William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Jerry Coyne Has A Go At Pope Francis. Shoots Self In Foot

One of the demons which torment Jerry Coyne?

One of the demons which torment Jerry Coyne?

Since it’s Halloween, we may as well examine the spooks, hobgoblins, and bogeymen which taunt and haunt the minds of our public undead, which is to say, our intellectuals.

Now no one of these creatures is frightening by himself. But when you gather them together and concentrate their power—say, in universities—they are like zombies. The slow kind, I mean. They move inexorably forward, infecting or killing every good idea in their path. Being undead, they are difficult to take down.

A common zombified idea (yes, zombified) is that evolution implies atheism, which is why you see such hysterical defenses of the subject whenever anybody challenges even the smallest part of the theory. The implication is false, always has been false, and is easily seen as false. Evolution is perfectly consistent with, for instance, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, among others.

Which is why Pope Francis, addressing a meeting of the Pontificial Academy of Sciences, said the other day that “Evolution in nature is not in contrast with the notion of (divine) creation because evolution requires the creation of the beings that evolve”.

This is almost a tautology. If you had no creatures, there would be no creatures that could evolve, n’est-ce pas? But where did the stuff that makes creatures come from? And, once these creatures got here, from where did the rules of evolution arise? Good questions, those. Here’s another: how did any of the rules, i.e. “scientific laws”, arise? Another: why is there something rather than nothing?

Pope: “The beginning of the world is not the work of chaos that owes its origin to something else, but it derives directly from a supreme principle that creates out of love…The ‘Big Bang’ [first posited by a Catholic priest, incidentally], that today is considered to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the creative intervention of God, on the contrary it requires it.”

The ever-angry Jerry Coyne was repulsed by the Pope’s commonsensical statement. He said there is “no evidence for the religious alternative of divine creation”. On the contrary, there is scads of it. There is more than a plethora. That Coyne does not know of this evidence, and not only publicly admits it, but boasts of his ignorance, is scary. Boo!

Coyne says, without supporting argument, that “the Vatican’s official stance on evolution is explicitly unscientific: a combination of modern evolutionary theory and Biblical special creationism.” If he means by “special creationism” that the rules of evolution and science and the universe itself (which is here defined as all there is) were designed and created by God, then he’s right. Modern evolutionary theory is, as Coyne suggest on this interpretation, not in the least inconsistent with Catholicism.

But I think instead that Coyne is just hyperventilating as biologists unthinkingly do whenever they hear the word “creation.”

The recent history of Catholicism and evolution is spotty. Pope Pius XII…insisted that humans…had been bestowed by God with souls, a feature present in no other species…Adam and Eve were seen as the historical and literal ancestors of all humanity.

Both of these features fly in the face of science. We have no evidence for souls, as biologists see our species as simply the product of naturalistic evolution from earlier species…Further, evolutionary genetics has conclusively demonstrated that we never had only two ancestors…

Coyne, of course, holds the zombified idea of soul, and has never bothered to teach himself what the soul really is. To Coyne, a “soul” is an aetheric, ectoplasm-like substance which hides from all known scientific probes. A chilling definition. Boo!

The mundane truth is that the soul is the form of man. Animals have souls, too, because they have forms. So do plants have souls. The nature of the human soul is different, because we are rational creatures, whereas animals and plants are not. Hey, Jerry, here’s some homework for you.

Could there have been a literal Adam and Eve? Our friend Mike Flynn provides the necessary reading here: “Darwin tells us..an ape that was not quite a man gave birth to a man that was no longer quite an ape…[who] had the capacity for rational thought; that is, to reflect on sensory perceptions and abstract universal concepts.”

Later Coyne says evolution “is not a process involving chance alone, but a combination of random mutations and deterministic natural selection” and he quotes Pope Benedict who said the “universe is not the result of chance”. Now this is scary. Coyne, whose self-labeled orientation is biologist, does not understand his own subject. Boo!

