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AmericanGodless's Avatar Jump to comment 69 by AmericanGodless

Thank you Styrer, for your "rant." I think that it raises a valid concern; but Jerry Coyne, I think, is no fan of NOMA. When he says that the question of the compatibility of evolution and religious faith should be left to the theologians, while the biologists just concentrate on showing that evolution is true, I believe he is on solid ground. In a similar manner, the question of the compatibility of orbital mechanics and physical cosmology with astrology should be left to the astrologists.

However, I am troubled by a bit of "NOMA-like" sentiment when, in the last chapter of his recent book, he attempts to calm the misgivings of some who think that if evolution is taught in the biology class, then soon material naturalist ethics will be taught in the sociology class. This, he says, unnecessarily alarmist. How can you derive meaning, purpose, or ethics from evolution? You can't. Evolution is simply a theory about the process and patterns of life's diversification, not a grand philosophical scheme about the meaning of life.
I find it difficult to believe that Coyne really believes this. It is similar to the conceit of Eugenie Scott, among others, that the naturalism of science is no threat to religious belief, because science just makes use of "methodological naturalism," which is distinct from the "philosophical naturalism" that would inform a true worldview, or, shall we say, a "philosophical scheme about the meaning of life."

I once asked Scott (up close after one of her lectures, when only a few people could overhear the conversation) whether it wasn't true that naturalism guides the design of many, if not all experimental protocols in science, and so is one of the cluster of theories that is tested by those experiments. Since those experiments continue to be successful in revealing a universe that needs no non-natural components to our theories, does that not make naturalism a well-tested unifying theory, rather than merely a "methodology" that can be left hanging in the laboratory along with the lab coat. She agreed that, yes, naturalism is a theory with ever-increasing confirmation. But she won't say so publicly.

What Coyne seems to be supporting here is "methodological evolution" (-ism?). The meaning of life and the purposes and ethics that we construct for ourselves cannot help but be strongly influenced by our knowledge of what we are and how we got here, but he is suggesting that those who wish to do so can still pretend that naturalistic materialism need play no part in the cultural discussion. He is welcome to do so, but if that is what he wants to do, that is where I must part company with him. As Dennett has written, "Freedom Evolves," and the mutational force for that evolution is the ever-expanding self-knowledge that we can accumulate. To say that evolution, and the knowledge that it is true, has no bearing on human meaning, purpose and ethics, is to abandon the real cultural progress that must be the long-term goal of science.

Material naturalist ethics in the sociology class? I certainly hope so.

Wed, 25 Mar 2009 11:52:00 UTC | #339311