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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why I disagree with Ken Miller

I am traveling back from Brown University (on Amtrak's Acela Express train, ah, the civilization of the Northeast!), where I participated in a panel discussion on evolution and religion together with Ed Larson (Pepperdine University, author of the Pulitzer winning Summer for the Gods on the Scopes trial), art historian Mary Bergstein (Rhode Island School for Design), and Brown's own Ken Miller, twice guest on The Colbert Report, author of a popular biology textbook and of the somewhat troublesome -- if much acclaimed -- Finding Darwin's God.

I have met Ken several times before, and I think he is one of the most effective advocates for the teaching of evolution, as well as an excellent critic of intelligent design. He is energetic, quick witted, and personally likable. Still, we have our disagreements, which were evident during the panel discussion, and which we explored further -- in the amicable spirit of inquiry -- afterwards at dinner.

Ken started his presentation with the same clear thinking and powerful impact on the audience that the first part of his book displays: he 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. He was trying to counter what he sees as the real crux of the problem within the context of the creationism-evolution controversy: it's not that people care about the science, it's that they 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.

But how is this view different from intelligent design, I asked Ken? During his presentation at the panel and while reading his book 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. (Behe's argument itself is just a new version of the old William Paley one from the early 19th century, except that Paley didn't know about bacterial flagella and looked for God in the complex structure of the human eye.)

After quite a bit of engaging back and forth (at dinner) I got the following response from Ken: well, the arguments may be similar, 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. He then proceeded to explain to me that there are essentially three ways to account for the uncanny set of physical constants that make our universe (and life in it) possible: a) it is the result of a willful creator; b) it was chance, we got lucky; c) it is just one instantiation of an infinite number of "multiverses," the multiple endlessly splitting universes that result from a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics. (There actually is at least a fourth alternative, stemming from some versions of string theory, according to which the universal constants simply had to be this way, and they are not a random sample from an infinite universe of possibilities.)

Since there is no empirical way to discriminate among the three (or four) possibilities, Ken said, he feels justified in picking the one that has more meaning for him. (How he gets Jesus, the Virgin Mary and all the rest from that, of course, is another matter. When I asked him why he believes those things rather than, say, the tales about the Olympian Gods, he replied that the latter are clearly a human-made cultural tradition. As if the Gospels or the Old Testament were in any way different.)

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. (Another point of controversy during the panel was that 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 exchange highlights how difficult it is to find a working model for a positive relationship between science and religion. As is well known to readers of this blog, I don't go for Dawkins-Hitchens-like strident atheism, though I certainly am an atheist and proud of it. I also don't go for Stephen Gould's famous "non-overlapping magisteria," which naively divides the sphere of influence of science and religion (respectively, facts and values), a philosophically untenable position (the sharpness of the fact/value distinction has been increasingly questioned in philosophy) and one that simply misses the point of the controversy (it is precisely because so many people insist in using their Bibles as science textbooks -- thereby crossing Gould's separation line -- that we have a problem).

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. She is an atheist, and her atheism is informed (though likely not solely determined) by her understanding of science. Yet, she knows that an all out science vs. religion war wouldn't be good for science, religion, or society (we've tried that, for hundreds of years). So I think the best that we can do is to come together with moderate religionists to further a common agenda of education and religious freedom (including the freedom to be openly atheistic). But this is an uncomfortable alliance because of the fundamental difference between the two worldviews, best summarized by physicist Richard Feynman in The Meaning of It All: "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." Amen.


  1. First of all, I am intrigued by the lineup of people in this panel discussion - where can I see it?
    Second, I've read "Finding Darwin's God" too and I liked it - mostly. The first half of the book is pretty science-heavy but the second half was a little uncomfortable to read.
    I think it's important to consider that the people who are sitting on the fence about evolution see biologists like Dawkins and draw a connection, warranted or not, between evolution and atheism. I think it's unfortunate when I hear people say you can't just throw facts at the problem (because that's how academic discussions are won) but it's true.
    Here's my favorite passage from Ken Miller's book:

    "To Wise and many others, the disciples of evolution have crushed the innocence of childhood, poisoned the garden of belief, and replaced both with a calculating reality that chills and hardens the soul. How sweet it would be to close one's eyes to "Darwin's damn theory," and once again sleep blissfully in the bosom of Abraham."

