Cloning and stem cell research

(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 the Appendix of his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), Francis Collins gives a very clear and brief exposition of the issues involved in stem cell research and cloning, which are not the same thing despite popular impressions.

A human being starts out as a single cell formed by the union of an egg and a sperm. The nucleus of this cell contains the contributions of DNA from each of the two parents and thus all the genetic instructions, while the region outside the nucleus, called the cytoplasm, contains the nutrients and signaling mechanisms that enable the cell to do whatever it is meant to do.
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Bioethical dilemmas

(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 the Appendix of Francis Collins’s book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), he tackles the difficult ethical issues raised by advances in science and medicine, especially in the field of molecular biology. His own major contributions to the human genome have undoubtedly made him acutely conscious of these issues. Collins’s describes the science and the issues arising from them very clearly and this Appendix is well worth reading.

Having mapped out the entire human genome, scientists are now in the position of being potentially able to identify the presence of genes that may predispose people to certain diseases or behaviors long before those things have manifested themselves in observable ways. This ability has, of course, some obvious advantages in the prevention and treatment of diseases.

For example, breast cancer has a hereditary component that can be identified by the presence of a dangerous mutation in the gene BRCA1 on chromosome 17. This mutation, which also creates a greater risk for ovarian cancer, can be carried by fathers as well, even though they themselves may not have the disease. In those families in which breast cancer is prevalent, knowing who has the mutated gene and who hasn’t may influence how closely they are monitored and what treatments they might be given.

As time goes by, our genetic predisposition to more and more hereditary diseases will be revealed. But is this an unqualified good thing?

On the plus side, having this knowledge may enable those people at risk to take steps (diet, exercise, preventative treatment) that can reduce their risk of actually contracting the disease. After all, genes are usually not the only (or even the main) factor in causing disease and we often have some degree of control over the other risk factors for diseases such as diabetes or blood clotting.

We may also be able to treat more genetic diseases by actually changing an individual’s genes, although currently the only changes being made are to the genes in the somatic cells (the ones that make up our bodies) and not the ones in the ‘germ’ line cells (the ones that are passed on to children via the egg and sperm). At present, there is a scientific and medical consensus that influencing the genes of future generations by changing the germ line is not something we should do.

Furthermore, our bodies’ reaction to drugs is also often affected by our genes. That knowledge can be used to individualize treatment, to determine which drug should be given to which patient, and even to design drugs that take maximum advantage of an individual’s genetic makeup. This kind of personalized medicine lies in our future.

But there are negatives to this brave new world of treatment. Should everyone have their DNA mapped to identify potential risk factors? And who should have access to a person’s genetic information?

Some people may prefer not to know the likelihood of what diseases they are predisposed to, especially in those cases where nothing much can be done to avert the disease or what needs to be done would diminish by too much the quality of life of the individual. Furthermore, they may fear that this information could be used against them. If they have a predisposition for a major disease and this knowledge reaches the health insurance companies, the latter may charge them higher premiums or even decline to cover them at all. After all, the profit-making basis on which these companies run makes them want to only insure the pool of healthy people and deny as much coverage as possible to those who actually need it.

It works the other way too. If someone knows they have a potential health problem but the insurance companies don’t, they may choose health (and life) insurance policies that work to their advantage.

So genetic information can become a pawn in the chess game played between the individual and the health (and life) insurance agencies.

This is, by the way, another major flaw of the current employer-based private health insurance schemes in the US. If we had a single-payer, universal health care system as is the case in every other developed country, and even in many developing countries, this problem regarding genetic knowledge would not even arise. Everyone would be covered automatically irrespective of their history, the risk would be spread over the entire population, and the only question would be the extent to which the taxpayers wanted to fund the system in order to cover treatment. That would be a matter determined by public policy rather than private profit. There would still be ethical issues to be debated (such as on what basis to prioritize and allocate treatment) but the drive to minimize treatment to maximize private profit would be absent, and that is a huge plus.

There are other issues to consider. What if we find a gene that has a propensity for its bearer to commit crimes or other forms of antisocial behavior? Would it be wrong to use this knowledge to preventively profile and incarcerate people? It has to be emphasized that our genes almost always are not determinants of behavior but at best provide small probabilistic estimates. But as I have written before, probability and statistics is not easy to understand, and the knowledge that someone has a slightly greater chance of committing a crime can, if publicly known, be a stigma that person can never shake, however upstanding and moral a person he or she tries to be.

There is also the question of what to do with people who want to use treatments that have been developed for therapeutic purposes in order to make themselves (or their children) bigger, taller, stronger, faster, better-looking, and even smarter (or so they think) so that they will have an advantage over others. That thought-provoking film Gattaca (1997) envisions a future where parents create many fertilized eggs, examine the DNA of each, and select only those which contain the most advantageous genetic combinations to implant in the uterus. Collins points out that while this is theoretically possible, in practice it cannot be used to select for more than two or three genes. Even then, there are no guarantees that environmental effects as the child is growing up may not swamp the effects of the carefully selected genes. (p. 354)

Collins argues, and I agree with him, that these are important ethical decisions that should not be left only to scientists but should involve the entire spectrum of society. He appeals to the Moral Law as general guidance for dealing with these issues (p. 320). In particular he advocates four ethical principles (formulated by T. L. Beauchamp and J. F. Childress in their book Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 1994) that we might all be able to agree on in making such decisions. They are:

  1. Respect for autonomy – the principle that a rational individual should be given freedom in personal decision making, without undue outside coercion.
  2. Justice – the requirement for fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons
  3. Beneficence – the mandate to treat others in their best interest
  4. Nonmaleficence – “First do no harm” (as in the Hippocratic Oath)

These are good guidelines, though many problems will undoubtedly arise when such general secular ethical principles collide with the demands of specific religious beliefs and cultural practices. When supposedly infallible religious texts become part of the discussion, it makes it almost impossible to seek underlying unifying moral and ethical principles on which to base judgments.

POST SCRIPT: Brace yourself

Matt Taibbi warns that this presidential election is going to be very rough.

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.
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The Language of God-8: The problem of free will, omnipotence, and omniscience

(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 one new (to me at least) and interesting argument in The Language of God was the attempt by Francis Collins to reconcile the idea of free will with god’s omnipotence and omniscience. This knotty problem is caused by religious people wanting to hold on to three beliefs simultaneously: (1) We have free will. (2) God is omnipotent (all-powerful). (3) God is omniscient (knows everything in the past present and future).
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The Language of God-7: The problem of theodicy

(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.)

Any defense of god has to confront a tough question: Why would a benevolent and omnipotent god allow suffering? The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.
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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:
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