On the Haught/Coyne Debate


I recently re-watched the debate between University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and Georgetown theologian John Haught, which Haught had famously (infamously?) not allowed to be posted online (until a great deal of ruckus had been raised over the issue, at which point Haught eventually relented) (debate here and question/answer session here). Coyne’s view is very close to my own, though I thought he has done a better job at presenting his view elsewhere when he had more time to speak. On the other hand, I think that Haught performed poorly in this debate.

In this post, I will first explain how Coyne and Haught fit into my present theoretical understanding of the science/religion debate, why Coyne and Haught were likely speaking past each other, and then I will show why I think that Haught’s central argument (concerning his layered view of reality) is weak. I’ve broken this post up into various sections so readers can skip those parts that they are not interested in.

My Theoretical Perspective on the Science/Religion Debate

First, to explain how Coyne and Haught each fit into my present theoretical understanding of the science/religion debate. I’ve long admired John Worrall’s paper Does Science Discredit Religion?.

As I state in a paper that I wrote last year (in Spring, 2012):

In Worrall’s paper, he states that there exists both a religious attitude and a scientific attitude. In the scientific attitude, beliefs are accepted or not based on the degree to which the evidence supports those beliefs, together with a wide variety of explanatory and theoretical virtues. With such an attitude, beliefs are subjected to independent empirical tests and examined for their refutability1 , parsimony, and other theoretical virtues. If one wishes to provide information about the world, and strong forms of epistemic relativism are objectionable to all of the participants in the debate, then one’s epistemology should be consistent with the epistemology of science.

However, the epistemology of religion is not consistent with that of science. Religious beliefs are not subject to scientific standards and are often accepted or not independently of scientific standards.

Based on statements which Coyne makes in the debate and elsewhere, I take it that he agrees with Worrall. For both Worrall and Coyne, the reason that science and religion are incompatible is because:

(1) There is one world.
(2) Science and religion are two diametrically opposed methods to investigate that world, which often yield conflicting results (Coyne makes the further point that studies show people would rather reject scientific ideas than religious beliefs).

(3) Conclusion: There is an epistemic conflict between science and religion.

Recall, however, Worrall’s introduction of the scientific and religious attitudes. I agree with Worrall that there are two attitudes (I call them “lenses” in public talks that I’ve been giving) and I agree that these two attitudes conflict with each other because these assume conflicting epistemic norms, but I think there is a piece missing from either of their accounts and this piece can explain why Haught and Coyne were speaking past each other in the debate.

Examine the following question, which I will label the science/religion question.

The science/religion question: Are science and religion compatible?

I claim that the science/religion question is interpreted differently by each of the two lenses (Worrall’s “attitudes”). From the religious and scientific lenses, the terms ‘science’, ‘religion’, and ‘compatible’ mean different things, so that the science/religion question bifurcates into at least two interpretations (quoting from a talk I’ve given at UNCG and Roanoke College):

1. The lens from within a religious community. One already accepts religious beliefs. From this lens, the science/religion question becomes: How may one also go about accepting the consensus views of the scientific community while preserving some set of core religious beliefs? What sort of modifications of one’s theology, and one’s framing of science, should one endorse in order to accept the scientific consensus? To the extent that one can construct an orthodox religious view which integrates the scientific consensus, there is declared to be no conflict between science and religion. And to the extent that one cannot construct an orthodox religious view which integrates the scientific consensus, there is declared to be conflict.
2. The lens from without a religious community. At first glance, it seems that:
• Science works – our bridges don’t fall down and our medicines are successful at treating diseases.
• It isn’t obvious that the various epistemic modes which appear in religion – faith, personal experience, anecdote – would be good reasons for accepting the kinds of strong metaphysical claims which appear in most religions.
From this lens, the question becomes So why should we accept religious beliefs at all?. It seems that we are not scientifically justified in doing so, and this amounts to a kind of science/religion conflict.

I claim that Haught is engaged with (1) while Coyne is engaged with (2). This would explain an odd situation that often arises — sophisticated theologians will often posit only what is possible while religious skeptics (like Coyne) will be quick to point out that what is possible is not the same thing as what is likely to be true. Theologians, like Haught, may see themselves as providing something that a religious person could choose to believe if they wished (and then assert, often without much merit, that atheists are simply making other choices). I won’t comment here on whether or not such an endeavour is actually useful.

Another source of evidence that Haught engaged with (1) while Coyne engaged with (2) can be identified in their own statements during the debate.

Haught states that it is is true that science and religion have differing epistemic norms. Haught believes that this is acceptable because the domains of enquiry of science and religion differ. Science investigates things within this world while theology’s domain is beyond this world. The appropriate epistemic norms for such enquiry, according to Haught, are faith, revelation, prayer, and so on, and the “evidence” that these things are veridical is the sort of self-transformative experiences they induce. Christianity changes lives and Haught thinks this is sufficient to show that the epistemic norms he adheres to are in some way reliable ways to access Truth.

