The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

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Cover of Francis Collins' book, The Language of God
Dr. Francis Collins

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief is a book written by Francis Collins and published in July 2006. Francis Collins is a renowned research scientist in genetics and Christian convert, which gives the book a unique perspective. The book's main theme is that science and religion are compatible and complimentary. Collins regards evolution as "unquestionably correct" but certain phenomena cannot be explained by materialism alone. He sharply criticises creationism and intelligent design, calling them unscientific. Many of his arguments are restatements of apologetics by C. S. Lewis; Collins often quotes from Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, Miracles, etc. He argues the case for theistic evolution, which he regards as an acceptable synthesis of Christianity and science.

The Language of God has become a popular citation for many evangelicals and apologists who rely on the scientific credentials of its author to support an argument from admired religious scientists/argument from authority. Many people have assumed that Collins is a recent convert, based on his research. In truth, he's been a Christian since the age of 27, and this decision wasn't based on any of his scientific work.

His book, along with associated interviews he has done,[1] have drawn attention to Collins' views on religion and science which has prompted a number of critical responses. In order to manage the correspondence related to his apologetics, Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation in 2007.

Contents

Introduction

Collins aims to show that, far from religion being incompatible with science, they are in fact complementary. He rejects the notion of nonoverlapping magisteria by saying they both seek "the truth" but also claims that some questions science cannot address.

"Many will be puzzled by these sentiments, assuming that a rigorous scientist could not also be a serious believer in a transcendent God. This book aims to dispel that notion, by arguing that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice, and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.[...]So here is the central question of this book: In this modern era of cosmology, evolution and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews? I answer with a resounding yes!"

He points out that around 40% of scientists believe in a God that interacts with humans. This is a common consent argument and a variant of the argument from admired religious scientists. Collins is critical of writers such as Richard Dawkins who believe science and religion are incompatible, as well as literalists who solely rely on holy books for their account of human origins. He observes that science can answer empirical questions but not questions concerning ultimate significance or meaning.

Part 1: The Chasm Between Science and Faith

From Atheism to Belief

The firsts chapter documents Collins' conversion to Christianity and the moral argument. He recounts his upbringing by free-thinker parents who were teachers/farmers. He was home schooled by his mother. Religion was not a significant part of his youth. During his undergraduate degree in chemistry, he was an agnostic. He mentions that he shared the alleged motivation of atheists: "you just want to sin".

"[...] it was convenient to ignore the need to be answerable to any higher spiritual authority."

During his Ph.D. in physical chemistry he became an atheist.

"[I concluded that] no thinking scientist could seriously entertain the possibility of God without committing some sort of intellectual suicide."

Around that time, Collins began to question his career and life choices, doubting he would be satisfied being an academic researcher. He then applied and was accepted into medical school.

"I found the relationships that developed with sick and dying patients almost overwhelming, and I struggled to maintain the professional distance and lack of emotional involvement that many of my teachers advocated. What struck me profoundly about my bedside conversations with these good North Carolina people was the spiritual aspect of what many of them were going through. I witnessed numerous cases of individuals whose faith provided them with a strong reassurance of ultimate peace [...]"

This is related to the concept that religion is a consolation.

After a patient asked him what he personally believed religiously, and feeling he did not have a satisfactory answer, Collins began to consider the question more thoroughly. He began wondering if he was answerable to a higher power. After a brief survey of world religions, he asked local Methodist minster for guidance and was given a copy of Mere Christianity.

"[I had] avoided any serious consideration that God might be a real possibility. [...] In the next few days, as I turned its pages, struggling to absorb the breadth and depth of the intellectual arguments laid down by this legendary Oxford scholar, I realized that all of my own constructs against the plausibility of faith were those of a schoolboy."

Collins admits he had minimal knowledge of apologetics on either side of the argument. Mere Christianity was probably a bad place to start because of its shortcomings and his lack of philosophical knowledge. Collins was most impressed by the moral argument. As C. S. Lewis observed, people often tend to argue by appealing to a higher moral standard.

"What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes.) [...] If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as a cultural or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence?"

This phenomena is probably grounded in human psychology and unintended biasing by translating other cultures' concepts to English. The concept of breathing is probably universal because all humans depend on that action but it does not imply anything about the supernatural. He then goes on to argue that only humans are moral agents, despite evidence of moral behavior in non-human animals:

"As best as I can tell, this law appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness."

Sam Harris's response to this statement is thorough and compelling:

"One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast.” How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?[2]"

The author fails to provide any specific way that human morality differs from non-human animal behavior.

Collins discusses that morality could be the result of social traditions. He basically quotes and rehashes C. S. Lewis's argument that morality is universal across cultures (mostly by asserting that is the case without evidence). He argues out this is incompatible with moral relativism, which violates the is-ought problem: human behavior does not definitively tell us about metaphysical morality since human action in general could be in error. He uses the standard argument that moral relativism is self refuting:

"If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true?"

