More on Francis Collins

The virtual ink had barely dried on my critique of Francis Collins' The Language of God when I came across an essay he contributed to the Templeton Foundation. Generally, I am not a fan of the Templeton Foundation and its attempts to conflate science and religion as though each were valid forms of inquiry (there is no methodology to religious inquiry), but I don't particularly mind when they invite people of all different scientific and religious perspectives to comment on a "Big Question". The Big Question this time around was "Does evolution explain human nature?" [link] Personally, I was most impressed by the essay of primatologist Frans De Waal, of whose fantastic books Our Inner Ape and Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved I am very fond.

But I wanted to take some time to address parts of Francis Collins' essay, most notably because in his essay he addresses some of my criticisms of his book — namely, that he was merely "shifting the goalposts" and celebrating the beauty of science where it has solved certain mysteries, and celebrating the beauty of religion where science has yet to give us clear answers.

The link to the full article in PDF form can be found here, and I do recommend reading the whole thing (and the other essays available). I'll simply be responding to the parts I feel are most relevant to my critique of his book.
Scientists who share my view do not see evolution as incompatible with the Bible, and we are puzzled and distressed that so many modern-day Christians insist on an ultra-literal reading of Genesis, when thoughtful believers down through the centuries have concluded that this story of God's plan for creation was never intended to be read as a scientific textbook. We see science as the way to understand the awesome nature of God’s creation and as a powerful method for answering the "how" questions about our universe. But we also see that science is powerless to answer the fundamental "why" questions, such as "Why is there something instead of nothing?," "Why am I here?," and "Why should good and evil matter?"

On the contrary, science can do something much more profound than purport to answer such questions: it can tell us whether such questions are even valid to begin with. Perhaps the problem is not that the answers are elusive, but that we are asking the wrong questions. The important question science begs us to ask is, "How do we know what we claim to know?" The problem with Collins' position ("We see science as the way to understand the awesome nature of God’s creation")is that he assumes the existence of God and the truthfulness of his religious claims as postulates. Thus every mystery that science unveils is evidence of his God, and his God is evident in every mystery science unveils. He fails to explain why he is making such metaphysical assumptions in the first place.

Let's focus on this last question. One of the most notable characteristics of humanity, across centuries, cultures, and geographic locations, is a universal grasp of the concept of right and wrong and an inner voice that calls us to do the right thing. This is often referred to as the moral law. We may not always agree on what behaviors are right (which is heavily influenced by culture), but we generally agree that we should try to do good and avoid evil. When we break the moral law (which we do frequently, if we are honest with ourselves), we make excuses, only further demonstrating that we feel bound by the moral law in our dealings with others.
I don't want to jump ahead of him too much, but Collins appears to be walking a strangely blurred line. He insists that we all have some grasp of "right and wrong" — which, in a sense, is true. But then he says that our beliefs about which behaviors are right are heavily influenced by culture. This is not a scientifically untenable position for one positing an evolutionary model of morality. As De Waal explains in his essay, we know that many of our behaviors are shared with primates — empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, self-awareness, even culture and social hierarchies. Yet we also know that social norms have the ability to shape our concept of acceptable behavior, even to the extent that, until the last century or two, slavery was commonplace across the globe. But Collins isn't positing an evolutionary model; he's trying to show that our moral intuitions are evidence of God's existence.
Evolutionary arguments, which ultimately depend on reproductive fitness as the overarching goal, may explain some parts of this human urge toward altruism, especially if self-sacrificing acts are done on behalf of relatives or those from whom you might expect some future reciprocal benefit. But evolutionary models universally predict the need for reflexive hostility to outside groups, and we humans do not seem to have gotten that memo. We especially admire cases in which individuals make sacrifices for strangers or members of outside groups: think of Mother Teresa, or Oskar Schindler, or the Good Samaritan.
His statement that "evolutionary models universally predict the need for reflexive hostility to outside groups" is patently untrue. While it's true that out-group hostility can sometimes serve in-group solidarity, our innate empathetic drive is not arbitrarily confined to members of our own in-groups. Why should it be? To be reflexively hostile would impede our ability to cooperate with others who may greatly benefit our survival and well-being, or even our ability form in-groups in the first place. It's also quite a ridiculous characterization of the animal kingdom, in which countless animals — primates in particular — function cooperatively in some respect with various out-groups. In any case, I feel that Collins greatly overestimating the peculiarities of human behavior, and greatly underestimating their roots in our evolutionary ancestors.

