Ken Miller gets big Catholic prize

According to Karl Giberson, who wrote a piece about this at the Daily Beast (“Meet the Prizewinning Catholic creationists can’t stand”), biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University has won a big prize bestowed by the Roman Catholic Church:

At commencement on May 18, the University of Notre Dame will honor Miller with the 2014 Laetare Medal, an award given annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” The award was first given in 1883 and previous recipients include former President John F. Kennedy, and West Wing’s popular acting president Martin Sheen.

Miller is of course an indefatigable opponent of creationism, a textbook writer (who boldly defended his and Levine’s book’s treatment of evolution in Texas), and an author of two popular books attacking intelligent design. He’s told me he’s an “observant Catholic”, and as Giberson notes in his article, I reviewed one of Ken’s books (along with one of Karl’s) in The New Republic. This is from Karl’s piece:

Despite Miller’s tireless support for evolution—the popularity of his text and popular books make him one of the most influential “teachers” of evolution in America—many of his fellow evolutionists recoil from the old-fashioned religion that sits so comfortably in his soul, seemingly at peace with his science. In a wide-ranging essay in The New Republic,new atheist Jerry Coyne took a joint look at Miller’s Only a Theory and my Saving Darwin that came out about the same time. Coyne had many nice things to say and recommended both of our books. But in an extended examination of our mutual theological confusion, he chose to lump us with the creationists we had so strongly critiqued in our books, concluding—absurdly—that our “sincere but tortuous efforts to find the hand of God in evolution lead [us] to solutions that are barely distinguishable from the creationism that [we] deplore.”

Miller certainly cannot be accused of inserting God’s hand into evolution. He even rejects the label used by many Christian evolutionists—theistic evolution—insisting that “evolution” is simply evolution. He told a popular science and religion blog: “I always reject the term ‘theistic evolutionist.’ I am a theist and an evolutionist, to be sure, but the combined term makes no sense to me. Never heard anyone described as a ‘theistic chemist,’ have you?”

Well, let me briefly explain my opinion. In his first book, Only a Theory, Miller not only broached the notion that God may work subtly in the universe, though affecting quantum fluctuations, but also raised the “fine tuning issue”:

The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.

Isn’t that theistic evolutionism? Miller goes on:

The scientific insight that our very existence, through evolution, requires a universe of the very size, scale, and age that we see around us implies that the universe, in a certain sense, had us in mind from the very beginning…. If this universe was indeed primed for human life, then it is only fair to say, from a theist’s point of view, that each of us is the result of a thought of God, despite the existence of natural processes that gave rise to us.

Fine-tuning, i.e., God’s creation of the laws of physics so that humans could exist and evolve, is a form of creationism: it’s the laws, not the organisms, that were created.

Further, both Giberson and Miller asserted the inevitability of humans evolving, something I don’t accept. Despite being a physical determinist, I think that mutations are probably largely unpredictable quantum phenomena, and if mutations aren’t determined, neither is evolution.

As Miller said:

But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.

I don’t agree with the degree of assurance evinced here. But of course for Giberson and Miller the appearance of humans must have been inevitable, for we are made in the image of God. If we didn’t evolve, who would worship Him: wombats?

Giberson himself, besides accepting the inevitability of humans evolving, also sees the hand of God in our appreciation of beauty, so that nature evolved in a way that’s not purely materialistic:

Why is [bird] song so pleasant to hear? Why, for example, does almost every scene of undeveloped nature seem so beautiful, from mountain lakes to rolling prairies? If the evolution of our species was driven entirely by survival considerations, then where did we get our rich sense of natural aesthetics?… There is an artistic character to nature that has always struck me as redundant from a purely scientific point of view…. I am attracted to the idea that God’s signature is not on the engineering marvels of the natural world, but rather on its marvelous creativity and aesthetic depth. Scientists are not supposed to talk about God this way, for it raises questions that can’t be answered.

Well, of course there are evolutionary explanations for this biophilia, including that of E.O. Wilson that environments harboring lakes and hills and birds would be conducive to our survival, so we’d evolve to find them attractive. I’m not saying I agree with this, only that there is an explanation that doesn’t involve God.

Finally—and this is the first time I learned this—Miller accepts certain supernaturalist doctrines of his Catholic church. From Giberson’s piece (my emphasis):

Many consider Miller a paradoxical figure who occupies the thinly populated no-man’s land between science and religion, embracing both with enthusiasm and finding no conflict. He is a life-long practicing Catholic and accepts church teachings on salvation, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. He described himself in the PBS “Evolution” series as simply a “traditional” Catholic, one who has not had to abandon or distort his beliefs to accommodate his other passion: evolutionary biology.

All of this is, to my mind, different in degree but not in kind from the superstition behind fundamentalist creationism. Such views are antiscientific, based not on evidence but on faith. Further, if Miller is a “traditional” Catholic, does he reject the Church’s doctrine that humans did evolve theistically, for they were the only animal God endowed with a soul? Does he further accept the Church’s continuing doctrine that Adam and Eve were the literal progenitors of humanity? If so, then Miller is surely a theistic evolutionist, and rejects the evolutionary genetics that tells us that humanity could not have had only two ancestors at any time in the last several hundred thousand years. I would challenge Ken (for I like the guy) to answer these questions, as I’d love to hear his answers. I’d also like to hear how Karl feels.

So I congratulate Miller on his prize, as well as on his numerous and salubrious achievements for evolutionary biology. Since he is a Catholic, he will be proud of this honor, and I am happy for him. But I still think that, pending clarification, both he and Giberson must be counted among theistic evolutionists rather than naturalistic evolutionists. If you think humans were inevitable, or uniquely endowed with a soul; if you think that God helped the process along by twiddling with electrons—then you are a creationist, for you’re saying that God inserted himself into the evolutionary process. Why isn’t that creationism?

 

166 Comments

  1. Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Extraordinary post. So Harris-like: clear, straightforward, thoroughly expository, unassailable logic.

    Simply magnifico.

  2. Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Imagine a creature that finds the sound of singing birds irritating and difficult to stand. I can imagine that creature would probably not fare well in an environment full of singing birds.

    Then imagine all the sounds we don’t find beautiful in nature. Why not? Why is it that a singing bird is lovely yet a farting cow is disgusting, or at best, funny in certain contexts. I would venture a guess that if over the eons birds had evolved a song resembling a Harley with a broken tailpipe, the religious would marvel at how we can appreciate the beauty of such lovely cacophony, and use this as evidence of providence.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      For me, birds are extremely annoying in the morning. In summertime, they start making noise at 3:30 and make it difficult for me to get a decent night’s sleep. This may be a crepuscular phenomenon, but I never hear them in the evening.

      • Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        Many years ago I worked at a job in the early 50s. One of my colleague’s wives was a social worker in London – part of her work was to visit re-settled families who had been forced out of their bombed homes in the East End and moved to newly constructed apartment blocks in South London.Almost without exception the commonest complaint was,”it’s alright ‘cept the
        effin’ birds wakes us up too effin’ early in the effin’ mornings”.

      • Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        The Dawn Chorus!!!

      • Marella
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        I saw a documentary about British emigrants to Australia years ago. One women who had moved to Queensland, went back home complaining that she hated it and even the birds sounded terrible. She didn’t like the squawks made by the parrots. Not all birds sound like nightingales.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Similarly, it’s adaptive for us to prefer habitats that can sustain us comfortably with plentiful food and water, mild temperatures, shade trees to relax under, and so on. How should that preference express itself in an inarticulate monkey brain? Surely it will take the form of an ineffable aesthetic pleasure at finding oneself in such an environment.

      • Filippo
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        “ineffable”

        “in” (not) + “ef” (“e-, ex-” – “out,” “out of”) + “fable.”

        Not out of, or originating in, a fable? I.e., something REALLY did happen, but one would be greatly inclined to think it could only be in a fable?

        Reminds me of “uncanny” versus “canny.” Will put on my long To Do List to explore both.

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          I’m not a cunning linguist but I think that ‘canny’ is related to ‘cunning’ and ‘to ken’ which mean to know or to understand.
          So ‘uncanny’ means ‘I see it but I don’t get it’

  3. E.A. Blair
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Miller wrote:

    “Why, for example, does almost every scene of undeveloped nature seem so beautiful, from mountain lakes to rolling prairies?”

    and in doing so appears to be assuming that beauty is a universal, but where some people see a beautiful lake, others see a sewage pond; there are some who look at the rolling prairie and see roads, Wal-Marts and parking lots.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      I often wondered how an alien would view Earth. They might see it as hostile as we see Titan. Blue sky?! Yuck! Water?! That stuff stings!

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps I should have worded that comment differently. I didn’t mean that’s what some people se them as, but what they could be exploited and used for.

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        Hydrogen sulfide smells, and hydrogen selenide and hydrogen telluride is worse. Is there a creature that finds hydrogen oxide smelly, since oxygen is in the same period …

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          Yes, but the hydrogen bonding that takes place between molecules of hydrogen oxide does not occur between other hydrogen compounds formed with group 16 elements. Without that additional bonding, water would not exist as a liquid at the temperatures found on Earth. So water has distinct difference from the other compounds in that period.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 17, 2014 at 2:10 am | Permalink

            On the other hand, if they were from a planet with an atmosphere deficient in oxygen, they might find our atmosphere not only smelly (which I presume would be a function of their particular olfactory senses) but highly poisonous. Like we might find, say, chlorine or hydrogen sulfide.

          • Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

            Yes, of course, but it is still amusing to think about – and it was my father, a chemist, who first made the joke to me!

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      The beauty of landscapes is enhanced, when you know that there is a pub with decent beer not too far down the road.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        That’s almost poetic. 🙂

      • Achrachno
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        The beauty of a landscape is enhanced when there is no road.

        • Posted April 15, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

          Yes and if all pubs were off the road there would be less drunken driving too.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Or in a paper mill, “the smell of money.”

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Uh – Dear E. A. Blair: Please check again. I did not write that! You’re quoting Karl Giberson. (Ken Miller)

    • Shwell Thanksh
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Is he seriously asking why evolution hasn’t resulted in us having brains and senses that see the natural world as one of hideous, frightening landscapes, filled with the terrifying, horrific shrieks of birds?

      “C’thulhu fhtagn!”

    • Marella
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      Many features we love used to be loathed. In the days before motorised transport mountains were forbidding and ominous. People did not rave about their beauty, they were concerned about the horses and the likelihood of being robbed on the road.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 16, 2014 at 12:23 am | Permalink

        From my sporadic reading on mountaineering, up until the time of the early mountaineers – about the middle of the 19th century – high mountains were commonly regarded as ghastly, dangerous, ugly places. (I expect deserts and forests were too). I suspect the exploring and sporting tendencies of the well-to-do coupled with better transport that made such regions accessible, gradually changed the public perception.

        These days ‘nature’ tends to make us look favourably on many unprepossessing landscapes, but try as I might I can’t find a mangrove swamp beautiful.

        • Posted April 16, 2014 at 2:01 am | Permalink

          Oh, mangrove swamps really are. If you get a chance, visit the mangrove trail near St. Kilda! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Kilda,_South_Australia

          /@

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

            Well, if it’s got a nice easy boardwalk through it, that’s a bit different, isn’t it? I was thinking of the sort that is full of soft sticky mud, stagnant pools, mosquitos, and probably various other biting / bloodsucking species…

            • Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:14 am | Permalink

              They’re all still there. But beneath you, so you can appreciate the beauty free from those distractions!

              /@

  4. Alex Shuffell
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    It takes quite a bit of daring to use the beauty of nature as evidence for a god. Every time that happens there are alway counter examples (except I can’t think of an ugly natural landscape). Bird songs are not always pleasant to hear. I live by the sea, from now until the start of winter I will have seagulls screaming as soon as the sun goes up. I have also had a few friends that have had pet birds, they are the noisiest pets I know, very far from pleasant. But that is only a small complaint.

    I wonder if Ken Miller has ever put faith into his scientific work or used the scientific method on his faith. It must take a lot of practice keep these two very separate modes of thinking in one head without getting really confused. I suppose some pressure could be released with some careful choices on what thoughts could overlap with faith and science. It is confusing to me how someone can be a good scientist and a good Catholic, Ken Miller seems to be both.

    • Daoud
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      There are many religious scientists, though substantially less than the population as a whole, so it is possible. I agree with John Harshman’s post below.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Would like to hear his take on the ichneumonidae (sp.?) wasp.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      “…(except I can’t think of an ugly natural landscape). ”

      Drought-induced dust-bowls are natural but not too appealing. And you should have seen the Mt. Saint Helens area shortly after the blow.

      • John Harshman
        Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        I’d generalize that to any scene of recent disturbance: aftermath of a forest fire, a flood, mud flow, hurricane, etc. All natural, all perceived as ugly.

        I’m not sure what lesson to draw from that, but I don’t think it’s an argument for god.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted April 16, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        I did see the Mt. Saint Helens area shortly after the blow. It was about three months later, and a cousin took me up a back road into the red zone. There was residue from mudslides on tree trunks going up twenty feet (I was really surprised that those trees were still standing), the forest was a tangled mess of both natural and man-made debris and we saw the remains of a number of houses that had been washed downstream. Back in town, there were places where the ash hadn’t been cleared away; it looked like a grimy snowfall.

        On the other hand, the ashfall was a boon for Washington’s emerging wine industry.

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 16, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

          That must have been a sight!

