The Language of God-6: Existence and universal claims

(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.)

Collins also takes the familiar tack of using negative arguments for god as a wedge to get his foot in the logical door and, after doing so, to make sweeping claims. This chain of ‘reasoning’ will be familiar to anyone who has ever discussed the existence of god with a believer and it goes like this:

  1. Start by identifying some features of the universe for which we do not currently have a good scientific explanation.
  2. Assert that we cannot prove that god was not the cause of those specific events.
  3. Assert that therefore it is possible that god could have been the cause.
  4. Assert that therefore it is possible to believe that god can exist.
  5. Assert that since god can exist and I feel that god exists, therefore god does exist.
  6. Assert that since god exists, he can do anything at all, so any and all miracles are possible.
  7. Grant miracle status only to those that I personally or my particular religious sect approve of.
  8. Hence only my particular religious belief in god is correct and everyone else’s is wrong.

This is basically how all religions justify their claims that they are the one true religion. Here are some examples from Collins’s book of the first three steps of this reasoning at work. (The next four steps were also taken by him elsewhere, as I showed in previous posts. Collins is an inclusive evangelical and tries to avoid the right religion/wrong religion debate and thus does not explicitly make the last claim, although his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of god is an indirect statement of it.)

[Dawkins] argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origins of humankind, so there is no more need for God. While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility for multiple acts of creation of each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution. (p. 220)
. . .
The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins’s claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. (p. 222)

This fails the logic test. As mathematician John Allen Paulos argues in his book Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), basic logic requires that existence claims and universal claims be treated differently.

Existence claims can be proved but not disproved. “No matter how absurd the existence claim (there exists a dog who speaks English out of its rear end), we cannot look everywhere and check everything in order to assert with absolute confidence that there’s no entity having the property.” (Paulos, p. 42) But all the person making the existence claim needs to do to prove it is to produce just one specimen. So the burden of proof is on the person making the existence claim, and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to deny the validity of the claim.

On the other hand, universal claims can be disproved but not proved. For example, the claim that all swans are white can be disproved by producing just one black swan. But no one can prove the universal claim since we can never say we have checked each and every swan. So the burden of proof is on the person denying the universal claim and in the absence of such proof, it is perfectly logical to assume the validity of the universal claim.

This is how science works. Claims that Higgs bosons with certain properties exist (as is claimed by the currently dominant theory in particle physics) is an existence claim and until evidence is produced for it, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there is no such thing. That is why over 2,000 physicists from 32 countries are involved in the building of a huge and expensive accelerator in Europe known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) that is designed to produce at least one such Higgs particle, even though theorists feel confident that it exists.

On other hand, the claim that “all electrons have the same rest mass” is a universal claim based on observations of a limited set of electrons and it is logical to accept it as valid until someone produces a counter-example.

The claim that god exists is clearly an existence claim, and so the burden of proof is on the believer to produce god. If believers fail to produce god or to provide indirect but credible evidence of his existence, the rational thing is to assume non-existence.

When it comes to religion Collins, like many others, abandons the reasoning powers he has demonstrated in his scientific work when he says “Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.” (p. 222)

Collins’s claim is simply wrong. Atheism is the logical and rational consequence of the failure of believers to produce evidence in favor of their existence claim for god.

POST SCRIPT: Why you shouldn’t throw paperclips

We have all had experience with the co-worker or acquaintance who thinks he/she is being funny by repeating something over and over when it is just infuriatingly annoying. Well, sometimes it is just too much to take.

The Language of God-5: The nasty problem of miracles

(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.)

As I said before, sophisticated religious believers like Francis Collins and John Lennox always start out by arguing for a God of the Ultimate Gaps. The insurmountable problem that they then face is that their emotional need to believe in a Personal God who communicates with them individually and can answer their prayers requires them to go well beyond the narrow role they initially assigned to a God of the Ultimate Gaps, and results in them getting tied up in all kinds of logical knots.

Because they have to find ways for god to act in the universe, they inevitably make additional assumptions to allow for that. Collins does this by expanding the powers of god, so that miracles violating natural laws are now possible, even though this contradicts his earlier claim that god is not in our universe and thus we should not expect to find tangible evidence of his presence in the universe.

