“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please”

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October 12, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please”

Jerry Coyne, who has taken to calling me “Uncle Karl” on his blog, has responded to some of my defenses of religion. I am not sure what I should think about being called “Uncle Karl.” I have some wonderful nieces and nephews up in New Brunswick, Canada, who call me “Uncle Karl,” and perhaps Coyne is just reminding me of this happy fact.

I continue to be surprised—and I mean that honestly—at the incoherent way that Coyne engages these topics. He reminds me of that great Monty Python skit about the customer who pays to have an argument, and then is frustrated because his sparring partner just sits there, responding with variations of “No, it isn’t.”

The classic Python sketch is hyperbole, of course, but I offer it as an illustration of how hard it seems to be to get Jerry Coyne into a real conversation about religion. He seems to think that any critique of religion is an appropriate response to any defense of religion, whether or not the comments are even related.

There are several examples of this, but I want to mention one particularly glaring one. A few months ago I posted a blog on the Huffington Post about mathematics. I was making a modest, albeit important, point—namely that the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical. I suggested that this mystery offered a “partial explanation for the religious impulse” and explained “why so many of us are driven to embrace realities that go beyond what science can establish with clarity.”

At no point did I suggest that the transcendent mystery of mathematics was grounded in God. In fact, I intentionally quoted from three mathematical physicists who had no conventional religious beliefs to make my point:

Contemplating the mystery that is mathematics led the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner to pen a provocative and widely reprinted essay about the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics." It has led Sir Roger Penrose -- one of our greatest living mathematicians -- to postulate the existence of a non-physical "Platonic realm" beyond the physical to make sense of the world. Einstein once commented, in reference to the power of mathematics, "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

The argument about mathematics is what I would call a preliminary argument. It opens space for other arguments but does not make dramatic claims on its own. It merely suggests that the physical world may not be all there is. It does not suggest, for example, that “God” is the rest of the picture. If it did, then Wigner, Einstein, and Penrose would all have believed in God.

If one accepts the incompleteness of the physical picture of reality then the follow up question is: “What is the nature of that which completes the picture?” I had the privilege of talking to Penrose about this one summer at Oxford, and he was clear that he saw no reason to infer God from the mystery of mathematics, but he was fully convinced that the power of mathematics implied that there was more to reality than just the physical. When I asked him why so many biologists disagreed with him he said, “Because they don’t know enough mathematics.”

The mathematical physicist John Barrow—who is a believer—made a similar point directly to Richard Dawkins. When Dawkins challenged Barrow in Cambridge about the mathematical precision found in nature Barrow responded: “You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you are not really a scientist. You are a biologist.” Barrow views biology as little more than a branch of natural history, and thinks biologists lack an intuitive understanding of complexity. Their study of the higgledy piggedy paths of life on this planet give them limited appreciation for the rich laws of physics that enable those paths. (Unfortunately the original link to this story has gone dead, but a version of it can be found here)

Coyne’s reponse—shared by hundreds of others who commented on my piece—went like this: “What really puzzles me about Giberson’s argument is not just his seamless transition from ignorance to God. It’s his transition to the Christian God, complete with Jesus, virgin birth, Resurrection, and all the accoutrements. (Giberson is an evangelical Christian)"

At no point in my piece did I even mention the word “God.” Here, in fact, is my rather modest conclusion:

“The quest for the deepest understanding of the world does not compel all of us to ponder the origin of mathematics. Many of us don't like math, have no idea what it means to say that "equations rule the world," and are thus not awed by math. And the quest does not lead all of us who are awed by such mysteries into religion. But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there. Whether they encounter something depends on factors that elude many of their less imaginative peers. This is a deeply religious impulse: one that goes beyond science, but not one without motivation.”

I am discouraged that our supposedly intellectual conversation about religion has become a “Fox News” debate where it is permissible to simply say “No, it isn’t” over and over again, rather than engaging in meaningful responses.

On his October 11 blog, Jerry Coyne asks “Can there be evidence of God?”.

Coyne’s question is a good one and even religious believers would disagree on the answer. The great skeptic Martin Gardner would answer “No” to Coyne’s question, while passionately affirming his own belief in God on non-evidentiary grounds.

I fear however that the real question for Coyne would not be, “Can there be evidence for God?”, but rather, “Could an atheist pay attention to an argument long enough to get the point?”


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


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Mondo - #35082

October 17th 2010

Mike, do you really want to play that game?

Coyne’s willingness to so flagrantly misrepresent the argument of his opponent

You then say that Coyne should issue “a retraction and sincere apology”.

So stop playing, Julie. Put your cards on the table. Is Coyne willfully misrepresenting Giberson or not? I welcome your retraction.


