Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Finding Darwin's God VII


Miller, Ken. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN: 978-0061233500.

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V, Part VI
In chapter seven, titled “Beyond Materialism,” Miller questions whether materialism spells the end of God.  First, he notes, that with the increasing knowledge of humans, which got dramatic boost with the rise of modern science, the place of gods and goddesses in the universe began to shrink. Miller puts it this way:
Then something happened. Something wonderful. A few of our ancestors began to learn the rules by which nature worked, and after a while, we no longer needed Apollo to pull the sun’s chariot across the sky.  We no longer needed Ceres to waken seeds from winter sleep. The movements of the sun and moon became part of a mechanism, a celestial machine in which each motion could be calculated and explained (p. 193).
Thus began the retreat of the gods in the natural world, and it has not stopped.  Science has continually filled gaps in human understanding of nature and the gods have lost their everyday role.  This situation naturally led to Deism, the idea that God was the great architect who designed the natural world.  Or, to use another more common view, God was the master watchmaker who constructed the natural world and its natural laws, then wound up the clock and let it go. Yet, Miller notes, Deism failed on two counts.  First, it failed because it did not line up with the view of God in the great western religions which views God as personal and involved in the world. The Deistic watchmaker has no interaction with the natural world on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps more significantly, Deism did not line up with the progression of scientific knowledge.  Deism might have persisted if scientific knowledge ended with a Newtonian universe of cause and effect dictated by concrete unbreakable laws.  Yet, science did progress, putting an end to the Newtonian, deterministic universe.  Enter quantum physics.

Max Planck, a German physicist, came up with quantum theory in the early 1900s.  Without getting too deep into the science, which frankly is beyond me, he theorized that light, which we knew behaved like a wave, also behaved like a particle.  He came up with a unit of light called a photon. Others noticed that these photons of light behaved rather strangely. These subatomic particles of light do not always behave according to fixed physical laws in a Newtonian way such that we can absolutely predict the results.  For example, Miller explains, a common household mirror reflects about 95% of the light hitting it. The other 5% passes right through the mirror.  The strange behavior of the photons occurs in that it is completely unpredictable which 5% of the photons will be reflected and which will pass through. Miller writes,
If we rig up an experiment in which we fire a single photon at our mirror, we cannot predict in advance what will happen, no matter how precise our knowledge of the system might be. Most of the time, that photon is going to come bouncing off; but one time out of twenty, on average, it’s going to go right through the mirror.  There is nothing we can do, not even in principle, to figure out when that one chance in twenty is going to come up.  It means that the outcome of each individual experiment is unpredictable in principle (p. 200). 
Take this further, and Werner Heisenberg came up which his “uncertainty principle,” in which he stated that the nature of subatomic particles is inherently unpredictable. What is the upshot of these developments in quantum physics, according to Miller?  It is that the universe is not a deterministic physical system that obeys physical laws in a Newtonian fashion.  Yes, on the macro level, this quantum indeterminacy behaves according to statistical averages, which allows scientific predictions on a large scale. This is why science works, and why the physical world largely behaves according to physical laws.  Yet, at its core, the system has a built-in uncertainty.  According to Miller, it is this quantum indeterminacy that allows for true freedom and frees us from a deterministic physical system. It frees us from a Deistic god who designs and winds up the watch and then leaves it to its own devices.  It leaves room for the workings of God in the world, while not impinging on a self-sufficient material universe.  Miller ends his chapter this way:
But the tools of science itself have discovered that scientific materialism has a curious, inherent limitation.  And we certainly left to wonder what to make of that.  It could be just a puzzling, curious fact about the nature of the universe.  Or it could be the clue that allows us to bind everything, including evolution, into a worldview in which science and religion are partners, not rivals, in extending human understanding a step beyond the bounds of mere materialism (219).

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Finding Darwin's God VI

Miller, Ken. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN: 978-0061233500.

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, Part V

In chapter six, entitled “The Gods of Disbelief,” Miller takes on several interlocutors at once with regard to a philosophical outlook called materialism.  Materialism is the philosophical outlook that says that the material/physical universe is all that exists.  If materialism is the correct philosophical outlook, then perhaps there truly is no room for God.  Miller does not take this stance, but instead, looks to question it. 

