Darwin's Long Regret

Since we've been reading a lot lately about scientists pandering to religion, it's worth remembering that there's nothing new under the sun. As long as there's been science, there have been believers who fought fiercely to prevent their god of choice from being dislodged from a gap, and there have been scientists who felt obliged to placate them. Even some of humanity's greatest scientists felt this pressure, and bowed to it on occasion. Here's one example, which I first read about in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale.

The final page of the first edition of Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, concludes with this eloquent statement:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But the second edition, published a year later, makes one small but significant change, which you can see highlighted in the online variorum:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase "by the Creator" was added by Darwin as a sop to religious people who were upset by the implications of his theory. But though the change persisted in later editions of Origin, he was never happy about it. In a letter three years later to his colleague Joseph Hooker, Darwin expressed regret for having inserted it:

But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

I can't help being reminded of similar scientific regrets, like when Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe. If he'd left it out, he would have been able to predict from his own equation that the universe was dynamic, as Edwin Hubble proved just a short time later with the discovery of galactic redshifts. He later called this his biggest blunder, and it seems Darwin viewed this change in a similar light.

In Darwin's writing, we see both of the threads that the scientific community has been wrestling with ever since: the desire to tell the truth, no matter what, and the desire to pay tribute to people's preexisting beliefs to make them see scientists as friends and not enemies. If there's a lesson to be drawn here, however, it's that this sort of clumsy pandering rarely works (as Darwin himself would have agreed). The theistic language Darwin added, of course, did nothing to placate the religious groups who saw uncomfortable implications for their beliefs in his theory. Neither did it stem the creationist backlash that's still going strong.

With that in mind, shouldn't modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else? Watering down a theory by finding gaps to insert God into will only decrease its scientific merit, without making any difference to the diehard fundamentalists who will never accept any idea that challenges their beliefs. It's better to disregard religion altogether: study the world and learn what it has to teach, and don't worry about the fleeting superstitions that cry objection when their self-proclaimed fields of sovereignty are infringed.

June 4, 2011, 5:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink7 comments

The Language of God: A Final Word

The Language of God, Closing Thoughts

By B.J. Marshall

Collins' final word comprises two points: that there is joy and peace in God's creation, and that the war between science and spirit should end. In this post, I'll discuss these two points. I'll conclude by giving a final word of my own as my journey of blogging through a book closes.

Collins' first point fits perfectly well whether one holds to science or spirit or, as I'll rephrase the dichotomy, faith and reason. I do not believe in any supernatural entities, and yet I can unequivocally say that the universe is freaking awesome! I remember having a conversation with my parents shortly after I came out as an atheist, and they questioned me as to what meaning my life had now. I told them that I had far more meaning in my life as an atheist than I did as a Christian. Knowing that this life is the only shot I have, that there is so much awesome and beauty to behold, and that there is so much suck I want to combat so my son and his generation can live all give me ample reason to get out of bed in the morning.

In fact, I am so enamored by the universe, that I find amazement in salt! I had a cold recently and used this salt/baking soda mixture as a sinus rinse. And I would find myself in awe that the elements that combined to form the salt in this little container came from stars. Billions of years ago, stars fused heavier and heavier elements before exploding. And I used some of that stellar explosion to rinse my sinuses - amazing!!

I remember being just as enamored by the idea that surrendering control to God gave one a certain sense of freedom. But now I feel an even greater sense of freedom in that my life is incredibly more purpose-driven now, because I am in the driver's seat. I no longer feel like a pawn in some cosmic game that God plays between good and evil. If I'm going to fight against evil, it's because I want to do it, not because I think I should do it because God would want me to. And, because I live in a society and not as an island, I don't think it follows that acknowledging that I'm in control and responsible for my actions drives me to nihilism or hedonism.

However, in our search for joy and peace, I disagree with Collins as to a likely source of assistance. It comes in a quote from James 1:5:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and will be given him.

I wonder how well this tactic worked for faith-healers, who watched their children die of easily curable ailments. I wonder how well that worked for parents killing their children for fear that they're witches. Or how Christians used the Bible to advocate slavery in the U.S.; where was the wisdom in that?

Collins implores us to work together. Even if we discount the previously mentioned source of wisdom, Christians and atheists probably have more similar goals than different goals. However, it's the thought process and methodology behind these goals that differs strongly. We both have views favoring stronger family values; many Christians want to strengthen them by fighting against homosexuality, whereas atheists want to strengthen them by fighting for equal marriage rights. We both have views supporting life, despite us having differing opinions regarding when life begins. We both want to protect our rights; Christians might think they have free speech to hang the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or say a prayer to start of a government meeting while atheists think it violates the Establishment Clause. I am reminded of Representative John Shimkus, who hoped to chair the House Energy Committee, saying that we don't need to worry about global warming because of God's promise to Noah. He might have the same goal as I do - taking care of our environment - but his way of attaining the goal is by punting to God to take care of us whereas mine is to take action based on conclusions I draw from the available evidence.

I think what Collins perceives as the war between science and spirit - faith or reason - is due in large part to the differing sense of what "truth" is. And as long as some viewpoints ground truth on the observations of objective reality while other viewpoints ground truth on subjective, traditional ideas that have no basis in objective reality - or are even contrary to objective reality - then I'm not sure this war will ever end. Sad face.

* * *

Well, that pretty much ends it for my journey through this book. It's been interesting and fun. When I came out as an atheist and my parents gave me "The Case for a Creator" for my birthday, I was a fairly new atheist who needed help understanding all the drivel in that book; this site helped me a lot. I hope my effort has returned the favor.

