Jerry Coyne on Sam Brownback on Evolution

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As I've discussed before, Sam Brownback recently penned an editorial that The New York Times ran, clarifying his views on faith and reason, particularly with regard to evolution. I've seen several people discussing this response by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, but nothing I've seen details just how far off the mark the Coyne piece is.

It contains several philosophical mistakes and demonstrates serious ignorance about the subject matter under discussion, which happens to be philosophy (not science), as I hope will become clear shortly. But, most disturbingly, it drastically misrepresents Brownback's view. This post consists of an almost-fisking of the piece. I do not quote the entire piece, but I've selected out quite a number of important excerpts. My not discussing something doesn't mean I agree with it. I'm simply focusing on what I do know, and I don't really know any biology, which though it's not the main subject does occupy an important part of his argument. I'm thus sticking to what I do have some expertise in, something I think Coyne ought to do in the future rather than doing bad philosophy while calling it science.

I'll start with one bit toward the end of the piece, because it illustrates the biggest misunderstanding Coyne relies on, and then I'll work through the piece in order.

According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible. But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)?

This is a clear fallacy:

1. Brownback says we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith
2. the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago
3. Therefore, Brownback says we should reject the claim that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago

I'm missing the crucial premise that it conflicts with the faith to hold that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Since Brownback doesn't assert that claim, the argument doesn't apply. He does say that he believes microevolution is true, and he does say that he doesn't think macroevolution could be true in a way that requires a materialistic, deterministic metaphysic. What he doesn't say is that macroevolution without a materialistic, deterministic metaphysic is false or incompatible with his faith. He is perfectly silent on that issue. Only if he did say that would Coyne's argument even get going.

It's sort of unfair to point out that many philosophers do doubt the existence of atoms, but I suppose it's no less unfair than his picky expectations as to how much evolutionary theory someone who doesn't have a Ph.D. in biology should know. I have little understanding of the current state of discussion on Gould's punctuated equilibrium. I did think the criticisms Gould offered were still live. I'm nearing the end of a Ph.D. in philosophy, and I follow the intelligent design discussion, and I didn't realize that that's a dead issue in biology (at least he presents it as such, so I'm trusting him on what his speciality really is). Then how can he expect a politician who's been out of school for quite a while to know the cutting edge of evolutionary discussion in academia? It's a kind of arrogance about one's profession to expect everyone on the popular level to know the details. Many popular books, including popular books by Gould and Dawkins, treat those issues as live issues, even if many reject Gould's reasoning. If Brownback were going to write a book on the subject, then he should certainly know more than he does. It is fair to complain that someone like Richard Dawkins might have a grade school knowledge of philosophy in his book on theism, but Brownback is just a politician making a brief statement about his personal views, not someone trying to pass off his views as expertise the way Dawkins does. 

Coyne's ignorance of the ID argument would be astounding if that kind of ignorance weren't the status quo among biologists. He calls is a "gussied-up descendant of creationism". If by creationism he means mere theism and the idea that God created the world with purposes in mind, then this is accurate enough, althought it's extremely misleading to use the word 'creationism' for that given its history in referring to the creationism of Henry Morris and Answers in Genesis.

If he actually means the latter view (as he almost certainly does), then the two could hardly be different. ID is a classic philosophical argument that long precedes creationism of that sort, by something like 2500 years. Yet for political reasons he seeks to portray ID as creationism in disguise, because that deceitful tactic has worked so far in the courts. It even got a Bush judicial appointee to declare a classic philosophical argument held by a number of non-theists to be religion! He further confuses the purpose of ID arguments as an attempt to undermine evolution, when in reality the ID arguments (at least in general) assume no position on evolution. Some might, but many don't. The view ID is supposed to undermine is not evolution but naturalistic denials of teleology in nature (with the implied conclusion in many cases of theism). That is all Brownback is asserting, as it turns out.

He rejects evolution if "it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence." Using that criterion he'd have to reject all of science, including physics and chemistry!

