Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part I: Throat-clearing

The recent debates about accommodating scientific with religious views have been scattered across several websites.  The whole megillah began with a post on Chris Mooney’s site, arguing that the atheist attack on accommodationism was inimical to our joint interest in promoting the understanding of evolution. Mooney also characterized anti-accommodationists as “uncivil.”  Since then, the arguments have bounced between this site and those of Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, Russell Blackford, “Erratic Synapse,” and others; I’ve assembled the posts in chronological order here.

In his last post, Mooney called my attention to a recent posting by Kenneth Miller at Brown University responding to my critiques of accommodationism and especially my piece in The New Republic discussing two books, one by Miller and the other by Karl Giberson. I have promised to respond to Miller, although both P. Z. Myers and Jason Rosenhouse have already published critiques of Miller’s posting.  Indeed, they did such a good job of refuting Miller’s claims that I’m not sure I have much to add. However, I promised to respond and so I will, though with an increasing sense of languor and futility.

Miller’s piece is in six parts: an introduction and five sections, each of the latter having a bold heading.  I propose to respond to each section in turn.  Today I’ll make a few introductory comments, and will tackle Miller’s own introduction tomorrow.  Bear with me: this will take a few days, and I have a day job. 

Revisiting Miler’s prose from his first book, Finding Darwin’s God, through his most recent posting, I observe what others like P.Z. have noticed: Miller is increasingly backing off from the theism he previously espoused. (Indeed, P.Z.’s response is called “Theistic evolution beats a hasty retreat.”)

My theses are these:

1.  While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views.  I’ve argued this ad nauseum (as in the New Republic piece) and so won’t go into all the details again.

2.  Miller, as a scientist and a theist, is guilty of diluting (indeed, distorting) science by claiming that God interferes in nature in certain specified ways, and that these ways are in principle detectable.  Some of his assertions, such as that of the inevitability of humanoid evolution, are scientifically insupportable.

3.  Miller denies #2, but the evidence is against him.  In particular, he has suggested a). that God might tweak nature through events on the quantum level; b). that God arranged things so that evolution would arrive at certain “inevitable” ends (e.g., the evolution of our own species), a view that cannot be defended as scientific;  c). that the physical constants of the world were constructed by God, or “fine tuned,” to permit life to exist in the Universe;  and d.) the fact that there are “laws” (regularities, really) in the Universe can be understood only as an act of God. The last claim is in fact a God-of-the-gaps argument, since it asserts that the best answer to the question, “Why are there scientific laws at all?” is “God made them.”  Here Miller merely swaps ignorance for “God,” just as creationist Michael Behe swaps ignorance of biochemical evolution for God.

4.  When confronted with #3, Miller says that he is only suggesting these as possibilities.  I counter that this claim is disingenuous, and that Miller either believes these things himself, or is offering them for serious consideration by fellow theists.  I further argue that since Miller has made his theism a centerpiece of this debate, he must do more than obliquely suggest “possibilities” for the theist.   He must state publicly what he actually believes vis-a-vis #3, and tell us what reasons he has for his beliefs.  It is my opinion that his failure to ever have done this reflects more than a desire for privacy of faith — after all, Miller is the one who wrote a book called Finding Darwin’s God and has made much of his own reconciliation of Catholicism with science. I believe it also reflects an understanding that if he publicly revealed what he believed, he would lose stature, for his beliefs would be seen as  not only unscientific, but embarrassingly superstitious.

5.  The behavior seen in #4 constitutes what I call “wink wink nudge nudge” theism.  Without ever defending his beliefs — or indeed, telling us what they are — Miller nevertheless offers a kind of coded succor to his fellow theists.  This is manifest in his recent string of lectures, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the universe shows “design,” but then backs off, claiming that “I didn’t really mean, folks, that God actually did anything.” Let me repeat — I think this is disingenuous, and that Miller knows exactly what he’s doing.  I suggest that such behavior promotes public confusion about what science does and does not tell us about the universe.  Miller’s “suggestions” for fellow theists involve pointing out ways that nature attests to God.  And, in the end, this is nothing more than a form of creationism.

I have stated many times before that I have enormous admiration for Miller’s accomplishments: he has not only written several excellent biology textbooks (no mean feat, believe me!), but has vociferously defended evolution in the classroom, the courtroom, and other public venues.  I gladly join him in opposing those creationists who want to take good science out of the classroom and replace it with medieval theology.   But we differ in how we view this battle.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will be won until religion’s hold on America loosens.  As a theist, he obviously feels otherwise.

Now that the throat is cleared, more discussion tomorrow.

75 Comments

  1. Posted June 16, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Medieval theology was much more sophisticated than Creationism.

  2. ennui
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Before you write the other parts, do us all a big favor and block comments from John Kwok (Miller’s toy poodle). Can’t wait for the rest.

    *salivate*

  3. Posted June 16, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    When confronted with #3, Miller says that he is only suggesting these as possibilities. I counter that this claim is disingenuous, and that Miller either believes these things himself, or is offering them for serious consideration by fellow theists.

