Posts Tagged 'Theology'

Ken Miller’s Near-Perfect “Finding Darwin’s God”

Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is “a scientist’s search for common ground between God and evolution.”  Though it was first published in 1999, I took a decade to discover and finally read this near-perfect effort to reconcile science and Western religion.  I admit that I wasn’t looking all that hard until three years ago.  As I finished the book, I thought “Okay then.  It’s resolved!  Game over.”  Apparently not!   Contemporary debates about science and religion continue with seldom a mention of this wonderful book.

Skip the Polemics

I became aware of Ken Miller by a chance invitation to one of his brilliant lectures.  He is a leading cell and molecular biologist at Brown University and a Roman Catholic with serious interest in traditional Christian theology.  He is also co-author of high school biology texts and is committed to introductory biology education, which has entangled him in the debates—and legal proceedings—that have turned high school biology curriculum choices into key battles of the ongoing culture war in the United States.  This entanglement turned Dr. Miller into a public “apologist” for evolutionary theory, in the sense of intellectual defense by edifying explanation (in contrast to saying you’re sorry for things gone wrong).  His explanations are indeed edifying and effective in defense of both evolutionary theory and Western (particularly Christian) theology.  Finding Darwin’s God commits Dr. Miller’s apologetics to print in a superbly written tour de force of the science-religion debate.

Why then has this excellent work had so little impact on the public consciousness?  If I knew better the history of science-religion publishing in the past few decades, I might be able to offer a definitive answer.  All I can do at this point is to recommend you read this book as the best balanced summary of the evolutionist-creationist-intelligent-design arguments I’ve seen so far. 

As Prof. Principe stated (in his lectures I introduced in my previous posting more than a full year ago!), the conflict as we know it today is “a fabrication of the late 19th century” motivated by concern for political and social control and fueled by poor-quality theology dueling with poor-quality science.”  The ongoing cultural struggle is not really about the reality of evolution.  It is for control of the public narrative about the meaning of life on earth.

Dr. Miller’s very important contribution is to re-introduce both high-quality science and high-quality theology into the debate.  If you want to save a great deal of time, just read this book and skip the polemical books of Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson, to name but a few whose claims are too often (says Prof. Principe) “philosophically naive and clothed in arrogant sarcasm and dismissive disdain” that forbid interesting and productive discussion.  My purpose here is to glean insight into the true nature of the modern science-religion debate and take that back to my exploration of the views of Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God.

Evolution as History and Mechanism

Dr. Miller starts by establishing that “evolution” has two different meanings: history and mechanism.  The first is “a living natural history in which the roots of the present are found in the past,” a time sequence of change shaped by “descent with modification” (Charles’s term for evolution).  The second is a mechanism by which the modification occurs during descent from ancestral forms to species of the present day (what Charles called “natural selection”).  Thus, “evolution” is both a set of facts (the fossil record and the present-day diversity and distribution of living species) and a theory that attempts to explain these facts.   Dr. Miller convincingly confirms the logic of drawing inferences from present-day evidence of the past and the current distribution of species, denying that we have to directly witness the history of the natural world anymore than we have to be witness to human history to be convinced of its reality by artifacts of the past.  Evolution as history was fairly well established among learned people before Charles set sail on the Beagle.  His distinction was to offer and thoroughly document a theory to explain the past and present of life, a theory that has accurately predicted subsequent discoveries and been confirmed by new understandings of genetics, biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology.

Creation Science

Then Dr. Miller takes on the three prominent versions of concerted criticism.  First, Young-Earth Creationism—Prof. Principe points out that “an enormously wide range of distinct viewpoints” bear the label “creationism,” so we must be careful to specify which viewpoint we’re talking about. 

Led by the writings of Henry Morris and colleagues at the Institute for Creation Research, the Young-Earth Creationists are the strictest, maintaining that the Earth is no older than 10,000 years.  In defense of this extreme position, their rejection of evidence in all fields of science is breathtaking.  Nonetheless, Dr. Miller plays the role of good scientist, respectfully and carefully examining the Young-Earth Creationist assertions in light of evidence and logic.  To counter the abundant, incontrovertible evidence that the Earth is billions of years old, these adherents of “creation science” back themselves into a very awkward position that “corrupts both science and religion” (in Miller’s words on p. 80).  They concede the evidence of great age but propose that God created the universe in a way that creates the “appearance of age” (in their words).  It is impossible to escape the implication that God means to deceive us humans through an elaborate and seemingly pointless planting of evidence of a very old universe.  Dr. Miller harshly concludes that these attempts to explain the mountain of evidence that contradicts naively literal reading of Genesis deserve “a place in the intellectual wastebasket.”

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

Next, Dr. Miller counters the more sophisticated critics who know better than to attack all science head on.  Instead they focus on biology and allege specific factual defects in evolutionary theory.  Phillip Johnson, a UC Berkeley law professor, has led this version of creationism by creating the “reasonable doubt” typically used to undermine criminal indictments.  Ironically and very strategically, the attack seizes on the notion of “punctuated equilibrium” first proposed and then made well-known by the late Stephen Jay Gould, the super-star Harvard biologist and popularizer of evolutionary theory.  In a 1972 paper with Niles Eldredge, Gould observed that the fossil record often shows long periods of little change “punctuated” by sudden, short bursts of major change.  Challenging Darwin’s emphasis on the gradual nature of evolutionary change, Gould and Eldredge made too much of “punctuated equilibrium” as a new understanding of evolution.  Johnson and others picked up on this whiff of scientific dissent from Darwinism to suggest that the jury was still out in the case against evolutionary theory. 

