Last updated on December 21, 2018
I wrote this review shortly after Faith vs Fact was published. Discovered it on another venue…
Book Review: Faith vs. Fact by J. Coyne
It’s already happening. Coyne’s Faith vs Fact is being panned by believers as biased, curmudgeonly, and ignorant. It is none of these. Neither is it an atheist book. It is a book about knowing – epistemology – and how we can confidently and reliably know what is real. It’s a bit crabby and one must wonder if Coyne developed his sharp edge as an evolutionary scientist dealing with creationists for decades? I wouldn’t blame him.
Coyne argues that reason and the scientific method are the only methods we have to investigate, understand, and describe the world around us. These tools are based on observation, repeatability, and refinement. Faith offers something different. Faith-based reality rests on ancient texts, clerical and personal opinion, and feelings. Coyne, importantly, points out how the two worldviews tackle errors differently. In science, we re-evaluate. We check against new knowledge. We ask for expert insight. We change our minds. Piltdown Man might be the greatest hoax ever foisted on science and we admit to being fooled. The textbooks have been changed. Not so with faith. Instead, faith begins with answers and looks for evidence. When the evidence doesn’t fit, it is changed. Maybe a ‘day’ means a billion years? Maybe radioactive decay constants aren’t constants after all?
Note that Coyne argues using what is called ‘hard rationalism’ meaning that demands are made for evidence before any belief is possible. Critics argue that, based on hard rationalism, one cannot rightly believe that they are awake and that god hasn’t simply fooled them. Hard rationalism masks many inconsistencies in those who demand it. “How do you know that your car won’t explode when you open the door?”
Coyne writes at length about what is called accomodationism or an agreeable nod between the two worlds. This is the philosophical home for most people. Terminal cancer kills unless god intervenes and a few fish will never feed a crowd unless blessed by Jesus. Coyne argues that faith has nothing to offer fact. Must it be all or nothing? Coyne says yes. Are there ‘better’ or more informed religions? No, he says, they are simply dueling fantasies. Certainly, there are learned and urbane theists, but their contribution to science is the same as the blood-letting shaman. Coyne doesn’t dismiss faith out of hand. He invites theists of all ilk to present their case. He only asks that we slice and dice their claims in the same way that we look at any other assertion. So far, there are few serious takers.
Coyne offers a few fascinating tidbits: I was shocked to learn that only in a handful of American states is it illegal for parents to withhold life-saving medicine from their children based on faith. In all but two states, it is legal to withhold vaccinations because of religion. And how much money and public angst has been spent defending against the views of one small but vocal Christian sect who tries to insert its medieval views into the science classroom?
Hard rationalism and personal inconsistencies aside, Coyne writes a useful book about vetting facts but I have to wonder if Coyne writes for the proverbial choir. Studies and polls show time and again that feeling will triumph over fact in almost every circumstance. But for anyone interested, this is a well written, well argued, and well-presented case for the primacy of reason.
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