Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Miller at KU part 4 - Reactions

While I thought Dr. Miller's talk at KU was excellent in most regards, the blogsphere was abuzz immediately afterwards, with PZ Myers calling Dr. Miller a creationist (which he later noted was the lowercase "c" variety) and many others making comments. I debated for some time over whether or not I should jump in the frey immediately, or if I should sit back awhile, listen to the talk again from the audio I linked to earlier, digest things a bit more, and then make a post concerning things.

Ultimately, I was very pleased with Dr. Miller's presentation. One of his main points that I agree very strongly with, is that science cannot support or refute supernatural causes like God. Therefore, any conclusions drawn from science on these subjects, whether it be from Intelligent Design "theorists" or from atheists like Dawkins and Dennet, are philosophical as opposed to scientific in nature and should be treated as such.

However, while I agree with the message, there's a few niggling details that I had problems with that I'd like to address. Since first seeing the talk nearly two weeks ago now, I've relistned to it twice and found that the majority of my critisizm comes from a single section of Dr. Miller's talk. To help address things, I've transcribed that portion of the talk and will post that now before I go any further:
"What's behind the back and forth, unending warfare that we see everywhere in this country and that we see exlemplified in the rising and ebbing tides of evolution and creation in a state like Kansas? Here's what I think is going on, and this is my contribution to the difficult elements of this dialogue:

We have a biological theory called evolution, which deals with the origin of species by material processes. Many people, Dawkins among them, Daniel Dennet, many others, draw a conclusion from evolutionary theory which is fundamentally anti-theistic; A philosophical interpretation that having a material origin for living things denies meaning and purpose to our lives and denies a diety.

Most recently, the last two months, two major books have come out that argue exactly this point: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural Phenomenon" by Daniel Dennet of Tufts University. Faced with such unremitting hostility to religion, and that's exactly what these books exemplify, I think the advocates of religion react, and they react in a predictable way; The "creation scientists" for example, decided "We've got to do something about this." Their solution, however, was to ignore this interpretation and go after evolution itself. So all of the arguments from the old creation science thing are designed to attack the validity of evolution, the logic being, "If we can just cut the knees out from under evolution, this interpretation will whither on the vine."

One of the reasons people in the scientific community immediately recognized Intelligent Design was just the same as creationism was when it came along, Intelligent Design sought to do exactly the same thing: To attack evolution in the hopes that this interpretation would go away.

The contribution and suggestion I would like to make to this dialogue is pretty simple and that is that people of faith are shootin' at the wrong target and that instead, what they should be shooting at is not evolution itself, which has turned out to be remarkably robust following 150 years of attacks upon it since the publication of "Origin of Species", it's still standing, but rather the anti-theistic interpretation of evolution. And that, I am convinced is ultimately the road to peace; the way in which these two disputatious groups can be brought together in states like Kansas and elsewhere in the United States, and this is the argument that I would like to make tonight.

So, for example, what we can draw from evolution, certainly, includes the anti-theistic interpretations that I mentioned, but it's also possible, and I think necessary, to draw a theistic interpretation of evolution, one that material origins of our and other species reveals meaning, purpose, and the diety; In short: That they are consistent with religion.

Now, the key question, that I think all of us have to face, regardless of our views about science and religion, is whether or not science carries us as deeply into the mystery of life as we truly wish to go. And that's a question I think everyone should grapple with. I would say that people of faith would argue that it does not; That science, as useful as it is, doesn't answer the ultimate questions of existance.

Now, this is not a rejection of science. I'm a scientist. I've devoted my life to science. I don't reject science, but I do think I recognize the limitations of science, and many other scientists do as well. And I would argue that an appreciation of the validity of this choice, you don't have to agree with it, you just simply have to say "That's a valid choice, I might not make it, but other people clearly do." is really the first step in making a genuine peace, between science and religion.
So now let's address what critisizms I had of this portion.

