Losing Miller’s God

On April 8, 2009, I went to the College of St. Catherine, a Roman Catholic university in St. Paul, to attend a presentation by evolutionary biologist Kenneth R. Miller.  The lecture was entitled “Finding Darwin’s God,” after his book by the same name, which came out about ten years ago.

I remember reading Finding Darwin’s God awhile back.  The first half of the book was an excellent defense of evolution and critique of creationism.  The second half of the book was a poor defense of god belief.  I remember thinking that if Miller had only applied the logic from the first half of his book to the second half, he would be an atheist.

Miller was one of the star witnesses on the side of science in the “intelligent design” case in Dover, Pennsylvania a couple years ago.  He’s now come out with a new book, Only a Theory.

“Darwin’s God” that Miller refers to is evidently a supernatural creator that Darwin implies exists in the final sentence of Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Miller sees an overall god-intelligence in the universe, but not the day-to-day micromanaging of evolution that Intelligent Design advocates allege.  This god is supposedly the First Cause and set nature’s laws in motion–including genetic mutation, natural selection, and heredity; in other words, evolution–and then stepped back and let the universe run itself.  So, this god works through unguided evolution to create new species.

What Miller didn’t tell us during his talk was that by the end of his life Darwin had become an agnostic.  In other words, Darwin himself had lost Darwin’s God.

One of the reasons Darwin abandoned the all-powerful, all-loving Christian god was because of the cruelty he saw in nature. After Miller’s lecture I spoke with him and asked him how he, a Catholic, could reconcile the cruelty in nature with the idea of a loving god.

I first asked why God couldn’t have made all creatures vegetarians, so that some animals wouldn’t have to painfully and cruelly kill and eat others.  Miller said that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion.  (Evidently God avoids miracles these days.)

I then asked Miller about painful human birth defects where the child dies very young.  Why couldn’t God have arranged it so that all genetic mutations were neutral or beneficial mutations?  His answer was the same: that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion.

It seems that Miller understands the theological problem with a god who has to constantly intervene in his creation.  He once stated “[I]f God purposely designed 30 horse species that later disappeared, then God’s primary attribute is incompetence.  He can’t make it right the first time.”  (“Educators debate ‘intelligent design’ ” by Richard N. Ostling, Star Tribune, March 23, 2002, p. B9.)

It seemed to me that this god wasn’t of much use.  “So in other words,” I said, “this world operates exactly the way we would expect it to operate if there were no god.”  Miller agreed, citing retired Vatican astronomer George Coyne, who said that the universe doesn’t need God.

Again, I asked him how he was able to reconcile the problem of natural evil with a loving god.  He said that he was able to do so, but he didn’t provide details as to how.  I told him I have never been able to do it.

Other people were waiting to talk with Kenneth Miller, so we parted company, agreeing to disagree.

As I walked back to my car, I thought: Miller has all but admitted that there is no actual evidence for a god, and that certainly a god wasn’t involved in the daily process of evolution.  And yet Miller believes in a god.  This must mean that he believes on a basis other than evidence.  In other words, on faith.  Evidently the belief came first and the rationalizations second.

Miller was raised by Roman Catholic parents and is “coincidently” a Roman Catholic himself.  Of all the varieties of god belief he could have chosen, he “just happened” to pick the one he was raised with.  Indoctrination has trumped evidence.  To me, this seems like a very unintelligent design.

August Berkshire is the vice president of Atheist Alliance International, past president of Minnesota Atheists and member of the board of Camp Quest of Minnesota.

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38 Responses to “Losing Miller’s God”

  1. April 14th, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Reginald Selkirk says:

    retired Vatican astronomer George Coyle

    That would be Coyne.

  2. April 14th, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    rb says:

    natural evil can easily be part of a universe with God, if God is not All Powerful, in the sense most folks attribute to God. Among the idealogies that do not have an all powerful god would be Process thought, other religious belief systems also fit to a God that can not prevent all evil (natural or otherwise…assuming you mean human caused evil is not natural).

