June 11, 2008
The Language of God-3: The God of the Ultimate Gaps again
(This series of posts reviews in detail Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, originally published in 2006. The page numbers cited are from the large print edition published in 2007. The complete set of these posts will be archived here.)
The subtitle of Francis Collins's book A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief leads one to expect evidence, and scientific evidence at that, for the existence of god. But the book does not actually present any evidence. What it does is rework the same philosophical arguments that have been around for a long time, especially as reformulated by Oxford academic C. S. Lewis, another atheist who later converted to Christianity and whose writings (especially Mere Christianity) have been influential in Christian apologetics in general and for Collins in particular. It was Lewis's writings that started Collins on his own journey from atheism to belief. (Lewis is also the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.)
Rather than present any evidence for god, Collins' book suggests simply that modern scientific knowledge can be made consistent with earlier religious arguments for god. In other words he, like Lewis and other theologians before him, try to establish the existence of god by reasoning alone. They have to try and do this since they have no evidence but they immediately face a logical problem. "As David Hume observed, the only way a proposition can be proved by logic and the meaning of words alone is for its negation to be (or lead to) a contradiction, but there's no contradiction that results from God's not existing." (John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), p. 40)
Collins's arguments for the existence of god run into difficulties when he presents his own model reconciling his belief in god with science. When one examines closely his arguments, one sees that they are very similar to the ones made by John Lennox in his debate with Richard Dawkins and which I have examined before. In fact, it follows precisely the same pattern, varying only in its details.
Both Lennox and Collins start out by arguing on a highly abstract plane. Collins asserts, like Lennox, that the god he believes in is not a 'God of the gaps'. But for the concept of god to have any real meaning one needs some opportunities for god to act and so Collins ends up, like Lennox, arguing that science has not ruled out the possibility of a 'God of the Ultimate Gaps'. Then, like Lennox, he uses sleight-of-hand. After first arguing that it is logically impossible to rule out the existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, he takes that as a license to believe in any and all things supernatural
Where Collins differs with Lennox lies in his choice of Ultimate Gaps being a little different from Lennox's. While mathematician and philosopher of science Lennox sees the Ultimate Gaps as being the origins of the universe and the beginning of life, Collins (being a biologist and more familiar with the latter area) thinks that the origins of life is probably something that can and will be solved by science and warns against invoking god as an explanation for it.
Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction. . . [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)
Collins's Ultimate Gaps are the origins of the universe (as was expected from point #2 on his list of the fundamental tenets of his BioLogos philosophy) and what he identifies as 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 is his point #6. (p. 264)
Collins says that "[M]aterialistic skeptics who wish to give no ground to the concept of the supernatural . . . will no doubt argue that there is no need to consider miracles at all. In their view, the laws of nature can explain everything, even the exceedingly improbable." (p. 78) He then flatly asserts, "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." (p. 78, my italics.)
After making this sweeping and unjustified statement about an unexplainable gap, Collins fills it with god, saying "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 of space and time could have done that." (p. 94)
This kind of argument has been derided as 'the argument from personal incredulity' ("I cannot imagine how X could have happened. Therefore god must have done X.") and is exactly the same as that of the intelligent design advocates that Collins had just criticized. This is always a dangerous argument, because science is never static and what is unexplained today may not be so tomorrow. In fact, just recently, some physicists are claiming to have found clues to the time before the Big Bang.
Also, as Sam Harris points out in his review of the book, the Big Bang argument for god is weak on other grounds.
It is worth pointing out the term “supernatural,” which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term “magical.” Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can’t I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.
Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.
As for Collins's other Ultimate Gaps, it comes from Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.
If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?" (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)
Note carefully his argument. He says that god is "outside the universe" and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him "as one of the facts inside the universe." Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find "inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.
This argument conveniently serves the purpose of providing an answer to pesky atheists like me who keep asking why we never seem to find any credible and objective evidence of god. We keep being asked to accept people's personal testimonies, by saying that such internal experiences are the way that god acts in the world.
The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things. But then you are back to the old unsolved problem that always plagues religious believers of how something that is asserted to be outside the universe can communicate with something inside the universe.
In the next post, I will look at how Collins tries to deal with this problem.
POST SCRIPT: On a French Fry?
Someone claims another sighting of Jesus.