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June 23, 2008

Cloning and stem cell research

(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.)

In the Appendix of his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), Francis Collins gives a very clear and brief exposition of the issues involved in stem cell research and cloning, which are not the same thing despite popular impressions.

A human being starts out as a single cell formed by the union of an egg and a sperm. The nucleus of this cell contains the contributions of DNA from each of the two parents and thus all the genetic instructions, while the region outside the nucleus, called the cytoplasm, contains the nutrients and signaling mechanisms that enable the cell to do whatever it is meant to do.

The single cell starts multiplying by copying itself, a process known as mitosis. In the very early stages, all the cells are identical and capable of eventually becoming any specialized cell like a liver cell, blood cell, etc. Such cells are called 'pluripotent' because of their ability to become any of the tissues that make up the body and it is these cells that are called embryonic stem cells and the center of the ethical debate.

Soon these embryonic cells begin to specialize and differentiate into cells that begin to form different organ tissues. They do this by having the DNA start turning switches on and off in its genes. Some of these specialized cells, such as those found in limited amounts in bone marrow, become what are known as adult stem cells in that while they still have the ability to differentiate further, they can do so only into a much more limited variety of adult tissues. Such stem cells are called 'multipotent'.

The promise of stem cell research is that one can use a person's own stem cells to regenerate tissues lost or damaged by all kinds of diseases. Since these cells are not perceived as foreign matter, this would not trigger the body's immune mechanism that rejects foreign tissues, as occurs currently with transplants. At present, this immune response has to be suppressed with powerful drugs, leaving the patient vulnerable to other infections.

The ethical problem is that although adult stem cells can be obtained and used from an adult without harming that person, they have only a very limited flexibility. Pluripotent cells are preferred but at present using such cells results in the loss of the embryos from which they are taken, and this immediately raises the ethical issue of whether by destroying an embryo, we are destroying life.

Currently pluripotent stem cell lines are created during the process of in-vitro fertilization, by taking an egg from a woman, fertilizing it in a petri dish with sperm from a man, and growing the resulting cell in solution containing the necessary nutrients for its growth. After about five days, what is called a 'blastocyst' is formed which consists of about 70-100 cells. This consists of an outer wall of cells encompassing a hollow cavity, and an inner clump of about 30 cells (called the inner cell mass) at one end of the cavity. It is the inner cell mass that eventually turns into the tissues that make up the growing fetus, while the outer wall becomes the placenta.

In-vitro fertilization is done to assist childless couples. The selected blastocyst is implanted in the uterus of either the person who donated the egg (the biological mother) or a surrogate, and once it adheres to the wall of the uterus, it receives oxygen and other nutrients from the mother and develops as any other fetus.

The ethical dilemma arises because the process is not 100% certain, and thus many more fertilized eggs and blastocysts are created this way than are currently used to generate actual pregnancies, and this has resulted in hundreds of thousands of unused fertilized eggs. They are currently kept frozen.

Researchers suggest that these fertilized eggs be used (with the donors' permission) to generate embryonic stem cell lines that can be used for research purposes. To do this, the inner cell mass is extracted from the blastocyst and transferred into a dish containing a culture that enables it to grow. When this is done, the blastocyst is effectively destroyed and cannot be used to create a human.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say that even a single fertilized egg cell is a human life and thus the blastocyst created this way should never be destroyed. Others argue that a blastocyst has none of the qualities that we associate with being human and thus destroying it not taking a life.

This dilemma created by scientific advances may be resolved by further scientific advances.

One possible compromise arises from the discovery of the process by which animals have been cloned, starting with the famous cloned sheep Dolly. This process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). What happened with Dolly is that a single cell was taken from the udder of an adult sheep and its nucleus (containing all the genetic information) was extracted. Then an egg cell was taken and its nucleus removed and replaced with the nucleus that had been extracted from the udder cell.

What one might have expected to have created was a cell that was specialized for udders since one had taken a cell from the udder of an adult and by that time the cell should have become specialized for just that purpose. It was once thought that this process of specilization was irreversible. i.e., once a pluripotent embryonic stem cell becomes an adult stem cell or an adult specialized cell, there was no going back to its unspecialized state.

What researchers found to their amazement was that when the udder cell nucleus was inserted into the egg cell that had had its nucleus removed, the nucleus seemed to effectively go back in time and become like the original embryonic cell that had eventually resulted in the sheep from which the udder cell was obtained. When this was then implanted in a sheep, it grew as if from a single fertilized egg and gave rise to a new sheep (Dolly) that had genes identical to those of the sheep from which the original udder cell was taken.

This process has now been repeated with other mammals like horses, cows, dogs, and cats. Although the Raelians made the spectacular claim that they had used this technique to clone a human being, that seems like a hoax.

As a result of this research, it looks like it should be possible to take a nucleus from (say) the skin cell of an adult human and insert it into an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed and thus create cells that have all the properties of embryonic stem cells. Thus it should be possible to create blastocysts in the laboratory without having them originate in the fusion of sperm and egg, the traditional way in which children are conceived. These stem cells would have DNA identical to those of the adult whose skin cell the nucleus was taken from, and not a fusion of mother and father DNA information, the way an embryo is normally formed.

Of course, if this cell is implanted in a uterus, one could potentially create a cloned human being but no one is suggesting that that be done. In fact, there is strong worldwide opposition to such an act. But if the cell is grown in a petri dish, then it could generate the equivalent of embryonic stem cells for both research and therapeutic purposes.

Would the process of SCNT be considered sufficiently different from the usual process of creating a fertilized egg to be considered not a potential human and thus overcome the ethical problems of stem cell research? That remains to be seen.

POST SCRIPT: Tough times

We know that the troubled economy is hurting many people. The Daily Show looks at how it is affecting the people of Beverly Hills.


June 20, 2008

Bioethical dilemmas

(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.)

In the Appendix of Francis Collins's book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), he tackles the difficult ethical issues raised by advances in science and medicine, especially in the field of molecular biology. His own major contributions to the human genome have undoubtedly made him acutely conscious of these issues. Collins's describes the science and the issues arising from them very clearly and this Appendix is well worth reading.

Having mapped out the entire human genome, scientists are now in the position of being potentially able to identify the presence of genes that may predispose people to certain diseases or behaviors long before those things have manifested themselves in observable ways. This ability has, of course, some obvious advantages in the prevention and treatment of diseases.

For example, breast cancer has a hereditary component that can be identified by the presence of a dangerous mutation in the gene BRCA1 on chromosome 17. This mutation, which also creates a greater risk for ovarian cancer, can be carried by fathers as well, even though they themselves may not have the disease. In those families in which breast cancer is prevalent, knowing who has the mutated gene and who hasn't may influence how closely they are monitored and what treatments they might be given.

As time goes by, our genetic predisposition to more and more hereditary diseases will be revealed. But is this an unqualified good thing?

On the plus side, having this knowledge may enable those people at risk to take steps (diet, exercise, preventative treatment) that can reduce their risk of actually contracting the disease. After all, genes are usually not the only (or even the main) factor in causing disease and we often have some degree of control over the other risk factors for diseases such as diabetes or blood clotting.

We may also be able to treat more genetic diseases by actually changing an individual's genes, although currently the only changes being made are to the genes in the somatic cells (the ones that make up our bodies) and not the ones in the 'germ' line cells (the ones that are passed on to children via the egg and sperm). At present, there is a scientific and medical consensus that influencing the genes of future generations by changing the germ line is not something we should do.

Furthermore, our bodies' reaction to drugs is also often affected by our genes. That knowledge can be used to individualize treatment, to determine which drug should be given to which patient, and even to design drugs that take maximum advantage of an individual's genetic makeup. This kind of personalized medicine lies in our future.

But there are negatives to this brave new world of treatment. Should everyone have their DNA mapped to identify potential risk factors? And who should have access to a person's genetic information?

Some people may prefer not to know the likelihood of what diseases they are predisposed to, especially in those cases where nothing much can be done to avert the disease or what needs to be done would diminish by too much the quality of life of the individual. Furthermore, they may fear that this information could be used against them. If they have a predisposition for a major disease and this knowledge reaches the health insurance companies, the latter may charge them higher premiums or even decline to cover them at all. After all, the profit-making basis on which these companies run makes them want to only insure the pool of healthy people and deny as much coverage as possible to those who actually need it.

