Finding Kenneth Miller’s God

As I have in the past, I’m teaching Sunday School for the combined Unitarian churches in my little town.  (Unitarians are presumably the only folks who would let me teach Sunday School, and I know they are the only ones I’d teach Sunday School for.)  We’re doing a “Coming of Age” curriculum for eighth and ninth graders, and the other day we had a little discussion of evolution with the kids.  I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that two of my fellow teachers had a lot of sympathy for intelligent design.

These folks are religious in the way Unitarians are religious–they are comfortable recognizing a spiritual dimension to life, but they aren’t comfortable with religious dogma.  They seemed to have an instinctive dislike for evolution because it didn’t have a spiritual dimension; they liked the idea that evolution couldn’t explain everything, and that some parts of life required God (or a spiritual force, or something beyond blind chance).

I thought of them as I read Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God.  Miller is a biology professor at Brown and a committed supporter of evolution who has testified in trials against ID and creationism.  He’s also a devout Catholic. In Finding Darwin’s God, he makes the case that a belief in evolution can be completely reconciled with belief in a personal God who actively intervenes in His creation.

Miller is an appealing writer, and he certainly seems like an appealing person.   On the other hand, I don’t think I was the target audience for his book.  He begins by making the case for evolution, which I didn’t have to have made for me.  Then he made the case against creationism and intelligent design.  Don’t need to be convinced about that, either.  So I skimmed quite a bit through those chapters.  Finally at around page 200 he gets to the part where he reconciles God with evolution.  His case is that atheist scientists oversell materialism and determinism, and that in fact, quantum-induced uncertainty means that there is no determinism:

The natural history of evolution is unrepeatable because the nature of matter is unpredictable in the first place.  Wind that tape back, and it will surely come out differently next time around, not just for the Burgess shale, but for every important event in the evolutionary history of life.

And it’s in this unpredictability that God can work his wonders, choosing one probability over another to guide the world in the direction of creatures like us.

Well, for me what’s frustrating about the book is that Miller summarizes all this in about five pages.  He doesn’t engage with anyone who might disagree with his interpretation of quantum theory, determinism, and free will.  He just asserts the truth of his interpretation, and then he’s off to the theological races.  Indeterminacy gives you free will, gives you the possibility of miracles, gives you everything you need for a personal God like the one described in Western monotheism. So Miller can do the usual theological thing of making unprovable (or disprovable) arguments in favor of what he already believes:

Of course a loving God would create a Universe in just this way, so that it would contain creatures who have the ability to know, love, and serve Him (as the Baltimore catechism puts it), and if they fail to do so, He will consign them to eternal torment.

Of course a loving God would create the possibility of evil in such a Universe, to give these free creatures a choice, and if as a result some children happen to get tortured, raped, and killed by their stepfathers, it’s certainly not His fault.

I’m being snarky here, but only to make the point that, if you don’t buy into Miller’s beliefs, your surely not going to be convinced by his theological arguments. So I skimmed through that section as well.

Would my co-teachers get something from the book?  Maybe, but I can’t imagine they’d find Miller’s view of God as satisfying as intelligent design. With intelligent design and, of course, creationism, God (or a higher power) is a necessity.  Miller’s book only makes the case that God is a possibility — that His existence can’t be disproved by the fact of evolution.  He certainly doesn’t propose any way of proving that his God exists in the way that science proves hypotheses.  So we’re back to faith, which either works for you or it doesn’t.  Miller is sure of the truth of his God, and maybe his book will make it easier for others like him to reconcile their God with the scientific truth of evolution.  If so, I suppose that’s a good thing.  But I imagine that the vast majority of the faithful would still prefer it if evolution would just go away.

4 thoughts on “Finding Kenneth Miller’s God

  1. Well, of course Miller doesn’t try to prove scientifically that God exists, because you can’t and he acknowledges that fact. But I think he rather powerfully makes the case that for a God who wants to create a universe of free will, evolution is the way to go–that in fact to try to argue against evolution serves only to weaken your theological case. (Once he’s made that point, he does tend to restate it a few times without adding much more of interest theologically. That’s pretty much his main point.)