Johnson invoked an “intelligent designer” as an alternative but non-scientific explanation of facts that seemed to violate the assumptions of Darwinian theory.  These punctuations of the fossil record could in fact have been events of “special creation” of new species by the Intelligent Designer.  How else to explain the development of complex organisms, like whales, that seemed to have no progenitor in the fossil record or, more particularly, no series of intermediate forms that connect them through time to land mammals?  Surely these problems with predictions of evolutionary theory create sufficient reasonable doubt to force serious consideration of an alternative explanation. 

Again, Dr. Miller uses evidence and logic to defeat the argument for special creation of species.  When we narrow the timeframe from hundreds of millions of years to focus on the much shorter periods of rapid change, we find again a continuous series of changes over time explicable by natural selection, not a sudden appearance of something totally new.  Moreover, subsequent fossil discoveries have filled the gap in the record of whale evolution and other gaps as well.  Thus, Johnson’s arguments for special creation of species succumb one by one to the ongoing process of scientific discovery.

The argument from design depends on there being phenomena that elude explanation by science in terms of material forms changing through material mechanisms.  When science fails to provide a naturalistic explanation, the default is intelligent design; it hinges on our ignorance of material causes and mechanisms.  This Intelligent Designer is the God of the Gaps.  But this god leads a precarious existence, constantly threatened by science’s well-demonstrated ability to discover naturalistic explanations for phenomena once thought to be inexplicable. 

The Miraculous Cell

Next, Dr. Miller takes on the biochemist Michael Behe, who makes a very sophisticated argument for design based on the fact that the living cell includes complex biochemical processes that depend on a very particular number of components.  The removal of any one of these components would abort the overall processes.  How could such complexity have evolved from simpler processes that were missing one or some of these key components?  This harkens back to the similar argument of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1803) that the vertebrate eye had to be as complex as it is today in order to serve any function at all.  How could it have evolved through a series of simpler forms that could serve no function remotely resembling sight?  What purpose would such intermediate structures serve?  Again, Behe like Paley believes our ignorance forces us to default to intelligent design—not in service of special creation of whole species but to explain how new, “irreducibly complex” biological systems, like the biochemical systems of the cell, can arise.  Behe claims that Darwinian evolution offers no explanation. 

Once again, Dr. Miller uses logic and evidence to demolish the argument from design.  To start, he shows that the intermediate forms between simple and complex organ systems have been found and are known to serve a function that is favored by natural selection—the visual and auditory organs of vertebrates, for example.  The complexity is not irreducible.  But can Darwinian theory account for the molecular structure of life, as Behe asks quite reasonably.  There is no fossil evidence to look for, so how can we test the ability of evolutionary processes to produce complex biochemical systems?  Behe foolishly goes out on a skinny limb by claiming such tests have never been done and implying they never can be done.  Miller simply saws off the limb by describing persuasive studies that Behe himself could have cited.   

An Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist

Dr. Miller asks why intelligent critics of evolution, who are certainly aware of the very strong evidence against them, persist in opposing evolution with such passion and persistence.  He finds the answer among the attitudes and actions of scientists—“the reflexive hostility of so many within the scientific community to the goals, the achievements, and most especially the culture of religion itself.”  Most scientists seldom think of themselves as hostile to religion, but we create a hostile environment for “believers” simply by assuming that “religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated” to quote Dr. Miller (pp. 184-85). 

“The prospect of an educated person who sincerely believes in God, who prays and fasts, or who is naive enough to think there is actually such a thing as sin, is just not taken seriously.  There is, in essence, a fabric of disbelief enclosing the academic establishment.  My colleagues do their best to be open, fair-minded, and tolerant.  They practice these wonderful virtues of free inquiry and free expression.  But their core beliefs do not allow them to accept religion as the intellectual equal of a well-informed atheistic materialism. 

In practice, their exultation at seeing evolutionary biology successfully provide material explanations for the origin of species and the history of life leads to triumphant excess.  Even though philosophical conclusions about meaning and purpose are generally thought to lie outside science, any number of self-assured scientists display no hesitation in claiming that evolutionary biology is capable of making a powerful and profound statement on the ultimate meaning of things.”

He is talking about Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Daniel C. Dennett and many less known “self-assured scientists,” who appreciate Charles Darwin’s work as having “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” as Dawkins put it so memorably.  The wording is telling.  An atheist looking for intellectual (scientific) justification of his or her personal belief system is the counterpart of a believer in God, like Phillip Johnson or Michael Behe, who searches for intellectual respectability by claiming that science is wrong.

Blind, Pitiless Indifference

When both sides frame the argument in terms of what scientific materialism can or cannot explain, the atheists seem to carry the day.  But many atheists are not content to win the argument on purely scientific grounds.  As Richard Lewontin put it (quoted by Miller on p. 186), “science is in the midst of a ‘struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world,’ a struggle against ignorance and spirituality that it cannot afford to lose.”  Feeling so threatened, these scientists surge beyond the boundaries of science to use evolution as an anti-religious weapon, not just to disprove literal interpretations of Genesis but prove the fundamental purposelessness of life.  As Dr. Miller states (p. 187), “Without purpose to the universe, there is no meaning, there are no absolutes, and there is no reason for existence.”  By insisting that evolution implies a universe ruled by “blind, pitiless indifference,” Dawkins and the others advance an absolute materialist worldview that is anathema to “people who see the world as a place of deliberate moral choice, who see clear differences between good and evil, and who cherish virtues such as courage, honesty, and truthfulness” (Miller, p. 171).  “The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual” (Miller, p. 189). 

Though “these writers have gone well beyond any reasonable scientific conclusions that might emerge from evolutionary biology” (Miller, p. 185), they have convinced many believers in God that evolution is their enemy—“that evolution isn’t really about science, but is instead an ideology of belief, power, and social control” (Miller, p. 190).  These believers are emotionally committed to discrediting these dangerous ideas of science in general, and evolution in particular.  However, they have chosen the wrong strategy.   They believe they must show that science cannot explain the natural world, despite overwhelming evidence that it can. 