    That is what he said in Finding Darwin’s God, that the “fine-tuning argument” was meant for believers, not non-believers. So I don’t know that it’s disingenuous, but it is an improper “argument” under normal epistemological considerations.

    But remember, Miller is a great affront to nonsense like this that the IDiots at the DI put out, like this recent title at “Evolution News and Views”:

    Why Aren’t Scientists Allowed to Believe In God?

    While it’s true that science has no need for that hypothesis, nor does any other intellectual endeavor, the tendency of scientists not to believe in god, and when they do, to have a relatively inconsequential role for god, is effectively spun as if somehow science won’t allow god to be “thought of” or considered in any way.

    No, we can’t pretend that Miller’s claim that evolution overall was set up to produce intelligence (which is the story he sticks to, whether or not he’s said it was set up to produce humans at one time) is actually compatible with science. But Miller does stuff the lies of the IDiots back down their throats again and again, while making rulings like the one at Dover by the theist Judge Jones easier to do.

    God is only compatible with science if god has no role in science, because science has no epistemology available to deal with a god for whom evidence is totally lacking. Yet Miller shows that there is no rule against god in science, and the fact that he brings up matters like “fine-tuning” shows how it isn’t evolution that’s the problem for god, it’s all of the findings of science collectively.

    Meanwhile, the IDiots hate the theistic evolutionists, as “useful idiots” (David Klinghoffer used that term) for “atheists.”

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  4. mk
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I am SOOO enjoying this! Thank you for continuing to engage in a crystal clear and uncompromising fashion with Mooney and Miller.

    It’s been a real treat.

  5. Posted June 16, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Biologists (here I mean both of you) are exceedingly poor philosophers.

    “1. While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views.”

    Sure, you can call science a world view. Hell, you can call it a religion if you want to. But when we talk about science publicly, we aren’t talking about the Naturalistic world view. Science teachers don’t teach philosophy. They teach empirical method, and the results of it. When anyone with a lick of sense says that science is not incompatible with religion, it is the latter they are talking about, not the naturalistic world view.

    In fact, should we erase the standard definition of science and replace it with naturalistic world view, then we would have a problem teaching it in science class, because it would be difficult to see how an endorsement of philosophical naturalism would not run afoul of the first amendment.

    Besides, philosophy isn’t like science. It isn’t a matter of what’s supported by the data or not… you can’t teach philosophical naturalism as the “result” of science. They don’t even do that in college philosophy classes. Instead they discuss the various philosophical systems, their history, their character, and their advantages and disadvantages.

    I won’t even get into your specific criticisms of Miller. I will wonder out loud about whether you have ever considered that what might be detectable in principle need not necessarily be detected or even detectable in practice, and that beliefs about it not justified by science might still not be ruled out by empirical investigation proper. But I will stop there and leave it up to you whether to get all reflective and thoughtful on these other points.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted June 16, 2009 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      I will wonder out loud about whether you have ever considered that what might be detectable in principle need not necessarily be detected or even detectable in practice, and that beliefs about it not justified by science might still not be ruled out by empirical investigation proper.

      Please tell us what that could possibly mean. My interpretation is: “So what if fiction can not be proven; If I wish a lot, then it is important.”

      • Posted June 16, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        Your interpretation reflects your deep understanding of the perspective of others.

        As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am a naturalist, so – yes – from my perspective, that would be a statement about fiction. From, say, Ken Miller’s perspective, it would be a statement about otherworldy and transcendent fact.

        Never mind that. You aren’t required to care about anyone’s perspective but your own. The simple fact is that even if you & I are right and it is fiction, empirical investigation proper does not rule it out. So… we can’t rub their noses in it (if we feel we must at all) on the basis of science… We’re stuck with philosophy. Sorry.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted June 16, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        I, personally, will not accept “otherworldy and transcendent fact”. I can have no confidence in someone who holds those statements as part of life and I can have no trust in that person. For me, it is analogous to someone with a severe mental disorder. I think that pointing it out as Jerry Coyne is doing, attempting to educate and expose is the correct way to go forward.

      • Posted June 16, 2009 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        I used to feel the same way. Sometimes I still do – though I’ve realized that most people have severe flaws in their thinking in some area or another – religious belief is merely one of these.

        When it comes down to it, most Christians I *personally* know and read are capable of handling most cognitive tasks just fine, and are no less trustworthy as friends, lovers, family, and colleagues than atheists. Nor are they less trustworthy in their own fields of expertise – with a few exceptions – as equally qualified atheists.

        That said, even in my more cynical moods, I have to admit that this has nothing to do with any perceived “incompatibility” between empirical method and non-empirical philosophy.

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      smijer, it seems that you’re holding one side to a double standard; theistic evolution is a philosophical argument as is creationism.

      Recall that this conflict didn’t start with an intrusion into theology by scientists. When either the proponents of theistic evolution or creation make a theological/philosophical argument (and in many cases attempt to inject it into public discourse, into science policy, and into the classroom), why criticize Coyne for addressing a philosophical point on its own terms? Expedient is how I interpret the quarantining of one sides response while allowing the other to speculate where it pleases.

      In other words, why are there one set of rules for Coyne and another for Miller?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        theistic evolution is a philosophical argument as is creationism.

        Ummm.. Yes, Miller’s theistic evolution is a theological position. Who is saying that it’s not?

        Creationism is a theological position masquerading as science. That’s a major sin. The only thing that makes Coyne’s philosophical position masquerading as science less intolerable is that his view does not denigrate the actual science.

        Expedient is how I interpret the quarantining of one sides response while allowing the other to speculate where it pleases.

        I think all sides should have freedom to speculate, philosophize, or whatever else they choose to do, so long as they don’t try to pass their ruminations off as “science”.

        Please remember – Miller, the NCSE, etc do not claim that theistic evolution is science – they merely claim that many theistic notions can be held in a way that accommodates science rather than militating against it. This is a simple fact which should not be the least bit controversial.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        Whoa, are not Collins’ (and Millers?) inferences about fine-tuning and the inevitability of intelligence, and his position on banning embryonic stem cell research theism masquerading as science?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        And where is Coyne passing off his ruminations as science?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Whoa, are not Collins’ (and Millers?) inferences about fine-tuning and the inevitability of intelligence, and his position on banning embryonic stem cell research theism masquerading as science?

        If they are, they are out of bounds. I have complained about the former myself before, and my defense of Collins/Miller does not include that type of speculation. I think it needlessly blurs boundaries unless it is very unequivocally presented as extra-scientific speculation.

        Opposition to stem cell research – odious as it may be – is a policy position and I don’t think it could conceivably be confused with a claim about science. I’m sure it’s a claim about ethics. But, if it is presented as science, then see #1.

        And where is Coyne passing off his ruminations as science?

        He, in the very post to which we are commenting, conflates “science” with “scientific world view” – and justifies his claim that science and religion are incompatible on the basis of this conflation.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        There isn’t a conflation between science and the scientific worldview. You can’t apply science to a problem or practice methodological naturalism unless you adopt its worldview–with all the attendant implications and assumptions–while you’re doing it.

        Accomodationists will agree with this. But I part ways with them when they say that it’s okay to leave science in the lab, so to speak. I think this is a confusing policy to advocate. The natural world extends outside the lab and so should the way we perceive it.

        Aren’t we agreeing to teach children how and why MN is the most reliable way to understand the perceived world, be they scientists, lawyers or mechanics?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        there isn’t a conflation between science and the scientific worldview. You can’t apply science to a problem or practice methodological naturalism unless you adopt its worldview–with all the attendant implications and assumptions–while you’re doing it.

        I have no choice but to call b.s. on this. Do you have to “adopt the mathematical world-view” in order to add 2 & 2? What the hell does that even mean?

        Seriously. What do you mean by “scientific worldview”, and what do you mean by saying that you have to adopt an entire world view in order to discover something like the laws of motion? I hear that this “scientific worldview” is incompatible with the religious one… so can you explain to me the thought processes of Newton as he got ready to discover the laws of motion in terms of his world view? Did he consciously suppress his religious world view so that he could temporarily adopt a scientific one and learn about the laws of motion? Seriously?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        And I call shenanigans on this false separation between scientific inquiry and a scientific worldview. By a scientific worldview applied in the lab, I mean you can’t run an experiment with a supernatural worldview in mind, expecting a miracle to take place. This is not controversial stuff.

        Newton, like many of us, compartmentalized his beliefs; described what he was capable of discovering and attributed the rest of the unknown universe to God. A true product of his time, as was Galileo. Why is that so hard to understand?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        That’s an interesting notion of “worldview”. If you define “scientific worldview” as the narrow expectations of a scientist about to do an experiment, then there are any number of religious world-views that are harmonious with it. If you define it broadly and synonymously with PN, then you are talking about something that isn’t necessary for science.

        It seems that a lot of non-religious people think a religious world-view entails that God wants to tamper with experimental results, and can’t hold back from doing miracles every time he sees somebody get close to a test tube.

        I don’t think Newton’s world view was such that he had to abandon it and adopt a different one to do his work. I think his world view was one in which God doesn’t do miracles just to punk a scientist. I think he went into the lab fully believing in God, fully believing in the possibility of miracles, and nevertheless fully believing that intelligible laws of nature could be discovered through observation. In other words, he had one of the many world-views that includes an important role for the scientific enterprise, yet it was not a scientific world view.

        As you can tell, I define “world-view” as an overarching philosophy – not the narrow expectations of a scientist. I’m not sure how JC defines it, but since he suggests that the scientific one is inharmonious with all religious ones, then he defines it broadly as I do. If he defines it narrowly, I don’t see how he can conclude that the scientific one is inharmonious with all religious ones.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        “It seems that a lot of non-religious people think a religious world-view entails that God wants to tamper with experimental results, and can’t hold back from doing miracles every time he sees somebody get close to a test tube.”