Evolution cannot be a product of “random” or “chance” mutations; neither did the universe come into creation by “chance.” It is unscientific in the extreme to think that “randomness” or “chance” cause anything to happen. Is Coyne saying evolution happens by magic? Randomness and chance are measures of (our) ignorance and nothing more. Because we don’t know how the various causes of evolution came about does not mean these causes don’t exist—and neither can we conclude therefore the system which designed how these causes would work does not exist. To claim otherwise is to embrace mysticism. How irrational. Boo!

Ready for some bone-chilling spookiness?

Let’s start with the Big Bang, which, said Francis, requires the intervention of God. I’m pretty sure physicists haven’t put that factor into their equations yet, nor have I read any physicists arguing that God was an essential factor in the beginning of the universe. We know now that the universe could have originated from “nothing” through purely physical processes, if you see “nothing” as the “quantum vacuum” of empty space.

Scare quotes around nothing! Boo! Somehow—more magic!—nothing is defined as a “quantum vacuum” and this “nothing” causes things to happen—never mind how!

Now we scientists would call the something that is a quantum vacuum something, not nothing. From whence did that vacuum, or whatever it is that is the most basic level of existence, arise? Obviously from God, because why? Because God is existence itself. There is no creation, no movement, no change, no nothing (i.e. something) without God.

Jerry Coyne “is in a tough spot, straddling an equipoise between modern science and antiscientific medieval” woo-wooiness (yes, woo-wooiness). He wants there not to be a God so badly that he is willing to abandon rationality and embrace magical thinking. Which is fine, except he wants you to do the same. Boo!

35 Comments

  1. Doesn’t something coming from nothing violate every physical law we hold dear? How did something just go “Bang” and there it was?

    There is actually a great deal of “chance” in evolution—where a species ends up can determine whether it survives or not. There is a causal chain in there somewhere, but I don’t see evolution actually caring about that.

    Of course evolution and religion are incompatible—that was the stated purpose of the theory of evolution “Now, we don’t need God”.

  2. I am willing to bet a large portion of my grandchildrens inheritance on the fact that the said Jerry Coyne was raised in a good Catholic home. His name, like my own, is straight out of county Galway in the west of Ireland. It is a sad psychological quirk that most Catholics gone wrong exhibit such disillusional, traits as does Mr Coyne.

  3. Sander van der Wal

    October 31, 2014 at 11:45 am

    “scads of it” is proof that the Theory of Evolution is not incompatible with Catholic Faith. A religion that specifically states that God created all animals and that no animal changed after that is of course incompatible with the Theory of Evolution.

    Same for the Soul. Catholic Faith has one definition of Soul, and other Faiths have other definitions. There might even be one with ectoplasm. So, for each Faith, you will have to check whether their Soul is scientifically testable.

  4. A politician, an engineer, and priest were discussing the origin of the universe and the nature of the first roles undertaken by intelligence.

    Engineer: When God made the universe he applied solid engineering principles – so, obviously, the first application of intelligence was to engineering.

    Priest: not so, God made the universe from chaos, the quantum vacuum, and what he made included engineering – so the first application of intellect was to admiration of his work.

    Politician: uh, huh, and who made the chaos?


    The whole thing is a “God’s father’ question – whether you ask where God came from, or where the vacuum came from, or where the universe came from, you’re asking the same question: what came before what is? Think about it and you’ll see that both Coyne et al and the church hierarchy are creationists differing only in their interpretation of the order in which the creation happened.

  5. There was a time in well-recorded history, not all that long ago, where the apologist’s explanations would have gotten the apologist burned at the stake.

    “God is existence itself” — That’s basically the identical sentiment [& less] as this from the aprophycal Gospel of Thomas: Saying 77b —

    “Li[f]t the stone and there you will find me. Split the wood and I am there.”

    The Catholic Church considers the Gospel of Thomas gnostic & heretical.

  6. Msgr. Georges Lemaître was the first person to find a solution to Einstein’s General Theory field equation. His solution described a universe that is expanding. The Big Bang is an implication of his solution. He did not posit it.

    After Einstein learned of Lemaître’s solution he added (the extremely well known) lambda to his equation to cancel the expansion as there was no observational evidence at that time.

