Monday, November 28, 2005

Miller in the BAM

To start off our round-up of recent magazine articles on evolution, consider this profile of Ken Miller from the Brown Alumni Magazine. Much of it will be old news to devotees of the evolution\ID fracas. But the article also conatins some interesting nuggets:


Although Miller, a cell biologist, has been defending evolution in public forums for most of his adult life, in 1997 he become a national figure. That year he appeared with three other evolutionists on Firing Line to debate [William F.] Buckley and three anti-evolutionists. His host sensed Miller was something special. “Young man,” Buckley told a startled Miller after the show, “that was the most astonishing performance I’ve ever seen. That was absolutely remarkable.” The admiration was mutual. “I would place him as one of the four or five smartest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Miller says. “But he doesn’t know science. That’s why he was completely out of his depth. Like many brilliant people, he is also capable of profound self-delusion.”


Miller's co-panelists in that debate were Barry Lynn (of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State), Philosopher Michael Ruse, and NCSE leader Eugenie Scott. All fought well, but there is no question that Miller stole the show. The reaosn is not hard to find. Miller was the sole practicing scientist in the group. It was effortless for Miller to spot the flaws in the ID arguments, because he knows from years of quotidian scientific work that they are nonsense. And since he makes his living partly from presenting the basic facts of biology to bored undergraduates, he is very skillful in presenting the facts.

Much of the article deals with Miller's well-known religious faith:


Although Miller jokes that he’s never been spoken to by a burning bush, he is no stranger to the religious impulses that prompt so many to distrust evolution. A cradle Catholic who has “had personal experiences of God,” he is also a Darwinian for whom the world unfolds “enormously rich with life and with evolutionary possibilities,” he says. “To me the idea of God, the idea of a supreme being, is the intellectual peg that holds everything else together. That enables my existence, the world, the diversity of life, the magnificence of the universe to be put into a context in which they make sense.”


See, this is why I'll never understand religious people. I think this is precisely backward. To me the world makes sense when I can view it as the end result of a few simple scientific principles. To the ancients eclipses were mysterious and frightening things. Then came physics to show us that they are purely natural phenomena, predictable to the second centuries in advance. Eclipses make sense.

Throw God into the mix and nothing makes sense anymore. Eclipses happen only because it amuses God to make them happen? Why should he bother? This all-powerful being created an entire universe just so a handful of vastly inferior beings would worship Him? Does that make sense? For that matter, how does an eternal, all-powerful being keep from getting bored?

In viewing anything in nature as being the handiwork of God you are only replacing one mystery with a vastly greater mystery. If it is difficult to explain where the universe came from, how much more difficult is it to explain where God came from? If the fine-tuning of the fundamental constants of life is viewed as so inexplicable that only a supernatural entity could be responsible for them, then how much more inexplicable is the existence of a being capable of fiddling with those constants.

Now, I can certainly imagine things I might observe that would so fly in the face of anything natural causes could explain that I would begrudgingly concede the existence of God, or something like Him. But, ID protestations notwithstanding, we have nothing like that. That is why evolution is viewed as such a threat to religious belief. Not because there is some fundamental incompatility between evolution and religion, but because if a mystery as huge as the origin of species can be explained solely in terms of natural causes, it's hard to imagine what, exactly, God is needed to explain. And if God is not needed to explain some aspect of the natural world, then what reason is there for believing in Him.

I don't know what experiences of the divine Miller is referring to here, but I suspect the God hypothesis is not the most parsimonious explanation of them.

Or consider this:


“Darwin’s God,” Miller believes, presides over a world in which things are exactly as scientists observe them to be: “dynamic, flexible, and logically complete.” It is a world of free will and possibility, in which evolution is one of the mechanisms of realizing that possibility. Alluding to creationists, Miller writes, “Certainty of outcome means that control and predictability come at the price of independence. By being always in control, the Creator would deny His creatures any real opportunity to know and worship Him. Authentic love requires freedom, not manipulation.” That freedom, Miller concludes, “is best supplied by the open contingency of evolution, and not by strings of divine direction attached to every living creature.”


