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Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Lighter Side of the Integration of Evolution and Faith

You have to admire Francis Collins. As Director of the Human Genome Project, he led a team that accomplished one of mankind’s greatest scientific achievements to date. By giving us a complete genetic map for the human body, his team allowed us to glimpse at, in Collins words, the Language of God. He certainly deserves the public credit he continues to receive for this feat.

The reaction to his Christian witness has not always been as positive. As an Evangelical Christian, his promotion of the integration of biological evolution and the Christian Faith has met with open hostility and personal attacks from within some areas of the Christian community (for being an evolutionist) and within some areas of the scientific community (for believing in God despite being an evolutionist). Still, Collins has responded with both humility and grace, keeping himself above the rough-and-tumble fray. Time and again I have been impressed with how he has responded to his critics, whether anti-evolutionist Christians or atheist Scientists.

Still, Collins is not shy about entering risky situations. Here is a video of Collins on Comedy Central answering questions like “Are you going to be the only Christian in Hell?”.

15 comments:

Mike Beidler said...

I loved Colbert's suggestion to take a DNA sample from the Shroud of Turin and make a clone of Jesus! Too funny! Or blasphemous. I'm not sure which. I'm staying indoors for a while, away from any bad weather, just in case.

Cliff Martin said...

That was great! Collins held his own quite well!

RBH said...

My problem with Collins is not so much his evangelical Christianity -- that's his own business -- but with the weakness of his attempt to reconcile science and religion. His book is basically in two parts. The first part is an excellent lay-level overview of the evidence for evolution. The second part is an extended God of the Gaps argument, claiming that evidence for his faith consists in the existence of Moral Law and fine tuning of the universe. He claims that they point to a creator god. Recall that the subtitle of his book is A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. His "evidence", however, is the claim that science hasn't/can't account for some phenomena.

When I called him on that at a symposium at Ohio State, he granted it, but said they're only "indicators," and if science should provide a satisfactory account, well then he'd accept that. But, he said, his faith would be unshaken, and he would appeal to a different class of evidence, his personal subjective experience. That, of course, is an abandonment of the "Scientist" of his subtitle.

So it's the near-fraudulent juxtaposition of "evidence" and "Scientist" that grates me about his argument.

Steve Martin said...

Hi RBH: Actually, I think the book subtitle is bad (I don’t believe it was Collins that picked this – maybe I’m wrong). It should have been something along the lines of the congruence of science & faith, or the coherence of theism given what we know of the scientific evidence (ok, obviously need something snappier but you get the picture) ie. the evidence fits into a theistic framework, but it is not something that points unambiguously to theism.

I would disagree with your “near-fraudulent” assessment to describe Collins. Maybe he needs to be more careful (don’t we all sometimes!) but he is definitely not in the same boat as those who claim that “scientifically we can conclude there is a God based on the evidence”.

RBH said...

You're probably right, "near-fraudulent" is too strong -- Collins probably didn't choose the subtitle. But it still grates. :)

Cliff Martin said...

RBH,
Folks on both sides of this argument tend to use "over-the-top" language. The definition of delusion is "an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder"

So Dawkin's title, The God Delusion, implies that the likes of Collins are afflicted with a mental disorder and out of touch with reality. I suppose I could say that Dawkin's title "grates". I'm sure you would not defend Dawkin's choice of a title any more than Collin's, but my point is that we all could use a little toning down in our rhetoric.

Dustin said...

That was good, I liked the DNA merry-go-round comment.
I have to admit though I laughed harder when Dawkins was on the show.

Also, thanks for wandering over to my blog. I've enjoyed yours for sometime now!

RBH said...

Collins' title didn't grate until I read the book and found it empty of the promised evidence. Dawkins at least attempted to make the case promised by his title. And given that a substantial proportion of American Christians (and a larger proportion of Muslims) do show significant disconnects from reality (rejecting the strong evidence bearing on the age of the earth and common descent, for example), his title is not entirely without grounds.

Cliff Martin said...

RBH,
I am surprised! I thought surely we could agree that for Dawkins to call a man like Collins "deluded" was at least as overreaching as Collins subtitle.

"A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief". That is just what Collins does. I present evidence for my belief all the time. Neither Collins nor myself ever pretend that we can prove theism. But there is evidence, and that is all Collins suggests. Some, like yourself, may discount that evidence. You may consider fine tuning just another God of the gaps argument. And it is your right to do so. But it is still evidence, though you might consider it to be weak evidence.

As you know, I argue against many typical God of the gaps arguments. However, if you consider all the mysteries of the universe, including those that seem to point to some master mind creative influence, mere God of the gaps arguments, then there you will never be satisfied with evidence for God even if he does exist. If thousands of years from now, we have solved all mysteries except fine tuning, would you continue to cling to your God of the gaps argument. For how long?