He tries to suggest, like Lennox, that miracles are possible because once you accept the existence of god, all things become possible: “Miracles thus do not pose an irreconcilable conflict for the believer who trusts in science as a means to investigate the natural world, and who sees that the natural world is ruled by laws. If, like me, you admit that there might exist something or someone outside of nature, then there is no logical reason why that force could not on rare occasions stage an invasion.” (p. 77) He further justifies this by saying, “Is not God the author of the laws of the universe? Is He not the greatest scientist? The greatest physicist? The greatest biologist?” (p. 235)

The fundamental illogic of saying that god acts in nature and thus miracles are possible, just after arguing that god is outside of nature, does not strike a true believer like Collins.

He seems to think that this flat-out contradiction can be waved away by arguing that miracles are rare. He writes: “Perhaps on rare occasions, God does perform miracles.” (p. 65) And again, “But for the most part, the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts. While we might wish for such miraculous deliverance to occur more frequently, the consequence of interrupting these two sets of forces would be utter chaos.” (p.65) And again, “On the other hand, in order for the world to avoid descending into chaos, miracles must be very uncommon.” (p. 77)

The idea that this hopeless muddle can be rescued by saying that such miraculous ‘invasions’ from outside the universe are rare only makes the logical hole he is digging deeper. If god can do one miracle then we already have the chaos Collins fears because we do not know in advance which event is the miracle and which is not. It would be different if god were to announce when he was doing a miracle but that is not what happens. By allowing for any miracle at all, Collins has effectively lost the argument that he has carefully made against the YEC and ID people.

He seems to think that he can minimize the damage he has caused to his logic by requiring of his rare miracles “that they should serve some purpose, rather than representing the supernatural acts of a capricious magician, simply designed to amaze.” (p. 77) This allows him to find reasons to accept the ‘miracle’ that Jesus rose from the dead while dismissing the ‘miracle’ of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast or a French fry. But by now logic and reason have been thrown to the winds, leaving only self-serving assertions, because Collins is now effectively saying that it is only religious sophisticates like him who know the mind of god well enough to judge what is a miracle and what is not.

He tries to have it both ways even when dealing with the Biblical stories of creation.

The real dilemma for the believer comes down to whether Genesis 2 is describing a special act of miraculous creation that applied to a historic couple [Adam and Eve], making them biologically different from all the other creatures that had walked the earth, or whether this is a poetic and powerful allegory of God’s plan for the entrance of the spiritual nature (the soul) and the Moral Law into humanity.

Since a supernatural God can carry out supernatural acts, both options are tenable. (p. 275)

It is sad that a gifted scientist like Collins cannot see that his religious beliefs have blinded him to the obvious truth that was expressed by another evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin much earlier: “We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit.” (Scientists Confront Creationism, Laurie R. Godfrey, (ed.) 1983.)

POST SCRIPT: Thinks tanks and enviroskeptics

In my series on ‘think tanks’ (titled The Propaganda Machine), I discussed how they are often used to provide a scholarly veneer on propaganda. A recent study says that over 90% of the books expressing skepticism on threats to the environment have think tank roots.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

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.

The Language of God-3: The God of the Ultimate Gaps again

(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.)

The subtitle of Francis Collins’s book A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief leads one to expect evidence, and scientific evidence at that, for the existence of god. But the book does not actually present any evidence. What it does is rework the same philosophical arguments that have been around for a long time, especially as reformulated by Oxford academic C. S. Lewis, another atheist who later converted to Christianity and whose writings (especially Mere Christianity) have been influential in Christian apologetics in general and for Collins in particular. It was Lewis’s writings that started Collins on his own journey from atheism to belief. (Lewis is also the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Rather than present any evidence for god, Collins’ book suggests simply that modern scientific knowledge can be made consistent with earlier religious arguments for god. In other words he, like Lewis and other theologians before him, try to establish the existence of god by reasoning alone. They have to try and do this since they have no evidence but they immediately face a logical problem. “As David Hume observed, the only way a proposition can be proved by logic and the meaning of words alone is for its negation to be (or lead to) a contradiction, but there’s no contradiction that results from God’s not existing.” (John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the arguments for god just don’t add up (2008), p. 40)

Collins’s arguments for the existence of god run into difficulties when he presents his own model reconciling his belief in god with science. When one examines closely his arguments, one sees that they are very similar to the ones made by John Lennox in his debate with Richard Dawkins and which I have examined before. In fact, it follows precisely the same pattern, varying only in its details.

