Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Finding Darwin's God VIII

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 VPart VI, Part VII

In chapter eight, titled "The Road Back Home," Miller discusses some of the implications of the findings of science on a religious person's faith in God.  Or, to put it another way, he goes into a theological discussion of what kind of God can be seen as compatible with the findings of modern science.  In short, his answer is that the findings of modern science do not at all contradict the traditional God of the western monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).  This chapter seems to be a catch-all chapter for discussing some of the religious objections to evolution.

First, he lays out three foundational beliefs about God shared by all three western monotheistic religions. These are: 1) the primacy of God in the universe, 2) we exist as the direct result of God's will, and 3) God has revealed himself to us.

Miller then walks the reader through some of the findings of modern science to demonstrate that science does not contradict these core beliefs of theists.  He begins with the scientific findings that the universe did in fact have a beginning.  If the universe had no beginning, then perhaps the view of God as creator would become untenable.  Yet, the universe did have a beginning in the so-called big bang, and science has discovered when it was.

Next, Miller discusses what has been called the anthropic principle.  In short, the anthropic principle states that the universe, and specifically a few constants (constant physical forces) in the universe: gravity, strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism, for example, make possible the development of life.  If any one of these constants were just slightly higher or lower, then life would not be possible.  Miller, quoting Stephen Hawking, writes: "'If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million it would have recollapsed before it reached its present size.' Conversely, if g were smaller, the dust from the big bang would just have continued to expand, never coalescing into galaxies, stars, planets, or us" (227-228).

Miller notes that these constants by no means prove the existence of God, they also speak to how wonderfully hospitable this universe is to life, such that even strong atheists, such as Daniel Dennet note the danger of the anthropic principle.  Miller quotes Dennet as follows:
Believers in any of the proposed strong versions of the Anthropic Principle think they can deduce something wonderful and surprising from the fact the we conscious observers are here--for instance, that in some sense the universe exists for us, or that perhaps we exist so that the universe as a whole can exist, ore even that God created the universe the way He did so that we would be possible (228).
 The next issue that Miller tackles is the notion of luck or chance.  Many religionists object to evolution on the ground that, they say, God would not have left creation to chance, as evolution holds.  Yes, Miller concedes, evolution does rely on chance, especially in the appearance of mutations.  Yet, for him, the existence of chance in no way nullifies the existence of God.  Miller compares evolutionary chance to historical chance.  If chance can play a part in history, determining the rise and fall of human empires and the like, then of course it can play a part in evolution.  Neither discounts the existence of God.  Moreover, without the element of chance, there can be no free will, no free creatures, and no true love of God.

Miller moves on to discussing the role of God in a self-sufficient universe as described by modern science.  First of all, Miller does not discount miracles.  He claims no philosophical worldview that would deny the possibility of miracles.  That said, he says that natural phenomena have natural, scientific explanations. Miller also claims that God can be seen at work through natural, scientific phenomena. For example, he explains that the very existence of the universe cannot be explained through science alone.  God, according to Miller is responsible for the existence of the universe.

In short sections, Miller refutes the idea that God would not have taken so long to get to his crowning achievement, humans; and the idea that evolution is too cruel to be the process by which humans were created.  His refutation of the first is simply that God is patient and not bound by time as humans are.  His answer to the second is twofold.  First, cruelty is relative and nature can be seen as cruel, or beautiful.  Second, the real surprise in life is not that nature can be cruel, but that something like altruism exists at all.

In the end, I found this the weakest chapter in the book so far.  There are some great insights in this chapter, but as a whole, the organization was a little weak and slipshod.  Some of Miller's generalizations about religion were not nuanced enough.  In the end though, Miller does present plausible reasons why evolution need not be a threat to traditional belief in God.




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). 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Finding Darwin's God III

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 I, Part II

In chapter 3, titled "God the Charlatan," Miller takes on those who would reject much of modern science that apparently contradicts the Bible. He labels these opponents of science "Young Earth Creationists" or YECs for short. 