It works the other way too. If someone knows they have a potential health problem but the insurance companies don't, they may choose health (and life) insurance policies that work to their advantage.

So genetic information can become a pawn in the chess game played between the individual and the health (and life) insurance agencies.

This is, by the way, another major flaw of the current employer-based private health insurance schemes in the US. If we had a single-payer, universal health care system as is the case in every other developed country, and even in many developing countries, this problem regarding genetic knowledge would not even arise. Everyone would be covered automatically irrespective of their history, the risk would be spread over the entire population, and the only question would be the extent to which the taxpayers wanted to fund the system in order to cover treatment. That would be a matter determined by public policy rather than private profit. There would still be ethical issues to be debated (such as on what basis to prioritize and allocate treatment) but the drive to minimize treatment to maximize private profit would be absent, and that is a huge plus.

There are other issues to consider. What if we find a gene that has a propensity for its bearer to commit crimes or other forms of antisocial behavior? Would it be wrong to use this knowledge to preventively profile and incarcerate people? It has to be emphasized that our genes almost always are not determinants of behavior but at best provide small probabilistic estimates. But as I have written before, probability and statistics is not easy to understand, and the knowledge that someone has a slightly greater chance of committing a crime can, if publicly known, be a stigma that person can never shake, however upstanding and moral a person he or she tries to be.

There is also the question of what to do with people who want to use treatments that have been developed for therapeutic purposes in order to make themselves (or their children) bigger, taller, stronger, faster, better-looking, and even smarter (or so they think) so that they will have an advantage over others. That thought-provoking film Gattaca (1997) envisions a future where parents create many fertilized eggs, examine the DNA of each, and select only those which contain the most advantageous genetic combinations to implant in the uterus. Collins points out that while this is theoretically possible, in practice it cannot be used to select for more than two or three genes. Even then, there are no guarantees that environmental effects as the child is growing up may not swamp the effects of the carefully selected genes. (p. 354)

Collins argues, and I agree with him, that these are important ethical decisions that should not be left only to scientists but should involve the entire spectrum of society. He appeals to the Moral Law as general guidance for dealing with these issues (p. 320). In particular he advocates four ethical principles (formulated by T. L. Beauchamp and J. F. Childress in their book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 1994) that we might all be able to agree on in making such decisions. They are:

  1. Respect for autonomy – the principle that a rational individual should be given freedom in personal decision making, without undue outside coercion.
  2. Justice – the requirement for fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons
  3. Beneficence – the mandate to treat others in their best interest
  4. Nonmaleficence – "First do no harm" (as in the Hippocratic Oath)

These are good guidelines, though many problems will undoubtedly arise when such general secular ethical principles collide with the demands of specific religious beliefs and cultural practices. When supposedly infallible religious texts become part of the discussion, it makes it almost impossible to seek underlying unifying moral and ethical principles on which to base judgments.

POST SCRIPT: Brace yourself

Matt Taibbi warns that this presidential election is going to be very rough.

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

June 18, 2008

The Language of God-8: The problem of free will, omnipotence, and omniscience

(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 one new (to me at least) and interesting argument in The Language of God was the attempt by Francis Collins to reconcile the idea of free will with god's omnipotence and omniscience. This knotty problem is caused by religious people wanting to hold on to three beliefs simultaneously: (1) We have free will. (2) God is omnipotent (all-powerful). (3) God is omniscient (knows everything in the past present and future).

Can all three things be simultaneously true? In the absence of a comparison with data, the only way that one can judge whether a proposition is false by reason alone is if it leads to a logical contradiction. Most people would immediately see that these three assumptions lead to irreconcilable contradictions and that one has to relinquish at least one of them. But Collins, like a lot of religious people, cannot bring himself to do that. He wants to believe in the traditional properties of god.

He also has the problem that although evolution by natural selection is not purely a chance-driven process, chance does play a role in one part of the process, that which causes mutations and variety. Chance can also play a role in the kinds of events that can change the environment in which an organism finds itself and thus change the way that the non-random natural selection process operates. For example, the asteroid collision that occurred about 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs profoundly affected the subsequent evolution process because it created opportunities for other species to emerge that might otherwise have been destroyed by dinosaurs.