Both Lennox and Collins start out by arguing on a highly abstract plane. Collins asserts, like Lennox, that the god he believes in is not a ‘God of the gaps’. But for the concept of god to have any real meaning one needs some opportunities for god to act and so Collins ends up, like Lennox, arguing that science has not ruled out the possibility of a ‘God of the Ultimate Gaps‘. Then, like Lennox, he uses sleight-of-hand. After first arguing that it is logically impossible to rule out the existence of a God of the Ultimate Gaps, he takes that as a license to believe in any and all things supernatural

Where Collins differs with Lennox lies in his choice of Ultimate Gaps being a little different from Lennox’s. While mathematician and philosopher of science Lennox sees the Ultimate Gaps as being the origins of the universe and the beginning of life, Collins (being a biologist and more familiar with the latter area) thinks that the origins of life is probably something that can and will be solved by science and warns against invoking god as an explanation for it.

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life’s origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction. . . [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

Collins’s Ultimate Gaps are the origins of the universe (as was expected from point #2 on his list of the fundamental tenets of his BioLogos philosophy) and what he identifies as the existence of the “Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history” This is his point #6. (p. 264)

Collins says that “[M]aterialistic skeptics who wish to give no ground to the concept of the supernatural . . . will no doubt argue that there is no need to consider miracles at all. In their view, the laws of nature can explain everything, even the exceedingly improbable.” (p. 78) He then flatly asserts, “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 never be understood, and for which the laws of nature fall completely short of providing an explanation.” (p. 78, my italics.)

After making this sweeping and unjustified statement about an unexplainable gap, Collins fills it with god, saying “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” (p. 94)

This kind of argument has been derided as ‘the argument from personal incredulity’ (“I cannot imagine how X could have happened. Therefore god must have done X.”) and is exactly the same as that of the intelligent design advocates that Collins had just criticized. This is always a dangerous argument, because science is never static and what is unexplained today may not be so tomorrow. In fact, just recently, some physicists are claiming to have found clues to the time before the Big Bang.

Also, as Sam Harris points out in his review of the book, the Big Bang argument for god is weak on other grounds.

It is worth pointing out the term “supernatural,” which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term “magical.” Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can’t I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.

As for Collins’s other Ultimate Gaps, it comes from Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?” (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)

Note carefully his argument. He says that god is “outside the universe” and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him “as one of the facts inside the universe.” Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find “inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way.” Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.

This argument conveniently serves the purpose of providing an answer to pesky atheists like me who keep asking why we never seem to find any credible and objective evidence of god. We keep being asked to accept people’s personal testimonies, by saying that such internal experiences are the way that god acts in the world.

The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things. But then you are back to the old unsolved problem that always plagues religious believers of how something that is asserted to be outside the universe can communicate with something inside the universe.

In the next post, I will look at how Collins tries to deal with this problem.

POST SCRIPT: On a French Fry?

Someone claims another sighting of Jesus.

The Language of God-2: Theistic evolution aka ‘BioLogos’

(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.)

As I said in the previous post, Francis Collins rejects both young Earth creationism and intelligent design creationism. Instead he says that he is an advocate of ‘theistic evolution’, or as he wants to rename it, BioLogos. He outlines the basic premises of this belief structure:
[Read more…]

The Language of God-1: Introducing Francis Collins, distinguished scientist and evangelical Christian

(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.)

In this book Francis Collins tries to present arguments for the existence of god. Collins is an eminent scientist, the person who took over in 1992 from James Watson (co-discoverer in 1953 of the double-helix structure of DNA) as head of the Human Genome Project that in 2000 finished mapping out the complete sequence of 3.1 billion bases in human DNA. This was a monumental feat and Collins managed to shepherd this huge project to a successful conclusion.