  3. April 14th, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Felix says:

    It seems Miller is too strongly attached to the security blanket he believes his faith provides. While offering no good reason to keep it, he’s too afraid to let go and find something better, something far greater, which the natural universe is. He’s already closer to a deist position than anything any Catholic I know espouses. Sorry if this reads condescending, but I’ve read too many examples of people finding a greatly enhanced joy in life through a completely non-theistic appreciation after letting go of their blankey.

  4. April 14th, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Woody says:

    The only truly pragmatic uses for “God” are to: 1) rationalize the mal-distribution of earthly pleasures, 2) provide camouflage for personal prejudice, or 3) to authorize compliance with arbitrary social rules.

  5. April 14th, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Woody says:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    –Epicurus of Samos, circa 300 BCE…

  6. April 14th, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Shane says:

    Maybe it’s the sum of the cosmological argument (why is there anything at all?) and the fine-tuning argument that so many Christian apologists seem to get their cassocks in a twist over. I have yet to see any serious Christian apologist tackle the increasingly popular philosophical view of the mathematical universe, as promoted lately by Max Tegmark, and articulated a little differently, but to excellent effect, by Roger Penrose, under the guise of a sort of platonism.. The bottom line is that if there IS a god, then that god is mathematics – purely, totally. Not Craig’s “personal first cause”, not Miller’s deistic switch-flipper, not Francis Collins’s waterfall-freezer, but the “cause” of Pi, e, i, the square root of 2, the Mandelbrot set, Pythagoras’s theorem etc. We are fully substructures within our universe, which itself is a mathematical object. Why is there anything at all? Same reason as: why is Pi Pi? What has a beginning without a cause? The Fibonacci sequence for one thing, our mathematical universe for another. Why is our universe “fine tuned” (assuming it IS fine tuned!)? Because it produced us; many other such mathematical structures which “exist” do not result in self-aware substructures (such as the Fibonacci sequence itself – a perfectly valid “universe”, same as ours).
    Sorry about the metaphysical ramble, but Ken is simply messing around here. His belief is based on psychological factors, not intellectual. Great guy, though. Respect.

  7. April 14th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Chayanov says:

    Odd that Miller would claim that God can’t interfere with His own creation (and just how does Miller know that?). As a Christian he would know that the whole point of the difference between the Old and New Testaments is that God is all too willing to interfere and change the rules — or else Miller would be Jewish, not Catholic.

  8. April 14th, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Facilis says:

    “Again, I asked him how he was able to reconcile the problem of natural evil with a loving god. He said that he was able to do so, but he didn’t provide details as to how. I told him I have never been able to do it.”
    With all respect , Miller is a biologist and not a theologian. I doubt I would be able to provide information on microbiological questions like he can. There is lots of stuff from philosophers and theologians on the problem of natural evil. I doubt Miller can answer stuff like that when put on the spot

    “As I walked back to my car, I thought: Miller has all but admitted that there is no actual evidence for a god, and that certainly a god wasn’t involved in the daily process of evolution. And yet Miller believes in a god. This must mean that he believes on a basis other than evidence. In other words, on faith. Evidently the belief came first and the rationalizations second.”
    I think it is a jump. I remember Miller cited reasons such as the cosmological fine-tuning for his belief in God. And even if he thinks there is no scientific evidence for God, there can be evidence from other fields (for example Miller may think there is good archeological or historical evidence to support the bible or good philosophical arguments). And what about personal experience?

    “Miller was raised by Roman Catholic parents and is “coincidently” a Roman Catholic himself. Of all the varieties of god belief he could have chosen, he “just happened” to pick the one he was raise with.”
    Of all the political parties you could have chosen in America, you “just happened” to chose the Democrats (or whatever party you support). Of all the different kinds of government there are , you “just happened” to support secularism.Of all the positions on God you could take you “happened” to chose atheism.
    People make choices on different options all the time. I do not see your point.

