Friday, September 28, 2018

Francis Collins: "The Language of God"

Collins' book had been on my reading list for a long time. I've blogged about him before-- through someone else's writing. And I've read quite a bit in this area; the book and its author are highly acclaimed; and the book has been recommended to me by knowledgeable friends. But in the past, I've spent most of my time reading books in this arena:

1.) from more avid proponents and opponents on evolution and religion (for some of my reviews of pro-evolution books, click here; or for an example of a critique of evolution, see: Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial);
2.) on the fascinating connections between evolution, racism, and the Progressive Era;
3.) on the history of the debate;
4.) on Intelligent Design (William Dembski's Design Revolution; if you're an opponent of ID, have you read anything from an impressive proponent? If not, get scientific, read liberally, and think critically before you critique!)

Collins' book is popular and important, but didn't "grab" me since he is in "both camps"-- as a theist who believes in evolution and Evolution, including the evolution of man from monkeys. Collins seeks to bridge the gap between science and religion, design and evolution, faith and reason. Whether you agree with everything or not-- from whichever camp you occupy-- the book is still worth a read. (Collins' book is closest to Kenneth Miller's book.)

In his introduction, Collins quotes President Clinton's speech on an occasion of celebrating the successes of the Human Genome Project-- of which Collins was chair: "Today, we are learning the language of in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift." (2) Collins' experience was the same: "the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning achievement and an occasion of worship." (3)

From there, Collins notes the fundies on both sides of the debate (4)-- as well as the more casual observers who imagine that they must choose between science and religion (5). He wants to dismiss this dogmatic dichotomy, so he works to de-fang the fundies on both sides and to give space for those who are fooled or intimidated by the passions of those on the ends of the spectrum. 

Collins then moves to "his story"-- not one of "rigorous religious upbringing, deeply instilled by family and culture, and thus inescapable in later life." (7) Chapter 1 (and some of his conclusion in Chapter 11) is devoted to his journey from "atheism to belief". In caring for patients while he was a student, he was impacted by the way that many of them lived out their religious faith. Then, he was asked by one lady what he believed-- and he stammered that he didn't know. He was "haunted" for days by the notion that he considered himself a scientist but had not "seriously considered the evidence for and against belief...Suddenly all my arguments seemed very thin." (20)

Collins visited a Methodist minister who recommended that he read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis-- an excellent suggestion! (If you're younger and more post-modern in your approach to these things, I'd recommend Lewis' Great Divorce first.) There are many ways to arrive at the logic of theism and Christianity, but Collins got there primarily through the first section of Lewis' MC and its focus on the moral law. Lewis notes that we all have a sense of right and wrong, reflexively appealing to and relying on a standard that is beyond us (22). Collins' conclusion: "Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief." (30)

Collins also mentions Lewis' argument about belief in God as "wish fulfillment". But as Collins notes, even if "God is something humans might wish for, does that rule our the possibility that God is real? Absolutely not." (38). Beyond that and echoing Lewis, "wish fulfillment would likely give rise to a very different kind of God than the one described in the Bible." (37) Moreover, "one can turn this wishful-thinking argument on its head. Why would such a universal and uniquely human hunger exist, if it were not connected to some opportunity for fulfillment?" (38)

But what about...? 
1.) "Bad Christians" (40-42): Yes, but they've done many wonderful things too. And back to the "moral law", when you invoke "bad", you're appealing to a standard that is beyond you. And really, it's a lazy way to argue: you don't dismiss X because you can cite a few bad examples of people who claim X. 
2.) Suffering (43-46): Here, he provides the standard answer about human evil and free will. But also explains that natural disasters will happen with the unpredictable and evolutionary (!) world in which we live. And he notes that we often learn more during difficult times, so who's to say that an "easy life" would be the blessing we imagine? 
3.) Miracles (47-54): Here he notes that beliefs about this are generally decided on "priors"-- an assumption about whether they are possible or not. He recommends skepticism (a la science) but openness to the possibility (a la religion). 

Collins closes this section by noting that 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 not be understood, and for which the laws of nature fall completely short of providing an explanation." And that's how he transitions to chapters 3-5 in part 2 as he wrestles with the big questions of our existence on earth. 

Chapter 3 is devoted to the beginning of the Universe and the "Big Bang" (61-71), the "Anthropic Principle" (71-77), and the "Uncertainty Principle" (78-80). Chapter 4 is devoted to the beginning of Life on Earth and at least the strong appearance of design. Chapter 5 is a long and fascinating history of the Genome Project-- "God's instruction book"-- from start to finish.

Collins quotes the agnostic astrophysicist Robert Jastrow approvingly: "At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." (66)

Collins also notes the inherent problem with the evolution narrative's historicity and the scale of time required to believe the story: "A major part of the problem in accepting the theory of evolution is that it requires one to grasp the significance of extremely long periods of time involved in the process." (148) He does not mention this in the same paragraph, but in addition to imagination of eons, one must be willing to believe the extrapolations required with little specific explanation of the supposed details. 

In Chapter 6, Collins turns to Genesis and notes that "old earth/universe" interpretations pre-date Darwin by centuries and were made popular by Augustine (151, 157). Collins notes the Hebrew word "yom" which gives a ton of flexibility on this question (152). He might have also noted that the three uses of the Hebrew word "bara"-- apparently for God's special efforts to "create"-- all happen to be in the three areas where scientists have not and probably cannot do much to speak confidently and scientifically: the origins of all; the origins of life; and the origins of man.  

In Chapters 7-10, Collins covers the options for folks in weighing these matters. In Chapter 7, he talks about "science trumping faith" (agnostics and atheists). But really, this position is based on a misunderstanding of both science and faith. In Chapter 8, he turns the tables to discuss "faith trumping science" (for young-earth creationism in particular). But this is also based on misunderstandings of science and faith. In Chapter 9, he describes "Intelligent Design" as "Science Needs Help". (He holds ID and Evolution to relatively high standards, so I can live with that.) And then, in Chapter 10, he describes his "Biologos" project-- to have "Science and Faith in harmony". (Collins also has a very helpful appendix on Bioethics. That alone is worth the price of the book.)

If you're willing to wrestle with your faith in evolution or open to hearing a theistic evolutionist try to reconcile science with his faith and the Bible, then Collins is a good place to start. 


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