Philosophers, Theologians, and Scientists

Rereading all the controversy created by John Haught’s attempt to not make public his debate in 2011 with Jerry Coyne, reminded me of something I was told by my graduate school mentor Richard J. Blackwell more than 25 years ago. Professor Blackwell held an endowed chair in the philosophy department but had also done advanced graduate work in physics. In addition he directed the graduate department program in philosophy of science and had written extensively on the topic. Needless to say he had been around both philosophers and scientists for all his life.

He told me the main difference between philosophical and scientific conferences and talks was how acrimonious the former were compared to the latter. He thought the main reason was, and I’m quoting almost verbatim, because scientists were (mostly) interested in what’s true while philosophers (mostly) wanted to be right. While he did not extend his arguments to theologians, I assume the argument would be even more applicable. No wonder Haught got so upset with Coyne’s critique of religion. Lacking empirical or mathematical evidence for one’s proposition, one can only try to convince their opponent with anecdotes of personal experiences and one’s own persuasive powers. And when these fail, one becomes frustrated.

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