PZ Myers, to no one’s surprise, has now taken to going after Ken Miller, the Catholic cell biologist who has been one of evolution’s most eloquent and powerful defenders for the better part of the last decade. But he does so based upon a rather obvious misinterpretation of something Miller said in a recent speech in Kansas. He first quotes a review of the talk by Pat Hayes of Red State Rabble:
Showing a slide of the cover art of “The Lie,” an anti-evolution tract by Ken Ham, that prominently features a serpent tempting us with a poisoned apple labeled evolution, Miller said creationists mistakenly take aim at Darwin’s theory because they believe science to be anti-religious.
Evolution isn’t anti-religious, said Miller. Rather, it’s the non-scientific philosophical interpretations some humanists, such as Richard Dawkins, draw from the evidence that challenges the role of religion.
And he responds:
If that account is accurate (I trust Pat Hayes to be accurate, and I also have independent confirmation*), then that was a shot at the majority of biologists, and a declaration of common cause with creationists. They are “shooting at the wrong target,” but who is the right target? Why, those humanists, people like Richard Dawkins and anyone who challenges the role of religion. Go get ’em, Kansans! Hound those wicked atheists–they aren’t the real scientists, after all. Real scientists believe in God and spirits and magic and etheric essences infused into souls by a phantasmal hominid, just like you do.
But this is a rather obvious misrepresentation of Miller’s argument. Yes, it’s true that the majority of biologists are atheists, according to surveys of the field, but while Miller would disagree with them, his statement that their atheism amounts to “non-scientific philosophical interpretations” is hardly a “shot at biologists.” I have no doubt that he would label the theistic inferences that he draws from science also as non-scientific and philosophical rather than scientific.
His argument, rather, would be that science can only deal with natural cause and effect. Evolutionary theory simply says that all modern life on earth is derived from a common ancestor via descent with modification, and on that score, dealing with natural phenomenon, we can be virtually certain. The evidence is extraordinarily clear that common descent is true. But we cannot, using the tools of science, either prove or disprove the possibility that the process was sparked by some supernatural cause.
Thus, when we take a position on that question, whether theist, atheist or something in between, we’re not taking a scientific position. That doesn’t mean our positions can’t be informed by science; indeed, they almost must be. But it is beyond the power of science to provide a definitive answer to such questions as the existence of a god. I have no doubt that Miller would say the very same thing about his own position that he is saying about the position of his fellow biologists who are atheists. He would say that while we can absolutely agree that the theory of common descent is true and undeniably supported by the evidence, once we leave that and move on to questions that science cannot provide a definitive answer for, we are both engaging in non-scientific philosophical thinking.
There’s nothing wrong with such thinking, of course, and Miller would no doubt be happy to discuss and debate the issue on that level. He is simply recognizing that science is limited in its ability to answer such broad questions (I would go even further: I think human thinking in general is limited in its ability to even ask, much less answer, such questions). Thus, I think it’s wrong to interpret his words as a slam on biologists rather than a recognition that different types of inquiry are involved once we leave the physical questions of biology for the metaphysical questions of theology and philosophy.
Furthermore, I think PZ is missing a crucial bit of context. Miller is really speaking here not to scientists but to creationists. He is pointing out that they think they’re attacking evolution when they’re really attacking atheism. It’s not evolution that they fear and despise, because frankly most of them don’t know the first thing about evolution; it’s atheism that they fear and despise and they mistakenly think that atheism is equivalent to evolution. And that simply isn’t the case. Evolution is no more atheistic or naturalistic than any other scientific theory. It is “naturalistic” in precisely the same sense that the theory of gravity is, or the germ theory of disease.
Evolution is naturalistic in methodology because it must be, because once we step outside of those bounds we no longer have any objective means of discerning true claims from false claims. But that does not mean that there is no truth or falsehood there, it only means that science isn’t the right tool to tell us. That’s okay. We don’t have an objective means of discerning true from false in a lot of areas of life. We cannot submit our claims of love to scientific testing to determine true claims from false claims either; that doesn’t mean that love doesn’t exist, nor does it mean that we can’t find others way to evaluate them. It’s just a recognition of the limits of this particular type of reasoning tool. Not all questions can be answered using that tool, but those questions may still be worth exploring with other tools. Or maybe they’re not worth exploring with other tools. But either way, science can’t really tell us. And again, that’s okay. Science works brilliantly when applied to the questions it can be applied to.
It’s even more absurd, I think, to interpret Miller’s words of disagreement with atheism as a sign that he wants to “target” atheists. Disputing atheism is not the same thing as targetting atheists, and frankly this is the type of shallow, paranoid reasoning that we laugh at when engaged in by some Christians; it is no less laughable here. And when PZ talks of Miller participating in anything that would “strike the match at the atheist-burning”, that’s just plain ridiculous rhetoric.
I think Nick Matzke gets it precisely right in a comment after that post:
Let’s look at what Ken Miller has done with his life:
* published dozens of scientific articles; I think one was on the cover of the journal Cell
* coauthored a half-dozen high school textbooks, all of them strongly pro-evolution, and one of them the most popular text in the country
* run around the country putting out fires when states and local communities freak out about his biology textbook because it has so much evolution in it (this is exactly what kicked off the situation in Dover)
* tirelessly debated and opposed creationists for 20 years, becoming widely acknowledge as the most skillful face-to-face debater of creationists
* testify convincingly for evolution and against creationism/ID in not one but two court cases
Now, really, just what in holy hell does a guy have to do get a little of respect from you guys? “Ken Miller, creationist.” Cripes, listen to yourselves! Ken Miller is a *hero* of the evolution cause and anyone who doesn’t see this has simply let their hatred of religion overwhelm their rational brains.
All Ken was saying was that people should separate scientific debates from metaphysical debates, and not try to get science to provide a metaphysical conclusion which is outside of its capacity to provide. This is not “throwing the atheists to the wolves” or whatever hysterical nonsense you guys are spouting.
PZ has posted several comments in which he claims that Miller is proposing that creationists and evolutionists find a “common enemy” and begin “shooting at” atheists. But that is absolutely not Miller’s argument. His argument, as Nick points out, is that we need to separate the scientific issue from the metaphysical issue. He’s saying to creationists, in essence: if you want to argue against atheism, then argue against atheism, but don’t use bad arguments against evolution to do so because you’re confusing two different issues. To take that simple and reasonable argument and turn it into Miller being on some kind of crusade to “strike the match at the atheist-burning” is to take irrational and paranoid hyperbole to a whole new level of absurd. It’s the sort of paranoid overreaction we all laugh at when it’s engaged in by the fundies; let’s not engage in it ourselves.