Materialism is the outlook taken by most of Miller’s opponents in this chapter such as biologists Richard Dawkins and William Provine, Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, Geneticist Richard Lewontin, and Philosopher Daniel Dennet, among others.  In their view, Darwinian evolution is the death knell of the antiquated notion of God.  Since they subscribe to philosophical materialism, and the material universe is all that exists, then there is no longer any place for God since science and evolution by natural selection have been able to explain the material causes of the universe, and even of life itself. There is no place left for a God if all things can be explained through natural cause and effect. 

It is this extreme view, taken by some evolutionary biologists and other scientists, that Miller believes is at the heart of Christian opposition to evolution.  It is not lack of education about the processes of evolution and its lack of explanatory power that accounts for opposition to Darwinism, rather, it is the militantly anti-religious nature of some of the proponents of evolution.  Believers are led to believe that an acceptance of Darwinian evolution necessarily entails a rejection of God.  Yet Miller questions this assumption.  He states that it is an unprovable assumption that lies at the heart of philosophical materialism, namely, that the material world is all there is.  By making this assumption, Dawkins, Dennet, Wilson et. al., have wandered away from science into philosophy. In the same way, religious reactionaries have also fallen into the same assumption, assuming that if Darwinian evolution is true, then philosophical materialism must also be true.  Yet miller questions this assumption.  He claims that there is no necessary logical connection between being able to explain the natural world through science and making the philosophical leap to proclaiming that the natural world is all that there is.  He will set out to question materialism in chapter seven.  Stay tuned. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Finding Darwin's God V

Miller, Ken. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN: 978-0061233500.

Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV

In Chapter five, titled "God the Mechanic," Miller takes on Michael Behe, a proponent of intelligent design.  Behe is a biochemist, and the first of Miller's interlocutors that can claim to be an expert in a relevant scientific discipline.  Behe is known for his term "irreducible complexity."  By this term, Behe means that there are certain aspects of biological life that are "irreducibly complex," such that evolution and natural selection are not sufficient as to account for their existence. Specifically, as a cell biologist, Behe claims that the complex structure and machinery of the cell are irreducibly complex, such that if you take away one part the complex, multi-part machine, the entire cell does not work.  Evolution and natural selection, according to Behe, cannot account for the simultaneous coming together of all of the separate yet needed parts of the irreducibly complex machine.  Now it should be said, that, as a biochemist, Behe subscribes to most of the processes of evolution and long history of the universe and the earth.  It is only at the point of the irreducibly complex biochemical systems that Behe sees the need for a designer.

Therefore, Behe argues, one must posit a designer for these irreducibly complex biological machines. Miller seems a little underwhelmed by Behe's argument and calls it merely the same old argument from design, dusted off and repackaged with the language of cellular biology. It is the same argument made by William Paley, the eighteenth century clergyman, who came up with the analogy of the watchmaker. Paley argued a watch demonstrates design, so there must be a designer.  In the same way, biological life demonstrates design, therefore there must be an intelligent designer.

Miller attempts to deconstruct Behe's arguments for irreducibly complex machines by demonstrating that each example given by Behe has been definitively shown to be evolved through natural selection from less complex machines.  For example, Miller points out that scientists have been able to demonstrate more simple versions of the cellular cilium and the process of coagulation of blood. Basically, scientists have shown that supposedly irreducibly complex biological machines can be formed by borrowing parts from other working machines.  The machines become more and more complex over time, but each small change that creates an advantage are selected for by natural selection.

