Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jerry Coyne and the Miracle of Atheism

I'm reading the hot New Atheist book by Jerry Coyne, Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion Incompatible.

We Christians, obviously, believe in miracles, and in particular the miracle of the Resurrection. Indeed, the miracle of the Resurrection is front and center in Christian faith. That centrality is, in fact, one of the reasons I find Christianity attractive. There is truth in advertising: The Resurrection is not (or should not be) an easy thing in which to believe - it is, according to St. Paul, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23). Every week at Mass we Catholics repeat the Nicene Creed and remind ourselves that being Catholic means believing in the staggering event of the Resurrection. But once that truth is accepted, everything else becomes easy: The entire Catholic Faith makes perfect sense in light of the Resurrection. The Church does not hide the stumbling block; it tells you up front that being Catholic means believing in something so difficult to believe as the Resurrection.

I find the opposite to be true of secular worldviews. Such worldviews are typically advertised as following from reason and skepticism, supposedly never demanding belief in anything that cannot stand the test of rational investigation. But as you examine the worldview in more depth, you inevitably discover some belief smuggled in that is at least as incredible as the Resurrection, and probably more so. Unlike the Resurrection, which is highlighted by the Church just to make sure you don't miss it, the incredible aspects of the secular worldview are passed over quickly, perhaps in the hope you won't notice them, or maybe because the advocate of the worldview hasn't even noticed them himself.

In Coyne's case, he tells us the following on page 15:
In other words, the notion of pure "free will", the idea that in any situation we can choose to behave in different ways, is vanishing. Most scientists and philosophers are now physical "determinists" who see our genetic makeup and environmental history as the only factors that, acting through the laws of physics, determine which decisions we make. That, of course, kicks the props out from under much theology, including the doctrine of salvation through freely choosing a savior, and the argument that human-caused evil is the undesirable but inevitable by-product of the free will vouchsafed us by God.
Of course, determinism kicks the props out not only from theology, but a lot of other things as well - including science and Coyne's book project itself. For if genetic makeup and environmental history are the only factors that determine which decisions we make, then Galileo's decision to believe in the heliocentric rather than geocentric model of the solar system was determined by genetic makeup and environmental history acting through the laws of physics just as much as any religious individual's belief in a savior. But of course Coyne doesn't really believe that - he thinks Galileo accepted the heliocentric universe because it is true, that truth having been discovered through science, genetics be damned. And what is the point of Coyne's book but to convince us through argument to decide for science against religion? I can only do that if the truth of Coyne's arguments is a causal factor in my decision to believe him or not. Truth, however, is not a causal agent in genetics, environmental determinism, or physics. The only possibility is that science, and popular books about science like Coyne's, somehow provide a miraculous or magical exception to the rule that our decisions are determined only by genetics and environmental history.

And in that case, the miracle at the center of Coyne's worldview is more incredible than the Resurrection, for the Resurrection is at least in principle possible in a theistic worldview. But Coyne's worldview explicitly excludes the possibility that our decisions might be determined by something other than genetics, environmental history, and physics. That's pretty much the definition of magic - an event that in principle cannot be rendered intelligible in terms of a principled understanding of the world.

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