We should be skeptical of those who dismiss these acts of radical altruism as some sort of evolutionary misfiring. And if these noble acts are frankly a scandal to reproductive fitness, might they instead point in a different direction - toward a holy, loving, and caring God, who instilled the moral law in each of us as a sign of our special nature and as a call to relationship with the Almighty?
The first sentence is a reference to evolutionary models I mentioned briefly in my critique of The Language Of God, namely that acts of extreme selflessness may be an exaggerated or misdirected form of the same empathetic emotional responses that drive us toward more commonplace reciprocal altruism, reinforced by social norms that associate nobility with selfless charity (it should not be difficult to understand why such norms would be beneficial to any socially cooperative culture).

Collins' fatal error, though, is assuming that since evolution shapes our behavior and evolution is primarily concerned with reproductive fitness, that behavior that doesn't contribute to our survival and reproductive fitness would be disregarded by natural selection. We are simply much more complicated creatures than that. Natural selection has merely given us traits — instincts, emotional responses, pattern recognition, etc. — that improve our likelihood to survive and reproduce. Evolution gives no mind to the outcome of these traits. For example, we are excellent pattern-recognition animals, but we often make pattern-recognition errors — mistaking the wind for a voice, the random scattering of grill marks on a toasted cheese sandwich for a divine face, or a tumbling leaf for an animal. Pattern-recognition errors clearly do not contribute to our reproductive fitness, but our general ability to recognize patterns certainly does.

Moreover, extreme altruism toward out-groups may indeed have positive long-term effects on our survival by promoting a charitable culture in which the more fortunate among us offer aid to the less fortunate as well as fostering inter-group cooperation. Of course, we do not act with the foreknowledge of such outcomes, but our altruistic behavior is the product of an innate empathetic emotional response, not a logical algorithm.

The fallacious reasoning of his conclusion is all to easy to expose by simply substituting any other unfalsifiable hypothesis for "God": And if these noble acts are frankly a scandal to reproductive fitness, might they instead point in a different direction - toward a remarkable race of benevolent extra-dimensional aliens who created us, and who instilled the moral law in each of us as a sign of our special nature and as a call to relationship with them?

Do not get me wrong. I am not arguing that the existence of the moral law somehow proves God’s existence. Such proofs cannot be provided by the study of nature. And there is an inherent danger in arguing that the moral law points to some sort of supernatural intervention in the early days of human history; this has the flavor of a "God of the gaps" argument. After all, much still remains to be understood about evolution's influence on human nature. But even if radically altruistic human acts can ultimately be explained on the basis of evolutionary mechanisms, this would do nothing to exclude God’s hand. For if God chose the process of evolution in the beginning to create humans in imago Dei, it would also be perfectly reasonable for God to have used this same process to instill knowledge of the moral law.

The logical flaw here is identical to the previous paragraph: why should we assume that any of this is evidence of "God" and not any other of the infinite number of unfalsifiable hypotheses we can conjure in our imaginations?
A deeper question raised by this debate is the fundamental nature of good and evil. Does morality actually have any foundation? To be consistent, a committed atheist, who argues that evolution can fully account for all aspects of human nature, must also argue that the human urge toward altruism, including its most radical and self-sacrificial forms, is a purely evolutionary artifact. This forces the conclusion that the concepts of good and evil have no real foundation, and that we have been hoodwinked by evolution into thinking that morality provides meaningful standards of judgment. Yet few atheists seem willing to own up to this disturbing and depressing consequence of their worldview. On the contrary, the most aggressive of them seem quite comfortable pointing to the evil they see religion as having inspired. Isn’t that rather inconsistent?

This is really a throwback to the old "if there's no God, nothing means anything" canard. Collins is really asserting that if morality is purely the result of evolution, our standards of behavior are not rooted in absolute truths. To put it another way, if morality is an outcome of evolution, then there is no real "right" or "wrong"; these are merely descriptors we assign to behaviors we find acceptable or not.

And he's right, but for the wrong reasons: "right" and "wrong" are pliable concepts rooted in evolutionarily driven behavioral instincts and reinforced through social norms. Evolutionary models of morality give us a viewpoint that is neither mystically absolute nor wantonly relativistic, but integral to our survival, happiness, and prosperity.

Collins also fails to answer how, if such divine absolutes did exist, we might possibly know them in any objective way. As I mentioned at the outset, there is no methodology to the acquisition of religious knowledge. Special revelation, feelings, visions, voices, and so forth are not valid means of obtaining truth. That is the real power in science: not just to unravel mysteries of the world around us, but to hold us accountable to our claims of knowledge. Religion remains the greatest bastion of superstitious ignorance, where unsubstantiated claims about the nature of reality are not only unchallenged by the burden of evidence, but even celebrated as virtuous. Aren't we getting too big for those britches?


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