Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Jerry Coyne gets it wrong on Christianity and science

University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne is one of the leading figures in speciation, a formidable defender of evolutionary biology and a lover of cats. That counts for much. Alas, he has a blind spot when it comes to religion and science. Like most of the New Atheists, he comes close to endorsing the long-refuted conflict hypothesis of the relationship between science and religion. 

In a recent post, Coyne attacked the claim that Christianity was supportive of science, and cites as evidence an article by Richard Carrier (a writer who pushes the fringe idea that Jesus of Nazareth was a myth) in support of his claim:
The claims are diverse, but all give religion—especially Christianity—credit for science. Religion is said to either encourage thinking (read Aquinas), impel people to do science as a way of unravelling God’s plan, lead to the idea of scientific laws (viz. Davies and Plantinga, above), or “encourage” science in some nebulous ways (this “encouragement” often seems to mean only “did not impede science.”) 
Now these claims are bogus, but if you read various histories of science, you’ll see conflict on this issue. I’ll put my own objections below, but you should also read Richard Carrier’s 2010 article, “Christianity was not responsible for modern science.” Pp. 396-419 in J. W. Loftus, ed. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. Prometheus Books (that’s a book well worth reading, by the way.)
By way of correction, microbiologist Alex B. Berezow and historian of science James Hannam have responded to Coyne's post. They point out that:
Historians have long realized that the great conflict between science and religion is a myth. But it continues to be an article of faith among the New Atheists. In contrast to his views on evolution, Dr. Coyne thinks that he can ignore the evidence from history and disregard the settled view of experts in the field. 
This is a common problem alas with many of the scientific New Atheists, whose forays outside of their areas of professional competence often result in claims that are not as robust as their invariably excellent defences of evolutionary biology. As Hannam and Berezow point out at Real Clear Science, Christianity not only provided a generally hospitable environment for science, helped preserve scientific knowledge, and carried out experiments well before the Renaissance:
Dr. Coyne states: 
Christianity was around for a millennium without much science being done; “modern” science really started as a going concern in the 17th century. Why did that take so long if Christianity was so important in fostering science? 
Actually, historians start the Western scientific tradition with the “12th Century Renaissance” 500 years before Galileo. If you want to know why there were not many people doing natural philosophy before that, the answer includes words like “barbarian invasions,” “collapse of civilization,” “Huns,” “Goths,” and “Vikings.” The fact that some scientific knowledge survived the upheaval after the fall of the Roman Empire was largely due to the Church. 
Dr. Coyne goes on to say: 
If you think of science as rational and empirical investigation of the natural world, it originated not with Christianity but with the ancient Greeks, and was also promulgated for a while by Islam. 
This is only half-true. Science is a lot more than just reason and observation. You need experiments too. For example, the Greeks, following Aristotle, thought that heavy objects must fall faster than light ones. It takes two seconds to disprove that by an experiment that involves dropping a pebble and a rock. But for a thousand years, no one did. There didn’t seem to be much point in testing a theory they already thought to be true. That’s probably why the Greeks were so good at geometry, as Dr. Coyne notes, because progress in mathematics is largely based on reason alone. 
Dr. Coyne then borrows an argument from Dr. Richard Carrier: 
Carrier makes the point that there was no scientific revolution in the eastern half of the Christian world. Why was that? 
The premise is wrong. What’s truly amazing is just how much science early Christians were doing. John Philoponus (c. 490 – c. 570) was one of the first Christian professors in Alexandria. Historians today are stunned by his achievements. 
As a Christian, Philoponus was happy to ditch pagan orthodoxy and start afresh. So he was the first to actually do the experiment of dropping stones, proving Aristotle wrong about falling objects. Alas, shortly after he died, Egypt was invaded by the Persians and then by the Arabs. Alexandria lost its status as an important center of learning, while the Byzantine Empire went into siege mode as it fought an existential struggle for survival. Not a great environment for science!
The full article can be found here.