The Language of God-9: An appeal to the scientifically minded


(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.)

At the very end of his book, Collins appeals to those who may feel that science is incompatible with belief on god.

Have you been concerned that belief in God requires a descent into irrationality, a compromise of logic, or even intellectual suicide? It is hoped that the arguments presented within this book will provide at least a partial antidote to that view, and will convince you that of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational. (p. 304)

I am afraid that this is a forlorn hope. If anything, this book with its mish-mash of faulty logic, ad hoc assumptions, contradictions, and question-begging rationalizations may actually achieve just the opposite. After all, if this is the best that an eminent scientist like Collins can come up with in defense of religion, then the situation is truly hopeless.

It may be that there are other scientists who can come up with better attempts and reconciling god with current scientific knowledge. Finding Darwin’s God by biologist Kenneth Miller tries to use the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics to get around the question of how god can influence the course of events without being detected, but that argument has no credibility whatsoever. Also Miller’s book does not have the breadth of Collins’s work. Whatever the faults of Collins’s book, and there are many, he has to be commended on facing up squarely to the major problems and trying to come to terms with them.

In reading Collins’s book, one finds a refreshing honesty and lack of guile. You get the sense that he knows he is grappling with very difficult issues of science and faith and genuinely believes what he writes. This is in contrast with much of the writing emerging from (say) the intelligent design creationism camp that, while also sophisticated, strikes one as propagandistic, that they understand the weakness of their case but are trying to cover it up.

Collins’s problem is just that his solutions to the problems are so inadequate. But even here, the fault cannot be laid entirely at his feet. It is partially due to society at large which has given belief in god a respectability that has persuaded even people who should know better that it must have a rational basis, even though all the evidence is against it. Once Collins had taken the step to decide to believe in god, he simply cannot avoid slowly sinking into the sea of contradictions that eventually engulfs him.

Although I have tried to review Collins’s book fairly, some readers may think I have been too harsh. If so, they are not going to like Sam Harris’s review at all. He gives his review the title of The Language of Ignorance and says:

Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled “The Language of God.” In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. “The Language of God” reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.
. . .
If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, “The Language of God” provides the answer. The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already. Viewed from abroad, “The Language of God” will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society. Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse. This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death. Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist. We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

Collins’s hope expressed towards the end of the book that scientists who read it will be persuaded that “of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational” is a statement revealing wishful thinking on a massive scale. My own feeling is that anyone who reads his book without suspending their powers of logic and reasoning will arrive at exactly the opposite conclusion.

Although I have been critical of Collins’s attempts at arguing for the existence of god, there is no question that when dealing just with science he writes and argues well. In fact, the Appendix of his book The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine: Bioethics is an excellent primer on some of the critical ethical issues facing us today as a result of the rapid advances in science in which he has played such an important role.

I will write about them in the next two posts.

POST SCRIPT: The Two Johns discuss Bush’s policies in the Middle East

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Mano,

    Great series of articles. Very thorough and logical approach. I must admit I find Collins statements extremely disturbing coming from a medical geneticist. His blatant strawman tactics, putting answers he likes into the questions he poses, constant changing between logic and magic when it suits his point of view, and calling the kettle black.

    I would expect these type of comments from a typical immature fundamentalist but not from someone like collins.

    Surely during his work he understands these types of tactics and is aware of them in his arguments. Probably many many more than I can easily detect. I’m inclined to think he is indeed aware but knows that the majority of people reading his book will be simple minded people who will not. Sadly all I can see is someone abusing his status as a high profile scientist.

  2. says

    I think if you take a look at this article on atheism you will see that atheist scientists have been quite deceptive. The material on Ernst Haeckel particularly demonstrates this matter.

  3. says

    Hi David,

    I’m seriously trying to work out if you are attempting Poe’s law. I also can’t work out if you are implying “that [all] athiest scientists”. I hope not. While I’ll will never say that scientists or atheists or anyone else in the world is never deceitful, conservapedia takes it to a whole new level.

    There is nothing on conservapedia that I can possibly take seriously. The deceitful manner that conservapedia is managed is incredulous.

    Here is my favorite quote from Schlafly.
    “Wikipedia is feeding pornography to children. — Aschlafly[35]”

    Here is list of blatant plagiarism found on Conservapedia.
    http://rationalwiki.com/wiki/Category:Blatant_Plagiarism

    The Sysops are constantly banning anyone who disagrees with them. Even going as far as banning people who asked questions as to why a link was removed from the Lenski affair.

    Conservapedia has a 90/10 rule for editors. All the major sysops, including Schlafly himself, have broken this rule. Anyone who points this out is banned using the 90/10 rule! How is that for hypocrisy?

    I do thank Mr. Schlafly for one thing in particular. He did cause Lenksi’s brilliant evolution experiment to become an internet phenomenon. Attracting countless non-scientists to learn more about evolution and pour ridicule over his disgraceful site.

    In today’s day and age look what happens to a deceitful scientist. Google Hwang Woo-suk if you don’t know who he is. You’re probably thinking he is getting what he deserves. I agree. I also think that other people such as Schlafly should face a similar fate.

  4. says

    David,

    The Ernst Haeckel issue has been flogged mercilessly by creationists, especially Jonathan Wells. It is true that in his effort to promote his theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, he created beautiful drawings that were not accurate.

    The story of Haeckel is quite interesting but it is good to realize that his theory and drawings were disputed even in his day by other biologists, and that his work was over 130 years ago and no biologist takes it seriously anymore.

    You can read the story of Haeckel in Creationism’s Trojan Horse by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross (Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 103-106)

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