Having come to the conclusion that some god must exist, Collins addresses the issue of determining which specific god-hypothesis is suitable. He then argues that altruistic acts cannot be explained by evolution:

"Agape, or selfless altruism, present a major challenge for the evolutionist. It is quite frankly a scandal to reductionist reasoning. It cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves."

Non-human animals are also altruistic, with both dolphins[3] and elephants[4] rescuing animals of other species from dire situations. After arguing relatively carefully up until this point, Collins starts making unfounded assertions which he doesn't bother to establish:

"Was this God looking back at me? And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein…. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the Moral Law … this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment of goodness…. Faith in God now seemed more rational that disbelief."

Curiously, Collins says "...this God, if I was perceiving him at all" and then moves on to assert that belief in this God is more rational than disbelief. He thinks God wants some kind of relationship with humans and, ignoring evidence to the contrary, concludes that the God of Abraham fits the bill. He believes that this god is holy and righteous and, without supporting this moral declaration, concludes that this God must be the real one.

In a nutshell, his argument is: I can't explain X. If I consider the possibility of the existence of God, I now have answers — therefore, God is the most rational explanation. This is simply an argument from ignorance. For many believers, God is a panacea — yet God is the ultimate non-answer and serves only to end investigation.

To see this sort of argument coming from a respected scientist and physician is particularly disturbing. If Collins predecessors had accepted that God made us, evil caused diseases and prayer cured them, simply because they couldn't easily discover good explanations, he may well have been heading the 'Human Prayer and Bloodletting Research Institute' instead of the Human Genome Project.

"It also became clear to me that science [...] would get me no further in resolving the question of God.[...] the ultimate decision would be based on faith, not proof"

It is significant that the moral argument is not a scientific argument. In fact, the scientific credentials of the author are relatively irrelevant to the subject of the book, despite the DNA on cover of the book and its suggestive sub-title "a scientist presents evidence for belief". The evidence he presents is clearly not scientific. He is effectively using an argument from authority as a scientist to speak on non-scientific subjects, which is a fallacy.

The War of the Worldviews

In this chapter, the author addresses some objections to theism: wishful thinking, harm done by religion, the problem of evil and miracles. He starts with the argument that proof of God would undermine free will:

"If the case in favor of belief in God were utterly airtight, then the world would be full of confident practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world, where the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?"

Collins confuses the issue of certain knowledge of God's existence and our moral actions. It seems quite possible that I could choose to disobey God, even if I was sure he existed (this happens in the Bible frequently). Equating knowledge with coercion is nonsense. Also, if this world is not interesting, Collins just condemned the state of affairs in Heaven, in which everyone knows God exists.

"One is tempted to say that it might be more interesting than a world unnecessarily shattered by competing religious orthodoxies and religious war, only to be followed by an eternity in hell for all those who believe the wrong things about God. But, to each his own."

Sam Harris[2]

Wish fulfillment

Collins observes that the need to find meaning is almost universal and something he as experienced himself (argument from the meaning of life). He also felt a transcendent emotion at certain awe inspiring occasions (argument from aesthetic experience).

"It transports the [person] into an experience that defies a completely natural explanation."

Collins asserts there is no explanation but does not support this claim. It is quite likely that emotions such as self-transcendent emotions, probably can be explained by human psychology, either now or at some point in the future. Arguing otherwise usually results in God of the gaps.

"The problem with this wish-fulfillment argument is that it does not accord with the character of the God of the major religions of the earth. [...] Lewis argued that such wish fulfillment would likely give rise to a very different kind of God than the one described in the Bible."

If we are seeking to explain the phenomena that people seek for meaning and are predisposed to believe in God, wish fulfillment does the job. Collins now moves the goalposts in wanting that to explain everything. The character of a fictional God can probably be explained by human psychology and our other cognitive biases. Wish fulfillment does not need to explain every aspect of religion!

"So why should wish fulfillment lead to a desire for God, as opposed to a desire for there to be no God?"

Human psychology predisposes use to believe in God. The exact mechanism for how this came about is controversial but that controversy proves nothing. He then reiterates Lewis's argument from desire. While it is possible for God to be an explanation for human psychology, it remains an argument from ignorance.

Harm done by religion

Collins then turns to the argument that religion is harmful to society. He counter argues with the benefits the religious people have brought and that we live in a fallen world. He accuses atheism of being behind the worst atrocities in the 20th century. We must look beyond the behavior of "flawed humans in order to find the truth".

The problem of evil

He argues against the problem of evil by:

  • the usual free will defence,
  • "the consequence of interrupting [free will and physical laws] would be utter chaos", which also applies to natural evil,
  • "god's plan" is different from human wishes but this hardly addresses the problem of evil,
  • The Irenaean theodicy, in which God wishes for us to develop and the existence of evil is a means to that end.

Miracles

Collins then considers how a scientific view can be reconciled with the occurrence of miracles. His definition of miracles would lead to every alleged instance to suffer from God of the gaps and by an argument from ignorance. If a phenomena is unexplained at this time, it is hard to say with confidence that it will never be explained by natural laws.

"[...] a miracle is an event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural."

He then quotes C. S. Lewis to acknowledge the fallibility of humans and to point out the naturalistic dogmatism of science:

"If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say."

What both Collins and Lewis are ignoring is that miracles must either occur randomly, or by some law or principle. If we assume they are not random and they miracles interact with the physical world, this non-random phenomena would be open to investigation by scientists. Naturalism only really excludes explanations that are not observable, not predictive and therefore not testable. It is untrue to say that scientists do not consider the possibility of miracles; for instance studies have been performed into the efficacy of prayer on healing.

Also, scientists are skeptical of miracles because the evidence so far has not amounted to much. A miracle with reliable witnesses and reliable transmission are rare to non-existent.

He then attempts to apply Bayes's theorem to miracles. He argues that an unexplained recovery from a noramlly terminal illness can be analysed by Bayesian probability. In the naturalistic world view, scientists consider the prior likelihood of a miracle to be zero, so that spontaneous recovery from illness is always considered a natural event. From a theist perspective, the chance of a miracle is small but non-zero (but greater than a spontaneous recovery). In that case, unexpected recoveries could be interpreted as evidence of a miracle. However, the problem with this analysis is it is impossible to determine the chance of recovery excluding the effect of miracles. Without that, it cannot be practically applied and just equates to confirmation bias.

Also, probability is a poor model for the behavior of a perfectly rational being. If God intervenes in human affairs, would he not do it consistently?

"Miracles thus do not pose an irreconcilable conflict for the believer who trusts in science as a means to investigate the natural world [...]"

Part 2: The Great Questions of Human Existence

The Origins of the Universe

Science, argues Collins, is always adapting to new discoveries. He mentions the Catholic church's resistance to Galileo Galilei's ideas about heliocentrism. Our understanding of science has radically changed over the last few centuries, including the idea of mass-energy equivalence, particle-wave duality, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, etc and many theories are not counter-intuitive to most people. He then references Occam's Razor and questions if materialism is entirely valid given its complexity.

"For those who arue that materialism should be favored over theism, because materialism is simpler and more intuitive, these new concepts are a major challenge."

No, Occam's razor is not relevant here because it only applies "when all things are equal" in explanatory power. A more explanatory theory always is preferred in scientific research (but admittedly not in education or in application). The problem with theism is that it is not explanatory or predictive. For these reason, scientists usually ignore theistic explanations.

He then briefly outlines the argument from comprehensibility: why is science/mathematics unreasonably effective?

The Big Bang

This section outlines the scientific mainstream view of the Big Bang. He begins to speculate with the claim that the universe began with a singularity (an infinitely dense and small point):

"Based on these and other observations, physicists are in agreement that the universe began as an infinitely dense, dimensionless point of pure energy. This laws of physics break down in this circumstance, referred to as a "singularity"."

The theory that the universe beginning with a singularity is far from settled. Scientists simply don't know what the happened that far back. Many theoretical cosmologists claim that a singularity could not be the origin of the universe. [5] The known laws of physics break down in the early universe but that doesn't mean there were not laws.

What came before the Big Bang?

"The existence of the Big Bang begs the question of what cam before that, and who or what was responsible. It certainly demonstrates the limits of science as no other phenomenon has done."

Collins assumes science can't explain something, which is God of the gaps. He then uses the argument from admired religious scientists to make a comparison between the Big Bang and the Genesis account of creation (which cherry picks the similarities).

"The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation."

Apart from being an argument from ignorance, in what way is God an explanation? God is more mysterious and complicated than the phenomenon we are seeking to explain.

"Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that."

What is that statement based on? It's an unfounded assertion.

Formation of Our Solar System and Planet Earth

The section starts with the mainstream understanding of the formation of the solar system. The sun is a 2nd or 3rd generation star because its planets contain heaver elements like carbon and oxygen. He then discusses the probability of life emerging on earth or on other planets (the Drake equation). Collins asks if the discovery of extraterrestrial life impact our understanding of God. He wonders if aliens would exhibit signs of the "moral law" that be believes applies to humans.

The Anthropic Principle

Collins then states the fine tuning argument:

"The chance that all of these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters that we observer. In sum, our universe is wildly improbably."

There are a number of problems with this. Just saying our universe is improbably commits the Texas sharp shooter fallacy. He also fails to explain how he knows the probability of complex life is low in other possible universes. Also, the parameters of the universe might not be contingent, which makes the use of probability invalid. He claims the possible options for this include:

  • a multiverse,
  • random chance, and
  • a designer.

