Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review of "The Language of God" by Francis Collins

For some reason I'm having a lot of trouble writing the last two posts in the Batman series, and I was looking over some stuff I've written previously and came across a review of The Language of God I wrote nearly three years ago. Enjoy.

Francis Collins is a great scientist and a compassionate human being.  His scientific work was and is motivated primarily by a desire to help people with genetic diseases, which is admirable.  Would that all scientists be motivated by such charitable feeling.  The introduction to his book shows him at the end of the Human Genome Project explaining that he is in fact a Christian and does not feel that his faith is in conflict with science.  He criticizes Stephen Jay Gould’s view that science and faith are “non-overlapping magisteria” as unsatisfying for a cohesive worldview.  His purpose for writing the book is to show that there is “still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual worldviews”.  “Science’s domain,” he writes, “is to explore nature.  God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.”  So, “the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.”  

Collins begins his book by tracing his journey to Christianity.  C.S. Lewis figures prominently in this discussion which is quite understandable since Lewis, like Collins, was an atheist for much of his young adult life and converted to Christianity at the age of thirty.  Collins goes over several of Lewis’ apologetics, such as miracles, the Moral Law, and “the universal longing for God”.  At the end of chapter two Collins states, “There is at least one singular, exceedingly improbable, and profound event in history that scientists of nearly all disciplines agree is not understood and will never be understood, and for which the laws of nature fall completely short of providing an explanation.  Would that be a miracle?  Read on.”

The next chapter is called “The Origins of the Universe”, and Collins posits God as the originator of the universe.  Why?  Because, says Collins, science cannot explain it.  “The Big Bang,” he says,  “cries out for a divine explanation...I cannot see how nature could have created itself.  Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.”  After this he begins a scientific argument called the “anthropic principle” or “fine-tuning”.  To put it simply, there are fifteen physical constants which natural law does not predict and simply are what they are.  Scientists theorize that if any one of them had been a fraction different, life would not be possible.  Collins writes, “The chance that all of these constants would take 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 observe.  In sum, our universe is wildly improbable.”  Collins then says there are three options for explaining this.  One is that there is an infinite number of universes so the probability of at least one attaining the right physical constants approaches unity.  Collins believes this explanation “strains credulity” and violates Occam’s Razor.  The second is just to say we have been exceedingly lucky, and Collins rejects this explanation “on the basis of probability”.  The third is that it “is not an accident, but reflects the action of the one who created the universe in the first place.”  If one already believes in a God who is the first cause of the universe, then why not posit God as the cause of the fine-tuning of the universe?  Collins readily admits that whichever option you choose, each has theological implications.  He chooses to accept that the very same God who created the universe also is responsible for the fine-tuning of the universe.  Despite it’s theological implications, this is a scientific argument utilizing God as the cause of certain natural, observable and measurable phenomena.  Collins says that “one must leave the door open to the possibility that future investigation” will reveal laws that explain the values of one or more of these constants, but “such a revelation is not currently on the horizon” and “the Anthropic Principle certainly provides an interesting argument in favor of a Creator.”  

Here we need to stop a moment and examine Collins’ design argument.  Collins seems to argue for design on the basis of improbability.  However, that is a faulty argument and his real argument includes another element that he may not have recognized.  He is correct that all fifteen constants being the particular value that they are is highly improbable.  However, what is the probability of a different set of values?  In fact, it’s exactly the same.  Every possible set of values for these constants have the exact same probability, and each one is very, very low.  Yet a design inference is triggered by the arrangement we have in our universe.  Why?  This highly improbable arrangement happens to conform to an independent pattern.  Namely, the values that allow for life.  The marriage of conformity to an independent pattern and a very low probability indicates design to Collins.  In intelligent design theory, this idea is called “specified complexity” and has been formulated mathematically by William Dembski.  “Specification” refers to conformity to a pattern, and “complexity” refers to the pattern’s improbability.  Collins here is making a design inference exactly how an intelligent design theorist would make it.  So is Collins an intelligent design theorist?  Read on.  

Chapter four covers the origin of life.  He starts his treatment by going over William Paley’s famous watchmaker design argument, concluding that it is an argument from analogy and that it “cannot be the whole story”.  He goes on to examine origin of life theories, briefly mentioning the famous Urey-Miller experiment, but concludes that “at the present time we simply do not know” how life originated.  He believes it “utterly improbable” that DNA and RNA “just happened”.  “Some theists,” he says, “have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action.”  “This could be an appealing hypothesis,” he says.  “But that is true today, and it may not be true tomorrow.”  Certainly, but Collins said this about the Anthropic Principle as well.  He acknowledged that one day science may find out why those constants are determined rather than arbitrary, but that did not stop him from using the Anthropic Principle as an argument for design.  All of the sudden, Collins gets cold feet.  In the one case, he argues for design based on improbability and the fact that science cannot explain the phenomenon.  According to Collins, the origin of life is also improbable, and science also cannot explain it.  So why design in one case and not in the other?  Collins provides no answer, and the reader can only wonder why he has made a different judgment based on the same evidence.  

Collins then briefly covers a litany of subjects such as the fossil record, DNA and the genetic code, scientific evidence for evolution, historical resistance to heliocentrism in the church, interpretations of the Genesis creation account, atheism and agnosticism, and many stories from personal experience.  He then turns to creationism, intelligent design and his own view, theistic evolution.  Creationism is swept away as simply wrong, equivalent to holding that “two plus two is really not equal to four”.  Collins claims that if creationism was true “it would lead to a complete and irreversible collapse of the sciences of physics, chemistry, cosmology, geology and biology.”  Later in the book, Collins admonishes “extremists on both sides, sounding alarms that predict imminent ruin unless the other side is vanquished.”  He would do well to follow his own advice.  