The first issue I took was that Dr. Miller implies that people abusing science to make anti-theistic arguments is the root of the problem and the cause of the attack on evolution. While I have no doubt that this is a contributing factor to the targeting of evolution, I feel to claim that it's a significant factor is simply not true.

The first reason I claim this is that the arguments creationism and Intelligent Design rest upon have all been around for far longer than Dawkins, Dennet, and others ever started using science to attack religion. Paley's "watchmaker" argument has been around since the late 1700's. This predates Darwin's "Origin of Species" by well over 50 years! Thus, such arguments were already in existance. Additionally, as soon as "Origin of Species" was published, it immediately fell under attack, before anyone had a chance to use it to turn against evolution. Just the mere act of publishing it make theists feel attacked.

Which leads me to my second point: Regardless of whether or not there is a true attack there will always be those that feel they are being attacked and respond in outrageous ways. My example for this is the imagined "War on Christmas". The idea that saying "Happy Holidays" is somehow an attack on Christianity is absurd, yet there are those that feel if you're not supporting religion, you're against it and thus percieve an attack where there is none.

So to restate this, whether or not some abuse science to attack religion seems beside the point to me. There are those that will always perceive themselves as being attacked if they aren't welcomed with open arms and respond by attacking their perceived agressor.

I've exchanged a few Emails with Dr. Miller and pointed this out, and he responded that, first off, he did not intend to imply that this was the sole or even the main reason that evolution was under attack. My response to this is that if he didn't mean to imply it, then perhaps it shouldn't have been the only "cause" that he mentioned in his talk. Dr. Miller also pointed out that even many Christians find the "War on Christmas" to be absurd and the ones espousing that garbage are few in number. My response was that those who don't, tend to be the strongest advocates of Intelligent Design and are far more numerous than he may think. But perhaps it's just a Kansas/Missouri thing since those are the only places where I've spent good amounts of time.

Regardless, I feel that saying that atheists misusing science is a significant contribution to the cause for creationism is wholly false.

My second and comparitively smaller issue was the use of the term "anti-theistic". When first attending the talk, I was busily taking notes (I had a total of 6 pages worth) and thus, had things filtered through the note taking process. As a result I managed to think that Dr. Miller had used the term as a noun ("anti-theist"). Many others in SOMA also got this impression.

However, after listening to the talk twice more, the noun form does not make an appearance. That being said though, anti-theistic is only marginally better. So what's my problem with the word use here?

My issue is the connotation assosciated with it. If someone is using "anti-theistic" arguments you can infer that the person is an anti-theist. If people actually took this word literally and only included people in that group that were actually in it (ie, those that actually attacked religion as opposed to the large majority of atheists who remain silent unless provoked), there would be no problem.

But last year, we in SOMA learned a valuable lesson on the connotations assosciated with emotionally charged terms like this. For those that don't know what I'm talking about, a professor at KU (Dr. Mirecki) was intending to offer a course on Intelligent Design that labeled it as a mythology. In a private Email to SOMA, Dr. Mirecki said (among many other non-offensive remarks) that the class would be a "slap in the face of big fat fundies". The listserve, however, had been joined by a conservative columnist (John Altvelgot) sent this Email to the press.

Immediately outrage grew over the term "fundie" in which many moderate Christians to whom the term does not apply, also decided to lump themselves into the fundamentalist grouping. The conflict grew with Senators threatening to cut funding for KU, and finally peaked with Dr. Mirecki being assaulted and beaten.

So what's the lesson we learn from this? When there's emotionally charged terms like "fundie" or "anti-theist(ic)", chances are that people will be put in that group that don't belong there and it becomes a shitstorm. This is especially true in Kansas where many of the less moderate Christians live in a bifurcated world that I've posted about before. The former leader of the school board once stated that science and religion were mutually exclusive and that people had to choose. Such people are unable to make the distinction between "anti-theists", who are outright hostile towards religion, and passive atheists. Additionally, many members of SOMA took the same idea on the opposite side, and even though most are not openly hostile towards religion, using scientific arguments against philosophical topics, they felt that they were being labeled and painted as the villians (being the implied root of creationism as I mentioned earlier).

