptying, or his kenosis, to use the Greek word, is more than just a metaphor, more than just a figurative way of speaking about the mystery of God. It must actually say something about God’s very nature. It must, in fact, be an intervention by God in the empirical world.
Theologians like N.T. Wright, for example, or John Polkinghorne, or William Lane Craig, claim that we know this to be true because Jesus rose, or was raised, from the dead. And they go to great (sometimes excessive) lengths to show why this is reasonably thought to be historically true. If there was no resurrection, in other words, there would be no reason to think that Jesus, in his life and death, was an expression of God’s self-emptying; but if he really did, physically, rise from the dead, then we have — and this is what the writer to the Hebrews was referring to when he spoke about faith — the assurance of things hoped for. It’s also why Paul said that, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then his preaching would be vain, and the faith of those who believe would be vain and pointless. In other words, either Haught comes out of the clouds of ambiguity that he creates by talking about ultimacy and the infinite, and acknowledges that, as a theologian, his claims are anchored in the world, or really his words are just so much fluff.
At one point in the Q&A Haught goes off at a tangent arguing about scientism, and how Jerry Coyne, by professing scientism has put science itself at risk, has, in fact, left everything in ”one big homogeneous smudge”, so that, as Haught says, a bit contemptuously, he finds himself in the surprising position of having to defend science. But at no point does Haught show that Coyne’s position is scientistic, nor does he really explain what he means by scientism, or what is wrong with it. He suggests that it makes it impossible to say something like, “The kettle is boiling because I want some tea,” which is really silly. Jerry Coyne is not talking about the many uses of language that are available to us, the language of poetry, fiction, the performative language of promising, or the emotional language of love or hate. This is a complete fabrication on Haught’s part. What Jerry is talking about is ways of determining what is true about the world in which people fall in love, get married, have sex, make promises, watch movies, speak about beauty, argue about morality, drink tea, and so on. There are many truths that we can speak about regarding such things, but Jerry is speaking of the basic constituents of the world and how their interaction brings about the wondrous universe in which we have come to be. In other words, Jerry’s claims have to do with the kind of question that the Ionian Thales asked himself: What is the world of things made of? We may be able to look at the world from many points of view, amongst which wanting to have tea is one, but the question that Jerry is asking has to do with what really exists that makes a world of tea drinking and promise making possible.
Haught deliberately complicates things here, because he wants to leave room for something besides molecules and atoms and sub-atomic particles, and talking about wanting tea is a completely misleading way of talking about the thing he wants to leave room for. For, just as we speak about things as being composed of atoms and molecules, Haught wants to leave room to speak of another kind of being altogether, non-physical, perhaps non-material and supernatural, but personal, that is not only the fons et origo of the material world around us, but is, in fact, the end towards which everything is evolving, and which, besides, wants itself to be in a personal relationship with us. And all his talk of different layers of explanation, just as he spoke in his speech of the great chain of being, is really a way of concealing his real intention from us.
Jerry, he says, has left us with a mess, because if all we can say are the propositions of science, then we are really in a pickle. We won’t be able to talk about the ordinary things that go on in our lives, the things that interest us, the people that we are related to, our favourite things as well as our pet peeves. But nothing that Jerry is saying suggests that we cannot talk about any of these things. What he is saying is that, once we have enumerated the things that are discovered by science, there is nothing else to talk about except the world and the things that are in it, including people and their interests, plans, projects, pleasures and pains, which are the product of the physical processes that constitute the universe as we know it.
So, let’s have Haught’s argument about scientism and its follies before us, before we proceed:
I apologise for the length of the clip, but it is useful to have Haught’s palaver in mind as we consider the plight of the theologian. The theologian knows that his position is bounded by faith, so it’s essential to make sure that the atheist or naturalist gets into bed with him. So what he does is simple. He thinks up a faith position which, he assumes, the atheist must hold. Thus the theologian and his opponent start off on the level. But exactly what is scientism? In all his talk about levels of explanation, Haught is never very clear. Surely he doesn’t think that Jerry is denying that there is a level at which we speak about molecular motion and heat, and another level at which we speak about making tea? In fact, Jerry is claiming that the world as we know it depends upon a number of different things that have been discovered by science. Tea drinking, in addition to being an aspect of culture, is also made possible by the structure of matter, by the evolution of life capable of consciousness and social interaction, and many other things besides. But nowhere in listing these other features of reality, upon which the custom of tea drinking rests, do we come to a point where we have any reason to speak of a god or gods. At the level of science there is no evidence for such a being or beings.