Why do you have to reject all of physics and chemistry just because you believe in a guiding intelligence? I know of no halfway decent argument that divine purposes in nature are even remotely troublesome for anything in chemistry or physics. I would resist Brownback's connection between (a) derministic materialism and (b) denying a guiding intelligence. The first does not entail the second. You could be a materialist about human beings and a determinist about natural causes while accepting that the wolrd was nevertheless designed by God with certain purposes in mind. But you can accept contemporary science while denying materialism, just as you can accept contemporary science while denying determinism, and (most importantly) just as you can accept contemporary science while denying the naturalistic view that there are no divinely-inspired purposes in nature.

We don't reject the supernatural merely because we have an overweening philosophical commitment to materialism; we reject it because entertaining the supernatural has never helped us understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism—none of these perspectives has advanced our understanding of nature by one iota.

Entertaining the supernatural may not have helped a whole lot with explaining the physical causes within the natural world, but I can't see how anyone could assume that it has never helped explain the natural world in any way unless they're already committed to naturalistic materialism. What if this world was created by a divine being who had purposes in mind, including purposes for our lives, for how we respond when we see a beautiful sunset, for the sexual bond between a man and a woman, for all the capacities that human beings have (whether created in one fell swoop or through divinely established evolution), for the events of history? What if that being who created with these purposes in mind happened to reveal some of those purposes to us?

It follows, then, that understanding those purposes through that revelation does in fact shed quite a bit of light on the natural world. It doesn't tell us how electrons interact with protons, and it doesn't tell us whether gravity works because of the shape of space-time or because of very small particles. In other words, it doesn't tell us the answers to "how" questions. But it does tell us some of the answers to the "why" questions, and those questions surely are about the natural world. At least one purpose for a beautiful landscape is so that we can enjoy it. At least one purpose for sexual organs is not mere reproduction nor mere pleasure but the unity of a man and a woman in marriage. At least one purpose for the kind of developed capacities human beings have is moral understanding and the ability to worship God. I think this does help us to understand the natural world in some pretty significant ways, and I would argue that they are far more significant ways than any of the "how" questions that natural science can come up with on its own.

So it seems that Coyne's statement is simply false. He is in fact relying on a commitment to naturalism (or at least a denial of purposes in nature) when he says that the supernatural has never explained anything in the natural world.

So Brownback's proposal to bring faith to the table of science is misguided: "As science continues to explore the details of man's origin, faith can do its part as well." What part? Where are faith's testable predictions or falsifiable hypotheses about human origins?

When Brownback speaks of people of faith having something to bring to the table, he does not say that people of faith are going to be bringing testable, falsifiable predictions about human origins that comply with the methodology of naturalistic science. In context (and it just takes reading the previous sentence to see this) he's obviously talking about bringing philosophical tools to the discussion, I wish Coyne had been more willing to do. Brownback says:

It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science. Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table.

So what is brought to the table is philosophical reasoning. People of faith are more likely to see assumptions of methodological naturalism that might be questioned, because they question them. They're more likely to see when unargued assumptions related to naturalism are crucial for an argument, because that's the very place they would not follow the argument. So people of faith can make a particularly non-scientific contribution, and asking how that non-scientific contribution is going to meet particularly scientific standards misses the point entirely and misrepresents Brownback's position.

He accepts the common view that "science seeks to discover the truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths." Nearly all scientists would object to the word "created" in this sentence 

I think the 2/3 of scientists who believe in God would be perfectly happy with the word 'created'. Only the 1/3 who do not would object, and that is plainly not "nearly all".

but in any case it's doubtful whether any "truth" (in the sense of something that conforms to fact) can be gained through spirituality alone.