  9. April 14th, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    God would be able to create creation then not interfere with it but still interfere with it. That would be just like God to do that.

  10. April 14th, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Hey, you Pharyngula readers! Welcome to Quiche Moraine!

    I hope that while you are here you poke around a bit. This blog is run mainly by Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds, Mike Haubrich of Tangled up in Blue Guy and Greg Laden, with significant supporting work by Analiese “Blogless” Miller and Ben Zvan.

    One of the main reasons that Quiche Moraine exists is to provide a forum for people who should blog but don’t blog, perhaps because they only want to produce an item now and then (and that pattern does not really work for blogging). Thus, August Berkshire’s post. But we’ve had a number of other guest blog posts as well, so please check them out.

    My own blogging here comes mainly in the form of Gonzo Resturant reviews (more or less) Which have been my favorite posts to write.

    So thanks for stopping by, stay a while, click on stuff, enjoy.

    GTL

  11. April 14th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    (fixed.)

  12. April 14th, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Alex Besogonov says:

    “Why is there anything at all? Same reason as: why is Pi Pi?”

    Because it is. Pi does not actually depend on ANY properties of our Universe, even God herself wouldn’t be able to change it. It’s just a mathematical construct.

    And mathematical construct can’t become “self-aware”. Only a physical object can.

    “What has a beginning without a cause?”

    God?

  13. April 14th, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Tualha says:

    And yet Miller believes in a god. This must mean that he believes on a basis other than evidence. In other words, on faith.

    Well, duh? Is there really anyone who believes on any other basis? Aside from Antony Flew, I suppose.

  14. April 14th, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Insightful Ape says:

    Hey Facilis, you PZ threw you out for trespass and now you are here to troll August Berkshire?
    Well the main difference between attributes you named and Catholicism is that the latter if often passed on “genetically” from parents to children, as is the case with Ken Miller. It is not that August is a democrat, believer in secular government, or atheist by birth. It means that if Ken Miller has critically looked at the beliefs his parents indoctrinated in him, he probably wouldn’t be a catholic.
    But I’m not surprised that you don’t see the point. As I could tell by your comments on PZ’s blog before you got kicked out-you are of quite limited intelligence.

  15. April 14th, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Insightful Ape says:

    What surprises me the most is that Dr Miller seems to realize the God he is talking about is not the Christian God. If God has had nothing to do with his creation for over 3 billion years, if God is not micro-managing the world, then we are talking about the deistic God of Thomas Paine. Why go to church and pray if you know that God is not micro-managing his creation? How do you expect your prayer to be answered?

  16. April 14th, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Those choices aren’t claimed to be absolute. They’re just choices. People born into a religion who stay in that religion basically just do so and expect everyone else to believe that they have the only path.

  17. April 14th, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    JPS says:

    Insightful Ape @15 wrote:

    Insightful Ape April 14th, 2009 6:15 pm :

    What surprises me the most is that Dr Miller seems to realize the God he is talking about is not the Christian God. If God has had nothing to do with his creation for over 3 billion years, if God is not micro-managing the world, then we are talking about the deistic God of Thomas Paine. Why go to church and pray if you know that God is not micro-managing his creation? How do you expect your prayer to be answered?

    If you read Finding Darwin’s God, you’ll see that Miller does differentiate his from the Deist position as well as offer a way that God might respond to prayer through influencing quantum events in a manner undetectable to us. I’m not suggesting that this argument is very good (nor do I have the physics background to dispute it), but Miller does speculate at several points in the book how his god might act in the physical world. His personal god ideas are screwy, and not particularly orthodox or common among Catholics, but they aren’t really Deism.

  18. April 14th, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Insightful Ape says:

    But JPS, if that is the case, then that still leaves the question unanswered of why he has allowed his creation to evolve in ways that are often highly unpleasant for billions of years.
    it seems to me, that Miller is just making it up?
    Is this what happens when people try to have it both ways?

  19. April 14th, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Rev. bigDumbCHimp says:

    With all respect , Miller is a biologist and not a theologian. I doubt I would be able to provide information on microbiological questions like he can.

    Are you claiming to be a theologian Facilis?

  20. April 14th, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Hjalti says:

    I first asked why God couldn’t have made all creatures vegetarians, so that some animals wouldn’t have to painfully and cruelly kill and eat others. Miller said that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion. (Evidently God avoids miracles these days.)

    That makes absolutely no sense. If this god is truly omnipotent, then surely it could create a “natural evolutionary process” that would result only in vegetarian creatures.

  21. April 14th, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Russell Blackford says:

    Yeah, he can’t have it both ways. Either he’s a deist or he believes in a providential, interfering god. I doubt that deism is actually true, but I have no great quarrel with it – for all practical purposes it’s the same as atheism. But if he’s going to be a deist he can’t continue to be a Catholic except in some cultural sense. Conversely, if he’s going to shill for a providential, interfering god, and if he claims that this is the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Abrahamic God … well he has the same problems as every other Abrahamic theist.

  22. April 15th, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Michael says:

    Evolutionary biologist Kenneth R. Miller is only liked because he defends evolution, but is disliked because he believes in the existence of God. I find it interesting how this defender of evolution has to give up his religion because he believes in evolution…Actually Catholicism has endorsed evolution for many years, and have been more vocal about it in recent years so there is no conflict with his religion on that issue.

    “One of the reasons Darwin abandoned the all-powerful, all-loving Christian god was because of the cruelty he saw in nature.” This seems odd, no logic. Darwin gives up on God because nature is cruel but turns to an unthinking process which supposedly created this “cruelty” in nature. Is the intelligent designer responsible for the evil in nature? Nope! Darwin’s religion became “evolution” which explains his agnostic belief.

  23. April 15th, 2009 at 1:52 am

    LRA says:

    Seriously, Ken Miller, explain this in the face of your god:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuAktiLlDO4

  24. April 15th, 2009 at 6:44 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    People don’t dislike him because of his religion, Michael. People question his inconcistency. Whether the Church accepts evolution is immaterial, the problem is that the church accepts divine intervention, but glosses over that in the area of evolution. So does Miller. That is the point of this post.

  25. April 15th, 2009 at 6:54 am

    SLC says:

    Re Michael

    Darwins’ agnosticism was more the result of the death of his daughter then his scientific findings.

    Re JPS

    It is possible that Prof. Millers’ theological views are evolving. It may be that at the time of the writing of, “Finding Darwins’ God,” he believed in an intervening god but his position is now veering toward Deism.

  26. April 15th, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Lorax says:

    Michael Michael Michael, it saddens me to see how simple it must have been for you to come up with a cloak of ignorance in order to protect your world view, you know the one where “magic man did it.” It matters little what Darwin “believed,” actually it mattered little that Darwin existed. The fact of evolution and evolutionary theory was well on its way to being established/formulated anyway. Without Darwin, it may have taken a year or several longer, but it would have happened.

    Regardless, the reason Darwin and god are being discussed is because your homeboy Miller decided to name a book and give a talk titled “Finding Darwin’s God,” or did you miss that? If Miller wants to dissect Darwin’s psyche in way that confirms Miller’s biases, then it is reasonable for others to note the logically inconsistencies.

  27. April 15th, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Is the intelligent designer responsible for the evil in nature? Nope!

    so… you are saying that you know that the ID did not design in the evil in nature? Or are you saying that there is no nature? or are you saying that there is not an intelligent designer?

  28. April 15th, 2009 at 10:11 am

    David Marjanović says:

    Regarding uncaused causes, I keep being surprised at the fact that the basics of quantum physics aren’t taught more in highschool. Uncaused events happen all the time. For example, every single radioactive decay event is uncaused — it happens merely because it can; you can pin down the probability that it will happen within the next given period of time, but you can’t pin down a cause.

