Saturday, January 17, 2009

Miller’s Mixed Bag II: Providing an effective critique of elements within ID, but still underestimating it

This is part 5 of a five-part review of Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God.

Miller’s penchant for both effective critique and exaggeration is also visible in his treatment of Intelligent Design (ID). Miller devotes chapter 4 to this task (and revisits it again later as well). Problems?

The critics of evolution invoke design to replace evolution…A divine designer does not need a mechanism…(p. 92)

Properly written, it would look like this: “The critics of evolution invoke design to replace some claims of Evolution as history…A divine designer does not need a mechanism, but may use one regularly…”

It’s not logically tenable to allow that evolution could have produced some species but not others; therefore, the explanation of design must be invoked for the origin of every species… Like it or not, ID must face these data by arguing that each and every one of these species was designed from scratch….The story-tellers of ID assert that He could have done it just one way—by assembling every element, every interlocking bit and piece of tissue, cell, organ and genetic code in single flashes of creative intensity….[ID’ers] compel Him to descend from Heaven onto the factory floor by conscripting His labor into the design of each detail of each organism that graces the surface of our living planet. (p. 93, 95, 252, 268)

Huh? “Some but not others” Why not? “Each and every one”? Why? I’m not especially well-read in this area. But I’ve never seen this claim and I can’t imagine it—especially if Miller’s foils are the strategic geniuses he makes them out to be! (Similarly, Miller claims that Behe believes in the necessity of a “master cell” [p. 162]. Again, it’s difficult to imagine that Behe would insist on this.) In a word, why are ID’ers required to believe that all must be accomplished without evolution? It looks like a strawman has appeared in Miller’s argument—perhaps through a punctuated equilibrium of some sort.

…no explanation beyond the whim of the designer himself. That’s just the way he chose to do it. (p. 94)

That’s fine/true. But why does Miller see God’s intervention as a problem—since he allowed for that possibility earlier (through quantum physics)? And if God chose/chooses to intervene, would Miller require an explanation? Moreover, if God can/does intervene, what’s the difference between natural selection and intervention/“design” within NS—and how would one know the difference?

Or to restate a point I made in an earlier post: For believers, Miller notes the ease with which Christians believe that God has intervened throughout human history, why not believe that He has intervened in biological history as well?

In chapter 8, Miller complains that such deception could “look natural”. But with modern physics, “natural-looking” should result in random &/or designed outcomes. So, again, why the complaint?

Beyond the exaggeration, it’s odd that Miller embraces ID-like investigation elsewhere in his book. In discussing investigative work after a burglary (oddly, a common example in explanations about ID), he notes that:

…every one of his actions leaves something behind…The simple fact is that we can learn about the past by applying good, old-fashioned detective work to the clues that have been left behind (p. 22-23).

Sure, but what’s good for the Evolutionary goose should be good for the ID gander.

Instead, later Miller tries to claim that:

By definition, design cannot be tested, cannot be disproven, cannot even be investigated. The arguments for design are entirely negative in nature… (p. 126)

Miller also has makes odd, theological claims about God as an ID’er.

This designer has been busy! And what a stickler for repetitive work!...each of these species bears no relation to the next, except in the mind of that unnamed designer whose motivation and imagination are beyond our ability to fathom.” (p. 97)

Again, Miller is unnecessarily supposing innumerable interventions by the ID’er. Beyond that, Miller seems to lack imagination, especially in picturing the Creator as Creative—as an artist producing all sorts of things, independent of “motivation” and incomprehensible imagination. Perhaps this is why Miller refers to God as a magician more than a Creator?

Even if we suppose the Creator has intervened often—and has been relatively busy in creating special species—this is certainly not a problem theologically (aside from a propensity toward deism). And Miller’s numbers don’t help his own case. He says that the ID’er would need to create a new species of elephant every 230,000 years. OK, I think He can handle that. Millions of insect species. OK, that’s one a month. God can probably work that into His schedule, especially if He transcends time (as Miller argues elsewhere).

All this said, Miller is still effective in undermining ID as an explanation. Chapter 5 is devoted to Michael Behe’s work—and his claim that Irreducible Complexity (IC) cannot be produced by evolution. Miller shoots down some/many of Behe’s most prominent examples. Still, this only reduces the extent to which IC is compelling or plausible.