This element of chance prevents religious people from simply assuming that god created the universe with its laws and then let it run its course because there is no guarantee that chance events like that asteroid collision would have occurred. Then how can you guarantee that humans would emerge without God intervening? The idea that humans emerged because of that chance collision does not cause atheists any problems. We are just thankful to have had that lucky break. But for religious people, humans were the goal of creation and their appearance cannot be left to chance. So what to do?

In item #4 of his basic tenets of BioLogos, Collins says that god never intervenes in the evolutionary process once he sets it in motion along with its associated laws. But he knows that there are contingent factors in evolution. So how can he ensure that humans must eventually appear? Again, to his credit, he does not duck the question or try to pretend it is not there.

Collins tries to deal with it by greatly expanding his concept of god:

The solution is actually readily to hand once one ceases to apply human limitations to God. If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the moment of your reading this book – and beyond. In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God's perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process. (p. 272)

This is a truly remarkable passage, essentially saying that everything that would eventually occur was known by god at the time of creation, although to us it may seem like we have random events.

He had foreshadowed this extraordinary claim in an earlier part of the book (p. 113, 114) where he laid out his claims step-by-step.

  • If God exists, he is supernatural
  • If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws.
  • If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time.
  • If He is not limited by time, then he is in the past, the present, and the future.

The consequence of those conclusions would include:

  • He could exist before the Big Bang and He could exist after the universe fades away, if it ever does.
  • He could know the precise outcome of the formation of the universe even before it started.
  • He could have foreknowledge of a planet near the outer rim of an average spiral galaxy that would have just the right characteristics to allow life.
  • He could have foreknowledge that the planet would lead to the development of sentient creatures, through the mechanism of evolution by natural selection.
  • He could even know in advance the thoughts and actions of those creatures, even though they themselves have free will

It seems to me that in this passage, Collins has given up on free will altogether and reverted to a strict determinism, although free will was invoked by him in defense of suffering caused by people and free will is an essential component of the concept of sin. After all, sin has no meaning if we are all just automatons playing out our pre-ordained roles in a drama authored and directed by god.

But as is usually the case, trying to adjust god's qualities to take care of one problem immediately creates new problems elsewhere. John Allen Paulos (Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up, 2008), points out one:

[E]fforts by some to put God, the putative first cause, completely outside of time and space give up entirely on the notion of cause, which is defined in terms of time. After all, A causes B only if A comes before B, and the first cause comes – surprise – first, before its consequences. (Placing God outside of space and time would also preclude any sort of later divine intervention in worldly affairs.)" (Paulos, p. 5,6)

Paulos also points out that Collins's efforts to have both omniscience and omnipotence runs into another well-known contradiction.

Being omniscient, God knows everything that will happen: He can predict the future trajectory of every snowflake, the sprouting of every blade of grass, and the deeds of every human being, as well as all of His own actions. But being omnipotent, He can act in any way and do anything He wants, including behaving in ways different from those He'd predicted, making his expectations uncertain and fallible. He thus can't be both omnipotent and omniscient. (Paulos, p. 41)

I think that these are insurmountable obstacles for any religious believer to overcome. Francis Collins tackles them gamely but is defeated by them.

POST SCRIPT: Man Crushes

James Wolcott analyzes this phenomenon that exists amongst male journalists and politicians.

June 17, 2008

The Language of God-7: The problem of theodicy

(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.)

Any defense of god has to confront a tough question: Why would a benevolent and omnipotent god allow suffering? The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

Collins has nothing really new to say about this age-old problem but to his credit he does not avoid it. On the question of suffering to people caused by other people, he blames free will.

[We] have somehow been given free will, the ability to do as we please. We use this ability frequently to disobey the Moral Law. And when we do so, we shouldn't then blame God for the consequences. (p. 64)

Collins seems to give a curious excuse for the evil caused by religious people, the very people who should be acutely able to distinguish between right and wrong.

