John Haught relented and allowed the release of the video of his debate with Jerry Coyne: Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Spoiler: Haught says yes; Jerry no.) This was only after Coyne allowed Haught to post this complaint. Haught’s initial refusal, and his lengthy complaint got me to do one thing I rarely do, namely watch an hour and a half long (with questions) video of a debate. Having watched it, I can say that Haught’s complaint directed at Coyne:
…you used the event primarily to launch a sneering and condescending ad hominem.
…is entirely without merit. I watched the whole thing and there was no ad hominem – Jerry Coyne attacked Haught’s arguments only. Haught needs to learn the meaning of ad hominem.
Haught also accused Coyne of misrepresenting Haught’s views, of taking them out of context:
You grossly distorted every quotation you used, and then you coated over your [mis]understanding of these statements with your own uncritical creationist and literalist set of assumptions about the Bible and theology.
The burden of proof is with those making the positive claim, so if Haught wants to claim that Coyne took his quotes out of context, it is up to Haught to show, in context, what the quotes actually meant and that this was different from the way Coyne represented them. In fact, I challenge Haught to take just one quote that Coyne used incorrectly, and explain what it meant, in context. Just one will do. As far as I know, he hasn’t done this anywhere (if anyone wants to post a link to where he has done this, please do). Until he does, we are justified in dismissing this claim without evidence, just as it was asserted without evidence.
There is one part of Haught’s talk that I wanted to examine. Haught is claiming that science and religion are compatible, it’s just that religion has access to some additional “layers” that science can’t access. To explain this, he uses a metaphor of a teapot boiling. You can watch him talking about this in the video, but I found a transcript of Haught’s testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial transcript where he makes the exact same argument, so to save transcribing the video I’m just going to quote that:
I think most of the issues in science and religion discussions, most of the confusion that occurs happens because we fail to distinguish different levels of explanation. And so what I advocate is layered or -- layered explanation or explanatory pluralism, according to which almost every phenomenon in our experience can be explained at a plurality of levels.
And a simple example would be a teapot. Suppose a teapot is boiling on your stove and someone comes into the room and says, explain to me why that's boiling. Well, one explanation would be it's boiling because the water molecules are moving around excitedly and the liquid state is being transformed into gas.
But at the same time you could just as easily have answered that question by saying, it's boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could also answer that same question by saying it's boiling because I want tea.
All three answers are right, but they don't conflict with each other because they're working at different levels. Science works at one level of investigation, religion at another. And it would be a mistake to say that the teapot is boiling because I turned the gas on rather than because the molecules are moving around. It would be a mistake to say the teapot is boiling because of molecular movement rather than because I want tea. No, you can have a plurality of levels of explanation. But the problems occur when one assumes that there's only one level.
He’s saying that by analogy, “the water molecules are moving around excitedly…” is the scientific explanation while “I want tea” is the religious type of explanation: they’re different but not incompatible, and science can’t provide the latter explanation. The problem for Haught is that his metaphor is self-refuting. Science can tell us about water molecules vibrating, but it can also tell us if the kettle is on because someone wants tea. For example, we could observe the kettle and see if someone pours the boiling water into a teapot and makes tea. We can also check to see of someone drinks the tea or if they just pour it down the sink. In other words, “I want tea” is testable, so it is a scientific explanation. A huge flaw in Haught’s analogy is we know tea exists! Haught still has to show that there are religious explanations for things that are both (a) correct and (b) different from anything science or secular reasoning provides. In other words, Haught needs to show us that the “tea” in his analogy exists. Where’s the tea? Haught’s metaphor may demonstrate that such explanations could exist, but he has given us no reason to suppose that they do.
Jerry also pointed this error out in the Q&A (starting at time 15:05), stating that Haught “hasn’t given us a single bit of evidence” that these other layers exist. So Coyne did respond to points that Haught made, despite Haught’s claim that he didn’t. So as as an argument it fails, and as a complaint that Coyne didn’t respond, it fails. And yet, this seems to Haught’s main argument. One wonders which debate Haught was at.
There is just one other aspect of Haught’s talk that I want to deal with. This starts a couple of minutes into the Q&A session, and is so wrong that I transcribed the whole thing. He labels Coyne’s approach as “scientism” and criticizes it like this:
Scientism is the belief, the belief (I emphasize that term) that science is the only road for truth. Science says take nothing on faith as you just heard Jerry say, but it takes faith to accept scientism. Therefore, we shouldn’t accept scientism. The logic of this is so unsurpassably watertight that really once you say that you dismantle the intellectual credibility of everything that Jerry just said.
For someone who criticizes Coyne for not fully understanding his opponent’s position and for getting all his knowledge from creationist websites, Haught sure seems to like criticizing a distorted version of Coyne’s position – a simplistic version that is frequently presented on creationist websites. I don’t know if Coyne ever said that science is the only road to truth – I doubt it, and I certainly don’t think he said so in this debate. I’m pretty sure that Coyne’s position (and mine) is that science has proved to be the most reliable method we know for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works. And we do have evidence for that. (How does Haught think we can all watch him on our computers at home? Did the technology for this come from something other than science? Obviously not.) If Haught is claiming that there is a better method, it is up to him to justify that claim. Haught needs to explain his different method for evaluating claims, and provide evidence that it does indeed provide additional, correct information not available to science. If he cannot do this then this is just a fallacious and vacuous appeal to other ways of knowing. And the logic of this is so unsurpassably watertight that unless Haught can explain his other way of knowing (and show that it really provides new, different and correct information) Haught has dismantled the intellectual credibility of everything he just said.
Other reviews of the debate
Choice in Dying has a post Q&A: Haught on God: Bitter, Impolite and Wrong, where he says many of the things I have been saying, only longer.