Much of the
evolution is rooted
in the belief that
evolution, if it were
true, would be
Finding Darwin's God
|By Dr. William Thwaites|
Kenneth R. Miller. 1999, Cliff Street Books, (Hardback 338pp. $25.00; paperback 288pp $14.00)
It was through our shared interest in debating creationists that my former colleague, Frank Awbrey, and I first became aware of Kenneth Miller. We traded arguments and visual aids that each of us had used in countering claims made by creationists. All three of us spent countless hours in the library digging up and pinpointing creationist errors. Miller, however, had one advantage that neither Frank nor I possessed. He was able to look creationists in the eye and claim that evolution had done nothing to diminish his faith in God. Frank and I, on the other hand, had lost what faith in God we might have had at an early age. So Miller was a living disproof of Morris’ claim that acceptance of biological evolution leads inevitably to a loss of faith in God and from there to moral deprivation. Miller is also a master at explaining where creationists have gone scientifically wrong. In Finding Darwin’s God, Miller not only points out the errors of creationist thinking, he elaborately explains how his faith in the existence of God and the science of biological evolution are compatible.
Exceeding the limitations of natural science
When Charles Darwin provided an explanation for the modification of species, it seemed to many people that if new species were indeed formed by natural processes, there was no longer a role for God in the universe. More than a few in the scientific community have welcomed this line of reasoning with open arms. They have even extended the reasoning to another level. “If there is no need for God to create new species of organisms,” they conclude, “this shows that there is no God.” Taking the study of biological evolution to this level is termed “evolutionism” by creationists.
But God is a supernatural concept, and science deals exclusively with natural processes. Therefore it is logically impossible to reach supernatural conclusions from the study of natural science. Knowing this, religious people ought not be offended by the claims of scientists who say that biological evolution is evidence for the nonexistence of God. Scientists making such claims are voicing their personal opinions and not presenting scientific conclusions.
The only problem with this line of reasoning, as Miller points out, is that many religious people seem to accept the notion that natural science can indeed make supernatural claims. Creationists are the best known example of this belief. Typically creationists question the observations and reasoning of science, not the legitimacy of reaching supernatural conclusions from using the methods of natural science. Henry Morris, the founder of the Institute for Creation Science, is famous for claiming that all the facts of science, “properly interpreted,” point to supernatural creation. The very term, “Creation Science,” shows that Morris and his followers accept the idea of reaching supernatural conclusions by means of natural science.
When Richard Dawkins and other secular scientists suggest that evolution disproves God, not only is creationism perpetuated, the suggestion legitimizes the thought that natural science - i.e. “creation science” - can legitimately prove or disprove religious notions. Thus, according to Miller, overly zealous evolutionists are as responsible for the creationism-versus-science impasse as are the creationists.
Miller describes how in his life biological evolution has always seemed self-evident, and that his acceptance of evolution as good science has only strengthened his belief in God. Miller argues that this ready acceptance of both God and evolutionary science might be far more common if educators, both religious and secular, were to openly discuss the apparent conflicts between evolutionary science and religion. Neither side should have anything to fear, writes Miller, since a belief in God can be maintained regardless of past and future scientific discoveries.
Miller devotes approximately the first half of his book to debunking traditional creationist arguments. Years of study have gone into this refutation of scientific creationism and the text can serve as a handbook for would-be debaters of creationists. Miller’s analysis is also up to date. He carefully takes apart the arguments against evolution put forth by such latter-day creationists as Phillip Johnson and William Dembski. Neither Johnson nor Dembski is trained in science, but both men argue that unbiased science should be willing to consider supernatural suppositions as well as those grounded in naturalism.
Johnson, a lawyer by training and experience, is convinced that scientific theories should be like defendants in a criminal trial. According to Johnson’s understanding of science, raising sufficient doubt about the absolute truth of a scientific theory should be grounds for having that theory dismissed in the same way that a criminal defendant would be set free. In a court of law the defense attorney isn’t required to furnish a new defendant to replace the original. But in science it doesn’t work that way. You can’t overturn an old theory without furnishing a new one to take its place. And Johnson seemingly has no intention of providing a new logically coherent theory to take the place of evolution. For Johnson evolution is suspect because it is based on the unfounded presupposition that the origin of new species can be explained in terms of natural laws and processes.
