Ken Miller's talks at KU

Thursday (9-7-06) Ken Miller spoke at the University of Kansas on ““God, Darwin, and Design: Creationism’s Second Coming” as part of a great series we are having this fall entitled “Difficult Dialogues.” (Later we having Judge Jones, Dawkins, Genie Scott and Behe - a busy fall here at KU.) The next day Miller spoke at an extended question-and-answer period as a followup to his speech.

The first two thirds of Ken’s speech was about the state of ID today - an entertaining and substantial discussion centered on the Dover trial, culminating in the two conclusions that ID is totally vacuous as science and that ID has been thoroughly exposed as religious.

Then Ken tackled the difficult topic. I haven’t gone back and listened to the recording (more on that in a bit,) but here is a summary of the issue, taken from Ken’s speech but containing some of my own interpretation and language.

The creationist movement in general associates evolution with atheistic materialism, and thus blames evolution for all the ills of the world. However, materialism and atheism are metaphysical interpretations of science, not science itself, nor necessary conclusions from science. Religious people need to work to break that misconception by arguing for their own theistic interpretation. (Ken used the word interpretation: I don’t think that’s the best word choice, but that’s a matter for further discussion.)

That is, we need to shift the dialogue away from science, which has always been the wrong venue for the discussion of the real issues that motivate the anti-evolutionists, and turn the dialogue to the real issue, which is the subject of how we vary in our metaphysical and religious beliefs. This was succinctly summarized in a comment by Richard Wein over on PZ’s blog Pharyngula today when Richard wrote, “It seems to me that what he [Miller] is saying to creationists is this: if you want to argue against atheism then argue against atheism, not against evolution.”

Several places reported on the speech yesterday morning:

Lawrence Journal World: Biologist says evolution, religion can coexist

Red State Rabble

Paul Decelles

This morning PZ Myers posted a reaction on his blog that has been followed by a very interesting discussion, including both negative and positive things about Miller’s thesis. No matter where one may stand on the issues, it is clear that the subject does engender a “difficult dialogue” that tends to divide us more than it unites us.

We at KCFS recorded both the speech Thursday night and the dialogue session Friday morning, and we have Ken’s permission to distribute these. This morning I sent links to these files to various pro-science groups around the country, holding back from making them fully public in part because NPR plans on broadcasting the speech in early November. But this evening I decided that this subject is so important, and the reports on Ken’s speech has already sparked the discussion, that I ought to make the mp3 files of the speech and the dialogue session publicly available.

Listen to the speeches: So if you are interested in listening for yourself, go here. The sections in the speech folder entitled 04 and 05 and much of the dialogue session contain the religious issues, although the first part of the speech (01, 02 and 03) on ID and Dover are well worth listening to.

There are also zip versions of the files. It would probably be best for my little home server if you downloaded the zip files rather than streamed the individual files, if you would.

I look forward to contributing to this discussion. I think Ken has made a bold step in bringing up some critical issues. I also think that his remarks have been misinterpreted by some based on the news stories. Ken told me at dinner after the speech, and explained publicly at the dialogue session the next day, that he had just added the slides about the issue in question on the airplane coming out to Kansas, and that he is feeling his way about what the issues really are and how to frame them for constructive discussions. I would hope that even if one feels, after listening to the speech, that Ken is really wrong, one will try to add to a civil discussion on the issues rather than target Ken personally.

In fact, at dinner I offered what I think was taken as a contructive comment related to one of the main points in my recent post ID Moving On in Fighting the Culture War. Given (I take it as a given) that we need to frame issues as spanning a spectrum rather than as being dichotomous (lots of shades of grey rather than black-and-white), I think stating the issue as being about theistic as opposed to atheistic views leaves out a whole spectrum of religious and philosophical beliefs, including a wide variety of theistic beliefs which are quite at odds with each other. Replacing the false dichotomy of science or God with an equally false dichotomy of God or no-God will not be much of an improvement (even though it at least moves us in the right direction of addressing the real issues.)

I want to add one personal comment. The anti-evolutionists have a two step argument: science is atheistic, and atheisim leads to “devastating cultural consequences”, to quote the Wedge document. We need to counter both of those arguments, as they are both wrong. The creationists demonize the materialist, the atheist, the secular humanist - and we have to resist that just as much as we have to resist the other side of the creationist argument about evolution and science.

So I think Ken Miller has helped put the cards on the table. We may not agree with everything he said (my guess is that Ken, if he listens to the recordings, might not now agree with everything he said then,) but I thank him for standing up and putting his ideas and his beliefs out there for the public. These are indeed “difficult dialogues.” I hope many of us will be willing to contribute constructively to discussions about these religious issues in the months and years to come. Let’s move the discussion away from science - ID is dead - and onto the real issues of the religious and philosophical beliefs we hold and how we can live well in a society in which there is a wide diversity of such beliefs.