    Due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty relation, particle-antiparticle pairs as well as particles that lack antiparticles (such as photons) appear all the time out of nothing, borrowing their energy (E = mc²) from the vacuum, and then paying it back the sooner the more it was. It appears that the total energy of the universe (mass minus gravity, basically) is 0. If so, it’s possible that it is the outcome of just such an uncaused quantum fluctuation and will go on forever.

    More generally, it sometimes happens that science finds out that whole branches of philosophy are just silly. Who solved the paradox of Achilles and the turtle? Max Planck, by showing that there is no such thing as an infinitely small amount of spacetime.

  29. April 15th, 2009 at 10:53 am

    JPS says:

    To Insightful Ape @ 18:

    Is this what happens when people try to have it both ways?

    It does seem to me that Miller, at least in his book, is trying to split the difference between Deism and active Theism. However, he gets around theodicy by explaining that a universe allowed to evolve in all possible ways is necessary for the existence of free will (in which he is correct).

    To SLC @ 25:

    It is possible that Prof. Millers’ theological views are evolving. It may be that at the time of the writing of, “Finding Darwins’ God,” he believed in an intervening god but his position is now veering toward Deism.

    You may well be correct, as the book is from 1999. All I can reply with is that Miller still claims to be a Roman Catholic in his current talks.

    I recently presented a paper on FDG in which I argued that Miller foists the evidential burden for his orthodox views (the Virgin Birth and resurrection) off onto disciplines in which he is inexpert (Near Eastern history and archeology) in precisely the same manner that Phillip Johnson does from law to paleontology. The result is that in the same book in which he takes Behe to task for the God-of-the-Gaps fallacy, he merely restates it in a manner more difficult to falsify. As I replied to a questioner, it would be really interesting to live in that guy’s head for a day, observing how one keeps empirical training from chasing down crude ancient world myths.

  30. April 15th, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    consilium says:

    It’s generally a bad sign when somebody posting to the internet sets his nym to something pretentious, like “truthseeker” or “wisdom”, or to some Latin word, like “facilis”.

  31. April 15th, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    I’m finding the comments even more interesting than the original post. My own position is agnosticism. I find anyone who “knows” either that there is or isn’t a God is putting limits on what God is by first defining their understanding or wishful thinking of what that deity is, and then comparing that to the world they observe around them and their judgments of it opposed to what it “should be”. The process doesn’t seem productive.

    I’m not ready to make that decision until someone can actually explain the big bang in terms of what came before and how it happened – good luck with that, by the way – or until I die and find out for myself. And as I understand it, I won’t be back to let you know which it is.

  32. April 15th, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Insightful Ape says:

    Hi #31, I just wanted to me a couple of comments.
    It is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist. If you are thinking about a generic “deity”, I agree, it is truly unknowable. But if you are talking about god with upper case G- the God of Christianity or Islam-my position is rejection, because that hypothesis is internally inconsistent. It just doesn’t hang together.
    As for the Big Bang-what really happened and why-there are a number of models physicists are working on(I can give you references if you want to). We may or may not have a definite answer in our lifetimes. What I am not willing to do is to throw up my hands and say, it must have been an act of god.

  33. April 15th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    SDR says:

    #32. You are partly right, but it’s also possible to be agnostic and an atheist because one cannot be agnostic without being atheist. All agnostics are by definition atheist. You are defining atheism as being only the active rejection of the idea of a God – this is not really true. No matter how many people try to claim otherwise, by both usage, definition, and the etymology of the construction of the word itself, an atheist is one who lacks belief in a God. Agnostics say that they don’t know whether there is a God or not. If they don’t know, then they certainly don’t have belief that there is one. This is atheism by definition. It’s just atheism qualified by a reason for the atheism, which is agnosticism. They might not want to call themselves atheists, but atheism isn’t only a label one gives oneself. It is a descriptive term that applies or doesn’t where one wants to use the term or not.

