Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Walls of Mush

I was amused by this portion of Coyne's USA Today article on the incompatibility of science and religion:

But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn't prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.

But of course the problem with the analogy is that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. There are plenty of people with open marriages; and it is entirely possible to have a monogamous open marriage. Most open marriages are monogamous, in fact; and they are not an instance of people holding "two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time". If there's anything wrong with open marriage it's not that people in open marriages have conflicting notions in their head but something else. And, indeed, even if we absolutely equivocate on the word 'monogamy', blurring its (figurative) anthropological and ethological meaning 'having only one sexual partner' and its literal meaning 'being married to only one person' we can't get an incompatibility: they're not everyday fodder, but history provides plenty of evidence of people in monogamous (lit.) marriage with person A engaging in monogamous (fig.) adultery with person B. The analogy is as absurd as saying that homosexual marriage is incoherent because people in such relationships have two conflicting notions of marriage in their heads; even someone who would argue that homosexual marriage is wrong or not truly marriage wouldn't say it's because of a notional conflict in the heads of the people involved in them.

The article is full of such amusement; it has to be one of the worst arguments I've seen on the subject, ever, and that includes some truly atrocious arguments in the blogosphere. Even in the passage above the idea of "ways of understanding the universe" being irreconcilable should raise red flags, or at least serious questions: we don't ordinarily think of "ways of understanding" as the sort of things that can conflict with each other or that even need to be generally reconciled with each other. So we certainly require some sort of clear account of what is meant by "way of understanding" here and how "ways of understanding" can conflict with each other and how you distinguish such conflict from mere difference. And one finds nothing of the sort in Coyne's column; it's merely the usual vague handwaving, merely the usual building of supposedly iron walls out of mush.

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