Mike Gene - #35084

October 17th 2010

You then say that Coyne should issue “a retraction and sincere apology”.

Sure, something like, “Karl, you’re right.  I did misrepresent your argument.  I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.  Now, can you address my claim about math.”  It’s at that point that Steve’s concern can kick in.


Mondo - #35087

October 17th 2010

Mike, when I said you claimed Coyne intentionally misrepresented Giberson, your response was that I misrepresented you, calling it a “projection”. I then present your quote,

Coyne’s willingness to so flagrantly misrepresent the argument of his opponent

I ask you to stop playing games. I ask you a direct question: Is Coyne willfully misrepresenting Giberson or not? You avoid the quote and avoid the question.

No more equivocating. Let’s hear it.


Mike Gene - #35092

October 17th 2010

Mondo,

According to you, I declared a) that Coyne is willfully, maliciously misrepresenting Giberson and b) that Coyne is engaged in wanton deceit. Clearly, I did not write those things.  So you must resort to “reading between the lines.”  All you got is this:

Coyne’s willingness to so flagrantly misrepresent the argument of his opponent

Nothing there about maliciousness or deceit.  What I think you have with Coyne is someone who quickly pounded out a blog entry while under the control of disconfirmation bias as he sought to maximally discredit Giberson (they do have history, after all).  When a brain is running according to disconformation (or confirmation) bias, it is prone to over-stating the situation or argument.  I doubt very much the misrepresentation was rooted in deceit.  It see it as being rooted in a form of stubbornness that comes from “knowing you are right” and you opponent “must be wrong.”  Essentially, Coyne over-reached because he was thinking more like a politician.


Mondo - #35102

October 17th 2010

Still playing, Mike?

Coyne’s willingness to so flagrantly misrepresent the argument of his opponent…

But until Coyne retracts and apologizes, I don’t fault Giberson for calling a time-out.

If Coyne wanted Giberson to address his “legitimate critique,” he could and should have written it up without the flagrant misrepresentation. I don’t think we should reward such behavior by ignoring it.

...Giberson has no reason to believe such misbehavior on the part of Coyne will cease…

...Dr. Coyne is quite the mentor, as his fans here expand on his mean-spirited mocking…How low will the New Atheists go?

Not only do New Atheists think it is okay to misrepresent arguments, but they defend the right to mock and insult people by denying they are mocking or insulting people.

New Atheists are so accustomed to smearing other people with their mocking and insults that they don’t even see themselves as doing it.

Coyne spun the argument as if Giberson was claiming more than he claimed.

[Emphasis added.]

You used the word “misbehavior” four times in reference to Coyne.


Mondo - #35103

October 17th 2010

[cont.]

Mike, now you are telling us with a straight face that saying a person has a “willingness to so flagrantly misrepresent the argument of his opponent” is a neutral statement regarding the ethical behavior of that person. Given your other comments quoted above, it is crystal clear that your purpose here to demonstrate the unethical behavior of Coyne and his minions.

Yet at the same time you claim that you are not attributing to Coyne maliciousness or deceit. Then why do you assert that Coyne needs to apologize? Ah, it’s because Coyne is misbehaving!

Classic equivocations from you, Mike. These shenanigans are perfectly obvious to anyone reading this. I suggest “clarifying” your comments a bit more. Or keep equivocating for fun and profit. It’s all good.


Mike Gene - #35113

October 17th 2010

You used the word “misbehavior” four times in reference to Coyne.

Yes, I do consider mocking Dr. Giberson and misrepresenting his argument to be misbehavior.  Just because it arises from a stubborn form of disconfirmation bias does not mean it is not misbehavior.  But given the manner in which you misrepresent my position, I can see why you would disagree.  You seem to take a criticism of Coyne personally (although you deny being a Gnu).

Why not get to the issue, Mondo?  Please go to Giberson’s HuffPo piece and find for me where in his argument that he engages in a “seamless transition from ignorance to God” and a “transition to the Christian God, complete with Jesus, virgin birth, Resurrection, and all the accoutrements.”  For that matter, can you quote where he simply mentions God or the resurrection?


Mondo - #35120

October 17th 2010

Still dancing, Mike? C’mon be serious. Though I do find this amusing.

You can see my response #35075 which answers your “get to the issue” question. The issue is that Giberson’s remarks are clearly ambiguous. Persons in good faith can interpret them either way. But no, you want to paint everyone who disagrees with your reading as somehow unethical. You are the extremist here, Mike.

You say that Coyne has a “willingness to so flagrantly misrepresent the argument of his opponent”. You say that he could have written his critique without misrepresentation. You say that “New Atheists are so accustomed to smearing other people”. You say that Coyne “spun” Giberson’s arguments. “Mean-spirited mocking” “How low will the New Atheists go?”