This is a philosophical presupposition, one that many philosophers have spent a lot of time confronting. I don't expect a biologist to know the details of contemporary work in the epistemology of religious belief, despite Coyne's own expectation that non-specialists in evolutionary biology will know the details of which views happen to be current in his own academic specialty. But the fact that such work exists is enough to show that Coyne is working from an assumption, one that is at least undefended. I think it happens to be false. I think knowledge is available through religious practices, as has been argued by many philosophers of faith, and this is knowledge of things that are true, i.e. factual. (Note: one does not possess truth but rather knowledge of the truth.)

Coyne then goes on to misrepresent Brownback even further, ruling out views by unargued assumption without even considering them and then acting as if the end result is simply the results of science. He says what Brownback must mean by "spiritual truth" is just whatever one happens to believe. He presents disagreements between Muslims and Christians over whether Jesus is the Son of God. One believes Jesus is. The other doesn't. That's correct. Each disagrees with the other about what the truth is. But that very fact shows that each does not think the truth of the matter is whatever one happens to believe. Each believes there's a fact of the matter independent of each's own belief, and each has a further belief that the other is wrong. The mere fact of disagreement does not mean that each believes the word 'truth' in this context to mean whatever one believes

People make this sort of statement with religious beliefs, but they never bother to notice that it applies just as easily (if it applies at all, which it doesn't) to other areas of disagreement. Does the disagreement between liberals and conservatives over affirmative action mean that affirmative action's goodness or badness is merely dependent on what the person speaking it happens to think? Does the mere disagreement mean that the word 'truth' when talking about affirmative action simply means whatever the speaker believes? Almost all philosophers I know seek to avert this kind of simple-minded relativism at the outset of any introductory philosophy course, because it is both insidiously common among undergraduates but inimical to any serious philosophical discussion.

Coyne then wonders why anyone should speak of spiritual truths to begin with, rather than beliefs based on faith alone. One reason is that they aren't merely beliefs. I would ask why we should speak of scientific truths rather than beliefs based on empirical discovery alone. The answer in both cases is that when something is true, it is true. Speaking only of beliefs, as if there is no subject matter for them to be about and therefore no truth or facts, is assuming the person of faith is wrong the same way it assumes the person who believes in an external world is wrong if you refuse to speak of scientific truths but only talk about empirical beliefs. The history of philosophy is rife with arguments against trusting your senses at all, and philosophers are by no means agreed that there even is a good response to those arguments, never mind agreeing on the one thing that really is wrong with them.

It always interests me to see people ignoring those arguments entirely in order to favor science while relying heavily on arguments of the same sort that apply to religion. This is an old mistake, going back at least to David Hume (although to be fair to him, he did present both arguments but just ignored half of them when it came to religion). But it is a mistake nonetheless, even if it is not a new one.

Coyne then proceeds to list some basic Christian beliefs that Brownback holds, decrying his insistence that empirical discovery couldn't refute them. But what's strange about Coyne's outrage is that these really are beliefs that empirical discovery wouldn't be the sort of thing that would disprove them. It's hard to see how scientific study could demonstrate that God doesn't have specific purposes for individuals.

Would Brownback believe these "spiritual truths" if he hadn't been taught them as a child, or brought up in the United States instead of China?

Two words: genetic fallacy

According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible. But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)?

I discussed this quote at the outset, but I wanted to say two things here. First, technically, atheistic arguments against the existence of God or against certain conceptions of God or certain arguments for God are part of theology. So yes, there is atheistic theology.

More importantly, it's worth saying again that Coyne has missed the point. Brownback does say that he should reject scientific findings if they conflict with his faith (but he gives no examples of any that he believes do so conflict). Scientific consensus does say that we evolved from smart apes on the African savannah four million years ago. So what? Brownback nowhere in his editorial denies that. He doesn't affirm it either, but the one thing he denies is purposeless, designless existence. Evolving from apes four million years ago is not the same thing as designless, purposeless existence. They are separate issues, since one is a "how" and the other is a "why".