    I think this is how many educated critics of evolution feel. Logic, reason, and facts don't matter in this circumstance. So, I think, in a rather cynical way, it is good that Miller is religious because it puts a face on evolution and religion.

  2. It seems to me that Theistic Evolution posits a final cause in addition to efficient causes, while ID posits the necessity of a designer as efficient cause.

    This would constitute a great difference, at least initially, in the two positions.

    But it seems to follow that if the TE position is held with consistency it is impossible to marshall any evidence for it, while it is still vulnerable to the problem of evil that you mentioned.

  3. Massimo said, "...the best that we can do is....further a common agenda of education and religious freedom."

    Unfortunately, this approach ignores the very real human suffering and harm that came when fundies exercised their "religious freedom" during the Bush years: sexual assault survivors denied information about emergency contraception, women hoping to time their pregnancies denied contraception at their local pharmacy, young adults hoping to be tested for sexually transmitted infections denied treatment by health care employees who oppose premarital sex.

    One out of every two pregnancies in the U.S. is unintended. Imagine what that rate is in the world's poorest countries, and then consider the suffering that Bush's "gag rule" has had - a catastrophic impact on the scope and effectiveness of family planning services and sexual health and contraception, especially in Africa where only 18% of women have access to modern means of contraception.

    As much as we may not like the "messiness" of pitched battle, beyond promoting education and religious freedom, we must fight to keep the fundies out of our political institutions!

  4. First of all I would like to point out that I can't even imagine how hard it must be to be an esteemed scientist and hold on to a particular religious belief.

    I can probably see how someone can make the case that the idea of a God is not incompatible with science as long as you restrict said God to no interaction what so ever in our universe. After all a God that does not interfere, cannot be detected, the lack of evidence is exactly what we would expect for such a God.

    Nevertheless, it is a bit of an intellectual dishonesty I think to take this a step further and pick a particular God, such as the christian one. That is completely and utterly indefensible from a logical point of view. It is simply a choice, or a matter of being born into a particular religion.

    The person holding such beliefs, and at the same time abiding by the tenets of science and logical thinking, must be in an impossible situation. On the one hand his brain tells him that he cannot possibly hold this particular belief. On the other hand the dogma that has been ingrained in his brain over decades of religious brainwashing is too strong to yield to reason.

    He must know that the dogma should yield to logic, but he can't do it. That alone, the knowledge that one is a logical person holding on to an illogical belief, must be a nightmare to live with.

  5. I recently finished a very insightful book by the Dalai Lama "The Universe In A Single Atom -The Convergence of Science and spirituality"

    It was actually refreshing to read the final chapter titled "Science Spirituality, and Humanity"

    Far from any mention of religious doctrine the book on the whole shows the fundamental compatibilities and shared goals between human spirituality and scientific pursuits with out trying to wring from scientific fact, known and unknown, the usual dubious metaphysical questions and justification of religious doctrines. This is likely because it seems Tibetan Buddhism at least is quicker to accept scientific observation as it seeks to explore how humanity mentally and spiritually relates to it's world. It has less trouble shedding old beliefs in it's search for truth. It has no God worship either which seems to be a real issue of tension with Christianity and Science.

    The book dose however add:

    "one can take science seriously and accept the validity of it's empirical findings without subscribing to scientific materialism."

    This got me thinking how on the one hand people have become entangled with mythical god figures and Scriptures that among other things at one time pro ported to explain the worlds mysteries and prop them selves up on the unknowns that science is so apt at uncovering. Here we have the foundations of the conflict between science and Christian religion.

    However on the other hand there is always the threat of scientific materialism being ingested by the ignorant masses as a new religion of sorts as they yearn for answers and seek something to believe in on a moral and spiritual level.

    That is something they use when they decide right from wrong and seek the meaning of life. These are the people who would take reductionism as not a successful and sound method but attempt to hold it out as the answer to a metaphysical question such as "what is the meaning of life?"

    Scientists have an unprecedented level of trust in today's society and there are real implications regarding how we see our world and how we view ourselves and the paths that our ethical and moral views may take. Sometimes these paradigm shifts improve on our humanity and compassion but science has to be careful not to let itself be dragged into the realm of spirituality.