  7. In the beginning was the Word
    Aumm
    The big bang
    Why are they all noises?

  8. Ye Olde Statisician

    October 31, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    souls, a feature present in no other species… We have no evidence for souls

    “Soul” (L. anima) simply means that something is alive. That is, its matter is in motion in an immanent way. Neurons fire. Leaves transpire. Soon-to-be-widowed praying mantises bite off their husbands’ heads. For evidence, check whether something is alive.

    Catholic Faith has one definition of Soul, and other Faiths have other definitions.

    So what. Biology has one definition of evolution and creationists have other definitions. That doesn’t mean all of them are wrong. However, the Orthodox, Coptic, and Oriental churches also have the same concept, as did pagans like Plato and Aristotle. The fact that Descartes and the Moderns have screwed it up is no more an argument against the soul than the existence of the Copenhagen, standing wave, multiple worlds, or transactional theories mean there are no quantum events.

    There was a time in well-recorded history, not all that long ago, where the apologist’s explanations (“God is existence itself”) would have gotten the apologist burned at the stake.

    No. That God is existence itself was Church doctrine.

    The Big Bang is an implication of his solution. He did not posit it.

    Sure he did. That’s why Hoyle mocked him as “the big bang man.”
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/1560259027/?tag=googhydr-20&hvadid=35022216684&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=10056077384078090344&hvpone=10.42&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&hvdev=c&ref=pd_sl_6gn8idq98a_b

    After Einstein learned of Lemaître’s solution he added (the extremely well known) lambda to his equation to cancel the expansion

    Nevertheless, it still moves.

  9. “Nevertheless, it still moves.”

    Wasn’t that Gallileo? 😉

  10. YOS, how does your definition of soul square with the Catholic one given here?

    http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-exactly-is-a-soul

  11. I agree with you in general on this one Briggs. Didn’t expect that did you? Maybe Coyne should be following your Sunday sermon series, said respectfully, and thus learn the arguments used by his opponents. Why don’t you invite him? Pope Francis did misspeak a little when he wrote:

    “… because evolution requires the creation of the beings that evolve”.

    This sounds like the linear concept of evolution shown here

    http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2010/10/28/article-1324243-0BCB8805000005DC-203_468x286.jpg

    Rather than the tree concept shown here

    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/leakeydiag.jpg

    Many people make this mistake though and I wouldn’t read too much into it.

  12. “Randomness and chance are measures of (our) ignorance and nothing more.”

    You have said that before but there are arguments based on quantum mechanical experiments, those that tested Bell’s inequalities for example, which say that randomness in the quantum mechanical context is ontological, not purely epistemological. In other words, when quantum mechanical things happen, such as a photon’s being either absorbed, or transmitted with an altered polarity, by a polarized filter oriented at an angle to the plane of polarization of an incident photon, that decision is truly random in the sense of being absolutely uncaused and undetermined by the then extant facts, and so introduces an entirely new and arbitrary fact into the constitution of the universe, and is not merely random in the sense that it was predetermined but we just didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the antecedent circumstances to have known what would happen. Now, in one sense, to call such events “random” does not imply attributing causal efficacy to “randomness” because the underlying premise is that the instantiation of one alternative and the corresponding non-instantiation of the other is precisely not “caused”. Looked at that way, to assert of the occurrence of an event that it is “random” is to assert that it is uncaused, not that it is caused by randomness. So, taking “random” with that meaning it is tautological that “randomness” is not the cause of anything. But that “randomness” is not the cause of something does not logically require that something “non-random” did cause it, unless you can prove that everything must have a cause, a proposition to which, as I understand it, 90 years of quantum mechanics stands opposed.

  13. Ye Olde Statisician

    October 31, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    “Nevertheless, it still moves.”
    Wasn’t that Gallileo? 😉

    In legend. He never actually said it. But I thought it was funny that people like Hoyle and (if only at first) Einstein were so insistent that the universe was not expanding only because of their prior assumption that the universe was eternal.

    YOS, how does your definition of soul square with the Catholic one given here?
    http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-exactly-is-a-soul

    Perfectly well, although the link goes a bit beyond mere definition and elides certain details. Why? Did you suppose that Aquinas was not Catholic?