I'm sorry to be harsh, but that paragraph strikes me as total nonsense. There is no logical connection at all between God's desire to create beings capable of worship on the one hand with his desire to grant those beings freedom and independence on the other. There is no reason why God couldn't be in complete control during the creation of the world, while relinquishing some of that control when the creation was complete.

And even if we concede for some reason that some sort of evolutionary process is necessary to produce true human freedom, there is no reason at all why God had to choose the violent, amoral, bloody process of natural selection for its mechanism. An omnipotent being could surely have developed a more civilized evolutionary process than that.

There is one other excerpt I think deserves comment:


As a cell biologist who spends much of his time using electron microscopy to study membranes in cells, Miller never intended to embark on a second career as a stand-in for Charles Darwin. But in 1981, during Miller’s first spring teaching at Brown, a student Christian group arranged to bring the creationist Henry Morris, of San Diego’s Institute for Creation Research (ICR), to campus. Morris challenged any Brown biology or geology professor to a debate on evolution. Students asked one professor after another to participate, but none accepted, including Miller.

“No. Get lost,” he told them.

The students wanted to know why.

“Because I don’t know anything about evolution,” Miller replied.


I can just see ID proponents pouncing on that last line. How could someone who recently completed a PhD program in biology not know anything about evolution? So much for evolution being the centerpiece of modern biology!

The answer, of course, is that Miller actually knew a great deal about evolution when his students approached him. But he was also aware that compared to someone specializing in evolutionary biology, he did not know very much. Knowing a lot about a subject and knowing enough to be confident discussing it on stage are two different things.

Anyway, the article is rather long and has quite a few interesting passages. I recommend reading the whole thing.

10 Comments:

At 2:42 PM, Blogger theCultFigurine said...

"For that matter, how does an eternal, all-powerful being keep from getting bored?"

Why, by determining the outcome of every football match that's played anywhere on earth! That'll keep him occupied for sure.

 
At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his book, "Finding Darwins God," Miller says that he sees god in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. His reasoning is that god has designed things to so that absolute knowledge of the world will not be possible. Te problem with this claim is that it could turn out to be a god of the gaps assertion if a hidden variable theory should be found (i.e. a theory describing the physical universe with deterministic variables).

 
At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Karen said...

I would love to ask Mr. Miller if he read "A New Kind of Science" by Stephen Wolfram at this link

http://www.wolframscience.com/

It has an very interesting set of created a program "mathematica" of simple mathematical programs which run and mimic complex processes found in nature.

Wolfram himself avoids the "God" implications in either Creationism or Intelligent Design, except by suggestion that if one believes in God as proved by the immeasurable complexity and variety found in nature, the truth may be that if there was a divine "plan" it may have been a "simple plan" after all. (This is the direct opposite concept of the Intelligent Design people who posit an intelligent creator because of the diversity visible in the world.)

:-)

More about this idea at my post here:

http://www.cleavelin.net/archives001/00000681.html

 
At 11:29 AM, Anonymous Kevin said...

"By being always in control, the Creator would deny His creatures any real opportunity to know and worship Him."

as you say, why would such a super GOD want/need/require worship by HIS creatures? and are monkeys and dolphins also required to worship this GOD, on the pain of eternal torture? what about plants? and if not, why do they get off so easy while humans are condemed to burn in enternal flames if they screw up and pick the "wrong" GOD to worship?

God is a concept. Its a concept that helped humans group together and direct their actions for a communal good. Religion is a useful tool (to some) to control society and economic power.

 
At 4:04 PM, Blogger Mark said...

God is real!

With that statement made I have a question.

Why is it hard for people to even except the concept that God may be real when they readily except the theory that the whole universe came from absolutely nothing?
Where did all the matter in the universe come from? And where did that come from? And so on.

I don’t think that either side can explain where the “that or it or Him” which caused us to exist came from. They both require us to believe without scientific proof. They both require faith.

