Saturday, July 07, 2007

Book Review - Finding Darwin's God

I picked up Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God, when he came as the first speaker of the Difficult Dialogue series KU hosted last fall. However, it’s only now, nearly a full year later, that I’ve had the opportunity to pick it up and read it. Overall, I’ll say that it was a good read on several levels.

It’s conversational: Miller stays away from the majority of technical jargon and only dips into it in a few places. Instead, his tone is light, drawing from personal experiences he shares with the reader, such as describing his memorable summer in which he read classic literature (including Origin of Species) as an attempt to impress a young lady who found “reading serious books as a mark of ‘depth.’ (p 4)”

It’s well documented: Each chapter is littered with citations and notes for further information.

It’s (mostly) concise: Miller doesn’t spend forever, beating Creationist arguments into the ground, as he could be easily tempted to do.

The first chapter is primarily an introduction; setting the stage and pointing out that Darwin’s work is considered “dangerous.” The second introduces readers to the basics of evolution as well as some of the more compelling evidences for it, such as the clearly mapped out divergence of species of Rhizosolenia as well as humans.

The next three chapters are the ones that take the various forms of Creationism head on by showing how scientifically devoid they are. But what I find even more important is how Miller goes beyond this, and shows that each one is theologically flawed because they reduce the power of God. The three chapters each look at different views of what various forms of Creationism would say about the creator.

Young-Earth Creationism reduces God to the status of a “charlatan” by claiming that He intentionally misleads us with the appearance of old age, common descent, and evolution.

For the Old-Earth crowd (including ID proponents), it puts God’s interactions far in the past and relegates Him to becoming what he refers to as the “magician” in which God must magically *poof* new species into existence on occasion. But this would suggest that God didn’t get things right the first time (since most species went extinct). As Miller put it “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. (p 127)”

Lastly, the Irreducibly Complex cells of Behe turn God into a “mechanic” in which He “rolled up his sleeves, packed all of his sweat, craftsmanship, and biochemical skill into a single, ancient cell, and let things roll. (p 162)” In other words, God’s not around anymore.

So that takes us up through Chapter 5. Until this point, I found myself nodding in complete agreement with everything Miller had written.

Chapter 6 is where I started having problems.

This chapter, entitled the “Gods of Disbelief” echoes an argument of Miller’s that I’ve taken exception to before. Namely, Miller claims that the reason we have such a strong anti-evolution movement is because people like Dawkins, Dennet, William Provine, Gould, and others have hijacked the scientific notion of evolution and have fashioned it as a philosophical weapon against theists. In shock, theists react by trying to disarm their opponent of the weapon of evolution by discrediting it.

While I agree that many people that ascribe to Creationism do so because they fear the perceived atheistic and materialistic implications of Darwin’s theory, I think it’s wholly incorrect for Miller to say that they perceive these implications because Dawkins et al. draw the implications for them. In my experience, theists come up with these implications all by themselves!

My reading of Finding Darwin’s God took place on a trip down to Alabama to visit my grandmother. She’s a very kind woman at a ripe age of 77 who incessantly asked me if I needed anything to eat or drink even though I assured her that if I needed anything, I knew right where the refrigerator was located.

She’s also an extremely devout Christian who reads the Bible nightly and goes to Church several times a week.

So naturally me reading a book with the title Finding Darwin’s God prompted her to ask questions as well as to share her own views on the matter of evolution. For the most part, she accepts it: She accepts the age of the Earth and universe. She accepts that compounded mutations can account for the life we see on Earth.

Except for humans.

“I cannot believe that we came from monkeys,” she told me. Her reason? The notion that we came from something else begs the question of what we will become in the future. But the Bible doesn’t tell us the future isn’t any different. To her, life will continue on, with humans as they are now until the prophecies of Revelation.

This entire rejection comes with my grandmother having never even heard the name Dawkins or any of the other players in the Creationism controversy. And she isn’t alone. Many rejections hinge on arguments that I’ve yet to see an atheist use, such as claiming that if evolution is true, then how does even a metaphorical Adam and Eve work? If they don’t, then where did the sin come from that required Jesus to absolve?

Atheists rightly know, as does Miller, that attacking such soft spots will produce a reaction. In fact, it would cause many theists to make a hard choice very quickly and it’s not likely that many would come over to the side of evolution when forced that quickly. Instead, it would likely push them even further into the arms of Creationists. Thus, no intelligent atheist would want to make that argument.

