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.

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Heaven and Miracles and Newsweek

So Newsweek has a cover story called “”Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.”  It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

And here’s the kind of experience the doctor had:

Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.

Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.

A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.

All pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories.  What’s annoying is that a major magazine is calling this “proof” without quotation marks, without a question mark, without any sort of rebuttal.  (The story is an excerpt from a book by a mainstream publisher, Simon & Schuster.) Where are the alternative hypotheses?  Where is the objective analysis?

For a rebuttal, you have to go elsewhere, like the Huffington Post, of all places, where the physicist Victor Stenger says:

[The neurosurgeon] writes, “According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

This is nothing more than the classic argument from ignorance, which forms the basis of almost all ostensibly scientific arguments for the existence of the supernatural. The argument from ignorance is a less polite but more descriptive name for the God-of-the-gaps argument. This argument often appears in dialogues on the existence of God or anything supernatural. Basically, it says: “I can’t see how this [observed phenomenon] can be explained naturally; therefore it must be supernatural.”

The flaw in the argument should be obvious. Just because someone–or even all of science–currently cannot provide a natural explanation for something, it does not follow that a natural explanation does not exist or will never be found. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the story of humanity filling in the gaps in its knowledge about the world of our senses. In the case of NDEs, plausible natural explanations do exist.

Another description I’ve heard for this approach is the argument from personal incredulity.  It is, of course, strongest when it’s your experience; your brain knows what it knows, no matter what the scientists say.  But (of course) your brain doesn’t necessarily know what it knows.  I’ve just finished a book called Subliminal by the theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow, which surveys the research currently taking place that shows just how mistaken our conscious brain can be when it comes to understanding behavior and experience.  The more science progresses in this field, the shakier some of our most basic ideas about how we act and perceive and know appear to be.  As Mlodinow puts it, “the brain is a decent scientist but an outstanding lawyer.”  That is, the objective truth seeker in us generally loses out to the impassioned advocate for what we want to believe.  If you’ve had a life-changing experience, you want to believe in the truth of that experience; you don’t want to be told that it’s the random firings of neurons as you came out of a coma, or fragmentary memories that your brain has somehow turned into a coherent narrative, or any of the other dreary, trivial explanations that the scientist is going to offer.

One of the things I like most about Christianity is that it turns human history into a story, because I love stories.  How much more interesting the Christian world of sin, sacrifice, and redemption is than the Darwinian world of purposeless, mindless change and adaptation and extinction.  But not all stories are true; in fact, nearly all of them aren’t.  We shouldn’t believe them just because we want to.  And we need to understand that our brains aren’t always the best judges of what is true; for that, we can’t do without science. This neurosurgeon, and Newsweek, have left the science behind.