Which ignores the non-contingent universe formed by natural processes which might one day be understood by scientists. He therefore makes a false dichotomy/trichotomy. Collins then uses the argument from admired religious scientists to stress the third option. He dismisses chance because of the low probability involved, although he never estimated that probability and has no way of doing so.

"[The multiverse] is logically defensible, but this near-infinite number of unobservable universes strains credulity. It certainly fails Occam's Razor."

The explanations "God" and "the multiverse" are not directly testable given our current capabilities. While it is perhaps appropriate to use Occam's razor, an even more appropriate response is to suspend judgement on this issue until we have some evidence. Otherwise, we are making an argument from ignorance. The firing squad analogy is also described, in which a remarkable circumstance seems to warrant an explanation.

"One must leave open the door to the possibility that future investigation in theoretical physics will demonstrate that some of the fifteen physical constants that so far are simply determined by experimental observation may be limited in theory potential numerical value by something more profound, but such a revelation is not currently on the horizon."

Firstly, it is not up to theoretical physics to establish this: it requires empirical evidence for a theoretical model to be validated. Secondly, Collins cannot reliably predict the future. Major advances in physics are not generally predictable in advance and certainly not beyond a few years. At least Collins has the integrity to admit his argument is subject to God of the gaps.

Quantum Mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle

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Laplace proposed that the universe was governed by physical laws and was therefore deterministic. He claims that quantum mechanics, discovered more recently, challenges this view because it views the universe as statistical and an observer could never measure the exact state of the universe in any case. Collins in this case ignores deterministic forms of quantum mechanics, generally known as "hidden variable theory". This theory is speculative but shows that determinism, while certainly constrained by quantum mechanics, might still have a role.

Collins claims that determinism rules out free will, which ignores free will compatibilism, which is quite popular among philosophers.

Cosmology and the God Hypothesis

"In fact, the God hypothesis solves some deeply troubling questions about what came before the Big Bang, and why the universe seems to be so exquisitely tuned for us to be here."

God is not an explanation because it is not predictive. A real explanation would explain how the universe was formed, not by who. It seems as if any explanation is adopted to avoid the "deeply troubling" uncertainty. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

"[...] the first instinct is to abolish these painful states. First principle: any explanation is better than none. Because it is fundamentally just our desire to be rid of an unpleasant uncertainty, we are not very particular about how we get rid of it: the first interpretation that explains the unknown in familiar terms feels so good that one 'accepts it as true.'"

He then makes a argument to summarize what has been said, which contains some questionable steps:

"If God exists, then He is supernatural."

Not necessarily. Many religious systems believe gods possess corporeal bodies. Apologists like defining God into existence.

"If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time."

This is denying the antecedent. God might be metaphysical and still be limited in time.

"[God] could exist before the Big Bang[...]"

Scientists don't know if there was a "before the Big Bang". This statement has a hidden assumption that has not been demonstrated. Collins that argues that a timeless creator God would have knowledge of our actions without intruding on our free will. He finds this a satisfying way to harmonise Christianity theology and science. He notes that not all religious believers agree with this approach. He finishes by criticising Biblical literalism when it comes to creation.

Life on Earth: of Microbes and Man

This chapter is concerned with the argument from design. He quickly summarizes the watchmaker analogy, but notes that analogies are not always reliable.

Origins of Life on Planet Earth

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After introducing the dating methods of Earth rocks, Collins starts to discuss abiogenesis:

"[...] rocks dating back a billion years or more show absolutely no evidence of any life forms. Just 150 million years later, however, multiple different types of microbial life are found. [...] But how did self-replicating organisms arise in the first place? It is fair to say that at the present time we simply do not know. No current hypothesis comes close to explaining how in the space of a mere 150 million years, the prebiotic environment that existed on planet Earth gave rise to life. That is not to say that reasonable hypotheses have not been put forward, but that statistical probability of accounting for the development of life still seems remote."

Again, Collins predicts what science can and can't discover, which is notoriously difficult. He mentions that early life may also frequently experienced "horizontal gene transfer" as genetic information was acquired from surrounding life independently of reproduction. He mentions the Urey-Miller experiment and that meteorites sometimes show evidence of naturally occurring building-blocks of life. The next argument on DNA is a fairly typical apologetic point, but is notable because Francis Collins is an expert in DNA:

"Beyond this point, however, the details seem quite sketchy. How could a self-replicating information-carrying molecule assemble spontaneously from these compounds? DNA, with its phosphate-sugar backbone and intricately arranged organic bases, stacked neatly on top of one another and paired together at each run of the twisted double helix, seems an utterly improbably molecule to have "just happened"-especially since DNA seems to possess no intrinsic means of copying itself."
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This point actually has validity, so we can infer that if life arose through natural processes, the first life was almost certainly simpler than DNA. The related molecule RNA also seems too complex to have arisen spontaneously. He mentions the panspermia hypothesis but notes that this does not solve the problem of where life ultimately originated. Collins rejects the notion that the second law of thermodynamics prevents life emerging naturally because "the closed system is essentially the whole universe" and our sun allows a local increase in order.