Collins starts his treatment of intelligent design by claiming for it three propositions which no intelligent design theorist would actually hold without further qualification, essentially putting words in other people’s mouths and arguing against a straw man.  Collins claims that intelligent design fails to qualify as a scientific theory because it makes no predictions, showing a profound misunderstanding both of philosophy of science and intelligent design.  Collins then claims that Michael Behe’s concept of irreducible complexity has been refuted by Ken Miller, a man whose arguments intelligent design theorists have answered and refuted time and time again.  In an intellectual debate one does not fire a single shot and then retreat from the battle to declare victory.  Collins makes the false claim that intelligent design is necessarily an interventionist theory of God continually stepping into nature and changing things.  He again claims, falsely, that intelligent design depends on irreducibly complexity.  His treatment of intelligent design is also notable in what it leaves out:  specified complexity.  That’s too bad, since Collins could find ample justification for his own argument for design in this idea.  Apparently Collins has already decided that intelligent design is faulty and has either not made the effort to find common ground or has simply ignored the biggest thrust of the intelligent design argument because he would have to agree with it on this point.  Collins predicts that intelligent design will fail, but gladly history is not required to conform to his dire predictions.  In short, Collins’ critique of intelligent design cannot be taken seriously by anyone of that mind, and if his intention is to convince those who know something about it, he has failed.  Likely his real intention is to divert uninformed believers from seriously considering this position and point them towards his own.  

Collins is a theistic evolutionist.  He claims that theistic evolution is “the dominant position of serious biologists who are also believers”, a dubious claim, but has had trouble convincing Christian laymen.  He opines that the real reason the public has not taken the position seriously is that it promotes harmony instead of discord, does not have a snazzy name and the average layman is “not quite sure what a theist is”.  How insulting.  He then goes from insulting to humorous, though he appears to miss the humor.  Collins muses about what to call “theistic evolution” so as to increase its marketing appeal with the public, whines that all the good names are already taken and settles quickly on the name “BioLogos”.  Collins is so committed to this emperor with new clothes that three years after the book was written, he founded the BioLogos organization to promote this view to the public.  At the end of this section and even in other places in the book, Collins makes impassioned appeals for everyone to just stop fighting about it and agree with him.  If Collins is the best BioLogos can offer, it’s not likely his marketing project will succeed where decades of scientists have not.  

Why haven’t they succeeded?  What about the title of Collins’ book, “The Language of God”?  Does Collins actually believe that God had anything to do with creating DNA?  The answer is obviously no.  It does not take a scientific understanding to realize that the title and supposed thesis of the entire book is simply disingenuous.  Perhaps Collins should consider that Christians do not enjoy being misled.  Collins believes that God’s divine hand is evident in only three things:  Human souls, emotions and the Moral Law within the soul, the creation of the universe, and the determination of the fifteen physical constants of the Anthropic Principle.  Collins timidly backs away from saying that God created life, yet claims that God is the author of evolution.  Does Collins have a theory that the fifteen physical constants God created lead inevitably to life and evolution towards intelligent beings?  Emphatically no.  In fact he insists the process is random, at least from our point of view, and this appearance is a cosmic deception.  He writes:

“If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time.  In that context, God could in the moment of creation also know every detail of the future.  That could include the formation of the stars, planets, galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans, right to the moment of your reading this book-and beyond.   Thus, 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.”  

How does Collins justify this claim?  After all, God created this “tyranny of linear time”.  Did he do so to deceive us?  Collins believes so, without saying as much.  His reasoning is childish, confusing the two different concepts of knowledge and causality.  Very few Christians, with the exception of extreme open theists, would deny that God knows the future.  That God is outside of space and time is certainly a reasonable explanation for this knowledge.  But what of causality?  Knowing is not the same as causing.  Certainly, if the process is random then God knew the result, but at what point could it be said that he “chose” this result?  At what point could it be said that he directed it?  Collins will allow no opportunity for this, though he puts a brave rhetorical face on it.   If Collins really believes that God is “completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species”, then why doesn’t he allow the possibility that one day science will discover why this is inevitable?  The reason he doesn't is he knows that approach has been tried and has failed miserably.  Dean Kenyon proposed just such a theory in a book called “Biochemical Predestination”, which became an important textbook on the subject.  Later, Kenyon repudiated his own theory and became an intelligent design theorist, and the theory of abiogenesis is in exactly the state of disarray that Collins says it is.  Collins explicitly disbelieves the multiverse theory, which would create enough universes that one would inevitably give rise to life.  Collins cannot believe that this highly improbable occurrence was just random.  The only option left for Collins is that God did it, so Collins believes that.  Yet standard evolutionary theory as well as origin of life approaches maintain that this process is defined by randomness.  Collins, amazingly, believes this too.  Evolution, in Collins’ mind, is random to us and not random to God, and he allows no possibility of us eventually understanding that the randomness is actually an illusion created by a lack of knowledge.  Johannes Kepler said, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God and which He has revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”  Collins effectively denies this is possible, and expects the rest of the world to stop looking for God’s hand in nature.  For Collins, the language of God is not.  Thankfully, the rest of the world isn’t listening.