June 12, 2008
The Language of God-4: The contradictions start piling up
(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.)
Thoughtful religious people have always faced the problem of explaining why there is no tangible evidence for god anywhere. They have sought to "explain" this by fiat, by simply asserting, as Collins does, that god exists 'outside the universe' (whatever that means) and therefore we will not find evidence for him within the universe.
It would seem, then, that Collins would support Stephen Jay Gould's idea, suggested in his book Rocks of Ages (1999), that the two realms occupy 'non-overlapping magisteria', where all explanations for physical phenomena are reserved for science while leaving the moral and ethical realms for religion. Gould was expanding on an earlier (1984) formulation by the National Academy of Sciences that said that "[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."
I have pointed out in an earlier posting and in my own book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000) that this approach of the NAS and Gould leads to terrible contradictions. Collins shares my dislike of this 'two realms' model, but for different reasons. Unlike Gould, who did not believe in god himself but was merely trying to negotiate a truce between moderate religion and atheism so that they can join forces against the creationists, religious people like Collins are seeking a unifying vision of god and science and hence the 'two realms' model does not work for him.
Collins wants to be able to be in personal communication with god and so he is obliged to find a way to cross the bridge that separates the 'inside' and 'outside' of the universe, or the two 'magisteria', and there is simply no way to do so without creating all kinds of logical problems. This is similar to the kinds of problems faced by writer J. K. Rowling in creating a magical world that is parallel to the real world. Once you step on the extremely slippery slope of trying to find ways for god to act in the universe, you quickly slide to the bottom and land in a mess of contradictions, circular arguments, and question-begging ad hoc rationalizations.
We see the contradictions beginning right out of the gate, on page 15. After rejecting the two realms model as "potentially unsatisfying", Collins immediately contradicts himself, starting on the very same page.
In my view there is no conflict with being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain 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. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul – and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms. (p. 15)
. . .
It also became clear to me that science, despite its unquestioned powers in unraveling the mysteries of the natural world, would get me no further in resolving the question of God. If God exists, the He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about him. (p. 47,48)
. . .
BioLogos doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul. (p. 270, 271)
The expression to examine something with the 'heart and mind and soul' can be viewed as a mere rhetorical device, to imply that one is devoting one's full and undivided and enthusiastic attention to the task. But when religious people talk about the 'heart, mind, and soul', it is clear that they have entered a squishy world where resonant phrases are used to cover a lack of content.
I can understand what people mean by the mind (it is the cognitive processes of the brain) and what it means to use the mind to examine something. The tools of science enable one to study phenomena and the mind is unquestionably a part of those tools since we need to think and reason about things. The brain-based mind is necessary to do so. But what does it mean to examine things with the 'heart and soul' as well? As far as I can infer, it seems to refer to just emotions. If you feel good about something, your 'heart and soul' approves. If you feel misgivings, your 'heart and soul' is saying no.
Neuroscientists know that our emotions are the result of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline excreted by various parts of the brain. Hence emotions are also merely the result of the working of the brain. But religious people tend to take these emotional chords as the language that god uses to communicate with them.
Since many people seem to feel an emotional need for god, it is hardly surprising that their 'heart and soul' says yes to the idea that god is talking to them and they then take this as 'evidence' that god exists. But is this kind of self-indulgent thinking really to be taken seriously as evidence for god?
As John Allen Paulos says in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008, p, 75), this kind of argument for god can be summarized as follows:
1. People feel in the pit of their stomach that there is a God
2. They sometimes dress up this feeling with any number of unrelated, irrelevant, and unfalsifiable banalities and make a Kierkegaadian "leap of faith" to conclude that God exists.
3. Therefore God exists.
Of course, the unrelated, irrelevant, and unfalsifiable banalities do play a role. It's been my experience that, everything being equal, many people are more impressed by fatuous blather that they don't understand than by simple observations that they do.
In the next post, I will look at how Collins deals with the knotty problem of miracles.
POST SCRIPT: Religion? What religion?
Guess who 'believes that Earth’s appearance is a recent geologic event — thousands of years old, not 4.5 billion' and that "The most incredible thing I believe is the Christmas story. That little baby born in the manger was the god that created the universe"?
None other that the chairman of the Texas state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas
"But Dr. McLeroy says his rejection of evolution — “I just don’t think it’s true or it’s ever happened” — is not based on religious grounds."
Whew, that's a relief. For a moment, I thought he was one of those crazy people trying to bring their religious beliefs into the science classroom.