          My parents in Portland were sweeping ash up from their patio. (In fact I still have a small jar of it.) I had to have picked that time to be in NY for grad school! But I visited St. Helens on most trips back, the first not too long after they allowed folks back in (nowhere near as close as you were, it sounds like); and still do, occasionally. What a fascinating process to watch, once the devastation was overcome. I well remember the near-perfect conical peak it used to be, poking up on the horizon from Portland on a clear day. (Of course you can see it now as well, just much less of it.)

          Loved the bumper sticker the state issued: “Don’t come to Washington; Washington will come to you.”

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

            Oops, no, by that time I was in Boston where my husband post-doc’ed. Not that it matters to anyone but me.

            • Posted April 16, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

              And, presumably, your husband! 🙂

              /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 16, 2014 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

                Who?

                Oh, yeah, that guy. I think you have a point.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted April 17, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

              You never know, someone might fact check you on that! 🙂

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 18, 2014 at 1:00 am | Permalink

                LOL!

  5. Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    God, if he existed, would have many ways of influencing evolution which we could not have detected until recently. Directed earthquakes, epidemics and extreme weather events would do nicely. Not to mention asteroids. Quantum mechanical uncertainty just makes his life a bit easier.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, like when I played SIM earth in the 90s and some jerk would tilt my access, which would mean mass extinctions & I’d be trying to figure out what went wrong why they laughed maniacally!

  6. John Harshman
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I’m going to guess at a response by Miller regarding theistic evolution. He thinks that god may interject himself from time to time but in a strictly undetectable fashion, which if so means that we might as well ignore the possibility when doing science. Intervention that’s identical in all discernible ways to nonintervention is moot. He doesn’t use such hypotheses in his science and doesn’t suggest that anyone else should.

    It’s all about compartmentalization. He’s a theistic evolutionist in his personal beliefs but as a practical matter, as a scientist, he isn’t.

  7. Greg Esres
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    ” could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied?”

    I could have sworn that an earlier discussion said that niches were, by definition, occupied. It sticks in my mind because I found that unintuitive and I’ve seen sentences like the present one before.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I guess I misremembered the nature of the discussion. It pertained to a grass eating snake filling a niche, but I said:

      “Is that really a niche? That strikes me as an example of a creature filling a niche, not being one.”

      Based on the idea that we already had grass-eating creatures, so they were competing for a niche.

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied?

        So what filled our niche in the billions of years before we came along?

        • Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          I think, when it comes to ecosystems, that humans occupy an entire room, not merely a niche.

          So I would say that lots of other organisms occupied our “niche”.

          • Kevin Alexander
            Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

            Why do I feel like I’m part of the cancer that has metastasized?

  8. Sastra
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Sounds to me like Miller thinks that if God’s existence can be discovered through subjective mental things like beauty and morals and the happiness to find ourselves alive, then we can give God a pass on needing to explain anything physical.

    Oh — and religious beliefs about religion (like Jesus rising from the dead) are in a special “doesn’t count” area.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      It seems sort of obvious that if we had evolved to live on a dust planet then we would find beauty in dust. And if we had evolved in an environment where eating children was beneficial to individual survival, no doubt our morals would be somewhat different too.

      • Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t go as far as your last sentence.

        There are tons of things that are good to our individual survival that we gladly deem immoral. Rape, killing, subjugation of entire groups of people – all of these have been done throughout human history largely because they gave (some) individuals a competitive advantage in life. Our morality is an effort to overcome these brute survival instincts and live as a functional society.

        • Posted April 16, 2014 at 1:07 am | Permalink

          The reason that we consider rape and other social offences immoral maybe because we have developed an innate morality based on reciprocal altruism (and kin selection would play a role too).

          In the case of rape and other such crimes, gaining the respect and cooperation of your tribe or community is likely to be more important to individual survival than the benefits you gain from breaking the rules. In many societies it has been (still is!) perfectly acceptable to commit offences against people conceived as being outside your tribe or circle. And surely this is one of the main reasons why religions are so harmful, since their different dogmas act as a very distinct dividing line between people.

          Also when people break the rules, they do it with extreme caution, because they know it is wrong and that if caught they are likely to lose more in punishment than they gained from their defection.

  9. Ceres
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    It seems you’re just asserting anyone who believes in any kind of classical theism is a creationist. Sure its pejoratively effective to those in the atheism camp, but that isn’t what the majority of people understand by the word.

    Another point is , his beliefs aren’t anti-scientific. I didn’t get the belief in ethics or history from science.Just because something isn’t science doesn’t mean its antiscience or wrong.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      If he prefers an explanation of human origins that invokes an undetectable supernatural agency over one that explains the same facts with only purposeless natural processes, then yes, his beliefs are anti-scientific. He’s abandoning the principle of parsimony in order to preserve his prior emotional commitment to an unevidenced Creator.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      It is important, I think, to allow there are gradations of creationists, and that Miller is not a mainstream creationist. He believes in all the naturalistic science stuff that most people here do, but he also believes in God. Not some theistic spiritual, aloof entity, but God of the bible. A God that not only played a creative role but one that could have also intervened at various points along the way in the history of the earth. That does, unfortunately, put him within the boundaries of being a creationist.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      The assertion is technically correct. Creationism, in the theistic sense (you could suppose that aliens created us too), is the belief that a divine creator created the universe and everything in it. The literal reading of Genesis, is a specific type of creationism that relies on fundamentalism, but it is the one most often cited because it is the looniest of the bunch.

  10. Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Ken Miller’s position is creationism in principle and practice. The way his –and other theistic scientis’– position is presented to the public is also “distant creationism” (the appealing God, the maker, in the background), as supposed to proximate creationism (God bluntly the maker of all, not only of cosmic laws but of causality and destiny). The Catholic Church is awarding Ken Miller recognition not for embracing science and evolution (first) but for merging them in a personal position of conformity, of compatibility and harmony, analogous to Templeton and BioLogos. A scientifically unsubstantiated position, of course, but one of significant societal reward. Remember that the Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution was also awarded to Miller in 2011 http://ncse.com/news/2011/04/kenneth-r-miller-to-receive-gould-award-006647

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted April 16, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Random House defines Creationism as follows

      1. the doctrine that matter and all things were created, substantially as they now exist, by an omnipotent Creator, and not gradually evolved or developed.
      2. the doctrine that the true story of the creation of the universe is as it is recounted in the Bible, especially in the first chapter of Genesis.

      By this definition, Ken Miller simply is not a creationist.

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        He might not be a big-C Creationist, but he still believes in a Creator.

        Or, at least, in an Interferer. He’s an Interferencist.

        /@

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Has someone asked him about the opinion of JP II that human psychological faculties have not evolved?