In the end, Miller labels Behe's God the mechanic, who at one point in the distant past created all of the irreducibly complex cellular machines.  Miller quotes the following from Behe:
Suppose that nearly four billion years ago the designer made the first cell, already containing all of the irreducibly complex biochemical systems discussed here and many others. (One can postulate that the designs for systems that were to be used later, such as blood clotting, were present but not "turned on." In present-day organisms plenty of genes are turned off for a while, sometimes for generations, to be turned on at a later time.) (p. 162). 
This argument, of God the mechanic of complex machines billions of years ago, is, according to Miller, the final blow to Behe's hypothesis.  Miller states the problem with this hypothesis as follows:
If we choose to give Behe's theory serious consideration, if we treat it as a scientific hypothesis, then we are obliged to ask what would happen to those preformed genes during the billions of years that follow? As any student of biology will tell you, because those genes are not expressed, natural selection would not be able to weed out genetic mistakes.  Mutations would accumulate in these genes at breathtaking rates, rendering them hopelessly changed and inoperative hundreds of millions of years before Behe says that thy will be needed (p. 162). 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Finding Darwin's God IV

Miller, Ken. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution.New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN: 978-0061233500.

Part IPart II, Part III

In Chapter four, titled "God the Magician," Miller takes as his main interlocutor Berkeley Law Professor Phillip Johnson who wrote the book Darwin on Trial.  Johnson, building on his trade as a lawyer, attempts to create in his reader a "shadow of a doubt" as to the veracity of the science of evolution. In order to create this "shadow of a doubt," Johnson exploits a mid-20th century intra-scientific debate that took place among community of evolutionary biologist: namely, the debate between punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism.

Though the two sides of this debate use the highly technical terms "phyletic gradualism" and "punctuated equilibrium," the concepts are actually quite simple. Phyletic gradualism is essentially the original Darwinian idea that species would develop gradually over millions of years. In this case the fossil record should demonstrate a number of gradual changes in form as species develop. Yet, this, apparently is not what the fossil record shows.  Enter Stephen J. Gould, Niles Eldredge, and punctuated equilibrium.  Gould and Eldredge, both evolutionary biologists, shook up the scientific community in the 1970s with their theory of punctuated equilibrium.  By closely examining the fossil record, Gould and Eldredge argued that what the fossils actually show is a punctuated speciation event in a geological instant followed by long geological periods of stability among species. Just like that, Gould and Eldredge had overturned over a century of scientific wisdom about the evolution of life on planet earth.

Phillip Johnson jumped on this apparent instability in the scientific community regarding evolution and used it to write his book to cast doubt on the theory of evolution.  He noted that punctuated equilibrium does not support Darwin's original theory at all. Instead, it lines up more closely with a biblical view of instantaneous appearances of new species on earth, with God as their creator, creating each species according to its own kind (Genesis 6:20). God, in this scenario, is the magician invoked to account for this apparent instantaneous creation of each new species according to their kinds.

Miller spends the rest of chapter four dispelling the misuse of punctuated equilibrium by Johnson and others to cast doubt on Darwinian evolution.  A key to his argument is the discussion of the phrase "geological instant." Miller notes that a "geological instant" is not really an instant.  In the long course of the 4.5 billion year geological history of the earth, an "instant" is actually quite a long time, millions of years in fact.  Miller points out that what Gould and Eldredge refer to as instantaneous speciation events actually cover millions of years of evolution.  Gould and Eldredge were of course supporters of evolution.  They simply demonstrated that, relatively speaking, evolution and the change of species actually happens quite quickly on the geological timescale and then species are stable for longer periods of time. Yet, they still evolved, they still shared common ancestors.

Miller's biggest problem with Johnson and others like him is not just that they are wrong in their understanding of evolution and science, but rather, the theological implications of their interpretations of the evidence.  Namely, if Johnson is correct, and each new species is created instantaneously and magically by God, then what does that say about God.  Specifically, since the fossil record demonstrates that most of the species that have ever lived on this planet have gone extinct, then God must not be a very good designer.  He had to create each species magically, only to have most of them become extinct. What kind of a God creates like that? Miller asks.

Miller ends his chapter this way:
Intelligent design advocates have to account for patterns in the designer's work that clearly give the appearance of evolution.  Is the designer being deceptive? Is there a reason why he can't get it right the first time? Is the designer, despite all his powers, a slow learner? He must be clever enough to design an African elephant, but apparently not so clever that he can do it the first time. Therefore we find the fossils of a couple dozen extinct almost-elephants over the last few million years.  What are these failed experiments, and why does this master designer need to drive so many of his masterpieces to extinction? (p. 127).