Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Language of God (II)

In chapter 10 of The Language of God geneticist Francis Collins lays out for the reader his beliefs about how faith and science are harmonized (See here for the first part of this review). His position is usually referred to as Theistic Evolution (TE) although he prefers to call it BioLogos.

He begins by listing six propositions which define TE:

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 remains unknown, once life arose the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over long periods of time.

4. Once evolution got underway no special supernatural intervention was required.

5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.

6. But humans are unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature (e.g. the Moral law and the yearning for God)

In none of the first five assertions is there any explicit role for a creator. Collins says elsewhere that he believes that God created the universe and established the natural laws which govern it, but, as the materialist would point out, his belief is unparsimonious. If the world gives every appearance of having arisen according to the natural laws themselves then God is superfluous. There's no need to assume that there's anything beyond nature responsible for the world. Collins can say that God somehow got it all going and is necessary as an answer to the ultimate questions of life, but it's hard to see how this God is any different than the God of the deist. He certainly isn't the Christian God who acts in history.

Collins insists that we know by faith that God chose the mechanism of evolution to populate the universe with living creatures, and that he intentionally appointed this mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with him, and that these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral law. This all amounts to saying, however, that we know by faith that God intentionally designed human beings. It's just that he left no evidence of this activity for us.

Other than explicitly identifying the creator as the Judeo-Christian God there's nothing in what he writes here that's incompatible with ID. The difference is that IDers think that the universe and life display actual empirical evidence of intelligent input whereas Collins thinks that none of what we observe in the world can be construed as evidence of a designer's work. The most we can conclude from the empirical evidence is that everything is the result of chance and physics.

Proposition #4 is particularly troublesome coming from someone like Collins who believes the witness of Scripture. In order to discount supernatural intervention in the natural world one must, if one is consistent, reject, or at least adopt a position of agnosticism about, the miracle accounts in the Bible. An IDer (who is officially agnostic about who the designer is) could do this, but a Theistic Evolutionist who accepts the Biblical testimony about God cannot. He is committed to believing that God performs miracles, but must maintain that there's no empirical evidence of these miracles.

Collins would, I think, reply that miracles are religious events known by faith whereas the evolution of life lies in the realm of science, but if so, he's creating a dichotomy that really has no justification. The physical world is where miracles occur and as such they're just as much subject to scientific investigation as is the evolution of the human eye. For a miracle to occur God has to intervene in nature somehow, and if Collins believes that he intervened to raise a man from the dead why is he so opposed to those who believe that he has also intervened to create life, or consciousness, or the human immune system?

Nevertheless, Collins makes it clear on p.205 that he does believe God specified, and was intimately involved in, the creation of all species. It's just that from our perspective it all looks like random chance. But if God is behind the evolution of life then the appearance of random chance is an illusion, and Collins has denied a basic tenet of Darwinian evolution which emphatically insists that it's not an illusion. Darwinians hold that chance mutations and natural selection are the main engines of evolution and that there's no input from anything outside the realm of nature. Either God has had a hand in the process or he hasn't. If Collins says he does play a role then he comes close to affirming a basic tenet of ID and denies the naturalistic process that Darwinians proclaim is the cause of all that is. If he says he doesn't play a role then his God seems pretty much irrelevant to our lives.

Moreover, if from our perspective the world looks like the product of random chance then it's hard to see how Ps. 19:1* and Romans 1:20** should be understood. In any event, Collins goes on to say that:

"Unlike ID, TE is not intended as a scientific theory. It's truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind and the soul."

In other words, TE, as Collins describes it, is a purely intuitive, subjective hypothesis, but if so, how can Collins say it's preferable to Creationism or ID? One subjective hypothesis is no more nor less preferable than another. It all depends on the biases and predilections of the person who embraces the hypothesis.

The only difference between ID and TE that Collins has clearly draws is that ID claims with Ps. 19:1 and Romans 1:20 that there is indeed empirical evidence for a designer's handiwork in the creation. Collins says there is not, that the evidence is not empirical but is evident only through the eyes of faith. So Collins looks at biological information and cosmic fine-tuning and says that all we can conclude scientifically from what we see is that it's all a product of blind random processes, but we know in our hearts that somehow God was behind it. This sounds very much like wishful thinking.

The IDer looks at the existence of biological information in structures like DNA and sees the astronomically improbable fine-tuning of the hundreds of parameters, forces, and coincidences of the cosmic structure, and infers that an intelligent engineer was somehow involved. ID makes the scientifically falsifiable, and thus testable, claim that material processes are inadequate to account for life or those exquisitely precise calibrations.

Collins states that:

"I find TE to be by far the most scientifically consistent and spiritually satisfying of the alternatives."

The claim that TE is scientifically consistent is a little peculiar since, as Collins has told us (p.204), TE makes no scientific claims. It's simply not possible for a view that makes no claims that can be scientifically tested to be inconsistent with science.

He then concludes:

"I do not believe that the God who created all the universe, and who communes with his people through prayer and spiritual insight, would expect us to deny the obvious truths of the natural world that science has revealed to us..."

Nor do I, but ID denies no obvious truth about the world that science has uncovered. TE, however, does. After all, the most obvious truth about the world is that it has every mark of having been designed. Even Richard Dawkins admits as much on the opening page of The Blind Watchmaker where he says that "Biology is the study of complicated things which give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose."

Theistic Evolution may be true, but I find Collins' case for it unpersuasive.

* The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.

** Since the beginning of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power, and divine nature have been clearly seen, being seen through what has been made....