Jerry A. Coyne has another rant against religious belief in The New Republic in which he, again, equates science with materialism. The pretext this time is Elaine Ecklund’s latest round of polling and statistics showing that almost half of Americans think science and religion are compatible.
You can make polls say whatever you want, as Coyne tells us, and he takes exception with Ecklund’s numbers, but the real problem is not the numbers but the idea that science and religion are compatible. There is no “common ground” between the two for Coyne–philosophical or otherwise. True enough with scientism, I say. Not so much with science.
Science, Coyne writes, “is a toolkit: a way of thinking and doing that actually helps us understand the universe.” It tells us “what’s really true.”
Well, yes and no. Science does tell us a great deal about the material world, of course, but when it comes to things that really matter—love, goodness, meaning, beauty—science is a very ill suited toolkit that explains very little.
Anyway, it’s an all-too-predictable piece, but Coyne’s blithe regard for science’s supposed truth telling did make me think of the opening passage of the first book of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s highly recommended Durtal trilogy, which is worth this rather long set up. Speaking to Durtal in Là-Bas (1891) on the limits of materialism, Des Hermies says:
“Say what you will, their theory is pitiful, and their tight little method squeezes all the life out of them. Filth and the flesh are their all in all. They deny wonder and reject the extra-sensual. I don’t believe they would know what you meant if you told them that artistic curiosity begins at the very point where the senses leave off.
“You shrug your shoulders, but tell me, how much has naturalism done to clear up life’s really troublesome mysteries? When an ulcer of the soul–or indeed the most benign little pimple–is to be probed, naturalism can do nothing. ‘Appetite and instinct’ seem to be its sole motivation and rut and brainstorm its chronic states. The field of naturalism is the region below the umbilicus. Oh, it’s a hernia clinic and it offers the soul a truss!”