About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, February 27, 2009
Ken Miller responds to Massimo (and vice versa)
Thanks, of course, for the very kind comments about my presentation at Brown. At your invitation, I’m writing a few comments to clarify and correct what I think are some mistaken impressions and also to point out a few areas of genuine disagreement. You wrote:
"Ken … quickly summarized the reasons why intelligent design is not science, why it is no threat to the theory of evolution, and why therefore the latter but not the former should be taught in public schools. But then he changed pace -- just like in the book -- and proposed a muddied concept of evolution as an intrinsic property of the universe, bound to produce beings like us."
Massimo, evolution is a natural process, and as such it emerges from the laws of chemistry and physics. Since you embrace naturalism as philosophy yourself (as well as science), why would you claim that this is a “muddled concept,” unless you regard scientific naturalism itself as muddled?
No, I did not argue that it was “bound to produce beings like us,” but it is obviously true that in our one and only run through natural history, evolution, in fact, did produce “beings like us.” Why? Well, neither you nor I can be sure. But the way in which evolution explores adaptive space (as evidenced by scores of examples of convergent evolution — of which you are well aware) suggests to me that intelligence would eventually have evolved somewhere, even if primates (or even vertebrates) did not. If you’d like to disagree, and argue — as creationists do — that the evolution of our species was so improbable that it could never happen again (they argue, of course, that it didn’t even happen the first time), go ahead. But in scientific terms, there is no hard support for that view. In terms of the actual experiment, we’ve got exactly one example of biological evolution, and one case of self-reflective intelligence.
You said I claimed that creationists and other evolution deniers:
"… don't want to be the result of an accident of history, from which they derive the (non-sequitur) conclusion that there would be no meaning in their life."
Sorry, but that is not what I said. What I actually said and typed on a slide was that people object to human existence being seen as a “mistake” of nature. Well, we are not “mistakes” of nature — we are features of nature, since we were brought into existence as a species by natural processes. That’s not a mistake.
"But how is this view different from intelligent design, I asked Ken?"
You’ve got to be kidding. The essence of ID is that natural processes are NOT sufficient to account for the emergence of biological complexity and new species, including our own. The core of my argument is that natural processes are FULLY sufficient to do exactly that. And you don’t see a difference? C’mom, Massimo. The difference couldn’t be greater — except, of course, for one thing, which you then reveal in your blog entry:
"... I had the distinct impression that he forcefully, and effectively, refuted Michael Behe-like arguments from 'irreducible complexity' only to look a few levels down, to the quantum world and the basic laws of physics, to find the same God that Behe (a Catholic, like Miller) is content to find at the level of biomolecules."
Ah, now we see the real problem. It’s not that you object to ID itself at all. It’s that you object to the concept of God — and therefore to you the real problem with ID is that it finds a place for God. To me, quite honestly, the real problem with ID is that it is bad science, and I had thought you agreed. But after our dinner discussion, in which you repeatedly raised objections to faith itself, rather than to my views of science, it was clear that for you the real issue is indeed religious.
"After quite a bit of engaging back and forth (at dinner) I got the following response from Ken: well, the arguments may be similar..."
No, the arguments are NOT similar at all. If they were, Massimo, then why was I so effective is dismantling Behe’s arguments at Dover?
"...but it is the intention that is different. According to him, Behe tries to prove the existence of a designer through (alleged) irreducible complexity, while Miller contents himself with deploying what he admitted to be a form of the anthropic principle to merely show that the existence of God is not logically incompatible with science. This comes perilously closed to drawing a distinction without a difference, but I do see the subtle difference (again, in intention, not argument) that Ken is attempting to make."
It’s a distinction without a difference only if your intention in countering ID is primarily motivated by resistance to religion. Then, any scientist who is religious (like about 40% of the members of AAAS) becomes a threat who must be dismissed with scorn as not a true scientist — or, worse, as a creationist whose views are no different from the sycophants of the Discovery Institute.
"Since there is no empirical way to discriminate among the three (or four) possibilities [of how our universe came to be], Ken said, he feels justified in picking the one that has more meaning for him."
No, not any more than you feel justified in rejecting the one that you object to the most — which you clearly do. Rather, I simply pointed out that to a person of faith, there is indeed a way (even if it is one among many) to understand our universe that is perfectly consistent with science. And so there is, as you yourself admit. It’s just that you feel compelled to pick one that is not compatible with faith — a choice with no greater scientific justification than mine.
You then, of course, ridicule the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus — confirming, as you did repeatedly, that your primary concern lies in rejecting faith itself. Yes, Christianity may indeed be illogical and unjustified (as you believe) — but that does not address the issue at hand, namely whether there is a way that Christians can understand our evolutionary and cosmic history that is consistent with their faith. I think there is. But by spending so much time attacking that faith instead of addressing the issue, as you did in our conversation, you essentially ceded the issue of compatibility without realizing it. I’m afraid that your further comments confirm that:
"But, I pointed out, those alternatives -- even though empirically indistinguishable (at least at the moment) -- are not, so to speak, created equal. The latter two (or three, if you include string theory) are naturalistic and they do not pose anything other than nature to be operating in the universe. The first one, on the contrary, immediately begs the question of where the designer came from, how s/he operates and what his intentions are."
Oh, but your completely naturalistic explanations beg exactly the same question — it’s just that you don’t realize it. Specifically, they beg the question of where the mechanisms that generate multiverses or define the rules of string theory come from. You must either postulate another set of unknown causes, as any good naturalistic philosopher would, or chain yourself to an infinite regression of natural causes without end. The difference between us is that in scientific terms I am perfectly willing to admit that one cannot chose between these alternatives, at least today. You, however, are forced to reject one of them to confirm your own world view — and not for any scientific reason.