        Come now; Francis Collins admits as much. Also, what do you call intercessory prayer and transubstantiation if not tampering with the evidence?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Can you quote what you’re talking about from Collins?

        Let me talk about my famous wife…I’ve mentioned her before. She is a supernaturalist par excellence. Speaks in tongues.

        Even she doesn’t see God as doing miracles just for the sheer hell of it. Now, it’s possible under her view that a scientist might be doing a test on a new brain cancer drug and God decide to intervene to save the patient and screw up the experiment. But even under her view, this will happen seldom enough to appear as “noise” in a body of statistically compiled results. And, unless God has some compelling reason to do a miracle – and no “let’s fuck with the dude in the white coat” isn’t compelling – he’s not going to go screwing up the results of the LHC and ruin our chance at finding the Higgs. Under her worldview. So even my tongue-speaking wife doesn’t have the view of miracles that anti-religious types impute to religious types: that is that the possibility of one implies the necessity that they will screw up all your results.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        I define a proper worldview same as you. I simply hold if consistency is any criteria for an overarching, explain-all worldview, then people have something more like a kluge, a piecemeal of biases, prejudices, and experiences hobbled into an oftentimes self-negating patchwork with large gaps in reasoning supported largely by a priori rationalizations. Some have more inconsistent worldviews than others. To me, an intellectually honest person closes gaps, corrects inconsistencies and questions personal biases. I imagine it takes a lifetime of tweaking. If you’re going to be a scientist to be inconsistent would to have a worldview that makes room for the supernatural.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Yeah… well I choose my worldview based on what I find consistent among other critera. Others have other criteria (or other evaluations of the same criteria) than I. They are welcome to them. So long as they do not take an anti-scientific attitude, I’m happy to coexist peacefully with them and try to persuade them to my world view.

        The name of my world view is Philosophical Naturalism. It isn’t Science. As tempting as it is to brand the other fellow “unscientific” because they find room for another type of epistemology in their understanding of things… it’s incorrect to do so. I mean, I had trouble with high school titration labs. Who am I to call Isaac Newton “unscientific”?

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        I’d say your wife is a possibly insane religious kook in name only. He superstitions are actually very liberal and watered down.

        Explain her rationalization for speaking in tongue not amenable to scientific scrutiny though.

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      On the contrary, there are philosophers who run an “inference to the best explanation” type argument based on scientific research as to what metaphysical hypotheses seem plausible. Not all philosophers are “sawdust philosophers” – some still build reasonable sized systems – and certainly they aren’t close to all being historians of philosophy as this remark comes close to saying.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      When it comes down to it, most Christians I *personally* know and read are capable of handling most cognitive tasks just fine

      but many don’t.

      many people can drink alcohol or smoke tobacco without addictive problems.

      many can’t.

      do we ignore the addictive behavior because some don’t become addicted?

      no.

      this is a psychological issue, and to ignore the effect cognitive dissonance can have on people who are juggling tremendously different views of reality (actual evidence vs. their religion), is to ignore the real problem because some are able to cope with it.

      It’s like saying you’re happy to ignore people dealing with missing arms because some can do just fine with only one arm.

      The fact of the matter is, religious dogma enables dissonance, and practically forces compartmentalization to occur.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Your throat clearing is loud and clear and substantive. I can’t wait until the aria begins in the first act.

  7. Posted June 16, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me that Miller, like lots of sophisticated theists (such as Alvin Plantinga), is playing defense, not offense; not trying to convince skeptics that theism is right, but trying to give theists reasons why theism is compatible (or consistent) with science; and that is always possible. “Apologetics” means the defense (not offense) of the faith. Whether the preponderance of the evidence supports theism is not,for them, very relevant; all that counts, for them, is whether theism is conclusively disproved, and it never is. A-theists seem, often, to think that theist faith-beliefs should be supported by rational, empirical evidence; but theists would disagree. If their beliefs haven’t been irrefutably disproved, then it’s OK to hold them. That’s what FAITH is all about.

    So when Coyne says, “the evidence is against him,” that is, for sophisticated theists, irrelevant unless the evidence is logically 100% conclusive, which it never is.

    Of course, that faith-response is equally available to Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, et al.

    • Posted June 15, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      As a theist i often refer to pragmatic realism.

      “All” people believe in the outside world, that we are not “brains in a vat”, but there is no proof that the outside world exists,neither empirical, nor logical. But we still believe that existence.

      Same goes for e.g. induction. Not proven, but firmly believed in,for the reason that we want to live our lives and days without going insane.
      But there is no proof that induction works.

      Many people say their lives are much more practical and comprehendable if there is a God, but they can’t prove that there is a God.

      So if a scientific skeptic is someone who only believe positive claims which have evidens or proof, then no one in this world is a scientific skeptic.

      • Posted June 15, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        Ps. Sorry. Forgot to mention all the lots of atheists who are moral realists. That is also practical realism. No one has yet derived ought from is, but people still believe that what the nazis did was wrong, and that it is wrong to torture a kitten to death.

