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Dr. Kenneth Raymond Miller: Professor of Biology, Brown University (Part Two)

July 8, 2014

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 5.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part One)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: July 8, 2014

Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 1,939

ISSN 2369-6885

ABSTRACT

An interview with Professor of Biology at Brown University, Dr. Kenneth Raymond Miller, examining the following subject-matter: youth and motivation for an interest in science and the natural world; early study and investigation of biology, inspiration, and pivotal moments; religious convictions; inspiration of the teachings of the Gospels, compelling historical accounts of the life of Jesus, and the logic and reason of Augustine and Aquinas for the faith; proportion of scientists and ‘elite’ scientists adhering to an evolutionary account of life; court battles and scientific investigation of ID; Dr. Michael Behe’s Irreducible Complexity and Dr. William Dembski’s Specified Complexity; thoughts on teleology in nature; influence of personal religious views on matters of science; article Nagel’s Untimely Idea (2009) critiquing Thomas Nagel’s book entitled Mind and Cosmos (2012) and extensions of the critique to the problem of evil; new book project; unsolvable problems in practice and principle in the biological sciences; thoughts on a firm adherence to straightforward communication; book recommendation; and the John Templeton Foundation essay Does science make belief in God obsolete?(2008).

Keywords: Aquinas, Augustine, Biology, Brown University, Dr. Kenneth Raymond Miller, Dr. Michael Behe, Dr. William Dembski, Gospels, ID, Irreducible Complexity, John Templeton Foundation, natural world, problem of evil, Professor, religious convictions, Science, Specified Complexity, teleology, Thomas Nagel.

10. Of course, not every individual criticising foundational claims of neo-Darwinism have religious convictions. Someone such as Dr. Thomas Nagel comes to mind. In a book review entitled Nagel’s Untimely Idea (2009), you contributed in the critique of Thomas Nagel’s book entitled Mind and Cosmos (2012). In it, you state:

He puts forward no statistical argument, no critique of the fossil record, and no discussion of molecular evolution, genetic novelty, or biochemical complexity. His subtitle notwithstanding, Nagel leaves the vast inventory of evidence for evolution untouched.

Furthermore, you point to the heart of his apparent contention with neo-Darwinian evolution. In particular, the issue of consciousness, which isolates Nagel’s focus on neuroscience. How does this critique of neo-Darwinism hold to you five years onward? In any scientific discussion, does the identification of an area of mystery in science ‘knock down’ the dominant theory in the respective field? Or does it provide more space for scientists to research, discover, and propose new explanatory frameworks?

In the very same review, I urged my scientific colleagues to take Nagel’s arguments about consciousness seriously, and these are at the heart of his critique. I believe that he has put his finger on one of the greatest mysteries of modern science, which is how the subjective experience of consciousness can arise from the cellular biology of the human brain. This is a real problem, and contemporary neuroscience does not have a solution.

Does this “knock down” evolutionary theory? Of course not. What it does is to point research in the direction of an important unsolved problem. To me, this calls to mind the chemical nature of the gene, which was one of the major mysteries in biology in the middle of the last century. The solution, of course, was found in the structure of DNA, which explained, for the very first time, how a molecule might be capable of encoding, transferring, and replicating information. To my mind, the consciousness problem to which Nagel has called our attention is exactly the same sort of problem, and it will take a breakthrough of similar proportions to solve it.

11. How do you view the relation between an objective moral foundation – in light of personal Roman Catholic convictions – and an evolutionary explanation of moral judgment through emergence in primates such as ourselves? Does this suffice to you in merging personal religious convictions and modern scientific theories? How might this extend to the problem of evil?

To be perfectly frank, this is one of the topics I am hoping to address in a book I’m currently writing. Work in evolutionary psychology has supported the notion that our moral sense is very much the product of evolutionary forces, and I find such explanations persuasive. But that does not mean that our moral sense is therefore untrustworthy any more than the fact that evolution has shaped our ability to do mathematics renders that discipline suspect. By contrast, I regard our moral sense as a tool that has enable us to ask great questions about human behaviour and search for answers that coincide with those given us by religious teachings and traditions.

12. To date, what are the greatest unsolved problems in practice in biology? Do any problems seem unsolvable in principle to you?

I don’t think that I would classify any problem as unsolvable in principle. But that might just be my inherent optimism at work. However, in my own field, I regard the protein-folding problem (predicting the three-dimensional structure of a protein from its amino acid sequence) to be absolutely critical. A couple of Nobel prizes, I’m sure, are waiting for the folks who solve that one.

Other issues include the origin of life, which still eludes us despite much progress in recent years, and the intricacies of development and differentiation, the details of how each of us developed from a single cell.

13. From my vantage, and through reading your work, I see a firm adherence to a personal principle of straightforward discussion on ‘tough’ topics. For example, from the interview in the Brown Daily Herald (2007), “But what I will say is I think that all people who profess a religious faith have first of all the duty to be modest about their own understanding.” What benefit does ‘straight talk’ play in public discourse regarding theological and scientific matters? What drawbacks arise from it?

I don’t see any reason to be guarded or indirect on any topic, including the “tough” ones. When people perceive that you are not revealing your true thoughts on a particular topic, they rightly disregard much of what you may have to say as insincere or disingenuous. That’s why I’ve always tried to avoid that and to be up front about my own values and beliefs. I find that my colleagues value that sort of behaviour, and so do the lay audiences who attend my lectures and other presentations.

14. For research and some other reading: Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, The Blind Watchmaker, The Origin of Species, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, and Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. Do you have any other recommendations for further reading?

