Tag Archives: NEW ATHEISM

Keith Ward & The Jerry Coyne Challenge

Readers of Talking Philosophy will be aware that recent mention has been made of philosopher Keith Ward, a Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, who Russell Blackford thinks ‘goes badly wrong’ when he ‘talks about the limits of science’ in a recent article.

Although Russell is clearly in a different camp to Ward, he does share the latter’s rejection of “the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) …. according to which, religion and science, properly construed, have separate [but non-exhaustive] epistemic territories or areas of authority”. As Ward says: “Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould‘s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.” Ward further argues that “a huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable. Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not publicly observable now or in future, and are not subsumable under any general law. We know that rational answers to many historical questions depend on general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgement. There are no history laboratories. Much history, like much religion, is evidence-based, but the evidence is not scientifically tractable.“

It is not, perhaps, entirely surprising that an article titled Religion answers the factual questions science neglects did not receive a warm welcome over at New Atheist biologist, Jerry Coyne’s place. Running with the headline “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions”, Coyne objects strongly to what he views as Ward’s overly narrow conception of science. There is always argument about what ‘science’ ‘means’ in cases like the ones Ward mentions, says Coyne: “When trying to deal with factual claims about the universe, I would use the definition of ‘science’ as ‘a combination of empirical investigation and reason.’” Coyne concedes that “not all facts are ‘scientific facts’ in the sense that a) they’re investigated by scientists, b) they’re studied in the laboratory c) there has to be ‘repeatability’ in the scientific sense.” But, he asserts “all ‘facts’ must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified…. To say that human history is ‘not scientifically tractable’ is just about as dumb as saying that evolutionary history is not scientifically tractable…. This kind of denigration of ‘science’—with science defined so narrowly that it comprises only ‘the things that laboratory scientists do’—takes place for only one reason: to justify religion… Ward’s line of analysis is so palpably weak that I’m surprised anybody would accept it…I do not intend to take issue with any of Coyne’s substantial criticisms here. Readers, hopefully will give due consideration to all the current and forthcoming arguments and make up their own minds. What did pique my interest, and prompt this modest piece of reportage, was the manner in which Coyne closed his posting:

I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

This is indeed an interesting challenge. It seems a difficult one to meet and I doubt anybody could meet it to Dr Coyne’s satisfaction. It is, after all, very much a question of definition. [Indeed as Bob Lane suggests: Coyne’s challenge might appear circular: 'a fact is a condition that obtains and is verifiable empirically – now give an example of a fact that is not'.] In any case, I can offer up no answer of my own. I did attempt to solicit responses. One opined: “That human agents have intrinsic moral worth and should be treated alike in the same situations regardless of sex, religious convictions, and social status.” And from Jeremy Stangroom there was perhaps the more promising suggestion, “that there is something that it is like to be a bat/person”. He also suggested that Dr Coyne really ought to think about Mary’s (Black and White) Room, and that does sound a promising line of inquiry. In any case, if anybody reading feels they can meet The Jerry Coyne Challenge I’d be delighted to hear from you.

As an intellectual exercise it is interesting, but The Jerry Coyne Challenge is interesting for another reason. And that is because it has not really been set as a challenge at all. Reading Dr Coyne’s post, you won’t find anything along the lines of “‘I await Ward’s response with interest” or “Ward has yet to take up my invitation to reply”. I did post a comment asking “Did you email and ask him? It’s just I don’t imagine he reads your blog.” But I never did get a response. I feel that if you actually want to issue a challenge to someone you do rather need to let the other party know. That rather is the point. So I dropped Keith Ward a note and, though he’d never heard of Dr Coyne or his blog, he was perfectly happy to offer a response to ‘the challenge’.  And I’m perfectly happy to print it here. I don’t offer up Professor Ward’s reply up with the claim that it is a resounding refutation of all Dr Coyne’s criticisms. I make no claims for it at all, except that it is philosophically literate and intellectually honest. So here it is, Professor Ward’s unsought reply:


I have been told that Jerry Coyne has challenged me to cite a “reasonably well established fact about the world” that has no “verifiable empirical input”. That is not a claim I have ever made, or ever would make.

What I do claim is not so controversial, namely, that many factual claims about the world are reasonably believed or even known to be true, even when there is no way in which any established science (a discipline a Fellow of the Royal Society would recognise as a natural science) could establish that they are true or false.

Here is an example: my father worked as a double-agent for MI6 and the KGB during the “Cold War”. He told me this on his death-bed, in view of the fact that I had once seen him kill a man. The Section of which he was a member was disbanded and all record of it expunged, and all those who knew that he was a member of it had long since died. This is certainly a factual claim. If true, he certainly knew that it was true. I reasonably believe that it is true. But there is absolutely no way of empirically verifying or falsifying it. QED.

The possible response that someone could have verified it if they had been there and seen it is one that A. J. Ayer rightly rejected as allowing a similar sort of claim about (e.g.) the resurrection of Jesus. When, in my Guardian piece, I described the resurrection as a ‘hard fact’, I naturally did not mean that it would convince everyone. I meant that it entails some empirical factual claims (so it is not just subjective or fictional). But those claims are not verifiable by any known scientific or historical means. That is why we make judgements about such claims in the light of our more general philosophical and moral views and other personal experiences- (i.e.) whether we believe there is a God, whether this would be a good thing for God to do, and whether we think we have experienced God.

Jerry Coyne and I seem to have different views about this, but neither of us have access to direct empirical evidence. We both think some empirical claims are relevant to our assessment of such claims. But as Ayer said, the concept of “relevance” is so vague that it does not settle any real argument.

“There it is.” concludes Ward: “It is interesting (and slightly depressing) that readers can exaggerate claims beyond any reasonable limits, so that they become ‘straw men’, easily demolished. Closer attention to exactly what is said, and to the long philosophical series of debates about verification – on which subject Ayer wholly recanted his famous espousal of the verification principle – might prevent such an ‘easy’ way with philosophical questions which are both profound and difficult.”


Post re-edited 06/01/12