Penultimately, Coyne lists a number of issues where someone's "spiritual truth" may conflict with scientific truth: "stem-cell research, abortion, genetic engineering, and global warming". Now it's true that someone could have some of the scientific information wrong related to stem-cell research. For instance, some people don't realize that adult stem cells have worked for many applications that embryonic stem cells haven't worked for, and some people on the other side don't recognize that embryonic stem cells just may have some potential that, if huge problems are eventually overcome, could prove to be more fruitful than adult stem cells. But neither of those issues has anything to do with truths about the supernatural. That's just ignoring some of science and favoring other scientific results. The same is true of all the other issues raised. Pro-choicers sometimes ignore that a fetus is clearly biological life, fully human, and its own organism with its own DNA. Pro-lifers sometimes ignore that the data isn't all that clear on how early a fetus can feel pain. But none of this is about anything anyone would call spiritual truth.

Then what is Coyne getting at? My best guess is that he's referring to the view that human life at any stage has moral worth. That really is a view that empirical study isn't going to prove. Some people seem to think the only reason anyone believes it is because of religious reasons, although that's not so. The strongest reasons most pro-lifers hold such a view are philosophical, not religious. But one thing is clear. That view is neither gotten by science or disproved by science. It is a view about what has moral status, which belongs not to science but to philosophy, since it is part of ethics. Empirical study may influence what we think about such matters. You may philosophically conclude that only beings that feel pain are morally relevant, and then you do empirical research to figure out what has signs of pain. But empirical science is then relying on a philosophical assumption (in this case a false one, in my view). Our fundamental moral assumptions are ultimately going to determine that sort of thing, and Coyne's are just as much unargued assumptions as anyone else's. So I think his complaint here is deeply confused and amounts to applying a standard to those he disagrees with that he won't apply to himself.

Now I have no idea why he lists global warming in this group of issues. Who has any religious reasons for anything to do with global warming? Some people think climatology is a pseudo-science. Others think the world is warming but not enough due to human impact that we can change much. Still others think we are contributing but don't expect it to continue or don't think the consequences are all that bad. But none of these reasons have anything to do with "spiritual truths". Unless he's referring to an extremist sort of view like the idea that we shouldn't care about the environment because the rapture is imminent (which even most pre-tribulational rapture proponents deny, because imminence allows for thousands of years before the rapture), I have no idea what he's getting at. If that view is his reason for mentioning this, then he has taken an extreme minority position among evangelicals as fairly important in understanding those who think spiritual beliefs are politically relevant, and that strikes me as being patently unfair. Either way, his inclusion of global warming in this list makes no sense.

Finally, Coyne's closing statement presents a nice irony.

Ignorance about evolution may be widespread, but it's not nearly as dangerous as dogmatic certainty about the real world based on faith alone.

It's hard for me to read Coyne's own piece as anything other than dogmatic certainty about the real world based on faith alone. It's not faith in the same thing he's complaining about, and what's dogmatic is not such much the results of science that he says he's championing but the assumptions he isn't thinking about explicitly but that he uses to do most of the argumentative work. But I have a hard time seeing it as anything but dogmatic faith in his controversial philosophical presuppositions. It doesn't help that it comes across in a particularly arrogant manner, either, but I'll leave Siris and Macht to deal with that issue.

7 Comments

Thanks for such a long and thoughtful response. I'll hopefully have a reply up soon.

Hi Jeremy. I just emailed you a question at your Gmail account. I hope that's ok. Thanks.

Thanks for the links and for bringing this to our attention. Great site!

Bravo on a good post! (Though on our metaphysical POVs, I think we are diametrically opposed.) Just a couple of points.