        With the definition: “Only believe in claims which have evidence or proof, or rational argument”, there exists no skeptic

        • articulett
          Posted June 19, 2010 at 5:37 am | Permalink

          You are confusing opinions with facts. Many theists do.

          There’s a difference between believing something to be harmful and believing something to exist. If you cannot tell the difference between such things, blame your indoctrination.

      • articulett
        Posted June 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        I think scientific skeptics don’t believe in the existence of things for which there is no evidence. There is no more evidence of gods then there is of demons, Thetans, gremlins, or reincarnated souls.

        We know that humans are good at invoking “magical beings” to explain that which the do not understand. We don’t know that any such beings have existed. And most skeptical scientists think there is no reason to think they do or ever have.

        • articulett
          Posted June 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          Just because science can’t prove that a supernatural notion is untrue, does not mean that there’s any probability that it is true.

          I can’t prove you aren’t able to fly, for example… but it’s extremely unlikely that you are. Don’t let your religious beliefs cater to sloppy thinking. You are free to believe what you want, but your justifications can be used equally well by people who believe crazy things that you don’t believe in.

          • Posted June 15, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            What I meant to say is that every sane human being believes in the existence of some things, and in the truth of some positive claims, for which there are no proof or evidence.

            Moreover, do you honestly believe that the arguments for the existence of God, are not in the least stronger than the arguments for the existence of the Loch Ness monster/Spaghetti monster?

            • articulett
              Posted June 15, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

              No.

              I don’t believe any kind of consciousness can exist outside a brain. I see no more evidence for gods and souls than I do for sprites and gremlins.

              I don’t believe that invisible immeasurable beings exist. At least the examples you gave are material– that is, if they existed, we should be able to find evidence for them.

              I don’t believe there is such a thing as divine revelation or divine truth. I think all people who believe in such things are fooling themselves.

            • articulett
              Posted June 15, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

              Remember, just because science can’t explain something, it doesn’t mean that a preacher can either.

              We cannot find the real answers to questions by being satisfied with an answer involving “magic”. And any answer, involving any gods is the equivalent of an answer involving “magic”. It’s not a real answer.

            • articulett
              Posted June 15, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

              And you really have no way of knowing whether ever “sane” person believes in things for which there is no evidence. I suspect most of the people posting here do not.

            • Posted June 16, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

              Maybe i wasn’t clear enough before with my argument:

              “And you really have no way of knowing whether ever “sane” person believes in things for which there is no evidence. I suspect most of the people posting here do not.”

              Well i suspect most people here, including you, do believe in the existence of the external world, existing independently of your perception,

              Do you have any proof/evidence of the existence of the external world?

              Do you believe induction works?
              If so, what is your proof/evidence that induction/inductive reasoning works?

            • articulett
              Posted June 16, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

              The outside world is measurable. I can communicate what is out there with others. This communication works. If say add a cup of flour, everyone knows what is meant. Induction works all the time. We have no way of knowing that Pythagoras’ Theorem applies to all right angles but we can assume that it is so… just as we can assume that all dogs have hearts and the sun is another star. Induction is a logical tool.

              Both of your examples would lead to absurdities (or failure to function) if we were to deny them. They may be fun to discuss at late night college parties, but I’m not going to play philosophy games so you can feel more rational in your god beliefs. Been there. Done that. If this rationalization helps you feel better about believing in an invisible guy who loves and cares about you in particular, so be it. I think I’ve given you enough information for you to understand why most scientists don’t share these views.

  8. Posted June 16, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    “While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views.”

    “World views,” i.e. philosophies, particularly those in contravention to religious “world views,” cannot be taught as true in American public schools under our Constitution. They can only be taught in philosophy classes (as one out of many such world views) or in comparative religion classes.

  9. Posted June 16, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Hey, this is important stuff. If it were simply philosophers and science writers hashing out these issues, it simply wouldn’t mean as much. It really is about – are we going to coddle superstition and let it constantly impede scientific progress, or are we going to call it what it is and move forward as a species?

  10. Abbie
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    On a slightly meta level, I’m pretty excited about this discussion. It seems to be a strong moment in “New Atheist” discourse. It’s really hitting at the root of the issue (epistemology) in a refreshing way. I think it’s going to leave a mark.

    • Don
      Posted June 17, 2009 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      “It’s really hitting at the root of the issue (epistemology) in a refreshing way. I think it’s going to leave a mark.”

      I agree wholeheartedly–with the excitement it inspires, too.

      Tom Clark’s writing on this subject, “Reality and Its Rivals:
      Putting Epistemology First,” which Jerry has supplied links to here, is worth a close look.

  11. SLC
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    It is my impression that the more one listens to Prof. Miller, the more he sounds like a closet Deist who just doesn’t feel comfortable in coming out of the closet.

  12. Posted June 17, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    “World views,” i.e. philosophies, particularly those in contravention to religious “world views,” cannot be taught as true in American public schools under our Constitution. They can only be taught in philosophy classes (as one out of many such world views) or in comparative religion classes.