  14. Why, yes, and physical law applies the moment you have a physis, and not an instant (if there could be one) sooner.

    Something didn’t. Nothing did. I suppose Someone must have given it a nudge.

  15. Let’s try that again:

    Doesn’t something coming from nothing violate every physical law we hold dear?

    Why, yes, and physical law applies the moment you have a physis, and not an instant (if there could be one) sooner.

    How did something just go “Bang” and there it was?

    Something didn’t. Nothing did. I suppose Someone must have given it a nudge.

  16. Sander van der Wal

    November 1, 2014 at 4:40 am

    @ YOS

    So Einstein made a mistake. He was gracious enough to acknowledge it as such, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. In which he’s quite correct, given the known size of the Universe.

    @JT

    You are saying that these quantum particles are their own First Movers.

  17. “Something didn’t. Nothing did. I suppose Someone must have given it a nudge.”

    Only if causality exists at quantum dimensions.

  18. YOS, “Why? Did you suppose that Aquinas was not Catholic?”

    But it is you that I am communicating with, not Aquinas and not the Holy See, and it is not clear to me that you are presenting official doctrine. Your definition of soul is so bland as to be devoid of meaning and since the details would seem to be very important, why do you omit them? Possibly, with these details Coyne’s understanding of soul is not so different.

  19. Ye Olde Statisician

    November 1, 2014 at 10:33 am

    YOS, “Why? Did you suppose that Aquinas was not Catholic?”
    But it is you that I am communicating with, not Aquinas and not the Holy See

    Why ask whether it is official teaching unless you want an answer? You could try the Ninth Article of the Council of Vienne. This may also help:
    http://dhspriory.org/thomas/QDdeAnima.htm

    it is not clear to me that you are presenting official doctrine.

    It ought to be, as you have yourself linked to supporting matter.

    Your definition of soul is so bland as to be devoid of meaning

    No, it is the Modern who insists that “soul” is without meaning. Therefore, any definition or discussion of it passes through without engagement. But “You can’t hold a conversation hostage because of your inability to understand a term.”
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2008/08/10/the-mode-of-analysis-proper-to-the-discussion-of-the-soul/
    There is a series starting here: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2014/07/in-psearch-of-psyche-some-groundwork.html
    but it is as yet incomplete.

  20. I don’t see this as leading anywhere YOS. To me your links contradict you, except for your own I suppose. Not everyone can be an effective teacher.

    Your Adam and Eve apologism was very creative and I’m guessing that it was presented to the Catholic Church for their consideration but reading various Catholic sources I don’t think that it has been accepted (satire). I see your interpretation of soul in the same light. If you think that I am a big bad modern for saying this, so be it.

  21. Ye Olde Statisician

    November 1, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    And yet, St. Thomas is accepted in the Catholic Church as the premier theologian, his teaching was confirmed in Western Ecumenical Councils, and is backed up by the Catechism. But what is that when weighed against web browsing!

    Please point out the contradiction.

  22. YOS, It is not Aquinas who I am questioning. It is your interpretation that I am having trouble with.

    “Please point out the contradiction”. I thought that I did but you have dismissed it. I am looking for insight not snark.

  23. YOS, again, Lemaître did not posit the “Big Bang” it “fell out” of his solution to Einstein’s field equations., i.e. run time backwards. He referred to it as the “cosmic egg.” Hoyle made fun of the “Big Bang” because he couldn’t accept the idea of a “time zero” or anything that smacked of Genesis…

  24. Ye Olde Statisician

    November 1, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    It is not Aquinas who I am questioning. It is your interpretation that I am having trouble with.
    “Please point out the contradiction”. I thought that I did…

    I saw nothing in your link that contradicted what Aquinas had said:
    To seek the nature of the soul, we must premise that the soul is defined as the first principle of life of those things which live: for we call living things “animate,” [*i.e. having a soul], and those things which have no life, “inanimate.”
    http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/summa/FP/FP075.html#FPQ75A1THEP1
    and again:
    We may consider this question in two ways. First, from the notion of a soul in general; for it belongs to the notion of a soul to be the form of a body.
    http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/summa/FP/FP075.html#FPQ75A5THEP1
    and the old Catholic Encyclopedia states:
    the rational soul, which is one with the sensitive and vegetative principle, is the form of the body. This was defined as of faith by the Council of Vienne of 1311

    I’m not sure what the stumbling block is here, unless it is an unconscious assumption of Cartesian dualism (and its attendant difficulties.)