Yes. For religious people I would particularly recommend the books of John Haught (Georgetown University), particularly “God After Darwin.” John is a theologian who has thought long and hard about the religious implications of evolution. Christians, in particular, may be surprised at the extent to which evolution fits into a traditional view of the relationship between God and his creation, as John eloquently points out.

15. Finally, to quote your essay for the John Templeton Foundation, Does science make belief in God obsolete? (2008), “I suggest that if God is real, we should be able to find him somewhere else—in the bright light of human knowledge, spiritual and scientific.” Do you have any final word on proof for God, personal witness of God, faith, spirituality, and human reason?

I do not have proof of God, and I am sceptical of those who claim otherwise. But I find something remarkable in the very fact that we, as a species, have been able to learn so much about the universe and the nature of existence. As Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” To some, this comprehensibility seems to be either inexplicable or unimportant. But to a theist, it makes perfect sense. To them, the logic inherent in space, time, and matter simply reflects the work of an intelligent Creator. What this means for science, of course, is that scientific inquiry is possible precisely because the universe is structured along lines that make it possible. To me, that is a profoundly mystical and moving experience.

Bibliography
1)  [ChristopherHitchSlap] (2011, October 24). Kenneth Miller – Evolution vs. Intelligent Design FULL. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5PJG_-XlwE.
2)  [IntronFilm] (2009, November 7). Kenneth R Miller: The Bible wasn’t always interpreted literally. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tefklqzVtpA.
3)  [IntronFilm] (2009, November 8). Kenneth R Miller: Tensions in scientists who believe in unprovability of God?. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8grzTZPPU8.
4)  [TEDx Talks] (2011, July 26). TEDxBrownUniversity – Kenneth Miller – What Makes the Brown University Curriculum Unique?. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aNp6bJCAhU#t=140.
5)  Chang, K. (2009, July 6). The Mistakes That Argue for Evolution. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/06/the-mistakes-that-argue-for-evolution/?_php=true&_type=blogs&scp=3&sq=evolution&st=cse&_r=0
6)  Darwin, C. (1859). The origin of species. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
7)  Dawkins, R. (1986). The blind watchmaker. New York, NY: Norton.
8)  Dembski, W. (1998). The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
9)  Firestone, C. (2007, September 19). Prof. Ken Miller: life as media’s darling. The Brown Daily Herald. Retrieved from http://www.browndailyherald.com/2007/09/19/prof-ken-miller-life-as-sciences-media-darling/.
10)  Forrest, Barbara & Gross, Paul R. (2004). Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
11)  Giberson, K. A. & Miller, K. R. (1998, February 9). A Somewhat Higher Opinion of God: An conversation with biologist Ken Miller. Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/CT-higher-opinion.pdf.
12)  Gutting, G., Miller, K. R., & Barr, S. M. (2013). Nagel’s Untimely Idea. Commonweal, 140(9), 14-19.
13)  Miller, K. R. (2008). Darwin’s Pope. Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Retrieved from http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/darwins-pope.
14)  Miller, K. R. (2008). Does science make belief in god obsolete?. John Templeton Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/debate.html.
15)  Miller, K. R. (2008). Does science make belief in god obsolete?: Hitchens v. Miller. John Templeton Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.templeton.org/belief/debates.html.
16)  Miller, K. R. (1999) Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between
God and Evolution. Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins, New York. 288 p. (ISBN 0-06-017593-1).
(Paperback edition appeared 10/1/00)
17)  Miller, K.R. (n.d.). Goodbye, Columbus. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/debate.html.
18) Miller, K. R. (2009, January 3). Ken Miller’s Final Guest Post: Looking Forward. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2009/01/04/ken-millers-final-guest-post-looking-forward/#.U026JvldXuI.
19)  Miller, K. R. (2009, January 3). Ken Miller’s Guest Post, Part Two. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2009/01/03/ken-millers-guest-post-part-two/#.U026SfldXuI.
20)  Miller, K. R. (2005, August 10). Kenneth R. Miller: The cardinal’s big mistake: Darwin didn’t contradict God. The Providence Journal. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/catholic/papal-letter.html.
21)  Miller, K. R. (2008) Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. Viking /
Penguin Press, New York. 244 p. (ISBN 978-0-14-311566-3). (Paperback edition appeared
6/1/09) Note: In 2009, Only a Theory was named a Finalist for Best Science Book of 2008 in CV: Kenneth R. Miller (Updated through 2009) Page 3
the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, and was also named a finalist by the National Academy of
Sciences for Best Science Book of 2008.
22)  Miller, K. R. (2005, July 12). Open Letter to Pope Benedict on Evolution. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/catholic/papal-letter.html.
23)  Miller, K. R. (2009, January 2). Smoke and Mirrors, Whales and Lampreys: A Guest Post by Ken Miller. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2009/01/02/smoke-and-mirrors-whales-and-lampreys-a-guest-post-by-ken-miller/#.U021svldXuI.
24)  Miller, K. R. (2002). The flaw in the mousetrap. Natural History, 111(3), 75.
25)  Miller, K.R. (2009, June 10). Thoughts of an “Ardent Theist,” or Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/evolution/Coyne-Accommodation.htm.
26)  The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (2010, January 12). Sixteen Notable Figures in Science and Skepticism. Retrieved from http://www.csicop.org/news/show/sixteen_notable_figures_in_science_and_skepticism_elected_csi_fellows/.

License

In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, In-sight, and In-Sight Publishing 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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