  11. Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    *If* there was an all powerful God, then sure he could subtly direct the world by manipulating quantum mechanics or anything else he/it chose to fiddle with. Similarly we (or just me) *could* be brains in bottles, being manipulated by some Descartes’s demon in another dimension. But, if we are going to give preference to one single option out of the myriad of options that *could* be true we need some reason to do so. And so far no one has come up with any sensible argument why we should take the God option more seriously than the billions of other scenarios that aren’t ruled out by logic.

  12. Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate and admire Dr. Miller’s handling of I.D. proponents and his work explaining evolution. It’s partly because of this that I’m so perplexed someone this knowledgeable regarding the history of life on earth ‘believes’ in original sin- a curse everyone is born with, and from which we need ‘saved’.

    Even if there is a god who intended for humans to exist, I’d be no less baffled by how those as aware as Dr. Miller accept this ancient, clearly mythological, original sin story as truth, while at the same time ‘knowing’ there was never a deathless paradise from which anything could have fallen. If god ‘planned’ humans to exist through a natural process then he also planned for hundreds of millions of years of gratuitous suffering of animals, to be followed by gratuitous human -and other primate- suffering with a ~50% childhood death rate. In other words Dr. Miller seems to be admitting that God got the universe he wanted to begin with (and I’d agree! if there was a god)

    If not from Dr. Miller himself, I’d love to hear an explanation from someone. Almost every Christian I’ve known fails to consider the history of life on earth in their religious views (as if humans were just plopped down on earth one day and disobeyed god). So I sort of get why they are Christian (almost all of them were born into a Christian family). But among some of the highly educated Christians, I’ve never heard how they get from a god to- needing to be ‘saved’ (by blood) from a curse; a curse for being human because some past humans messed up.

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      Does Miller believe in original sin? I know it’s an official church position, but having been a former Catholic myself (and having quite a few current Catholic friends), I can tell you that many Catholics don’t accept original sin. In their view, Jesus died to save us from ‘our sins’, not ‘original sin’. From the OP, the only superstitious beliefs attributed to Miller were “salvation, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus.”

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        By ‘original sin’ I don’t exactly mean a literal Adam and Eve eating from a literal tree in paradise and then all went to hell. I agree not all Catholics these days believe that. I think if you pressed your Catholic friends however you will get some analogous story to original sin, just not as cartoonish. I think the official Roman Catholic church position is that we inherit a “fallen nature”. How does a person in Dr. Miller’s position reconcile “fallen” in a world which he claims came about by natural means? Are chimpanzees fallen? Were Neanderthals fallen? What about Homo heidelbergensis? Were they fallen in their nature? Remove the word ‘fallen’ from the world of Neanderthals and others of the human genus and you’re left with “nature”.

        Christianity hinges on the fallen part. Therefore Dr. Miller (being a Christian ‘and’ and naturalist) appears to be saying that God created things to turn out basically like they did -including diseases, suffering, natural disasters, violence, and a 50% childhood death rate- so that intelligent beings would eventually emerge, and ‘then’ the same god set up a murder of one person to ‘save’ us from the very situation “he” created in the first place.

        I’m very interested to know what “fallen” means in this context; when it started, whose fault it is or was, and in under what circumstances do adults ‘need’ to believe in the Jesus story.

  13. Vaal
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I listened to an interview/debate with Ken Miller years ago in which he was admitted his Catholic beliefs in Jesus Resurrection (etc). He was pressed on the compatibility issue, basically why would he be disciplined in demanding good evidence for evolution, and also reject other biblical claims (e.g. Noah’s ark etc) but he does not demand it for Jesus’ Resurrection? He said basically that, while one can get evidence for evolution, and evidence against other biblical miracles, you can’t do so for Jesus’ Resurrection. The interviewer asked “then why believe it?” And Ken essentially shouted back “I’m not claiming any evidence for it – That’s why they call it FAITH!”

    I found it quite astonishing. It seemed the equivalent of the following: My neighbor Joe claims last night, while alone watching TV, he 1. Turned invisible for a minute while watching the Daily Show. He also 2. Gained super powers, flew around the world, 3. cured all the malaria cases in Africa, 4. took the statue of liberty and placed it on the moon, 5. and left a hamburger on every North American doorstep.

    Since we can check claims 2 to 5 we know they are false claims. But…since we can’t disprove miracle # 1 because it would leave no evidence, well then THAT’s a miracle one can believe.

    The fact that there’s no evidence for Joe’s turning in invisible, no plausible mechanism described for it, and that the source of this claim – Joe – has proven unreliable in every instance we CAN check his claims…. well, so what? There’s not reason for skepticism here. Move along.

    The mind boggles.

    Vaal

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      The interviewer asked “then why believe it?” And Ken essentially shouted back “I’m not claiming any evidence for it – That’s why they call it FAITH!”

      Sadly Ken’s answer is not an answer but simply stating what he is doing, that he believes it on faith. This is an obvious and simple restatement that it is an unevidenced belief as the interviewer pointed out and has based his question upon. He hasn’t answered the question of why he believes it.

      (Without offence to Vaal, I gladly admit my take on this is based on the paraphrasing/summary and Miller’s answer may have been more articulate.)

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Vaal, that’s seriously funny.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Wonderful analogy, Vaal.

  14. Latverian Diplomat
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    The birdsong argument makes me wonder if the people who work in the philosophy and psychology of aesthetics find theologians as annoying as evolutionary biologists and cosmologists do?

    When someone reduces your field of study to “Goddidit!” not from a depth of understanding or a serious attempt to participate in the discussion, but just to try and score points with laymen in an argument the theologians lost two thousand years ago, it’s got to be annoying, doesn’t it?

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Probably. But also likely is that philosophers and psychologists view theologians and believers as potential objects for study. Lots of bizarre epistemologies and interesting delusions in them thar gyri and sulci.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Sure but aesthetics is a specialty that doesn’t get into all that. Possible exceptions for those who study questions like why Christian Rock is so terrible.

        • Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          Secret confession here: I have found some Christian Rock to be moving, dammit, because they push hard on the right aesthetic buttons. All while my logic centers are having a good vomit. Much like my experience when a song by ABBA comes on.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

            Ha ha! My taste in music, I realize, can sometimes border on the atrocious but come on, ABBA is pretty good. Those girls sang difficult songs – they have amazing voices.

            • Latverian Diplomat
              Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

              ABBA’s fun. Though “at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” is not technically true, it doesn’t induce the sort of cognitive nausea that most Christian music post Ralph Vaughn Williams does for me. 🙂

              (Napoleon fled to Paris, and then fled Paris and finally surrendered to the British just shy of a month after the battle ).

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

                The video for Money, Money, Money is funny too in its sort of inaccurate portrayal of a lot of money. I think the bills were mostly $5 bills maybe a $20.

