Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Book Review: The Language of God (Part 2)

The Language of God - A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
Francis S. Collins
New York: Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster

In Chapters 6-11 (Faith in Science, faith in God), Collins presents several options for how scientists can choose to engage spiritual matters:
  • Chapter 6 -- Genesis, Galileo, and Darwin
  • Chapter 7 -- Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism (When Science Trumps Faith)
  • Chapter 8 -- Option 2: Creationism (When Faith Trumps Science)
  • Chapter 9 -- Option 3: Intelligent Design (When Science Needs Divine Help)
  • Chapter 10 -- Option 4: BioLogos (Science and Faith in Harmony)
  • Chapter 11 -- Truth Seekers
Chapter 6: Collins takes us on a short tour of the history of the conflict. Until people had the tools to observe and measure the world around them, it never occurred to anyone that Genesis could be anything but a literal account of the Universe and its creation. When such observers as Copernicus and Galileo began turning their intellect and primitive telescopes toward the heavens, they began to see patterns that could only be explained by a system of planets, moons, and stars that did not revolve around the earth, but moved in diferent ways, depending on their location and proximity to other objects. When the heliocentric model was proposed four our solar system Galileo ran into severe difficulties when he embraced it. He was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under what amounted to house arrest. It took the Catholic Church until 1992 to finally and officially acknowledge that Galileo was innocent of heresy (althought to be fair, when the heliocentric model became obvious to even casual observers, the Church did not object during the intervening 350 years between Galileo's conviction and exoneration).

When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, based on observations he made some 20 years previously, he also encountered opposition, (though not an Inquisition). He also encountered praise and admiration for coming up with what appeared to be a sound model for explaining how populations change genetically over time. As with astronomy, the theory proposed by Darwin ran counter to a particular interpretation of Scripture, and that controversy continues to this day.

In this section Collins quotes Augustine, who wrote 1600 years ago in a commentary on Genesis:
"...Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian. presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [motion and orbit of the stars, eclipses, biology, geology, etc.]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. ..."
I wonder just what people were saying about planetary motion, eclipses, and biology that prompted Augustin to say such things....

Chapter 7: Collins discusses the problems with both points of view, and the inconsistencies each might present for a scientist. The term "agnostic" was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") as a way to express the fact that he simply didn't know whether there was or was not a God. In a humorous anecdote involving Darwin and two atheists at a dinner party, Darwin expressed a preference for "agnostic" over "atheist" to describe his position. One of his guests replied "agnostic was but atheist writ respectable, and atheist was only agnostic writ agressive."

Certainly there is a continuum of degree within and between the two categories. A significant amount of space in chapter 7 is given to Richard Dawkins, representing the extreme of atheism. Dawkin's oft-quoted statement that " is one of the worlds's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate" is rebutted skillfully and without rancor.

Collins then turns to what he terms an "unlikely source", the late Stephen J. Gould, to demonstrate clearly the fundamental incompatibility between the dogmatic atheism of Dawkins and the proper use of science. Gould writes
"...To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time: Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. ..."
Gould continues with a list of evolutionary biologists, some of whom were his colleagues: Charles Darwin, George Gaylord Simpson, both agnostics; and Asa Gray, Charles Wolcott, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, all three devout Christians. This extended quote from Gould ends with this:
"Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs -- and equally compatible with atheism."
Having read a significant portion of Gould's popular articles and books, and a smaller, but not insignificant number of his scientific articles, I am not suprised that Gould held this belief. He was clearly an agnostic, but first and foremost he was a scientist who recognized that equally talented men and women could come to different conclusions than he as far as the spiritual realm was concerned.

Collins concludes chapter 7 with the statement that if science and its methods provide an accurate description of the physical and biological world, and there is truly a God, then they cannot contradict each other. Yet, these two "versions of truth" are at war, and mutual misunderstanding feeds the conflict.

Well, this second part of my book review has ended up being far longer than I intended, but I thought it important to cover Collins' basis for making his conclusions in the subsequent chapters.

Next: Creationism, Intelligent Design, and BioLogos (Collins' framework for allowing science and faith to live together in harmony)

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