Irreducibly complex systems
Another latter-day creationist is biochemist Michael Behe. Behe is trying to do something that I often tried to do. That something is to find a structure, probably at the molecular level, that could not have been developed from a simple accidental beginning and then progressed to its modern state of complexity through a series of simple modifications guided by natural selection. I spent twenty-five years looking for such a paradox. I wanted to find a puzzle that would baffle the best minds of biochemistry. I wanted to be the first secular scientist to expose such a logical inconsistency. Finding an apparent impossibility, such as Behe claims to have found, would have made me famous, perhaps even rich.
I never found such an enigma. Behe, on the other hand, claims he has found several. He says these systems are “irreducibly complex.” Irreducibly complex systems consist of several interrelated components, each of which has absolutely no useful function by itself, and taken together would have been far too complex to have occurred by chance alone. Miller takes each of Behe’s complex systems apart and postulates a function for every component. It would appear that Behe has been no more successful than I was at finding molecular enigmas.
Don’t get me wrong. If one wants to look for evidence that portions of life were consciously designed by natural or supernatural agent(s), Behe’s search through the archives of molecular structures would be as good a way as any to find evidence for such design. Yes, I think that Behe is on the right track. Finding an irreducibly complex system would surely suggest some sort of planning. The only problem is that so far Behe has failed to find such a system. And judging from my own lack of success, I doubt seriously that Behe will ever find one. Nevertheless, I do wish him well. It would be fun to contemplate its meaning if he ever actually found an irreducibly complex system.
Punctuated equilibrium put in perspective
I was pleased to find a little breath of fresh air starting on page 111 of Miller’s book. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge have written eloquently about evolution. Their writings, especially those of Gould, have done much to bring the reality and complexities of evolution to the general public. As an authority figure, Gould helps promote public awareness of the fact that evolutionary theory is as well founded as any theory in science, bar none.
At the same time, Gould’s and Eldredge’s writings about “punctuated equilibrium” and the “sudden appearance” of new species have given aid and comfort to creationists. Privately, many scientists have said that “punctuated equilibrium theory” is really nothing at all earthshaking, but has been made to appear momentous because of the hype it gets from its authors.
Publicly, however, most scientists have treated punctuated equilibrium about the same way that the emperor’s new clothes were dealt with - pretend that all is well and appear to accept the new theory as if it were an important advance in science.
Miller titles his discussion of punctuated equilibrium “On the Joys of Being Outrageous.” Punctuated equilibrium, he says, is hardly new, certainly not unexpected, and not an overthrow of Darwinism. The “sudden and abrupt appearances” it postulates are only sudden in the context of geologic time. The speed of the changes that it postulates is many times slower than what all out natural selection could produce. In short, punctuated equilibrium should not give aid and comfort to creationists. Only the rhetorical tricks used by the authors of punctuated equilibrium allow this to happen.
The second half of Finding Darwin’s God is a defense of Miller’s theological views.
God meant to make the universe unpredictable
I must admit that I had some trouble with this part of the book. It seemed to me that every facet of the explanation for Miller’s theism was thoroughly covered not just once, but several times over.
Some of Miller’s speculations about the nature of the universe postulate a conscious creation of physical constants that would promote the evolution of life, particularly intelligent life, that could appreciate the creator. This view is sometimes called the “anthropic principle” and is the reverse of the standard scientific interpretation that says that life is here because preexisting conditions, physical constants, etc. allowed its formation and subsequent evolution.
At the root of Miller’s reconciliation of religion with science, however, is the indeterminate aspect of quantum physics - the very “dice” that Einstein said God didn’t play with. Miller goes to some length to explain that subatomic or quantum randomness, at least under the right circumstances, can influence the outcome of macroscopic events in the real world of everyday existence.
I have to confess that before reading Finding Darwin’s God, I had been disturbed by the idea that some things might be truly and resolutely unpredictable. I rather liked the goal of working to understand and predict everything. To keep up the demand for research scientists, I had hoped that the day we understood everything wouldn’t arrive too soon. But as a theoretical goal I loved the idea of a deterministic universe.