But am I being overly cautious here? I don't think so. Only a few days after expressing these concerns to Dr. Miller in Email, a user joined the SOMA message boars proclaiming "Ken Miller trashes atheism", making sweeping generalizations based on Dr. Miller's words that truly applied to only those that were making the anti-theistic arguments. Thus, my fears are justified.

I find it more than a bit annoying that both sides try to make words mean more than they truly do, both the Christians who can't escape their black and white world, and the atheists that are so used to being attacked that they perceive this as another attack. However, the reality is that this does happen. A good speaker should recognize it and try to either explicitly define such words instead of leaving them to speak for themselves or use different words all together.

My only other quibble was Dr. Miller's joke (not in the transcribed section) about how, given that the materialistic interpretation "denies meaning and purpose to our lives", he can't imagine how Dawkins finds the drive to get out of bed. I'm relatively sure that this was meant as a joke, however, it didn't sit well with me or many other members of SOMA. The reason? The idea that not having a god to give our lives meaning means that atheists somehow have no drive or moral center is a strawman. And not even a good one. I'm pretty sure that Dr. Miller recognizes this and it was meant as a tongue in cheek comment. The problem is that, especially in Kansas, there's a very large amount of people that actually believe that crap! And having Dr. Miller repeat it, even as a joke, only reenforces it.

So what's my final conclusion on the talk? I still hold that it was absolutely fantastic. When taken objectively and literally with what he meant to say, I don't think there's much that I disagree with aside from the first point I made above. My main issues come from the realization that in places like Kansas, atheists get a bad wrap (members of SOMA have been asked if they worship Satan, eat babies, etc...). Dr. Miller's presentation I think unwittingly played to that. It's a shame that more people can't be objective and realize what Dr. Miller was truly saying, but that's reality. Thus, my main critisizm would be that Dr. Miller needs to realize his audience a bit better and put aside the notion that he's talking to scientists that actually follow logic.

After all; This is Kansas. They call it "pop" here. Can't they get anything right?

6 comments:

kawabago said...

I doubt you will ever succeed in convincing Intelligent Design proponents that they are misguided. Their position is that if the bible isn't one hundred percent true, how do they know what to believe? So they 'have to' believe the creation story or they have no faith. No amount of science will ever get over that wall. So instead, convince them that the bible doesn't have to be literally true for them to have faith. That will remove the wall and they could then accept evolution and the existence of God.

Galactic Chet said...

Thanks, Jon, for your objective criticism of Dr. Miller's talk but I need to state my objections, stongly.
Firstly: “atheist” should be “Atheist”. It is a proper noun. And, I am quite proud to be an Atheist (since 1970). I even put window stickers on my automobile that I am an Atheist and do not fear letting others know it.
Second: “My only other quibble was Dr. Miller's joke (not in the transcribed section) about how, given that the materialistic interpretation "denies meaning and purpose to our lives".
"OPUS" by Berkeley Breathed, Sunday, September 17 comics, stated it quite well: "Ah, Life's Meaning. Maybe it's not so much found...As it is...Made."
WE give ourselves our own "life's meaning and purpose" as no other species, as far as we know, on this planet Earth does or needs to. "Know yourself".
How, exactly, does a god give meaning to just Homo sapiens sapiens life? And, why is it just a male god (I'm not going to continue beyond "male")?
Thirdly: “One of his main points that I agree very strongly with, is that science cannot support or refute supernatural causes like God. Therefore, any conclusions drawn from science on these subjects, whether it be from Intelligent Design "theorists" or from atheists like Dawkins and Dennet, are philosophical as opposed to scientific in nature and should be treated as such.”
I do not agree with this nonsense. And, I do understand why you, Jon, agree with Dr. Miller.
However, there is no "supernatural" anything anywhwere. It is not exempt from scientific scrutiny, critical inquiry, or skepticism. The "supernatural", like religious creationism, is our species' own invention, creation, and pretend imagining. We have not had the opportunity, nor may never have, to compare philosophies with an extraterrestrial intelligent being from within our galaxy.
You and Dr Miller and all others can not get out of your own self-centered and arrogant attitudes that Homo sapiens sapiens are the only species on this planet worth a damn or consideration. Just because some can imagine, then worship, their own pretentious creations, i.e. imaginary gods/goddesses, does not put these "creations" beyond the scrutiny of science or critical inquiry. So, stop pretending.
Thank you.