    Where I think he really hits the nail on the head is this assertion: Some of the blame for the public’s reluctance to accept evolution must be laid on the atheist evolutionists who step beyond the actual science to say, in effect, life is meaningless and free will is an illusion driven by genetic imperative. None of that has been proven, and yet it is often declared as if it were a finding of science, rather the statement of (anti)faith that it really is. It isn’t necessarily the science that’s scary to people so much as the nihilistic, but unscientific, conclusions drawn by some of the people who practice science.

    > So we’re back to faith, which either works for you or it doesn’t.

    By faith, you seem to be suggesting an acceptance of a belief which you believe because you believe it. I’m sure that’s true for some. But I don’t recognize that in the people of faith I know, who tend to test and challenge their faith from time to time, and ask a lot of questions. It’s not the same as science, but it has a lot in common with it.


    • On “proof”: you say “of course” you can’t prove scientifically that God exists, but I don’t see where the “of course” comes from. Is that a scientific “of course” or a theological “of course”? The hope of proof is precisely why my friends are attracted to ID–because it purports to be scientific proof. And I’m sure they’d love studies that demonstrated the power of prayer. And the Catholic church just canonized a bunch of saints, based on “proof” of miracles.

      On free will and atheist evolutionists: The problem I have is that I don’t think he sufficiently makes the case that they are wrong. He and they are both extrapolating from evidence. He asserts that free will flows from quantum indeterminacy as a given, but there are plenty of scientists and philosophers out there who disagree with him, and he doesn’t engage with them at all. (He pretty much does the same thing with the implications of the anthropic principle, which he also discusses a bit as evidence for God.)

      On faith: You have an interesting but, I’m prepared to say, completely unrepresentative sample of “people of faith.” Virtually all faith occurs in the context of an organized religion; to question the religion is to to be a heretic, an apostate, or worse. I’d be interested to know if there’s any aspect of Catholic dogma that Miller rejects, and on what grounds. Obviously it won’t be on scientific grounds. He brings up the Virgin Birth–where did Jesus get his Y-chromosome?–only to shrug his shoulders and move on. He believes he has made the case that God can do that. On moral grounds? But how do you challenge the Church on morality? The Church represents God, and morality comes from God.


  2. “On “proof”: you say “of course” you can’t prove scientifically that God exists, but I don’t see where the “of course” comes from. Is that a scientific “of course” or a theological “of course”? The hope of proof is precisely why my friends are attracted to ID–because it purports to be scientific proof. And I’m sure they’d love studies that demonstrated the power of prayer. And the Catholic church just canonized a bunch of saints, based on “proof” of miracles.”

    I guess the “of course” emphasis is subjective on my part, because it seems so obvious to me. Science is the study of the natural, material world. God is, pretty much by definition, at least partly outside that frame of reference. How can science study God, then, especially if God is alive and reacting? Attempts by science to study the efficacy of prayer are a perfect example. I haven’t seen any that didn’t have a basic, inherent design flaw: they treat prayer like an algorithm (or incantation) which either does, or does not, produce a result. That would be fair if prayer were being tested as “Does this magic spell work, or doesn’t it?” But that’s an imposed definition of prayer that really has nothing to do with what most people believe they’re doing when they pray, which is to talk to God and, sometimes, to ask him to do things like heal people. In that paradigm, God may or may not respond in the way you hope he will, or in the time frame you hope for, for his own reasons. What does that do to your experimental design, if God is a variable with his own mind and purposes?

    “He asserts that free will flows from quantum indeterminacy as a given…”

    That’s not how I read it. I think he offers quantum indeterminacy as a *possible* explanation of how God can work both within and without the physical world, without interfering with the natural laws. Personally I think it’s a pretty intriguing hypothesis, but I wouldn’t call it more than speculation, and I don’t think he would, either. And I didn’t see him offering the anthropic principle as *his* evidence for God. (If he did, and I missed it, then I’d have to disagree with that.)

    As for the details of Catholic dogma, I have no idea where he stands. And I don’t know much about the Catholic process for declaring sainthood. Are they saying, “We find scientific proof of miracles” or “We find this proof to our satisfaction that the miracles occurred”? I don’t know, and in any case, *I’m* not going to defend Catholic dogma.


  3. Pingback: Miracles and sainthood: Kateri Tekakwitha | richard bowker

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