Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kenneth R. Miller Comments On Jerry Coyne's "Seeing And Believing"

As promised, here is Kenneth R. Miller's reflections on Jerry Coyne's Seeing And Believing, an essay that posits science and religion will never be reconciled.
"An Exclusionist View of Science
My colleague and friend Jerry Coyne is a brilliant scientist, an excellent writer, and a thoughtful, outspoken atheist. He believes that God does not exist, and that any reasonable person should think as he does, rejecting the elixir of faith as pointless delusion. In taking that position, even though it is one with which I disagree, he places himself in distinguished company, no question. If Dr. Coyne's review of recent books by Karl Giberson and myself (Only a Theory, and Saving Darwin, respectively) sought only to make that argument, thereby to distance himself from a couple of deluded Christians, I wouldn't have much to complain about. On the issue of faith, there's plenty of distance between us, even if I think Coyne is on the wrong side of the question.

But Coyne did something quite different from that.

In addition to making the usual claims about the lack of evidence for God, Coyne flatly states that faith and science are not compatible, arguing that the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. What about the tens of thousands of scientists, now and in the past who were people of faith (including roughly 40% of all working scientists in the US, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)? Coyne waves them away with scorn, literally comparing them to "adulterers" who have subverted their vows to be true to science—or at least to Coyne's view of science. More on that later.

Coyne claims that "theistic evolutionists" like me exhibit three of the four hallmarks of creationism, making me really no different from the folks I opposed at the Kitzmiller trial. He couldn't be more wrong about that. I share exactly one thing in common with creationists, which is my belief in God. The other points of supposed agreement are figments of Coyne's imagination—or of his overwrought efforts to slander any believer by placing them in the "creationist" camp.

He seems to argue that a person of faith who accepts evolution must also believe God "micro-edited DNA" to guide evolution. While it's certainly true that a Divine author of nature could intervene in his world at any time, I have never argued for the sort of divine tinkering that Coyne finds so disturbing. In fact, I have argued exactly the opposite. Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. Unfortunately, Coyne does not seem to appreciate this point.
And, just to quibble, he claims that only 25% of Americans believe we evolved from apelike ancestors. The actual figure (unlike Coyne, I will cite a reference) is 40% (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto. Science 313: 765, August 2006).

Coyne's eagerness to close out any possibility that there is an author to the natural world leads him into a curious position of self-contradiction on the appearance of the human species on our planet. As I pointed out in Only a Theory, evolution did indeed produce the grand and beautiful fabric of life that covers our planet, including our own species. Therefore, we are not a "mistake" of nature, but a full-fledged product of the natural world. If God is the creator of that world, including the laws of chemistry and physics and even the unpredictable events of the quantum universe, then it would be perfectly reasonable for a religious person to see our emergence, through the process of evolution, as part of God's plan for that universe. This doesn't mean, as I took care to point out in my book, that nature is rigged to produce big-brained, hairless, bipedal primates who would invent football, canned beer, and reality television. Rather, it means that the universe in which we live is sufficiently hospitable to life that on this one planet, at the very least, it has supported an evolutionary process that gave rise to intelligent, self-aware, reflective organisms, who would then be capable of arguing about the meaning, purpose, and nature of existence.

I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way—only that it could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith.

To Coyne, however, even the mere possibility that someone might understand nature in a Divine context is absolute heresy. As a result, while he strictly rules out anything but natural causes in the evolutionary process (as would I), he then must argue that the same process could never, ever happen again. Why? Because if conditions in our universe are such that they make the emergence of intelligent life, sooner or later, pretty much a sure thing, then people might wonder why. And if they were to come to the conclusion this might mean that there was a Creator who intended that as part of his work, they would be guilty of the very thoughts that Coyne finds so outrageous that he wishes to banish them from the scientific establishment.

So, despite his frank admission that "convergences are striking features of evolution," he rules any possibility that human-like intelligence could also be a convergent feature. His only reason for so doing seems to be that such intelligence evolved "only once, in Africa." Apparently, to satisfy his standards, it should have evolved many times. Actually, of course, if an observer had checked as recently as 5 million years ago, it wouldn't have evolved at all. Nonetheless Coyne has absolutely no empirical reason for claiming that what happened once could not happen again—and he surely knows that. But, to borrow a phrase, he is "forced" into that conclusion by his own anti-theist views.