So as I’ve pointed out before, while I can’t deny for an instant that atheists do use evolution against theists and that it doesn’t help the issue, even if they didn’t, theists would come up with their own reasons to reject evolution. No atheists required.

Thus, Chapter 6, while I agree with in part, seemed to be horribly overstated to me. But Chapter 7 got even worse. The idea of this chapter was to find a feasible way to avoid an entirely deterministic universe because if the universe were deterministic, it would rule out the need for a creator, as well as ruling out free will.

Miller’s solution? Quantum physics gives us the Uncertainty Principle, which says that we can’t know something’s position and momentum with infinite precision. If we get more accurate on one, we loose accuracy on the other. Although this indeterminacy only works on the level of sub atomic particles, that’s precisely what makes up our DNA. Even a tiny change in the property of a single electron can have macroscopic consequences. Thus, we can never fully know our universe and God still has some wiggle room.

My question is, “so what?” How many atheists are claiming (and how many theists are worrying) that we could ever come to understand the universe with infinite precision? And even if they were, why the need to discuss quantum mechanics? If you really wanted to show that we can’t ever get that infinite precision, all you have to do is point to Pi. It’s an infinite, non-repeating, irrational number that pops up all over the place. If we don’t know it to infinite precision, then anything it crops up in can’t be known to infinite precision either.

Either way, why does Miller feel the need to carve out a niche for God when he lambastes Creationists for doing the same thing with gaps? If God is all-powerful then what do the rules of the universe mean to him? He made them. He can break them.

So Chapter 7 ends up being a rather sketchy attempt to give legitimacy to a notion that I don’t see needed to be established in the first place.

Chapter 8 has its good points. In this chapter, Miller makes the argument that if religion is to survive as science fills in the gaps in our knowledge, it must stop living in the gaps. As Miller put it earlier, “science comes with a track record. (p 194)” And in terms of applicable, real world solutions to our material universe, so does Creationism.

Science, Miller points out, works wonderfully well for explaining the material universe in which we live. But, if religion keeps placing God in the gaps, then God will disappear as those gaps are filled as history has shown time and time again, that science will do.

Instead, religion must be rethought to fit with what science tells us about the universe. That way, as science grows, religion grows with it.

I agree with Miller on this point; If religion is to survive, that’s about the only option it has left. However, unlike Miller, I cannot find this theologically satisfying. It says to me that the religion is so nebulous, that no matter what science discovers, or doesn’t discover, it’s still ok with religion.

But that’s just my philosophical view. If it works for Miller and other theists, then best of luck to them.

Chapter 9 is pretty much a summary and tying up of loose ends. It doesn’t present much new material; No new science. No new theological revelations.

The best part of the chapter, which I think sums up Miller’s view of God and the situation quite nicely comes from a remembrance of a grad school class Miller was attending in which another student asked the instructor if it were proper for her to be teaching evolution and studying its mechanisms given the religious affiliation of the school.
She smiled. Obviously, it was not the first time she had faced the question. “If you deny evolution, then the sort of God you have in mind is a bit like the pool player who can sink fifteen balls in a row, but only by taking fifteen separate shots. My God plays the game a little differently. He walks up to the table, takes just one shot, and sinks all the balls. I ask you which pool player, which God, is more worthy of praise and worship?”
(p 284)
This is about the only theological point in which I find myself in strong agreement with Miller. If you truly wish to believe in a magnificent, intelligent creator, the ones that creationists provide, the charlatan, the magician, and the mechanic discussed in Chapters 3-6, don’t cut it. The greatest of all Gods would be the one which was able to set up the entire system in one go.

So what was my overall impression of this book? It was good. However, by the time I finished, I still felt unsatisfied. I’m familiar with the science and that Evolution has passed “from controversy into common sense (p 277)” in the scientific community. No quibbles there. What I came to this book looking for, is a comprehensive, cohesive, and convincing new take on theology.

Instead, I got a few minor theological points with which I agreed (religion must stop hiding in the gaps if it’s to survive and that the greater God is the one that can set it all up at once) and a few more (such as God working through quantum uncertainties) that seemed so nebulous and unsatisfying that I, let alone any fence-sitting Creationist, would not even adopt them as talking points.

