In a recent ID: The Future podcast (June 24, 2022) Casey Luskin interviews pediatric neurosurgeon Michael Egnor on his blogosphere debates with evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Egnor, who has authored many research papers, espouses a non-materialist view of the mind — and of life in general — with which Dr. Coyne, a committed atheist, emphatically disagrees. Here’s a partial transcript from “A Brain Surgeon Debates Evolutionist Jerry Coyne and Other Atheists”:
Casey Luskin: We’re going to talk about these debates you’ve had with Dr. Coyne and others. Some of the arguments you’ve made, I think, have been very compelling.
But before we get into that, I’d like to ask, why do you focus your writing so much on Dr. Jerry Coyne and his arguments for atheism and evolution over at his blog Why Evolution is True?
Michael Egnor: Well, one of the problems that we face in sorting out the truth on questions about evolution, questions about metaphysics, questions about science is that our opponents on the atheist, materialist side very often don’t speak very candidly — or even sometimes don’t speak honestly — about what they believe or about the logical implications of what they believe.
Dr. Coyne is very candid about exactly what Darwinism means, about what atheism means, about what materialism means. In discussing and debating things with Dr. Coyne, I have great respect for the fact that he’s honest. He’s right up front. He says exactly what he thinks. And honestly, what Jerry Coyne thinks, I think is what most new atheists and Darwinists and materialists think. But most of them are embarrassed to say it. And Jerry Coyne isn’t embarrassed to say it.
Casey Luskin: I agree with you. I think that Jerry Coyne tends to be a lot more candid. A lot of the Darwin defenders out there realize, I think, the implications of their worldview — implications for things like free will or whether there is an objective morality, and those kinds of things. And I actually respect the fact that Jerry Coyne tends to not have that sort of self censorship we see in a lot of Darwin defenders who want to make evolution more palatable to the general public. So they kind of don’t talk about those things.
Michael Egnor: Right. Jerry Coyne is a much more informative person to discuss these issues with because you don’t have to deal with evasions. He’s quite clear about what he means.
Casey Luskin: Before we started this podcast, you and I were talking about how the Darwin blogosphere has changed a bit in the last few years. Some of the old stalwarts, it seemed, would devote all of their lives to just regular blogging against intelligent design. Either they’ve found other things to do with their time, or they’ve really just found that their blogging was not effective — or they kind of just got tired of the whole thing. Some of them aren’t writing as much anymore.
Note: The issues around evolution have become much more complex in the last couple of decades. Many evolutionary biologists find traditional Darwinian theory too narrow to encompass the broad range of changes observed in life forms over time. Groups like the Third Way, for example, are not in any sense creationists; they incorporate recent evidence for horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, and devolution into their thinking. Just today in The Guardian, there was another call from mainstream evolutionary biologists for a new approach to evolutionary theory. It is possible that some bloggers who were comfortable defending a traditional Darwinian point of view have gotten tired of keeping up with the changes the field is undergoing.
Casey Luskin: Yet Jerry Coyne is one of these bloggers who is still regularly writing on evolution. What is your sense about how the Darwin blogosphere has changed over the last couple years?
Michael Egnor: It seems to me that it’s changed quite a bit. A surgical oncologist who published under the pseudonym of Orac, and Steven Novella, who’s a neurologist at Yale, are good examples of how much I think people have changed. Both of them have written in the last year or so much less about Darwinism and Novella has written much less about his materialistic theories of the mind.
I think a major part of it — and Orac has actually been rather candid about this — is that they’ve been in bed with some pretty radical, pretty extreme, some pretty, one might even call it, disreputable metaphysics. At least Orac has implied that he wants to get away from New Atheism. It’s not something he really wants to be closely associated with. Novella hasn’t said that, but you wonder if perhaps that’s part of his motivation as well.
Interestingly, they both have taken to writing a great deal of criticism of alternative medicine and things like that. And they seem to be taking the same tactic. They jump into something [where] they won’t get disagreement from us. I think they’re a little embarrassed about some of the stuff that they’ve put on the internet over the past few years.
Casey Luskin: Over the last, I would say, two or three years, the frequency of good quality science writing on Evolution News and Views has gone up significantly. You’ve been a big part of that… At the same time, we’ve seen a decline in the amount of high quality science writing from blogs like Panda’s Thumb. Some old voices in the Darwin blogosphere have diminished and some new ones have popped up. Jerry Coyne certainly is one of the ones that has really popped up on his very popular blog.
