The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief is a book written by Francis Collins and published in July 2006. It has become a popular citation for many evangelicals and apologists who rely on the scientific credentials of its author to support an argument from authority.
His book, along with associated interviews he has done, have drawn attention to Collins' views on religion and science which has prompted a number of critical responses. 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.
Collins aims to show that, far from religion being incompatible with science, they are in fact complementary. He rejects the notion of nonoverlapping magisteria.
- "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 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 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 believed religiously, 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 f 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 is probably grounded in human psychology and the effect of 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' 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?"
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). 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 and elephants 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.
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.
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 science. 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.  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."
- "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
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.
Cosmology and the God Hypothesis
Life on Earth: of Microbes and Man
- "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.
Deciphering God's Instruction Book: The Lessons of the Human Genome
Part 3: Faith in Science, Faith in God
Genesis, Galileo, and Darwin
Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism (When Science Trumps Faith)
Option 2: Creationism
- "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."
Option 3: Intelligent Design
Option 4: BioLogos
- "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."
Collins begins by claiming that believers are justified in accepting Christian dogma, that science offers no answers to critical questions, that science and religion are entirely separate domains and that atheistic materialism should be rejected.
The purpose of his book is to justify these positions, though he often makes contradictory claims about the interaction of science and religion and provides only anecdotal personal testimony to support his major claim.
- "...of all the possible world views, atheism is the least rational."
Collins repeatedly denounces atheism and materialism as irrational and implies that belief in God, specifically the Christian God, is a rational conclusion based on acceptance of the evidence. His own conversion story, however, appears to be based on emotional response to a number of factors. One of the factors is the argument from aesthetic experience:
- "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.
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.