Now after all that, you have the audacity to claim that all along you were only gently suggesting that Coyne made a mistake.

When will you stop equivocating? Tell us what you mean. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve asked with no response: Is Coyne being intentionally unethical or not? Clearly that is your message here. Are you now retracting or supporting that contention?


Barry - #35122

October 17th 2010

Mike Gene

Mike, above (35113) you appeared to steer yourself away from Mondo’s argument that you claimed Coyne was “wilfully, maliciously mirepresenting Gilberson”. You said his argument was evidence of misbehavior…“misrepresenting his argument to be misbehavior.  Just because it arises from a stubborn form of disconfirmation bias does not mean it is not misbehavior.”

But you didn’t say whether he wilfully misrepresented Giberson’s argument…you just focused on the “misbehavior.”

The reason I ask, Mike, is because over here (http://biologos.org/blog/doing-battle-with-jerry-coynes-army-of-straw-men/) in post# 30613 you begin a series of posts in which you accuse Coyne of “Intellectual Dishonesty”. You ducked and weaved through criticism before landing on one example of “dishonesty”, the test for which Giberson also failed.

The pattern of your behavior is clear. You believe Coyne to be dishonest. You attribute motives to him that support your view. You then use attacks against individual’s intellect/cognition as a means of deflecting questions requiring you to justify this.

So, do you believe that Coyne’s behavior is dishonest?


Mike Gene - #35128

October 18th 2010

But you didn’t say whether he wilfully misrepresented Giberson’s argument…you just focused on the “misbehavior.”

You mean as in “free will?” 

you begin a series of posts in which you accuse Coyne of “Intellectual Dishonesty”.

LOL.  Yet another misrepresentation.  No accusation here, Barry.  I simply encouraged readers to do their own experiment, think for themselves, and reach their own conclusions. 

You ducked and weaved through criticism before landing on one example of “dishonesty”, the test for which Giberson also failed.

You mean this?


Mike Gene - #35129

October 18th 2010

Mundo:

You can see my response #35075 which answers your “get to the issue” question.

No you didn’t.  You need to go to the HuffPo piece and look for the place where Giberson engages in a “seamless transition from ignorance to God” and a “transition to the Christian God, complete with Jesus, virgin birth, Resurrection, and all the accoutrements” and then report back about what you found.

The issue is that Giberson’s remarks are clearly ambiguous. Persons in good faith can interpret them either way.

That’s not the issue.  Regardless of how one has decided to interpret a remark, the correct thing to do is to represent the argument of your opponent as accurately as possible.  This is a basic skill that is often taught in the introductory English courses – you are given an essay and then must write up a synopsis that describes the paper as the author intended.  It’s part of trying to learn to be as objective as possible.


Mike Gene - #35130

October 18th 2010

Being able to accurately describe someone else’s argument is actually very difficult for many people because they tend to be more focused on looking for places to debunk (disconfirmation bias) than trying to understand what is being said.  In many ways, it is similar to the signs of poor listening skills:

*Being preoccupied and not listening. 
*Being so interested in what you have to say that you listen mainly to find an opening to get the floor. 
*Formulating and listening to your own rebuttal to what the speaker is saying.
*Listening to your own personal beliefs about what is being said. 
*Evaluating and making judgments about the speaker or the message.

I’d bet that many of those dynamics were in play when Coyne was reading Giberson’s essay. 

“But no, you want to paint everyone who disagrees with your reading as somehow unethical. “

Well, I don’t think it is okay for people to misrepresent Giberson’s argument and call him “Gildo.” Do you?


Mike Gene - #35131

October 18th 2010

“Now after all that, you have the audacity to claim that all along you were only gently suggesting that Coyne made a mistake.”

Your extremist, black-and-white thinking is showing.  There is tremendous middle ground between “wanton deceit” (your words) and “a mistake.”  Much of the middle ground includes various forms of misbehavior caused by aggressive expressions of disconfirmation bias.


Mondo - #35132

October 18th 2010

Mike, are you contending that Coyne is being dishonest?


Barry - #35165

October 18th 2010

Mike Gene - #35128

“No accusation here, Barry.  I simply encouraged readers to do their own experiment, think for themselves, and reach their own conclusions.”

So, when you “encouraged readers to do their own experiment” on whether Coyne met the 10 criteria for intellectual honesty, it wasn’t to imply, on your part, that Coyne was intellectually dishonest? Furthermore, when you actually reached your judgment on the second criteria in your post #32070 (“Karl Giberson passes the second criterion of intellectual honesty and Jerry Coyne does not”), you didn’t mean that by failing this test Coyne was intellectually dishonest?

You cast spurious unsupported assertions and you don’t back them up. It’s a nasty tactic of guilt by association and you have the gall to plead “namecalling” by atheists like me.