Jesse said...

Jon
I think that you are generalizing too much and being a little simplistic. It's easy to compare "our best" with "their worst". Why don't you try getting inside the heads of ID proponents and understanding the best possible motivations that one could have (instead of confronting the ill-informed or shallow positions of the nescient).
I sense much fear in you... and fear is the path to the dark side... :)

TheBrummell said...

Nice review. It's refreshing to see some reasoned, thought-out writing on such a subject.

Personally, I would probably would have stood up and walked out right at the "...draw a conclusion from evolutionary theory which is fundamentally anti-theistic; A philosophical interpretation that having a material origin for living things denies meaning and purpose to our lives and denies a diety." part.

As you said, Atheism as a loss of meaning is a lame, stupid strawman, one that I'm particularly tired of hearing about.

Galactic Chet said...

Thanks, Jon, for your objective criticism of Dr. Miller's talk but I need to state my objections, stongly.
Firstly: “atheist” should be “Atheist”. It is a proper noun. And, I am quite proud to be an Atheist (since 1970). I even put window stickers on my automobile that I am an Atheist and do not fear letting others know it.
Second: “My only other quibble was Dr. Miller's joke (not in the transcribed section) about how, given that the materialistic interpretation "denies meaning and purpose to our lives".
"OPUS" by Berkeley Breathed, Sunday, September 17 comics, stated it quite well: "Ah, Life's Meaning. Maybe it's not so much found...As it is...Made."
WE give ourselves our own "life's meaning and purpose" as no other species, as far as we know, on this planet Earth does or needs to. "Know yourself".
How, exactly, does a god give meaning to just Homo sapiens sapiens life? And, why is it just a male god (I'm not going to continue beyond "male")?
Thirdly: “One of his main points that I agree very strongly with, is that science cannot support or refute supernatural causes like God. Therefore, any conclusions drawn from science on these subjects, whether it be from Intelligent Design "theorists" or from atheists like Dawkins and Dennet, are philosophical as opposed to scientific in nature and should be treated as such.”
I do not agree with this nonsense. And, I do understand why you, Jon, agree with Dr. Miller.
However, there is no "supernatural" anything anywhwere. It is not exempt from scientific scrutiny, critical inquiry, or skepticism. The "supernatural", like religious creationism, is our species' own invention, creation, and pretend imagining. We have not had the opportunity, nor may never have, to compare philosophies with an extraterrestrial intelligent being from within our galaxy.
You and Dr Miller and all others can not get out of your own self-centered and arrogant attitudes that Homo sapiens sapiens are the only species on this planet worth a damn or consideration. Just because some can imagine, then worship, their own pretentious creations, i.e. imaginary gods/goddesses, does not put these "creations" beyond the scrutiny of science or critical inquiry. So, stop pretending.
Thank you.

kawabago said...

I doubt you will ever succeed in convincing Intelligent Design proponents that they are misguided. Their position is that if the bible isn't one hundred percent true, how do they know what to believe? So they 'have to' believe the creation story or they have no faith. No amount of science will ever get over that wall. So instead, convince them that the bible doesn't have to be literally true for them to have faith. That will remove the wall and they could then accept evolution and the existence of God.