  34. April 16th, 2009 at 12:04 am

    JPS says:

    Not sure I agree with the atheist-agnostic conflation: my understanding is that the atheist position is itself a belief or statement of conviction–the idea that there probably, based upon the evidence, is no god. Lack of affirmation is insufficient to claim this status. The agnostic position is generally used to describe either those who are in a transitional or permanent state of uncertainty or, alternately, declare the question unanswerable on some ontological or epistemilogical grounds. I was agnostic by this latter definition (unwilling to make a claim of probability) until I realized how many other things I disbelieved with less conviction than the no-god hypothesis–unicorns, turtles with universes on their backs, 1000-foot gulfs opening outside my front door in the middle of the night, etc. But this is not my invention: Darwin, Dawkins, Douglas Adams, and many others use the conviction-lack of conviction definition to clarify the distinction as well.

    Nevertheless, I sidestep the whole issue by self-defining as rationalist, secularist, humanist, or some conflation of the three. Since Christians don’t go around calling themselves “Amuslims,” Hindus “Abuddhists,” or Jains “Apagans,” it seems to make more sense to choose terms, as the religious have, that reflect the contents of a philosophy rather than the negation of conflicting ones.

  35. April 16th, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Frank C says:

    Miller has explicitly said he is a theist, and that deism is dry and meaningless. This means that he believes that God is immanent in the world, and intervenes (as he mentions in “Finding Darwin’s God”. Therefore he is, to some extent, a creationist, and in his latest book he implies that one of the interventions was the inevitability of humans (either this was designed into evolution from the beginning or forced to happen). This puts him on the far left wing of creationists, but it’s creationism nonetheless.

  36. April 16th, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    We appreciate your counsel. :)

  37. April 17th, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Chris says:

    While reading the comments, I suddenly thought of another possibility:
    Ken Miller might simply lie. He might be an atheist deep down but pretend to be a Christian in order to convince people who think otherwise of the fact that the Theory of Evolution doesn’t contradict a theistic world view, just a literal interpretation of most holy books.
    Seeing how many Americans don’t feel enlightened but rather offended by approaches like e.g. the one Dawkins uses (“religious people are stupid”), he might try to pave the road for acceptance of the ToE among believers first to ensure that school children are properly educated.
    Personal realizations are much more likely to change someone’s stance than even the most convincing arguments anyway.

    Well, since one shouldn’t believe something just because one wants it to be true, he probably isn’t.

  38. April 18th, 2009 at 12:31 am

    JPS says:

    Frank C. Wrote:

    Miller has explicitly said he is a theist, and that deism is dry and meaningless. This means that he believes that God is immanent in the world, and intervenes (as he mentions in “Finding Darwin’s God”. Therefore he is, to some extent, a creationist, and in his latest book he implies that one of the interventions was the inevitability of humans (either this was designed into evolution from the beginning or forced to happen). This puts him on the far left wing of creationists, but it’s creationism nonetheless.

    Perhaps that’s an overstatement. Miller indicates in FDG that God might have imbued any significantly intelligent animal with a soul, and thus made it “human,” although it may very well have been a large-brained reptile. He thus evades the inevitability of this particular species, at this particular time, being inevitable, and hence leaves open the door to fully contingent evolution. And, in fairness, any species at any time (or perhaps no time) being sufficiently intelligent to ponder religion seems to me well outside of any meaningful definition of creationism. Again, it’s still weird to go through such extraordinarily unnecessary logical contortions to keep alive one’s preferred philosophical doctrines, but hey, the first half of the book was darned good.

    As for the “closet atheist” imputations in #37, well–none of us can read his mind, but given his attendance at church and other Catholic practices, the suggestion strikes me as unlikely. The creationists certainly agree, though, for what it’s worth.

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