-I think you give Brownback far too much credit. The implication in his op-ed that he belives only in "microevolution" is a shorthand way for him to deny the basic empirical truth on the orgin of species. His "silence" on the question of whether or not humans evolved from ape-like creatures in Africa is nothing more than a political move allowing him to avoid asserting the unsavory(to most people who believe in science as a means to truth at all)hypothesis that man as we know him appeared into being, fully formed, at a certain moment in time. Do you honestly believe that this view, let's call it hard-line creationism, is NOT Brownback's real view? It is without question the view of much of his constituency. How I wish that Brownback could have written a op-ed elucidating the subtle co-opting of evolutionary theory with hard-line atheism. A sophistacted believer can easily believe in evolution as well as theism, though they would not be by-the-book bible literalists. Brownback likes that mantle a bit too much.

-You conflate contemporary ID arguments with traditional philosophical ones. Intellegent design as a philosopical stance gains it's purchase by arguing that the world as a whole shows elements of design. No speicific distinction is placed between living things and non-living things. The proof of design is "visible" everywhere. If it weren't, and design was only visible in living things, it would suggest that ONLY living things are designed. Not a very good argument for a perfect divine being who created the totality of existence. The philosophical design argument is broader in scope than most proponets of design today want to admit. As such, the philosophical argument has a rather a priori character (though I think this point has room for debate.) Contemporary ID argumets are distinctively non-philosophic in character, involving as they do deductions and inferences from specific empirical information. Arguing that the flagellum on some bacteria can only be created by intellegence is a scietific hypothesis (a bad one) in a way that a broader religious "design hypothesis" are not.

On a side note: As Hume points out, the philosophical design hypothesis is a different argument than arguments about the "orgin of worlds" or the "first-cause"...put the two often get conflated in the histronic blitzkrieg attacks on atheists by believers.

I don't think he implicates or implies that he believes only in microevolution. My impression on reading it is that he is sure he believes in microevolution but isn't sure whether to believe in macroevolution. I saw nothing that implies or implicates that he denies macroevolution. My main point in this post is that I can understand fully why someone would be genuinely divided on that point, which means we need not infer that it's merely a political ploy.

The word 'literalism' gets thrown around too much without any understanding of what it means for something to be literally true. See here.

I'm conflating nothing. The ID arguments I've seen are of the same form as the classic ones. They are inferences to the best explanation from a bit of data observable in science.

The ID arguments out there now do not insist that everything has visible design, but that is compatible with everything having been designed. It's just that the marks of design aren't present in everything. The ID arguments out there today do certainly involve non-living things anyway, since the cosmological constants are not alive. Since that's the most widely-accepted ID argument out there, I think it's a bit narrowly-focused on biological ID to ignore it.

I don't see any apriority to any design argument. The premise that's most important is something observed with the senses. I do see the classic arguments relying on observational data that scientific study can arrive at, e.g. the complexity of life, wonderment at how life could have come into existence to begin with, or indeed how certain events fit together so seemingly coincidentally as to fit a purpose. I don't see how those arguments are all that broad. They start with a specific observation.

I'm not sure what part of Hume you're referring to. If it's a distinction between design arguments and cosmological arguments, then of course there's a difference. But the cosmological ID argument is a design argument, not a cosmological argument. It starts with the observed fact that rational life would be impossible without a certain narrow range for each of a number of constants, and it infers that the best explanation is a designer who wanted rational life to occur. That is indeed a design argument, not a cosmological argument.

Thank you for responding. A few final comments.

1.-I concede your point that a technical reading of Brownback's essay does leave the door open for a belief in macro-evolution (henceforth called merely evolution). Perhaps I am just too aware of the social context within which this essay was written to see it with such unclouded eyes. Even though he doesn't officially denounce evolution, I still find his inability to endorse it's central tenets troubling. One could easily couch their affirmation of evolution within a context of religious faith, as John McCain has done. But to write an article for the New York Times called "What I think about evolution" and still provide no definitive answer about what he actually thinks is the matter of fact in this area strikes me as obscurantism of the highest rank. Ultimately, I think if you asked him point blank if humans evolved over millions a years from apes (and before that, fish) he would say "no." I admit however that this is somewhat speculative on my part.