    I see that claim kicking around a lot, but I don’t know what it’s based on. Does anyone know? Is it just a bad paraphrase of the Lemon test, or what? The First Amendment of course doesn’t say anything about ‘world views,’ so what is the source of this conviction that the First Amendment rules out teaching ‘world views’?

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Ophelia, I think what John means is something like this: 1) If there is something best described as a “scientific world view” it is a topic of philosophy, on basis of the fact that it is a world view and not a method of inquiry like biology or physics. And 2) if, as Jerry C & friends claim, this “scientific world view” entails atheism, then endorsing it in a public school setting would run afoul of the first amendment – effectively establishing atheism as a state religion for purposes of state education.

      I grant you that this interpretation isn’t clear from his comment, but I suspect that is what he’s getting at.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        That’s part of it, of course. But the full explanation is this: some scientific results are clearly in contravention of some religious beliefs (6,000 year-old Earth). Courts have held that such results can still be taught as true (i.e. not as part of some philosophy/comparative religion class) because, in effect, science itself is not a philosophy or theology but a methodology that can be applied consistently by people holding many different philosophies and/or theologies and/or lack thereof. If science is just another philosophy, then it cannot be taught by the government as true but only as one of many philosophies (though, with less controversy comes greater opportunites to get away with it — the political philosophy of liberal democracy gets a lot of lip service, for example). Certainly, a philosophy that is in conflict with religious belief — e.g. atheism — cannot be taught as true in public schools. If science is just another philosophy, neither can it.

  13. Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Smijer – sure, I understood what he meant, but I was asking about the source.

    Thanks, John. So the idea is that courts will probably find this way? It’s a legal prediction rather than an interpretation?

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      “So the idea is that courts will probably find this way? It’s a legal prediction rather than an interpretation?”

      It’s an extrapolation of the underlying rational of past court decisions. Of course, courts change their rationales early and often so no lawyer likes to make hard and fast predictions about future rulings. It also depends on the science-as-philosophy view becoming widespread within science — something that Jerry’s complaints about the NAS and AAAS tend to indicate is not likely to happen soon. However, the views of Jerry and other “incompatiblists” could become ammunition for the anti-science side in any court case challenging the teaching of evolution or other science in public schools.

      So I’d describe it as an observation about how Jerry’s view of science could affect science education in the US if he’s successful in winning the argument about what science is.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        “science-as-philosophy view” is a needlessly loaded term. We want to give our children the tools to help them look at the world scientifically. I think everyone can agree with that.

        Coyne and Miller differ only in how far they take it. Coyne, to its logical conclusion; Miller says beyond this line…magic!

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        We want to give our children the tools to help them look at the world scientifically.

        I agree with this, and read it that we want to give them the tools to help them inquire about and understand the world through empirical research.

        There is no “logical conclusion” to this. It goes all the way to giving them the tools to do use empirical research effectively. I also want to teach them to change their own oil. I do not want to take this to the “logical conclusion” of being a full-time mechanic. If they choose to ride a bicycle to work, that’s their business. I still want them to know how to change oil in a car.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure if the comparison works. The tools of science are thinking tools–teaching children to think like a scientist, to rely on evidence over authority, to solve problems like a scientist.

        Mechanics are more like physicians than research scientists.

        It’d be great if we had more scientists, but I’m certainly not suggesting we restructure education as a trade-school that churns out scientists or mechanics.

      • Posted June 17, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        “science-as-philosophy view” is a needlessly loaded term.

        Jerry’s science-as-world-view is somehow better?

  14. Posted June 17, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Aren’t we agreeing to teach children how and why MN is the most reliable way to understand the perceived world, be they scientists, lawyers or mechanics?

    Not sure about the superlative “most”. I mean I am sure that MN is the most reliable way to understand nature… I’d just have to do some reflection over whether it is best to teach that to children. Nobody taught it to me. They taught me how natural selection worked, how experiment and hypothesis testing worked, etc., etc… I was able to see the power of it for myself.

    But yes, we’re in basic agreement. We want to teach science, with its attendant MN, in science classes in schools. Biology in biology class. Physics in physics… you get the drift. Because that’s topical, leaves out unnecessary philosophical entanglements, and isn’t likely to run afoul of church/state separation the way creationism and other bastardized approaches might.

    We want to leave PN out of it. Science is a method of inquiry, incorporated to various degrees within a number of metaphysical frameworks – one of which is PN, under which no other methods are worthwhile in any respect.

    PN is well worth advocating for within its proper context (and with proper skill)… but advocating for it is not a “scientific” endeavor under any good definition of “scientific”. It is a philosophical endeavor.

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Can somebody tell me what is meant by MN and PN?

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      I challenge this writer to find a principled dividing line between a science-friendly philosophy and science in some narrower sense.

      (I do not know of any – epistemology and psychology are linked in one way in another all sciences can inform it; metaphysics can be viewed a la Peirce or Bunge as forming part of a general science, etc.)

