Francis Collins' "The Language of God"

I received Francis Collins' The Language of God as a gift from my parents some time ago (I think it was for my birthday last year), and hearing the book mentioned in a debate I recently watched has provoked me to finally get around to writing a critique of this book.

Francis Collins holds a special place in the heart of modern believers because, in addition to being a devout Christian, he's also an esteemed scientist. Francis Collins headed the project that sequenced the human genome. He's certainly every bit as laudable in his field as someone like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennet. Like Kenneth Miller, the evolutionary biologist who led the charge against Intelligent Design in the infamous Dover trial, Francis Collins believes that science and religion reinforce one another and are both integral to the human experience. This stands in stark contrast to someone like Dawkins, who argues that science and religion are inherently and irreconcilably in conflict.

So, I've read Collins' book. And, being that I'm still an atheist, I obviously didn't find it to be very persuasive. Not only do I think Collins fails to provide compelling evidence for belief in God (much less his specific god), but I think he also stands as a fine example of why Richard Dawkins is right — that science and religion are incompatible.

But first, credit where credit is due. Collins is no creationist. He's doesn't hawk Intelligent Design. He's a scientist, and he often states positions he knows may be troubling to some believers. As science unravels the mysteries of the world, those whose faith hinged on finding God's miracles in our ignorance are finding the pillars of their faith slowly eroding. Collins, however, views scientific enlightenment as a boon to faith — even a celebration of it. Everywhere he looks in nature, Collins sees evidence of God's divine hand. Unlike many Christians, Collins seems well aware that the complexity of natural things is not, in itself, evidence of God's existence.

But, Collins is also guilty of a sort of intellectual compartmentalization. While in many instances he seems to rebut the "God of the Gaps", I found him to be in many instances "shifting the goalposts" — that is, conceding and even celebrating that science has filled many gaps in our knowledge, while claiming God's hand as an explanatory device for many modern scientific mysteries.

After spending much of the book explaining why he finds anti-scientific religious fundamentalism, atheism and Intelligent Design to be untenable, Collins summarizes his beliefs with an argument that seemingly embraces both science and faith, which he calls "Theistic Evolution". The cornerstone of his arguments center on six major premises (page 200):


1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago

2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.

6. But humans are also unique in ways that deft evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.




Collins continues with the following summary:


God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.




He goes on to briefly discuss why he believes in Christianity specifically, but I won't concern myself with those arguments for the time being. First, I'll take his arguments in the order which he presents them. Anyone familiar with atheist literature, including this blog, should not find any of Collins' arguments to be new.


1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago

Like many theologians, Collins' finds the apparent "beginning" of the universe to be evidence of God's existence. But there are two major problems, both philosophical and scientific, with this position. Philosophically, the idea of the universe coming into being ex nihilo is just as problematic for the believer as the non-believer; the believer is simply postulating some sort of extrinsic, causal force and arbitrarily designating it as "God". The argument seems sensible enough if one already believes that God exists, but it does not provide plausible evidence for God's existence because it fails to prove that this causal factor must be God. Even if such an external causal force was necessary to bring the universe into existence, by what measure do we justify calling it "God"? It could be literally anything at all that our imaginations can conjure, all of them equally (im)plausible and unfalsifiable. Finally, such a cause is logically invalid — causality requires time (specifically linear time), and if the universe did not exist, time and causality would not exist either.

The second problem is that scientifically, the Big Bang is not the "beginning" of the universe, as it is often mischaracterized to be; it is the expansion of the universe from a finite point. Why the universe expanded as it did, why it is expanding at the rate that it is, the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the universe are all being intensely investigated by modern cosmologists. But the greater issue is that our mathematical models are so limited, and our knowledge of the universe so sorely incomplete (most notably with regard to a theory of quantum gravity), that we have no basis for making an assumption such as "the universe arose ex nihilo". Any reasonable person must simply concede that there is too much we don't know about the universe to draw conclusions about its nature.




2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

Collins is again guilty of "shifting the goalposts". He spends a great deal of the book debunking theological positions that the apparent design of biological life is evidence for the existence of God, but here he asserts that the apparent design of the universe itself is evidence for the existence of God. Of course, it could be evidence of anything at all — superintelligent aliens from another dimension who created our universe, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or anything else. Why should it be evidence of "God" alone?