2.-My discussion of ID was focused solely on the anti-evolution ID movement and as such has nothing to do with cosmological design considerations. I tend to think however that it's better to argue for one or the other as they can have the tendency to negate each others force. If one really believes that the constants of the universe were specifically tuned to bring about life, further argumentation that life couldn't have arisen without later divine tampering (creating structures like DNA and the bacterial flagellum)seems a little absurd. Why couldn't the divine creator of the universe have set the constants to create life without later intervention on his part. This "intelligent intervention" in the creation of actual life (and not the conditions of the universe in which it exists) is the hallmark of the anti-evolution ID movement. As a "scientific" theory ID doesn't dare claim to speculate on what designer is doing this job (or how). When philosophic design arguments are put forth, regarding life or the cosmos, they do want to suggest, nay prove, specifically divine hypothesis. My point was merely that the sophisticated (according to some) anti-evolution ID arguments are very limited in scope and portend to be scientific more than philosophic in character. Boundaries are porous here, I know, but-it's a distinction worth pointing out.

3.-You're probably right that philosophic design arguments are a posterori. They nevertheless seem to require certain (nebulous) a priori knowledge about what a non-designed universe would be like. This is why I find them so ludicrous. If a person argues that the existence of life implies design this entails that a universe without life would imply metaphysic randomness. So goes for any specific Design conjecture. Furthermore, if a theist endorses a first cause argument for god (as they often do), suggesting that for ANYTHING to exist it must have been caused by supernatural intelligence, any and all design arguments are atrophied as there could then be no counter example of any possible thing that could be undesigned. "Design" considerations are made redundant. This brings me to Hume.

4.-I suppose my point was merely that Hume firmly held skeptical beliefs about our ability to understand the first cause or "Origin of Worlds." As such, he thinks the best case to be made for theistic belief rests in the design argument and it is this line of defense that Cleanthes uses against the materialist Philo in Hume's Dialogue concerning Natural Religion. Of course, it is Philo who probably represents Hume's actual viewpoint. My addition of Hume was admittedly a bit of a tangent but while we were dancing around these ideas I felt it not wholly inappropriate to bring it up.


Thanks again,
Matt Sigl

Perhaps I am just too aware of the social context within which this essay was written to see it with such unclouded eyes.

And perhaps I'm just too familiar with the internal reasoning that I gave in this post that it sounds like he's also giving. When I read what I says, I hear what a lot of thoughtful, careful, intelligent evangelicals have wrestled with as I've presented it in this post. His language is not as careful or informed as I'd like, but there's enough in it that sounds like what I hear from people I know who wrestle with this who don't have the training I have.

the anti-evolution ID movement

If you mean the biological ID movement, it isn't anti-evolution. They have framed their arguments so that they do not contradict common descent. The conclusion is that there is a designer, not that the designer worked via special creation in achieving all of the things that display design. See here for my more extended argument for that.

I've addressed your worry that biological ID and cosmological ID are inconsistent here.

I believe both of the above-linked posts deal with the issue of front-loading all the laws in a way consistent with the ID claim that a designer is behind it.

I think the issue of whether ID is science is a lot less clear than people want to make it out to be. I've discussed that here. I do think it's clearly philosophy, but that isn't inconsistent with its being the kind of thing scientists regularly call science when they want to lend more credibility to what they're doing.

I'm sorry to be diverting all your questions to other posts, but I've written about this stuff enough before that it's not the best use of my time to keep repeating things I've already put a lot of time and effort into writing about before.

I can't think of any decent philosophical arguments that have no a priori commitments. The difference between an a priori argument and an a posteriori argument is that the former has no a posteriori reasoning, while the latter does. But most decent arguments have unargued premises that we simply assume because they just seem right to us.

It's a separate question whether the a priori component is plausible. I happen to think Aristotelian final causes are plausible, and I also happen to think they make no sense without a designer. Therefore, I conclude that the designer hypothesis is plausible. That's Aquinas' fifth way, and it's a classic design argument that seems pretty good to me.

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