Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Reaction to The Language of God by Francis Collins Part 1

The Language of God is an interesting read from one of the world's most prestigious scientists. He recounts his own conversion from agnosticism to theism, and goes on to examine how a personal creator accords with the findings of science. This book could be very helpful to non-believers when questioning their own agnosticism or atheism. I found it less useful as a guide to a Christian view of origins.

Collins' Objections to 'God of the Gaps' Arguments

Collins says, "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."1 This is an oft-repeated point in other's work, and has a lot of history behind it. However, there are gaps which should be filled in our understanding by God. Every time a miracle happens, we have something we don't understand. And God is the explanation. Every act of God in history is a gap that, properly understood, is filled with God. While it's easy to err and attribute to God's intervention things that have natural causes, this only means we should be careful. It does not mean that gaps in scientific knowledge may indeed be answered best by divine intervention.

Collins is eager to avoid giving God as the reason unexplainable things in natural history. But what is the difference between seeing God in the unbridgeable gap between simple organic compounds and living cells on one hand (which Collins resists), and between the big bang and whatever happened beforehand on the other (which Collins accepts)? Using a God of the gaps argument seems to be okay in some situations, but the rules are unclear.
Referring to inorganic evolution and why it would be unwise to assume God is responsible, he says,

There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge."2

He seems to believe that science will soon explain inorganic evolution also, so we shouldn't attribute it to God. I thought this position was way too cautious.

Discussing the Cambrian explosion, he says,

While attempts have been made by certain theists to argue that the Cambrian explosion is evidence of the intervention of some supernatural force, a careful examination of the facts does not seem to warrant this. This is another "God of the gaps" argument, and once again believers would be unwise to hang their faith upon such a hypothesis."3

I see no argument or evidence given here to back this rejection of divine intervention at or around the Cambrian explosion. Whether the theistic position is a 'gaps argument' begs the question and is ad hominem. Ad hominem means "against the man" where instead of refuting one's evidence, you point out he is making a similar argument to a discredited other (like Hitler), or in this case, earlier mistaken Christians. It's an invalid form of argument, because the fact that someone else messed up when using a similar argument means nothing about whether the present case is messed up.

The fact is that our observable data show huge discontinuities in the fossil record appearing in short time spans. Of course we can speculate about possible explanations that would still allow for the slow transitions required by Darwinian Theory, but such speculations have no backing in observable data, and cannot be considered science. This is particularly hard to accept when layers of sediment (like limestone) from the same ocean show change happening between one layer and another. Why would the ocean stop depositing sediment and then start again? In cases where the ocean dried up for a period and re-filled (which has happened numerous times with shallow inland seas) you can see clear signs that this is what happened.

The only argument I could see by Collins was that "The so-called Cambrian explosion might, for example, reflect a change in conditions that allowed fossilization of a large number of species that had actually been in existence for millions of years,"4 How is this explanation for the gap any different or any better than the hypothesis that God intervened at this point in history? I agree with him that we cannot be dogmatic on such ancient issues. I also agree that people shouldn't "hang their faith" on the assumption that God intervened here. But the theistic hypothesis seems far more plausible to me than some worldwide change in fossil formation capability. An appeal to some change in the way fossils form, which formerly allowed microscopic fossils, but afterward allowed larger, complex fossils seems rather desperate to me. Normally larger organisms form fossils most easily. He gives no clear description of how this change would happen, or why.

Atheists argue that people have erroneously used the 'God of the gaps' argument before, and therefore we should never use it again. Similarly, some theologians argue that people have erroneously claimed that the end times are at hand based on so-called 'signs,' so we should never again argue that case. Both of these are fallacious arguments.

Just because God was wrongly blamed for being the cause of certain gaps in understanding (like what causes disease) doesn't mean there are no gaps that should be attributed to God. This would lead to a completely naturalistic worldview. Miracles would be impossible. All apparent interventions by God would have to be left in abeyance in the belief that someday science will explain it.

Collins doesn't deny the reality of miracles, and in fact says he believes in them. But his method makes it necessary to prove something is a miracle before believing in it. Many miracles can't be proven, but are real. I'm not commenting on Collins' beliefs here, I'm commenting on his methodology.

Likewise, just because people argued falsely that the end times were at hand based on signs that were misinterpreted doesn't mean that the end times won't be signaled by signs correctly interpreted, as Jesus clearly teaches in the parable of the fig tree (Mat. 24:32, 33). Such ad hominem arguments would be analogous to saying that since evolution was the basis for National Socialism and communism; we should never appeal to evolution for any explanations.
In a word, the fact that people have used a line of reasoning poorly in the past doesn't mean the line of reasoning is discredited—only their improper use of it. Collins himself has suggested at least one gap that should be attributed to God (the big bang), and grudgingly admits that another (inorganic evolution) could be explained by God. As biblical theists, we believe there are many gaps that should be explained by God's action in history.

Next time: Collins on the fossil record.

1 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, (New York: Free Press, 2006), 93.
2 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 93.
3 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 95.
4 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 94, 95.