Haught states at one point (during the question/answer period) that he finds “almost every” definition used by Coyne to be unrecognizable. That statement is likely to be a rhetorical flourish, but it would not surprise me if much of what Coyne said was unrecognizable to Haught — they were seeing the science/religion question through two different lenses.

For Coyne, self-transformative experience cannot be evidence at all. It might be claimed that theology investigates a world beyond our own, but Haught certainly hasn’t shown that it does. Furthermore, it’s not clear why we should think that the domain of theology is beyond the domain of science, other than by declaring it to be so via fiat. Coyne cites the Templeton funded studies of intercessory prayer to establish that religious phenomena is scientifically accessible.

If my view about the two lenses is correct, then it is easy to see why Coyne and Haught would be speaking past each other. Each was engaged in answering different questions and neither explicitly recognized that they were engaged in fundamentally different sorts of activity. Coyne recognizes that what Haught is doing is not scientific, and Haught recognizes that what Coyne is doing is not properly “theological”, but each seems to think that they share a common goal and that they both have a place in the debate with respect to each other. Neither seems to realize that they’re not in the same conversation.

Haught’s Multi-Layered View of Reality

In Haught’s many public appearances and writings, he often defends the compatibility of science and religion using his multi-layered view of reality. According to Haught, the apparent conflict of science and religion has been created by explanatory monism: the view that there is only one layer to the world and our explanations of the world need to fit into that single explanatory slot. Religion may have explained things in the past, but science should take religion’s spot in that slot. Haught further claims that Coyne, and other New Atheists, are explanatory monists and that this explains why they think there is a conflict between science and religion.

For Haught, explanatory monism is a problem in need of resolution. Recall the two lenses view that I presented. Working from lens (1), Haught wants to resolve the conflict between science and religion in such a way that one can be both scientific and religious. Since explanatory monism doesn’t allow him to provide such a resolution, explanatory monism becomes a problem in need of resolution. The resolution which Haught provides is his multi-layered view of reality.

According to the multi-layered view of reality, the world has a multiplicity of explanatory slots. To bring out the example Haught often totes around, let’s imagine a tea kettle with boiling water inside. If we ask why the water in the kettle is boiling, one answer we can provide is that the water molecules have a high enough kinetic energy that they can become detached from the liquid and move about as steam. But another answer that we can provide is that there was a person who wanted to make tea. According to Haught, reality has a multi-layered explanatory structure and theological explanations fit into the “Ultimate” layer. Since science and religion fit into different explanatory slots, they can not conflict.

Having presented Haught’s view, I will now three problems with it.

(1) It is unclear what Haught is arguing against. This it is unclear in what sense the New Atheists nor historical atheists can be said to have been explanatory monists.

Haught seldom tells us why we should think that the New Atheists are explanatory monists. During the debate with Coyne, he makes the accusation that Coyne is an explanatory monist. Yet it is unclear what this would mean. In one clear sense, Coyne is not an explanatory monist; as an evolutionary biologist, Coyne’s work often involves multiple explanatory levels. Evolutionary biology has a multi-layered structure, with explanations ranging from biochemistry to climatic changes. While it may be objected that Coyne does not allow for a theological level, it is unclear why Coyne should allow for any given level unless there some reasoned principle for doing so.

Nor is it true that explanatory monism can explain scientism: the view that the only way to access the world is through science. The positivists are often given as the proto-typical example of the scientism-adherent. It’s certainly true that Auguste Comte argued in his Course of Positive Philosophy that science should replace religion. Yet Comte includes large sections in the same text on the hierarchy of the sciences, in which he argues that the different sciences constitute various different explanatory layers. Comte even rejects reductionism.

(2) A further issue, as already briefly mentioned, is that explanatory monism is a problem only for lens (1). From the perspective of lens (2), it is difficult to see why explanatory monism is a problem. Of course, it may be discovered through lens (2) that explanatory monism is false, but that’s quite a different thing from saying that explanatory monism can be ruled out prior to inquiry.

(3) Another objection may be posed based on Ockham’s Razor. As Haught understands the Razor, it is the principle that given at least two competing explanations, one should prefer the explanation which is simpler. Since Haught’s view contains layers, and Coyne’s view (as characterized by Haught) does not, Coyne’s view should be preferred. Haught responds to this objection during the debate by noting that competing explanations only appear at a given explanatory layer and thus explanations at different layers cannot be in competition with each other.

It is unclear to me how this could amount to anything more than changing the subject. The question at hand is whether or not reality has layers and which layers those might be, not whether we should prefer some explanation over another at some level. Haught’s view that there is a multi-layered structure to reality, and that one layer is theological, is itself an explanation that does not live at any particular level. Coyne’s contrary view that there is no theological layer is another explanation that does not live at any particular layer. As such, these two are in direct competition. Applying Ockham’s Razor at that level of analysis produces the result that Coyne’s view should be preferred.