            • Posted April 15, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

              But then, there is Dancing Queen. I start moving. I start emoting. I am so ashamed.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Everyone in the Humanities and Social Sciences, except the theologians, find the theologians annoying.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        😀

  15. Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I find Dr. Miller to be more enigmatic that Francis Collins, although both are puzzling in the end. For Miller, I wonder why he hangs on to believing in a literal God by the proverbial toenail. It would make so much more sense for him to just say he likes the practice of being an observant, prayerful Catholic, but no, there is no personal God or Ground of Being God. Anyone should see how it would make one feel good, and feel centered with ones’ community and family while participating in ceremonies and solemn ritual. Heck, I go for secular Christmas celebrations in a big way, with all the trimmings. I really like Christmas. But no, I do not believe in Santa Claus.

    I wonder if he sort of likes walking a contradictory path?

  16. James Mauch
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    At least for today maybe it is best to let him collect his prize in peace. We can continue the battle over his weird ideas on another day. It does intrigue me though how anyone can support that we are the result of a simple process of random mutation and selection of the fitter while at the same time believing that a god is also injecting his special brand of artificial selection. How could evolution work if that was the case?

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      One would have no problem in imagining that two different people might hold those inconsistent beliefs. So perhaps the answer is that our brains are not necessarily the harmonious creators of a single consistent belief system that we can identify as ourselves. And why should evolution not lead to organisms that can seek truth when it is opportune and comfort when it isn’t?

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

        I like your last sentence.

        It may indeed be, if not adaptive, then at least not maladaptive to be able to fool ourselves sometimes.

  17. Robert Seidel
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    An aside question to our host: I think there is something funny going on with the colour of your text. It’s sometimes the usual dark brown, and sometimes black, without any recognizable system behind.

    Anyone else noticed this? Or is it happening on my end?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I saw that too – the second paragraph is brownish (the one after the first quote). Probably the editor deciding to tag something weird.

      • Robert Seidel
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        For me, everything except the first and third paragraph has a different colour than usual, and the external links in this sections (the second and third) are grey/light blue instead of the usual yellow/orange.

        From your answer I get that you see something similar, but not the same pattern? I notice it in other articles, too. In “Salon jumps the shark …” for instance, all indented quotes are of a different colour for me than usual, and the link to Giordano Bruno imbedded in the third one appears bright red.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I see the same.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Everything looks as usual for me.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

        Same here.

  18. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I find it particularly disturbing when people assert that if humans didn’t evolve, there would be other intelligent beings here instead and I think the reason it bothers me is it relies on a whole pile of other assertions and ignores a lot of evolutionary evidence. For one, dinosaurs were on earth way longer than humans (180 million years for the dinosaurs; ~200,000 for humans, if you’re being generous) and we don’t have evidence of dinosaur civilizations or dinosaur space travel! Maybe the dinosaurs actually caused what we thought was a asteroid impact — probably running their own LHC! 😀

    So, whatever conditions that led to our own conscious intelligence (even similar brains may not have worked out — there are some discussions that Neanderthals would not have been capable of forming civilizations and if they hadn’t gone extinct, would still be out there hunting and gathering, though I don’t know how accurate this is) and our own body type that made tool manipulation easy, that all would have to happen again and we can’t be guaranteed all the crap would go down. Those are a lot of variable to repeat on a totally different species. Human-like intelligence isn’t the end goal. Bacteria are happy in their dumb state!

    • Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      For one, dinosaurs were on earth way longer than humans (180 million years for the dinosaurs; ~200,000 for humans, if you’re being generous) and we don’t have evidence of dinosaur civilizations or dinosaur space travel! Maybe the dinosaurs actually caused what we thought was a asteroid impact — probably running their own LHC!

      You are missing the most obvious answer. God willed it that way.

      In the same way most of us find bird song beautiful to hear, most of us find Kentucky Fried Theropod delicious. This was their purpose.

      Well, that and crowing thrice before the big guy got himself pegged.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I guess what I’m saying is I don’t like the “god willed it that way” evidence or lack thereof. Even people who don’t think about the god part will come to the bad conclusion that evolution was there marching toward us – the perfect being & even if for some reason we didn’t exist, it would still march toward something like us – the perfect being.

        To quote Doctor #9 as he complains about Rose, who messed up the timelines trying to see her dead father:

        I did it again, I picked another stupid ape. I should have known. It’s not about showing you the universe. It never is. It’s about the universe doing something for you.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      What’s always baffled me is when those with Ken Miller’s education and experience assert that God used natural processes so that intelligence would ‘eventually’ emerge and at the same time claim/believe that humans need ‘saving’ from an inherited curse and “fallen world”. Fallen from what?? On one hand they’re saying that suffering and dying and primates knocking each other in the head was intentional in God’s plan, and on the other hand they’re buying into a 2,500 year old middle eastern myth saying that humans are to blame for the way the world is.

      You’d think the cognitive dissonance would be painful. My only explanation for this is they haven’t really thought about this stuff much, and instead got swept up in the social/cultural aspects which I think Christians confuse as evidence for Christianity.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps the reasoning might be that intelligence is an evolutionary niche that allows organisms endowed with it to edge other species out and that the evolutionary algorithm tends to lead all niches, where a living is to be made, being exploited. And, as it happens, we seem to be making a pretty good job of exploiting that niche, driving many other species that would compete for resources into extinction.

    • Jeff Lewis
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      It’s not really related to your larger point, but this caught my eye, “dinosaurs were on earth way longer than humans (180 million years for the dinosaurs; ~200,000 for humans, if you’re being generous)”. I don’t particularly understand these types of comparisons. Dinosaurs are a huge group, akin to mammals. Humans are a single species. Why would you compare the longevity of a single species to that of a large group? Wouldn’t the better comparison be mammals to dinosaurs? Or humans to a single species of dinosaur? And if it’s mammals to dinosaurs, isn’t it pretty even. We’ve both been around 230 million years, give or take a few million.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        Mostly for simplicity and because those making these arguments about the specialness of humans and human intelligence only understand things from a human perspective. I considered how far I’d go back – to apes, to non hominids, just hominids? I figured I’d go back to australopithecines. If I picked one type of dinosaur, that just confuses things. It may be more accurate, but it is less easy to understand without a bunch of backstory.

  19. Posted April 15, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Miller came to Cornell and gave a lecture. I wrote an article about him. He is just like Francis Collins, a person who has a scientist and a religious self. Neither one make a bit of rational sense. They really don’t care if others see contradictions.

    I will not join them because the evidence of evolution does not fit the evidence of evolution. Both are immune.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Any chance you could link to the article? I wasn’t able to find it from a Google search.

      And what exactly do you mean by “the evidence of evolution does not fit the evidence of evolution”? Did you mean to say Christianity/religion for the latter point, or am I just missing the meaning?

