Friday, 31 July 2009

Book Review: Only A Theory

The Dover trial was worldwide news, the notion of Intelligent Design and the fate of science itself was mainstream news. Even then-Prime Minister John Howard weighed in on the matter, claiming that schools should 'teach the controversy'. Now my memory of the event may be a little fuzzy, but the debate here went along the lines of the state education systems saying "fuck off, it's not science". While they may have been more polite than my recollection of the events, this case was landmark and attracted global attention.

What really drew me into the whole debate was a lecture a housemate linked me by a biologist named Ken Miller, where he outlined ID and the challenge it posed to science. From there I was hooked and in the last few years through the wonders of the internet I've been drawn in to this debate. Ken Miller beyond anyone else has been the public face of this debate in terms of science, so it's only fitting I read his take on what this is really about.

The book does something all arguments should do, framed the case for what he is arguing against in a fair manner then dismantled it piece by piece. But this was not the purpose of the book, only a microcosm of the wider argument at hand. ID is not about bringing a new unifying theory of biology to the classroom, it's a means of subverting the materialistic process of science - that methodological naturalism is being attacked with evolution as the point of weakness.

He brilliantly sums up the public controversy, and just why it is boiling over on the pits of academia. And the majority of this book is dedicated to explaining the importance of science, trying to explain methodological naturalism and why it is such an important too. But this is not an atheist assault on theism, Miller is a theist himself. And seeing a theist come out in such defence of methodological naturalism (as the name suggest, it is a method not a philosophy) is important to dissect this notion that science is an inherently atheistic enterprise.

One thing did irk me though, his explanation of resolving the anthropic principle seems a false dichotomy. That one needs faith for God or the multiverse to account for why this universe is so primed for life. While I can understand that could be a position for theism, to characterise it as atheists needing to have faith in a multiverse just missed the point to me.

To use an analogy, 200 years ago before Darwin where Paley gave us the watchmaker argument and Lamarck had his species change themselves notion. In the absence of Natural Selection, should one be forced to choose between a divine watchmaker and species passing on acquired characteristics? In light of modern information, we know this dichotomy to be a false one. It's neither designed nor are acquired traits inherited, variation and natural selection forms the basis of how life diversified.

I don't see what's wrong with saying "I don't know" in the absence of understanding of how the laws of nature and the ratios therein form. Perhaps I'm looking too much into what was almost a throwaway statement to give comfort that there is still a gap to put God into. But that should give an indication of what I thought of this book, the only statement I could possibly find fault with was something so insignificant that it demonstrates what a well-written book it is.

This book is worth reading for anyone who needs reminding of what is at stake if science is redefined in order to be friendly to religion, and to understand what this whole controversy is all about. I was thoroughly impressed with Ken Miller's style, he's an engaging writer and an amazing teacher. He carries the same style in his books as he does in the lectures I've seen of him (a lot of this book actually was in the aforementioned lecture, to the point where I thought I was reading the same sections twice). It's thoroughly engaging, you won't want to put it down. At least I didn't.


atimetorend said...

Thanks for posting an excellent review, I will add the book to my wish list.

"While I can understand that could be a position for theism, to characterise it as atheists needing to have faith in a multiverse just missed the point to me."

I agree with you, and think this is a strawman argument regarding an atheists faith. It is a problem that one sees it so often, and I like, "I don't know," a lot more as well. I would agree with the author that it is faith if one claims to strongly believe in a multiverse, but I doubt that is a common position (though I am speaking from ignorance here).

Kel said...

From what I can gather, there are scientific reasons to support a multiverse - that it falls out mathematically from modelling physics so there is actually some basis on which to support the multiverse concept.

As a scientific layperson, it would be ultimately foolish of me to think I know an answer that cutting edge science is only beginning to explore. There's no scientific consensus from which to go by.

As an atheist, my belief is that God doesn't exist so there is some burden of proof on me to explain why I don't think a deity is a good answer. This is something atheists seem to shirk, and that's a shame.