Oddly, Miller complains that ID’ers can harm science:

If you believed Michael Behe’s assertion that biochemical machines were IC, you might never have bothered to check; and this is the real scientific danger of his ideas. (p. 149)

Yet, Miller also notes the many scientific efforts that have been spurred by ID and IC claims, damaging Behe’s thesis. So, what’s the problem? Why the drama? Is this one more of Miller’s “strategies”?

On the positive said, Miller also provides some tentative explanations on the development of the eye—the best I’ve read (p. 135-136). He speaks to the possibilities on the evolution of human language (p. 176-178). Disappointingly, he says nothing about the evolution of what is commonly called soul and spirit—aside from the bizarre claim (at least for a theist) that “our origins as individuals come entirely from the materials of life” (p. 250). Maybe the noteworthy omission was another one of Miller’s “strategies”?

Miller has damaged ID but for better or worse, like Evolution, it will be difficult to knock it out completely. The dance between deity design and natural mechanism will continue. Although it has its weaknesses, Miller’s work is a net gain for understanding and empathy, a welcome addition to the literature, and a book interested parties should read.


At January 17, 2009 at 10:14 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric, I'm glad you enjoyed Kenneth Miller's book. That book is the best defense of theistic evolution, and among the best critiques of ID, I have read.

Now it's been a while since I've read the book, so I don't have a clear memory of what Miller says. What I do remember is the following:

-- Miller does an excellent job of dismantling the examples of "irreducible complexity" offered by Michael Behe. More generally, Miller shows that ID fails as a cogent scientific explanation of the development of life, and he pulls apart critiques of evolution offered by ID theorists and creationists.

-- I also remember that Miller gives a detailed discussion of the compatibility of evolution with Christian theology. (One interesting point I specifically recall is his treatment of the argument against evolution that evolution is cruel because it relies on the mechanism of natural selection. If I recall, his answer to that is that evolution is no more cruel than nature is right now, so ID can't be an adequate explanation for evil in the natural world but evolution can be.)

I think one reason why I enjoyed reading Miller is that his beliefs regarding science and religion match my own; I accept evolution but I am a theist. As you point out, Miller does something very valuable—he demonstrates that supporting evolution does not (necessarily) mean attacking religion. Miller is, as I mentioned in your other thread, a Roman Catholic, and his presence in the group of scientists who are publicly defending evolution has increased the respect for religion among those scientists. I think he has succeeded in increasing the respect for science and evolution among at least some Christians. By the way, this is exactly what was missing from the Ben Stein movie—any mention of scientists like Miller who support evolution and are Christian. That was a primary reason I gave the movie a negative review.

As far as your critiques are concerned, I think you are correct that Miller fails to rule out the possibility of ID, and indeed that Miller constructs a straw-man argument by asserting that ID proponents claim that ID must account for everything. (In fact, some ID proponents seem to allow for little evolution while others seem to allow for a considerable amount of evolution.) I suspect that Miller only meant to show the sufficiency of evolution as an explanation of the development of life, and he only meant to show that ID is not necessary as an explanation for the development of life. In truth, that's all he needs to show, because if ID is not necessary (theologically or scientifically), and the existing examples of claimed evidence of ID (irreducible complexity) fall apart under critical scrutiny, than a reasonable person will conclude that ID is not worth further consideration. But you are correct, Miller does not—and cannot—disprove the possibility of ID.

But I think you're not so correct in saying that Miller overstates evolution as an adequate explanation of the development of life. Perhaps he does not succeed in convincing you that evolution is an adequate explanation; I might not have seen any weakness in Miller's case for evolution because I am already familiar with the case for evolution, and I already found it convincing when I read Miller. But I should stress that your view of evolution as a “story” that explains life is not how scientists view evolution. To scientists, evolution is a testable hypothesis. That is, evolution makes a variety of specific claims that can be tested. And indeed, evolution has passed these many tests. For example, you mention gaps in the fossil record. But at this late date, this is no longer an issue in paleontology, because some excellent fossil sequences have been found for various species. (One recent example is the sequence of fossils showing how whales evolved from terrestrial animals.)