  25. Nullius in Verba

    November 2, 2014 at 7:23 am

    “Doesn’t something coming from nothing violate every physical law we hold dear? How did something just go “Bang” and there it was?”

    It doesn’t violate the law. The law applies all the way up to the edge of time (to the extent that it applies anywhere), and there’s no ‘beyond the edge’ for the ‘nothing’ to be. It’s not ‘nothing’ like an empty vacuum, it’s ‘nothing’ like ‘to the north of the north pole’.

    It’s a common analogy that has been used by several cosmologists. Imagine the surface of the Earth was the entire universe of space and time, where ‘latitude’ measured from the north pole was time and ‘longitude’ was space. As we go further back in ‘time’ (northwards) the circles of longitude get shorter. If we consider each longitude circle as the ‘whole universe’ at one instant, and ran the time sequence forward, it would be expanding. But it you run this expansion backwards, eventually the universe shrinks to zero size, and all the particle histories converge. That’s obviously what you see at the north pole. The universe (longitude circle) appeared out of ‘nowhere’ and rapidly expanded, all the particles flying apart. But now, the question of “What happened before the big bang?” is literally ‘What is to the north of the north pole?’ Doesn’t land ‘appearing out of nowhere’ violate all the laws of geography we hold dear? Does the north pole require God, to ‘create’ longitude?

    There is no particular difficulty with the ‘something out of nothing’ aspect of the big bang. The bigger problem occurs because of the ‘everything in the same place’ issue. We don’t know what happens when stuff get above a certain density.

    If you want a mystery, it lies not at the moment of creation, but everywhere and everywhen. Why is there an Earth’s surface in the first place, whole and considered all at once? The question applies just as much to the current moment where you are now as to the big bang.

    “You have said that before but there are arguments based on quantum mechanical experiments, those that tested Bell’s inequalities for example, which say that randomness in the quantum mechanical context is ontological, not purely epistemological.”

    Sort of – it depends on the interpretation.

    For example, the Everett-Wheeler interpretation holds the quantum reality is in fact deterministic with no randomness in it at all. The observer becomes a superposition of observers – no component of the superposition being able to perceive any of the others – that jointly observe all possible outcomes simultaneously, but individually each observe exactly one. The appearance of ‘randomness’ is still ontological – it’s not simply ‘lack of knowledge’ about which outcome was going to happen, it reflects an objective fact about the world. But the thing that bothers people about randomness is what breaks the symmetry between the alternatives, deciding on one alternative rather than any other, and in this interpretation we see that the symmetry is not broken. Everything that can happen, does. There is no ‘potential’, only ‘actual’. What we think of as ‘potential’ is simply elsewhere.

    It would be fair to say, though, that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics does fit a ‘propensity theory’ model of probability, such as you describe. There’s no way to tell them apart experimentally – the question is metaphysical – so I don’t insist.

    Decision theory makes a distinction between the concepts of ‘probability’ and ‘Bayesian Belief’. They follow exactly the same mathematical rules, and are usually spoken of in the same vocabulary with the distinction neglected, which is why they are often confused. Probability is the ontological concept, while Bayesian Belief is the epistemological one. We don’t have any direct access to probability in objective reality – all our knowledge of the world is filtered through observation – so we can’t tell for certain what it really is. We can only talk about true probability in mathematical models – those made-up worlds of the imagination. Bayesian Belief is the epistemological approximation that observers in such universes (and maybe our own universe) can use to estimate true probabilities, but it’s a different thing – it’s subjective, multi-valued, and underdetermined. But with regard to reality, it’s all we’ve got.

