Jerry Coyne is nervous. He isn’t sure if NCSE’s Genie Scott will sit next to him at lunch, and he’s not sure if he wants to sit next to her, when you get right down to it.
Why? Because in a talk at DragonCon (a talk Jerry didn’t attend and only has second-hand information about), Genie said that there are “ways of knowing” other than science.
This is all part of the long and tedious battle between a clique of atheists who seem intent on enabling creationists in their muddling of the nature of science (enablers) and people who think it’s possible for science and religion to exist without meaningful conflict (so-called accommodationists). Jerry is in the former camp, Genie is in the latter, and this gives Jerry lots to write about.
dispell[ed] the soothing idea that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.” That is, of course, hogwash. Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end. Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.
Which is true. He has repeated this endlessly, wrong though he is. He wrote in support of this claim in The New Republic, stating that: “if a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus appeared to the residents of New York City, as he supposedly did to the evangelist Oral Roberts in Oklahoma, and this apparition were convincingly documented, most scientists would fall on their knees with hosannas.”
But no. That would be silly.
If lots of people saw a 900-foot tall apparition, one hopes that scientists would start by looking for the mirrors and projectors. Then they’d want to take samples for gas chromatography (if the giant where material), or take spectrographic readings if it were noncorporeal. If DNA were present, we’d sequence it. If not, that would raise other questions, and lead to other interesting studies. But none of those tests could prove that the object was the son of God, that it is part of a triune entity, etc. Nor would any of those tests tell us whether that being had died for our sins. In other words, the natural aspects of the entity (size, shape, reflectance, chemical makeup) would be scientifically testable, and the supernatural aspects would not be. I’d consider it more likely that the object was an elaborate hoax, or, failing that, an alien come to earth, than to sing hosannas. Christians would be welcome to attach theological meaning to that entity, as would Jerry Coyne, and I’d be free to exercise skepticism. This is just one of the ways he and I differ, and on matters of supernatural revelation, there’d be no way to falsify his claims to the entity’s divinity. (All of which ignores that Oral Roberts didn’t claim to see a corporeal Jesus, a physical Jesus striding fathoms above the prairie. That he had some sort of vision doesn’t seem worth disputing, though the meaning of such a vision is certainly open to disagreement. In any event, there would be no way to scientifically show that the vision wasn’t caused by divine influence, even if it could be shown to have some natural explanation also.)
On an unrelated note, I wonder if Jerry finds the David Copperfield’s documentation of a disappearing Statue of Liberty sufficiently convincing? How convincing must the evidence be? Evidence sufficient to convince me would essentially be evidence that naturalizes a phenomenon, a process which actually happened with gravity, among other scientific concepts.
Jerry also cites the Shroud of Turin and faith healing as examples where the supernatural is testable. However, I’d quibble and argue that neither of those is a fundamentally supernatural claim. The Shroud of Turin is claimed to be the actual cloth used to wrap Jesus. Nothing supernatural about that claim at all. When faith healers or advocates of intercessory prayer claim that there are predictable consequences of their actions, they are not making supernatural claims, they are making claims about some regularity – some law of nature. This gets into the philosophical weeds a bit, but basically, the supernatural is something beyond nature, which is to say, unbound by natural law. The point of something being supernatural is that it is not restricted to natural law, that it is irregular in some important way. If faith healing or intercessory prayer works consistently, it’s not supernatural. Since the consistency of the process is precisely at the heart of these claims, it doesn’t seem fair to call them supernatural. Paranormal might be better.
The paranormal encompasses these sorts of phenomena which are meant to be bound by regularities, but which are beyond our usual experience. They are not supernatural because they are bound and regular, but they are certainly not natural. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and faith healing all fall into that odd middle ground. These are distinguished by the fact of a claimed regularity, a regularity which makes the claim amenable in principle to scientific testing. Supernatural claims are of a different sort. The supernatural claim that God created the humans in their present form 6,000 years ago is a claim that the laws of nature were suspended. Indeed, this irregularity is central to creationist claims. Theistic evolution distinguishes itself from young earth and old earth creationism precisely because (to simplify rather grossly) it posits that God acts through natural laws, rather than suspending them, to effect the creative work.