  15. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    o.k. let me clarify this for everyone who seems to have misunderstood it. I don’t know if I’d call SCIENCE a world view in itself. But that’s irrelevant. What I meant is that the scientific ATTITUDE of requiring evidence for what one believes is incompatible with the religious ATTITUDE of requiring no evidence beyond revelation and dogma.

    This is dichotomy that I was talking about. Please get over the “world view” stuff; it’s irrelevant.

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you have to assume a naturalistic attitude – or put more precisely – you have to employ methodological naturalism to do a science project. I’m not religious, but if I were, nothing about the fact that I was religious would prevent me adopting a naturalistic attitude (i.e., adopting methodological naturalism) to do a science project.

      Nobody disagrees with this. It’s as you say, “trivial”.

      If your goal is to garner the authority of science for the philosophy of naturalism – an observation about attitudes and methods is only a tiny first step in doing it. To make such an observation one’s entire case is probably a fallacy of composition.

    • Miller
      Posted June 20, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      The “scientific attitude” and the “religious attitude” are both necessary to life. Without some form of “religious attitude” to establish a box for reasoning within, we could never derive anything by applying the “scientific attitude.”

      Try establishing first principles (e.g., law of non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle) on evidence and you’ll quickly spiral into circular reasoning. Or, of course, you could always punt the ball and simply call them “self-evident” like some of the fundies do with their god.

      • Miller P
        Posted June 20, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        I should clarify. I am not Ken Miller.

  16. Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    “It’s an extrapolation of the underlying rational[e] of past court decisions.”

    Ah. Yet whenever I see it it’s asserted much more firmly than that, as if it were established fact. I’ve always suspected that was a bullying tactic, and I’m glad to have it confirmed.

    You put it too forcefully yourself, for something that’s just an extrapolation.

    • Posted June 18, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Heh. What do you think we ever talk about when we talk about the “law”? We always extrapolate from past cases to apply them to situations that have not been adjudicated yet. This is roughly analogous to induction in science. Don’t take my caution about exhibiting certainty of how a court might rule in the future (similar to the caution scientists couch their results in) as any doubt about the underlying principle that any government teaching as true a philosophy which contradicts religious beliefs is unconstitutional.

      And if pointing that out that fact about our law is “bullying,” what are the “New Atheists” doing when they assert that science and religion are incompatible?

  17. Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    As tempting as it is to brand the other fellow “unscientific” because they find room for another type of epistemology in their understanding of things… it’s incorrect to do so.

    What does that mean? What ‘other type of epistemology’ is there? Epistemology doesn’t come in flavors.

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      Very well, if you wish to go there, let’s get our terms straight. First question – can you imagine an epistemology grounded in logical positivism?

      Second question – can you imagine an epistemology grounded in metaphysical naturalism?

      If you cannot imagine such epistemologies, then we are not talking about the same thing. And, perhaps I’m working from an incorrect definition.

      If you can imagine such epistemologies, then those are two “flavors” of epistemology. A third “flavor” would be similar to Newton’s – a brand of supernaturalism that imputes the orderly nature of physical law to the action of a divine agency, without whose benevolent creation of natural law we could never hope to generalize from natural observation. One key distinguishing component of this epistemology is that in addition to natural truths learned through observation, we have access to revealed truths, learned through divine agency in scripture.

      So, while I do not share Newton’s world view, I cannot accuse him of being unscientific since he clearly endorses the scientific program as a natural epistemological extension of his world view. I have my arguments with his notion of revealed truth – but those arguments are philosophical, not scientific.

  18. Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘grounded in,’ so maybe we’re not talking about the same thing. But the third ‘flavor’ you describe isn’t an epistemology. The stuff about accusing people of being unscientific is a red herring.

    Your comments would gain from being more lucid.

    • Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Ok, well, I’ve about had enough for one day. I’m sure this tempest will rage on as long as there is a teapot to hold it in. I’ll catch you next time.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted June 17, 2009 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

        tempest in a teapot?

        yes, it’s such a minor issue you spent all day debating it.

  19. Greg. Tingey
    Posted June 18, 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Point # 2 is VERY interesting.

    Here’s a thought …..
    No “god” can be detected.

    { – even if that god is supposed to exist. }
    Not detectable directly or indirectly. No events or causations exist that are not explicable in the normal course of natural causes and random occurrences. This includes, most importantly, the information-flow that must pass to and from any “god”, so that he, she, it, or they can themselves observe, or intervene in “their” universe. If there is any god around, then that information-flow will also be detectable. Where is it?

    Please note, even if only for the point of argument : – NOT “God does not exist”. That is the viewpoint of the committed atheist, who believes an unprovable(?) negative, with as much evidence, or lack of it, as any deist believes in any sort of god.
    This applies equally to any god at all: Marxist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc….
    Religions fulfil certain criteria. One of the most obvious is that of unalterable belief in the holy words of the prophet(s), whose word may not be questioned, and whose sayings must be learnt. People who do question these teachings will be persecuted, and possibly killed.
    The monotheistic religions, in particular, are mutually exclusive. A maximum of one of them can be “true”. Their central beliefs and tenets make this so.

