An interesting back-and-forth between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and New York Times columnist (and Catholic) Ross Douthat has garnered attention on-line. It started when Coyne, who has become a star player on the team of the New Atheists, wrote a piece for The New Republic. In it Coyne provides a plethora of reasons why Douthat’s Christmas musings in an earlier piece were, let’s just say, lacking sophistication when it came to his criticisms of secularism. Coyne flies through many of the traditional atheist tropes, but (per usual) avoids the harder arguments made in favor of biblical Christianity. Much of what was said had a lot to do with metaphysics (familiar ground for theists). Coyne states:
As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.
Douthat, for his part, responded with a little bit more sophistication than Coyne probably thought possible. In a word he simply devastates Coynes’ glib and rather smug article. Douthat writes:
Again, if this is the scientific-materialist’s justification for morality, then the worldview has even more problems than I suggested. Coyne proposes three arguments in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism, two of which are circular: Making a “harmonious society” and helping “those in need” are reasons for altruism that presuppose a certain view of the moral law, in which charity and harmony are considered worthwhile and important goals. (If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.)
Essentially Douthat proves that Coyne is guilty of metaphysical malpractice. What Coyne considers as self-evident is really without any justification whatsoever. It seems that most atheists, not just the “new” ones, don’t realize the weight of this argument. Or perhaps they do, but don’t give much credence to metaphysical assertions. According to Merriam-Websters dictionary metaphysics is a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology.
Forgive the teaching moment.
The force of theistic arguments come from metaphysics (the Kalaam cosmological argument would be one example). One could even say that theology itself is built on metaphysics (I know I’ll get arguments on that one). But here’s the thing: metaphysics aren’t falsifiable. So while Coyne is guilty of not proving his burden, Douthat may be in more trouble. How do you test a metaphysical standard established by a God that neither side can prove? It seems to me that any field you can think of, say ethics, has to be founded on some form of empirical knowledge. Appealing to some standard won’t work: how do you know which standard to chose? The Judeo-christian notion of revelation doesn’t help either – revelation is always secondhand, unless you’re a Mormon.
So in the end, who is right? It could be that we can’t answer these questions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real answers.