Most of the chapter deals with the age of the earth.  YECs claim that the earth is young, less than 10,000 years or so. Miller argues for an old earth based on the findings of geologists.  He, though not himself a geologist, lays out the basic reasoning that geologists use to estimate that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.  The strongest and most consistent method for dating the earth is a process called radiometric dating. While not belaboring the point (since I am in no way a geologist), the basics of radiometric dating are as follows: there are certain radioactive isotopes such as Carbon 14, Uranium 235, Potassium 40, and Rubidium 87 (among others) that are unstable and decay into other stable elements at a constant rate. A half life is the time that it takes for half of the unstable "parent" element to decay into its stable "daughter" element.  Because this rate is constant, this acts like a radioactive stopwatch that can accurately measure the time of the formation of that rock that contains the parent and daughter elements.  With half lives of up to 48 billion years, this method has been able to on numerous occasions date the formation of the earth to approximately 4.5 billion years old. 

YECs have had some quick comebacks and objections to this method of dating the earth, such as noting the assumptions that are present (e.g., the original chemical composition of the rock, the assumption of a constant rate of decay). Yet, Miller notes that even the YECs are admitting the accuracy of the method.  Miller quotes from the book The Genesis Flood, a YEC book, as follows: 
We reply, however, that the Biblical outline of earth history, with the geologic framework provided thereby, would lead us to postulate exactly this state of the radioactivity evidence.  We would expect radiogenic minerals to indicate very large ages and we would expect different elements in the same mineral, or different minerals in the same formation to agree with each other (p. 77).
Basically, the YECs do not deny the evidence, they just have a different explanation.  Basically, they argue that God created the earth ~10,000 years ago with "apparent age." In short, God created the earth to look 4.5 billion years old when in fact it was quite young. This reasoning holds for stars as well, that read as being billions of light years away.  The light from these stars did not in fact travel for billions of years, but instead, the light was created as already on its way. This is what has lead Miller to title this chapter "God the Charlatan." Here we get into theology.  If God created the world to look old, even if it is in fact quite young, then God is a liar, a cheat, and a fraud.  By trying to defend YEC, the YECs have in fact said profound and disturbing things about God. Miller ends his chapter this way:
What saddens me is the view of the creator that many people find what they believe to be divine revelation preferable to scientific knowledge. In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, they have had to make Him into a schemer, a trickster, even a charlatan.  Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues beneath out feet and in the heavens themselves (p. 80).

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Finding Darwin's God II

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 I

In Chapter 2, after stating that his stance as a believer in the scientific field places him outside of the norm, Miller sets out to discuss what science can investigate and how is can be investigated. He is responding to the following critique:
There is a school of thought that rejects the very idea that any theory about the past can be scientific.  Science, the argument goes, is based on experiment and direct, testable observation... Since there were no human witnesses to the earth's past, the argument goes, all statements about that past, including evolution, are pure speculation (emphasis original, p. 22). 
Miller answers this critique giving several examples of how science can investigate events that the scientist did not directly witness.  The first is that of forensic science.  The police do not have to witness a crime to scientifically investigate a crime scene and find scientific evidence that can lead to an arrest and conviction.  The second is the investigation of the sun.  No human has ever been to the sun and directly observed it in a laboratory.  Yet, one can investigate the effects of the sun and make scientific conclusions, such as the elemental makeup of the sun. His third example is somewhat whimsical, but deals with pop-top beer cans produced between 1962-1975.  These pop-tops can be found in trash deposits.  They are evidence left over from the past.  This leads to Miller's last example, which is that the past has left literally mountains of evidence buried in the earth.  It is this evidence that science can investigate and led scientists in the 19th century to conclusions that ended with Darwin's theory of evolution.

Miller wraps up chapter two by discussing the creative power of evolution.  He points out clear examples of evolution in the modern world such as the evolution of bacteria to become resistant to certain antibiotics.  He notes that scientists can actually witness this evolution in process because of the high reproduction rates of bacteria.  He also notes that scientists are beginning to use evolution in their research to create organisms with certain characteristics.  Evolution and natural selection, Miller contends, is a fantastic and creative tool that can bring phenomenal change in living organisms.

Miller concludes his chapter with the following quote:
It is high time that we grew up and left the Garden.  We are indeed Eden's children, yet it is time to place Genesis alongside the geocentric myth in the basket of stories that once, in a world of intellectual naivete, made helpful sense.  As we walk through the gates, aware of the dazzling richness of the genuine biological world, there might even be a smile on the Creator's face--that at long last His creatures have learned enough to understand His world as it truly is (p. 56).