Miller, in this respect, is an exact opposite. He loves the idea of an unpredictable universe made unpredictable by subatomic randomness. He claims that this unpredictability is a fundamental property of matter. Furthermore, Miller speculates that God made things this way so that He (God) could influence the world in subtle ways.
This is just perfect from Miller’s point of view. With the universe put together in this fashion, we are at once both responsible for our own choices and actions and also subject to the influence of God. In a strictly deterministic world, giving up drinking at the age of 40 would not be a personal triumph for the former problem drinker, but instead would be the inevitable outcome of a highly complex set of chemical reactions and physical trajectories. All conscious efforts to make tomorrow better would be like praying for unlike poles of magnets to attract each other. In a deterministic world, things happen because they have to happen. Free will is only an illusion born of complexity.
Still, I find it disappointing that a scientist can derive satisfaction from not being able to understand some part of nature. On the other hand, Miller’s book could serve as a valuable tool in the deescalation of the standoff between biological evolution and those who oppose it on religious grounds.
I also must confess that I have long been troubled by a God who, on one hand, wants to give us the freedom to do the wrong thing, but who nevertheless can’t quite let go completely of His (God’s) own creation. As I get it, God still wants the ability to make midcourse corrections if the need arises. But if He’s perfect, and understands everything, corrections shouldn’t be necessary.
There I go again. I have always had trouble with theistic concepts. Miller emphatically does not. Therein lies the strength and the utility of Finding Darwin’s God. Much of the opposition to teaching about evolution is rooted in the belief that somehow biological evolution, if it were true, would be incompatible with theism. The very existence of Kenneth Miller, however, disproves that incompatibility. Finding Darwin’s God lays out in great detail how compatibility can be achieved.
If we ever are going to be allowed to teach evolution in the public schools in the same way we teach about the rotation and sphericity of our planet, the idea that evolution and theism are opposites must be disposed of. Theism is not going to go away. People have fought and died to defend theistic beliefs. An avowedly atheistic government existed in the Soviet Union for the better part of a century, yet theism is alive and well in every part of the former Soviet Union. We must conclude that the road to progress lies in the demonstration that biological evolution is not a threat to theism.
Finding Darwin’s God shows the way to keep theism while wholeheartedly embracing the findings of biological and geologic science. Miller’s book should be required reading for every theologian, and every zealous secular scientist who thinks that evolution says something about the existence of God.
It will take more than one book
When I read Finding Darwin’s God, I tried to imagine what creationists would think of it. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. In the October 2000 issue of Back to Genesis, Henry Morris, Founder and President Emeritus of the Institute for Creation Research, writes of his thoughts regarding Miller’s book. The article entitled “Finding an Evolutionist’s God” is not particularly encouraging.
Morris finds it troubling that Miller professes a belief in God, but fails to mention the Lord Jesus Christ. Miller’s “god,” Morris claims, is the “great god of Chance.” Morris takes issue with Miller’s account of a debate they had some two decades ago. And Morris goes on to criticize the “intelligent design” school of thought as represented by Philip Johnson, Michael Behe and others. Clearly Morris was unmoved by Miller’s analysis. Morris, after all, finds fault with everyone who disagrees with his own analysis. Morris has devoted the bulk of his adult life to showing that evolution and theism are irreconcilable. One book to the contrary is not going to shake Morris’ absolutism.
There are, however, liberal Protestant and Catholic clergy who know that biological evolution makes good scientific sense. Unfortunately many fear that their congregations will desert them if they mention their acceptance of evolution, so they avoid the issue. It is my hope that such liberal clergy will read Miller’s book and offer its rationale to their congregations. With luck, public understanding that evolution is not a threat to theism will slowly spread to more fundamentalist churches.
It may take a long time, but I can imagine a day when biological evolution
is as widely accepted as is knowledge of the spherical and rotating celestial
body we live on. The transformation has to start somewhere. It could well
begin with Finding Darwin’s God.
Return to Archive Index