    When I say spirituality I refer not to religious mythology but to the universal ethical premises of what it means to be human , and how we decide right, wrong, good evil and the why of life.

    I think it is this that many religious fear. One can see the cruelties of evolutionary theory as being used by coming generations to justify the acceptance of cruelty and adoption of a self serving moral code that prizes the important (but not overriding) idea of individual freedom over all other and larger moral considerations and responsibilities.

    One can see the reductionist method giving birth to misguided nihilism.

    Many have come to take the position that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive both fighting to explain the "how" of the physical world and the "why" of the spiritual world. Science is the how and spirituality is the why.

    While I would argue that spirituality is but one redeeming aspect encapsulated in the mess and fairy tale that is most religious belief, it is not dependent upon religion as a whole.

    Religion started the fight when it pro ported to provide the "how" not just the "why" and science must be careful not to retaliate in turn by becoming a sort of a gospel of atheism treading into the domain of the "why". Atheism is just that non theism and if it starts acting like religion and proposing views on metaphysical questions I'm going to have to find something else to call myself.

    Religion made a fool of itself when it crossed it's domain and science must not follow suit by attacking the "why" least it be involved in running amok or showing it's own inadequacies in influencing moral doctrine.

    If only religion could not have to hold to semantics about the nature of God and afterlife and explaining all of materiel reality we would not have this problem perhaps.

    Why do people hate the idea of Science killing God ? It is because he holds spirituality as his hostage. Spirituality is not God nor superstition but many do not distinguish the two.

    It is the loss of spirituality people truly fear not loss of the harp playing, flying bird people or white bearded, robe wearing, throne siting, God.

  6. 1) I don't get it. Is Ken fighting ID and at the same time picking creationism for himself because to him it has more meaning?

    2) Science has been engaged in an all-out-war with religion for hundreds of years? When? And how has this war hurt science?

  7. Valera,

    "1) I don't get it. Is Ken fighting ID and at the same time picking creationism for himself because to him it has more meaning?"

    Well, it sounds like it to me. I have invited him to post a response here, if he wishes. We'll see.

    "2) Science has been engaged in an all-out-war with religion for hundreds of years? When? And how has this war hurt science?"

    The Inquisition, Giordano Bruno, Galileo...

  8. The Inquisition waged a "war" against heretics, not against science and not the other way around (where science waged any wars against the Church or the Inquisition).

    Also, I don't think a relatively small number of scientists & philosophers throughout the ages speaking out against the Church or its teachings could be considered an all out war.

    Either way, an active movement against religion back then wouldn't have done nearly as much as one can do now, when there are so many more scientists, many more people are educated, and the Church is very much weakened and has no power to prosecute anyone.

  9. On the Dalai Lama:

    Check out his stance on gay love at about 10:56 of
    this interview.

    To me, he sounds like a man who is hidebound by tradition. Perhaps he just chooses his battles carefully, and is willing to let science be.

  10. Jerseyguy,

    I agree with what you said. Except that it does not apply to what Massimo said at all.

    You used the ID/creationist's favorite strategy: misquoting.

    The sentence Massimo wrote was: "So I think the best that we can do is to come together with moderate religionists to further a common agenda of education and religious freedom"

    And the part you omitted, in bold there, is why what you said, while true and important, has nothing to do with what Massimo said. By definition, the nutjob evangelicals who worshiped Bush (and did/do all the bad stuff you mention) are not "moderate religionists" in any way.


    Now, on to the believing scientists... I can't see how it is possible to be a Christian and a scientist while at the same time using your whole brain all the time. It is necessary to turn certain parts of to believe preposterous things like virgin birth from a human or resurrection or that an invisible, omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful being cares about what you do in bed. Among other things. I'm just not able to turn my brain off like that for such things. I can enjoy art and fiction and other things in life without the scientific mind, of course. Because they don't need it. But when it comes to explaining the world, it is not possible not to use that mind. IT would be intellectually dishonest actually, in my opinion.

    So, some people can be a very rigorous mind in the lab, and at the same time believe in Santa Claus in other parts of life (by the way, just finished reading "Santa Lives!" and it was a blast).

