Interview with Professor Kenneth Miller – Professor, Brown University

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Kenneth R. Miller is a Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Professor Kenneth Miller: I was born and raised in Rahway, New Jersey, which is part of the New York City metropolitan area. My Dad was in the Army, and was stationed in Fort Dix, NJ, in 1944 when he attended a local dance event for GIs and met the high school girl who would become my Mom.

My Dad, who grew up in Indiana, graduated from high school and spent two years studying for the priesthood before he decided that the life of a priest was not for him.  Then, WWII intervened, and he spent the next four years in the service. He was trained in communication circuitry during the war, and worked off and on for subcontractors of the telephone company in NJ after I was born.  My Mom had trained as a secretary in high school, and worked for many years as a medical assistant to two doctors in town.

Our family wasn’t very well off, so after a few years we had to move in with my Mom’s parents, so three generations shared that house. I attended the public schools in Rahway, and graduated from Rahway HS. I was awarded a college scholarship by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and studied Biology at Brown University. I earned my PhD in Cellular Biology at the University of Colorado, supported by a National Defense Education Act fellowship.

I was pretty busy in high school, being elected student government president as well as Governor of New Jersey Boys State, which led to a senior year where I traveled throughout the state giving speeches at American Legion events (since the Legion sponsors Boys State). I was also a varsity swimmer (a sport I continued in college), an Eagle Scout, and worked summers as a lifeguard.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic (my Dad’s faith) although my Mom converted to Catholicism only after I was born.  My Mom’s parents, whom I loved dearly, were Methodists, although they rarely attended church.  My Dad was determined that his boys would go to public, rather than parochial, schools, and I thank him for that.  As a result, I had friends of all faiths, and some of no faith at all.

JacobsenWhat levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Miller:  As noted, I graduated from Rahway High School, and then earned a BS and then a PhD in Biology, so that’s the extent of my formal education. In addition to my interests in science, I have always been a voracious reader, and that led to an interest in writing. In college I took several courses in literature, and even enrolled in a poetry workshop course. I published a couple of poems in a campus magazine, and continued to write poetry in graduate school, even participating in a couple of public poetry readings. In retrospect, I’m glad I picked science as a career path rather than poetry, but the discipline of verse writing clearly made me a better writer, and I believe that is reflected in the books and articles I have written as part of my professional life.

Jacobsen: You, in some ways akin to the brilliant and underappreciated Eugenie Scott – or Darwin’s Golden Retriever, amount to a living American monument, in regards to the personal role in one of the landmark moments in the evolution and creationism sociopolitical, and educational system, controversy. In reflection on the progress since the Kitzmiller v Dover (2005) trial, what is the educational system, in terms of biological sciences, looking like now, compared to 2005?

Miller: It is now nearly 15 years since the Kitzmiller trial, in which I was an expert witness, and it’s very clear that the outcome of the trial was a pivotal event for science education in America. The precedent set by the trial took the steam out of the “intelligent design” (ID) movement, and made it clear to school systems across the country that there would be severe First Amendment issues with any attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution for religious reasons. As a result, evolution is now part of the required science curriculum in every American state (yes, even Texas!), and formal efforts to introduce ID into state curricula have failed repeatedly. That’s a good thing.  However, the pressure has not abated, and we continue to see efforts to introduce “alternative theories” into the science classroom under the guise of “academic freedom” bills that have been introduced in several state legislatures. The National Center for Science Education, with which I am affiliated, and dozens of state “citizens for science” organizations have successfully parried nearly all of these efforts.

Jacobsen: The Roman Catholic Christian hierarchs, probably, do not want to repeat the mistake of the dealings with Galileo Galilei. Prominent science popularizer and astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson argues for a caveat, of course, to the Galilei affair with the unpleasant demeanor of Galilei as a non-trivial factor to consider in the eventualities of the case. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates, who meet periodically for scientific reasons and will offer advice to the Holy See upon request. What else have been some proactive efforts of the Roman Catholic Christian hierarchs and, potentially, laity who are educators in biological sciences to prevent this Galilean fiasco happening once more?

Miller: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that the Church today realizes that they handled the Galileo thing rather badly, and doesn’t want to see anything like that happen again! It’s worth noting, as Dr. Tyson pointed out, that a personality clash between Galileo and the Pope had as much to do with the suppression of his work as any doctrinal objections. 

The Catholic Church has, in fact, been a major sponsor of scientific research over the past few centuries.  Despite the many failings and, yes, crimes of the institutional Church, Catholic institutions like the Vatican Observatory and Catholic colleges and universities have supported scientific research and educated whole generations of scientists.  It is also worth noting, with respect to evolution, that four popes (Pius XII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) have spoken or written in support of the theory of evolution. No doubt to the surprise of many non-Catholics, the Church has actively supported and promoted scientific research and science education for centuries.

