Thursday, November 3, 2011

Science and religion: are they compatible?

2011 Bale Boone Symposium - Science & Religion: Are They Compatible? from UK Gaines Center on Vimeo.

There's an interesting backstory to this debate. I might never have heard of it, and I probably wouldn't have ever watched it, except that this theologian, John Haught, decided - after the debate - that he didn't want the video of it released.

Since both participants had given their permissions in advance for the videotaping (although Haught claims that this wasn't permission to post the video), it's hard to see this as anything but Haught's recognition that he lost the debate. And that's exactly what his opponent, biologist Jerry Coyne, said on his blog, Why Evolution Is True.

That ignited a firestorm:
Yesterday was quite a day.  I never expected the inundation of emails and support I received for my post about John Haught’s refusal to release the video of our debate on science and religion. That post has now garnered nearly four hundred comments.  The students at the University of Kentucky started an online “free-the-video” petition that’s accrued almost 400 signatures, there were nearly forty thousand views of my site, and l’affaire DebateGate made the front page of Slashdot and appeared on reddit christianitySomeone even amended John Haught’s Wikipedia page to describe the kerfuffle.

Readers apparently fired off emails to all and sundry: the President of the University of Kentucky, the National Endowment for the Humanities (who funds the Gaines Center, which hosted the debate), and various other officials at the University of Kentucky—and, of course, to John Haught and Robert Rabel, who was forced to deep-six his email address.  Rabel also threatened me with legal action because of the “abusive” emails he received. But I was deeply gratified that two awesome lawyers, readers of this website, offered to defend me pro bono should that transpire.  (I’m sure there will be no need for that: Rabel was just blustering and has no legal basis for action).

I also learned what the “Streisand effect” was, and for the first time fully appreciated the power of the internet to effect change, especially change that I desired.

I do regret, though, any abuse or name-calling that came down on Haught and Rabel.  I did not ask readers to write anyone—indeed, I had no idea that this would blow up as it did, nor that people would take it upon themselves to rectify the matter.  For that I am grateful, and have learned something.  But I would ask that until this blows over—and that seems imminent—you remain courteous in all your communications with officials you’re trying to persuade.  And that also goes for any comment attached to this post.

Faced with this uproar, John Haught gave up, first writing his own explanation of all this. According to Haught, the debate was "exceptionally dismaying and unproductive," with Coyne using the time "to launch a sneering and condescending ad hominem."

Well, you can read it yourself. It's several pages long. But talk about the "Streisand effect"! It certainly made me curious enough to watch the hour-long debate. And I must say that it was quite interesting, though not at all what I expected.

First, though, let me note that the Powerpoint slides for each speaker are available here at the Gaines Center for the Humanities. Unfortunately, they can't be seen in the video. (I didn't bother with them, myself.) Also, the video doesn't include the question and answer session at the end. Apparently, that will be added later (presumably at the same website).

So, what about this video? Note that it's not really a debate, just both men giving a talk on the same topic. Haught goes first, and he seemed to be confident and at ease. I don't see how he can be unhappy with his performance. It's just that... well, he was trying to defend the indefensible. What can I say? He's just wrong.

As for Jerry Coyne, I thought he did a great job. But "sneering and condescending ad hominem" attacks? I don't see that at all. Twice, Coyne admits to being "pugnacious," but I don't think I'd even agree with that, not really. (Admittedly, I tend to be pugnacious, myself.) He was simply presenting his side of the argument, clearly and persuasively. Wasn't that the whole point? And his arguments were not ad hominem, not at all.

Although Coyne's presentation was not a reply to what Haught had just said, he'd done enough reading of Haught's books to know the man's mind. But really, I don't know how Haught could have defended his thinking any better, because it's a very hard stance to defend. Frankly, I don't know how he can believe it, himself.

One thing that struck me was Haught's idea that "personal transformation" was required before a person could understand these higher spiritual truths. In other words, it's like the emperor's new clothes. If you can't see them, you're simply not advanced enough. (It couldn't be that they're just imaginary, could it?)

That's how magic is supposed to work, too, I believe. Not everyone can work magic. You have to be special. Or that's what you're told. But science is just the reverse. Everyone can do science. If you want to check the research yourself, you can. (Admittedly, it might take expensive equipment - and the knowledge of how to use it.)

Afterwards - at some point - Haught apparently criticized the audience, claiming that it was filled with "Jerry's groupies." Maybe that's true, but I certainly don't see it in that video. Both men seem to be given polite applause of equal intensity and length. There wasn't any obvious cheerleading, not at the start of the talks.

After all this buildup, the debate was not what I expected. True, I think that Jerry Coyne clearly came out ahead, but then, I would think that, wouldn't I? I completely disagreed with John Haught before I ever heard what Coyne had to say (I have, of course, heard similar arguments).

But all that Haught accomplished in trying to suppress this video was to make sure that far more people saw it. And to make himself look petty and small, besides.

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