The fine-tuning argument makes two broad assumptions: that the universe could be different, and that life could not form under different conditions. The former is entirely speculative; as per the previous argument, we have no basis to assume the universe arose "from" something else at all and thus was ever "tuned" to begin with. Perhaps, as the famous physicist Stephen Hawking postulates, the universe is neither created nor destroyed, but simply IS. And while it's true that life as we know it could not arise if certain laws were different, we also do not know what other variables might allow for some kind of life. If the universe were different, life might be different, but it might still exist. Popular secular author and physicist Victor Stenger has gone so far as to calculate a number of variables that would allow the universe to support life under different physical constants.[link]

Collins' statement about "massive improbabilities" is also fallacious. The probability of us being here is 100%. One cannot calculate probabilities backwards. And sheer improbability, no matter how great, must not be equivocated to impossibility. If I were to give someone a deck of cards and lay out the cards in some random order, the probability of any particular order is 1 in 10^68. And yet, we all know that some order had to arise.



3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.


These could probably be summarized under a single point instead of three. Being scientifically valid positions, I take no issue with them aside from the implication that supernatural intervention was no longer required only after evolution got under way. This seems like a rather arbitrary point. Why not say that no supernatural intervention was required after the Big Bang, or after the formation of the Sun? Perhaps Collins is again succumbing to a God of the Gaps reasoning, since the mechanism of abiogenesis is unknown, but the mechanism of evolution is well validated.



6. But humans are also unique in ways that deft evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

There are two points worth addressing here that Collins believes count as evidence for the existence of God: the ubiquity of supernatural belief in human history, and the presence of cooperative moral ideals. But contrary to Collins' assumptions, neither of these factors defy evolutionary explanation; and even if they did, he is merely shifting the goalposts yet again. In these cases though, Collins seems to be a bit oblivious to the research in evolutionary biology and anthropology that gives us strong scientific explanations for these phenomena.


The search for God

Collins argues that the ubiquity of religion throughout human history seems to point to some greater spiritual need inherent within us. But there are more than a few problems with this line of reasoning.

Religion is to some degree ubiquitous, but nothing about doctrine or dogma is even remotely so. Many religions hold no idea of a Creator (the most well-known probably being Hinduism), instead postulating that the universe is infinite. Some religions have not even worshipped "gods" at all, but ancestral spirits, animals, or forces of nature. Those that do believe in gods may believe in one god, many gods, deistic gods, theistic gods, or pantheistic gods. There is a profound lack of homogeneity among religious practices the world over. This suggests that religion may not be the product of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent Creator, but rather an evolutionary byproduct of our cognition.

All modern animals, particularly humans, are pattern-seeking animals.  We are especially skilled at facial recognition (we see faces on Mars and the Virgin Mary on toasted cheese sandwiches), and recognizing goal-oriented behavior patterns. We are much more likely to err on the side of caution, even to the point of imposing patterns that are not there. We are, it is often said, more likely to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. We are more likely to mistake a leave tumbling across the road for a scurrying animal than to mistake a scurrying animal for a leaf.

There are two mistakes a pattern-seeking animal can make: we can fail to recognize a pattern when there is one, or we can impose a pattern when there is not one. Due to the potentially deadly consequences of the former, it is no surprise that we are prone to the latter.

If a person prays for a safe trip before driving cross-country and arrives safely at their destination, they will likely attribute their pray for keeping them safe. A gambler who snaps his fingers before winning a game of blackjack may begin to associate finger-snapping with good luck and develop a superstitious habit. But we know that car accidents and Blackjack odds are statistically predictable phenomena.

It is no surprise then to find humans attributing divine intent to random processes of nature, or to believe they have seen spirits, ghosts or gods. A significant degree of supernatural beliefs can simply be reduced to pattern-recognition errors. These pattern-recognition errors also served a function as a sort of failed science. They purported to explain a host of unknowns long before the scientific method came along with empirical methodology that could falsify or validate claims about reality. Viewed in this context, the ubiquity of supernatural belief seems an inevitable outcome of our evolution, not evidence of God's existence.



Morality

Collins believes that what he calls the Moral Law defies evolutionary explanation. Aside from being an obvious "God of the Gaps" argument, it's simply wrong — there are in fact numerous evolutionary models to explain our sense of "right and wrong".

Humans, like virtually all modern animals, are necessarily cooperative, group-living, interdependent creatures. None of us has the luxury of moral autonomy; our physical health, emotional well-being and our very survival is wholly dependent on our ability to live cooperatively with one another. Nor is our innate capacity for empathy by any means unique; it has been extensively documented in creatures ranging from primates to rats. For our species, as with so many others, cooperative group living is not a choice — it's a survival strategy.