  20. wonderer
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    At an apologetics forum I frequent there is a geneticist postdoc who is a Christian, who is very active in debunking ID claims. (when his schedule as a postdoc allows for it)

    He cites Ken Miller’s work as a major factor in his having made the transition, from a YEC out to disprove evolution, to his present view.

    However, while he is very active on the internet at combatting ID, he has not told his family his views. As a preacher’s kid myself, I understand his position. We are social primates. Being alienated from our society can be a fairly terrifying prospect.

    I’m certainly not in a position to know whose heart might be broken if Ken Miller were to renounce Christianity, but it seems awfully plausible to me that that sort of thing is a factor. In any case, I think Ken Miller is doing pretty good for a primate.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      “We are social primates. Being alienated from our society can be a fairly terrifying prospect.”

      And prior to the alienation (if one gets that far), the prior in-your-face criticism and minor (major?) psychological manipulation and intimidation (and bullying). One finds himself in a position of going along to get along, so as to Keep The Peace.

  21. kelskye
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Science and religion are answering two different questions, but it’s not like those questions are mutually exclusive. Hence we get religious answers that intrude on science inadvertently, while science explaining away the need for religious answers inadvertently. It’s just inevitable.

    On that note, I just finished reading Robert Price & Edwin Suominen’s Evolving Out Of Eden, which is a look at Christian responses to evolution. Miller and Giberson have their responses analysed along with other scientists and theologians (including John Haught), to see if they are really able to ride the line between keeping the faith and keeping true to the science. If you’re into theology, it’s a good read. (though I found it a struggle to read at times – analysis of biblical text is one of the most boring things I can imagine!)

  22. Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a good summary of Miller’s position:

    I am not a “theistic evolutionist.” Rather, I am an evolutionist who happens also to be a theist. I do not use theism as a causal explanation for anything in science, including evolution. Nor would any scientist.

    https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=37148773&postID=1144218608606100213

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      And yet when he takes off his lab coat, he thinks it’s reasonable to believe that God meddled with mutations to steer evolution toward us.

  23. E.A. Blair
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    This is slightly off-topic (although it does involve creationism), but the Funny Or Die website has put up a ‘Creationist Cosmos’ clip as a parody challenge to Neil Tyson’s show. However, it’s rather Poe-ish, ’cause it looks a lot like the few bits of religious broadcasting I’ve seen.

    • Dermot C
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Yes, George, and I assume your name is a reference to Orwell, I’ve always thought that a creationist response to Tyson’s programme would need 1 episode. There’s no need to semi-apologize: it’s funny. Even though I have no idea what ‘Poe-ish’ means. Unless you mean Irish-American, in which case I’m even more confused.

      The problem with creationism is this: the Sabbatical creation account which opens Genesis is from the P, Priestly, source from the later 6th century BCE, rather late if the world really was founded on Sunday 23rd October, 4004 BCE.

      But, apparently the sabbatical creation account is connected to the emerging monotheist Judaistic idea of a day of rest during the week. A sort of quid pro quo for the priests’ domination of the Temple and Jewish daily life: do as we say and youse can have 1 day off from labour each week. 7 was an important number: fields were to lie fallow in the 7th year and debts were cancelled in the 7th year. The latter of which obviously lead to economic problems, which rabbinic Judaism had to deal with.

      500 years later the Romans, who seemed to have no concept of a day of rest, were astonished at the laziness they ascribed to the Jews for the rhythm of their week: a few hundred years later, the Empire adopted this proto-weekend.

      To our sensibilities this Judaistic creation account, with its proto-scientific claims, appears to post-date the other Judaist creation account – Eden. And indeed, it probably does. Eden is a Jahwist tale, dating probably from the 8th century BCE, evidently intended to demonstrate how a polity should organise itself via different-sex marriage, man’s dominion over woman and over nature, through toil.

      Slaínte.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Poe's_Law

        • Dermot C
          Posted April 16, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          Again, Diane, you educate me in internet lingo. I’ve even mastered the blockquote. That was you, that was. Thanks.

          • Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

            Pro tip for OS X (and iOS) users.

            Go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Text

            Enter a shortcut (“Replace”) such as +bq and replacement text (“With”) <blockquote>.

            Similarly for the closing tag (say, -bq.

            Saves typing!

            Plus, if you also use iOS, these shortcuts are synced via iCloud, so you can use them on your iPhone or iPad too!

            /@

            • Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

              )

              Insert above as appropriate…

              😦

            • Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

              PS. Also +link for <a href=””></a>!

              PPS. I suspect Ben has many of these set up with paragraphs about the historicity of Jesus and the physics of everyday life … 

            • Kevin Alexander
              Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

              Hi Ant,
              When I go to systems pref and keyboard+text I get a list of shortcuts but I can’t figure out how to make a new one.

              • Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:17 am | Permalink

                [➕] button at bottom of list! Then just type in the new empty fields. It will sort automatically.

                ([➖] to delete a selected/highlighted one.)

                /@

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

                Ant,
                I have a MacBook Pro with OSX 10.8.5
                There is no + at the bottom of the list.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                Kevin in OS X do this:

                settings -> keyboard -> text tab -> you will see the + and – keys bottom left.

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                Nope, still no + or –

              • Posted April 17, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

                @ Kevin

                They should be there in System Preferences > Keyboard & Text in OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. See here.

                But afaik there’s no syncing with Mountain Lion. You can set these directly in iOS: Settings > General > Keyboard > Shortcuts

                /@

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted April 18, 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                Thanks Ant,
                I found it in the link you gave. On my machine it’s not in ‘Keyboard & Text’ but in ‘Language & Text’

              • Posted April 18, 2014 at 1:48 am | Permalink

                Ah. I wasn’t careful enough checking the dialog name. Mavericks shuffled several system preferences around.

                /@

                Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse all creative spellings.

                >

              • Kevin Alexander
                Posted April 18, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                Ah. I wasn’t careful enough checking the dialog name. Mavericks shuffled several system preferences around.

                Just testing to see if it works
                Thanks again Ant

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

              Thanks! I forget to use these features with my devices. Here is how you also do this with Android and BlackBerry:

              Android (4.42): settings, language & input (under personal, personal dictionary

              BlackBerry 10: Settings, Language & input, prediction and correction

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 16, 2014 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

            Aw, you remember. 🙂

            Dunno about you, but I’m tactfully ignoring Ant’s 3 posts in response to you…

            😀

            • Posted April 17, 2014 at 12:44 am | Permalink

              By which response, you’re *not* ignoring me … !

              But if you’re not Apple cultists, what I wrote has no value to you. Sadly.

              /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

                “But if you’re not Apple cultists…”

                How could you tell?

                😀

              • Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:15 am | Permalink

                “Hello. Have you ever read the Book of Jobs?” 😀

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:21 am | Permalink

                I tell ya, it seems like that sometimes!

                (iHaven’t.) Though the biography’s juicy.