For someone so insistent on empirical evidence, Coyne is remarkably quick to invoke faith when it suits his purposes. Realizing that the anthropic principle could indeed be seen as friendly to religion, he knows he just doesn't have enough evidence to reject it. So Coyne dreams that "perhaps some day, when we have a 'theory of everything' that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe." Indeed. Perhaps we will. But even if we achieve that theory, we will still have to ask where the laws and principles of that theory come from, something that even Coyne at his speculative and hopeful best does not seem to appreciate.

Finally, what of his central criticism—the claim that science and religion are not only different, but incompatible and mutually contradictory?

He's right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work. On such claims, science has nothing to say one way or the other. Coyne's complaint on such things, paradoxically, is that they must not have happened because there is no scientific explanation for them. That amounts, in essence, to saying that these things could not have happened because they would be miracles. Well, that's exactly what most Christians take them for, so Coyne's only real argument is an a priori assumption that miracles cannot happen. Make that assumption, and miracles are nonsense. But it is an assumption nonetheless, something that Coyne fails to see.

How, then, should we take his claim that scientists who profess religious faith are akin to adulterers? An adulterer, of course, is one who has taken the marriage vow of faithfulness and exclusivity, and then broken that vow to have sex with another. Have scientists who profess faith broken some vow of philosophical naturalism that is implicit in the profession?

I, for one, don't remember any such vow in my training, my PhD exam, or my tenure review—although perhaps things work a little differently at the University of Chicago.

What science does require is methodological naturalism. We live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works. By definition, that confines science to purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science. I agree, and would defy Dr. Coyne to point to any claim made in the books he has reviewed that defines science in any other way. He cannot do that, of course, because there are no such claims. I would also ask that he point out scientific flaws in the work of biologists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Francisco Ayala, or Francis Collins that may have derived from their personal religious faith. He won't be able to do that, either, of course. Every scientist makes mistakes—and I've made plenty in my career. But the real issue is whether a scientist's view on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly, it is not.

Coyne's entire critique, then, is based upon an unspoken assumption he expects his readers to share, namely, that science is the only legitimate form of knowledge. To Coyne, any deviation from that view is an adulterous contradiction of the sacred scientific vow to exclude any possibility of the spiritual, not just from one's scientific work, but from the entirety of one's philosophical world view.

With all due respect to my distinguished colleague, that is nonsense. One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect? The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and if existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering.

To Jerry Coyne, a person of faith like the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, could not possibly have been a true scientist because of his faith in a loving and provident God. That would make Father Lemaître, in Coyne's eyes, nothing more than a creationist. Too bad, because as I'm sure Jerry knows, it was Georges Lemaître who provided the first detailed mathematical arguments for cosmic expansion, which today we call the "big bang." Remarkable how Lemaître rose above his adulterous tendencies, isn't it?

The genuine tragedy of Coyne's argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly ideological crusade—a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, Jerry, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and you would do well not to turn them away."
Again, by way of richarddawkins.net

7 comments:

tag-photos said...

Comment 1.

Interesting that only 40% of working scientists in America are theists, while 82% of the country are theists (or people of faith)

(http://atheism.about.com/b/2006/02/08/theism-in-america-belief-in-god-down-to-82.htm)

As an aside... 69% of post graduates have faith....

Seems the more educated less likely to have faith?


Comment 2.

Interesting thought on evolution and how it could fit into faith and theory of creationism. Without deluding ourselves that a day is not a day.

What if our current forms are not the forms that god created, "in his image". What if the forms of life that God created were single cell organisms? What if in one day god created all those single cell organisms and let his nature take it's course?

This is what got me thinking that..

"He seems to argue that a person of faith who accepts evolution must also believe God "micro-edited DNA" to guide evolution."

I doubt a god that would give us free will would then micro manage us.... That is kinda absurd way of thinking.

Then again this way of thinking that God created the building blocks in one day and we took ages to evolve into our current form makes a lot of sense to me.

What if we are in the image of god. What if God created a single cell human in the beginning because God started that way? What if through millenia God evolved along the same lines as we are currently following?

I know this is getting to the absurd because the final conclusion of that would logically be that at some point we would all evolve to godlike states.... Absurd....

The rest of my budding thought I like though.

This would answer a lot of questions and oddities in Genesis though. Time lines would be fine since God just started the birthing process, not created matured species.
Kinda like how a woman gives birth to an infant, not an adult....

Comment 3.

I do believe that science ad faith can co-exist and that one is not exclusive of the other.

Christopher said...

So you've completely changed your opinion since the last time we wrote to each other on these issues, yes?

tag-photos said...