To the extent that one can infer the nature of an author from his writings, Collins comes across as a thoughtful, compassionate, tolerant, and genial man, someone with whom it would be enjoyable to spend some time with discussing deep issues. He seems like someone who is sincerely trying to reconcile his scientific and religious beliefs, and he does not shirk the hard questions though his responses to most of them (as I will discuss in later posts) are contradictory and superficial. But that is unavoidable. Once you have made the decision to try to reconcile science with belief in a personal god, you cannot avoid contradictions because the two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible.

His personal history is also interesting. He was born to parents who lived a free-wheeling and free-thinking life on a farm where he was home-schooled. After getting his degree and Ph. D. in physical chemistry, he then obtained a medical degree and got interested in genetics research, ending up as a medical geneticist at the University of Michigan. He helped discover the genetic causes of cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, and Huntington’s disease.

He started out as an agnostic, then for a short while in college became an atheist until, at the age of about 26 and towards the end of medical school, he started questioning his own lack of belief and by the age of 28 became a convinced evangelical Christian. He has remained so despite a tragedy in his family that might have shaken the faith of someone else. Although he says that god never ‘spoke’ to him, he did receive what he considers a sign that finally convinced him of god’s existence and he describes this climactic conversion moment to faith. While grappling with questions of belief, he was hiking in the Cascades and when he saw a “beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.” (p. 297)

Why did the waterfall make him convinced of Jesus’ divinity and not (say) Allah, Krishna, or Thor? Why would it make him think of god at all instead of wondering (as I would have) about the steps by which rushing water gets frozen? The book does not say but in a profile of him in Time magazine on July 17, 2006, he reveals that the frozen waterfall was in three separate streams, suggesting to him the Trinity.

Collins is convinced that Jesus is a historical figure and that he died and was resurrected. He also thinks that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and John were Jesus’ disciples of the same names (p. 295) and were thus writing eyewitness reports, although that is a matter of considerable dispute.

Given his impeccable scientific credentials and personal religious history, he makes an ideal candidate for countering the arguments of atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger.

The book is an easy read, one that I managed to finish in a single day, though I may have been helped by being familiar with the arguments he was making. Although Collins is not a particularly elegant or stylish writer, he more than makes up for that by having a direct and straightforward style that makes his argument easy to follow. He is dealing with a difficult subject and he knows he has an uphill task in trying to reconcile belief in god with science but he does not try to hide the difficulties in a thicket of incomprehensible verbiage.

But unfortunately, this very clarity also works to his disadvantage since, as I will show, the glaring flaws in his logic now become painfully obvious, raising the interesting question of how someone who clearly is able to apply rigorous evidence-based reasoning to his science can abandon it when he talks about religion and not even realize that he has done so. If one needed good evidence of how religious faith undermines scientific and rational thinking, this book is Exhibit A.

Even many religious people are going to be somewhat uncomfortable with his attempt at synthesizing religious beliefs with science. For starters, he dismisses creationism, especially young earth creationism (YEC), as harming religion by requiring its adherents to hold on to beliefs that are manifestly contradicted by facts, thus being anti-science and inviting ridicule.

This is not much of a surprise. Most sophisticated religious believers find young earth creationists to be an embarrassment and distance themselves from that movement.

More surprising is his complete rejection, like that of another religious biologist Kenneth Miller, of intelligent design (ID) creationism as well. He points out, correctly, that ID is a ‘God of the gaps’ theory that postulates supernatural intervention for phenomena that science cannot currently explain. He points out that such arguments have failed in the past as science was able to explain those earlier gaps and that ID is failing now as the gaps it invokes (the bacterial flagellum, blood-clotting cascade processes) are also being steadily being understood.

The perceived gaps in evolution that ID intended to fill with God are instead being filled by advances in science. By forcing this limited, narrow view of God’s role, Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith . . . [This] ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith? (p. 259-260)

So if he rejects both YEC and ID, what exactly does he believe? The next post will examine this.

POST SCRIPT: The perfect gift for Dad

Father’s Day (another holiday cynically designed to get people to spend money on junk) is coming up and people everywhere are wondering what would be the best gift to give their dear old dad. Dave Barry has completely captured my sentiments and the sentiments of many other fathers on what they really want for this day, their birthday, and other celebratory occasions.