Jerry tends to blow past such nuance, as he does later in his piece when he insists that:
empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.
This is an odd claim. From what I know of religions like Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, empirical claims are not so central (unless you think reincarnation, kharma, etc. count as empirical claims, which I don’t). Nor do I think that’s a fair assessment of Judaism or Christianity. It’s certainly true that the Jewish Bible can be read as making a number of empirical claims, for instance about the timing of human origins, whether bushes can burn without being consumed, that thousands of people wandered the Sinai for decades without leaving any obvious archaeological evidence or human records in nearby civilizations, etc.
But that’s not how Jews have understood the Bible for the last couple thousand years. Maimonides, writing well before any of the modern squabbles over evolution, explained:
Ignorant and superficial readers take them [certain obscure passages] in a literal, not in a figurative sense. Even well informed persons are bewildered if they understand these passages in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain the figure, or merely suggest that the terms are figurative.
Augustine of Hippo has made comments similarly supportive of non-literal (non-empirical) readings of the Bible. For more on this topic, NCSE has a nice article on the history of non-literal Biblical interpretations.
To call these “empirical” claims then seems to miss the point. They are certainly truth claims, but not claims about what literally happened. I like to compare this to the non-literal truth claims of good novels, or good stories more broadly. I think we can all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” than science does.
Jerry Coyne has either not considered literary truth as a different entity (a different way of knowing) than literal truth (plausible) or he doesn’t think it’s different (troubling). Consider his questions:
As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”? And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God? Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.” Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing. There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.
It hardly bears mentioning that truth claims can be wrong, and it very well could be that Muslims are right about Jesus and that both Christians and Muslims are wrong to restrict women’s ability to lead congregations. And they could all be right about the Golden Rule.
But there’s a deeper error here. The ever-excellent slacktivist offers a counterpoint regarding vampires:
It’s a well-established fact that vampires can’t abide crosses. There seems to be some confusion, however, as to why this is so.
I should note here, before we go on, that I believe in vampire stories. I don’t mean that I believe these stories are “literally” true — they’re not that kind of story. But I believe they are true stories — stories by which we tell ourselves true things so that we do not forget them.
Vampire stories tell us, for example, than any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others. Feed off the blood of others and great power will be yours. This is demonstrably true. It’s how the pyramids were built. And Standard Oil.
The stories also tell us that there’s a downside to this predatory choice. You become a creature of the night, unable to stand in the light of day.
And crosses will confound you.
Some mistakenly think that this is because the cross is a holy symbol, imbued with religious power. But this is wrong. The symbol, like the thing itself, is powerless. And that’s the point. That is why vampires can’t tolerate it.
Vampires don’t exist, and slacktivist makes it absolutely clear that he knows this. But telling stories about vampires is a great way to convey certain truths about the world we all live in. These aren’t truths that science can independently verify, but they are still true in a meaningful way.
No one should watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer they way they would watch a documentary, but they should certainly watch the show. It’s brilliant, and it uses this exact sort of literary truth to tackle tricky subjects like drug addiction, spousal abuse, peer pressure, bullying, and the challenges of adolescence in late 20th century America with a sophistication and humor that would be impossible in any other form.
Slacktivist, himself an evangelical Christian, truly does seem to read the Bible through the same literary lens that he uses for vampire stories. For instance, he has offered a sensitive reading of the story of Noah’s flood, again making the point that it is not true in the sense of actually having happened, but it is still true in an important and interesting sense.
I think those two posts (and many others) give a pretty good example of what one might mean by a “way of knowing” other than science. Is it literally true that “selfishness is destructive” (slacktivist’s summary of the story of Noah’s flood)? What would it even mean for that to be “literally” true?