Offering one of his most important contributions to understanding this clash of opposing philosophical worldviews, Dr. Miller claims that the most extreme viewpoints depend on the same unspoken assumption that “if the origins of living organisms can be explained in purely material terms, then the existence of God—at least any God worthy of the name—is disproved” (p. 190).   

What if this assumption is wrong?  Dr. Miller goes on to challenge the logical connections between materialism and atheism.  Accepting as scientific truth “that the world runs according to material rules, that we are material beings, and that our biology works by means of the laws of physics and chemistry,” Ken Miller asks, “What if the regularities of nature were fashioned in a way that they themselves allowed for the divine?” (pp. 190-91).  He then engages in an Augustinian effort to reconcile science and religion without forcing either to make unacceptable concessions to the other. 

Two Assumptions

Ken Miller’s argument starts with two assumptions.  The first is based on science—that the natural, material world is self-sufficient.  In simplest terms, this means that all natural phenomena are part of a universe driven by natural causes, the laws of physics and chemistry that control the behavior of matter and energy.  No immaterial, unnatural causes are required for this universe to function as we see it functioning.  The second assumption is based on theology in the “Western tradition”—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that a nonmaterial, spiritual being called God created the material universe and everything in it by an act of His own volition; humans exist as a direct result of God’s will; and God has revealed Himself to us.  There is a spiritual reality that surpasses the physical reality of nature.  This spiritual reality is beyond the detection of science, but God is quite capable of reaching out from that spiritual reality to act in the material world in ways that seem personal—as though each of us is treated like an individual person.  But God chooses not to intervene in the material world in any way that denies humans the free will to choose good or evil, to love God or reject Him. 

Note that Miller has to be quite explicit in defining the theology he refers to, because there are so many theologies to choose from, whereas there is just one science.  That’s because theology deals with a “reality” we can only guess at, but science comes from (directly or indirectly) observable reality.  By itself, this difference convinces many of us to reject theology as a useful exercise, but this discomfort does not by itself disprove the spiritual.  More positively, there are scientifically unsolved problems in our understanding of the universe that imply existence beyond the material.

Three Problems Unsolved by Science

The first problem is posed by thermodynamics.  “The enormous energy expended by the sun and its multitude of sister stars had to come from somewhere, for eventually it would burn down to nothing” (Miller, p. 223).  Had to come from somewhere before and therefore outside the material universe.  The need for a First Cause is no longer just philosophical.  All evidence indicates the universe started with the Big Bang, which had to have a cause.  Philosophical materialism, which insists there is nothing beyond the material, natural reality, is left speechless in the face of evidence of creation ex nihilo—something from nothing, a material universe from a nonmaterial reality before and beyond. 

The second problem is the “anthropic principle”—the physical constants of the universe (like the gravitational constant) are set at values that allow life to exist.  Even slight changes in these values and there would be no stars, no planets, no water, no carbon, no life, no humans.   Given we live on a tiny planet revolving around a small star on the edge of a minor galaxy among a vast multitude of galaxies, it is hard to believe we humans are at the center of the universe.  Yet the values of the physical constants support the opposite conclusion, that the universe was designed for life, if not specifically for us. 

Of course, the notion of design is anathema to nonbelievers.  Some, notably Daniel Dennett, have proposed an alternative view that our universe is only one among many “parallel universes” with a variety of value settings for the physical constants; one of these universes just happens to be suitable for the evolution of life, and of course, we are only aware of the universe that permits us to live and measure the physical constants!   Dennett maintains his multiple universe hypothesis is a reasonable alternative to “any traditional alternative,” which is to admit that his alternative is equally untestable scientifically.  But Dennett’s multiplying swarm of universes is no less outlandish than the notion of a designer God.  And it doesn’t address the First Cause problem.

The third problem is Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” which states that we cannot know with precision both the position and the momentum of a sub-atomic particle—the fundamental uncertainty of quantum mechanics.  Since these particles and their behavior are the building blocks of all material existence, unpredictability is an inherent characteristic of nature, of material existence itself.  The impacts are not confined to a sub-atomic micro-level that is irrelevant to our macro-level lives.  While the quantum behavior of electrons is averaged out into statistical laws that are descriptive of what happens at the more macro level, the level of Isaac Newton’s physics, the next move of an electron is inherently unpredictable.  Electron behavior causes chemical changes that lead to firing neurons and mutating genes that drive individual behavior and evolutionary change.  “Life is surely explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry … but the catch is that those laws themselves deny us an ultimate knowledge of what causes what, and what will happen next” (Miller, p. 208-09). 

The Absentee God

The deterministic physics of Newton left philosophers from the 17th through the 19th centuries (including Charles Darwin) with the conclusion that God plays no role in the day-to-day world run by laws that could be used—in principle—to predict the behavior of every atom.  This Deist view regards the universe as a kind of clockwork, built and wound up by God but allowed to run untouched ever since the Creation.  Nature could be described as “a system of parts whose energies, positions, and velocities, if known, would be absolutely sufficient to predict each and every future position of the system.  Reality would be set in stone.” (Miller, p. 204). 

An Active, Personal God

The quantum physics of the 20th century falsifies this deterministic view of the universe.  It does not disprove the absentee God of the Deists, but it does allow the possibility that God plays a role at the sub-atomic level of reality, influencing events without being obvious to humans operating at the macro-level.  Ken Miller builds upon the indeterminacy of the quantum reality of the physical sciences to develop his Theist theology of an involved deity.

Miller doesn’t pander to emotionally unsatisfying notions of God as a “smart, modern and sophisticated” (p. 221) label for love or the universe or the laws of nature.  His notion of God is the unabashedly traditional God of the great Western religions—the Creator of the universe who somehow has been involved in the history of our world and continues to be involved in our lives in a very personal way.  How can this be?  Especially given Miller’s insistence on the sufficiency of material explanations for the events and substance of our material world?    

 Never abandoning his commitment to logic and evidence, Ken Miller makes a convincing case that evolution through random genetic variation winnowed by natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin and those who followed, can be seen by thoughtful, scientifically wise people as the mechanism for fulfilling the divine intention to create a universe in which a sentient species arises with the ability to know its creator and discover the very mechanism of its creation—the physical laws that make chemistry, life and evolution possible.  It is a breathtaking theological insight.  God has created a fully self-sufficient material universe that runs according to physical laws and needs no further tinkering to keep on ticking, like Paley’s watch, but God also has built in (by design) the mechanisms to change, elaborate and diversify into the fantastically complex world around us on earth.  God can and does intervene in the operation of the material world, but only rarely and then only at the indeterminate sub-atomic level of reality, in order to remain scientifically undetectable to his sentient creatures.  Okay, but why this subtle and elaborate process to create an independent material world, if God is quite capable of intervening to directly control events accordingly to His will?  Why even create a material world?

Free Will and the Problem of Evil

Ken Miller draws on traditional Western theology to explain such an elaborate approach to creation (p. 243):

“By any reasonable analysis, evolution does nothing to distance or to weaken the power of God.  We already know that we live in a world of natural causes, explicable by the workings of natural law.  All that evolution does is to extend the workings of these natural laws to the novelty of life and to its changes over time.  A God who presides over an evolutionary process is not an impotent, passive observer.  Rather, He is one whose genius fashioned a fruitful world in which the process of continuing creation is woven into the fabric of matter itself.  He retains the freedom to act, to reveal Himself to His creatures, to inspire, and to teach.  He is the master of chance and time, whose actions, both powerful and subtle, respect the independence of His creation and give human beings the genuine freedom to accept or reject His love.”

And on p. 253:

“The Western God stands back from His creation, not to absent Himself, not to abandon His creatures, but to allow His people true freedom.  A God who hovers, in all His visible power and majesty, over every step taken by mere mortals never allows them the true independence that true love, true goodness, and true obedience requires.

For our freedom in this world to be genuine, we must have the capacity to choose good or evil, and we must be allowed to face the consequences of our actions.”

Such language is directed to those who are comfortable with the Christian worldview.  Ken Miller addresses a good part of his book, perhaps most of it, to Christian objections to evolution, trying to show believers that belief in the Darwinian process of evolution need not be threatening to their Christian worldview.  In that, I think he is highly successful.  But he is less persuasive for those who believe in evolution already and are struggling with the implications of a divine creation process that not only allows but requires the commonplace and massive destruction of life in order to fuel the natural selection that drives the evolution of life. 

The evolutionary process seems too cruel to be the work of a loving God who is personally involved with His creatures.  This was a particular problem for Charles Darwin, especially after the death of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie.  This wanton destruction of life in the material world has long been and remains a major barrier to belief in a personal, loving, creator God.  Miller explains this evil as the price of human free will—allowing the choice to do good also allows the opportunity to choose evil instead.  That could explain the evil wrought by human beings.  But wanton destruction is “woven into the very fabric” of the continuing change process that has taken billions of years to create a sentient being capable of free will.  Evil is not due solely to the sins of human beings; it is in the fabric of the universe itself.

Free-lance Theology

This inherent capacity for evil is better explained by the late Harold Kushner, a rabbi distraught over the untimely illness and death of his son.  In When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner reconsidered the traditional Western concept of God as always loving, all knowing and all powerful.  He concluded that the frequency of apparently random evil (bad things happening to good people) forbids us from believing that God can have all three of these divine characteristics.  Rather than conclude that God does not exist or is not personally supportive in our lives, as many others have done, Rabbi Kushner settles on God not being all powerful.  He can’t intervene directly in the flow of material events on our behalf or on behalf of any of His creatures.  He can only strengthen us spiritually in our struggles in the material world.  God is Great—but not Perfect.

Ken Miller seems to disagree.  God can intervene.  The quantum uncertainty of sub-atomic reality allows God to intervene without being detected and thereby compromising the free will of human beings.  But God mostly chooses not to intervene, because to do so too often would, well, blow His cover!  So here we have a fundamental disagreement among those who share belief in God’s existence and active participation in the world—in a Theistic rather than a Deistic God.  One says God doesn’t intervene in the material world, because He is not powerful enough to provide more than spiritual support.  The other says God is powerful enough, but He doesn’t want to intervene, even to prevent the suffering of our world.  Nonetheless, He can affect material events if He so chooses, and He does so, but only for very good reason and only very rarely. 

For many readers, both believers and disbelievers, this kind of theological disagreement may seem silly and unimportant.  To the contrary, theology is very practical in seeking to understand what we can expect from God.  We could be setting expectations of God that are unreasonable even for God to meet.  We may childishly insist that God must be Perfect or else God cannot possibly exist.  And if we deny the existence and influence of something so important as God, we have a very incomplete grasp of reality.

Building on both Miller’s and Kushner’s points, perhaps God is always loving and all knowing and also all powerful—Perfect—but His system of creation is imperfect and God knows this all too well.  It is the tragic genius of the creation mechanism in the material universe that it has to operate in this randomly destructive way beyond His direct control—in order to be creative.  Perhaps there is no other way available, even to God!  This flaw (what else can you label something so destructive of so many little lives?) in the creative system may be inherent in any complex system driven by only a few universal rules working from a small set of initial conditions.  This flaw should be a caution against the hope of perfectability of complex systems, especially perfectability forced through extensive centralized control, whether the system be divine, natural or human-made.

