Monday, November 7, 2011

Darwin's God

I just recently finished reading Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God, a roughly ten-year-old (first printing in 2000) exposition on why evolution is true, and why (ostensibly) that doesn't matter to religion.

For the most part, I couldn't help but agree with everything he said. For the most part.

The first three-quarters of the book is written by Miller the molecular biologist. He attacks with scientific rigor and reason the "anti-scientific" positions which many religious people argue (or, at least, their vocal proponents argue): God as charlatan (pure creationism), God as magician (intelligent design), and God as mechanic (deism). Examples abound. Scientific experiments are explained in accessible terms. There are even diagrams.
Miller also quite eloquently explains, as he debunks these unscientific "theories," why basing a theology on any portion of scientific understanding is a dangerous game. The Victorians, who believed the universe ran as a great mechanistic machine, found themselves trapped in a deism that couldn't handle the scientific discoveries of quantum mechanics. The proponents of intelligent design, in pointing to supposedly "irreducibly complex" systems and claiming the handiwork of God, lose spiritual ground every time one of those systems is explained scientifically. One's religion and one's science should be separated, because science is always making progress; that progress should not be resisted because we have placed our religion within the gaps in the current scientific framework.
He then turns his criticism (and rightly so, I think) toward the "militant atheists," those within the scientific community all too willing to dress their own personal opinions with the cloak of scientific authority. He expounds upon what evolution tells us and what it does not; he explains that evolution, and science, do not have to be based upon a philosophical materialism in order to be believed or trusted. Miller does an excellent job of explaining that this use of evolution as a weapon against religious belief (cf Dennett, Dawkins, Wilson, Lewontin, etc) is likely what causes the ordinary person to resist evolution as an idea. We need our lives to have meaning; it is not science's place to say whether or not our lives actually do have meaning. But when the fierce proponents of materialism use science to bludgeon purpose and virtue, ordinary folks will obviously react to science negatively. The entire "debate" hurts both sides.

But after all of this positive work, Miller explains that he still believes in God, not only because God and science can be separate, but also because the science of quantum indeterminacy and random mutation gives God a way to interact with our world.
So in the end, Miller has done precisely what he warned against doing - using current scientific understanding, which is always subject to change, as validation of his particular theology.
I can't say that I totally disagree with his assessment. I myself find the inherent indeterminacy of quantum mechanics to be a tremendously beautiful - spiritual, even - system, within which anything and everything has its chance to become reality. But I will not balance my spiritual belief upon the knife-edged fact of quantum mechanics being true. It's as true as we know anything to be, sure. In that sense, it's a scientific theory which is more valid than those which preceded it, and so I will argue that a philosophy based on quantum mechanics is more valid than one based on a scientific theory which has since been disproven. But that's not quite the same as building up a philosophy/theology from a scientific theory.

In the end, I mainly agree with Miller simply because I believe in what he's trying to do. I believe that science is not self-sufficient as a philosophy of life, and I believe that religion (spirituality) is not meant to explain the nature of the universe. When you behold a piece of art, knowing how it was technically constructed, or knowing that it is religious in nature, is each not enough to appreciate it. That greater human passion - wonder - lies at the heart of both the scientific and religious drives, and we are not whole without encompassing within ourselves both our reason as well as our emotion.

As Darwin himself said in the closing sentence of Origin:
There is grandeur in this view of life; with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.


  1. Hi, Kelly-

    It's a tough one, isn't it? We need meaning, and meaning has to derive from real things, and yet we can't drive our understanding of reality from narratives of meaning. What is one to do?

    You seem to be pulling for the immaculate separation that Stephen Gould advocated as well. But as the fundamentalists of both sides keep saying, it isn't going to work. Count me as one of them, because I see the leaking of meaning into theories of reality all the time. It is really unavoidable. If one lets one's self make things up in a spiritual narrative, it will never be satisfying unless it connects back to reality- by injecting us with morals, or creating the universe, or .. etc.

    And then the theologians have the gall to defend their supernatural theories as being "frames" of understanding / discernment that supercede nitty-gritty data collection and the like. Sorry .. I can already feel myself going off the rails!

  2. Great post, Kelly. I read that book ten years ago and got a lot out of his defense of evolution. I also got a lot out of his criticism of scientists-turned-philosphers, and I also felt strange when he decided that God operated in the world through quantum mechanics. And I thought it strange when he mentioned something about God revealing himself to the world through the Hebrew people.

    I am not saying it didn't happen, but surely it didn't happen exclusively, and even if it did, I don't know how Miller gets there epistemologically unless he treats that subject different than he treats his science.

    Our knowledge of the world will always relate to our experience as a part to a whole. Therefore it can be completely responsible to engage in the pursuits of faith - as long as that faith makes our lives better and does not willfully discount empirical knowledge.

    The problem with religion is that people try to make it into science and history. They make it into something that is potentially falsifiable. That is science to me. Religion is a mode of seeing, a mindset, a bit of a leap of faith. And the good ones, to me anyway, are non-falisifiable. Murky and meaningless to critics, but to me, any mode that tries to account for everything will have to seem a bit that way. And to me, if it's right, it can give us a myth with which to frame our experience that makes our lives better -hopeful with an active engagement with possibility.

    And of course, any faith should be something that , even if it turns out not to be "true", should be something that one would not be sorry to have believed in.

    But sometimes I think I'm just too much of an artsy-fartsy type to give up "God-talk"! After all, the arts are not the most parsimonious way of communicating, but hey, where would I be without it all?

