Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kenneth Miller's CNU Talk

Kenneth Miller of Brown University spoke on our campus yesterday. The topic was more-or-less the compatibility of science and faith and evolution vs. ID. I would say he talked mostly about evolution. He did speak some about his faith (he is a Christian—a practicing Catholic.)

First of all, I must say I was really impressed with the CNU students. They asked great questions.

Miller first presented a “workshop” which was really nothing more than a Q/A session. I asked him several questions, including what he thought of the Neville Chamberlain “appeaser” charges coming from people like PZ Myers. He laughed and said that he actually really likes PZ—but (his body language and expression suggested to me) found it mysterious and odd that PZ would call him so many things—he enumerated a few; it included the dreaded “creationist” tag. He then, for reasons unknown, asked how many people in the room had never heard of PZ Myers—and everyone except a couple of us professor types raised their hand.

Which does make a point—this cesspool of militant atheist science blogs is more or less preaching to a micro-choir. The students, the bulk of whom I discerned were very pro-evolution, had all heard of Dover, and Intelligent Design, and were aware of the evolution-creation controversy, and even very aware of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—but they didn’t know about PZ or his blog. That says something.

During Miller's talk I was struck, no doubt because of my frequent forays into ugly blog wars, by how civilized and accommodating educated people are when they meet face to face even if the topic is this controversial. Here is Miller—quite an accomplished scientist, speaking about faith and stating, point blank, “I am a Christian.” He spoke favorably—if not glowingly—about Francis Collins, mentioning that he was a committed evangelical Christian, had written a fantastic book, as that he was probably on some short lists for a Nobel Prize. (He also mentioned where he has friendly disagreements with Collins, especially about Collins’s testimony.) There was no acrimony from the audience—nobody stood up and said what some will say on the nastier science blogs, that you [Miller] and Collins are not real scientists. I think in person, when a man of such substantive scientific achievement is right there standing in front of you—well, not many are brazen enough to say: “you are not a real scientist” or “how do you deal with such levels cognitive dissonance?” No—it requires the mob mentality of the blogosphere to bring out such asinine behavior. In real life—at a minimum it would take an supremely arrogant person whose scientific achievements were at least comparable (if not better) to make such a claim. On the science blogs, the arrogance coupled with even scientific illiteracy is sufficient.

At one point Miller was asked about interpreting Genesis. He argued that he is surprised that he has to remind Protestants so often that the Reformation was fought over the right of having the scripture in the vernacular and the right of private interpretation. What he meant was: don’t criticize me for not taking a literal view—after all it was you guys who opened up the door. Well, I don’t criticize him for taking a non-literal view. Like some prominent church fathers (including Augustine,) I don’t take a literal view either. But his characterization of the Reformation was wrong on two fronts: one, the primary cause was not the right of private interpretation, but the Solas, i.e., Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. And two, the doctrine of private interpretation never meant that you are free, willy-nilly, to create your own interpretation. It meant you were free to examine the scriptures and reach conclusions—but that was to be done responsibly and not in a vacuum.

The most effective part of his presentation was arguing against the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum. Showing how the parts of the flagellum have other functions is a strong rebuttal. He followed that with a demonstration that Behe’s mousetrap was not irreducibly complex. I didn’t find that compelling—because it felt a bit contrived—and Behe used the mousetrap as an analogy; for his purposes it doesn’t have to be perfect, just reasonably illustrative. Miller’s examples of fish-amphibian transitional fossils, some of which were discovered after the Dover trial, were also quite fascinating.

In terms of his theology, he insists that he is not a theistic evolutionist, although he lamented that even his friends call him that. I would agree—the usual notion of theistic evolution is that God continues or at least could continue to intervene—as the Great Genetic Engineer. Also, a garden-variety theistic evolutionist would still insist that our species, as part of God’s plan, was inevitable. But Miller does not concede that—he concedes only that some big brain species was inevitable and that God could have used, say, big-brained dinosaurs instead of “hairless, bipedal primates.” I asked about this—something I have always argued concerning the NCSE is that they are too cavalier when they say the Catholic Church is OK with evolution. In particular, I asked him if it weren’t true that the Catholic Church is actually fine with classic theistic evolution—with man as the inevitable pinnacle thereof, and I think it is fair to say that he conceded that point (about Rome approving "classic" TE, not about the NCSE, which was not mentioned by either of us)—while also pointing out that he hasn’t been charged with heresy yet.

I would characterize his theology-science intersection, in as much as he presented it, close to benevolent deism. He has a nice, loving God—but not one that interacts with creation. His typical argument is “but that doesn’t mean God didn’t do it that way.” For example, when asked about the evolutionary explanation for universal morality, he said (I think I have this more or less correct) that the evolutionary explanation sounded plausible but was by no means demonstrated. And then he added—but that doesn’t mean that God didn’t intend for that to happen that way.

This theology, it seems to me, preserves God’s sovereignty to only the flimsiest of degrees. But I have the feeling that in his non-scientific life his view of God is much more traditional—and that, most importantly, he does indeed view Christ as the redeemer of lost men.

Miller said something that I have been saying for years: that as a theist he is, like all other theists, a believer in a small i, small d intelligent designer. I was impressed that he didn’t go on and on about how this doesn’t mean he is an IDer—he assumed that the students would grasp the distinction, and they did.

I must mention that I talked to Miller after the workshop, and the subject of blogs came up. He had mentioned that he gets it from “both sides.” I puffed up my chest and said: “me too.” I have been skewered on PZ’s blog (though not banned) and outright banned from Dembski’s blog. This led to a discussion about Dembski, where we both admitted that we can’t believe those infamous Dembski antics—the Jones animation, the Vice Strategy, publishing the names, addresses and phone numbers of the Baylor board, the Oklahoma lecture video incident, etc. Miller told the story of how they were waiting for Dembski to show up to be deposed for the Dover trial—and how only Dembski’s lawyer showed up—and said something along the lines of “Dr. Dembski has withdrawn. Good day gentlemen.” And that was that.

In his general presentation, Miller used Philip Johnson’s (he, the godfather of the ID movement) relatively recent quote:

"I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world" (Phillip Johnson, interview quoted in Berkeley Science Review)

The gasp and murmuring that the quote produced in the audience convinced me that this is a killer anti-ID PR bullet. The ID guys must wish that they could surgically remove that quote from the inter-webs the way they periodically cleanse UD of embarrassing posts.

All in all a great time was had by all. No matter what your opinion is of Miller or his views, it is undeniable that his intelligence, charm, breadth of knowledge, and humor make him a very entertaining lecturer.

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