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 2:45 am | Permalink

                I’m not ignoring you, Ant: I was asleep. School’s out, and so was I. PC user me, though but.

                Slaínte.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

                I’ve added how to do it for the other OS’s

              • E.A. Blair
                Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

                “cult” seems like too mild a term.

  24. hank_says
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    This naive marvelling at why we find rainbows and feckin’ tweety-birds so beautiful is intensely irritating when concluded with “therefore Yahweh, god of the corpses piled high in the desert, made them to make me smile.”

    Just think about the parts of nature commonly described as “beautiful” in these soft-pologetics and think about what, to a less cerebral organism, they signify:

    – birdsong, flowers, blossom, bees: Fruit. Berries. Honey. Things to eat.

    – babbling brooks or waterfalls: fresh, potable water. Fish & other delicious organisms.

    – sun-dappled forests or healthy plains with wavy grass and little furry things gambolling about: FOOD!

    For countless millions of years our ancestors, then us, associated all of these pretty things with a healthy ecosystem that would provide us with sustenance. Once we developed agriculture our ancestors would then have learned all the signifiers of seasonal change and eventually come to depend on them. It’s little wonder that today, with most of us not farmers (or nomads) closely dependent on favourable weather, our brains have made a slight shift just to “oh, that’s nice” from “oh good, we’re not going to starve.”

    As for the just-pretty and not-particularly-useful things like rainbows, blazing sunsets or Jesus-clouds over the sea, well, it’s not surprising that an organism capable of abstract thinking and with a bit of time on its hands would just look at them and find them comforting. Then again the presence of, for instance, rainbows after rain would be comforting to any organism that lives outside and doesn’t like being wet all the time.

    We are a product of nature, despite our millennia of subsuming it beneath our civilisation and obscuring it with our technology – is it any wonder that with our “extra” brainpower we’ve developed an appreciation for aspects of nature beyond the immediately practical?

    I admit my comment may be simplistic, but this constant, childish portrayal of nature as God’s autograph by creatiolutionists gets my goat. I haven’t even touched on all the parts of nature that are brutal and beastly; would Miller and Giberson be as quick to credit God with the quantum-scale evolutionary tinkering that gave us HIV and the ichneumonidae as they are to thank him for the first robin of spring and the sodding buttercup?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      +1 especially for mentioning “Jesus clouds” and using “sodding” as a descriptor of buttercups. 😀

      • hank_says
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        😀

  25. Larry Esser
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    As to why landscapes–hills and mountains and streams and rivers–are so attractive, even beautiful, maybe part of that is the excitement of thinking what might be out there that can help us eat and live. Evolution might have favored those who found such scenery thrilling and went out into it and got more food and maybe good places to live too. Moving, running, looking; all those are part of our animal heritage.

  26. Andrew Lucas
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Dr Coyne, I think this blog post is unnecessarily strident. I agree with what you are saying, but I think Dr Miller is, by and large, an ally in the fight against un-reason. The things you say are better expressed privately to Dr Miller than fog-horned from a blog.

    • hank_says
      Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      Please take a seat. Someone will be along shortly to register your concerns and to ascertain who exactly it was that asked for your advice.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

        😀

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but I don’t take well to someone telling me what or how to write. This piece is in fact more about theistic evolution and its incompatibility with science than it is about Miller. Nor is it strident, unless your criteria for stridency are “any criticism of religion”. Did you not see the encomiums for Miller? Is he so perfect that he’s beyond criticism?

      Please read the rules on the sidebar before posting here again. You can take issue with the arguments, but you have absolutely no right to tell me how to write, or when to write publicly.

      • hank_says
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

        I can’t believe you didn’t notice he called this joint a “bl*g”! Perhaps this was his first time here…

  27. S McAndrew
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the ability to maintain two completely opposite beliefs is a fairly normal human ability. Illogical, but normal. There is probably some evolutionary benefit to this, but I can’t think what.

    • wonderer
      Posted April 16, 2014 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      I expect it is less an adaptation, and more a consequence of having a mind based on a highly distributed processing system, with only a degree of coordination between distributed elements.

      Think split brain studies.

      V.S. Ramachandran has described a split brain patient where one cerebral hemisphere believed in God, and the other didn’t.

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        Do you recall which of Ramachandran.s books?

        /@

        • wonderer
          Posted April 16, 2014 at 5:35 am | Permalink

          This video is where I heard it:

          http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PFJPtVRlI64

          • Posted April 16, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

            Tx!

          • Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

            Ah … so we are narrowing in on the location of the *sensus divinitatis*!

            /@

            • wonderer
              Posted April 16, 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

              Yeah, that must be it!

              • Dermot C
                Posted April 16, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

                Ramachandran performed the same experiment on Dawkins: neither hemisphere believed in God!

                It turns out that Dawkins is 7.0 on his scale and not 6.999.

                There’s a series of Radio 4 Reith lectures featuring VSR (2004, I think). Well worth a listen.

                Slaínte.

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        So half of him is destined for heaven, the other half for hell.

    • Posted April 16, 2014 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      “There is probably some evolutionary benefit to this, but I can’t think what.”

      It keeps us from killing each other over slights. Our superego tells us we need to forgive, forget, put into perspective and move on. Our ID(?) tells us the SOB is an enemy who deserves to have his heart torn out of his chest with a deep-throated roar. These are two mutually exclusive ideas.

  28. Posted April 15, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the problems of invoking magic in evolution and suchlike, but I don’t really see his belief in the power of convergence as all that unreasonable. The quote

    I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it

    does not actually say that something precisely like humans would have to come up again. The thing is simply that (a) evolving intelligence is a successful strategy for some groups of animals, and (b) given hundreds of millions of years and enough planets it is guaranteed that the same solution will the hit on again even if it is very unlikely that it happens in any given one million year time slice, and even if the resulting sentient species has five tentacles around its mouth.

    Of course it does not follow from this hypothetical possibility that the universe is fine-tuned for evolving intelligence, just as it does not follow from the observed convergent evolution of wings that it is fine-tuned for the evolution of wings.

  29. Diane G.
    Posted April 15, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly, Miller seems to have been here and left but one comment, under comment #3 above.

    • Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      And a fairly trivial correction at that.

      If it was actually Ken. The name links to Brown’s website rather than Ken’s own page there, suggesting a lazy attempt at verisimilitude. Or maybe it was Ken, and he’s just modest…

      /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 15, 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps he thinks he’s heard these opinions many times before and senses that any response would be futile.

        • Posted April 16, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

          Diane G. wrote: “Perhaps he thinks he’s heard these opinions many times before and senses that any response would be futile.”

          Yeah, that’s pretty much it. And this really is from me (the actual Ken Miller, no kidding).