    Believers appear to derive comfort from the statement that science cannot prove the nonexistence of god. They describe any attempt at such proof as an arrogant mistake. We are supposed to infer that an equal weight is assigned to the alternatives of existence and nonexistence, and that a believer is no less reasonable than a non-believer. It is amusing to extend this line of argument as has often been previously done, by examples.
    Can a scientist, in her laboratory, perform an experiment demonstrating that there is no such creature as the mystical invisible pink unicorn? No. Can she deduce that conclusion from quantum mechanics, relativity, or the theory of evolution? No. Thus, is a belief in the mystical invisible pink unicorn intellectually respectable? No. Advocates of the science-cannot-disprove gambit are opening the door to an unnumbered host of unwelcome guests. The mystical invisible pink unicorn is only one example; don’t forget the tooth fairy, or the Ming-period vase orbiting the Sun in an oppositional orbit, or …

  20. articulett
    Posted June 19, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I handling religious world views, the same way science handles all superstitions– the same way astronomers handle astrologists. Does Ken Miller acknowledge that “accommodations” work equally well for demon possession and Scientology’s “body Thetans” as it is for his magical Jesus? If not, he’d be a hypocrite. If so, I think he should see why scientists aren’t thrilled with such “accommodations”.

    To me, it always sounds like people what their “true woo” accommodated while being free to dismiss the similar supernatural claims of others as absurd. There’s an infinite variety of unfalsifiable things that could be true; without any sort of empirical validity, none can be shown as more likely than any other and all deserve equal treatment by serious scientists.

  21. articulett
    Posted June 19, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I think that religious world views, should be handled the same way science handles all superstitions– the same way astronomers handle astrologists.

    Does Ken Miller acknowledge that “accommodations” work equally well for demon possession and Scientology’s “body Thetans” as it is for his magical Jesus? If not, he’d be a hypocrite. If so, I think he should see why scientists aren’t thrilled with such “accommodations”.

    To me, it always sounds like people what their “true woo” accommodated while being free to dismiss the similar supernatural claims of others as absurd. There’s an infinite variety of unfalsifiable things that could be true; without any sort of empirical validity, none can be shown as more likely than any other and all deserve equal treatment by serious scientists.

  22. articulett
    Posted June 19, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I think religionists should be encouraged to keep their beliefs private, and that society should consider it rude to pry about people religious beliefs or lack thereof. I don’t think such beliefs should enter into the realm of science any more than other supernatural beliefs or sexual fetishes.

    Ken Miller couldn’t accuse us of trying to purge science of religionists if they keep their beliefs to themselves (who would know who they are?), and naturalists wouldn’t have to worry about the prejudicial attitudes that accompany the word “atheist” as the faithful cast about for ways to malign those they imagine as a threat to their salvation.

    Once you start to mingle the two, you are stuck making excuses and doing the apologetics dance when skeptics treat your beliefs the way you’d treat similar sorts trying to add scientific respectibility to a supernatural belief. The solution is simple: “Don’t ask; don’t tell”–just stick to the facts. The theist is then free to imagine that his beliefs are reasonable without having to invent straw men to keep from hearing what amounts to a threat to their faith, and skeptics are free to presume others are rational until their words or actions betray them.

    From my perspective, theists seem to expect a lot more respect for their opinions and beliefs than they are willing to give those who disagree. They hear things that others are not saying, in order to avoid the very flimsy ground on which their beliefs rest.

    • Phillip
      Posted August 9, 2009 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      This is weird. When i was reading your arguments. Most of what you said that Miller believes in. I have never heard from all the hours of listening to and all the books ive read on Miller.

      This begs the question. Have you even heard any of Millers talks? Have you read his books? Are we talking about Kenneth Miller here?

      For an example ive never heard Miller say arguments like “God might tweak nature through events on the quantum level” or “God arranged things so that evolution would arrive at certain “inevitable” ends”

      This is a joke isnt it?

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted August 9, 2009 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        It doesn’t seem that you’ve read ANY of Miller’s books (there are only two,by the way): he makes the quantum argument very clearly in his first book, finding Darwin’s God, and the humans are inevitable argument in his second, Only a Theory. Inform yourself before you post here.

      • articulett
        Posted August 9, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Only you can remedy your own ignorance.

        If your comment was addressed to me, as it appears, it’s a non sequitur. Moreover, you cannot use your ignorance regarding what Miller has said as an argument that he never said it.

        In order to sound more coherent, it might help to quote what you are responding to so your message doesn’t sound like a kwok ranting: “That’s not the Ken Miller I know!”

        Jerry was kind enough to give you a hint where you might find Miller’s quotes on the topic if you are actually interested in Ken Miller’s beliefs. He clearly has not been as private with his beliefs as you imagine.

  23. Posted August 13, 2009 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I would like to hear your supporting arguments for premise 1, and would appreciate any links.


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