Theistic evolutionist beats hasty retreat

Jerry Coyne’s criticism of accommodationism by evolutionists seems to still be shaking a few trees and is generating an endless debate. Ken Miller has posted a long rebuttal. It’s mainly interesting for the way Miller flees from theism.

His first and only defense seems to be a denial of most of the implications of an interventionist deity…which is, of course, fine with me. He argues that all of his arguments about how a god could have intervened are carefully phrased in terms of conditional probabilities — he’s not describing what actually happened, but how a god might have meddled in the world, and then he openly states that any such interference would be beyond the ability of science to investigate. Well, OK. We could use the same logic to argue for the hypothetical role of elves in human history. I don’t see Miller or anyone else writing books about Finding Darwin’s Elves, however.

He then runs through various references from his books, and points out that he has been scrupulous about keeping the supernatural out of his explanations. This is true; whenever Miller talks about science, he’s careful not to play the “goddidit” gambit. He even says that you’d find “passages very much like that in some of Richard Dawkins’ books”, which is rather interesting and a point worth emphasizing. When scientists talk about evolution, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Miller or a Dawkins…the ideas are all the same. Note, however, that this occurs without Dawkins conceding a single point about a deity, while, as we see in his latest essay, Miller has to disavow any detection of divine tinkering at all.

It gets a little weird. Miller is reduced to embracing Dawkins and Carl Sagan, while claiming Coyne’s supporters are Bill Buckingham, Don McLeroy, and Phillip Johnson. Miller writes a book titled Finding Darwin’s God, but somehow he can claim this has nothing to do with mingling theism with evolution. It all reads as something rather disingenuous.

One thing I’d really like to have seen is something simple: is there anything that distinguishes the science of Coyne and Dawkins from that of Miller? Miller is quick to complain that his views have been twisted, but he only seems to want to say how everyone else is wrong, without clarifying exactly what his views on theistic explanations in evolution are. If they’re effectively excluded from scientific scrutiny, as he states, why should we bother with them at all? If any godly interventions would be indetectable, why shouldn’t we simply show the door to anyone who claims to have found reason to believe in them? Even more oddly, why should we credit any sectarian version of this interventionist deity — why Christian, or specifically Catholic, over any other supernatural tradition? Are we really supposed to accept that a vague deism and Catholicism are philosophically indistinguishable from one another?

Finally, two little details in his essay that bug me in particular.

In an essay in which he indignantly protests that his words have been twisted, he really ought to be more careful about twisting the words of others. He complains that Coyne argues that “Apparently, NAS and the NCSE ought to change their ways, come out of the intellectual closet, and admit that only one position is consistent with evolution — a philosophical naturalism that requires doctrinaire atheism on all questions of faith.”

I think if you actually read what Coyne wrote, he’s careful and explicit to say the exact opposite. He’s pointing out that those organizations have not been neutral, but have effectively endorsed a specific position favoring theistic evolution. He and I both have said that they should not demand atheistic purity, but that they should either stop making one-sided arguments for fluffy, boring, ‘innocuous’, and scientifically unsupportable theistic evolution, or they should be more careful to accurately represent the range of views of scientists, which includes atheists.

The final thing I find objectionable in the essay is Miller’s parting threat. I see this all the time, and seriously…every time, my lip curls in a sneer of disgust. It’s this genuinely stupid argument:

The tragedy of Coyne’s argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly philosophical crusade — a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and we would do well not to turn those “Ardent Theists” away.

Set aside the claim that Coyne is on a crusade to purge biology — it’s a false assertion. What I really object to is the goofy “if you don’t be nice to god belief, the churchy scientists will take their ball home”. I metaphorically puke on the shoes of anyone who tries to make that argument.

Turn it around. Can you imagine atheist scientists saying that, if the NAS and NCSE keep talking the god talk, we’ll stop being allies in support of evolutionary biology and good science education? That we’ll be turned away and go do what, support Buckingham and McLeroy and Johnson? Pssht.

If theistic scientists are going to “turn away” from the science because of vigorous debate by the atheist contingent, then that gives the lie to the claim that they are not prioritizing their superstitions over science, and suggests that they aren’t really our allies in promoting good science. It’s a genuinely contemptible argument.