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?”