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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jerry Coyne on Science vs. Religion

Many people have written about the conflict between science and religion but most get it wrong, especially the apologists for religion. Jerry Coyne is an exception. I don't always agree with his views about evolution but when it comes to the conflict between science and religion he has hit the nail on the head.

Read his article in The New Republic—it's disguised as a review of Ken Miller's book Only a Theory and Karl Giberson's book Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution [Seeing and Believing].

Coyne exposes the fallacy of theistic evolution, a theme close to my own views [Theistic Evolution: The Fallacy of the Middle Ground], ... only Coyne says it so much better ...
True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.

The easiest way to harmonize science and religion is simply to re-define one so that it includes the other. We may claim, for example, that "God" is simply the name we give to the order and harmony of the universe, the laws of physics and chemistry, the beauty of nature, and so on. This is the naturalistic pantheism of Spinoza. Its most famous advocate was Einstein, often (and wrongly) described as believing in a personal God ...

But the big problem with this "reconciliation," in which science does not marry religion so much as digest it, is that it leaves out God completely--or at least the God of the monotheistic faiths, who has an interest in the universe. And this is unacceptable to most religious people. Look at the numbers: 90 percent of Americans believe in a personal God who interacts with the world, 79 percent believe in miracles, 75 percent in heaven, and 72 percent in the divinity of Jesus. In his first popular book, Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller attacked pantheism because it "dilutes religion to the point of meaninglessness." He was right.

A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas's board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take "religion" to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. After all, the goal is not to turn the faithful into liberal theologians, but to show them a way to align their actual beliefs with scientific truths. Theologians sometimes suggest a reconciliation by means of naturalistic deism, the idea that the creation of the universe--and perhaps the laws of physics--was the direct handiwork of a deity who then left things alone as they unfolded, never interfering in nature or history again. For the faithful, this has been even more problematic than pantheism: it not only denies miracles, virgin births, answered prayers, and the entire cosmological apparatus of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and much of Buddhism, but also raises the question of where God came from in the first place
I've met many "liberal theologians" who claim to believe in some version of "process theology"— a wishy-washy concept that, as Coyne correctly points out, is just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. The catch is that when you follow these so-called "liberal theologians" back to the safety of their church you'll find that they quickly revert to another form of religion altogether. The "sophisticated" version of Christianity that they proclaim in public is just a sham designed to make them look as though they accept science and all its implications.

The real value of Coyne's review is the dismantling of Ken Miller's version of theistic evolution. Miller, like most theists, wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to accept science and evolution but, at the same time, he wants to sneak God into the picture so that humans are special. This is a recognition of the fundamental conflict between science and religion; namely, that according to what we know about the natural world, humans are not special in any way and life does not have a purpose. There are very few believers who can stomach those ideas, hence their science and their religion are in conflict.
Miller opts for theology. Although his new book does not say how God ensured the arrival of Homo sapiens, Miller was more explicit in Finding Darwin's God. There he suggested that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics allows God to intervene at the level of atoms, influencing events on a larger scale:
"The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay."
In other words, God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they're invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God's micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.
Exactly. The difference between Ken Miller and Michael Behe is trivial compared to the difference between Ken Miller and Richard Dawkins. Coyne is not the only one who has trouble seeing why Behe isn't a theistic evolutionist and Miller isn't an intelligent design creationist.

Coyne has written a great article and you must read all of it. Here are two more teasers that I hope will entice you to learn more ...
Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.

Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God.

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence--the existence of religious scientists--is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.
Visit The Edge to see how otherwise intelligent men and women respond to Coyne's argument. Some of them make the kindergarten error of confusing disagreement with intolerance.


  1. "Miller brilliantly exposes ID for what it is: a farrago of theological assertions and discredited scientific claims designed to inveigle a religious view of life into the biology classroom." (Coyne)

    I believe you yourself agreed with Behe's edge of evolution claim, Dr. Moran:

    "Evolutionary biologists have no intention of refuting the 'tripleCCC' hypothesis. It's based on evolutionary biology and it is correct. If evolution requires the simultaneous occurrence of three separate mutations then it's never going to happen." (posted here)

    So it's not all unscientific washing of hogs.

    "In a devastating dismantling of ID, he takes the 'scientific' claims of ID seriously and follows them to their illogical conclusion. In clear and lively prose, Miller shows that complex biochemical pathways are cobbled together from primitive precursor proteins that once had other functions but were co-opted for new uses." (Coyne)

    This is a pet peeve of mine, I read this and believed it, until I read Behe's description and analysis. One example, Miller's diagram of blood clotting is a simple Y, so easy to generate!