Let’s get into talking about some of your blog discussions and conversations with Jerry Coyne. First of all, really he’s a defender of what we would call scientism, the idea that science is the only valid way of gaining true knowledge.
Note: Dr. Coyne is the author of, among other books, Faith vs. Fact (Viking 2015). From the publisher: “In clear, dispassionate detail he explains why the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion — including faith, dogma, and revelation — leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions … Extending the bestselling works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, he demolishes the claims of religion to provide verifiable “truth” by subjecting those claims to the same tests we use to establish truth in science.”
Casey Luskin: What do you think about his scientistic views? And do you agree with him that science is really the only way of gaining true knowledge?
Michael Egnor: Scientism is a dumbed-down version of positivism… Positivism, basically, is the view that only things that are mathematically demonstrable or experimentally verifiable are true. And the problem with that view — with the scientistic or positivistic view — is that the opinion that scientism is true is not itself a truth that can be demonstrated by science. So it’s self-refuting. If scientism really is true, if the only way you can demonstrate its truth is by doing an experiment or by reasoning it out mathematically. well, then the assertion that scientism is true is not true because it can’t be shown scientifically.
Note: Mathematician Kurt Gödel (1906–1978) is best known for fatally eroding the logical basis for positivism and scientism. As Ashutosh Jogalekar notes, “But in a nutshell, what Gödel had found using an ingenious bit of self-referential mapping between numbers and mathematical statements was that any consistent mathematical system that could support the basic axioms of arithmetic as described in Russell and Whitehead’s work would always contain statements that were unprovable.” Neither mathematics nor science are exempt from this general observation.
Michael Egnor: So what people like Coyne, who advocate scientism, end up doing is using metaphysics: They end up taking a philosophical stance… So scientism, in my view, isn’t really a philosophy or an opinion. It’s a sophomoric mistake.
Casey Luskin: If science is the only way of knowing, how do you know that? Did science tell you that? And if not, then how do you know? It’s one of those self-refuting claims, essentially.
Casey Luskin: Now, in one of your posts, you say that life, like a solved Rubik’s Cube, is incontrovertible evidence for intelligent design. Can you elaborate on why you think that’s the case?
Michael Egnor: The specified complexity of living things is absolutely astonishing. That is, if one takes all the different possible states and configurations that matter could assume, and then realizes the very specific configurations and states that it has assumed, it’s, I think, impossible to rationally attribute the specified complexity in living things to chance.
Michael Egnor: If you see a solved Rubik’s Cube on your desk that you didn’t put there, somebody had to solve it. It didn’t get solved by vibrations on the desk and the motion of the wind that moved it around until, by chance, it got solved. From a combinatorial standpoint, it requires intelligence to do that. And the materialistic, Darwinist viewpoint on life couldn’t even, frankly, solve a Rubik’s Cube let alone give us the human beings who are the ones who do the solving.
Casey Luskin: Now you are a brain surgeon, Dr. Egnor. You study the complexity of the human brain, which is a question that, I’m sure, you know a lot more about than most folks. But I’m sure you would say we’ve still got a long ways to go.
Do you see this similar kind of specified complexity in your study of the brain? And as you said, there are many, many different possible states, but only certain states are chosen in biology, or maybe only certain states will lead to a functional system. Do you see that at work in your research, in your understanding of the way the brain works?
Michael Egnor: Certainly, certainly. I mean, the brain, obviously, didn’t come to be through unintelligent, random processes. Frankly, that’s so obvious that barely needs saying. What is particularly striking is that you don’t even need to invoke the brain to deny materialism and Darwinism. A simple bacterium is so far beyond the ability of chance processes to produce, that a little bacterium on your finger is unequivocal evidence of intelligent agency. The brain is, obviously, orders of magnitude, more complex.
Casey Luskin: Along those lines, Dr. Egnor, the famous science writer Isaac Asimov once said that the human brain is the most complicated organization of matter that we know. Would you agree with that? I’m just curious. I mean, Asimov was an atheist and materialist, and yet he said that.
Michael Egnor: It’s probably true, but it’s, I think, relevant that the complexity in the simplest living thing is still completely beyond what unintelligent processes are capable of creating.
Next: Egnor tackles Coyne and others on free will and determinism.
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