    Briggs is talking about Bayesian belief, and saying that’s all there is. We can see it only as a shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave – Briggs is claiming that there is nothing outside casting the shadow: that the idea of true probability is an error, and all there really is is the epistemological shadow on the wall. I don’t agree. I think it might not be what we commonly assume/model it to be (as discussed above with Everett-Wheeler) – but I’m sure there’s something really out there to cast that shadow.

  26. YOS, “I saw nothing in your link that contradicted what Aquinas had said …”

    It’s as if you don’t even read what I write. In any case we seem to be talking past each other and so another scintillating conversation comes to an end.

  27. Ye Olde Statisician

    November 2, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Lemaître did not posit the “Big Bang”

    Of course not. He discovered it; he didn’t “posit” it. It was Hoyle who called it that, as a term of mockery, since he believed the discovery was conditioned on Lemaître’s Catholicism. (Actually, what he said to a companion at one of the Solvay conferences when he noticed Lemaître enter the auditorium was, “Look, here comes the Big Bang man.” I’m not sure what the distinction might be between a “cosmic egg” that suddenly expanded into the present universe and the “big bang” of an initial singularity. Surely, it is not semantics that hang us up!

    It’s as if you don’t even read what I write.

    Scotian, I still don’t know what you think is the contradiction.

  28. YOS, It is just that you wrote ““Soul” (L. anima) simply means that something is alive.” To which I linked:

    “The spiritual principle of human beings. The soul is the subject of human consciousness and freedom; soul and body together form one unique human nature. Each human soul is individual and immortal, immediately created by God. The soul does not die with the body, from which it is separated by death, and with which it will be reunited in the final resurrection.”

    You seem to have left out some important points. More than just details. Maybe soul is another of the unexplainable mysteries, like the trinity.

  29. Ye Olde Statisician

    November 2, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    You seem to have left out some important points.

    Heck. Aristotle, Aquinas, and others wrote entire treatises on the soul. But you start with a definition of the word — “anima”– which is what I gave. You can’t expect everything to be crammed into the definition of a word!

    You mention a lot that follows on from the basic definition, such as that the soul is the substantial form of a living thing and that soul-and-body jointly comprise human nature — Remember form-and-matter? This bodysoul ouisia is called Greekishly a synole and thinking about it is “synolistic” (although today we say “holistic”).

    Since all powers of a thing derive from its form, the power of consciousness derives from the soul (which is what “principle” means). The immortality of the rational portions of the soul follows from the immaterial nature of its objects. (The vegetative and sensitive parts of the soul perish with the material organs they use.) And so on and so forth.

    Don’t know why you think the Church has not thought this through in the past couple millennia; but this seems a lot like complaining that not everything about God is contained in the initial argument from kinesis. It doesn’t stop at the first proposition.

  30. YOS, “Don’t know why you think the Church has not thought this through in the past couple millennia”. Where do you get this stuff from? It is you, Mike, and your sometimes incomplete and often obscure way of writing that leads to my questions and I have been quoting others in an attempt to clarify the issue. I don’t like to be blunt but there you have it. I think that you are doing the same thing with your tangential Sumerian observation but I refuse to bite. There, that will confuse anyone else trying to follow this conversation.

  31. YOS has been perfectly clear and, indeed, patient.

  32. “Something didn’t. Nothing did. I suppose Someone must have given it a nudge.”

    Only if causality exists at quantum dimensions.

    Hans, do you have evidence that causality is suspended when things are really, really tiny? Or is that an assumption contrary to evidence but required by your desired conclusion?

  33. Dover, you misunderstand my relationship with YOS. He is a valued sparing partner who I wouldn’t debate if I didn’t think I might learn something. Clarity only comes with debate. You, on the other hand, are still under probation. 😉

  34. Nullius in Verba

    November 3, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    “Hans, do you have evidence that causality is suspended when things are really, really tiny? Or is that an assumption contrary to evidence but required by your desired conclusion?”

    Well, the rules of quantum physics are time reversible, meaning that everything on the microscopic level looks the same if played backwards. Hard to imagine a form of causality that can cope with that…

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