I see Mondo #35132, is still waiting for a simple answer to a simple question. I asked a similar question in #35122.

Do you believe that Coyne’s behavior is dishonest?


Mondo - #35278

October 18th 2010

Mike,

Let the jury be informed that you refused six times to answer the question. (If you finally address it, I’ll gratefully amend the record to say four refusals.)

Your intention here is quite clear (experts at #35102), yet you continue to squirm away whenever someone asks you directly. You would rather insinuate than say it. You would rather complain that you are being mischaracterized than characterize yourself. You don’t like my assessment of your words, but you won’t tell us what you mean by them. You repeatedly refuse to do so.

Mike, would you please stop playing games. Elsewhere you said,

It would thus appear that Coyne has become a crackpot.

http://telicthoughts.com/mike-gene-is-back/

Google turns up similar bon mots regarding your Coyne fascination. At this blog alone you have touted your “signs of intellectual honesty” on at least four separate occasions, targeting Coyne or New Atheists or anyone who fails to agree with you. You call Coyne an extremist and so forth. Why the pretense about the purpose behind your winsome performance on this thread?


Mondo - #35279

October 18th 2010

[cont.]

What is going on here, Mike? Do you really think lurkers will not notice that you continued to dodge the same question at #35082, #35087, #35120, #35122, #35132, and #35165? Do you really think nobody would google your opinion of Coyne? Do you really think clamming up about your Julie Thomas alias will work? What planet are you from?

To onlookers: please note any non-answers to the above paragraph (if the last one is answered, check that it says “Earth”).

This stuff, Mike. This is what shakes people’s heads. In many ways it parallels the You’re Not Helping blogger / Intersection puppeteer: A Christian conducting personal attacks on scientists (Coyne in particular). A person who proudly believes he is on the side of good, but ends up doing bad. A person who offers us detailed outlines of good behavior but does not act in accordance with those outlines. Pseudonymity is employed to make attacks which would be less extreme or nonexistent without pseudonymity. In both cases the person’s zealotry undoes his own pseudonymity, propelling him to unfairly demonize too many people while dropping too many clues.


Mondo - #35280

October 18th 2010

[cont.]

Here is what you said in another thread on this blog,

Because when you are advocating for your social agenda, you tend to jettison intellectual honesty and critical thinking.

This is the problem, Mike. You have an ideological agenda. The outcome is a personal attack on Coyne. Reasonable people see it as wholly irrational. It’s just like the YNH blog / Intersection puppets.

In this thread you gave us tips on “listening skills”, but you failed to employ those very skills. You twice missed the elementary reasoning I presented to you. Look at #35054 and #35075 again. Nobody has claimed that the HuffPo article contains references to Jesus or God. However it is quite reasonable to conclude that Giberson’s HuffPo piece is meant to advocate, however modestly, for religion.


Mondo - #35281

October 18th 2010

[cont.]

Consider how Giberson begins the article,

The most trivial part of the relationship between science and religion, and yet one that generates lots of debate, is the simple question of compatibility: Can they co-exist?

...

So why religion?

Mike, why don’t you see room for ambiguity here? I independently received the same impression as Coyne. Am I being dishonest? Is Coyne? Why the veiled attacks on Coyne’s character? And, by extension, on my character?

I believe Giberson is being honest. And he’s not implying that Coyne is being dishonest. Giberson appears genuinely confused by the reaction, and he should be. He didn’t realize his article was so ambiguous. Again, it’s the pattern A A A A A B which throws people—-“B” being the point of the article, “A” being the point of all his other articles (roughly speaking). Furthermore, B begins just like A. There is no reason to suspect dishonesty on the part of Gnus. Can you accept that possibility, Mike? Or will you again pull out your “ten signs of intellectual honesty”, proceed to not follow them yourself, and then suggest that your opponents are being dishonest?


Gregory - #35417

October 19th 2010

Something I read recently that I’m sure Mike Gene could appreciate:

“it is difficult to understand the degree of fervour and hostility that debates over evolution and creation inspire without taking seriously that it is simply not enough to practise science competently. One must practise science for the right reasons. To see this additional requirement in play, check out the high proportion of charges on both sides of the recent evolution-creation debates that relate to ‘misrepresentation’ of various sorts. These turn less on error of fact than on lack of sincerity, the difference being that while ‘error’ suggests a fairly local and remediable mistake, ‘insincerity’ alludes to a deeper and perhaps irremediable character flaw. It is the difference between someone who lacks a piece of decisive information capable of prompting the retration of an earlier assertion and someone who already possesses that information yet persists with the earlier assertion for their own insiduous reasons.”

I wrote ‘Mike Gene’ in the margin with a smile underneath.


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