UPDATE (May 27, 2010): I’ve left my below orignal blog post alone, unedited, from last year. I wrote it in a mood of annoyance. I felt that Coyne was being cruel to people—and name calling—and I responded in kind. I don’t think of Coyne in negative terms anymore, and this post was me moving slowing in my evolution toward accepting his perspective as important and valuable. I would even say that I now agree with Coyne far more than I disagree. So my snarkiness and “asshole” comment below should be taken as my begrudging and inelegant way of saying that I’m glad that Jerry Coyne says the things that he does. But, in retrospect, I was the asshole.
Jerry Coyne, the outspoken blogging atheist biologist at the University of Chicago, is kind of an asshole, and as an agnostic I disagree with a lot of his most strident antireligious views.
But I like him.
Why? Because he’s out there on the proscenium of public life, expressing his opinions with both rigorous intelligence and passion. And I think it is admirable for anyone to put themselves out there, via their own name (not behind a pseudonym), and to speak. It’s not terribly easy for a person to put their ideas into the world—especially ones that make people uncomfortable—but Coyne does so regularly.
And I admire him for that.
Even though, as I say, he’s an asshole.
I’ve been reading lately another intellectual gadfly with unpopular views. His name is Dean Radin. Radin thinks the evidence is strong for psi phenomena and doesn’t think that mind can be reduced to matter. (See here for his recent talk at Google.) A strict materialist like Jerry Coyne would absolutely hate Radin (if he even knows of him). But in his book, Entangled Minds (2006), Radin writes about the pathetic conformity of opinion within science, and I think that he does so in ways that Coyne might understand (p. 7):
The majority who believe that psi is real are forced to confront the problem of ‘forbidden knowledge,’ taboo topics that restrict the conduct, funding, and publication of certain ideas. An article on this issue in the journal Science in 2005 described the results of a survey on forbidden knowledge from scientists at prestigious academic departments in the United States. It found that most felt that ‘informal constraints’ limited what they could study. These constraints included concerns over what they thought the news media, journal editors, activists or peers might think of their interests. Because of such social and political pressures, scientists shy away from controversial topics. As one respondent in the survey put it, ‘I would like to lunatic-proof my life as much as possible.’
Coyne wants to talk about atheism v. religion with the “gloves off” in much the same way that Radin wants to talk about psi with “seriousness.” Both intellectuals are putting their social necks out to get attention for views that are frequently treated by their career ambitious (and timid) peers with polite, smirking silence.
But we need more people like Jerry Coyne and Dean Radin in the world, not fewer (even though, ironically, Coyne, in so far as his materialist ideas meet with success, makes the acceptance of the ideas of someone like Dean Radin that much harder to gain general traction). But give a punch, take a punch. It’s good to have vocal intellectual materialists and nonmaterialists in the marketplace of ideas rhetorically fighting it out. Strongly expressed Hegelian antitheses lead to interesting insights. If there are real enemies of truth, they are the silent conformists.
Hats off, by the way, to William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. Like Coyne and Radin, they don’t take shit from anybody, and hold their ground amidst enormous social pressures to conform.