In some unusual cultures the [Moral Law] takes on surprising trappings – consider witch burning in seventeenth century America. Yet when surveyed closely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what is good or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personification of evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would it not then seem justified to take such drastic actions? (p. 39)

He also points to the suffering caused by non-religious people throughout history, as if that explained anything. I hear this argument often and always find it an odd one for religious people to make, even accepting for the moment the dubious proposition that throughout the course of history nonbelievers have caused more suffering than religious people. Is it really considered an argument in favor of a benevolent and omnipotent god that his followers have caused less suffering than non-believers?

On the more difficult question of suffering caused by natural disasters that god presumably has the power to avert and in which free will is not involved, Collins gives a confused answer, suggesting that these occur due to 'natural' laws and causes, and for god to prevent such events would require him to make repeated interventions in contravention of these laws. He says that this, for some reason, would be bad.

Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at least as chaotic in the physical realm and would be interfering with human acts of free will. (p. 65-68)

The notion that people prefer suffering to the 'chaos' caused by repeated intervention by god in the world is a specious argument. If parents had a child who was dying of cancer, I bet that they would want more than anything for god to intervene and cure her, and wouldn't give a damn if that caused 'chaos' for anyone else, including those scientists doing cancer research. In fact, religious people are always praying for god to intervene in such ways. That is when their need for god is greatest. If the people god supposedly created and whom he supposedly loves deeply want god to intervene to do a manifestly good thing and don't care about chaos, why does god care? Or if he really wants natural laws to work but also cares about curing people of cancer, why doesn't he whisper in Collins's or other scientists' ears the mechanism he used to cause cancer cells to emerge and how they can cure it?

Recognizing that saying what is effectively "Hey, stuff happens!" is weak consolation for massive and widespread suffering due to natural disasters or the actions of people, Collins inevitably retreats to a reliable refuge and plays that old get-out-of-jail-free card, the 'mysterious ways clause'.

[If] God is loving and wishes for the best of us, then perhaps His plan is not the same as our plan . . . We may never fully understand the reasons for these painful experiences, but we can begin to accept the idea that there may be such reasons. (p. 65-68)
. . .
Recognize that a great deal of suffering is brought upon us by our own actions or those of others, and that in a world where humans practice free will, it is inevitable. Understand, also, that if God is real, His purposes will often not be the same as ours. Hard though it is to accept, a complete absence of suffering may not be in the best interest of our spiritual growth. (p. 305)

In other words, suffering might be good for us. But while pleading ignorance of god's intent when it comes to suffering, like all religious believers, Collins seems to have extraordinary knowledge of god's character and nature when it works to his advantage, like when he knows which act is a miracle of god and which isn't or how god has chosen to act. For example, when arguing against young Earth creationism ideas, he says "Is this consistent with everything else we know about God from the Bible, from the Moral Law, and from every other source – namely, that He is loving, logical, and consistent?" (p. 237)

Eventually this is what all believers in god end up doing: Defining god in such a way that it suits their own personal emotional needs, adding ad hoc assumptions to deal with any and all problems created by their definition, and invoking the mysterious ways clause as a last resort when even the ad hoc additions aren't sufficient.

Francis Collins, for all his sophistication and scientific expertise, is no different.

POST SCRIPT: Tim Russert

It should be no surprise that his fellow Villagers are praising the late Tim Russert as a great journalist. He was, after all, one of them, serving their interests faithfully. But while I am sorry that he died suddenly at an early age, Jonathan Schwarz captures my feelings exactly about how people like Russert endlessly drive their preferred chosen narrative, even if it is contradicted by facts.

How Tim Russert Planted The Seeds For Iraq War

December 19, 1999: With Al Gore as guest, Tim Russert says on Meet the Press: "One year ago Saddam Hussein threw out all the inspectors who could find his chemical or nuclear capability." Russert asks Gore what he's going to do about this.

Soon afterward: Sam Husseini leaves a message on Russert's answering machine, and speaks to two of his assistants, telling them the inspectors were withdrawn by the UN at the request of the United States.

January 2, 2000: With Madeleine Albright as guest, Tim Russert repeats the error on Meet the Press: "One year ago, the inspectors were told, 'Get out,' by Saddam Hussein." Russert asks Albright what she's going to do about this.

January 21, 2000: Sam Husseini writes a letter to Russert, again laying out the facts, and requests a correction.

January 22, 2000-March 19, 2003: Russert never corrects his error.

March 19, 2003-present: Hundreds of thousands of people die in Iraq War. Russert dies, not in Iraq War. Official Washington weeps copious tears for Russert and his Extraordinary Journalistic Standards.

Notice that even if Husseini was not considered important enough to be listened to, it looks as if none of the many, many Village journalists who knew Russert bothered to tell him the truth about the inspectors either. They all live together in their Village and believe their Village myths, and then foist them on us. It was because of this relentless driving of the White House's preferred war narrative that so many people, even now, believe so many false things about the Iraq war.

David North and David Walsh provide a much better review of Russert and his career than the hagiography that went on over the weekend.

June 16, 2008

The Language of God-6: Existence and universal claims

(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.)

Collins also takes the familiar tack of using negative arguments for god as a wedge to get his foot in the logical door and, after doing so, to make sweeping claims. This chain of 'reasoning' will be familiar to anyone who has ever discussed the existence of god with a believer and it goes like this:

  1. Start by identifying some features of the universe for which we do not currently have a good scientific explanation.
  2. Assert that we cannot prove that god was not the cause of those specific events.
  3. Assert that therefore it is possible that god could have been the cause.
  4. Assert that therefore it is possible to believe that god can exist.
  5. Assert that since god can exist and I feel that god exists, therefore god does exist.
  6. Assert that since god exists, he can do anything at all, so any and all miracles are possible.
  7. Grant miracle status only to those that I personally or my particular religious sect approve of.
  8. Hence only my particular religious belief in god is correct and everyone else's is wrong.

This is basically how all religions justify their claims that they are the one true religion. Here are some examples from Collins's book of the first three steps of this reasoning at work. (The next four steps were also taken by him elsewhere, as I showed in previous posts. Collins is an inclusive evangelical and tries to avoid the right religion/wrong religion debate and thus does not explicitly make the last claim, although his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of god is an indirect statement of it.)

[Dawkins] argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origins of humankind, so there is no more need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of creation of each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution. (p. 220)
. . .
The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins's claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. (p. 222)

This fails the logic test. As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. "No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there's no entity having the property." (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

This is how science works. Claims that Higgs bosons with certain properties exist (as is claimed by the currently dominant theory in particle physics) is an existence claim and until evidence is produced for it, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there is no such thing. That is why over 2,000 physicists from 32 countries are involved in the building of a huge and expensive accelerator in Europe known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) that is designed to produce at least one such Higgs particle, even though theorists feel confident that it exists.

On other hand, the claim that "all electrons have the same rest mass" is a universal claim based on observations of a limited set of electrons and it is logical to accept it as valid until someone produces a counter-example.

The claim that god exists is clearly an existence claim, and so the burden of proof is on the believer to produce god. If believers fail to produce god or to provide indirect but credible evidence of his existence, the rational thing is to assume non-existence.

When it comes to religion Collins, like many others, abandons the reasoning powers he has demonstrated in his scientific work when he says "Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason." (p. 222)

Collins's claim is simply wrong. Atheism is the logical and rational consequence of the failure of believers to produce evidence in favor of their existence claim for god.

POST SCRIPT: Why you shouldn't throw paperclips

We have all had experience with the co-worker or acquaintance who thinks he/she is being funny by repeating something over and over when it is just infuriatingly annoying. Well, sometimes it is just too much to take.

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.)

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.

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.

June 10, 2008

The Language of God-2: Theistic evolution aka 'BioLogos'

(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 in the previous post, Francis Collins rejects both young Earth creationism and intelligent design creationism. Instead he says that he is an advocate of 'theistic evolution', or as he wants to rename it, BioLogos. He outlines the basic premises of this belief structure:

  1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  2. Despite massive improbabilities, 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, once life arose, 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 human 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. (p. 264)

Collins suggests that this is a view that could be, and is, held by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and suggests that people like Pope John Paul II, Maimonides (the 12th century Jewish philosopher) and Saint Augustine would have also signed onto them if they had lived today and been aware of current scientific knowledge.

Points 1, 3, 4, and 5 are unimpeachable and would be accepted by any scientist (atheist or not) as well. As we will see, point #2 hints that he is going to invoke the anthropic principle, and point #6 is where his main argument really lies.

The best parts of the book (for me at least) were chapters four and five where he deals with biological evolution and molecular genetics. This is his field of expertise and he is sure-footed and authoritative in his writing as he explains clearly the principles of these fields and how our understanding of the genome has enriched our knowledge of evolution and helped in developing medical treatments.

All the scientific evidence he marshals in these sections is used against the religious arguments of the YEC and ID people. Collins leaves no doubt that he is a convinced Darwinian, something that will cause some dismay to those who may look to him, as an eminent biologist who accepts Jesus as his personal lord and savior, to champion the anti-evolution cause. Collins says that a mass of data has provided "the kind of molecular support for the theory of evolution that has convinced virtually all working biologists that Darwin's framework of variation and natural selection in unquestionably correct." (p. 190)

Here are some other passages from the book that address many of the specific criticisms of evolution by natural selection put forward by those who seek to discredit it.

[The argument] that the Cambrian explosion is evidence of the intervention of some supernatural force . . . is another "God of the gaps" argument, and once again believers would be unwise to hang their faith upon such a hypothesis. (p. 130)
. . .
While there are many imperfections of the fossil record, and many puzzles remain to be solved, virtually all of the findings are consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms. Good evidence exists for transitional forms from reptiles to birds, and from reptiles to mammals. Arguments that this model cannot explain certain species, such as whales, have generally fallen by the wayside as further investigation has revealed the existence of transitional species, often at precisely the date and place that evolutionary theory would predict. (p. 132)
. . .
No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it. (p. 136)
. . .
Some critics of Darwinism like to argue that there is no evidence of "macroevolution" (that is, major change in species) in the fossil record, only of "microevolution" (incremental change within species). . . This distinction is increasingly seen to be artificial . . . The distinction between macroevolution and microevolution is therefore seen to be rather arbitrary; larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps. (p. 177-178)
. . .
From a biologist's perspective, the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling. Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a fundamental framework for understanding the relationships of all living things. The predictions of evolution have been borne out in more ways than Darwin could have possibly imagined when he proposed his theory 150 years ago, especially in the field of genomics. (p. 196)

He dismisses the idea, advocated by the ID people, that scientists are dogmatically committed to rejecting any alternative to evolution by natural selection, using arguments that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Intelligent Design fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory . . . A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification. ID falls profoundly short in this regard . . .providing no mechanism by which the postulated supernatural intervention could give rise to complexity. (p. 249, 250)

Furthermore he says that scientific advances have steadily accumulated in the areas of the blood clotting mechanism and the bacterial flagella (ID's prized examples of alleged irreducible complexity that natural selection cannot explain) and that "each such new puzzle piece provides a natural explanation for a step that ID had relegated to supernatural forces, and leaves its proponents with smaller and smaller territory to stand on." (p. 257)

Such comments are not likely to endear him to the advocates of ID over at the Discovery Institute, which may explain why one of its members wrote a lengthy rebuttal of his criticisms.

So if Collins rejects young earth creationism and intelligent design creationism and wholeheartedly endorses Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as the explanation for the diversity and complexity of life, how does he reconcile science with the existence of god?

That is the topic of the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Who's to blame?

One of the most idiotic spectacles in sports is the athlete in the post-game interview who thanks god for some game-winning feat. But what about the athlete who chokes and blows it?

June 09, 2008

The Language of God-1: Introducing Francis Collins, distinguished scientist and evangelical Christian

(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.)

In this book Francis Collins tries to present arguments for the existence of god. Collins is an eminent scientist, the person who took over in 1992 from James Watson (co-discoverer in 1953 of the double-helix structure of DNA) as head of the Human Genome Project that in 2000 finished mapping out the complete sequence of 3.1 billion bases in human DNA. This was a monumental feat and Collins managed to shepherd this huge project to a successful conclusion.

