The video

The Coyne-Haught video has been posted.

Watching. Watching and listening to Haught. Sigh.

We should talk about cosmic purpose; it’s good to talk about cosmic purpose. Metaphors are ok.

It’s a traditional philosophical view that a smaller thing can’t understand a greater thing.

There is evidence: the evidence that comes from being carried away by something very large, very important.

If this ultimate reality has no personality, if it’s an it, it’s smaller than we are.

Religions emphasize the importance of personal transformation.

Medieval philosopher would be skeptical that science is wired to understand deeper meaning.

I’m not convinced of anything yet. Perhaps that wasn’t the goal.


  1. Rudi says

    I don’t think convincing others is his aim. More likely he’s trying (and has been, seemingly his whole life) to convince himself.

  2. says

    Rudi – yes, but for an occasion of this kind, you’d think he’d try to say something convincing…

    I guess this is why the whole thing took him by surprise.

  3. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    Theologians live swaddled in cotton batting. He never suspected he needed armor. The poor dears are slowy getting the word that the jig is up, their little bodyguard of accommodationists notwithstanding. Come out into the open with your hands up, boys. We’ve got you in the floodlights and every escape route is covered. You have the right to remain silent.

  4. says

    But this can’t be the only time he’s ever done a talk with someone from a different discipline – and he personally came across very well, it’s just his content that didn’t, and he won’t see his content as having anything wrong with it.

    I really don’t see why he was so horrified.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    My, that was annoying. Haught’s “compatibility” portion was so disconnected from his description of science, I was a little surprised that Coyne didn’t just walk up to the mic and say “See?”

    It does look like Haught was expecting a cordial discussion more than a debate, but I can’t imagine why.

  6. Sastra says

    Cuttlefish wrote:

    It does look like Haught was expecting a cordial discussion more than a debate, but I can’t imagine why.

    Neither can I: Haught even wrote an entire book attacking the gnu atheists. It’s not as if he wandered in from the street.

    When I watched the video I wondered if Haught caught that Jerry’s analogy to science being ‘compatible’ with religion being similar to pedophilia being ‘compatible’ with the Catholic Church was not meant to imply that pedophilia WAS compatible with Catholic doctrine, but the opposite. If not, then his danger detection signals might have been tuned on maximum for the rest of the talk.

  7. Ken Pidcock says

    I hope it’s OK to pass on this. I was happy to express outrage at the suppression, but I already know Coyne’s position, and I really don’t enjoy listening to Haught. Forgive me, please.

  8. Rieux says

    As for his reasons for not agreeing to the release of the video, Haught’s (wait for it…) haughty explanation, posted on the big comment thread at WEIT, is a treat. It’s an impressively thick and pure batch of religious privilege: Haught is disgusted at Coyne’s barbarity in failing to treat Haught’s theology with the simpering deference the latter thinks it self-evidently deserves. Oh, the pain of privilege disregarded!

  9. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    @15:00 – “silence is perhaps the most appropriate way in which we present ourselves, our disposition, with respect to ultimate reality.”

    Too bad he didn’t follow that advice. His rambling homily first expresses a phony humility in the face of the unknowable, then proceeds to admit that he really thinks the nature and purpose of the cosmos is essentially known, by methods unaccountable and inexpressible except through wuzzy metaphors. More than enough said. He jocularly starts by reminding us you don’t make much money with theology. Two responses. If you aren’t making a killing with the God schtick you’re just doing it wrong, because it’s a wildly profitable, artfully evolved and time-honored scam, done right. And even if you don’t earn much, consider the intrinsic value of the product, the low overhead and ready-made market of eager saps, and you’ll discover profit margins matched only by psychics, dowsers, midway carnies and pickpockets. So put it in perspective while we save our tears for those millions who generate real value for small reward.

  10. says

    It’s a traditional philosophical view that a smaller thing can’t understand a greater thing.

    Religious thinking: still shackled by the Great Chain.

  11. Saikat Biswas says

    No wonder Haught was offended. Clear and precise statements ARE offensive to the theological mind.

  12. says

    Rieux got the explanation, I guess – it’s pure religious privilege. It’s just that I keep not being able to believe that this came as a surprise to him – as Sastra said, it’s not as if he wandered in off the street. Jerry isn’t the first non-theist or even non-deferential non-theist he’s ever encountered.

  13. fastlane says


    Haught’s “compatibility” portion was so disconnected from his description of science, I was a little surprised that Coyne didn’t just walk up to the mic and say “See?”

    He sorta did a couple times, but that would have been hilarious!

  14. Fin says

    I think also the fact that Coyne quoted from Haught, and used that as a significant amount of the evidence against him, was what really hurt Haught’s ego. Being shown to be a foolish in a live debate is fine, because, as we know, you can misspeak, or fail to have the appropriate evidence with you at the time and so forth, but being shown, publicly, to be foolish by quoting the texts which you have written? Well, that’s a different kettle of fish, as those are meant to be considered, complete texts, rather than something generated in a week, and delivered live.

