smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
I finally got around to watching the videos at the heart of the academic kerfuffle between John Haught (noted theologian) and Jerry Coyne (noted biologist and atheist activist). On the one hand, I agree with Haught that in many ways this was not a fruitful academic debate. And I think that Coyne shouldn't have called Haught a coward for not wanting to release the video: that kind of ad hominem attack rarely does anyone any good.

On the other hand, the fault for the academic failure of this debate, it seems to me, is entirely John Haught's. The reason dialog failed here is because the two sides failed to come to terms at the outset: as Haught rightly noted, when he and Coyne use the same words (like "science" and "faith") they frequently meant very different things.

But the whole point of Coyne's presentation was to explain why theology's use of such words is not substantive and not grounded in reality. He did a pretty good job, I thought, although he might have worked harder at demonstrating that he understood Haught's take before demolishing his theology's conceptual framework.

By contrast, Haught's job was to explain why theology's take on the concepts is sound -- as sound as science -- and he completely failed. What he offered was a concept of "explanatory pluralism" (which seems to me to be borrowed from Aristotle): physics and chemistry might explain why water boils, for instance, but another equally legitimate explanation is that a person wants a cup of tea. He accuses atheists of "scientism" and "explanatory monism" when they insist that the only legitimate explanation is the physical one (physics and chemistry) and not the agent-centered one (a person wants some tea).

But the truth is that whole fields of science are devoted to understanding the behavior of agents, and no atheist denies that sometimes people want tea. On this scale, Haught's accusation of explanatory monism is a baldfaced lie.

What Haught wants us to do, in truth, is to accept the argument from design, dressed up as explanatory pluralism. He argues that we should legitimize faith in god on the grounds that just as boiling water has many causes, including agents who want tea, that the universe itself can be explained in many ways, including the will of an agent, i.e. god. This is no different from William Paley's watchmaker argument -- the one discredited by Darwin's theory -- except that Haught explains away the lack of direct evidence for god by saying that such evidence belongs to a realm of experience that people must be transformed in order to receive, and we're just not there yet. (Not most of us, anyway.)

And he wants to define evolution as a process leading towards the the day when people will be transformed to grasp the divine nature of things. This, of course, is an abuse of the scientific concept of evolution by natural selection, and there's no reason Jerry Coyne or any educated person should agree to it.

In this kerfuffle, if one wants to take offense at anything, it should be to take offense at a scholar and an entire discipline -- theology -- that demands respect and collegiality in exchange for lying, distorting, and bullshitting. If Coyne's brusqueness offends more than this, then one has misplaced one's priorities in my opinion.

The whole reason we accept that "people want tea" can be can explanation for boiling water is precisely that we can see people boiling water to make tea when they've expressed a desire for tea. We have evidence. But when god is offered as an explanation for existence itself, or for orderliness in the universe, or for a moral sense, evidence-minded people reject the claim precisely because there is no evidence for the claim.

Haught's entire presentation is an exercise in double-think designed to turn absence of evidence into evidence, and designed to transform a long-discredited argument from design into an argument from pluralism, which is to say, an argument from the appearance (but not fact) of open-mindedness.

If Haught really cared about pluralism, in my opinion, he'd have taken the trouble to establish the legitimacy of Christian theology (as opposed to the Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or any of a thousand others) before offering it as a proxy for all of religious experience in this debate. But he didn't because his kind of theology is a bankrupt discipline: it's about finding and selling any reason you can find to justify what you already believe, not about finding the truth whether you like it or not.


smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)

June 2012



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