The Language of God-5: The nasty problem of miracles »« The Language of God-3: The God of the Ultimate Gaps again

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.

Comments

  1. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    Somehow your link to “Machines like us” is entangled in the comments
    section for Friday’s post so I am adding a comment to the previous
    day’s post.

    Thanks for the series of articles critiquing the Collins book.
    I found your remarks quite insightful and thought-provoking.

    I’ve read Collins book and I also found it a pretty easy read. I’d
    summarize my personal impression as “interesting but not really
    compelling”. Collins theology is basically derivative of C.S. Lewis
    – a point of view that is sometimes illuminating but, in my personal
    opinion, not particularly effective as apologetics. So I think
    Collins really presents only one particular viewpoint in defense of
    having a religious perspective. When you say “sophisticated religious
    believers like Francis Collins and John Lennox always start out by
    arguing for a God of the Ultimate Gaps” I would say that this is not
    really true. I think word “always” is an overstatement here. There
    are many other points of view that can be taken besides the one that
    Collins and Lennox present.

    I mostly agree with your points, but part of the issue is a matter of
    degree. You use the word “obvious” regarding Richard Dawkin’s
    statement: “We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural
    causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no
    limit.” — I happen to agree with this particular assertion — but
    this argument is by no means “obvious” to me. My impression is that
    most people find this kind of inductive argument logically confusing
    and somewhat elusive and there are a number of underlying assumptions
    involved that might not be universally held. I also believe this “two
    worlds” business is similarly subtle, as I think I’ve mentioned
    before. So when you assert that it must be religion that has blinded
    Collins to the “obvious logic” on these points, I am not persuaded.
    Collins might not have understood or agreed with your logic on these
    particular points whether he was religious or not.

    What is more interesting to me regarding your posts is not so much
    whether or not you have persuasively found logical flaws in Collins
    arguments (which, by and large, I agree you have), but rather the
    rhetoric that you apply to judge these flaws: Why is it “sad” that in
    particular that Collins has an logically flawed personal theology? Is
    this a “aw, the poor guy” kind of sadness? Or did you mean something
    else? You seem to imply that your (?) sadness in derives from the
    special fact that he is clearly a prominent and gifted scientist.
    Would Collin’s book make you just as sad if he were a lawyer or a
    theologian?

    You strong statement that Collins would be a much more logical person
    with regards to these questions if it weren’t for the influence of
    religion implies a general expectation that scientists should be
    universally or generally rational. But my experience is that
    scientist are not, as a rule, an especially rational set of people in
    comparison to other except within the particular regime of scientific
    issues. I would say that, as a rule, my experience is that a
    scientist is not particularly more inclined or better equipped to deal
    logically with a various issues outside their own work any better than
    any other typically well-educated person is, especially in the context
    of what I would call “ill-structured problems”. My experience is that
    even gifted scientists are prone to making all kinds of bad decisions
    in areas such as their relationships, dealing with money, etc. and
    that these tendencies to make illogical decisions occur whether or not
    they are religious. I do not a priori expect that a gifted scientist
    will have something much more useful to tell me about religion or art
    or marriage or anything else.

    You call Collins “Exhibit A” for how religion (as a concept?) seems to
    cause the irrationality. But I do not see the “cause and effect” here.
    My experience and what little I know about human psychology is that
    the tendency to be rational and logical is remarkably rare in the
    context of a normal human day-to-day experience. So it seems to me
    that the issue is not so much what causes Collins to be irrational
    within his personal religious beliefs — it is what causes him to be
    rational to such an effective degree in his work.

    In the past you have argued that irrationality associated with
    religious perspectives is either harmful or dangerous because it might
    bleed from the purely religious arena into other contexts.

    Suppose I would grant that every argument you raise against Collins
    is correct, isn’t it true that all of these are arguments about
    religion, applied in the (rather narrow) context of this question of
    whether there is evidence to support the existence of god or not?

    Isn’t Collins therefore also “Exhibit A” for those who would argue
    that a person can be religious — even in a self-contradictory way –
    and that person can still be completely effective in the application
    of logic and reasoning within a context where it actually matters to
    the real world? Isn’t Collins an example in favor of the argument
    that we can “tolerate” irrational religious viewpoints without
    measurable harmful effects in other contexts?

  2. says

    Corbin,

    I fixed the problem. Html is an unforgiving language and the slightest error messes things up!

    As for your questions, it is not because Collins is a scientist. Anyone (lawyer, theologian, etc.) who had demonstrated the same kind of sophisticated reasoning in other areas and then abandoned it when it came to arguing for the existence of god would elicit the same comment from me.

    Yes, it is true that Collins could be a good example of someone who so far seems to be able to compartmentalize his thinking into logical (when it comes to science) and illogical (when it comes to god). But I am at a loss to see why this is a commendable trait. Surely it would be better to be more logical in more areas than less? After all, suppose some scientific research that he does comes dangerously close to contradicting his basic views about god. What would he do? Perhaps it already has and he has shut his eyes to it and he does not even know that he has done so.

  3. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    Thanks for the reply. I just wanted to be sure that you were implicitly singling out scientists there.

    I was not suggesting that being logical in one arena and “illogical” in another was, by itself, a commendable trait. Rather I was suggesting that perhaps this should be “tolerated” since in this case there is no evidence to suggest that Collins’ religious views have had any negative impact on his abilities as a scientist. As I have mentioned before, a religious
    perspective may provide considerable value to an adherent regardless of the literal truth (or not) of any specific claims that go along with that perspective.

    Collins does not really go down this route, but, for example, he, or someone like him, might have argued that his religious perspective gives him motivation and a sense of purpose that enables his to strive for excellence in his work, or endure frustrations and setbacks, or some similar kind of emotional value.

    Yes, I suppose it is possible that Collins could hold some particular religious viewpoint that might be explicitly in contradiction to the basic tenets of biology and/or some specific research conclusion that he was dealing with. But personnally, I doubt it. (BTW, isn’t your suggestion that one or more of Collin’s religious beliefs might eventually come into direct contradiction with his science an example of an “existence” argument?)

    To me, Collins seems already quite capable of dispensing with any number of otherwise “characteristic born-again Christian” viewpoints, such as ID and so forth that would flatly contradict what he must know in his profession to be true scientifically. So to me it is more plausible that if one of his religious beliefs were found in contradiction to one of his scientific conclusions, he would probably just adjust his religious beliefs accordingly.

  4. Corbin says

    Oops. First sentence, third comment above: replace “were implicitly” with “were NOT implicitly”. -CC

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