Glenn Branch's picture

Myers, Coyne, and a Quantum God

William Blake, "Ancient of Days" (1794)

In August, Nature published a brief review (subscription required) by me of P. Z. Myers’s collection of essays The Happy Atheist (2013). Describing the review, I think fairly, as “decidedly mixed,” Jerry Coyne recently took exception to the following sentence from it: “For example, his analysis of the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level, if amusing, is a popular rather than a scholarly treatment, and incorporates value judgements [sic: Nature insisted on British spelling] that are unsupportable by science.” Coyne complains:

I take issue with Branch’s claim that Myers’s rebuttal of the “quantum-mechanics-guides-evolution” argument is popular rather than scholarly. In fact, there is no scholarly rebuttal, for that claim is a God-of-the-gaps argument, an unnecessary add-on to science that cannot be tested. And an untestable claim is one that need not be taken seriously as either science or theology. Further, I’m not sure how “value” judgments are involved in dismissing that argument, except for the “value judgment” that science has never needed supernatural add-ons. If Branch really thinks that, then his organization, the NCSE, should dismiss naturalistic evolution as a “value judgment” as well.

There’s a fair amount of unpacking to do here.

Myers’s rebuttal of the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level is popular rather than scholarly in that it addresses a popular, rather than a scholarly, exposition of the argument: Kenneth R. Miller’s in Finding Darwin’s God (1999). Certainly Miller isn’t immune from criticism. But if Myers was serious about rebutting the idea, he wouldn’t have confined himself to Miller. As Daniel C. Dennett—no great friend of theology—advises in his recent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2013), “in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure that you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.” Not that I mean to characterize Finding Darwin’s God as the dregs, but it simply isn’t providing—and wasn’t intended to provide—a detailed treatment of the idea.

There are such detailed scholarly treatments, and (pace Coyne) there are scholarly rebuttals of them: as the philosopher Thomas F. Tracy observes in his article for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science on “Theologies of Divine Action” (2009), “The idea of divine action at the quantum level presents an ongoing direction for research, rather than a settled position.” Coyne may not be interested in such scholarship; I’m not particularly interested in it myself; and I don’t fault Myers for not being interested in it either. But if Myers is going to engage with it in his book, then I think that he ought to address it in a scholarly fashion. I don’t mean that he ought to be solemn or to festoon his essays with footnotes or to analyze every position on the table; I certainly don’t mean that he needs to feign respect for positions he finds silly. But I mean that he needs to address the “best stuff [he] can find,” as Dennett advises; he needs to take the time to understand it and to present it fairly; and he needs to articulate his criticisms clearly.

That gloss on “scholarly” responds also to Coyne’s complaint, “it’s completely unfair to criticize [The Happy Atheist] for not providing a ‘scholarly treatment’.” Since my review specifically cited three popular books—Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists (2012), Steve Stewart-Williams’s Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life (2010), and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006)—that, broadly, share Myers’s attitude to science and religion, but do a better (if not a perfect) job at accurately presenting and fairly criticizing the positions they attack, it’s at least slightly, if not completely, unfair to characterize me as offering the Courtier’s Reply to The Happy Atheist. Rather, it’s as though I’m observing that the child crying “The emperor is wearing no clothes!” is in fact pointing not to a naked emperor but to a scantily-clad noble. Candor in critique is admirable, but it's no substitute for accuracy and fairness.

Coyne could have dispelled his wonderment about how value judgment is involved in Myers’s criticism of Miller by consulting the text. For example, one (not the only) of Myers’s criticisms is, in effect, that a God who acts only at the quantum level isn’t worthy of worship. Miller, he says, is engaged in “some serious trivializing of [his] god ... [he] reduces the omnipotent, omniscient lord of the universe to a manipulator of quantum indeterminacy.” Well, leave aside the fact that Finding Darwin’s God is quite clear on the point that divine action is not restricted to the quantum microlevel—“At a minimum,” Miller writes, “the continuing existence of the universe itself can be attributed to God”—is it true that a quantum God wouldn’t be worthy of worship? However you want to answer that question, it’s hard to believe that science is going to provide the answer for you. It seems clear that whether something (or anything) is worthy of worship is not a matter for science but for axiology, the philosophical study of value.

To clarify, I am not claiming here that all arguments against the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level will necessarily involve value judgments; I am only claiming that one of Myers’s arguments did. I am also not attempting to defend the idea in general, or any specific version of it, against all arguments against it; I am only claiming that one of Myers’s arguments against Miller’s version of the idea rested on a substantive and undefended value judgment. More could be said about the rest of Myers’s arguments about the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level, and indeed more could be said about whether the idea is defensible, but I’m not going to try to to do it now (and perhaps not ever: as I said, I’m not particularly interested in the scholarship here). I stand by the judgment that The Happy Atheist’s treatment of these issues is amusing, though. (It quotes Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett!)

Let me end with a few points of agreement and disagreement. I agree with Coyne (and Myers) that the idea that God guides evolution by acting undetectably at the quantum level is untestable: the inclusion of the word “undetectably” is a clue. (But I disagree that it is a God-of-the-gaps proposal: it merely asserts, rightly or wrongly, the compatibility of divine action with our best scientific theories, whereas a true God-of-the-gaps proposal would take the current absence of a naturalistic explanation of a phenomenon as evidence of the existence of God.) I also agree that untestable ideas, including supernatural “add-ons” (in Coyne’s phrase), are not within science’s domain. But that doesn’t mean, contra Coyne, that they are not of interest to theology. I suspect that, insofar as untestable ideas are of interest to theology, theology itself is not of interest to Coyne: a waste of time at best, and probably a great deal worse. It’s evolution, not theology, that I’m interested in defending, so perhaps I’ll leave it there.