CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

On February 5, 2008, Dr. Francis Collins gave a talk to a packed house at Stanford, discussing his ideas on God and science. The Stanford Review has given a really nice review of his thoughts in an article entitled The Language of God: Francis Collins Speaks at Stanford. One of the interesting parts of the article is a report on Collins' discussion of the limits of naturalism. The article notes:

According to Collins, “naturalism has its limits,” and “science also requires faith.” For example, scientific laws require a certain faith that the world will behave in “certain predictable ways.” Collins emphasized, however, that science does not provide us with the right instruments to prove the existence of God because God is outside of nature, contrasting his argument to that of atheist-biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the book The God Delusion. He went so far as to say that such thinking is a “logical pothole,” which Dawkins, who is scheduled to speak at Stanford in the near future, has fallen into. Collins cited pointers to God in nature such as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” and the precise tuning of physical constants during the Big Bang: if the level of gravity had been one part in 1014 weaker, matter would never have come together again to form the Earth. Examples of such improbability suggest that there is a creator God. To justify a creator God that actually cares about humans, though, requires more than just science. Although he cited examples from C.S. Lewis such as the moral law that is innate to humans and defines what is right and wrong in all cultures, and the inability of evolution to explain selfless acts, Collins reiterated several times that a spiritual act of faith in God transcends logical justifications.

Collins, unfortunately, is not a fan of intelligent design which he calls "interesting but ultimately flawed." Instead, he is a supporter of theistic evolution. According to the article:

Ultimately, Collins offered his own way to reconcile faith and science: Theistic Evolution. In this vein, God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago with its “parameters tuned to allow the development of complexity over time,” meaning that God planned to include evolution, including the evolution of human beings. After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God.

I found the article interesting and recommend it as a brief encapsulation of some of Dr. Collins' ideas articulated more fully in his book, The Language of God.

10 comments:

I think it should be pointed out that most IDers would actually agree with theistic evolution. The two are far from incompatible; it isn't a case of one instead of the other. (Indeed, IDers per se often catch flak from YECers who dismiss evolutionary development into historically existent species altogether.)

Collins may be aware of this, though, and only meant that the specific inferences of design employed by the ID crew are ultimately flawed.

JRP

'The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics?'

Mathematics can be used in game theory to see how altruism can evolve, by seeing what produces an evolutionary stable strategy.

Why did God design animals so that their altruism can be not only explained by mathematics, but that such mathematical explanations are 'unreasonably' effective?

Steven Carr: Why did God design animals so that their altruism can be not only explained by mathematics,

Note that a mathematical model is not the same as an explanation. Or, to be precise, it may explain the formal cause, but not the material, efficient, or final.


but that such mathematical explanations are 'unreasonably' effective?

It's only "unreasonable" if you claim God didn't design it that way.


-David

Collins: Examples of such improbability suggest that there is a creator God.

Hm, sounds like he does go for Intelligent Design after all! Of course, as Jason pointed out, evolution itself is compatible with ID (or indeed, demands it!). I think one of the biggest strengths in ID's favour is the way its opponents so persistently mischaracterise it; the real question behind ID of course deals only with how to recognise deliberate intervention -- it says nothing directly about who the designer is (divine, extraterrestrial, or human), or when and how that deliberation took place (in setting up the initial conditions of the big bang, in seeding the original forms of life, of repeated special actions throughout history, etc.).

I think the ID movement needs to do a lot more homework, but if it were really just bad science, then its opponents would attack it scientifically, rather than emotionally or politically or by pretending its everything but what it claims to be. Ironically, the only way to seriously maintain that questions of intelligent design can never be addressed scientifically is to stipulate that all intelligence is supernatural.
(Or you could deny there is any intelligence anywhere at all -- which actually seems like quite a reasonable conclusion if you take materialistic evolution to its logical conclusion. But then any evolutionist who claims that is kinda cutting off his own arguments at the knees...)

Anyway, the argument that the Big Bang involved too many coincidences to have "just happened" is just the sort of question that a fully-fleshed out theory of ID should tackle. Of course, even without a scientific theory, our intuition tells us there must be more to it, there has to be some reason things turned out exactly this precise way. (Saying "God did it" isn't a sufficient answer, but "it just happened that way for no reason at all" is?!)

The only naturalistic response to this I've heard that I consider tenable is the idea of endless parallel universes: our particular universe "just happens" to exist, because they all do, so "ours" has to be one of them. Unfortunately, that argument rather undermines science: if every possible universe exists, then how do you know ours isn't the one where science looks like it works, and then suddenly next Tuesday the "laws" of nature completely change? And keep changing every six seconds after that? ...Well, I guess you could just take it on "faith"!

Collins did also mention that science itself requires a certain amount of faith, which is a point I don't think is addressed as much as it should be. (Although I did see Dawkins reply to a similar interview question once by saying he had to take some things on faith. He said it with a straight face too, hm.)


Collins showed that the human chromosome two has a telomere embedded in the middle, evidence that somewhere in the evolutionary process, there had been a fusion.

I don't see how this makes a "surprisingly strong scientific case" for evolution. To be fair, Collins must have elaborated more than the article summarised, but while his example is consistent with evolution, it's entirely consistent with any number of theories of direct divine creation too. The only way I could see this as evidence of evolution is if we had totally exhaustive knowledge of biology and could confidently state that there is no other explanation for this similarity other than as a vestige of earlier progressive development. (At most we can now suspect that it serves no other function -- like we suspected that "junk" DNA was, well, junk.)


