Facts Are Such Stubborn Things

May 19, 2014

William Buckland was one of the great geologists of the 19th century. He gave the first Latin binomial to a dinosaur, named coprolites and showed how they could help us reconstruct the lives of extinct animals, and discovered the oldest anatomically modern human fossil in the UK. He was also a cleric, succeeding “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce as Dean of Westminster. He took on the task of explaining geology in one of the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of books funded with a mandate to explore “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.”

Early in his career, Buckland had advocated for a form of gap creationism, where the opening of Genesis starts after much of the world’s history had happened. This would mean that fossils of extinct organisms were vestiges of those past worlds, and need not all be products of a single, global, Noachian flood. In the treatise, Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology, Buckland wrote:

The myriads of petrified Remains which are disclosed by the researches of Geology all…show that these extinct forms of Organic Life were so closely allied, by Unity in the principles of their construction, to Classes, Orders, and Families, which make up the existing Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms, that they not only afford an argument of surpassing force, against the doctrines of the Atheist and Polytheist; but supply a chain of connected evidence, amounting to demonstration, of the continuous Being, and of many of the highest Attributes of the One Living and True God.

In the course of things, Buckland became familiar with the idea of glaciation being popularized by Louis Agassiz, which forced him to revise his gap creationist model. Commenting on his change of course, Victorian science writer Mary Somerville quipped: “Geologists had excited public attention, and had shocked the clergy and the more scrupulous of the laity by proving beyond a doubt that the formation of the globe extended through enormous periods of time.…Dr. Buckland committed himself by taking the clerical view in his ‘Bridgewater Treatise’; but facts are such stubborn things, that he was obliged to join the geologists at last.”

That facts are stubborn things is, perhaps, the essence of what makes science work. People can approach science from many directions, but in the end, their claims have to confront the evidence, which can show someone’s theory to be powerful at explaining new and unexpected evidence, or powerless to predict anything novel.

I think of this because of a firestorm inspired by a passing phrase in an obituary Peter Hess wrote on this blog last week. In memorializing an astronomer and theologian whose work sought to establish a dialogue between science and religion without doing violence to either, Hess remarked:

Biblical fundamentalists and their opponents on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum of belief often share one significant assumption: in order to contribute to modern science you have to be an atheist. That is, you cannot at the same time believe in a personal God and accept the scientific explanations of Big Bang cosmology, of the age of our solar system, and of the evolution of biodiversity on Earth.

In due course, this led to an invective-laden response from evolutionary biologist (and atheist) Jerry Coyne, who emphasized that Hess was not accurately characterizing his views, clarifying that he thinks religious people can be good scientists, but “scientists who are religious are engaged in a form of subconscious cognitive dissonance.”

That last claim is, at least potentially, a scientifically testable hypothesis. Coyne takes the philosophical stance that science and religion are, in some sense, intrinsically incompatible, and he believes that a consequence of this incompatibility will be some sort of psychological conflict in the minds of religious scientists.

I happen to think that his philosophy is flawed, simplistic, and ill-argued, but that’s for another day. He’s claiming that the philosophical point makes a prediction about people’s mental processes, which should be testable. Facts are stubborn things, and a good scientist ought to be willing to adjust his philosophy in response to stubborn facts that stand at odds with those predictions.

People have been writing about the relationship between science and religion since before they were calling it “science,” so if there is an inherent cognitive dissonance that’s induced by accepting the truth of both, we ought to see it clearly. But we don’t. When we look at the writings of religious scientists from history like Newton and Galileo and Faraday, or modern religious scientists like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, they don’t describe a deep conflict that they’re trying to bridge, or even manifest, reveal, or evince the signs of such a conflict. They talk about a fundamental unity of nature, that the laws of nature they study as scientists are the expression of an organizing intelligence. They see their search for scientific explanations as unified with their search for an understanding of divine will.

To take an example, where is this cognitive dissonance in Galileo’s letter to Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany? That’s the one where he defended himself against any suggestion of impiety, indeed accusing his attackers of being less pious than he is. He insisted that, “having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning could not be made credible by science, or by any other means than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit.” Galileo’s letter played no small part in his prosecution by the Inquisition (turns out that calling the leading figures in the Catholic Church impious isn’t the best way to appease the Inquisition), suggesting that he wasn’t choosing his words simply to mollify his critics and potential persecutors or paper over a deep conflict. If he thought religion (as he understood it) stood at odds with astronomical science (as he understood it), we could expect him to have dropped a hint.

Similarly, where is that cognitive dissonance in Isaac Newton’s writings, even the (in retrospect) crazy alchemical experiments and tedious computations aimed at working out exactly what time God turned on the light switch? Newton’s theology was, to be generous, heterodox. In his private writings, he denied the existence of the Trinity and the soul. If he secretly harbored doubts about the existence of a deity at all, we’d see those doubts playing out in his secret writings, but we don’t. Instead, he wrote that “nothing can rejoyce me more” than to find that his work in natural philosophy (or science, as we’d call it today) “might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity.” And his philosophy of science, one which was notably successful, drew on his theology: “It is the perfection of God’s works that they are all done with the greatest simplicity. He is the God of order and not of confusion. And therefore as they would understand the frame of the world must endeavor to reduce their knowledge to all possible simplicity, so must it be in seeking to understand these visions.” Far from evincing any sort of dissonance between science and religion, Newton saw a stupendous consonance.

This, then, is the simple fact of the matter: many religious scientists do not see a conflict between their science and their religion. They do not evince any evidence of “subconscious cognitive dissonance,” certainly not in any objectively testable sense. As such, while I applaud Coyne’s willingness to offer a bold and testable prediction based on his a priori philosophical commitment, I’ll have to hold off any high praise until he’s willing to bend his abstract philosophy to accommodate these stubborn facts.