It is certainly a truth claim, but not one we can test in the lab. Sometimes selfishness pays off, sometimes it’s harmful, and through evolutionary game theory you can show how certain settings will discourage selfishness. But that doesn’t mean selfishness is destructive, let alone that it is, in some grand sense, bad. Badness is not a literal concept. It’s a moral concept, an aesthetic one, a literary one.
We judge the truth of a novel differently than the truth of a documentary. Nothing that happens in a novel need ever have happened, but a novel must hang together in a certain way for it to feel true. Fictional characters can feel false or true based only on how they are written. Even though they have no empirical, objective reality, they have a reality that readers can use to measure the characters’ validity, the truth of the story, and the truth of the author’s underlying intent. To top it off, different readers can react very differently to a story, or to a character in a story, despite working from the same source material.
The peculiar irony here is that the talk Jerry is complaining about was delivered at DragonCon, a science fiction/fantasy convention filled with people celebrating the truth of unreal things. I didn’t see Genie’s talk because I was manning NCSE’s booth, watching a parade of costumed fans wait in line to get autographs from William Shatner (James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek Voyager’s Capt. Janeway), and Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard). These fans are devoted to the various incarnations of Star Trek, and were willing to spend $40–75 for just one signature from one of the Star Trek captains. And they don’t all want the same signature. Some think Picard is the greatest captain in the Star Trek Universe, some think Kirk is the better captain, and a few prefer Janeway.
These, again, are truth claims, but none of those fans is objectively, empirically wrong, nor are any of them objectively right. Even for real captains of real ships, deciding who is better or worse has a big element of personal taste, and when we aren’t even dealing with a living person or an actual ship, the evaluation is even harder. Not only must we ask which (fictional) captain performed better under (fictional) pressure, we have to ask which one is written better, which one solves problems in the most self-consistent ways, which one has the most emotional range and the most emotional growth. Could Picard be a better captain because Stewart is a better actor than Shatner? Is Kirk a better captain because he transcends the weakness of his actor? These are all fine questions, questions that demand truth claims in response, but none of the answers come from any empirical reality.
Jerry Coyne writes that he wants Genie to say that “the other ‘ways of knowing’ don’t produce truth.” Which is an odd sort of claim for him to make. Part of the trouble is that “truth” is a concept that philosophers have been utterly unable to nail down. Some have simply tossed their hands up in despair and declared truth to be nonexistent, while others work to fix the flaws in existing concepts of truth (discussed, for instance, in this New Yorker review). It’s not entirely clear that the philosophers’ methods would count as a “way of knowing” in Jerry’s scheme, a topic he may want to take up with his colleagues across the quad.
In any event, science as a “way of knowing” does not produce truth. People have known that since the failure of logical positivism in the early 20th century; science can lead us away from untruths, and lets us narrow in on the truth, but science can only approach truth asymptotically, and rarely as any sort of smooth function. Furthermore, the truths that other “ways of knowing” aim to provide are of a different sort than scientific claims. As a scientific claim, “vampires fear crosses” is as meaningless as “Picard is a better captain than Kirk” or “The Cubs are the greatest team in baseball’s history,” and none of those is any more scientifically meaningful than “Jesus is my personal savior.”
I write this not to defend the latter claim, but to defend the worthiness of non-scientific enterprises. I like novels. I like TV. I like art. I like baseball. I think there is truth to be found in such endeavors, and I think any brush that sweeps away the enterprise of religion as a “way of knowing” must also sweep away art and a host of other human activities. I’ve tossed out the comparison before, and have yet to get any useful reply to it. I could, as Jerry does, complain that the enablers are therefore dishonest in repeating claims, that “[he]’s heard the counterarguments, but not only has [he] failed to answer them, [he] ignores them.” But that would neither be productive nor polite. We disagree, and differ in our assessments of the matter for any number of reasons. There may be some value in exploring these issues, and perhaps even common ground to be reached. I don’t know if Genie will go to the prom with Jerry, and I don’t know if these two smart people can find a common ground. I do know which of those questions actually matters.