"[...] couldn't God have stepped in to initiate the process? This could be an appealing hypothesis, given that no serious scientist would currently claim that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is at hand."

It might be necessary to point out this is an argument from ignorance and God of the gaps, but Collins explains this himself:

"A word of caution is needed when inserting specific divine action by God in this or any other area where scientific understanding is currently lacking. From solar eclipses in olden times to the movement of the planets in the Middle Ages, to the origins of life today, this "God of the gaps" approach has all too often done a disservice to religion (and by implication, to God, if that's possible). Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps."

However, he claims that some of his arguments avoid this trap:

"There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge."

Collins is correct in that the analogical form of the argument from design does not have this problem. However, the analogy is quite weak and attempts to reinforce it with evidence often commits God of the gaps. Similarly, the argument from comprehensibility is widely speculative.

"In summary, [...] the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith."

Fossil record

He next outlines the history of life on Earth. Collins has no problem with transitional fossils because the chance of an organism being fossilized is extremely low and scientific understanding is gradually improving. He also dismisses the Cambrian Explosion being evidence of God because it is prone to God of the gaps.

"[...] virtually all of the findings are consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms. God evidence exists for transitional forms from reptiles to birds, and from reptiles to mammals."

Darwin's revolutionary idea

Collins outlines Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, its publication and impact. He quotes Darwin:

"I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone."

He concludes:

"No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvellous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it."

DNA, The Hereditary Material

This section describes the beginnings to genetics through to the discovery of the role and structure structure of DNA. It outlines the structure, components and operation of DNA at a popular science level.

Biological Truth and its Consequences

Collins briefly argues that understanding of evolution and DNA does not undermine the awesome complexity, elegance and diversity of life (by "unweaving the rainbow" as the poet Keats said) but rather enhances it.

Deciphering God's Instruction Book: The Lessons of the Human Genome

The author describes his involvement with the Human Genome Project which was motivated to find a cure for genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis (CF). Finding the exact genetic cause for CF "was like looking for a single burned-out lightbulb in the basement of a house somewhere in the United States". Collins was eventually selected to lead the project to sequence the entire human genome - meaning the entire DNA molecule was to be inspected and translated into an human accessible format. While the technical challenge was immense, advances in technology allowed the entire genome to be sequences, in draft form, in 2000. The project was completed in April 2003. However, interpreting the genome will likely take decades or centuries.

"For me, as a believer, the uncovering of the human genome sequence held additional significance. This book was written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being."

Surprises from the First Reading of the Genome

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So called "Junk DNA", which is not involved in protein production, appears to dominate. The "useful" DNA is only 1.5% of the total amount. The amount of genes in humans are roughly the same as many other organisms. At the genetic level, variability within the human species is very low. Many other species show a greater diversity of genetic variability. Genes of different species can be compared and similarity of genes corroborates the tree of life model. Humans share same genes with yeast and bacteria.

"At the level of the genome as a whole, a computer can construct a tree of life based solely upon the similarities of the DNA sequences of multiple organisms."

The accumulation of differences in junk DNA between species will gradually accumulate over time, which also validates evolution.

Darwin and DNA

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Collins introduces the idea of mutution in DNA. He dismisses the distinction between macro and micro-evolution.

"This distinction is increasingly seem to be artificial.[...From mutations in the EDA gene leading to a wide variety of changes,] The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is therefore seen to be rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in a new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps."

He also mentions that evolution is seen in action with drug resistant malaria, HIV, etc. as well as potentially human virulent form of H5N1 avian flu.

What Does This Say About Human Evolution?

Collins argues that the the conclusion of humans and non-human life sharing a common ancestor is unavoidable. The occurrence of ancient repetitive elements (AREs) in junk DNA make no sense if species were directly created (i.e. argument from poor design) but are predicted by evolutionary theory. Evidence is also available in the similar but non-identical ordering of genes in humans and mice, the traces of gene fusion in our chromosome 2 (it has extra telomeres and centromeres), and the existence of pseudo-genes (that are corrupted and non-functional in one species but complete and functional in another species).

"Unless one is willing to take the position that God has places these decapitated AREs in these precise locations to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable."

The idea that God reused the same design principles on multiple species does not account for "silent" mutations being shared between closely related species (GAA and GAG both code for glutamic acid).

Despite the triumph of genetics, Collins argues that some human attributes cannot be explained in terms of materialism, include "knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God".