          I do appreciate the kind words of congratulation from Jerry, especially regarding the tough stance that Joe Levine and I took in the very recent Texas textbook wars. And I would hardly expect Jerry or any of his blogging fans to mute their criticisms of religious belief in general or the Catholic Church in particular. Comes with the territory, I guess.

          Jerry, of course, always likes to cite one paragraph from “Finding Darwin’s God” that explains how a God “could” have tinkered with evolution. But he ignores the actual message of that book, which is that evolution is a fully-naturalistic material process whose outcome is (and was) not predictable. In that way he likes to pretend that I am a “theistic” evolutionist, because I believe that God guided evolution to produce us humans.

          I do not believe that, and I have made it abundantly clear in my writings and talks.

          I don’t regard this award from ND as a personal thing so much as a statement from the nation’s premier Catholic university that it wishes to stand on the side of science in the culture wars that continue to engulf our country. I don’t expect that will quiet the critical comments here or elsewhere. But I want to make clear, as I have many times on Jerry’s blog, that he and I do not differ with respect to our understanding of the evolutionary process. Our disagreements are theological, not scientific.

          • Posted April 16, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            So, you are modest!

            Thanks for your response. But given your clear statement that you hold that “evolution is a fully-naturalistic material process whose outcome is (and was) not predictable”, whence the “special relationship” between God and humankind enshrined in Catholicism? What of the literalism of Adam and Eve? Do you believe that God “ensouled” humankind and, if so, at what point in our evolution from ancestral apes?

            /@

          • Posted April 16, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

            Dr. Miller,

            I think everyone here admires your work, including me, and thank you for your work with last year’s textbook battle in Austin (just up the road from me).

            I just learned from your comment above that you wrote a book, “Finding Darwin’s God”, on the subject of God, science, and evolution. I’ll be reading that for possible answers to some questions I asked you on this post; which are, basically, how does one tell the difference between a universe where God got what God wanted, from a universe where God did not?

            I think even the most liberal Christian would start with the premise that things like the Holocaust and even the 50% (natural) childhood death rates throughout history aren’t something God hoped and planned for. The claim that 1) God set out from the beginning to create something like humans, 2) has the power to know everyone’s thoughts and actions (wow!), but 3) did *not* get what “he” hoped for is just as extraordinary -if not more- as any claim I’ve ever heard. Not to mention it appears to be a non sequitur, and from my experience what Christians ultimately seem to be asking me to do is ‘take in on faith’ that it’s ‘not’ a non sequitur.

            I’m used to the claim; I grew up around it. I normally don’t bat an eye anymore. It’s when the claim comes from someone who understands earth’s history as well or better than I do (I’m a geologist) it really sticks out. Maybe that also partially explains so much of the activity on this post here.

            Best regards.

  30. Posted April 16, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    The argument from beauty is the only one that has some traction. Explain “phi” to me.

    Tell me how a particular ratio of form is found and preserved ubiquitously in nature across species, class, order, kingdom. In animate and inanimate objects.

    In a human face, a pine cone, tree roots, hurricanes. The behavior of the stock market. The Fibonacci series, the peaks in an EKG, the Bohr radius, river branching, the structure of DNA, even Time in quantum physics may be related to phi.

    And what is “phi” is to us beautiful.

    I’m no theist but that is as close to the ‘hand of god’ as it gets. I can see why the argument has appeal to the religiously minded.

    • Posted April 16, 2014 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Possibly something to do with the angle of molecular bonds or the the geometry of proteins in living organisms. So, its *beauty* might arise in the same way we find pleasure in nature generally.

      Apart from geometrics shapes (e.g. regular pentagons), I’m not sure where it arises *naturally* in inanimate objects.

      Btw, payment cards are proportioned according to the golden ratio! But they are definitely manmade.

      /@

      • Posted April 16, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        And if you run a set of simple iterative rules on a large data set, you find that regularities emerge out of apparent chaos, because given the rules, certain persistent structures will tend to emerge from particular sequences of the rules operating on the underlying data. A simple example being the way that eddys and vortices form in rivers (and weather systems). And since such persistent structures have the property of being able to maintain their form over time (to a greater or lesser extent), they are more apparent than more temporary structures.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Historically there’s been a lot of hype and a lot of mysticism surrounding phi. It’s not at all clear that it’s justified.

      My suspicion is that many of the alleged instances of phi in nature, art, and architecture come down to pareidolia or pyramidology: fiddling with the numbers until you contrive the answer you wanted.

      As for aesthetics, it’s often asserted that we’re wired to find phi exceptionally beautiful, but one rarely sees any experimental data in support of this claim, just catalogs of artists who’ve bought into the cult of phi.

      The Wikipedia article on phi takes, I think, an appropriately skeptical tone.

      • Posted April 17, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        As does the interesting (somewhat) _Mathematics for the Nonmathematician_, which has a good section on geometry and art.

  31. Dr. Bubbles
    Posted April 16, 2014 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Less worrisome by far is the RCC take on evolution than their hoped for take over of environmental sciences and sustainability…intrigued by the explicitly religious aspects of their form of the scientific method…I thought Francis was going to let science be science…hmm…NSF and EPA seem to be ok with this however, too bad NIH is not fighting to keep science funded in Catholic Higher Ed.

    http://healingearth.sites.luc.edu

    http://www.aashe.org/files/documents/resources/catholic-he-sustainability-toolkit.pdf

  32. lkr
    Posted April 16, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    “eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have.”

    Actually, history of Terran life shows that complexity beyond the protist grade was not at all predictable, nor [even after eucaryotes arose] were the initial steps toward multicellular/multiple tissues immediate “hits”. Protists did a very good job of exploiting every conceivable substrate where water was available, but that would have been the end of the story if our sun was just a bit bigger and shorter-lived or our planet a bit smaller and going the way of Mars. Time in the habitable zone around a start IS limited [about another 400-500 my here], and so if we managed to set Earth back to a protist world, evolution would likely fall short of multicellularity on its second go-round.

    I don’t see any reason to believe that replicators on other planets would have hop/skip/jumped along to intelligence more directly. In my opinion, life is widespread in the universe, but I’d bet that 95-99% of living planets are stuck at the unicellular level of complexity, and vertebrate-grade intelligence all the much rarer.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted April 16, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I’d be more inclined to give credence to alien intervention than divine (2001 came out when I was 11, and I still think it makes a better story than the bible).

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 16, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        It’s been argued that many scientists working on SETI were once religious and therefore postulated that aliens are the equivalent of gods for atheists.

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted April 16, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          I should the caveat that aliens would be my preference if it were a hard choice between one or the other. This would all be so much easier if we found some bacteria on Mars or got a definitively artificial signal from elsewhere.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 16, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

            Which reminds me of a hilarious faux debate on CBC that asked, what would be better, to be ruled by apes or robots. It was argued by comedians and one of my favourite lines was “put down the poo Dr Zaius”.


%d bloggers like this: