“Need there be a conflict between science and religion? Francis S. Collins thinks not, but his “evidence for belief” disintegrates under scrutiny, revealing instead a personal testament of belief.
In a recent study funded by the John Templeton Foundation and published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, researchers found:
Zoologist Richard Dawkins’s [author of The God Delusion] influence as a public intellectual … does not persuade new readers that science and religion are in conflict, [while] … biologist Francis Collins [author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief ) … could persuade audiences that science and faith can be compatible. (Fahy 2015, 5)
How does Collins’s assertion of compatibility stand up to scrutiny?
Francis S. Collins’s The Language of God offers a wealth of excellent science, but does the book do what it says on the cover and present “evidence for belief?” Or is Archbishop Desmond Tutu closer to the mark when he writes in his review, “Francis Collins, eminent scientist, tells us why he is also a believer”? In short, not “evidence” but a personal testimony of faith. Collins is careful to couch his concept of God in conjectural terms, but one is left in no doubt about what sort of deity lies at the heart of his belief. For Collins, it seems, the universe serves one primary purpose: to satisfy God’s desire for personal fellowship with humankind. “If God is the creator of the universe, if God had a specific plan for the arrival of humankind on the scene, and if He had a desire for personal fellowship with humans …” (Collins 2007, 230).
Collins, a prominent biologist (a Nobel laureate and director of the National Institutes of Health) and an evangelical Christian, accepts the current consensus concerning the age of the universe–approximately fourteen billion years. So, if God created the universe in order that he might have fellowship with human beings, why didn’t he cut to the chase? Current anthropological evidence indicates that humankind, in its modern anatomical form, arrived on the scene no more than 200,000 years ago. Thus, for 99.998 percent of the lifeof the universe, Collins’s God has had to do without his desired fellowship with human beings.
“The Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God” (Collins 2007, 218), writes Collins after twenty-eight years as a believer. For Collins, this concept, deriving from the writings of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, is key “evidence for belief.” Although Lewis was a man of significant accomplishments, the many arenas in which he made his reputation did not extend to science. Nor was Lewis without his critics. Philosopher John Beverslui writes in the introduction to his critique of Lewis’s work:
The apparent cogency of [Lewis’s] arguments depends on his rhetoric rather than on his logic … Once his arguments are stripped of their powerful rhetorical content, their apparent cogency largely vanishes and their apparent persuasiveness largely evaporates. The reason is clear: it is not the logic, but the rhetoric that is doing most of the work. (Beversluis 2008, 20)
Collins writes that “… the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species …” and, “it thus seems to be a phenomenon approaching that of a law, like the law of gravitation or of special relativity” (Collins 2007, 22). To support this startling assertion, Collins offers an extensive quote from Lewis–but little more–asserting that a thorough reading of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics will find demonstrated a common acceptance, across a wide array of cultures and communities, of what constitutes moral “rights and wrongs” (24). Thereafter, Collins treats the existence of the Moral Law pretty much as a given. The problem for the Moral Law is that differences in moralizations, across cultures and communities and over the course of human history, have been and are real.
If Collins is right, however, it would seem reasonable to expect the exercise of the Moral Law to engage some specific aspect or aspects of human physiology. The cerebrum-the cerebral cortex with its various subdivisions-is the most likely arena in which the Moral Law would play out. As Steven Pinker puts it, “The neuroanatomy suggests that in Homo sapiens primitive impulses of rage, fear, and craving must contend with the cerebral restraints of prudence, moralization, and self-control” (Pinker 2011, 502). Whether these “restraints” constitute the workings of Collins’s Moral Law is open to question. Pinker goes on to describe the work of psychologist Adriane Raine:
In one experiment, Raine compared the brains of prisoners who had committed an impulsive murder with those who had killed with premeditation. Only the impulsive murderers showed a malfunction in their orbital cortex, suggesting that the self-control implemented by this part of the brain is a major inhibitor of violence. (Pinker 2011, 505)
In Raine’s studies of the brains of prisoners convicted of premeditated murder, the lack of shrinkage in the orbital cortex would seem to indicate that these individuals may have turned a deaf ear to the Moral Law’s promptings, whereas, for the impulsive murderers, a malfunction in the orbital cortex would seem to indicate that they were denied full access to the Moral Law from the outset. Why would a “loving, logical and consistent” (Collins 2007, 177) god allow some individuals with whom he desires fellowship to suffer a deficiency the effects of which are likely to reduce or nullify access to the operations of the Moral Law by which the deity wishes them to be guided?
In his chapter “The Origins of the Universe,” Collins sets out his arguments for God as the creator of the universe, writing “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force, that is outside space and time could have done that”(67). In support of this view, Collins zeroes in on the “fine-tuned universe”- the proposition that “the existence of the universe as we know it rests upon a knife-edge of improbability” (73). The “improbability” derives from the fact that, according to cosmologists, there are six (Collins asserts fifteen) dimensionless physical constants that, if varied by infinitesimal amounts, would preclude the formation of our sort of universe.
So how did the universe come to be “fine-tuned” as it is? Collins considers three scenarios: 1) the existence of an infinite number of diverse, parallel universes giving rise to the likelihood of one like ours (the multiverse hypothesis); 2) pure, blind luck; and 3) the agency of a supernatural entity. Collins then goes on to assess the probability of each scenario.
Collins dismisses Scenario 2 as the least plausible of the three, although, apart from stating that it is “wildly improbable” (Collins 2007, 74), he advances no reasons for so doing. Scenario 1 he views as straining credulity (76). Not unexpectedly, he opts for Scenario 3: “The Big Bang itself seems to point strongly toward a Creator, otherwise the question of what came before is left hanging in the air” (77). This assertion prompts the question, ‘What came before the Creator?”
Francis S.Collins enjoys a well-earned and much deserved reputation as a distinguished scientist and researcher. Further, he emerges from the pages of The Language of God as a thoroughly decent, sincere, and compassionate individual. Regrettably, however, his effort is unlikely to contribute greatly to his desire to bring about peace between the “warring” camps of faith and science. Despite his explicit intention to present “evidence for belief,” both Collin’s God-hypothesis and his BioLogos (Stage 6) are, by his own admission, untestable hypothesis and cannot, therefore, be considered scientific.
While applicable perhaps to faith, Collins’s metaphor “…. two unshakeable pillars holding up a building called Truth” cannot not be applicable to science, as science does not seek “Truth”. Rather, science seeks, through occasionally giant but typically small, incremental steps to expand humankind’s understanding of nature and its works and through empirical evidence, augment confidence (but never certainty) in that understanding. I would not be unreasonable to view archaic attempts to understand and to defined nature attempts most of which long predate scientific methodology (as imperfectly begun by Aristotle and his fellow Greeks) as “hypotheses” founded on observation and deduction valid for the time of their devising. Difficulties arise, however, when such “hypotheses” don the mantle of sanctity, rendering them impervious to any challenge from fresh observation and deduction. Where faith consistently rides to the defense of its “hypotheses”, science ever seeks opportunities to tear down its own edifices as new evidence emerges.
One is left wishing the Collins had, from the outset, acknowledged that The Language of God is, in the end, a personal testament of faith to which he is fully entitled but which, with his claim that it presents “evidence for belief,” risks diminishing his standing in the eyes of much of the scientific community.
Courtesy : Skeptical Inquirer, May-June 2016
“ two unshakeable pillars holding up a building called Truth” cannot not be applicable to science, as science does not seek “Truth”. Rather, science seeks, through occasionally giant but typically small, incremental steps to expand humankind’s understanding of nature and its works and through empirical evidence, augment confidence (but never certainty) in that understanding.