    I have only read small amounts of his writing before, but it has always struck me as glib, and not particularly consistent within itself, so it was actually a joy to see Coyne take it apart like that, in public.

  15. says

    But the thing is, Haught won’t have thought that his writing is obviously vacuous, so Jerry’s just quoting it shouldn’t piss him off all that much. Plus I keep having a hard time believing that that exchange was really radically more adversarial than normal academic disagreement. On the contrary, I think it was a good deal less so.

    But Jerry said in a comment that Haught seemed angry during the Q and A, and I haven’t seen the Q and A yet – maybe that will make it a little more understandable. (For instance if there were a lot of laughter and applause for Jerry and none for him.)

  16. says

    Haught’s response is that Coyne quoted him out of contex, or otherwise misrepresented what he meant. He may genuinely believe that, in which case his anger is understandable. Now whether he is right about that, well, in order to have an informed opinion I’d have to watch the debate and then go read Haught, and I somehow lack the motivation to give him even that much benefit of the doubt.

  17. Paul W. says

    I was appalled, but not even a little bit surprised, by Haught’s appeals to essentialist ideas like the Great Chain of being and his “finite” vs. “infinite” shtik, e.g., that the finite can’t “comprehend” the “infinite.”

    Of course the finite can’t “comprehend” the infinite in the sense of encompassing or containing the actual infinite. Duh.

    Still, finite beings (e.g., mathematicians) can comprehend, i.e., understand the infinite in useful, conceptual ways—after all, it’s not like we generally understand much of anything by containing it, or even by separately understanding every little detail of anything large or complicated.

    Even normal people (non-mathematicians) can get a pretty good handle on the idea of infinity. (And even of infinities of infinities, including infinities that are infinitely larger than other infinities.) It’s not really that complicated, and it’s not incomprehensible, even if the things being comprehended are not finitely storable. It’s not even counterintuitive, really—just not intuitively obvious until it’s explained. Then it just makes sense, even if it’s about stuff that’s too big to concretely picture in your mind’s eye.

    Haught is clearly not actually talking about infinitude or finitude. He’s using “infinite” as a code word for incomprehensible, mysterious, and presumptively magical. It doesn’t much matter whether God is infinite, but it matters very much that he’s a qualitatively different, higher order of being, and thus a wild card about which we can’t expect to use “mere” human reason, ad which can outdo us in a variety of big ways.

    Infinity is a thoroughly shitty metaphor for magical.

    Likewise the whole metaphor of grasping vs. being grasped by.

    Haught is saying that we can’t grasp God, but God can grasp us, and apparently somehow we can sense that we’re being grasped—presumably by some sort of supernatural ESP, though he doesn’t want to draw attention to that. (How would that work? How could he know, or even plausibly speculate?) We can feel that God’s got us in his hands.

    I’d really like to see Haught try to explain that in a way that’s consistent with science. How exactly does the sensory information get into the system and get processed into a sensation of being grasped by an ungraspable entity?

    And then there’s the whole Chardinesque bit, which is completely lost in space. It’s pulling, not pushing, as though that helps—except that of course, it’s not pulling from above. Evolution is bottom-up, which is “pushing.” Blindly pushing.

    Horrendously wasteful, blind and tragically merciless bottom-up evolution is creatively communicating with extravagant generosity. Oh boy. Gee thanks. It’s good to know that the end will eventually justify the extravagantly wasteful and incomprehensibly tragic means.

    Like a whole lot of theological bafflegab, this is pseudo-scientific crap about magic and souls, and top-down mind-over-matter nonsense, dressed up as deep basic insights about cognition, infinity, or whatever. Haught is consistently appealing to prescientific folk theories, and consistently glossing over the fact that those theories just don’t hold up in light of modern science and basic reasoning.

    To many people, it sounds like it makes sense, because they aren’t conversant with relevant concepts like infinity, or the nature of comprehension—and are happy to grasp at desperate Lamarckian straws while pretending to accept Darwinian evolution.

    If he weren’t an esteemed theologian, John Haught would simply be another batshit crazy crank.

  18. Ewan Macdonald says

    If this ultimate reality has no small intestine it’s an it, it’s smaller than we are.

  19. Ewan Macdonald says

    If this ultimate reality has no toenails it’s an it, it’s smaller than we are… OK, I’ll stop now.

  20. pj says

    Cosmic porpoise? I’d love to talk about cosmic porpoise. All celestial cetaceans are good to talk about.

  21. says

    Haught is clearly not actually talking about infinitude or finitude. He’s using “infinite” as a code word for incomprehensible, mysterious, and presumptively magical.

    Great point. If only this could be made explicit whenever sophisticated theologians use such code words.

  22. dirigible says

    “It’s a traditional philosophical view that a smaller thing can’t understand a greater thing.”

    That’s geology in trouble for starters.

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