    Then Behe talks about Doolittle's suggestion of gene shuffling, with the results Coyne ascribes to Miller.

    "Yes, the average complexity of all species has increased over the three-and-a-half billion years of evolution, but that is because life started out as a simple replicating molecule..."

    We were speaking of unwarranted assertions? Abiogenesis is not a demonstrated concept.


  2. The responses at The Edge were mostly disappointing. I'm not even clear what Lisa Randall meant by here response. Several of the responses seem to espouse the NOMA stance which Coyne addressed in his review; I have to wonder if those people even finished Coyne's lengthy article before submitting their responses. I found Dennett's response most interesting and thought-provoking.

  3. A very interesting article by Prof. Coyne. However, I would have to take issue with his contention that the development of large brains and concomitant intelligence is purely an accident.

    The evidence that there is a selection advantage to large brains, particularly large brains relative to body size is strongly indicated in the fossil record.

    1. The Cretaceous dinosaurs had larger encephalization factors then did their Jurassic antecedents. In fact, paleontologist Dale Russell has opined that, had the asteroid collision 65 million years ago not occurred, Trodons might have evolved into large brained intelligent birds.

    2. Todays' mammals have greater encephalization factors then did mammals of 50 million years ago.

    3. The development of Homo Sapiens indicates a succession of increasing encephalization. Thus Homo Habilis had larger brains the Australiopicus; Homo Erectus had larger brains then Homo Habilis; Homo Neanderthalis and Homo Sapiens had larger brains then Homo Erectus.

  4. Exactly. The difference between Ken Miller and Michael Behe is trivial compared to the difference between Ken Miller and Richard Dawkins. Coyne is not the only one who has trouble seeing why Behe isn't a theistic evolutionist and Miller isn't an intelligent design creationist.

    I would agree that it's trivial to the degree that neither Behe nor Miller are materialists, and Dawkins is.

    However, what is not trivial is that Behe like all ID proponents believes the government should be called upon to force public schools to teach bad philosophy in the science classroom. Miller does not nor does Dawkins.

    Not all scientists who are non-theist are necessarily materialists to the degree that Dawkins is, and there I think is one reason why so many scientists have no problem "getting along" with colleagues who are theists (or platonists for that matter).

  5. A huge difference between Behe and Miller is that the former is in league with creationists. Whatever is going through Miller's head is not a great concern of mine, but that he stands up for science as practiced, and for the teaching of science, is extremely important.

    Miller does suggest that god may act very subtly, however he also brings up the possibility that god simply favors the freedom of unguided evolution. More to the point, however, he considers his writings which discuss religion and science possibly impacting each other to be addressed to believers, and not to be arguments for god or for god working in the world for anyone "lacking faith."

    So again, the practical difference between Miller and Behe is enormous, for Behe is out to "use science" to show that god exists and acts in this world (his claim in DBB that non-believers do not have to attribute all of this "design" to god is one long sneer at principled scientific skepticism).

    I will have to say here that I haven't read Miller's latest book, so, if he has changed his tune, I am unaware of that fact. I speak only to what he wrote previously.

    I am not much impressed with Miller's apologetics. But where it matters to me, with respect to the integrity of biology, Miller is quite solid. He is less solid with respect to cosmological ID (there he's still addressing "believers," but his "arguments" are the same poor ones of other cosmological IDists, so his distinction of "addressing believers" appears not to embody any real difference), but anyone intelligent (obviously not including the great majority of IDists) should see that he has little to no authority with respect to that.

    So while I would fault him with regard to cosmological ID, I have little quarrel with him with respect to biology. Any superficial "agreement" he has with Behe involves the fact that Miller at least tentatively has hopes of saving god by burying him in the margin of uncertainty, while Behe insists that questions and uncertainty mean that we must resort to god as a default.

    Miller, by contrast, recognizes all that non-teleological evolutionary theory answers (which Behe pointedly ignores, other than stupidly assuming that guided and unguided evolution would look the same), and does not assume that remaining questions automatically default to god as the answer (though he weasels a bit in select areas). It's not a perfect scorecard for Miller, but he is far closer to Dawkins with respect to the practices of doing and of teaching science than Behe is.

    Glen Davidson