Miller and Kushner do seem to agree that God can and does strengthen and guide the spirit within a receptive human being, thereby affecting human consciousness and behavior in ways that have no better explanation (so far! we have to be careful to acknowledge).  In so doing God’s “will,” we can act as God’s agents in the material world – a form of divine intervention in the traditional sense favored by Miller.  Like a parent watching over an adult child, God may love and care desperately for each of us and seek to guide us when the opportunity arises, knowing full well (and sadly) that however much we mess things up, He cannot live our lives for us.

All three of us, Miller, Kushner and I, are free-lancing as theologists, but this reasoned following of logical threads anchored to observable reality is more or less how good theology is done by the professionals.  It leads to a reasonable and possible concept of God.  Another free-lancer, Charles Darwin, could have appreciated these insights into the power of God in relation to the evolutionary process.  If created by God, even if influenced by God at critical moments, the process is still not controlled in its details by God.  However, this concept of a self-limiting God was unavailable to Charles. 

Genesis, the Straw Man

Ken Miller makes the crucial point that naively literal understanding of the book of Genesis, which had become the rule in most Christian denominations, including the Church of England, by the 19th century, made an easy target for anti-Theists and anti-religionists in general.  In fact, Genesis was presented by Christian authorities in England and elsewhere as a scientifically valid account of the creation of the universe and all its component parts.  By pinning the reputation and validity of Christian religion on this literal interpretation of the Bible, in direct opposition to scientifically well-established knowledge of the material world, the Church of England made it all too easy for its many intellectual, social and political enemies to discredit Christianity in general, and thereby undermine the authority and power of Christianity in modern society.  In the 19th century, the only alternative to the biblical account was the Newtonian determinism that seemed to have no need of divine existence much less intervention.  This was all that was available theologically to free-lance thinkers like Charles Darwin, who saw too much evidence against biblical inerrancy.  It seemed that God could not really exist, at least not a Theistic God.  The implications of quantum indeterminacy were unknown, and even today are little understood. 

The modern-day conflict between creationists and atheists is driven by their unspoken agreement that discrediting the Bible and associated “god talk” is sufficient to discredit religion and even the concept of God as the creator of and currently active agent in the universe. The Bible and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution have become the “weapons of disbelief” (Miller, p. 269) in a battle that is more about control of the social and political agenda than it is about theology and science. This is a travesty for both the Bible and Charles Darwin, for religion and for science. 

Darwin’s God 

The great value of Ken Miller’s wonderful book is that he shows quite conclusively that this conflict between Western science and Western religion need not be so.  His theme is summed up on his second to last page (p. 291):

Those who ask from science a final argument, an ultimate proof, an unassailable position from which the issue of God may be decided, will always be disappointed.  As a scientist I claim no new proofs, no revolutionary data, no stunning insight into nature that can tip the balance in one way direction or the other.  But I do claim that to a believer, even in the most traditional sense, evolutionary biology is not at all the obstacle we often believe it to be.  In many respects, evolution is the key to understanding our relationship to God.  God’s physical intervention in our lives is not direct.  But His care and love are constants, and the strength He gives, while the stuff of miracle, is a miracle of faith, hope, and inspiration.

Ken Miller closes by stating, “I believe in Darwin’s God.”  Many of us think we do, too.  But until Ken and the rest of us can more convincingly account for the evil “woven into the fabric” of God’s creation, we haven’t found the God that Charles was looking for.

Copyright 2010 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

Science and Religion – Where is the Conflict?


“History is often about reminding us of things we’ve forgotten,” said Prof. Lawrence M. Principe of Johns Hopkins University in a course titled “Science and Religion,” one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company (, published in 2006.  Professor Principe is both an organic chemist and a historian of science.  He wants to remind us that science and theology have not, historically, been at war with each other.  They have come into conflict over particular scientific or theological positions, but so does conflict arise between scientific positions and between theological positions.  Conflict is typical of intellectual discourse, be it about the natural world or about the world beyond the material we can sense (directly or indirectly).  The two types of truth-seeking have grown up together within Western Christianity with much in common, informing each other along the way. 

Theology Informing Science

Theology pioneered the logical analysis and disputational techniques we think of now as distinctive to rational inquiry, science in particular. More surprising may be that medieval theologians developed the modern preference for explaining natural events in terms of natural causes.  They realized that only natural causation is really comprehensible to the human mind.  While a natural cause, like the wind, may itself have a supernatural cause, like God, only the natural or secondary cause we can comprehend has any explanatory power.  Recourse to the supernatural is pointless, because it is beyond our comprehension.  This is “methodological naturalism,” a practical theological invention that has become the foundation of modern science.  This is not the same as “philosophical naturalism,” which claims the “natural” is all there is, that there is no “supernatural” world.  This is a philosophical, not a scientific, assertion.  The very nature of science puts the supernatural beyond the scope of scientific understanding.

Science Informing Theology

On the other hand, according to Prof. Principe, St. Augustine asserted “the need for up-to-date demonstrated natural knowledge among theologians and exegetes [interpreters of Holy Scripture].”  St. Augustine himself (A.D. 354-430) spent 15 years in rational interpretation of Genesis I in light of Greek philosophy and mathematics and then-current knowledge of the natural world.  He concluded that the universe started in an instantaneous moment of creation and developed over time into what contemporary astronomers could see.  The Big Bang Theory was thus anticipated before medieval times by one of the most foundational leaders and thinkers of Christianity!  Prof.  Principe also claims the idea that living beings could arise naturally from non-living matter would have surprised no medieval theologian.  “Christian theology has proven itself remarkably flexible in its ability to adopt, adapt, and explore new scientific findings— to see in essence what they mean.”  “Theology has come away from the encounter with new views of man’s place in relation to the creator of time, space, and nature.”