I imagine that Collins would readily accept that evolutionary models could explain reciprocal altruism — i.e., "tit for tat"; I help you, you help me. But can evolutionary models explain the actions of someone who helps others with out regard to to their own well-being, or even to their own detriment? Indeed, a bevy of cultural forces (norms that extols the virtues of giving) coupled with an exaggerated or even misdirected application of our innate empathetic responses may serve to explain such behavior. It's important to understand that our charitable actions are driven not by reason, but by emotion. If we see the image of a starving child on TV, we will inevitably experience an empathetic emotional response. For many, this response will not be powerful enough to provoke check-writing. But for some, their empathetic response will be overwhelming, and quenched only by taking action.  

Of course, it's beyond the scope of this blog to detail scientific models for the explanation of morality. But we seem to be much farther along than Collins seems either aware or willing to believe.



Cover to cover

I found Collins' book ultimately unpersuasive because in literally every case, he merely shifts the goalposts of the God of the Gaps. Perhaps evolutionary models, if they don't already do so, can account for our moral impulse with immaculate precision. Perhaps discoveries in physics in the next centuries will unravel mysteries of the universe we never imagined being capable of understanding. Many such hypotheses — such as String Theory or Stephen Hawking's "No Boundary Universe" — would undoubtedly be discomforting for believers if empirically validated to the degree of Darwin's theory of evolution. An enclosed universe without a beginning or an end, humans whose behavior is solely the sociocultural byproduct of their inner ape... these are the kinds of scientific discoveries that seem more plausible every day, and should further cause us to ponder what value, what real knowledge, faith in supernatural deities can really offer in the wake of such tangible enlightenment.





Addendum: A misrepresentation of Richard Dawkins


I feel compelled to digress just a little and address Collins' objections to Richard Dawkins and his popular atheist polemic The God Delusion. In Chapter 7, entitled "Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism", Collins accuses Dawkins of setting up a number of straw man arguments, mischaracterizing faith, and possessing a "vitriolic personal agenda". He summarizes Dawkins' arguments in three categories:

"First, [Dawkins] argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origin of humankind, so there is no need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of special creation for each species on the planet,it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution."

That's true of course, but that's not Dawkins' argument. He does not at any point assert that evolution disproves the existence of God. Dawkins asserts that evolution conclusively disproves Creationism and Intelligent Design, a point on which Collins agrees. But what Dawkins is really talking about is the "God of the Gaps"; that science has continually eroded theological ideas by providing material explanations for things once thought to be solely in the domain of the supernatural or unexplainable, and in the process has made God continually less relevant. He is arguing that when science scores points for human knowledge, theists simply reposition the goals. Now that we have a sound scientific theory to explain the complexity of all living things, theologians have in many instances given up on the argument that "apparent design" proves divine design with regard to biological life, but then resort to the same fallacious reasoning when examining, say, cosmology and the origins of the universe.

I'd also like to add that while Dawkins' argument rightly relieves The Flying Spaghetti Monster of the responsibility for multiple acts of special creation for each species on the planet,it certainly does not disprove the idea that The Flying Spaghetti Monster worked out His creative plan by means of evolution.


"Dawkins second argument is another straw man: that religion is antirational... while rational argument can never conclusively prove the existence of God, serious thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to C. S. Lewis have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible."

Dawkins is certainly well aware that many intelligent people have attempted to construct logical syllogisms to provide evidence for the existence of God. Given that a good chunk of The God Delusion is spent addressing arguments such as the Cosmological Argument and the Ontological Argument, I think it's disingenuous to suggest that Dawkins is equivocating faith with stupidity. What Dawkins is really exploring is the issue of knowledge itself — how do we really know what we claim to know? If, as Collins suggests, rational knowledge can never prove God's existence, than how are we to know with any reasonable certainty whether God exists at all?

"Dawkins' third objection is that great harm has been done in the name of religion... But evil acts committed in the name of religion in no way impugn the truth of the faith."

Dawkins spends a great deal of time pointing out the consequences of celebrating irrational thought, but he does not equivocate this to be evidence of religion's falsehood. Dawkins' position on this matter should be quite clear, since he's often stated that what are often touted as benefits of religion hold no bearing on the validity of its claims about reality. Collins' error is that he seems to presume that religious "truth" is a de facto property of reality, and should not be scrutinized with the same vigor as any other scientific claim.

Comments

  1. Nice beefy post Mike, you really outdid yourself once again. I think his arguments sound an awfully lot like Kenneth Millers.

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