Let’s listen to the closing words of the last clip again:
Notice carefully what Haught is doing here. He says that he wants to push natural explanation as far as possible, but that, in the end, this still leaves the possibility that “there is a presence of love that wants the universe to become itself, to become as rich and diverse as possible.” And he concludes from this that there is no contradiction between a theological and a scientific way of understanding the universe. But there is! For one we have evidence, and the other is just a story! After all that talk about scientism what he ends with is the mere possibility of something, a presence of love that wants the universe to be itself. Well, what else could it possibly be? This totally anthropomorphic idea that the universe is something that is directed towards a goal, and that it is directed by a loving presence, in a way similar to the way in which a parent wants his or her children to become all that they can be, is completely unsubstantiated by any evidence. Indeed, given the stochastic way that evolution operates there is no reason to think that there is any intrinsic teleology involved at all.
It is precisely in this that it conflicts with the virtues of science. Haught says there is no incompatibility here at all. But this is like saying that wish-fulfilment is as valid a way of discerning the truth about the world and our lives as evidence. Science is the first truly successful way of coming to know what is really true. Haught wants to claim that science and faith are compatible, but it’s a trick. He says that entertaining the possibility that there is a loving presence that wants the universe to be itself is compatible with natural explanations of the universe, and that is true. There is no doubt a possible world in which this is true. All sorts of possibilities are compatible with what we know to be true. We could no doubt make up all sorts of stories that are compatible with what we know from science, but the question here is one of knowing what is true, and the basis upon which it can be known. Haught dismisses Jerry’s position as mere “scientism,” whatever, in the end, that is taken to mean. But he still can’t escape the demand for evidence. We have evidence for scientific theories, but none for theological ones. Doesn’t that make a difference?
So, let’s ask the question: Is holding the various theological possibilities to be true compatible with science? And that depends. As Jerry Coyne said in response to one young man, science cannot say anything about deism, about the story of a god who created the universe and then let it develop without further interest or intervention. One might, like Antony Flew, believe in such a “god”, but since we could have no evidence for its existence, positing its existence to get out of what seemed to the elderly Flew to be a problem in philosophy really doesn’t acknowledge very much. Indeed, David Hume actually suggests that the deistic hypothesis, if we are talking about probabilities, is more likely than the belief that there is a loving or caring purpose behind the universe as we know it.
This became a much more serious option when Darwin discovered that life evolved. When Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie died of tuberculosis, and was, thus, “selected out” by evolution, Darwin realised that he could no longer believe in a loving and caring purpose. But the question, as Darwin knew, was one of evidence. It’s entirely possible that there is a loving and caring purpose behind the universe, and we may never be able to convince every believer that there is no evidence for this love and care, since theological contortions around the problem of pain are legendary. On the other hand we could easily turn the tables on them, and, with Stephen Law, we might point out that it seems just as likely that the purpose behind the universe is malevolent. William Lane Craig never got the point, but it seems pretty obvious. Given the amount of suffering in the world, caused by predation, disease, and natural catastrophe, to say nothing of the harm that people do to one another, it seems as likely that there is a malign purpose behind the world as a loving one, if we are imagining purposes behind the universe. But what this shows is not that believing is compatible with science, but that it is completely irrelevant to it. Of course, people can believe in gods, either loving or malignant, but such a belief can be compatible with science only if it has no implication for the findings of science. This, of course, is not really compatibility, but irrelevance. And just as religion can have nothing to say about science, science can make no contribution to religion, for one is a way of knowing, while the other is a way of imagining possibilities, just as Haught says.