A 20th-Century Conflict – Social and Political, Not Intellectual

What to make then of the conventional wisdom that science and religion are perpetually at odds?  In 12 excellent lectures, Prof. Principe lays out the historical argument that this conflict is more apparent than real and relatively recent historically and surprisingly trivial intellectually.  It seems Charles Darwin was reacting to an unnecessarily narrow and distinctively English Protestant interpretation of God and Christianity.  Moreover, the modern-day conflict between evolution and creationism (or intelligent design) is just that, modern, a phenomenon of the 20th century, not the 19th.  And it is more a social and political conflict among naïve interpreters of science and Christianity than it is an intellectual conflict.

Charles Darwin in Proper Historical Context

Before further exploration of the life and work of Charles Darwin after his return from the voyage of the Beagle, I will explore in the next few posts the general history of the relationship between science and religion, using Prof. Principe’s lectures as my primary guide (triangulation from different sources to come later).  As I have argued at the outset of this project, it is critically important to put Charles’s thinking in the proper historical context, so that we understand to what he truly was reacting as he developed his theory of evolution and his ideas about God and religion.

Defining Science and Religion 

Prof. Principe carefully defines his terms.  “The content of both science and religion is made up of statements and claims about the way things are; science, about the way things are predominantly, but not entirely, in the natural world; theology predominantly, but not entirely, about the way things are in the spiritual world.”  They each include both a body of knowledge claims and a set of methods for gaining, assessing, accumulating and integrating the knowledge claims.  Methodologically, good science and good theology are quite similar, even though their knowledge claims are mostly about quite different realms of reality.

Prof. Principe distinguishes religious practice, theology and faith.  Practice refers to “the observances and actions that flow from a religious commitment, for example, attending church, giving alms, praying, fasting at particular periods, moral self-discipline, and so forth.”  Theology “is the intellectual, methodical study of God, the spiritual world, God’s attributes, actions, and relationship to creation [the natural world].”  Faith “is a method of arriving at knowledge claims.  The method is by simple belief, by assumption, or suspended disbelief.”  When talking about the interaction of science and religion, we are very often talking about science and theology and typically in the historical context of Western Christianity, which created the culture within which modern science arose.

Traditional Christian theology generates its knowledge claims not just from faith but also logical argument, deduction, and reason.  Prof. Principe points out that the works of medieval theologians are masterpieces of logical analysis and rational argument.  For example, we scientists often fall back on a logical principle called Ockham’s Razor, named after a 14th-century Franciscan theologian.  Likewise, science depends on a number of faith statements (implicit assumptions) in order to operate, such as the natural, physical world having an independent existence outside our minds, and that our senses are giving us (directly or through an instrument, like a telescope or a microscope) reliable information about the natural, physical world, and that this real world behaves in ways that are regular and law-like (the rules don’t change every few minutes).  Prof. Principe assures us that these and similar assumptions, or leaps of faith, cannot be proven true.  Nonetheless, they prove themselves useful, indeed essential, for science to progress. We are comfortable with these leaps of faith, because they allow us to generate reliable and useful knowledge claims about the world around us.

No Easy Distinction of Science and Religion

Thus, we cannot distinguish science and religion simply by saying that one is informed by reason alone and the other by faith alone.  Nor can we segregate them by saying the realm of science is the natural or material world that we can observe and the realm of religion is the spiritual world which we cannot know with our bodily senses.  Prof. Principe is careful to say their realms of study are “predominantly, but not entirely” distinct, because there is overlap, and some of the most productive interaction between science and theology has taken place in these overlapping areas. 

St. Augustine and the Two Books

Christian theologians have made testable claims about the natural world, as St. Augustine did regarding the origin and evolution of the universe.  His sources were what he called the Two Books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, the two ways St. Augustine believed by which God reveals himself to humankind (inspiration of scripture authors and creation of the natural world).  St. Augustine’s methods were both faith (Christian belief) and reason (Greek philosophical knowledge drawn from astronomy and other observations of the natural world).  St. Augustine insisted on the unity of truth; if reason tells us one thing and faith tells us another, then this disagreement must be resolved.  There is no teacher of truth but God, he wrote, and since God is omniscient and always consistent, there must be a single truth.  This is a fundamental faith-based assumption that underpins both theology and science; it is a claim that pertains to both the spiritual and natural worlds—here is a major overlap of faith and theology into study of the natural world.  Scientists don’t have to believe in God to make this leap of faith, to assume the unity of truth, but the assumption is fundamentally theological (drawn from knowledge claims about the characteristics of God). 

Unity of Truth

The unity of truth requires St. Augustine to assert that the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture cannot contradict each other.  However, both Books require careful interpretation.  If they appear to contradict, then St. Augustine would insist this is solely because of incorrect interpretations.  Understanding Nature does not reliably come from just using our senses; we have to apply rational analysis.  Understanding Scripture is even more difficult, since the passages have literal, allegorical and moral meanings simultaneously. 

“Literal” Interpretation of Genesis I

Much to my surprise, St. Augustine claimed that the literal meaning is the hardest to get right.  The surprise comes from our modern notion of biblical literalism as “believing every word of the Bible”—the surface meaning of the words.  Prof. Principe points out that for St. Augustine and all theologians until recently, “literal” means “interpretation of a passage in such a way that it maintains its connection to the topic it seems to be describing and assigns meanings to the individual words so that the passage makes sense in relation to other sources of knowledge.”  St. Augustine spent 15 years working out his literal interpretation of Genesis I.  He was not satisfied with his work until it resolved contradictions within the text itself and “provided an account of creation harmonious with both reason and knowledge from other sources” (the Book of Nature, in particular).  Prof. Principe quotes St. Augustine: “Interpretation of biblical passages must be informed by the current state of demonstrable knowledge.” St. Augustine warned against the danger of embarrassing the reputation of Christianity by being ignorant or dismissive of the demonstrated scientific knowledge of the day.  From the viewpoint of traditional Christian theology, science is essential for full understanding of the “literal” meaning of divinely-inspired scripture (and vice versa).