Evolution: a Theory or a Fact?

Collins, an expert in genetics, claims that evolution is "unquestionably correct" and quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky:

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
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He observes that evolution is "a source of great discomfort in the religious community over the past 150 years, and that resistance shows no signs of lessening". He then explains why claiming evolution is "only a theory" is a misunderstanding of what "theory" means in science.

Part 3: Faith in Science, Faith in God

In Part 3, Collins sets about trying to find a "happy and harmonious synthesis" between theism and science.

Genesis, Galileo, and Darwin

He describes the tensions between literalist and non-literalist Christians. He recounts Christians walking out of talks he has given when he mentions the evidence for evolution or evolution as part of God's plan. He laments that public acceptance of evolution in the US is so low.

Reasons for Lack of Public Acceptance of Darwin's Theory

Collins considers the reasons for lack of acceptance to include:

  • the theory is counter-intuitive and outside normal human experience
  • the difficulty in grasping of the immense time scales involved
  • the perception that evolution is incompatible with theism
  • it contradicts the common religious view that humans originate in a special act of creation

What does Genesis really say?

The author argues that a literal interpretation of Genesis is not justified based on:

  • The broad agreement with evolutionary theory (and the rest of science) with a non-literal interpretation. However, skeptics say the agreement is rather loose and mostly confusing.
  • Inconsistencies between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, if taken literally
  • The use of poetic language
  • St. Augustine taking a non-literal view
  • The Hebrew word for day can be used symbolically
  • "No human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be"

Lessons from Galileo

Collins draws a comparison between the contemporary debate between religion and science with the controversy about Galileo's theory of heliocentrism. Not all Catholics opposed his ideas but many attacked his theory as heretical. In 1633, he was investigated by the Inquisition and forced to renounce his theory.

"[...] few believers argue that the authors of [verses apparently supporting heliocentrism] were intending to teach science. Nonetheless, passionate claims were made to that effect implying that a heliocentric system would somehow undermine the Christian faith."

Of course, the Catholic church officially accepted Galileo was correct in 1992.

"The claims that heliocentricity contradicted the Bible are now seen to have been overstated, and the insistence on a literal interpretation of those particular scripture verses seems wholly unwarranted. [...] Unfortunately, however, in many ways the controversy between evolution and faith is proving to be much more difficult than an argument about whether the earth goes around the sun. After all, the evolutionary controversy reaches into the very heart of both faith and science."

Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism (When Science Trumps Faith)

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Collins describes religious belief in the context of the NASA space programme. On Christmas Eve 1968, during a live TV broadcast from space, Genesis 1:1-10 Bible-icon.png was read. Soon after, the atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair sued NASA over violation of the first amendment. (The case was dismissed over lack of jurisdiction.) Collins considers this to be unreasonable silencing of religion by atheists:

"A militant atheist taking legal action against a Bible reading by astronauts circling the moon on Christmas Eve: what a symbol of the escalating hostility between believers and nonbelievers in our modern world! No one objected in 1844 when Samuel Morse's first telegraph message was "What hath God wrought?" Yet increasingly in the twenty-first century, extremists on both sides of the science/faith divine are insisting that the other be silenced."

O'Hair is best known for the Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) court case that lead to official Bible reading in schools in schools being rule unconstitutional in the US. NASA is federally funded and it is important to uphold the separation of church and state. If atheists who bring these cases are intolerant and extreme, then so is the US constitution.

"Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett [...proclaim] that an acceptance of evolution in biology requires an acceptance of atheism in theology [...] The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins's claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence."

These authors are certainly critical of religion, which they call irrational, but do they really say evolution or science is incompatible with religion? It would be helpful if Collins provided a reference.

"Elsewhere I have argued that the search for God is a broadly shared attribute of all humankind, across geographic areas and throughout human history. [...] If this universal search for God is so compelling, what are we to make of those restless hearts who deny His existence?"

Collins contradicts himself by saying the search for God is both universal and non-universal. He then gives a rather crude history of atheism, which actually goes back to the earliest recorded history. Apologists have often used animals and plants as examples in the argument from design. Since evolution provides a materialist explanation, this has undermined apologist efforts. It could be argued that evolution only undermines immature and irrational religion, since those theists based it on God of the gaps.

Collins criticises Dawkins for allegedly saying that evolution explains biological complexity, "so there is no more need for God". He says that argument is irrelevant because that's not his God. Collins seems to forget that many (but not all) apologists do use this argument, so it is hardly a straw man. He also objects to the claim that "religion is irrational" and rejects the claim on the grounds of that's not his God and an argument from authority of historical Christians who thought they were rational. This does not seem to address the point Dawkins is trying to make. He latches onto the claim that Dawkins wants to encourage an altruistic attitude, claiming that be believes in "the Moral Law". However, Dawkins doe not say our decisions are based on some metaphysical or absolute standard - theists don't have a monopoly on virtue. Speaking of strong atheism, Collins says it is based on faith:

"If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason."