JacobsenIn terms of the opposition to the teaching of evolution by natural selection, broadly speaking, what has been their efforts to distort the reality of evolution by natural selection, miseducate the young, or simply lie for socio-political points?

Miller: These efforts have taken many forms, some of them attracting very little public notice.  Teachers everywhere report informal pressure from parents and occasionally from students to skip or water down their treatment of evolution, despite state standards requiring it to be taught. Anti-evolution organizations like the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis churn out a steady stream of anti-evolution talking points, which are occasionally picked up by state and local groups hoping to challenge the teaching of evolution in their local schools. And I have already mentioned the “academic freedom” bills that regularly appear in state legislatures.

Very few of these efforts are overtly religious. Rather, they do their best to sound scientific by arguing that evolution is disproven on the basis of thermodynamics, information theory, the complexity of the genome, or by gaps and inconsistencies in the fossil record.  Then, while they provide absolutely no evidence supporting special creation or intelligent design, they argue that these “theories” must be considered since they are the only possible alternatives to the theory of evolution.  In effect, they have placed their ideas, without any scientific support, as the default explanation in the event evolution is rejected.

Jacobsen: Based on the recent book by you, what is the central argument for free will within an evolutionary context?

Miller: To be clear, in my book The Human Instinct, I did not claim to have discovered a neurological basis for free will. Rather, I argued that many of the determinist arguments against free will are not valid. These include a set of well-known behavioral experiments, in which Benjamin Libet claimed that the brain’s decision to act in a certain way occurs subconsciously (and therefore deterministically) before we become aware of it. Like Daniel Dennett, I disagree with Libet’s claim that these results demonstrate anything like an absence of free will in decision making.

Instead, I argue that much of the resistance to the concept of free will comes from those who actually wish to make a case for a purely physical concept of brain action that denies a spiritual soul, and thereby excludes the spiritual or mystical from human thought and activity. Well, I also am a physicalist in the sense that I see no reason to believe that there is anything that happens in the brain that cannot be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry and the cell biology of neural connections. But that does not mean that the physical basis of thought denies human agency, by which I mean the capability to observe, to analyze, to consider, and then to make rational decisions. To me, that is exactly what free will means.

I make the further point that if that sort of free will does not exist, then neither does science. The reason is that science itself depends upon the ability to evaluate observations and experimental data in a rational way that allows for the brain to choose freely between possible alternatives. If scientific reason itself is predetermined, then each and every scientific conclusion of any sort is suspect.

JacobsenJohn Paul II wanted to affirm the reality of a spiritual self. How does the conceptual Roman Catholic Christian conceptualization of a soul and ensoulment connect with this argument for free will if at all? 

Miller: Many people would argue that ensoulment is the very essence of free will, and that human agency is couched in the spiritual soul. I don’t agree, since I believe that independent decision-making is based in the dynamic circuitry of the brain itself. I do think that the concept of the soul as the spiritual reflection of human individuality is important to Christianity, and would agree with JP-II’s point that science is not competent to investigate the reality of the soul, since the soul itself would have to be a spiritual entity, not a physical one.

Jacobsen: In terms of the teaching of evolution by natural selection and adherence to Roman Catholic Christian theology and suggested practices, following from the previous question, why does this exist, potentially in principle, beyond the confines of science to investigate, as a metaphysical – not a supernatural – question?

Miller: I take your question to mean why ensoulment or any question worth asking should be beyond the competence of science to investigate.  Indeed, there is a philosophical concept often called “scientism” which suggests that science is indeed the right way to answer any question, or at least any question worth asking. The interesting thing about scientism is that science itself can provide no support for its claim that it alone has access to all things knowable.

Let me be clear. Science is the best method we are ever likely to discover for exploring, explaining, and understanding the physical world, including the world of life. But certain questions very clearly lie beyond the competence of science to approach.  Some of these are philosophical, dealing with meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, the essence of virtue, the reality of love.  Others, such as the ultimate origin of the universe or the sources of the laws of physics, are existential in that they are unlikely to be solved by scientific approaches. We cannot, for example, explain why the fundamental constants of nature hold the values that they do, or, in the words of many philosophers, why there is something rather than nothing. This does not negate science in any way.  Rather, it is a recognition that some questions are beyond the power of science to answer.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Miller: Given the nature of your blog, I would suspect that very few of your readers are theists, and perhaps many of them are suspicious of the commitment to science of anyone who professes a belief in God, as I do. Let me assure them of two things. First, communities of faith have a long history of nurturing, supporting, and promoting the practice of science. Think of the great scientific contributions of the Islamic caliphate, as well as the Christian medieval university system, which gave rise to major advances in the physical sciences and astronomy. Second, I would make a point shared by nearly all of the scientists I know who would identify as believers — that is, that any faith that might require the rejection of science is not a faith worth having. This is not because science in any was proves or justifies our faith. Rather, to take a phrase from Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, it is because our faith in God justifies science itself.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Miller.

Miller: My pleasure! Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

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