Wednesday, October 15, 2008

One person's miracle is another person's...

I've finally got around to perusing Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Miller is a first-rate biologist at Brown University and an able spokesperson in the battle to keep creationism and intelligent design out of the public school science curriculum. He is also a practicing Catholic. My admiration for Miller is such that I hesitate to take issue with him, but let me gently ask him the same question I previously asked the theologian John Haught, another Catholic and ardent evolutionist whom I admire. Both men have written books that are well worth reading, no matter what is your stance on matters of science and faith.

Miller rightly, in my opinion, takes issue with intelligent design, the notion that God intervenes in the world to direct evolution along paths that no natural process could contrive. Of course, science cannot prove that God did not at times in the past nudge evolution in a certain direction. But there is no reason to assume that he did so, and no compelling evidence that any aspect of life -- the flagellum of a bacterium, the human eye -- cannot be accounted for by variation and natural selection. "No miracles need apply" is the proper sign to hang on the door of science.

So far, cheers for Miller.

But what about this passage from the book:
Finally, any traditional believer must agree that God is able to influence the thoughts and actions of individual human beings. We pray for strength, we pray for patience, and we pray for understanding. Prayer is an element of faith, and bound within it is the conviction that God can affect us and those we pray for in positive ways.
Miller follows (and precedes) these remarks with some qualifications I was not able to follow, but I take it he believes in the efficacy of prayer. One can say about petitionary prayer what one says about intelligent design. Science cannot prove that God doesn't act in subtle ways in response to prayer. But there is zero non-anecdotal evidence that he does so. If we are going to refuse advocates of intelligent design their miracles, why do we insist on retaining our own?

If Miller's faith allows for God's interventions in response to prayer (perhaps by taking advantage of quantum indeterminacy to jigger macroscopic events) -- or to allow a virgin to conceive a son, or for that son to rise from the dead -- then why disallow a divine role in intelligent design? Once we let some miracles in the door, there is no consistent way to exclude others.

Miller suggests it is the integrity of science he wants to protect from miracles, and religious faith is something else altogether. But miracles either happen in the world or they do not, and anything that happens in the world is fair game for scientific investigation (this is presumably why the Catholic Church invokes the assistance of scientists to vet claims of miraculous cures attributed to candidates for sainthood). And keep this in mind: Science is not just a list of tentative assertions about the world. It is a way of knowing that has Ockham's Razor as a foundational principle. Why honor that way of knowing six days a week, and set it aside on Sunday?

Miller is correct when he says that science cannot explain everything, and that therefore belief in the personal, miracle-working God of Christianity is possible. Well, yes. But if we are true to the scientific way of knowing, the consistent response to what has not yet been explained is "I don't know."

(More tomorrow.)