The late John Davison often remarked that science could only answer “how” questions, not “why”. It seems to me philosophers, perhaps I’m really thinking of philosophers of religion rather than in general, attempt to find answers to “why” questions without always having a firm grasp on how reality works. Perhaps this is why there is so much talking past each other when the explanatory power of science vs other ways of knowing enters a discussion.
I’ve not been particularly motivated to read the anti-religious output of the “Gnu” atheists. I’ve not read Dawkins’ The God Delusion or any of Sam Harris’ output. I did read God is Not Great because someone lent me a copy which I found an entertaining polemic against some sacred cows (not the least being Mother Theresa) but I doubt I would have considered buying Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible as I have no need of such arguments being already convinced that no religious dogma has ever yet provided an answer to a “how” question.
But my eye was caught by a post at Uncommon Descent perhaps hopefully entitled “Feser Demolishes Coyne“. I’ve mentioned Edward Feser before (he teaches religious studies at Pasadena City College in California). He’s an outspoken right-wing Catholic blogger with a loyal following and a seemingly intense dislike of Jerry Coyne. The article applauded by Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent is published at “First Things” (America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion & Public Life ). Feser writes confidently and pejoritavely, finishing with a final barb:
For considered as an omnibus of concrete examples of elementary logical fallacies, Faith versus Fact is invaluable.
By Feser’s standards, the review is brief. Feser lambasts Coyne for choosing to direct his fire on the poster child of anti-science and anti-evolution, US-style Creationism, complains that Coyne defines science too broadly and that Coyne equivocates on the description scientism by embracing it. So I bought the book.
Regarding Feser’s complaint that Coyne focuses on US Creationism, in his first chapter, Coyne goes to some length to explain why he is most concerned with the US and Creationism. Creationism is rife in the US where he teaches, it is anti-evolution, a discipline that he teaches and holds dear and it is the area of scientific/religious conflict that he is familiar with.
As to defining science, Coyne writes (p 39):
In fact, I see science, conceived broadly, as any endeavour that tries to find the truth about nature using the tools of reason, observation and experiment.
Seems reasonable to me. A scientific approach is starting with some observation, some phenomenon, and moving through “that’s interesting” to “what’s going on” to hypothesis testing. But surviving everyday life relies on accepting and working with the regularities we find in the real world around us. Water won’t run uphill without a source of energy, and water running downhill can produce large and useful amounts of energy.
As to the charge of scientism, Coyne tackles this in some detail (according to Kindle, Coyne uses the word 43 times in the book). He points out “scientism” is invariably a pejorative term used to denigrate the idea of scientific endeavour as the only way to know anything about the external world. He demonstrates the equivocal meaning of scientism by suggesting four shades of meaning and embraces the first – that science is “the sole source of reliable facts about the universe.” By that definition, Coyne cheerfully admits:
…most of my colleagues and I are indeed guilty of scientism. But in that sense scientism is a virtue -the virtue of holding convictions with a tenacity proportional to the evidence supporting them.
I propose Feser’s review as evidence supporting my hypothesis that scientists concern themselves with how things really are and religious philosophers seem to ignore reality when clinging on to their rationalisations of why things are how they assume them to be.
Incidentally, I find Coyne’s book well-written and not at all polemical as might be expected if one assumed Feser’s review was at all accurate.