A question: did Fred Hoyle consider fine tuning to be evidence of a designing Creator. He told us that it shook his atheism. He wrote,

“Would you not say to yourself, ’Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.’ Of course you would . . . A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

The God of the gaps objection can be pushed too far. If Jesus himself appeared before you in flesh and blood, and performed any and every miraculous sign you could imagine, you could still shroud your disbelief in a God of the gaps defense. You could spend the rest of your days looking for the natural explanation for what you saw and experienced.

Can you describe for me what you might consider as evidence for theism? Because if I am right, then not only would you claim that God does not exist, you would also claim that evidence for the existence of God cannot exist. Am I right?

RBH said...

I am surprised! I thought surely we could agree that for Dawkins to call a man like Collins "deluded" was at least as overreaching as Collins subtitle.

This is what Dawkins called "deluded" in his book:

[T]here exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (The God Delusion, p. 31)

To the extent that Collins believes that, Dawkins would regard Collins' belief as a delusion, for the reasons he elaborates in the book.

"A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief". That is just what Collins does. I present evidence for my belief all the time. Neither Collins nor myself ever pretend that we can prove theism. But there is evidence, and that is all Collins suggests. Some, like yourself, may discount that evidence. You may consider fine tuning just another God of the gaps argument. And it is your right to do so. But it is still evidence, though you might consider it to be weak evidence.

At least as Collins expresses it, it is pretty much a pure God of the gaps argument: He interprets the (present) inability of science to account for the (alleged) fine-tuning and the existence of what he calls "Moral Law" (caps in the original) as 'pointers' to his creator god. And he used that characterization in response to a question about it, indicating that he really regards them not as proofs (=evidence?), but as

... interesting observations about nature and about ourselves that I found, in my transition from atheism to belief, to be actually quite helpful, because I came into this particular situation assuming that there were no such arguments, or that they all worked in the other direction, to push one off in the direction of atheism. There are gaps and there are gaps. Can we in fact look at the beginning of the universe, that the universe had a beginning, that there was a Big Bang, and say that arguing from that to the feasibility, to the plausibility, of there being a creator outside of nature, is that a gap?

...

All the same, I take your point, and I think none of the arguments, including the Moral Law, ought to be ones on which one rests one's faith, or you are perhaps slipping into this dangerous territory that down through history has not fared very well. And if in fact the sociobiologists are right, and if all of these arguments from evolution can in fact explain our moral sense in a pretty compelling way, that will not shake my faith, in the sense that my faith is really not grounded upon that. It was an interesting -- and remains an interesting -- aspect, that seems to be a pointer towards a god that cares about humans. But I have lots of other evidence from that, in terms of my own personal life, a life that then goes well beyond science, into the spiritual realm, which is therefore harder to defend on strict intellectual grounds."
(Starting around minute 52.)

You ask If thousands of years from now, we have solved all mysteries except fine tuning, would you continue to cling to your God of the gaps argument. For how long?

I deem "We don't (yet) know" to be preferable to "Sometime or other, something(s) or other designed the universe, and then somehow or other manufactured that design in matter and energy, while leaving no independent evidence of the designing process, the manufacturing process, nor independent evidence of the presence (or even the existence) of the designing and manufacturing entity(ies)."

Hoyle I leave aside. After his 'tornado in a junkyard' misrepresentation of the origin of life (not of evolution, as it has been frequently misrepresented) I have serious doubts about his intuitions, and the quotation is basically a description of his intuition-based incredulity.

You ask Can you describe for me what you might consider as evidence for theism? Because if I am right, then not only would you claim that God does not exist, you would also claim that evidence for the existence of God cannot exist. Am I right?

No, in fact you're wrong. Consider the "Sometime or other, something(s) or other ... " statement above. Should theists begin to generate hypotheses about values for the several variable slots (the "some____" slots) in that statement, providing intersubjectively replicable tests of the hypotheses, then I'd begin to seriously consider the argument.

I do not claim that God (or Thor or Zeus or Ra or ...) does not exist. My claim is more modest: I do not believe that personal gods of the nature invoked by (among others) the Abrahamic faiths exist. In my view, the proposition that the whole universe was created just in order to provide a tiny (on the scale of the universe) home for humanity is egocentric past belief, and requires a whole lot more support than the statement that "We don't understand this or that aspect of the universe." If there is a god, it is (in my view) much more likely to be an impersonal pantheist god than the personal human-centered god of the Abrahamic faiths. The connection I feel to the universe when I walk outside in the fields with my dogs late at night under a sky full of stars, knowing that the atoms of which both I and my dogs are made were manufactured in stars, is much closer to pantheism than any discrete supernatural personality called god.

Cliff Martin said...

RBH,

Three quick responses ...

1) You say, In my view, the proposition that the whole universe was created just in order to provide a tiny (on the scale of the universe) home for humanity is egocentric past belief...

... and I totally agree with you. If that is the kernel of Abrahamic faith that you find objectionable, please be assured that I have never been able to swallow that either. That is why I explore both nature and the Scriptures to find a larger, more all encompassing story. And I do believe such a story exists.

2) Part of the issue here is semantics. Perhaps "evidence" is used by some as a synonym for "proof". I do not use it that way, and I would suggest that Collins does not either. I think most people understand that in court case, both sides submit evidence, even though the truth is with one side or the other.

