Review: Finding Darwin’s God

Let me say this first: Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read on the relationship between science and religion. The one-half of the book dedicated to defending evolution and debunking various strains of creationism is as good or better than what you’d find in books dedicated solely to those tasks. And the section arguing for the compatibility of science and religion is one of the more coherent such discussions I’ve read, a good example of a discussion that you can learn from even when it’s wrong.

One of those interesting mistakes comes very early in the book, discussing how our scientific understanding of the world works. Miller says that the way we know about what the sun is like depends upon assuming that the laws of physics are the same everywhere, and this is simply an assumption–a “leap of faith.” Miller doesn’t use the “leap of faith” phrase in a pejorative way, but there’s still an issue here: it doesn’t match the actual history of cosmology. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, scientists (and proto-scientists) used to assume that the celestial sphere operated under radically different laws than the earthly sphere, and they did so with good reason: superficially, they appear radically different. The heavenly bodies move around in simple, regular patterns unlike anything that the ancient Greeks or Medievals could find on Earth. Only once Newton showed that you could use the same mechanical laws to explain both the motion of the planets and earthly ballistics did scientists begin to suspect that that’s how everything works. And as Miller himself shows through the sun example (which is wonderfully well explained), that assumption gives us results that “merge into a tight and consistent web of theory and phenomena.”

The other great thing that emerges from the book is that as hard as Miller tries to make science and religion consistent, it’s clear that science makes him profoundly uncomfortable. Notably, he is offended by this quote from E. O. Wilson:

If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species. Deity can still be sought in the origin of the ultimate unitys of matter, in quarks and electron shells (Hans Kung was right to ask atheists why there is something instead of nothing) but not in the origin of species.

Miller’s offense is strange given that this is exactly his position. Miller’s view is that the origin of the universe and the laws of physics call out for an explanation, God is at least a plausible candidate for such an explanation, one that Miller choses to accept. Miller also says that God played no direct role in evolution, but rather simply created a universe where life could in principle arise and which was large enough to give life lots and lots of chances. All of that is consistent with the Wilson quote.

Though it’s not the only reason, one of the reasons I’m skeptical about attempts to reconcile science and religion is that pro-science believers seem to be so half-hearted about it. They say they accept the conclusions of such-and-such scientific discipline, and then throw a fit every time they’re reminded that science has pushed God out of those areas. Even scientists who have been relatively kind to religion, get this: Carl Sagan caught flak for casually mentioning in The Demon Haunted World that scientific medicine is more reliable than prayer. The message from people like Miller seems to be: we’ll accept the findings of science, just don’t remind us what they are.

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  1. There are numerous typos in this:

    “as good or better than what you d phenomena.’find”

    “Deity can still be sought in the origin of the ultimate unitys of matter, in quarks and electron shells (Hans Kung was right to ask atheists why there is something instead of nothing) but not in the ori9gin of species.”

  2. You write, “The message from people like Miller seems to be: we’ll accept the findings of science, just don’t remind us what they are.”

    But it doesn’t seem like Miller at all thinks that science has “found” something contrary to his religious beliefs. Are you merely suggesting some kind of internal motivation in Miller? It seems like the content of his argument, and the argument of others like him, tends more toward separating the quests of science and religion rather than getting angry about contradictions.

    Also, could you clarify the point about the sun? I haven’t read Miller’s book. It seems to me from your retelling that he’s saying our current knowledge of what the sun is like (presumably Miller could list countless other examples) presupposes a “faith” that laws operate the same everywhere. I don’t see how a historical point about ancient Greek science, which we have moved beyond, counters this point. Or are you just saying that it is *not* in fact a faith belief that the laws operate the same everywhere?

    Actually, as a side note, I am also confused about what Miller’s point was, even if your critique of him is incorrect. Is he doing the thing where faith-assumptions in science should make us feel better about religion? I’ve never found that move compelling, for various reasons.

  3. Concerning the “leap of faith” about the laws of physics being the same everywhere. I have encountered this sort of non-sense from apologists before.

    That the laws of physics are universal is a conclusion based on observation and inductive reasoning, and has nothing to do with faith. NASA engineers assumed that the laws of physics would be the same on the moon as on earth, and built machines accordingly. This assumption turned out to be correct.

    When an assumption is continually not falsified, it becomes reasonable to provisionally accept it as true. Scientists call that a “fact”.

  4. Ryan: thanks, fixed.

    Joshua, Re: your paragraphs 1&2: You’re right about the official content of Miller’s position. But I think the way he treats, for example, the E. O. Wilson quote I blockquoted suggests something else.

    Re: your paragraph 3: the historical point shows that our belief in the uniformity of nature is evidence-driven, because the evidence once pointed one way, and now points the other way. This is not to say that Humean empiricism works, but that you have to dig deeper to find where it breaks down.

  5. Quote “I don’t know if there is a God. I don’t call myself an atheist, because to declare affirmatively that there is no God (the declaration of atheists) takes far more knowledge (and chutzpah) than I have. How would I know if there’s a God? I’m just a mortal like everyone else. I think what I can say is that if (IF!) there.”

    The Prime Cause initiated the universe with initial values that led the evolution of homo sapiens.

    A recommended read is the proof for the existence of an Intelligent and Perfect Creator found in (left menu).

    There is one religion that is compatible with science and formal logic.