Tuesday night election afterthoughts

The Daily Show provides a wrap up of the events of Tuesday night, comparing the speech of Barack Obama with the non-concession, self-absorbed speech of Clinton and the disaster that was McCain’s presentation (that was supposed to upstage Obama’s night) that was panned even by the Fox News punditocracy.

The Daily Show is one of the very few that actually digs up at the archives of what people said in the past and contrasts it with the present, and shows how the talking heads usually have nothing useful to say. Note how in the clip the media pundits assumed in 2006 and 2007 that the nomination was simply Hillary Clinton’s for the taking and that it was futile for anyone to even challenge her. It was only around March 2008, after she stumbled in Iowa and lost a string of eleven straight primaries to Obama that the media narrative switched and people decided she was unlikely to win.

Contrast the predictions of the TV pundits that of blogger Markos Moulitsas who said way back in December 2006 that if Obama ran, he would win, and carefully explained why.

I want to emphasize that it is not that Moulitsas was right in his prediction and the media pundits wrong that makes me compare them. Long-term predictions in politics are tricky and one can easily be wrong because there are so many contingent factors at play, any one of which can cause fortunes to fluctuate wildly. (I am almost always wrong in my own election predictions.) The reason the media pundits are so useless is because there is no depth to their analysis, no sense that they have taken into account the complexity of the process. They focus on one or two factors (gender, race, demographics) or some trivial issues of style and then draw sweeping conclusions and make flat declarative predictions. And then they move on to the next topic, never acknowledging that they were not only wrong, they did not even know what they were talking about. This kind of hit-and-run punditry is a waste of time.

Moulitsas, by contrast, takes into account the various factors involved and tries to weigh them appropriately. He may have been lucky in his prediction but his approach was correct.

In some ways, this difference in approach to punditry was replicated in the way the Clinton and Obama campaigns were run. Clinton based hers on sweeping but shallow generalizations, while Obama’s looked at the nitty-gritty details carefully. Clinton adopted the standard Democratic Party strategy of focusing on those large states where the Democrats are strong and trying to run up the vote count there and spending little time on the smaller states that are often Republican. But Obama’s people studied the rules and realized that by carefully targeting congressional districts across the country in all the states, and keeping the margins close in the traditional Democratic strongholds, they could win the delegate battle.

There is an important consequence of the Obama strategy. As a result of it, many voters sympathetic to Democrats but living in Republican states suddenly found themselves being wooed after being ignored for so long, which has boosted the chances of Democrats around the country. Obama’s strategy paralleled that of the Democratic National Party chair Howard Dean who after taking that position announced a 50-state strategy where the Democrats would not concede any state to the Republicans. Traditional Democratic insiders ridiculed the fact that he put party organizers in every state as a waste of time and money, but it laid the groundwork on which the Obama candidacy could build.

It is significant that Obama has announced that he wants Dean to continue as chair of the party. It signals that they are going to jointly pursue a strategy of campaigning everywhere, for all positions, forcing McCain and the Republican Party to defend themselves in states which Republicans have taken for granted in the past. As a result, the 2008 election may have a record-breaking turnout.

And Stephen Colbert adds his thoughts on the events of Tuesday night.

POST SCRIPT: Baxter again

Probably wondering why I keep taking pictures of him. . .


Some thoughts on the presidential race

The Democratic Party primary process has finally come to an end with Barack Obama having secured the party nomination by virtue of having acquired the majority of delegates.

In many ways it has been a remarkable process. A system that had seemed for so long to belong to just white men found two candidates not fitting that mold fighting it out to the finish. While I knew that the barriers of race and gender would eventually be overcome, I had thought that it would be first breached by a woman before a minority, simply because the numbers were in favor of women.

But politics is not just mathematics and statistics. It does have an element of contingency and it turned out that this year the particular candidate who happened to be a minority appealed more to Democratic Party members than the candidate who happened to be a woman.
[Read more…]

Am I spiritual?

Having thought and written about atheism and science and religion quite a bit, there are few questions that I encounter about these topics for which I do not have at least a partial answer ready to hand.

The one question that used to flummox me until quite recently was when people asked me whether I am spiritual.