So overall, it’s all well and good that Miller has made peace with Darwin’s God. However, until he can answer such theological objections as the one my grandmother poses, I don’t find that his book will be much help for anyone else.


Jack Krebs said...

Good essay, Jon.

Wayne said...

Thanks for the review. I have a feeling that I am in pretty close agreement with Miller, but it still seems like an interesting book.

As for your grandmother's objection, it's a simple matter of time scales. Everything in the Bible is "modern" in the geological and evolutionary senses, so there's no reason to assume that the events of Revelation are any more distant in the future as Adam and Eve are in the past. I'm not usually one of the "any day now" types, but compared to evolutionary timescales it's pretty much a choice between "any day" or "never".

Have you heard of John Polkinghorn? He says a lot of the same sort of things, although aside from a borrowed (and damaged) cassette tape in grad school I don't know a lot about him. I actually like the quantum uncertainty idea. Unlike Pi, which can be determined to arbitrary precision for a given calculation, there is no known mechanism to overcome quantum uncertainty.

Paul Decelles said...

Good essay. I was not impressed with the quantum uncertainty arguments either. Not because I know a lot about quantum mechanics(I don't by the way) but it just seems like the ready made solution that everyone jumps to try explain hard problems like consciousness, free will, the origin of life and how to make a really good cup of tea.

Daniel said...

I agree with Wayne with the quantum mechanics part. While digits of pi is something that can be determined by better precision, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics is an inherent feature of the theory. This seems to be not so well understood among general non-physicist scientists. I repeat, there are things that are determined but that we do not/ cannot know because of our limits. But there are things that we cannot know because the outcome is not determined in the first place. Combine this with the "butterfly effect". You have a definitely undetermined universe.

Paper Hand said...

Your grandmother's objection is certainly a new one to me! I usually hear objections surrounding the idea of a soul. Which is one that makes sense to me, as, when I was still religious, that was something that bothered me. When did the soul first show up? Where did it fit in with evolution?

Never heard anyone bring up the future before, though!

Paper Hand said...

Your grandmother's objection is certainly a new one to me! I usually hear objections surrounding the idea of a soul. Which is one that makes sense to me, as, when I was still religious, that was something that bothered me. When did the soul first show up? Where did it fit in with evolution?

Never heard anyone bring up the future before, though!

mhdueck said...

I realize that the last comments on this book were years ago, but I just read Miller's book because it was a choice for a book review in our daughter's biology class at university. First of all, I will question the prof on the choice of book - it is always suspect to me when an author tries to blend god and science and make it work. It seems like a desperate attempt to hold on to god, and readjust as necessary so as not to have to let go of the idea; unlike science that is ready to let go of an idea when new information has been discovered. Although I do admit that given a questioning mind, the premise of the book does give budding scientists an idea of the thinking out there. I hope that is the reason for the choice.

I think the most glaring error or omission in this book, and in your book review, is that the first edition of On the Origin of Species did not have "by the Creator" in the last paragraph of the book. We have David Quammen's Illustrated Edition, which uses the text from Darwin's first edition, so when I read that I was livid, thinking that Miller had added those words to his argument's benefit. Inconceivable! But what I found was that that phrase was added to future editions, from what I could glean from reading of this change, to pacify his religious wife and to take the edge off of the controversial information he was publishing. That seems to be Miller's trump card - see, Darwin did believe in god, at least after the first edition. He seems to leave this point out of his argument.

Your point about atheists being too aggressive in their opinions which send even doubters running back to the creationist camp, seems to be what Darwin's editors were also thinking. Soften the blow so that at least people will read the book. Perhaps their thinking will evolve.

I am amazed that the evolution/creation debate still brews. But believe me, I know. I live in a community where evolutionists are hell bound.

See you there.

PS Why are you an angry astronomer?

Jon Voisey said...

mhdueck: From my very first post in this blog:
In recent years, religious fundamentalists have been working to destroy any science that they find objectionable when compared to their religion. Currently, this is primarily in the attacks on evolution through the torjan horse of Intelligent Design. However, the anti-scientific movement has been growing. Censorship and villification of scientists has begun. It is with this in mind that I entitle this blog "Angry Astronomer", since this I find myself quite irate over this senseless attack on science.