The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins, Free Press, New York (2006)
Francis Collins is the co-discoverer of the cystic fibrosis gene and the head of the Human Genome Project. His scientific credentials are impeccable. Collins is also a deeply religious man and he writes this book to explain why "... there is no conflict in being a religious scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us." (p. 6)
Collins claims he was an atheist when he finished his Ph.D. After enrolling in Medical School he began to encounter patients in North Carolina who asked him about his beliefs. He realized that rationalism wasn't working for him; "... if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheism position, would I have to take responsibility for actions that I would prefer to leave unscrutinized? Was I responsible to someone other than myself? The question was now too pressing to avoid."
Like so many others, Collins found his answers in the writings of C.S. Lewis. The result was a conversion to belief in God. But which God? This struggle took another year. The tipping point was the sight of a frozen waterfall in the Cascade Mountains.
As I rounded the corner and 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. 225)The language is important. The struggle that faces all of us is a struggle between rationalism and superstition. It's tough to be an atheist and it's easy to lapse into superstition, where you give up the fight and let others do your thinking for you. That's why "surrendering" is such an appropriate description of the event. I admire Collins for being so honest.
However, in spite of the fact that he threw in the towel in the struggle to remain rational, he tries to defend his decision in a logical way. According to Collins, there are two powerful arguments in favor of God. Both of them come from a series of apologetic books by C.S.Lewis—better known as the writer of another fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Moral Law refers to the idea that every human being possesses the same concept of right and wrong. It's built into our psyche and there's no explanation for this other than it was put there by God. (I'm not making this up!) Most rational beings would ask questions like; what are those universal laws?; what's the evidence that everyone shares them?; could they be memes?; etc. But once you've abandoned rationality in favor of superstition, these questions are no longer raised. Collins finds the Moral Law extremely persuasive and he doesn't recognize that it's existence is a scientific question.
Is this Moral Law a rational argument for God? It is according to Collins.
Encountering this argument at age twenty-six, I was stunned by its logic. Here, hiding in my heart as familiar as anything in daily experience, but now emerging for the first time as a clarifying principle, this Moral Law shone its bright white light into the recesses of my childish atheism, and demanded a serious consideration of its origin. Was this God looking back at me?The second persuasive argument is the presence in all of us of a God-shaped vacuum. What the heck is that, you might ask? C.S. Lewis supplies the answer. It's the sensation of longing for something greater than ourselves. It's the "joy" you feel when you read a good poem, listen to Beethoven, or view the beauty of nature. The emptiness we are all supposed to feel cries out for an explanation, "Why do we have a 'God-shaped' vacuum in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled?" (p. 38)
Apparently, there is no conflict between being a scientist and believing in such silly nonsense. Apparently, scientists don't have to ask the hard questions like, does everyone really feel this longing? Do Buddhists in China feel it? Do atheists lead miserable lives because they can never fill the void in their hearts?
What about miracles? To his credit, Collins faces up to the problem in a section titled, "How Can a Rational Person Believe in Miracles." A miracle is an event that "appears to be inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin." (p. 48) In other words, miracles conflict with science. But do they conflict with rationalism? Let's see if we get an answer from someone who has surrendered to superstition.
According to Francis Collins, you can assess the probability of a miracle using Bayes Theorem. This is a way of calculating the probability of an event given some "prior" knowledge. How does that help? Here it is in his own words.
Assume that you witness a patient who recovers from a "fatal"cancer. Is it a miracle, or is it a rare spontaneous remission?
This is, or course, where reasonable people will disagree, sometimes noisily. For the committed materialist, no allowance can be permitted for the possibility of miracles in the first place (his "prior" will be zero), and therefore even an extremely unusual cure of cancer will be discounted as evidence of the miraculous, and will instead be chalked up to the fact that rare events will occasionally occur within the natural world. The believer in the existence of God, however, may after examining the evidence conclude that no such cure should have occurred by any natural process, and having once admitted that the prior probability of a miracle, while quite small, is not quite zero, will carry out his own (very informal) Bayesian calculation to conclude that a miracle is more likely than not.So, to answer the question, how does a rational person believe in miracles? By admitting that they are possible and evaluating the evidence based on this prior assumption. Cute, eh? It's called "begging the question"—at least it used to be called that before the phrase acquired a new, very literal, meaning. In the world of the theist, it is rational to assume the answer to the question you're trying to answer in the first place. What a funny world.
All of this simply goes to say that a discussion about the miraculous quickly devolves to an argument about whether or not one is willing to consider any possibility whatsoever of the supernatural.
Chapter Three is a defense of the compatibility of the Big Bang with the Biblical story of creation and of the fine tuning argument as an argument for the existence of God. Time to move along, there's nothing new here. Other chapters are devoted to explaining evolution and human genomes. These are followed by the mandatory criticisms of Young Earth Creationism, and Intelligent Design Creationism.
The interesting part of the book comes in Chapter Ten. This is where Collins explains Theistic Evolution and why it's rational to accept evolution but still believe in a active personal God who can perform miracles, create the universe, and answer prayers. According to Collins, God choose evolution as a way of creating a species who would be intelligent, know right from wrong, and want to worship their Creator. Collins says, "This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world" (p. 201).
Not so. The science that I know says there's no obvious purpose or direction to evolution. There is nothing in science to suggest that we are special. and there's nothing to suggest that evolution was designed by a supernatural being. There's no scientific evidence to indicate that humans have a longing or desire to worship the Christian God. To argue that Theistic Evolution is "compatible" with science is a misuse of the word "compatible." You might just as well argue that astrology is compatible with science simply because we can't prove that everything about astrology is definitely false.
As it turns out, Collins doesn't like the term "Theistic Evolution." He proposes that we replace it with "BioLogos" from the Greek "bios" (life) and "logos" (word). The new word, BioLogos, "expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God" (p. 203). I don't think it's going to catch on.
This is a disappointing book. I expected much better from Francis Collins. He has not presented any evidence for belief that we haven't heard before from C.S. Lewis. Moreover, this "evidence" (Moral Law, longing for God) has been refuted half a century ago. Neither a universal Moral Law nor a universal longing for God are compatible with what we currently know about human societies. The conflict between science and religion still exists.
In the end, the only argument that Collins has is the same old last refuge of the superstitious, "Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth" (p. 229). This is only satisfying to those who have already surrendered to superstition and made up their minds that the touchy-feely world of human emotions is a valid way of discovering the truth. Those people are seriously deluded.