This question usually arises after they discover that I am an atheist. I think it is driven by the common misperception that atheists are emotionless rationalists who cannot accept anything that is not accessible via the senses. People cannot seem to quite come to terms that a person who seems otherwise ‘normal’ does not believe in some sort of transcendent element in their lives.

This question about my spirituality used to baffle me because I was not sure what people meant by the word. I often refer to the ‘human spirit’ but when I do I am using it as an umbrella label that encompasses such things as hope, courage, will, and perseverance, the qualities that enable people to struggle against great odds to achieve some worthwhile goal. But it is clear that this is not what is meant by the word ‘spirit’ when people ask me if I am spiritual, since then everyone would be spiritual.

So now when people ask me if I am spiritual, I reply by asking what they mean by the word. This usually surprises them and leaves them initially at a loss because the word is used so freely that they clearly thought its meaning was self-evident, even if they had not given much thought to it and cannot easily articulate what they themselves mean by it. My question has elicited a wide range of responses, suggesting that the word spiritual has become almost individualized, with each person assigning their preferred meaning to it.

Some people use the word spirit as almost synonymous with the word soul, to represent some sort of non-material supernatural entity that exists as part of them but also independently of them. My answer to whether I am spiritual in this sense is no. I do not believe I have such a soul-like entity.

Other people use the word to signify belief in a non-sectarian god that gives them some sense of cosmic meaning and purpose. This belief in god is not accompanied by a religious doctrine or ritual or even a shared community of believers. Such people have their own definition of god, unfettered by any official dogma. It is not uncommon to find such people saying things like “I am not religious but I am spiritual.” I am not spiritual in that sense either. I find no reason to believe in the existence of any type of god or metaphysical entity.

But other people use the word spiritual to imply that life and the universe has some sort of meaning and purpose independent of what we assign to it. Such people do not talk of god but of some vague ‘life force’, some underlying organizing principle that gives our life some direction. I am not spiritual in that sense either. I believe that the universe has no external purpose and meaning. The universe just is. We have to give our lives meaning.

Some people use the word spiritual as a descriptor of certain kinds of attitudes and behavior. People who have a dreamy approach to life and like to speak in mystical terms of life’s great mysteries are often referred to as being spiritual people. Such people tend to resist scientific explanations of mind, consciousness, will, and the origins of life and the universe, preferring to think of these things as deep, insoluble mysteries, defying any attempt at further elucidation. I am not one of them. I think that all these things are all amenable to scientific investigation and that there is nothing intrinsic in the nature of these things that prevents us from learning about them, though the answers may be difficult to obtain.

Sometimes the word spiritual is used as a measure of whether one has an appreciation of the finer, non-material things in life, like art and music and poetry. Such things can arouse emotions and feelings that are perhaps ineffable. People who like to contemplate the metaphysical, who can watch a sunset and be so mesmerized by the beauty of the sight that they are speechless, are thought to be ‘spiritual’ and said to have a ‘soul’. Conversely those who look at the same sunset and the only thought it arouses is to remind them that “Hey, it’s time for dinner!” are believed to be crass, soul-less, and unspiritual.

Used in this sense, the words spiritual and soul are again merely umbrella labels, this time for a complex mix of emotions that are thought to be deep and profound. In that sense I think we all are spiritual and ‘have a soul’, varying in just the kinds of things we are spiritual about. For example, the sense of awe that I feel when I think about the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the universe, and of our ability to understand so much of it, is a spiritual experience of this kind. So everyone can probably answer ‘yes’ as to the question of whether they have this kind of spirituality.

It is clear that the word ‘spiritual’ is used with such widely varying meanings that it has ceased to be useful unless its meaning is narrowed down, which may explain why I used to have such a lot of trouble answering the question about my own spirituality.

POST SCRIPT: Calling a lie a lie

Jon Stewart refuses to let Scott McClennan get away with euphemisms about ‘the culture of Washington’ and pins him down on the fact that they all lied.

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert accurately nails the media performance

Once again, we have to look for the comedy shows to get any worthwhile analysis.

The end of god-23: The false equivalence of science and religion

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in this series, I want to address the attempt to bring down science to the level of religion by arguing that science and religion are equivalent because there exist questions that neither can answer. This approach is illustrated by Lord Winston (emeritus professor of fertility studies, Imperial College London) in his debate with Daniel Dennett.