At January 18, 2009 at 3:45 PM , Blogger Bryce Raley said...

On the topic of "Expelled" by Ben Stein, the movie would have been 3 hours instead of 90 minutes had he tried to include every opinion outside of pro intelligent design versus pro Darwin's-brand of evolution. Not to mention many of the scientists interviewed showed some uncertainty in their beliefs about evolution, but didn't dogmatically deny it. It seemed to me they believed this lack of certainty opened the door for an opposing view to be debated in our educational systems. Seems logical to me.

I still can't get over the fact that Dawkins and many others in the film are gobsmacked when asked "how did the universe originate?" They offer two or three theories (seeded by aliens) that take as much faith for me to believe as "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". There had to be a causeless cause-right?

At January 18, 2009 at 4:23 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

William, I agree with you on Miller's contribution to all of that. I'm not sure which of his arguments are novel or "the best out there". But he seems effective and it's really nice to have all of that in one place.

I try to discuss in one of the posts why some might be persuaded (or not) by the evidence they've come across, their worldviews, etc. It'd be nice-- a la Miller in many places-- to see more empathy in discussing differences on this topic.

My biggest beef with Miller, on this topic, is his gloss on how much we can know about scientific things historically. However impressive Evolution as History might be, I don't see the wisdom in making that more than it could possibly be.

At January 18, 2009 at 4:25 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I see what William is saying about Stein's work, but I think he sees his work as a direct rebuttal to Dawkins and his ilk. So, it's apples and oranges: Miller has done fine work in the middle; Stein and Dawkins are throwing punches at each other. Get Dawkins to stop and Stein's work becomes superfluous.

At January 18, 2009 at 6:09 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric, I can see your point—I accept evolution but I know there's a God who is active in our lives, and I know there's far more to the universe than the natural laws that evolution happens to follow. Your observation that Miller never addresses how or when the soul evolved captures this precisely. But Miller, you and I all agree on one critical point: the universe is God's creation; we're only debating how God chose to create it.

Bryce, I don't think the movie needed to be 3 hours long. It did need to be fair, and I don't think it was fair. Stein intended to make a movie that showed evolutionists as hostile to Christianity, and he omitted Miller not due to time constraints but because Miller would have destroyed his thesis.

By the way, Bryce, concerning Dawkins and the bit about aliens seeding the Earth with life—you should be aware that Dawkins does not believe this. He was asked to speculate on a scenario where ID could be true, and he gamely suggested aliens could have seeded life on Earth. But he doesn't believe this actually happened. Of course, it still is true that Dawkins and the other New Atheists don't have a good explanation of the origin of the universe (something that falls outside the reach of conventional science).

At January 18, 2009 at 7:43 PM , Blogger Bryce Raley said...

If anything, Steins movie showed how unfair ID is treated in Academia. He was pushing back. I believe that was his goal and he achieved it. He made a difference. Was it perfect? No.

If anyone is trying to bury this issue it was/and is mainstream academia. This same squelching of debate is happening with global warming. Very highly respected meteorologists are scared to speak up against global warming because they fear losing their jobs. One of our local weatherman recently spoke out against the mainstream belief in global warming as it's being sold to us. The founder of the weather channel has been another critic of global warming. I think we will see these men and women speaking out more and more, but they do fear being ostracized.

If Academia doesn't feel the need to portray both sides of the story why should Ben Stein show both sides of the story? Let's hear someone answer that question.

Millers book does sound like a very balanced thesis.

At January 19, 2009 at 8:35 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

One of my next (big) topics will be global warming. Stay tuned!

At January 19, 2009 at 9:26 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

Bryce, some years ago, I became interested in intelligent design, and I read seven or eight pro-ID books. I also read books arguing against ID, as well as books on evolution and other topics in biology. I honestly wanted to believe in ID, I gave it every chance. But it became clear to me that evolution and not ID is the correct explanation for the origin of species. Having gone through this, I now appreciate why it appears that the scientific community only presents one side of the story—for all practical purposes, there is only one side of the story.


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