June 19, 2008
The Language of God-9: An appeal to the scientifically minded
(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.)
At the very end of his book, Collins appeals to those who may feel that science is incompatible with belief on god.
Have you been concerned that belief in God requires a descent into irrationality, a compromise of logic, or even intellectual suicide? It is hoped that the arguments presented within this book will provide at least a partial antidote to that view, and will convince you that of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational. (p. 304)
I am afraid that this is a forlorn hope. If anything, this book with its mish-mash of faulty logic, ad hoc assumptions, contradictions, and question-begging rationalizations may actually achieve just the opposite. After all, if this is the best that an eminent scientist like Collins can come up with in defense of religion, then the situation is truly hopeless.
It may be that there are other scientists who can come up with better attempts and reconciling god with current scientific knowledge. Finding Darwin's God by biologist Kenneth Miller tries to use the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics to get around the question of how god can influence the course of events without being detected, but that argument has no credibility whatsoever. Also Miller's book does not have the breadth of Collins's work. Whatever the faults of Collins's book, and there are many, he has to be commended on facing up squarely to the major problems and trying to come to terms with them.
In reading Collins's book, one finds a refreshing honesty and lack of guile. You get the sense that he knows he is grappling with very difficult issues of science and faith and genuinely believes what he writes. This is in contrast with much of the writing emerging from (say) the intelligent design creationism camp that, while also sophisticated, strikes one as propagandistic, that they understand the weakness of their case but are trying to cover it up.
Collins's problem is just that his solutions to the problems are so inadequate. But even here, the fault cannot be laid entirely at his feet. It is partially due to society at large which has given belief in god a respectability that has persuaded even people who should know better that it must have a rational basis, even though all the evidence is against it. Once Collins had taken the step to decide to believe in god, he simply cannot avoid slowly sinking into the sea of contradictions that eventually engulfs him.
Although I have tried to review Collins's book fairly, some readers may think I have been too harsh. If so, they are not going to like Sam Harris's review at all. He gives his review the title of The Language of Ignorance and says:
Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled “The Language of God.” In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. “The Language of God” reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.
. . .
If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, “The Language of God” provides the answer. The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already. Viewed from abroad, “The Language of God” will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society. Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse. This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death. Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist. We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.
Collins's hope expressed towards the end of the book that scientists who read it will be persuaded that "of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational" is a statement revealing wishful thinking on a massive scale. My own feeling is that anyone who reads his book without suspending their powers of logic and reasoning will arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion.
Although I have been critical of Collins's attempts at arguing for the existence of god, there is no question that when dealing just with science he writes and argues well. In fact, the Appendix of his book The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine: Bioethics is an excellent primer on some of the critical ethical issues facing us today as a result of the rapid advances in science in which he has played such an important role.
I will write about them in the next two posts.
POST SCRIPT: The Two Johns discuss Bush's policies in the Middle East