Thursday, August 31, 2006

Book Review: The Language of God (Part 3)

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

Collins spends the first 158 pages giving an account of his journey to faith and laying out the ground work for understanding where he is coming from as a Christian and a scientist. The methods of science are key to understanding (or misunderstanding) the issues involved in the conflict between science and faith.

There are scientists who step well outside their discipline when they promote a strong atheistic view, and assert flatly that there is no God. For a scientist steeped in the scientific method to assert a negative as though it were a fact, is not only illogical, it is unscientific.

But neither does Collins have much sympathy for Creationism -- "where faith trumps science." Augustine noted this problem 1600 years ago, and there are still people who prefer not to face observable fact because they are not able to reconcile what scientists report with how they understand scripture. Nowhere is this more obvious than with "young earth" creationists who believe that the earth and universe are about 6,000 years old or at most 10,000 years old. What of the fossil record? What of galaxies that measure as being well more than 10,000 light years distant? Are these misunderstandings of science or did God create the heavens and the earth with the appearance of great age in order to "test" us?

Intelligent Design -- "when Science Needs Divine Help" -- This does not get much support from Collins either. One of his major issues with ID is that, while it is couched in scientific terms, it was not developed in a scientific way. Scientific theories provide a framework for understanding how the natural world works, and in so doing, allows predictions to be made. Intelligent Design assumes that the gaps in understanding are able to be filled only by assuming a designer. Collins rightly points out that the danger here is that science can destroy such faith simply by filling in gaps in knowledge.

BioLogos -- "Science and Faith in Harmony." So where does this leave a Christian who wants to study the world scientifically? Collins finds "theistic evolution" satisfying. He lists 6 typical premises held by theistic evolutionists:
  1. The universe came into onto being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  2. Despite massive improbablities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
  3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
  4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
  5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
  6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.
This view, according to Collins, is intellectually satisfying, plausible, and logically consistent -- and frees one to believe that God not only created the universe, but also the natural laws that govern it.

Collins employs the neologism "BioLogos" to describe theistic evolution from bios, the Greek word for "life" and logos, the Greek for "word". "BioLogos" has at once shed much of the "baggage" that creation, evolution, design, etc. have and further, "...expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God."

I'm not convinced that inventing a word will create harmony where little is evident, but I'm not going to quibble. What is required is for the scientists to stop viewing people of faith as the enemy and visa versa. People of faith need to acknowledge that God, being outside space and time, is not bound by such human constraints. Scientists need to recognize that not all reality can be measured or reduced to a scientific model, and that if there is a God, then by definition God is outside the reach of the scientific method.

Collins' history as a medical geneticist and leader of the Human Genome Project demonstrates quite clearly that belief in God is totally consistent with practicing the scientific method. And conversely being a faithful Christian does not disqualify one from choosing the path of science to study the Universe. Collins has succeeded in both domains, and has written an engaging book that provides much to think about.


Gruntled said...

I surveyed Presbyterian pastors a few years ago on the creation/evolution question. If given a binary choice, they lean toward creation. If given the option of God-guided evolution, though, a majority chose that option.

Denis Hancock said...

That suprises me, even involving a binary choice. I would have suspected a clear majority accepting evolution.

Was this a nation-wide sample? Any "specialized clergy" in the sample?

Steven Carr said...

'For a scientist steeped in the scientific method to assert a negative as though it were a fact, is not only illogical, it is unscientific.'

How many scientists, in your estimation, would claim that there are no leprechauns?

Denis Hancock said...

well, I don't believe there are leprechauns, but the point is that it is logically impossible to prove a negative. I think most scientists would say "There are no leprechauns." But I further believe that a significant proportion of those, when asked to clarify, would qualify it by saying, "Well, of course we can't prove it, but I just don't believe they exist."

Without the ability to test, then the scientific method cannot be employed. Therefore religion, God, and if you wish, leprechauns, are outside the domain of science.

Stephen J. Gould, whose credentials as an evolutionary biologist are impeccable, understood this.

Richard Dawkins, whose credentials are equally impressive, does not.

Western geologist said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, it's strongly tempted me to go out and buy a copy of Collins' book.

I agree with people like Collins and Gould who don't think it's possible to apply the tools of science to addressing the existence of God (and I think that classic creationists and ID-proponents haven't done a good job of addressing this issue), but I'm very curious about how theistic scientists reach their views.

I assume that for Collins the answers come from the six premises that he lists (is that reasonable?). I'm uncomfortable with a two of them (numbers 2 and 6).

I don't like basing belief in God on the apparent fine tuning of the universe because it seems to me a bit like confusing cause and effect. I can agree that life is the way it is because of the constants in the universe (matter is what it is because atoms arrange themselves in a particular way - atoms are the way they are because subatomic particles arrange themselves in a particular way, and that particualr way is governed by the laws of physics). I can also agree that if physical constants are changed that life as we know it wouldn't exist, but I'm not convinced that some other form of life might (using a broad definition for life - something self-replicating and reproducing). Of course I'm not a physicist and I could be missing something.

I don't like Collins' 6th premise because I can think of reasons why morals could be the product of natural processes. A group of organisms with some form of empathy could be more successful than one without because it could cooperate more effectively.

This is moving away from the topic of your post, but the best reason for believing in God I've been able to come up with (and I should caution that it isn't well thought out) is based on my understanding that the Christian God wants a personal relationship with people. For example it might be possible to feel closer to God through prayer, or through some sort of "still, small voice", or perhaps one might even feel recognition/appreciation of God through observing the natural world. However all of those reasons are very tenuous and I don't think they'd convince anyone who was disposed to believe in God to begin with.

Denis Hancock said...

I can understand your concerns with number 2 on the list. I thought it had a somewhat teleological flavor about it when I read it, but that is a way of expression shared by many scientists. I recall evolution professors saying such things as "the opposable thumb was not sufficient; the precision grip (tip of thumb to tip of finger) had to develop before humans could achieve their potential"

You point out the fact that a minor change in any of factors that allow life to flourish could have made a profound difference in how things turned out. My personal favorite is the fact that water, when cooled, reaches its maximum density a few degrees above freezing. Had water "obeyed" the general pattern, then bodies of water would freeze from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

As for number 6, here is the ragged edge of science and faith. Altruistic behavior can be well-explained by sociobiology and Dawkin's "Selfish Gene", but I am not as convinced that altruistic acts where kinship is absent can be so easily explained. One of the things that seem to set humans apart is that we can choose to act in ways that are not adaptive. In other words, in ways that do not preserve our genes or the genes of our close relatives.

The trick here is to have a faith that does not stand or fall on assumptions that can be overturned, but at the same time recognize that God operates outside our human constraints.