Friday, November 04, 2011

Haught vs Coyne: "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?"

John Haught and Jerry Coyne "debated" the topic of compatibility at the University of Kentucky on October 12, 2011. If you are interested in this topic you MUST watch the entire video AND the question and answer session.1

This is a classic confrontation between a "sophisticated" theologian and a scientist who knows what religion really is (in South Chicago).

The sophisticated theologian is John Haught, a Roman Catholic (with all that implies). His talk consisted largely of the claim that there are many different layers of explanation. According to Haught, science, by definition, can only address one layer—the naturalistic layer. He claims that he and his fellow theologians are "explanatory pluralists" whereas atheist scientists are "explanatory monists."

By implication, it's better to be an explanatory pluralist IF THE MULTIPLE LAYERS OF EXPLANATION ACTUALLY EXIST. Haught offers not one iota of evidence for the existence of those multiple layers beyond a childish story about boiling water to make tea. (It's the same story he used in the Kizmiller v. Dover trail.)

Haught does not address alternative definitions of science even though a bit of homework would have shown him that Jerry Coyne doesn't accept his definition of science. Apparently, Haught didn't do his homework. This is surprising since Haught's entire case depends on accepting the idea that science and religion are compatible because science can't address the supernatural. In other words, compatibility by fiat.

You'd think that a "sophisticated" theologian would be prepared for someone who challenges that definition. Haught wasn't prepared. In fact, even during the Q&A he doesn't seem to have grasped the problem.

Haught conveniently "forgets" to mention anything about his religious beliefs other than that they involve personal revelation (faith). He doesn't tell us what he believes about transubstantiation, miracles, the virgin birth, the efficacy of prayer, the resurrection, the existence of a soul, heaven, hell, angels etc. That's a shame because Jerry Coyne addresses most of those beliefs and argues that they are incompatible with science. Haught will only reveal (in the Q&A) that he doesn't believe in any of the things Coyne addressed in his presentation. One wonders if Haught is really a Roman Catholic.

I'm getting pretty disgusted with those "sophisticated" theologians who hide behind fuzzy notions of religion when you know damn well they believe in a personal god who intervenes in the world. Haught has been playing this game for decades. Either he's a deist—in which case he should come right out and admit it—or he believes in a personal god who does things that possibly conflict with science—in which case he should have the courage to defend his beliefs.

2011 Bale Boone Symposium - Science & Religion: Are They Compatible? from UK Gaines Center on Vimeo.

Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? October 12, 2011 Q+A with Jerry Coyne and John Haught from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.

1. There's a special treat in store for those who watch the Q&A. You will get to see an incredibly stupid first question from the moderator. I don't think I could have restrained myself the way Jerry Coyne did.


  1. Whoa... Haught consented to release the video? The fact that he put up such a fight to prevent it from being released should say more than the debate itself ever could.

  2. I just watched the Q&A, and was very confused at the end, when Haught said he didn't believe any of the standard doctrines of Christianity that Jerry mentioned. Haught should clearly be excommunicated, which is probably why he avoids actually saying clearly what he does and doesn't believe. I think that Larry's right, Haught's just a deist. He's a desist who has spent so much time identifying with the Catholic Church that he has too much to lose by going public with the fact that he doesn't believe any of the things they say a member of their church must believe. It's very annoying that he won't be honest. I think this is the true mark of sophisticated theologians, telling us that they don't believe in any of the literal stuff, but then not telling us what they do believe. It's extremely dishonest, and possibly even cowardly. I wish these people would just clearly state what it is that they do believe...

  3. The argument is nuts.

    There is only one level that is correct to answer on, and that is on the level one thinks the question is applying to.

    That is, when someone enters the house and ask "why is the water boiling ?", they do not want the scientific answer - they want to know why THERE IS water on the boil.
    The only correct way to answer, of course, is to state why someone wanted some boiling water - an answer to do with intent.

  4. I think the key is the "IF THE MULTIPLE LAYERS OF EXPLANATION ACTUALLY EXIST". Science and religion are compatible in the sense that one can conceptualise a scenario in which a deity exists and science does not know/care. I believe it's called Deism. One can conceptualise them, yes, but conceptualisation does not make them true. The important thing is that not ALL religion is compatible with science and, for me at the least, the religions that ARE compatible are largely pointless and irrelevant.

    I'm yet to watch the video (although I will) but it sounds like Haught knows this and is playing the game of talking about a deist-like non-interventionist god, while at the same time trying to imply that is is also true for other religious positions, such as Catholicism. He gets caught on this in the Q&A and has to reject Catholicism (in essence, if not explcitily) to maintain his position. It is right to attack his defence of universal compatibility and force him to explicitly recognise that not all religions - including most of the major ones - are compatible with science.

    On the other hand, I think the atheists need to be careful too. In "The God Delusion", Dawkins defines "God" (and hence religion) in a very particular way - Deist gods are excluded. (Who cares, or can say anything, about a god that does nothing?) This is useful for such a book and enables reference simply to "god" or "religion" but when targeting the wider population with the notion that "religion and science are incompatible", one has to remember that this is only true for some (albeit probably most) religion. Otherwise, one paints oneself into an uncomfortable corner where on has to start attacking legitimate (if pointless) positions to maintain an over-zealous statement. (As I say, I have not seen the video yet, so I am not suggesting Coyne does this. I have seen it happen on discussion boards etc. though.)

  5. Maybe I didn't listen carefully, but it seems, that John Haught's only argument for compatibility of religion and science is that you may put some meaning into what you read (it's that "other kind of evidence") - i.e. you can make stuff up.

    But you can put any meaning into any book you want. And if you can imagine whatever you want, how it could bring you closer to truth?