Based on these three objections, I conclude this section by stating that Haught has not adequately shown that positing a multi-layered structure to reality can render science and religion compatible.


Having shown how Coyne and Haught each fit into my current theoretical understanding of the science/religion debate, and why they were likely to have been speaking past each other, I went on to present why Haught’s central argument fails by his own lights. Haught’s argument was shown to fail for three reasons: (1) it is unclear in what sense Haught’s opponents subscribe to the explanatory monism he paints them with, (2)  explanatory monism, if true, would only be a problem for lens (1), (3) Haught’s response to Ockham’s Razor was not adequate.


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  • February 22, 2014 - 12:31 am | Permalink

    Your endeavor to see how Coyne and Haught were talking past each other and investigate why is laudable; the world needs more of it!

    Now, I would like to suggest that we are in danger of forgetting that philosophy can critically inform science, as I point out over on Phil.SE, first in Why do we tend towards discretizing things around and within us?, but perhaps more relevantly in Physics, Theoretical Understanding and the Limits of Human Knowledge/Understanding. I’ll re-post Massimo, Pigliucci, and Einstein:

    Massimo Pigliucci 2012-04-25 blog post Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex:

    Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprit is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

    “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)

    Ok, but that’s philosophy, not theology. I agree, and I surmise that theology could lead to philosophy and/or science, if only theologians started caring about having some sort of contact with empirical reality. I hint at this in a recent comment, on the Trinity and issues of unity vs. diversity and top-down and bottom-up design. If anything, theology is [primarily] top-down and science is [primarily] bottom-up. They can meet in the middle. They don’t have to, but they can. We can see this in William James’ Pragmatism, as I illustrate in my discretizing Phil.SE answer, with rationalistic vs. empiricist philosophies.

    • Dan Linford
      February 22, 2014 - 12:13 pm | Permalink

      To be clear, while I think Coyne and Haught were engaged in two fundamentally different conversations, I do not agree with you that theology has anything of relevance for science (other than perhaps the sociology/anthropology of religion literature). Coyne’s approach, while fundamentally different from Haught’s, is still the *correct* one.

      • February 22, 2014 - 12:50 pm | Permalink

        Do you think that philosophy can offer critical help to science, or do you think it’s pretty much done in that regard, with Atomism great, but no longer needed in future incarnations? If you won’t admit philosophy, you definitely won’t admit theology.

        • Dan Linford
          February 22, 2014 - 1:00 pm | Permalink

          I do think that philosophy can help, but the issue is that theology needs to first establish its premises in a relevant way for it to have something of significance to offer science.

          • February 22, 2014 - 1:26 pm | Permalink

            I’m not sure I disagree. I would offer the New Yorker article Why Smart People are Stupid as an example of part scientific conclusion, and part journalist story-telling, which is at odds with some of the more immediately testable bits of the Bible. Here’s how the article concludes:

            The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

            While this doesn’t strictly speaking say that we cannot do anything to fix the situation, over on Randal Rauser’s blog Mike D interpreted the article thusly:

            It’s actually the case that awareness of our biases does not improve our ability to circumvent them.


            I replied, which I later summarized:

            Given that [Mike D] has a decent following over at his blog, I am inclined to think his view will be shared by more than a small subset. In my response, I argued that (i) Mike was improperly understanding the actual scientific research; (ii) Mt 7:1-5 indicates we can overcome our hypocrisy; (iii) I had applied Mt 7:1-5 + Mt 23:1-4 + Gal 6:1-5 in life and found them to be true. To add: without others helping me overcome my hypocrisy by properly pointing it out, it is hard to overcome! Gal 6:1-5, of course, gives guidance on how to do this whole ‘sanctification’ enterprise: as a team.

            In the same comment, I argue that John Loftus appears not to understand the triad of Mt 7:1-5, Mt 23:1-4, and Gal 6:1-5. There is an exchange which further digs into these verses: NoxLuke Breuer.

            I’m quite confident that I have seen these three passages (a) obeyed, and (b) disobeyed, with different results between (a) and (b). I have vast personal experience whereby if people don’t do the Gal 6:1-5 thing with me, they were tantamount to the Pharisees described by Mt 23:1-4, who didn’t understand what Jesus said in Mt 7:1-5. And yet the world is full of people who think that all they have to do is offer a bit of advice and then walk away. And we wonder why our world is so screwed up.

            Now, some theologies take my interpretation of these three passages and run with it. There is something we know about truth: if you predicate your ideas on some of it, it often leads you to more truth. So concludes my claim that theology can inform our beliefs in ways that matter. BTW, when I say lower-case ‘truth’, I usually mean a better approximation of Truth than is found in most contemporary places. I think we are almost always approximating Truth, better and better. Although I’m partial to the idea of going from ‘wrong’ → ‘less wrong’.

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