History of Partnership

Science and religion continued in intimate partnership through the medieval apogee of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe and even through the rise of Protestantism and the birth of modern science and the Enlightenment.  Very often the early “natural philosophers” (not commonly called scientists until the 19th century) were in holy orders, because a position in the Church allowed time and even incentive to pursue knowledge of the natural world and how it works.  Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton saw their scientific work as discovery of the divine rules governing the universe and even the nature of God.  Prof. Principe devoted two lectures to explaining that even the famous conflict between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII was not truly about the resistance of the Roman Church to the heliocentric conclusions of Copernicus and Kepler.  The Galileo affair was driven by personal arrogance and misunderstandings, bureaucratic rivalries, political problems of the Roman Church, and Galileo’s insistence on his theory of what causes the ocean tides, which later was proven wrong, showing the wisdom of Church safeguards against being too quick to rewrite doctrine in response to new scientific “discoveries.” 

Even in modern times, churchmen have been responsible for major scientific advances.  Gregor Mendel’s experiments in breeding garden peas laid the foundation of modern genetics and ultimately the modern understanding of biology and Darwinian evolution by natural selection.  Mendel was also the abbot of an Augustinian monastery in what is now the Czech Republic.  The modern Big Bang theory of an expanding universe began with a 1927 paper by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest who also had a PhD from MIT and was a professor at the University of Louvain.  In 1960, Lemaître became president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  Speaking of the Catholic Pontiff, Pope Pius XII endorsed the Big Bang theory n 1951, after Einstein’s endorsement and well before the theory’s full acceptance in 1966 over the competing Steady State theory, promoted by the vociferously atheistic, anti-religious physicist, Fred Hoyle. 

Other Forces Driving the Science-Religion Conflict

Good science does not necessarily beget atheism, nor does formal religion necessarily negate good science.  Scientists and theologians do not now, and history shows they never did, divide into opposite camps.  There was indeed conflict between them but also within the two professions.  The range of responses among theologians to scientific discoveries and theoretical propositions spanned the full range from blind prejudice to full embrace.  In summary, there are other forces at work in driving the Science and Religion Debate besides science and religion. The next blog will explore these other forces and how they have driven the debate into a kind of culture war.

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

Charles Darwin’s life, work and words and their meaning for the Science-Religion Debate: a personal exploration committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective

Darwin Watch is a double entendre.  You, the visitor, can watch the life, work and words of Charles Darwin unfold in a series of essays and book reviews, starting in 2008.  You can also watch an author build a new book, Walking Fish – Charles and Emma Darwin on the Question of God (to be published by Novalis, if it crosses the finish line).  Along the way, you are invited to help – comment, advise, correct.  Actually, it is a triple entendre, because of the watch-as-timepiece metaphor used to illustrate intelligent design or refute it, from Paley to Dawkins.  But here “watch” means to watch a life or a book unfold.            
I am the author, Chris Dunford.  What are my qualifications for this audacious project?  Perhaps no more than yours.  I am starting this Web site in my 60th year.  I have a PhD in evolutionary biology and have contributed to the research literature, but for three decades I have made a living in the world of international development and non-profit management.  This career, and my wife and son, have allowed me to observe many faces of the human condition as well as of the natural world, around the world.  I don’t hope to explain what I’ve seen so much as to understand, in some intuitive way, and share this understanding with you, perhaps saving you considerable effort of your own.  If your curiosity insists, you may know me more deeply by reading another book I’ve authored, Life List – A Birder’s Spiritual Awakening.  This is a very personal exploration of nature (based on a visit to sub-arctic Canada ten years ago) and why it means so much to me, especially at the level of the spirit.  In writing my book, I discovered the conflict and interdependence of science and religion.  Yes, it’s about birding, too, but I promise you won’t have to read much about birds at Darwin Watch. 

Darwin Fish vs. Jesus Fish


What you read here is about Charles Darwin, the person.  It is the Charles the person who holds my attention, ever since I had to brake violently to avoid rear-ending a car in my California town.  As I recovered my wits and studied the bumper of the car I nearly smashed, I saw for the first time the Darwin fish – the “Jesus fish” with Darwin’s name instead and little feet underneath, like the familiar figure of a fish sprouting feet to become an amphibian.  I laughed!  And I continued to laugh as I saw more of these Darwin fish on the rear ends of cars around town.  It is a university town, where you expect such irreverent humor.  Over time, I saw the growing bumper battle between the Darwin fish and the Jesus fish, with ever more clever designs, culminating in the Darwin fish opening wide to eat the Jesus fish!  I became concerned.  Too many people are taking this battle seriously, seeing Darwin as displacing Jesus.


This was not the reaction of an offended Christian or shock at such public display of intolerance.  I was reacting to the name Darwin coming to symbolize so much other than the man or even his work. The Darwin fish proposes an equivalence between Darwin and Jesus.  Darwin the prophet of modernity, Darwin the symbol of Ultimate Truth, Darwin an object of “religious” reverence.  This struck me as profound misrepresentation of who was Charles Darwin and what he himself stood for.  This was not science versus religion or science versus Christianity but Science as a religion competing with Christianity as a religion.  I knew Charles the person would have been appalled. 


In Defense of Charles the Person


I am a friend of Charles the person and therefore feel obliged to defend his good name.  Not that that I knew him in person!  My great, great grandfather was born in England the same year as Charles – 1809.  But I know Charles a great deal better than I know my own ancestor.  His voyage on the Beagle inspired me to travel the world, too.  His evolutionary theory structured my worldview in university and to this day.  To me, however, Charles is more than a voyage and a theory.  Charles is a life-long friend — not a mentor or a teacher or a hero or an icon – a personal friend – like the fantasy friend of a child, I suppose – with passions and aversions, strengths and weaknesses, to which I relate my own.  He is a person with whom I can sympathize but also criticize.  He puzzles yet inspires me.  He makes me smile, and he is exasperating.  We agree, and we disagree.  We walk together in silence.  He speaks, I listen.  He is a personal friend, no less than my deceased father, who is gone, yet with me.  It is a person-to-person connection.  In short, I like Charles Darwin a great deal, but I know him too well to sit by while the modern world enthrones him as its demi-god.  Nor can I idly allow him to be branded the Anti-Christ. 