While he is right that a deistic god cannot be proved or disproved by science, he seems to overlook the arguments against the existence of the Christian God, such as the argument from nonbelief, the argument from incompatible attributes, the Argument from locality, the argument from the attributes of God, etc. These arguments are a non-faith basis in the belief in the non-existence of the gods of mainstream religion.

One major problem is the Collins does not address agnosticism or weak atheism as a position or worldview. He listed 4 options but he seems to have missed a significant option making it a false dichotomy.

Option 2: Creationism (When Faith Trumps Science)

This section outlines the various creationist positions, starting with Young-Earth creationism (YEC). He considers YEC to be incompatible with science.

"If these claims were actually true, it would lead to a complete and irreverible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology, and biology."

He again calls for a non-literal reading of Genesis.

"Many believers in God have been drawn to Young Earth Creationism because they see scientific advances as threatening to God. But does He really need defending here? Is not God the author of the laws of the universe? Is He not the greatest scientist?"

He describes attempts of creationist apologists to defend their view by saying evidence was placed by God to mislead some us. However, the massive scope of the deception would undermine the character of God. Collins says creationism has reached "intellectual bankruptcy".

"Young Earth Creationism does even more damage to faith, by demanding that belief in God requires assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the world. Young people brought up in homes and churches that insist on Creationism sooner or later encounter the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice that then face! To adhere to the faith of their childhood, they are required to reject a broad and rigorous body of scientific data, effectively committing intellectual suicide."

Collins makes this plea to fellow evangelical Christians:

"As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted. But those battles cannot be won by attaching your position to a flawed foundation."

Option 3: Intelligent Design (When Science Needs Divine Help)

This section gives a quick overview of intelligent design. Collins considers ID to be based on the ideas of:

  • Evolution promotes atheism. "This, while ID is presented as a scientific theory, it is fair to say ithat it was not born from the scientific tradition",
  • Evolution is flawed and cannot account for irreducible complexity. '[...]the main scientific argument of the ID movement constitutes a new version of Paley's "argument from personal incredulity," now expressed in the language of biochemistry, genetics, and mathematics.'
  • The best explanation for biological complexity is an intelligent designer.

He does not consider ID to be scientific because it is not predictive:

"First of all, Intelligent Design fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory. All scientific theories represent a framework for making sense of a body of experimental observations. But the primary utility of a theory is not just to look back but to look forward. A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification. ID falls profoundly short in this regard."

ID also proposes no mechanism for genetic information to be introduced by a supernatural force. Michael Behe suggested organisms carry the information for future requirements, which is switched on at the appropriate time. Collins points out that mutation would cause non-functional genes to become corrupted. As science has made progress in many areas of genetics, it appears that ID is God of the gaps:

"Major cracks are beginning to appear, suggesting that ID proponents have made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.[...] But each such new puzzle piece provides a natural explanation for a step that ID had relegated to supernatural forces, and leaves it proponents with smaller and smaller territory to stand upon.[...]Various cultures have traditionally tied to ascribe to God various natural phenomena that the science of the day had been unable to sort out-whether a solar eclipse of the beauty of a flower. But those theories have a dismal history.[...]Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith."

He also points out the ID suggests that God needs to keep intervening to fix shortcomings with his design.

Option 4: BioLogos (Science and Faith in Harmony)

In this chapter, Collins puts forward his view of theistic evolution (TE).

"The need to mind my own harmony of the worldviews ultimately came as the study of genomes [...] I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this as the master plan of the same Almighty who cause the universe to come into being and set its physical parameters just precisely right to allow the creation of stars , planets, heavy elements, and life itself."

He starts by an argument from authority of people who accept this view. He lists the premises:

These premises also occur in common apologetic arguments: the first cause argument, the fine tuning argument, the argument from abiogenesis and the moral argument. He claims that these assumptions are compatible with the view that:

"God, who is not limited to space and 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. This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world.[...] this synthesis has provided for legions of scientist-believers a satisfying, consistent, enriching perspective that allows both the scientific and spiritual worldviews to coexist happily within us."

Collins answers some objections to theistic evolution. He says that TE is not widely known, with only a few public advocates, so its acceptance has been limited. The primary goal of the book seems to be to rectify that situation.

"On the religious side of the divide, few prominent theologians are currently familiar enough with the details of biological science to endorse this perspective confidently in the face of massive objections from the advocates of creationism or Intelligent Design."

The concept also has a "terrible name", so Collins sets about renaming it:

"We need to start afresh. My modest proposal is to rename theistic evolution as Bios through Logos, or simply BioLogos."

