I am traveling back from Brown University (on Amtrak's Acela Express train, ah, the civilization of the Northeast!), where I participated in a panel discussion on evolution and religion together with Ed Larson (Pepperdine University, author of the Pulitzer winning Summer for the Gods on the Scopes trial), art historian Mary Bergstein (Rhode Island School for Design), and Brown's own Ken Miller, twice guest on The Colbert Report, author of a popular biology textbook and of the somewhat troublesome -- if much acclaimed -- Finding Darwin's God.

I have met Ken several times before, and I think he is one of the most effective advocates for the teaching of evolution, as well as an excellent critic of intelligent design. He is energetic, quick witted, and personally likable. Still, we have our disagreements, which were evident during the panel discussion, and which we explored further -- in the amicable spirit of inquiry -- afterwards at dinner.

Ken started his presentation with the same clear thinking and powerful impact on the audience that the first part of his book displays: he quickly summarized the reasons why intelligent design is not science, why it is no threat to the theory of evolution, and why therefore the latter but not the former should be taught in public schools. But then he changed pace -- just like in the book -- and proposed a muddied concept of evolution as an intrinsic property of the universe, bound to produce beings like us. He was trying to counter what he sees as the real crux of the problem within the context of the creationism-evolution controversy: it's not that people care about the science, it's that they don't want to be the result of an accident of history, from which they derive the (non-sequitur) conclusion that there would be no meaning in their life.

But how is this view different from intelligent design, I asked Ken? During his presentation at the panel and while reading his book I had the distinct impression that he forcefully, and effectively, refuted Michael Behe-like arguments from "irreducible complexity" only to look a few levels down, to the quantum world and the basic laws of physics, to find the same God that Behe (a Catholic, like Miller) is content to find at the level of biomolecules. (Behe's argument itself is just a new version of the old William Paley one from the early 19th century, except that Paley didn't know about bacterial flagella and looked for God in the complex structure of the human eye.)

After quite a bit of engaging back and forth (at dinner) I got the following response from Ken: well, the arguments may be similar, but it is the intention that is different. According to him, Behe tries to prove the existence of a designer through (alleged) irreducible complexity, while Miller contents himself with deploying what he admitted to be a form of the anthropic principle to merely show that the existence of God is not logically incompatible with science.

This comes perilously closed to drawing a distinction without a difference, but I do see the subtle difference (again, in intention, not argument) that Ken is attempting to make.

He then proceeded to explain to me that there are essentially three ways to account for the uncanny set of physical constants that make our universe (and life in it) possible: a) it is the result of a willful creator; b) it was chance, we got lucky; c) it is just one instantiation of an infinite number of "multiverses," the multiple endlessly splitting universes that result from a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics. (There actually is at least a fourth alternative, stemming from some versions of string theory, according to which the universal constants simply had to be this way, and they are not a random sample from an infinite universe of possibilities.)

Since there is no empirical way to discriminate among the three (or four) possibilities, Ken said, he feels justified in picking the one that has more meaning for him. (How he gets Jesus, the Virgin Mary and all the rest from that, of course, is another matter. When I asked him why he believes those things rather than, say, the tales about the Olympian Gods, he replied that the latter are clearly a human-made cultural tradition. As if the Gospels or the Old Testament were in any way different.)

But, I pointed out, those alternatives -- even though empirically indistinguishable (at least at the moment) -- are not, so to speak, created equal. The latter two (or three, if you include string theory) are naturalistic and they do not pose anything other than nature to be operating in the universe. The first one, on the contrary, immediately begs the question of where the designer came from, how s/he operates and what his intentions are. (Another point of controversy during the panel was that Ken presented evolution as a beautiful mechanism that produces stunningly compelling outcomes, to which I retorted that he was then facing the well known problem from evolutionary evil: natural selection is wasteful, it kills, it causes extinction, and it does so with the huge suffering of many parties involved. Isn't the designer responsible for these outcomes of his "beautiful" mechanism as well?)

This exchange highlights how difficult it is to find a working model for a positive relationship between science and religion. As is well known to readers of this blog, I don't go for Dawkins-Hitchens-like strident atheism, though I certainly am an atheist and proud of it. I also don't go for Stephen Gould's famous "non-overlapping magisteria," which naively divides the sphere of influence of science and religion (respectively, facts and values), a philosophically untenable position (the sharpness of the fact/value distinction has been increasingly questioned in philosophy) and one that simply misses the point of the controversy (it is precisely because so many people insist in using their Bibles as science textbooks -- thereby crossing Gould's separation line -- that we have a problem).

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. She is an atheist, and her atheism is informed (though likely not solely determined) by her understanding of science. Yet, she knows that an all out science vs. religion war wouldn't be good for science, religion, or society (we've tried that, for hundreds of years).

So I think the best that we can do is to come together with moderate religionists to further a common agenda of education and religious freedom (including the freedom to be openly atheistic). But this is an uncomfortable alliance because of the fundamental difference between the two worldviews, best summarized by physicist Richard Feynman in The Meaning of It All: "I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion ... the spirit or attitude toward the facts is different in religion from what it is in science. The uncertainty that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith."