Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part II: Out of context

June 17, 2009 • 11:56 am

Today involves a bit of tidying up: I want to hook several red herrings that appear at the beginning of Ken Miller’s critique of my anti-accommodationist views, ‘Thoughts of an ‘Ardent Theist,’ or Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong, and call him out for taking a quote out of context.

Miller clears his throat as follows:

In one piece he [JAC] compared religious scientists who might defend evolution to “adulterers.” In another he argued that making a case for compatibility of science and faith was akin to peddling cancer by lying about the ill effects of tobacco. To Coyne, the pro-evolution arguments of religious scientists such as Francis Collins, George Coyne, or Karl Giberson are not only unwelcome, but downright dishonest. In his words, this is because “when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers.”

Right off the bat, Miller is trying to stimulate the reader’s antipathy toward me by saying that I compared religious people to “adulterers.”  What a horrible guy!  How could Coyne say such a thing! But let’s look at what I really said:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. )

Do I really need to point out to Dr. Miller that I am not comparing religious scientists to adulterers? I am comparing the argument about compatibility of faith and science with an argument for the compatibility of marriage and adultery.  Please, Dr. Miller, let’s stick to the ideas and not try to smear someone with a false analogy.

And about the cancer and tobacco thing; here’s what I really said:

But despite their avowed commitment to not mixing philosophy with science, an important part of the NCSE’s activities is its “Faith Project,” whose director is the theologically trained Peter M. J. Hess.  This project appears to be devoted entirely to the philosophical position that evolution need not conflict with “proper” faith.   Among the pages of this project is Hess’s statement, in “Science and Religion”:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

You can’t get much more explicit than this.  To those of us who hold contrary views, including the idea that religion is dangerous, this logic sounds like this:

We are sometimes told that we must choose between smoking two packs a day and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.  Many cigarette companies, however, hold unequivocally that no such choice is necessary.


Again, I think it’s clear that here I am comparing the logic of the science/faith compatibility argument with the logic of an argument touting the compatibility of  smoking with a healthy lifestyle.  That’s all.  No implication that religious people peddle cancer, or are engaged in similar nefarious activities!

Miller continues, but can’t manage to avoid misrepresenting my views. (Really, I’d rather discuss the issues instead of having to keep correcting the other side):

Coyne’s criticisms are significant because they apply to institutions, not just individuals, involved in the struggle to defend science. In particular, he attacks both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education for what he calls “accomodationism.” In Coyne’s lexicon, this is the misguided attempt to “show that it [evolution] is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.” Accomodationism is a “self-defeating tactic” because it “compromises the very science” these organizations seek to defend. 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.

Nobody who has read my thoughts on this issue, and who is interested in representing them fairly, could ever accuse me of asking scientific and educational organizations to tout atheism as the sole position consistent with evolution.  As I have stated repeatedly, my position with respect to organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science education is this:  leave religion completely out of the discussion.  Do not, say I, take a position on the issue, either one of compatibility of evolution and faith, or the sole compatibility of evolution with atheism.  Don’t take any position on the issue — just sell evolution on its merits as a theory which happens to be true.  Or, if these organizations simply must say something, say this: some scientists feel that faith and evolution are compatible while others say they’re not.  Instead, these organizations present only one side: the view that scientists see faith and evolution as compatible.  And that, I think, is intellectually dishonest, though perhaps politically expedient.  (In the long term, I don’t think it is expedient.)

Want proof that this is my view? Go here and read this (written by me):

Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE?  Not at all.  I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint.  I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.  If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended.  Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education.  Leave theology to the theologians.

Everybody who has discussed these issues recognizes that this is my view — except for Kenneth Miller.  Has he not read my pieces?  Or is he trying to score debating points by distorting what I said?  It’s three for three so far in the latter camp, but there’s one more to go.  Miller says this:

Curiously, for someone so eager to defend Darwinian theory, Coyne never tells his readers that Charles Darwin was once asked the very same question — and that he gave a quite different answer. In an 1879 letter to John Fordyce, Darwin wrote: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” Absurd? Apparently this Darwin fellow must have been an accommodationist, too, at least by Coyne’s standards.

No theist himself, as he made clear in that letter, Darwin nonetheless realized that it was certainly possible for Christians to see the evolutionary process as consistent with their faith. As well he should have. His most enthusiastic proponent in the United States was the “eminent botanist” Asa Gray of Harvard. Gray, as Darwin knew, was a sincere and committed Christian, and Darwin was not about to reject Gray’s strong scientific and personal support. Nor did he find it dishonest or logically inconsistent.

Well, first of all I don’t adhere down the line to every opinion that Charles Darwin ever expressed.  Darwin said some pretty racist things, and he sometimes got the science wrong, too, as in his adherence to Lamarckian inheritance.  My opinions are my own.  But let’s look at the letter in question.  It really says this:

Dear Sir

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin

What Miller has done here is to present the first sentence of this letter as evidence that Darwin was an accommodationist, but then lop off the rest of the letter, which shows that a) Darwin had a fluctuating opinion depending on what he saw as the definition of theism and b) Darwin himself was certainly not a theist.  As for whether Darwin himself saw faith and evolution as compatible, there’s no slam dunk here for Miller, either.  Darwin takes the straight scientific line of not being an atheist in the sense of not saying, “I know God doesn’t exist.”  Instead, he professes agnosticism, which for Darwin could mean either the idea that “I don’t know whether God exists,” or “I don’t see any reason to believe in God.”  Given the history of Darwin’s views on the subject, I think he probably adhered to the “I-see-no-reason-to-believe” school, especially after the death of his daughter Annie. Regardless, though, Miller has taken his quotation out of context to make it seem that Darwin did endorse a compatibility of theism and faith.  That’s not at all what I glean from the letter as a whole.

I can’t resist pointing out that here Miller is borrowing a favorite tactic from the creationist playbook: quote-mining.  All evolutionists who have been attacked by creationists know of this trick, and our antennae twitch furiously when we see a creationist use a quote from a scientist.  We always go back and look up the original quote, which is what I’ve done here.

As an interesting footnote, there is a historical parallel here with another favorite “mined quote” from Darwin that creationists use when attacking evolution, a quote that also raises and then defuses an “absurdity” claim.  It is this famous sentence that, say creationists, shows that even Darwin thought that the eye could not have possibly been produced by natural selection:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. – Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st Ed., p. 186.

All evolutionists know that this quotation is taken out of context to twist its meaning. The quote in its context is this (Darwin is showing that the eye could really have evolved by a gradual process in which each step was adaptive):

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of Spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei [“the voice of the people = the voice of God “], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

In the very short introduction to his piece, Miller manages to misrepresent my views three times (and not subtle misrepresentations, either) and throw in  an out-of-context quote as well.  Is there any hope that we can have a meaningful argument?  Tomorrow we’ll continue with Miller’s claim that I have misrepresented him — by saying that he tries to inject faith into his scientific views.