At least my belief of God who exists in a realm outside of our time & space and not governed by the law that exist here gives me a place to start so that I may begin to comprehend the laws that govern the universe we live in.

I personally find it hard to believe that order came out of the chaos that the theory of an exploding universe must have been.

I have yet to see in the fossil record the infinite variation that leads from one species to the next. What I have seen says that there would need to be many thousands of variations in between.

Even before I began to believe in God evolution had a lot of holes that needed to be filled for me to believe in that theory.

Mark

 
At 6:05 PM, Anonymous Brendan said...

the violent, amoral, bloody process of natural selection

I thought we'de gone beyond this sort of terminology. How is the evolutionary development of the eye, of the ear, or even flagella on a bacteria fercrissakes an violent amoral bloody process. Nature as it exists at any time may be all of that if we want to amthromorphize it but is none of those things in itself.

They may even have been at one time reasonable descriptive terms but are clouded now by their emotive connotations. Though I'm not sure that amoral ever fits; it seems to suggest that the alternative is moral and that is not an alternative for nature so I think nature must sit outside morality.

Evolution is not emotional nor is nature.

 
At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...if a mystery as huge as the origin of species can be explained solely in terms of natural causes, it's hard to imagine what, exactly, God is needed to explain. And if God is not needed to explain some aspect of the natural world, then what reason is there for believing in Him.

But God is needed to explain the most fundamental question of all...why? Science can teach us incredible things about how our universe works, but what is the purpose of all this pointless matter, these pointless laws of phsyics.

The eastern Religions such as Hinduism have realized God, not as a maker, but as a process. God is the process of the creation (not in the Creationism sense) of the universe, and subsequently the evolution of life, on whatever planet it arises. Each and every individual life form is like a water particle in a wave of God (to be very loose with my words). And while we all experience life individually, we (all forms of living beings) are merely acting as the sensory perceptors of the universe.

To answer your question: "For that matter, how does an eternal, all-powerful being keep from getting bored?"

By experiencing life through trillions of life forms, each one under the impression that they are an individual (i.e. under the impression that they are not god).

Where we seem to go wrong is that we have a preconceived notion of "God" as an maker. That he constructed life (i.e. he molded man out of clay and breathed life into him through the nostrils). And our debate must fall on either side of that...either God the maker exists or God the maker doesn't exist.

But when you remove that aspect, if God ceases to be a thing and comes to signify the entire universe itself, then this whole argument becomes pretty much moot.

In this sense the two fundamental concepts of God are that 1) there must be an environment (the universe) and 2)there must be something to perceive it (life). It is what gives existence a purpose.

 
At 3:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

an addendum to that last post...

I don't mean to sound preachy, I'm just throwing out the idea that we're arguing ourselves into a corner because of all the preconceived notions we have about God ingrained in our culture.

Just because you don't believe in the idea of an invisible old man living in the sky watching over all of humanity (the ultimate reality show), doesn't mean you should dismiss the idea of God altogether. We need to shift the debate to this: science is devoted to answering the objective questions of the universe, while religion answers the subjective questions. We have a science classroom for one, and a religious or philosophical classroom for the other.

 
At 12:33 PM, Blogger another orphan said...

"I'm sorry to be harsh, but that paragraph strikes me as total nonsense. There is no logical connection at all between God's desire to create beings capable of worship on the one hand with his desire to grant those beings freedom and independence on the other. There is no reason why God couldn't be in complete control during the creation of the world, while relinquishing some of that control when the creation was complete."

I think you are misunderstanding one of the most important arguments being made by Christians who are anti-ID. Omniscience and omnipotence are all well and good, but they just make God big. People of faith require that God represent the kind of moral order that they feel is worthy to worship. Admittedly, my understanding is that of a member of the largest Jewish sect, the Nonobservant. Still, I think the point is that freedom of will is viewed as the only theodicy that has a chance of being self-consistent. And a successful theodicy is necessary for God to be worthy of worship. Persistent intervention undercuts that freedom, and so undercuts the whole structure.

I have my own problems with this, but I don't think that the argument is incoherent.

 
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