Monday, 22 September 2014

(Not quite) Richard Rorty vs Jerry Coyne, on "The Compatibility of Science & Religion"

Richard Rorty's talk on "The Compatability of Science & Religion" is available on YouTube here:

Rorty (1931-2007) espoused philosophical pragmatism and a pragmatist view of language.
My understanding is that he came to this position via analytic philosophy, in which the main concern is the analysis of language (and therefore of thought).

In this talk, Rorty rehearses and develops pragmatist (James & Dewey) notions of different descriptions of things - such as scientific and theological descriptions - as serving different needs (towards human happiness), there being no one description that is closer to "reality" than any other, and this being a kind of utilitarian concept of language. 'True' is 'belief that works'. This Pragmatist approach towards language gives up on attempts to search for "truth", in the sense of descriptions of the intrinsic nature of things, or what things really are in themselves.

He says, at about 17 minutes:
"These philosophers [Pragmatists] all deny that truth is a matter of correspondence to the way things are independent of our needs, for, they argue, there is no way we could ever test for such correspondence: any proposed test would have to compare the way we talk about things with the way things are apart from being talked about; and we have no idea what such a comparison would look like."

He goes on to discuss William James' essay "The will to believe", which is James' reply to the charge made by scientist-positivist W K Clifford that religious belief is intellectually irresponsible and "sinful" because it is belief on "insufficient evidence". 
In reply James questions the assumption that evidence "floats free of human interests". 

On the egalitarianism which runs through Mill's (utilitarian) and James' (pragmatism) work, Rorty says: "[it] is a moral attitude which ... could only flourish in a culture which had been told, century after century, that God's will was for human beings love one another."

The conclusion of the talk is something along the following lines (I'm paraphrasing). 
Lives that have been "smooth" (Rorty's term) may not contain moments of agony where religion or religious kinds of experience arise. A person asserting that religion is not any kind of knowledge or source of knowledge, or not serving any kind of dimension of human life, may well have known only that kind of "smoothness". (There is a temptation to deny feelings in others that are unknown to oneself, maybe accompanied by feelings of indignation that others should claim to have had those unknown feelings). Meeting such a person, and wanting to challenge his assertion, it is pointless to urge them to agonise or wax philosophical.

Now, having listened to Richard Rorty (philosopher) it might be interesting, or a challenge, or curious, to hear Jerry Coyne (evolutionary biologist) lecture on "Why science and religion should not cohabit" (the in-compatibility between science and religion), here:

In the opening few minutes, the premise of Coyne's lecture emerges: that there is a conflict because religion and science - he claims - compete as accounts of 'what there is'. I don't accept this characterisation of religion. (Compare the passage in Rorty's talk in which he mentions the period in which, on the whole, religious institutions - at least the Christian religion - stopped attempting predictions of events in nature when science was seen to do this better). But Coyne, lecturing in Edinburgh University, UK, may be describing a particular section of the religious community, in the US especially, that is opposed to certain scientific claims or theories and offers alternative revelatory claims or speculations as preferred accounts of 'what there is'. It strikes me that Coyne takes this form of religion to be what religion is, opposes it, and builds his presentation on this narrow platform. In my view it is a too-limited view.

Philosophical reflection on the metaphysical aspects of science, the philosophy of science, or epistemology - how and what we can know - bring one into contact with the issues Rorty raised about "truth" (e.g. the passage in his talk quoted above, about truth as correspondence). Through this effort of reflection it may be possible at least to see where Rorty is coming from, so that whether one agrees or disagrees with his philosophical pragmatism, one will at least have developed appreciation of the different philosophical positions and, with that, the humility to acknowledge that these are open questions, and demanding of the best intellectual efforts to address adequately. Only when one's assumptions and myths are challenged - when life is not "smooth" - will study of these things appear as important or necessary. Only an unchallenged mind is going to dismiss them as nothing at all to bother me about.

Compare Rorty's closing statement on the "smooth" life, free of agony (as one in which religion and faith can appear as alarming, irrational or barmy) with the more acerbic but (I believe) similarly intended words from Terry Eagleton's 2009 lecture "Christianity: fair or foul" (

"The trouble with the Dawkinses of this world ... is that they don't find themselves in a frightful situation at all. ... [For them] things are just not that desperate enough and in their view it's simply self-indulgent leftist rhetoric to imagine that they are. Your average liberal rationalist doesn't need to believe that despite the tormented condition of humanity there might still, implausibly enough, be hope, since he doesn't believe in such torment in the first place."

I borrow from the same lecture by Terry Eagleton* the following analogy to help convey the flavour of Jerry Coyne's lecture at Edinburgh University: Listening to Jerry Coyne lecture on religion and theology is like listening to someone talk about a novel as if it is a piece of botched sociology.
That says it all.

*(Eagleton's lecture is one of four presented in his "Reason, Faith and Revolution", 2009)

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