June 13, 2008
The Language of God-5: The nasty problem of miracles
(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.)
As I said before, sophisticated religious believers like Francis Collins and John Lennox always start out by arguing for a God of the Ultimate Gaps. The insurmountable problem that they then face is that their emotional need to believe in a Personal God who communicates with them individually and can answer their prayers requires them to go well beyond the narrow role they initially assigned to a God of the Ultimate Gaps, and results in them getting tied up in all kinds of logical knots.
Because they have to find ways for god to act in the universe, they inevitably make additional assumptions to allow for that. Collins does this by expanding the powers of god, so that miracles violating natural laws are now possible, even though this contradicts his earlier claim that god is not in our universe and thus we should not expect to find tangible evidence of his presence in the universe.
He tries to suggest, like Lennox, that miracles are possible because once you accept the existence of god, all things become possible: "Miracles thus do not pose an irreconcilable conflict for the believer who trusts in science as a means to investigate the natural world, and who sees that the natural world is ruled by laws. If, like me, you admit that there might exist something or someone outside of nature, then there is no logical reason why that force could not on rare occasions stage an invasion." (p. 77) He further justifies this by saying, "Is not God the author of the laws of the universe? Is He not the greatest scientist? The greatest physicist? The greatest biologist?" (p. 235)
The fundamental illogic of saying that god acts in nature and thus miracles are possible, just after arguing that god is outside of nature, does not strike a true believer like Collins.
He seems to think that this flat-out contradiction can be waved away by arguing that miracles are rare. He writes: "Perhaps on rare occasions, God does perform miracles." (p. 65) And again, "But for the most part, the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts. While we might wish for such miraculous deliverance to occur more frequently, the consequence of interrupting these two sets of forces would be utter chaos." (p.65) And again, "On the other hand, in order for the world to avoid descending into chaos, miracles must be very uncommon." (p. 77)
The idea that this hopeless muddle can be rescued by saying that such miraculous 'invasions' from outside the universe are rare only makes the logical hole he is digging deeper. If god can do one miracle then we already have the chaos Collins fears because we do not know in advance which event is the miracle and which is not. It would be different if god were to announce when he was doing a miracle but that is not what happens. By allowing for any miracle at all, Collins has effectively lost the argument that he has carefully made against the YEC and ID people.
He seems to think that he can minimize the damage he has caused to his logic by requiring of his rare miracles "that they should serve some purpose, rather than representing the supernatural acts of a capricious magician, simply designed to amaze." (p. 77) This allows him to find reasons to accept the 'miracle' that Jesus rose from the dead while dismissing the 'miracle' of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast or a French fry. But by now logic and reason have been thrown to the winds, leaving only self-serving assertions, because Collins is now effectively saying that it is only religious sophisticates like him who know the mind of god well enough to judge what is a miracle and what is not.
He tries to have it both ways even when dealing with the Biblical stories of creation.
The real dilemma for the believer comes down to whether Genesis 2 is describing a special act of miraculous creation that applied to a historic couple [Adam and Eve], making them biologically different from all the other creatures that had walked the earth, or whether this is a poetic and powerful allegory of God's plan for the entrance of the spiritual nature (the soul) and the Moral Law into humanity.
Since a supernatural God can carry out supernatural acts, both options are tenable. (p. 275)
It is sad that a gifted scientist like Collins cannot see that his religious beliefs have blinded him to the obvious truth that was expressed by another evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin much earlier: "We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit." (Scientists Confront Creationism, Laurie R. Godfrey, (ed.) 1983.)
POST SCRIPT: Thinks tanks and enviroskeptics
In my series on 'think tanks' (titled The Propaganda Machine), I discussed how they are often used to provide a scholarly veneer on propaganda. A recent study says that over 90% of the books expressing skepticism on threats to the environment have think tank roots.
(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)