The article sounded quite fair, although the final sentence came across as suggesting a bit of bias: re reconciling faith and science, "Appealing as this may sound, it remains to be seen whether believers in the Bible as the Word of God can reject the idea of Adam and Eve in lieu of a mutated chimpanzee..."
Why is it that believers would be the ones who have trouble accepting the "appealing" view? Would evolutionists (apart from all the ones who already believe in the Bible too) not have any trouble accepting Collins' view? Or is it just not appealing when you're already on their side?


-David

'God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul.'

Yes, the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a gift from God to humanity

'Eat, and enjoy' were the exact words used, I believe, although I may have to look up exactly what the Bible does say about how mankind got the knowledge of good and evil, and what God had to say on the matter.

COLLINS
After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul.

CARR
Fascinating.

God waited until there was a sufficiently advanced human brain before gifting humanity with a soul?

At what period in time does the embryo develop a brain of any kind, let alone a 'sufficiently advanced' brain , of the type that can house a soul?

Steven Carr: At what period in time does the embryo develop a brain of any kind, let alone a 'sufficiently advanced' brain , of the type that can house a soul?

Tee-hee. Silly boy, brains don't house souls! If you really want to use the "housing" metaphor, I'd say it's the other way around. But I'm not sure what your non-sequitur is supposed to mean. You're not suggesting that the "evolving brains" theory could have anything to do with the growth of an individual, surely. Haven't you heard that ontogeny doesn't really recapitulate phylogeny??


-David

From the report on Collins' speech:

{{To begin, Collins made a surprisingly strong scientific case for the existence of evolution. Showing a chart of the chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees, he made it visually clear that the only difference was the very long human chromosome two, compared to that of the chimpanzee. Each chromosome has a very specific sequence at the tip called a telomere; Collins showed that the human chromosome two has a telomere embedded in the middle, evidence that somewhere in the evolutionary process, there had been a fusion. So how can we reconcile faith with this undeniable evolution?}}

I keep hearing about this, but I also keep hearing a suspicious lack of detail connecting the two positions.

In order for this to be scientific proof of common descent (which incidentally wouldn't bother me in the least; if Collins was a fan of CS Lewis he ought to have known it didn't bother Lewis or several of Lewis' Christian predecessors either), the two halves of the extra long human chromosome would have to be substantially similar to the two separate chromosomes of the chimpanzee. I haven't once heard this, however. I keep expecting to hear it, because surely these people wouldn't keep bringing up a mere chromosome fusion as evidence of descent from a common ancestor unless the chromosomes otherwise matched substantially!--but then I keep not hearing it. Sloppy reportage perhaps.

Let us suppose however (as I provisionally do, because surely these people wouldn't be exposing themselves to a potentially embarrassing rebuttal etc.) that the chromosomes on either side of the evident fusion substantially match. If I understand correctly, this kind of thing doesn't happen from a mere copy error (like a point mutation on a DNA strand). The intercellular mechanisms for flipping and recombining DNA (much moreso whole chromosome strands) are very complex and require a significant number of triggers to fire off in exactly the right sequence within a fairly circumscribed period of cellular behavior.

Let's say however that I take it on faith that cell division of a gamete during reproductive seed-or-egg generation might plausibly arrive at this result (or that biologists are reasonably confident that this is a plausible accidental result and aren't only making a guess about it because it happens to be convenient.)

The result is an egg or sperm (or sperm-set?) which happens to have one less chromosome than the species into which this mutant will be born; moreover one of the chromosomes is much longer. This chromosome set has to now mate up successfully with the original chromosome set. The original chromosome set will have X pairs; the mutation will have X-1. We now not only have to get a viable baby out of this who has a plausible chance of surviving to breed (with in effect two of his-or-her chromosomes in one set scrambled out of order), we have to get the other pair of chromosomes to eventually match the X-1 set. (I haven't heard yet that only the male or female set has this long-combine chromosome. Any clarification on that...?) And this has to be done in such a fashion that it results in a population with 100%(?) members sporting this new drastic mutation, rather than various combinations that would otherwise plausibly form in an extended population over time.

So basically, to most plausibly get the end result, we need a single male and a single female animal both mutated in this fashion and left to breed among themselves for a while in a protected situation where the mutations will be least likely to be accidentally wiped out through various natural accidents, setting up a whole new population base, apart from the original population.

The constraints against this all happening by accident would seem to be getting pretty tight. (Plus it sounds suspiciously like... well... {shrug?})

Even if a situation like this did happen purely by non-intended accidents (and largely random ones, too), I think someone could be forgiven for drawing a probable-agency conclusion from it instead.

JRP

COLLINS
After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul.

DAVID
Tee-hee. Silly boy, brains don't house souls! If you really want to use the "housing" metaphor, I'd say it's the other way around.

I don't know why Mr. Carr is playing so coy, but what the heck, I'll go along with it.

First of all, if you want to get pedantic, I'll have to point out that you misattributed your first quotation. You actually quoted not Collins, but what the article said about what Collins said. Of course, the article itself was not written technically (in fact, it was arguably a bit sloppy in some places), so one could hardly expect to base a rigourous argument on its exact wording (rather than the actual underlying principles). Now, the line you quoted refers to knowledge, which can be said to be "housed" in the brain (again, to be pedantic, I would say the brain cannot really hold knowledge, only the mind can -- the brain itself holds "information"; but since the article is not a technical paper, saying brains house knowledge is "good enough" for figurative or casual speech).

However, let us suppose the that the writer really did mean to say that the brain houses the soul; let us even suppose -- for the sake of argument -- that Collins really said it that way. Even if Collins did say that, and it wasn't a slip of the tongue, and it wasn't reported misleadingly, and you didn't misunderstand the article... well, just because Collins said something silly doesn't mean it stops being silly when you say it.


-David

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