I am sorry if I lead you to believe that science and religion cannot coexist. I have always felt like it could.

In the same breath though i do not agree with many of the compromises of logic and reasonable thought that many people of faith go to to make them coexist.

One way of thinking about science is simply to study the working of god and at the risk of being blasphemous better understand the workings of god. or the way he thinks.
Of course that study, done with humility, is no more blasphemous than studying the bible to better understand him.

I guess it would be easy to see and to think I do not think they can co-exist. Because I will vehemently argue and debate what I consider stupid and irrational leaps of faith and gross misinterpretation with the sole purpose to justify a preconceived conclusion.

Christopher said...

Understood, TP. So, then, more directly, are you suggesting that theistic evolution is a tenable proposition? That is what you have described above.

I think I'm going to have to write an article on the notion of the "leap of faith" and focus on the idea that all knowledge is faith-based. Ergo, a leap is always happening between what we think we know and our inclination to believe what we think we know. Realising and admitting that much has helped me immensely to accept the synergy and symbiosis of faith and knowledge.

tag-photos said...

Theistic evolution is a theory such as evolution and the big bang. They are all theories in the big picture.

What it comes down to, as far as which to believe, or which ones, is the amount of weight you personally put on the given evidence.

Evolution in a smaller scale is factual. Breeding is a great illustration of guided evolution. Chickens can be bred to lay more eggs. Horses bred to run faster. Cows bred to give more milk, or more meat as needed.

The only proof of creationism is the bible, that I am aware of. There are no experiments that we as mere mortals can do to prove or illustrate points of creationism. Which leaves us to proving the validity of the bible.
Sure there are some parts of the bible that are factual. A great many other parts that are fictional, inaccurate, contradictory etc... This is exasperated with the great many translations of the bible.
Therefore I am left to believe that the largest reason to believe in creationism, or the overall validity of the bible, is faith. That is simply not good enough for me.

Of course Evolution has a HUGE hole in the theory. That is simply what started everything. Thus the theory of a big bang. Again even this theory has some observable fact to it in that celestial bodies are moving away from each other. That alone is a far cry from proving the theory of course, but better than a blind guess based on a story someone wrote long ago.

Of course even observable science is based on faith. At least scientific faith is based on observable things.
An example of that is the four elements. At one time the existence of the four elements was irrefutable scientific proof. That was of course proven time and time again through experimentation. Of course as methods of observing things improved scientific law changed as well.

I think one thing I much prefer about science over religion is the willingness for science to say they are wrong and correct their mistakes.

Oh well enough barely linked rambling for now on this topic.

Christopher said...

TP,

"Theistic evolution is a theory such as evolution and the big bang. They are all theories in the big picture."Theistic evolution in one sense is a theory, you're right. However, what 'theory' usually means in the scientific field is 'a non-falsified, repeatable test that confirms a hypothesis' (a loose definition). Given that, evolution is not a 'theory' in the colloquial sense (i.e., a proposed idea); it is a repeatable experiment that confirms a hypothesis.

But just to complicate things a little more, the naturalist philosopher (archaic term for 'scientist'), David Hume, put forward a revolutionary principle that states that an unrestricted general conclusion cannot be the basis for all concluding knowledge on an item of study and experimentation. Which is to say that once you know something from repeated experimentation, that doesn't guarantee that you will arrive at the same conclusion through the same experiment in all circumstances. And as we know from quantum physics and the Uncertainty Principle, testing often biases the results at an elemental level because all measurement interferes with what's being measured. Hence nothing is known with absolute certainty.

At first glance this would seem to agree with your sentiment that "they are all theories in the big picture", but in admitting this it places you squarely in the position of not being able to defend decisive conclusions like, "There are no experiments that we as mere mortals can do to prove or illustrate points of creationism." For if the zero-point is that right belief depends on "the amount of weight you personally put on the given evidence" then we can reliably suggest that more mathematical proofs, such as Kalam's Cosmological Argument, terminate the opportunity to disbelieve: determine a point that doesn't exist, disambiguate an actual nothing, count to one (with all infinite variables between nothing and one).

The point is that science, Scripture, logic, math all assume a starting point for what is based on the fact that something is. Denial of that is absurd. Thus, we can determine an actual point where something had to have been 'created' or somehow initiated into being; it is scientifically and logically impossible to believe otherwise.

With that in mind, we can now calmly disagree together with your original statement that "The only proof of creationism is the bible, that I am aware of. There are no experiments that we as mere mortals can do to prove or illustrate points of creationism."Anticipating your reply.

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