My “friendship” with Charles Darwin does not authorize me to tell you what motivated him or what he believed without my going back to the written record, his own books, journals and letters and the writings of his peers, family and biographers.  What a daunting task that is!  I am not a trained historian or biographer, and I still have a day job and a family to care for.  For the most part, I have to depend on others who have done the tedious work of extracting and summarizing what Charles and others actually revealed about the man.  It is a voluminous record, yet very sketchy regarding his religious and philosophical positions.  It requires a good deal of interpolation and interpretation, always subject to personal bias. 


A Child of His Time


Even what Charles wrote is not the complete key to his train of thought.  He had his own biases welling up from assumptions, of which even he was mostly unaware.  As we all are, Charles was a child of his time and all that led up to that time.  Therefore, to properly interpret what Charles was thinking and feeling, we have to explore the history and philosophy and culture and society that influenced his thinking and feeling.  A daunting task indeed!


Charles was born five years before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.  Charles’s parents’ generation was traumatized by the French Revolution and the following surge of Napoleon’s armies across the Continent.  The society in which he was an impressionable teenager, as all teenagers are, was the society of Jane Austen’s novels.  English culture was absorbing and adjusting to Enlightenment philosophy, its countercurrents, and its conflicts with orthodox Christianity, which overlay the disruption of the traditional social order by the emerging Industrial Revolution and its new classes of beneficiaries and victims.  Just think of the profound influence of the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam and Watergate on the assumptions of my generation.  Charles could not have made full sense of our writings on any philosophical issue without knowing these great influences on our worldviews.  Likewise, we cannot interpret Charles without knowing the context of his life.


Charles the Family Man


And there was Charles’s family.  His enormous physician father, Robert, and physician-philosopher-poet grandfather, Erasmus, who was an early and well-known proponent of evolutionary thought.   And the Wedgwood family of his mother, founders of the famous Wedgwood line of fine china and old-style Unitarians (among the many Dissenter sects of Christianity, tolerated just barely by the Church of England and the Crown).  And there was his brother, Erasmus (Ras to the family) who kept a bachelor’s salon for London intellectuals, including notably Thomas Carlyle and his wife, whom Charles knew fairly well.  And his close friends, Charles Lyell the famous geologist, Joseph Hooker the famous botanist, and Thomas Huxley, the famous anatomist and firebrand advocate of Charles’s theory (up to a point).  And, of course, there was his wife and first cousin and closest friend, Emma Wedgwood, who was well-educated and worldly, having done the Grand Tour of Europe’s cultural treasures while Charles visited Europe only once, a brief trip to Paris a few years before his voyage on the Beagle, after which he never again left England.  To understand Charles, we have to understand Emma, too.  She was religious in a way Charles was not, but she was hardly orthodox.  In the Anglican church of Downe, the Darwin family’s home village for decades, Emma is reported to have regularly required their eight children to turn their backs with her to the altar as the Confession of the Faith was chanted, all the while glaring at the rest of the congregation!  Perhaps this embarrassing scene explains why Charles preferred to stroll the village while the family attended Sunday service.


Understanding the Object of Rejection


I think understanding the context of a person’s life is particularly important, because as I have repeatedly discovered in my own career, it is often impossible to understand why a person so passionately promotes an idea without understanding what the person is thereby rejecting.  Yet people seldom cite this object of rejection in building the rationale for the idea.  Indeed, the person may not even be fully aware of what is being rejected or perhaps is reluctant to admit it.  Guarding against the strong temptation to psychoanalyze, we can use the context of the person’s life to surmise what the person is likely reacting against and thereby come closer to understanding fully.


Learning from Analogy with Ourselves


Even if all these pieces of evidence and context can be assembled, there will have to be interpretation – educated guesses – of what was going on in Charles’s mind.  Aside from assembling the pieces, I hope to contribute my own understanding from my “friendship” with Charles.  We learn very often by analogy.  When we cannot directly know the nature of what we are trying to understand, we find an analogy to something we know already and say “if it is truly like this, we can imagine how it would react to that.”  Charles was a well-educated, well-traveled, perceptive and sensitive man, not unlike you and me, perhaps.  If we can establish how he was similar and how he was different from us, we can use ourselves as a useful analogy to make good guesses about how he thought and felt about things about which you and I think and feel.  This must be done very cautiously, guarding diligently against wishful thinking and unconscious bias.  It cannot be fully successful. But it can move us much closer than we were before to understanding the man.


Why is this important? 


Charles Darwin has become a touchstone for our modern world.  The “bumper battle” of the fish symbols leaves no doubt of this.  Commentators in the Science-Religion Debate, with all its political implications and consequences, often use Darwin as their point of reference, either to support or refute assertions about matters at hand.  The Darwin name will be taken in vain regardless of how hard we try to set the record straight, but those of us who honor intellectual honesty and historical accuracy should have ready access to the real man and what were mostly likely his true views on the issues that are now so controversial.  Surely this better understanding only improves the debate.  We also owe this consideration to such a remarkable, decent and likeable man.  Providing ready access to Charles, the real person, is the ultimate purpose of Darwin Watch. 


I am reading a series of books and articles and compilations of letters and will provide you “book reviews” and short essays commenting on what I’ve read.  You may expect to see something new from me at least once a month.  In the process, you will see the “book” take shape.  Your comments, advice, and corrections will help the process along.  Post a comment with your thoughts.  This daunting task cannot be done by one person alone.


Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!