3) If you honestly believe that Collins, as a scientist, offering "evidence" for his belief is more egregious than Dawkins contending that Collins, Newton, Galileo, CS Lewis, and countless other clear thinking, intellectually gifted individuals are delusional, then one or both of us is letting our biases get the best of us.

I enjoy our interchange! Thank you.

RBH said...

You write,

If that is the kernel of Abrahamic faith that you find objectionable, please be assured that I have never been able to swallow that either. That is why I explore both nature and the Scriptures to find a larger, more all encompassing story. And I do believe such a story exists.

That's one bit, yes. There's more, but that's another thread. Or five. :)

You write,

Part of the issue here is semantics. Perhaps "evidence" is used by some as a synonym for "proof". I do not use it that way, and I would suggest that Collins does not either. I think most people understand that in court case, both sides submit evidence, even though the truth is with one side or the other.

Or neither. If a question is framed wrong, neither answer may be true. And that a sentence can be expressed in an interrogative syntactic form doesn't imply that it is a question that is answerable, or even sensible. :) Back when I was a professor I used to (try to) teach my students that appropriately posing a question is one of the most important steps in research. A question is a device for delimiting a set of potential answers, and one does research to find the true answer in that set. A badly posed question may delimit a set in which there may be no true answers and hence research is fruitless.

I've never quite understood what Christians -- evangelicals and/or fundamentalists -- mean when they refer to "proofs." In a conversation with a fundamentalist Christian not long ago, I was asked (about evolution) "Do you have proofs?" I responded that in general one doesn't speak of "proof" but of evidence, and that there was a great deal of evidence for evolution. He replied, "So you don't have proofs!" (The emphasis was in his intonation.) Our conversation was truncated then, so I didn't have a chance to ask what he meant by "proof." So you may be right: there's some semantic fuzz there.

You write,

If you honestly believe that Collins, as a scientist, offering "evidence" for his belief is more egregious than Dawkins contending that Collins, Newton, Galileo, CS Lewis, and countless other clear thinking, intellectually gifted individuals are delusional, then one or both of us is letting our biases get the best of us.

Well, from his response at the symposium I linked above, he is not offering "evidence" as a scientist, contrary to his subtitle. In the portion I transcribed he clearly recognizes that he leaves science when he says "But I have lots of other evidence that, in terms of my own personal life, a life that then goes well beyond science, into the spiritual realm, which is therefore harder to defend on strict intellectual grounds."

I don't know what "evidence" means in the "spiritual realm," but I'm pretty sure it's different from what "evidence" means in the scientific realm.

And yes, I can easily believe that clear thinking, intellectually gifted people can harbor delusions. That's not a cynical statement. Our mental models of the world are constructions of our heads, and to the extent that the model of the world that each of us constructs in our heads doesn't match well with the inputs -- the intersubjectively testable evidence -- we are subject to harboring delusional beliefs.

To say that we harbor delusional beliefs is not in itself a pejorative statement. It is a descriptive statement. Some delusions -- say, that one's children are exceptional when in fact they're perfectly average -- are innocuous, albeit occasionally embarrassing. However, others -- say, that the voice of God inside one's head says that apostates from my religious tradition are to be killed -- are not harmless. In general, systems of thought that assign high value to strong beliefs in the absence of, or even in the teeth of, evidence of the "scientific" sort defined above are dangerous in my view, since they encourage a disconnect between beliefs and reality. I think that disconnect is one of the causes of what I see as a pervasive disregard for evidence-based public policies in favor of policies consistent with ideological purity.

As an aside, I note an interesting difference of expression between us. I pretty consistently refer to delusions as beliefs, and use "delusional" as a property of beliefs. You refer to people as being delusional. In general, I tend to view "delusion" as referring to beliefs. You, it appears, treat it as a property of a human, as when you say "If you honestly believe that ... Dawkins contending that Collins, Newton, Galileo, CS Lewis, and countless other clear thinking, intellectually gifted individuals are delusional,...". I'm not sure what to make of that, but it seems a difference of some importance.

And thank you for your hospitality to an unbeliever.

Steve Martin said...

Cliff, RBH:
For a post on "The Lighter Side" this has turned into quite the discussion :-). And for the second time in less than a month I return to my blog & notice Cliff & an atheist have been engaging in an interesting conversation while I'm away. Maybe I should pay attention more often. Then again, right now I should probably just go to bed. Thanks for the interesting dialogue.

Cliff Martin said...

RBH,

A blogging conversation has its limitations. I have an idea that you and I would get on quite well sitting and conversing in my living room ... or yours. When it comes to the irrationalities of religions, including Christian fundamentalism, you and I would share many views in common. And I know I could learn much about logic and evidence from you. In the meantime, I'm sure will meet in these discussions again. Please be assured that even if when such discussions are hard hitting, I respect you and I very much respect how you think.

Thanks for giving me your time!

RBH said...

And thanks for yours, Cliff.