  3. Burk, I agree with you in a sense - I know that keeping religion and science in two entirely separate spheres may be impossible in practice. But I think the thing connecting those spheres is the commonality of human experience (Steven seems to agree, if I understand correctly). I can view science and spirituality - the natural world and God - with the same wonder and awe.
    I think this is what's lost from the debate, from both sides. Both vehement materialists and vehement religious adherents are dogmatic, and being dogmatic blinds you to the fact that the whole human experience is actually quite amazing.
    Consider morals, for example. I don't have any issue believing that morals originated in an evolutionary way - in both a biological and sociological manner - but that doesn't (for me, anyway) detract from the incredible fact that they exist at all. The more we learn about the development of morals, the more amazing the thing becomes.
    I hope this makes sense... it's hard for me to type with a cat sleeping on my computer!

  4. Hi, Kelly-

    Absolutely that makes sense. It indicates that atheists perhaps are not articulating that they have all the wonder and awe that anyone else does. Dawkins has even taken a few stabs at awe-full writing. (!)(!)

    So, I think we agree that the immediate experience and wonder is universal. Perhaps we could leave it at that without elaborating mystical interpretations and social holier-than-thou's out of it, not to mention bad science.

  5. Burk, I quite agree. We can debate the interpretation (perhaps to no end!), but we shouldn't doubt the truth of the experience.

    ...Of course, I'll keep debating the interpretation, purely because it can be a fun intellectual exercise! ;-)

  6. I agree with you both. There is experience and there is our attempt to turn it into mental images and language in order to best communicate it.

  7. Thanks, guys! As the Buddhist teaching goes, we should take care not to confuse the pointing finger for the moon.

  8. Kelly-

    You've gotten me thinking, though. Perhaps the theistic fixation is that we have a moral duty to look at things in an enchanted way. The fact that scientists may have an awe-full side doesn't entirely resolve the fact that they are capable of seeing life / cosmos / other people in another, disenchanted and materialist way (i.e.- evolution). Ditto for bankers, dictators, economists, and other kinds of psychopaths, perhaps.

    While this is recognized as functionally necessary for certain lines of work, (In Middlemarch, doctors are assumed to be atheists as a matter of course, as I recall), it also seems dangerous and destabilizing to the necessarily enchanted/spiritualized mode of seeing things, especially humans. Unless one "believes" fully in the mystical view of humanity- whichever version is current in the society, it makes little difference which- one is a danger to the collective.

    Thus one has to swear on the bible, sit in the pews, and show allegiance to the totems- the more unbelievable, the better. All as a way of certifying/testifying that one takes a higher and immaterial interest in one's fellow man. A form of essential doublethink that we all need to engage in, but which it is comforting to have outward symbols and doctrines to guide and exemplify.

    Sorry if this strays from your original point..

  9. Well - first things first. Rather incidentally, I came across this quote by Ramakrishna tonight:
    "Brahman is a shoreless ocean. Shakti is the omnipresent, interdependent action of its waves.... As long as Her inscrutable Will keeps consciousness manifest through human form, one is tempted to think that there are two realities - the formless God and these confusing mirror images called the universe. But no, my friend, there is no such twoness whatsoever. There is no super-knowledge separate from or opposed to ordinary ignorance. There is not day as a reality apart from night. There is only wholeness or completeness - beyond night or day, beyond ignorance or knowledge, yet containing both, manifesting both. How to describe this dynamic plenitude? Not with words from any scripture or philosophy. What is simply is!"

  10. As for your thought, I'm not sure. Obviously there is some local, limited truth to it - one tries to fit within the culture in which one is immersed. It's a very sociobiological idea: cohesion of the group via shared superstition. But it doesn't really seem any deeper than superficial. Nobody asks you whether you actually believe in the bible before you swear on it.

  11. (...But as always, I love the discussion!)

  12. Burk,

    Your comment makes me think of an example I have considered before. Imagine that a young man is trying to seduce his lover, yet instead of reciting poetry and paying sensual attention to her, he tries to explain to her why she should sleep with him based on evolutionary and materiel advantage. Methinks success is not in the cards here.

    I think there is knowing about something and there is knowing something. Could a young man put the knowledge of evolutionary/material advantage to good use in his conquest? Certainly! But it would still need to be presented in the right way.

    Unless the two were both evolutionary biologists perhaps?

    And then the question is, which mode of thinking/action best describes our experience? I see them as both essential parts of the dance. Without the art, the science becomes a rocket existing for the purpose of burning rocket fuel. Without the science, the art becomes an everlasting reinventing of the same wheel.

    These are broad generalizations, of course. I realize that art (or a life lived) can be described in terms of concrete knowledge. But our experience will always be a bit broader than our direct knowledge/understanding.

    Kelly, your Buddhist quote is one of the foundational ideas of my "adult" life. Thanks for the reminder, as always. I love the idea that the ancient Hindu priests would sit around trying to describe God until one person did it so well, that everyone was silent. And God was not so much the description as the silence that followed.

  13. Unless the two were both evolutionary biologists perhaps?
    Ah, nerd humor... but even then, wouldn't it only work because of the shared experience, because of the "inside joke," as it were, and not because of the scientific validity of it?

    Incidentally, I'm participating in the AIP/SPS/APS/AAPT Adopt-A-Physicist program, and one of the questions I was asked recently (by a student at a Catholic high school) was whether or not I was religious, and if this affected my scientific study. It was a great opportunity for me to "solidify," if you will, the way I feel - that both science (reason) and spirituality (emotion) are necessary for one to be a whole, complete human being. My only hope is that I can express this awe I feel toward the world without proselytizing!

  14. And you flatter ;-)

    Has anyone else been having problems with the comment submission not going through the first time?


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