Collins attempts to address to problem of God of the gaps by saying it is intended to answer non-scientific questions:

"For the atheistic scientist, BioLogos seems to be another "God of the gaps" theory imposing the presence of the diving here none is needed or desired. [...] it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul."

Of course, proposing something as the answer doesn't make it the answer, or make a meaningless question meaningful. Also, adopting an answer just because it provides significant to human life is the same as the argument from the meaning of life.

Theists also object to TE because evolution seems to be "apparently random, potentially heartless, and inefficient".

"How is this consistent with the theological concept that humans are created "in the image of God" Genesis 1:27 Bible-icon.png?"

Collins points out that apparent randomness would not appear so to an omnipotent and omniscient being. God could know the future and set things in motion to result in our current universe.

"This, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process. [...Genesis] can best be understood as poetry and allegory rather than a literal scientific description of origins."

He quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky:

"Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology."

As for Adam and Eve, he notes that they do not read like historical accounts (similar to Jonah and Job), while other sections of the Bible are apparently historical.

"In that context, I find theistic evolution, or BioLogos, to be by far the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying of the alternatives. This position will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries."

Collins did not properly consider agnosticism but presumably he finds it spiritually deficient. He finishes with a call for acceptance of both scientific knowledge and religious belief.

Truth seekers

Collins recounts is volunteer experience as a doctor in rural Nigeria. He became frustrated by the systemic problems that caused preventable illnesses in local farmers. After successfully saving a farmers like using a risky procedure (because of the lack of facilities), he was assured by the farmer that he was was send to save him (presumably by god).

"We are each called to reach out to others. On rare occasions that can happen on a grand scale. But most of the time it hapens in simple acts of kindness of on person to another.[...] I was in harmony with God's will, bonded together with this young man in a most unlikely but marvellous way. Nothing I had learned from science could explain that experience. [...] It is the love that seeks no recompense. It is an affront to materialism and naturalism."

He reiterates the existence of Moral Law as the most personally persuasive evidence for God. He says the Moral Law implies a God who is personally interested in humans ("deism wouldn't do for me"), and the cosmological argument implies God is a creator. However, even given these attributes, "this still seems awfully abstract." He believes prayer is a way to understand and relate to God.

Speaking of Jesus, he makes an argument from uniqueness:

"He was a man who not only claimed to know God, He claimed to be God. No other figure I could find in any other faith made such an outrageous claim."

Collins notes that there are many interpretations as to the resurrection of Jesus but finds they all have in common "a bridge between our sinful selves and a holy God".

He claims that the gospels are eye witness accounts, which they probably weren't. He accepts the names attributes to the gospels are the actual authors, which is not historically accurate. He mentions the history by Josephus further evidence.

Collins shares more of this personal story of conversion but believes "each person needs to seek out his own particular path to the truth." He relates a particular aesthetic experience:

If three streams proves the Trinity, does several streams prove polytheism?
"On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

A profile in Time magazine adds that a particularly compelling aspect of the waterfall was that it had frozen in three separate streams. This struck Collins as a representation of the trinity, further supporting his desire to convert to Christianity. It's fortunate that he hadn't spotted a waterfall frozen into only two streams and that he was already predisposed to accepting the Christian trinity and not some other triune god.

"Finally, one morning in 1978, while hiking in the Pacific Cascades, he came upon a massive, frozen, three-stream waterfall. To him it recalled the Trinity.[6]"

"If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything."

Sam Harris[2]

Neither the beauty of a natural object nor the specific trisection of this waterfall serve as evidence of any god — and they certainly don't confirm the existence of a specific god. Collins simply turned off his rational mind and, convinced that science could not explain beauty, complexity or order, took a leap of faith to the most comfortable conclusion. On the other hand, this was not the only reason Collins decided to convert to Christianity.

He again calls for a synthesis of science and religion:

"Nevertheless, science alone is not enough to answer all the important questions. The meaning of human existence, the reality of God, the possibility of an afterlife, and many other spiritual questions lie outside of the reach of the scientific method.[...] Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth."

He calls on theists to consider science as a "celebration" of the grandeur of God and a "form of worship", rather than a threat to belief.

He exhorts skeptics to see that religion does not equate to irrationality. He again criticises strong atheism (and he ignores weak atheism again):

"It is hoped that the arguments presented within this book [...] will convince you that of all possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational."

This does not seem to follow from what he said earlier because he believes both strong atheism and religion are based on faith. That would make both worldviews equal in validity.

"[...] admitting the inability of science to answer all questions can be a blow to our intellectual pride-but that blow needs to be recognized, internalized, and learned from."
"It is time to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit. The war was never really necessary."

References

  1. [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Sam Harris, The Language of Ignorance, August 15, 2006
  3. [2]
  4. [3]
  5. [4]
  6. David Van Biema, Reconciling God and Science, July 10, 2006

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