Saturday, January 17, 2009

Miller’s Clear Contribution I: Blowing up both extremes

In his book, Miller makes two clean/clear contributions: he blows up both extremes in the debate—and encourages people to see science as providing positive evidence for the existence of a personal God. I’ll handle the first point here.

Miller spends chapter 3 in torching the “young earthers” (YE)—their view of science and evolution, given their literal reading of Genesis (1-11). One of the difficulties for me in this debate is that, when I have heard each side speak, they both sound compelling. I’m not exactly sure how this ambivalence speaks to their eloquence or my ignorance! In any case, Miller sounds impressive here.

In particular, I enjoyed his discussion of “coprolite”—fossilized feces. Miller notes that this seems to afford YE’ers a great opportunity to invalidate evolution, if they can “find evidence of a single contemporary organism”—e.g., “tuna bones in the stomachs of pleiosaurs”. Miller complains that such evidence has not been presented and it’s not at all obvious that “creation scientists” have even bothered to look.

Miller also deals with some of the “evidences” for a YE (p. 64-65). I have no idea whether he deals with the strongest of these or not, but he seems credible. On the other side of the coin, he provides a lengthy and technical but readable discussion of the evidences for an old earth (p. 66-76). He also provides an over-the-top (theological!) dismissal of “apparent age” theories (p. 77-80)—the idea that the earth and universe were created with apparent age.

As for the other extreme, please don’t infer that Miller takes it easy on the atheist/materialist scientist crowd. He takes some heavy pokes at Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker, Dennett, and others—and devotes all of chapter 6 to critiquing this crowd.

In a nutshell, this group extends their inferences well beyond what the evidence provides—and more broadly, beyond what Science allows. They give Science a bad name and they contribute to the problem here by needlessly antagonizing believers (p. 171-172).

That said, Miller also notes that Evolution “begs for (dangerous) extrapolation”. Miller lists Social Darwinism and socialism, but leaves out eugenics and Hitler. (Perhaps the latter pair is too painful for Miller to own? Nice “strategy”, Kenneth!) Here, he spends a lot of space to document the views of Dennett (p. 175-176, 179). He cites Lewontin’s famous quote in the NYT Review of Books (p. 186). And he notes the irony that Clarence Darrow defended two “rich, well-educated youths” and avoided the death penalty for them—just prior to the Scopes Trial—on evolutionary grounds (p. 188-189a).

The punchline of this section (p. 189b):

The depth and emotional strength of objections to evolution sometimes baffle biologists who are used to thinking of their work as objective and value-free. The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual….The giddy irony of this situation is that intellectual opposites like Johnson and Lewontin actually find themselves in a symbiotic relationship—each insisting that evolution implies an absolute materialism that is not compatible with religion. This means, in a curious way, that each validates the most extreme viewpoints of the other.

This is none-too-surprising since it is common in many areas. Interest groups commonly react to—and feed off of—their counterparts. And of course, the most passionate people have the greatest incentives to make these investments—to speak out at all, and to speak out in a persuasive &/or twisted manner (or to borrow from Miller—to “strategize”).

To wrap-up (p. 270), Miller says he doesn’t know why some scientists make such hostile statements about religion. But he encourages them to cut it out and avoid speaking about philosophy as if it were science. He also exhorts believers to “respect such statements…as honest disagreements about the nature of things, but…should not accept them as the necessary conclusions of science itself.” He also argues that theists should not use “an extreme literal reading of Genesis [1-11?]”—and presumably, that atheists should not respond to that hermeneutic.

Miller also encourages believers “as a matter of strategy to avoid telling scientists what they will never be able to figure out. History is against them.” (p. 263). Point taken—although I’m not sure how often this actually occurs—a point to which I will return later.

Miller’s prescriptions—for improving the debate—seem somewhat one-sided; he wants believers to do more. On the one hand, this “isn’t fair”; on the other hand, believers are in a far better position, spiritually, to pull it off! I think Miller does the best he can here—laying out the reasons why more reasonable dialogue should occur and exhorting each side to go there.


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