Winston does this by setting up a straw man version of science as that which consists of certain knowledge. He says: “Dennett seems to believe science is “the truth”. Like many of my brilliant scientific colleagues, he conveys the notion that science is about a kind of certainty.”

Winston then attacks that straw man, using the Biblical story of Job as a basis for specifying questions that he claims science cannot answer.

God asks Job where he was when He laid the foundations of the Earth? Do we understand where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet?

The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous.

Winston’s idea, that scientists believe that scientific knowledge is synonymous with certain knowledge, is hopelessly outdated. It was something that originated with Aristotle when he tried to find a way to demarcate between science and non-science, but fell out of favor by the mid-to-late 19th century as a result of the repeated overthrow of long-held and widely believed scientific theories, such as the Ptolemaic geocentric solar system and the phlogiston theory of combustion. It is now generally accepted that all knowledge is fallible. In fact, it is only some religious believers who still cling to the idea that some knowledge is infallible, because they think that their religious texts are directly from god and hence cannot be wrong. To argue, as Winston does, that it is science which thinks of itself as infallible is to wrongly impute to science a claim that is made about religious beliefs.

Winston’s other argument, that there are questions (“where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet”) that neither science nor religion can answer with certainty and hence that gives both equivalent status in terms of knowledge, is absurd. It ignores the fact that science has produced vast amounts of useful and reliable knowledge over the centuries and continues to do so, while religion has produced exactly zero. Secondly, even for those questions, it is only science that has given us any insight at all as to what answers to them might look like. Religion has only given us myths that have to be re-interpreted with each new major scientific discovery. Religious knowledge always lags behind science and keeps falling farther and farther back. How can anyone plausibly claim that the two knowledge structures are of equivalent value?

Religion and science are clearly not equivalent. Science is always searching for answers to questions and its knowledge evolves as old questions get answered and new questions emerge. I don’t know what future research in science will bring forth but I am pretty sure that the science of a hundred years from now will be quite different from the scientific knowledge we have now. Religion, on the other hand, is stuck in the past, still recycling the ideas of five hundred years ago.

Also, we can do perfectly well without religion. All the alleged benefits it provides can be provided by alternative secular sources. We cannot do without science because whatever its faults and deficiencies (and there are many), there is no other knowledge that can replace the benefits it provides.

One final point is about the use of reason and evidence. Religious people like to use evidence and reason when trying to defend their faith and challenge their critics, but turn around and argue that their own beliefs are based on faith and transcend evidence, logic, and reason and so those things should not be used against them.

Daniel Dennett in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995, p. 154) says that if, in a debate with a religious believer, you assert that what he just said implies that god is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil, your opponent will be indignant, saying it means no such thing and demanding that you supply reasons and evidence to justify your assertion. But if you ask religious believers to justify their assertion that god exists, they will invariably end up saying that the existence of god has to be accepted on faith, that this is a question that is outside the bounds of evidence and reason.

Because of this, Dennett says, arguing with religious people is like playing tennis with an opponent who lowers the net when he is playing the shot and raises it when you are. But religious believers shouldn’t continue to be allowed to have it both ways. They have managed to do so for centuries because of the idea that ‘respect for religion’ means not posing hard questions. If religious believers deny a role for reason and evidence in arguing for the existence of god, then anything goes and they are obliged to accept any nonsensical response. (This is the clever premise of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its Pastafarian members who demand to be treated with the same respect as the older religious traditions.) Of course, such a discussion would be a waste of time for all concerned. That is why any worthwhile discussion must involve reason and evidence on all sides.

What I hope this series of posts has done is convince the reader that advances in knowledge in science and other fields over the last two centuries has made god obsolete and redundant. That is a good thing because if we are to have any hope for humankind to overcome its petty tribal differences, it is essential that religion and its associated superstitions be eliminated from the public sphere and religion be categorized along with astrology, alchemy, and witchcraft as beliefs that may have some interest as cultural and historical phenomena but which only the naïve and gullible accept as having any lasting value.

God is dead. Sooner or later, religious people will have to move past their current stage of denial of this fact and accept that reality.

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on the economic stimulus package</strong