To the extent that one can infer the nature of an author from his writings, Collins comes across as a thoughtful, compassionate, tolerant, and genial man, someone with whom it would be enjoyable to spend some time with discussing deep issues. He seems like someone who is sincerely trying to reconcile his scientific and religious beliefs, and he does not shirk the hard questions though his responses to most of them (as I will discuss in later posts) are contradictory and superficial. But that is unavoidable. Once you have made the decision to try to reconcile science with belief in a personal god, you cannot avoid contradictions because the two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible.

His personal history is also interesting. He was born to parents who lived a free-wheeling and free-thinking life on a farm where he was home-schooled. After getting his degree and Ph. D. in physical chemistry, he then obtained a medical degree and got interested in genetics research, ending up as a medical geneticist at the University of Michigan. He helped discover the genetic causes of cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington's disease.

He started out as an agnostic, then for a short while in college became an atheist until, at the age of about 26 and towards the end of medical school, he started questioning his own lack of belief and by the age of 28 became a convinced evangelical Christian. He has remained so despite a tragedy in his family that might have shaken the faith of someone else. Although he says that god never 'spoke' to him, he did receive what he considers a sign that finally convinced him of god's existence and he describes this climactic conversion moment to faith. While grappling with questions of belief, he was hiking in the Cascades and when he saw a "beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ." (p. 297)

Why did the waterfall make him convinced of Jesus' divinity and not (say) Allah, Krishna, or Thor? Why would it make him think of god at all instead of wondering (as I would have) about the steps by which rushing water gets frozen? The book does not say but in a profile of him in Time magazine on July 17, 2006, he reveals that the frozen waterfall was in three separate streams, suggesting to him the Trinity.

Collins is convinced that Jesus is a historical figure and that he died and was resurrected. He also thinks that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and John were Jesus' disciples of the same names (p. 295) and were thus writing eyewitness reports, although that is a matter of considerable dispute.

Given his impeccable scientific credentials and personal religious history, he makes an ideal candidate for countering the arguments of atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger.

The book is an easy read, one that I managed to finish in a single day, though I may have been helped by being familiar with the arguments he was making. Although Collins is not a particularly elegant or stylish writer, he more than makes up for that by having a direct and straightforward style that makes his argument easy to follow. He is dealing with a difficult subject and he knows he has an uphill task in trying to reconcile belief in god with science but he does not try to hide the difficulties in a thicket of incomprehensible verbiage.

But unfortunately, this very clarity also works to his disadvantage since, as I will show, the glaring flaws in his logic now become painfully obvious, raising the interesting question of how someone who clearly is able to apply rigorous evidence-based reasoning to his science can abandon it when he talks about religion and not even realize that he has done so. If one needed good evidence of how religious faith undermines scientific and rational thinking, this book is Exhibit A.

Even many religious people are going to be somewhat uncomfortable with his attempt at synthesizing religious beliefs with science. For starters, he dismisses creationism, especially young earth creationism (YEC), as harming religion by requiring its adherents to hold on to beliefs that are manifestly contradicted by facts, thus being anti-science and inviting ridicule.

This is not much of a surprise. Most sophisticated religious believers find young earth creationists to be an embarrassment and distance themselves from that movement.

More surprising is his complete rejection, like that of another religious biologist Kenneth Miller, of intelligent design (ID) creationism as well. He points out, correctly, that ID is a 'God of the gaps' theory that postulates supernatural intervention for phenomena that science cannot currently explain. He points out that such arguments have failed in the past as science was able to explain those earlier gaps and that ID is failing now as the gaps it invokes (the bacterial flagellum, blood-clotting cascade processes) are also being steadily being understood.

The perceived gaps in evolution that ID intended to fill with God are instead being filled by advances in science. By forcing this limited, narrow view of God's role, Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith . . . [This] ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith? (p. 259-260)

So if he rejects both YEC and ID, what exactly does he believe? The next post will examine this.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect gift for Dad

Father's Day (another holiday cynically designed to get people to spend money on junk) is coming up and people everywhere are wondering what would be the best gift to give their dear old dad. Dave Barry has completely captured my sentiments and the sentiments of many other fathers on what they really want for this day, their birthday, and other celebratory occasions.