After posting yesterday’s article, Jerry Coyne Doesn’t Have Free Will (poor fellow), I immediately saw hits coming to my place from Coyne’s. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, the afternoon before, Coyne had published his own article “I am honored by theologians: there’s now a ‘Coyne Fallacy’!!!“, in which Coyne promotes me to the level of theologian. A fun coincidence and unexpected accolade.
Coyne was interested in his own encomium, the Coyne Fallacy, a neologism which appeared in my review of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God.
Let’s get one popular fallacy out of the way. This is the most-people-believe-what’s-false-therefore-it’s-false fallacy, or the Coyne fallacy, named after its most frequent user, Jerry Coyne. This fallacy is used to reject a proposition because most people misunderstand or hold false beliefs about that proposition. So that if the average church or temple goer has a definition of God that suffers certain inconsistencies, therefore God doesn’t exist. If you accept that then you’d have to believe that since the average citizen has mistaken ideas about evolution (holding to Intelligent Design, say), therefore evolution is false. Truth is not a vote.
Straightforward, yes? An obvious fallacy, is it not? Embarrassing to be caught using it, wouldn’t you say?
Suppose an individual proposes God is made of pressed farina and egg. (Well, people do say these kinds of things.) Would that curious proposal therefore prove, or even hint, that God does not exist? God as defined in careful and deliberate prose by Hart as the ground of being itself, the necessary being; the God of Aquinas, as laid out in this series. I mean, wouldn’t it be farcical if somebody in earnest said, “Because some people hold that God is made of pasta, therefore the God of Aquinas etc. does not exist”?
Coyne takes pains to show a list from some poll which says, among other things, that some 57% of Americans believe “Jesus was born of a virgin.” The most one could draw from that would be observations like 43% of Americans have some reading to catch up on, or we’re not doing a good job conveying dogma, and so on.
The Coyne fallacy would be committed if one were to try use the errors of Americans to hint or to attempt to prove that God does exist. Right? Here is Coyne’s answer to the Coyne Fallacy. He first quotes me, then says this:
That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The fallacy, ascribed to me, is to claim that because a group misunderstands the nature of something, that thing doesn’t exist. So it’s just as false to say God doesn’t exist because some Christians (or atheists) have a “false” notion of who He is as it is to say that evolution doesn’t exist because many people misunderstand it.
If what I said was the “dumbest” thing he’s ever read, then it proves Coyne doesn’t get out much. The rest of that paragraph is a restatement of the fallacy. He then says:
And yes, many people do misunderstand evolution. But there’s a difference between evolution and God. Do I need to point out that we have evidence for evolution but not for any kind of god, from Demiurge to the Ground of Being? That’s a big difference. So we can correct misunderstandings about evolution because, as evolutionary biologists, we know how it works. David Bentley Hart has only a knowledge of what other theologians said and whatever revelations strike him when contemplating the Numinous.
Clever readers will have noticed old Jerry (may I call you Jerry, Jerry?) never answered the charge. He instead claims that scientists have no business using mathematics because—wait for it…wait for it—there is no empirical evidence for mathematics! Ha ha! Ain’t that rich.
Sorry, Jerry, old son. It won’t do. First, you stand guilty as charged. You have used the Coyne Fallacy before, and you use it in your attempt to claim innocence of its use. That so many Americans do believe in a Demiurge (Hart explains this term at length; see the review), or something like it, and have false notions of God, does not hint at nor does it disprove God Himself exists.
Second, as for your strange ideas about empiricism you—what’s that? You didn’t say anything about mathematics? Oh. How silly of me.
There is no empirical proof of mathematics, nor of logic, yet I’d wager Coyne (and other atheists) are happy to use, rely on, and trust both. (If you disagree, email me the infinite subsequence of an infinite sequence; any sequence will do; be sure your email client allows large files.) Logical positivism, and the extreme empiricism which accompanied it formed, as the late great David Stove said, an episode of “black comedy in philosophy.” Somehow the word about the failures of positivism did not get back to scientists. Well, these things take time. Been about a century now. Still. Grants proposals and such can distract one so.
Anyway, arguments about the nature of God are necessarily metaphysical, philosophical, and, yes, theological. About the first two, like in mathematics, empirical proof will forever be lacking, but about the last, why, there is loads of empirical evidence! The resurrection of Jesus alone, an empirically verified event, i.e. a whopping piece of observational evidence, has kept authors busy for two thousand years. So, please, no more carping about “lack of evidence.”
In his post, Coyne pointed to my “Who is WMB?” page, which excited many of his readers. Many were in awe of my status as Thought Leader (Slogan: “Have your thoughts led by me”). I recall well the press release announcing this lofty post:
FOR IMMEDIATE & PERPETUAL RELEASE
It can now be revealed that my recent secret trip was to secure a reverse MBAectomy, a painful operation which has frappéd my cranial capacity a statistically significant 342.7%. I am now qualified to be, and do hereby accept the title of, Thought Leader…
Coyne’s readers were, to say the least, impressed by my achievement. One, overcome by the discovery, wrote, “Thought leader? —omfg.” (That woman gets a discount when she wants her thoughts led.)
Several commenters, examining closely the picture Coyne used of me, thought that I was attempting to spin so as to fly, like a helicopter. These people were wrong. There was one night experimenting with some Irish homeopathists with achieving lift off, but I can report no success. Above, the photographer caught me demonstrating the Fourth Position in ballet. Ballet beats the skintight pants off of yoga. Besides, I look wonderful in a tutu.
I don’t know who Ken Phelps is, but clearly this fellow knows me well:
I am once again unable to resist the image of a small boy, dressed in his father’s shoes and fedora, overcoat trailing on the ground behind him, clomping about the house, waving a felt marker about as if it were a cigar, and he a tycoon.
It is human nature, I suppose, to ape those we are not. But really, inventing fallacies? Perhaps in the future you should check to make sure the cap is on the marker, Mr. Briggs, your lips lips are bright yellow.
I’m not old enough for real cigars: I substitute lemon lollipops instead. This explains the lip color.
Someone calling himself infiniteimprobabilit asks the important question, “‘Statistician to the Stars’ — wtf? Why would the stars need a statistician?” Because, of course, the Stars would never be caught dead discussing their own wee p-values.
Ed Kroc, perhaps an investigative journalist, finds it “extremely suspicious” that Cornell does not list me among its Adjunct Faculty. Well, Ed, now that you’ve read me, would you admit to knowing me? (About my book, perhaps “skimming” isn’t helping you; try reading. Your brother-in-ink Jeremy Pereira might try the same: I have an entire Chapter on the different kinds of Induction which he missed.)
Finally, Bruce Lyon suspects I might be a “climate change denier”. Let me set your mind at ease, Brian. I have never denied the climate has changed.