"…Ken presented evolution as a beautiful mechanism that produces stunningly compelling outcomes, to which I retorted that he was then facing the well known problem from evolutionary evil: natural selection is wasteful, it kills, it causes extinction, and it does so with the huge suffering of many parties involved. Isn't the designer responsible for these outcomes of his "beautiful" mechanism as well?"
This is a common — and logically flawed — argument against a creator. What you suggest is that a gracious God would have design a world in which there was no death, no pain, no suffering, no “waste,” and no extinction. Fair enough. But in that world, there would also be no room for a new species (since nothing would die to make room for it), no reason for evolutionary novelty (none of the competition that leads to natural selection), and no beauty (why produce beautiful flowers, plumage, or natural ornaments if survival is assured for every individual?). Furthermore, in the world you envision as ideal, there is no place for human courage, since there is nothing to fear, no place for virtue, since good is universal, and no reason to invent, discover, and create. Why bother to heal when there is no sickness, why help the poor and sick and disabled when they do not exist, and why face difficulties with courage when there are no such difficulties?
Like you, I do not endorse Steve Gould’s NOMA, and I made that clear. I think that science and faith have a lot to say to each other, and I made the point that any faith that cannot fully embrace science is not worth having. But (and here is where I think you completely misunderstand me and other religious scientists) that does not mean that one must then enlist — or distort — science in the service of faith. I don’t, and I would defy you to find a single example to the contrary.
Like you, I support the approach of Eugenie Scott, herself an atheist, but fully cognizant of the important role that scientists who are people of faith can and must play in the struggle for the integrity of science and science education. I would hope that you and I would stand shoulder to shoulder in that effort in the future, as we always have in the past.
You ended by quoting Feynman:
"I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion ... the spirit or attitude toward the facts is different in religion from what it is in science. The uncertainty that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith."
Respecting Feynman, whom I admire and regard as a role model for our profession, yes, there is a difference between science and faith. But the “certainty” he attributes to faith is that of an outsider who has rejected it. In reality, humility is the beginning of faith, a humility that sees the capacity to reason, from which we construct science, as a gift to be treasured and defended. A scientist like me doesn’t approach the world with certainty, as Feynman assumed, but with an understanding of the frailties and limitations of the human intellect, always imperfect, but always with the capacity to learn and strive.
Unlike you, I don’t regard my “alliance” to defend science with the likes of Eugenie Scott, Kevin Padian, Sean Carroll, Neil Shubin or other non-religious scientists as “uncomfortable.” Heck, I am very comfortable. The reason, perhaps, is paradoxically because I place rational scientific concerns above sectarian religious ones, and happily partner with anyone who values the scientific enterprise. I do very much wish that all of my secular colleagues could see things the same way. We’re going to end up going different directions on Sunday morning, but we can and should unite on the value of scientific reason. Amen.
Thanks for the opportunity to address your concerns.
Additional thoughts by Massimo:
Ken does not seem to make up his mind between which version of the anthropic principle he feels comfortable with. In his response he leans toward the weak version: since we are here, obviously the laws of the universe must have been compatible with our evolution. Yes, but this is rather trivial, and it does nothing to purchase the existence of a creator of any kind. Only the stronger version of the principle does, and I reiterate that that has to be considered a form of intelligent design.
However, I do agree with Ken that there is a significant difference between his version (the designer put together the laws of the universe, science explains everything except the designer) and Behe-like arguments (science is not sufficient to explain the universe as we observe it, miracles -- in the form of the occasional direct intervention of the designer -- are necessary).
Ken's distinction between my characterization of what the creationists have a problem with (they don't want to be the result of an accident of nature) and Ken's own (they don't want to be a mistake) seems truly to be without a difference. The bottom line is that many people are deeply uncomfortable with entirely naturalistic explanations of their existence because they don't feel special enough.
As for objecting to bad science (in the guise of intelligent design creationism) vs. to faith itself, I object to both. To the first, on scientific ground; to the second on philosophical grounds. I know Ken is a religious person, so he has to reconcile his science with his faith. But that isn't the only possible approach, obviously, and -- I maintain -- it isn't the most rational either.
That said, I have repeatedly pointed out that I don't belong to the Dawkins school of vilifying scientists who are religious (nor religious people in general). I think the primary objective is the defense of sound science education, on which Ken and I obviously stand shoulder to shoulder. Criticism of religion and promotion of atheism are also important issues (to me), but they are philosophical in nature, and ought to be pursued separately from the science.
I do think, however, that Ken is on extremely shaky philosophical ground when he insists that naturalistic accounts of the origin of the universe are on the same level as deistic or theistic ones. Exactly, how is it that answering "nature" begs the same sort of question as answering "nature + an intelligent designer"? We know that nature exists and that it has laws, regardless of our limited ability to understand or explain them. To postulate an intelligent designer on top of that leads one to a whole different order of metaphysical assumptions.
As for Ken's counter to the argument from evolutionary evil, it seems to me that one has to engage in quite a bit of mental gymnastics to claim that a better universe (as in more fair and just, to reflect the Christian god's alleged traits) has to include suffering and death because otherwise there would be no evolutionary novelty or beauty. That god is all-powerful, so s/he could produce whatever beauty and novelty s/he likes without having to bring in cancer and earthquakes to make it possible.
Finally, my issue with faith doesn't have anything to do with humility or lack thereof. The problem that Feynman (and I) finds with faith is that it means that one believes in something regardless or even despite the evidence. This attitude is not only profoundly irrational (by definition), but also embodies one of the worst values we can possibly promote in our society. At the very least it leads to poor thinking, and at the worst it brings about the sort of uncritical acceptance of doctrines (religious or secular) that too often has had tragic consequences for humanity.