  11. A couple of years ago Miller attended a discussion panel on Religion and Science at the Am. Mus. of Nat. Hist, in NY. He explained his position -- the usual --, and at the end I told him I thought his was a schizophrenic position [I don't think he liked it].

  12. On "To me, he sounds like a man who is hidebound by tradition. Perhaps he just chooses his battles carefully, and is willing to let science be."

    I think there is not sufficient reason to draw the connection here between his moral views on gay love and his acceptance of rational science. Christians may say God says gay love is wrong and often science takes issue with the "God saying" part not a position on the moral judgment in and of it self.

    Also I have noticed interviews don't often bring his ideas across very well, unlike his translated writings, due to his English and conflicting terms of language between the cultures.

    He has shown a great interest in learning about the various scientific disciplines and trying to push scientific literacy among his people. I think he certainly dose hold many traditional Buddhist values but is not in opposition to scientific fact. That is his being traditionally religious in moral aspects dose not exclude acceptance of science.

    It is all to common that Christianity finds it self often in all out, an either or, all or nothing position.

    Certainly many Buddhists hold some potentially conflicting traditional views on creation but in many of these he actively encourages (at least for Tibetans) the evaluation of in the context of metaphoric tools of their time. Certainly he might draw a line some were too say at science objecting to any philosophical possibility of reincarnation. Though I don't see real science seeking to delve into the realms of philosophical or metaphysical speculation for which it is ill suited to quantify by it's very nature.

    Overall his ideas often delve deeper than any particular religious biases normally would allow and his ideas on science and spirituality in the larger roles they play for humanity are very insightful.

    This is a perfect example though of how people tend to view there being a battle between science and religion over moral guidance. One has to wonder what exactly his moral view on gay love (right or wrong his belief may be in my opinion) has to do with the capacity to accept scientific method and findings.

    This is the danger in my opinion of muddying science in the waters of purely spiritual and moral debate. That we have people seeking to choose the acceptance, rejection or wild interpretation of sciences rational material findings biased on their desire to not lose the capacity to defend their own moral or spiritual values.

    This is because many people do not draw the distinction between something that is unproven and that which has been proven false. There are then some things science is ill equipped to attempt to prove or disprove and thus should stick to observation of martial fact.

    It is when science starts to foster purely ideological beliefs regarding the former that it has become scientific materialism.

    Science I would argue must remain objective without attacking the subjective values of religion. When fact contradicts a false belief about physical reality so be it.

    Science must though avoid seeking to become an "ism" associated with a bias towards a particular ideological belief system such as atheism. I am Atheist but I resist the temptation to make science a weapon for my personal beliefs as this only tends to encourage people to reject rationality and scientific fact as being a competing ideology and an affront to their spiritual beliefs. We should not seek to necessarily put people in the position of being either rational or spiritual as we can't afford to have people rejecting rationality as if it was a competing religious belief, nor do we want science loosing it's objectivity or attempting to conform to an agenda of trampling the whole of human spirituality.

    I do feel science should be taught in schools and that religion should not be taught there unless it is in an academic non denominational sense (ie the study of the origins and beliefs of world religions.) Or solely taught in but religious schools of theological study.

    It is precisely the muddying of science and the leveraging of it, as one person put it, as "an active movement against religion" that allows parents to exclude their children form science class during the teaching of evolution, and which pushes them to seek to have their own half cocked pseudo science that starts with an ideological premise and attempts to work backwards in justification.

    This is not at all what we want to encourage.

  13. Dear "J":
    I did leave out the "moderate" reference to religionists because I don't know how to find them.

    Which ones will ACTIVELY urge their congregants to enact legislation for (a) quality sex ed? (b) legalizing gay marriage? (c) changing Boy Scouts' policies towards gays & atheists? (d) etc. etc. etc.

    Most importantly, looking at recent history, please send evidence for any ACTIONS these "moderates" promoted to their congregants during the Bush era to block the fundies from getting their dogma written into policies - thanks.

  14. August Berkshire, of Minnesota Atheist fame, has written a review of Ken Miller's talk in the Twin cities. The post is "Losing Miller's God." It is getting a certain amount of attention.


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