Thank you for being with me on this journey through The Language of God. I want to extend a warm, heartfelt thanks to Ebonmuse for giving my ideas voice. I really appreciate all the time and effort he's taken to post my series and catalogue it on his blog. I also want to thank all the readers and commenters, especially where you challenged me to think differently and more clearly. You've helped push me over the fence to "strong atheism," you've helped me refine my ability to perceive and explain logical fallacies (especially the ones I've made myself, showing that I still have a lot to learn!), and you've encouraged me to help expand this community.

The road, including this series, hasn't been easy. Since coming out atheist, I've spent a lot of time struggling with how to deal with people whose beliefs I no longer shared. I still struggle with that: I don't necessarily think all beliefs should be tolerated, and yet I find it's very difficult to argue over beliefs (maybe even attack beliefs) without people thinking I'm attacking them personally. I shouldn't be surprised (but I was) when I found the same thing with myself: When my thoughts were challenged, as they were throughout this series, my first reaction was to get defensive. I was kind of amazed at how much mental energy it took to overcome (hopefully successfully) my biases to look at challenging views with an open mind to the possibility that I could learn something.

Thanks again for reading.

Other posts in this series:

May 8, 2011, 9:13 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink7 comments

The Language of God: Biologos: Epic Fail

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

In this chapter, Collins tackles the claim that BioLogos damages both science and religion. Collins disagrees in a way that fails so epically that it almost makes the previous sections of this book seem prescient.

For the atheist scientist, BioLogos seems to be another "God of the gaps" theory imposing the presence of the divine where none is needed or desired. This argument is not apt. 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.204).

I can see how BioLogos isn't wedging God between gaps in our understanding of the natural world, but only because BioLogos seems to set God outside of the scope of our inquiry. There's simply no place for God in our understanding of the natural world. After all, even if science can one day explain everything naturally, there could still be some questions to which someone could point to God. However, to the extent that those unanswered questions don't concern our understanding of the natural world (that is, well, everything we can know), the entire concept of God seems to be a red herring. Pretty much ends the conversation, doesn't it?

But apparently BioLogos isn't completely outside of our inquiry. We just have to ask god-questions with our hearts. Yes, the spiritual logic of the heart, mind, and soul; which is, of course, unfalsifiable.

I once asked a group of friends in a philosophy club if my idea of truth made sense. I said something like "truth is the extent to which the ideas in our mind correlate to objective reality," and they thought that made sense. And here's the problematic part. If we have to weigh the ideas in our minds against objective reality, then regardless of how logical our arguments might be, they can stand only with the support of evidence. The logic shows us that our thinking is internally consistent and sound, but we can't see how that thinking correlates to objective reality without the evidence. For example, it's completely logical and consistent for me to posit that all rocks fall to Earth at 3.0 m/s. But, given the facts shown through experiments, I'd be wrong.

So without any evidence to check whatever this "spiritual logic" is, how can one see how strongly those spiritually logically derived thoughts correlate to objective reality? I don't think we can, which I think highlights the fact that scientific inquiry tends to converge on one answer (maybe not all at once, as it's a sloppy process), while spiritual inquiry diverges into thousands of different sects and cults. In hindsight, I probably fell into some undocumented offshoot of Roman Catholicism, stemming from my decisions (which changed over time) to pick and choose certain parts of the official canon to believe.

Other posts in this series:

April 18, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: Biologos: It's All Greek to Me

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

After formally laying out his premisses and his conclusions, Collins muses why Theistic Evolution (TE) hasn't caught on. He surmises that it simply isn't widely known that one can mix science and religion harmoniously, that the position is in effect invisible in the harmony it creates by blending the two harmoniously, and that "theistic evolution" is just a terrible name. He introduces BioLogos as a humble alternative.

There simply aren't very many advocates out there trying to blend science with religion, Collins says, on either side of the fence. He states there are "many scientists [that] ascribe to TE, [but] they are generally reluctant to speak out for fear of negative reaction" (p.202). We're left to wonder how many "many" is and what whether any of these scientists are in fields relevant to biology. On the other side, there are few theologians who have enough knowledge of evolutionary theory to try blending of the two. Collins cites Pope John Paul II as one of these rare birds: "new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis" (p.202). That certainly is a lukewarm endorsement of evolutionary theory at best.

But then he muggles it all up by being sensitive to religion: "If the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God" (p.202). The premiss itself is on shaky ground because it sounds vague enough to be obscured into nonsense; one could read it as saying that new human bodies come from previously alive human beings, like I just sprung up out of my dead grandmother or something. The conclusion simply does not follow, although I will admit that spiritual souls and God are related in the sense that neither exists. However, I doubt that's what JP2 meant.

I find it interesting how few theologians actually do try to meld evolutionary theory to faith in God. Almost without exception, every apologist I've heard debate, like William Lane Craig or Dinesh D'Souza, use reason and evidence whenever possible. Craig's debates involving the Kalaam Cosmological Argument rely heavily on our current understanding of science, as in when he mentions virtual particles. Even Craig's debates about the empty tomb, as in his debate with Bart Ehrman, involve Bayesian probabilities. So the question remains why apologists haven't incorporated evolutionary theory into their debate arsenal. It's all a moot point anyway, as apologists use reason and evidence capriciously; they are quick to use reason and evidence where it suits them but discard it when it doesn't support the conclusion they want to reach about God's existence.

A second reason Collins provides is that TE creates such harmony between warring factions. He muses how, as a society, we gravitate toward conflict; an example he gives is all the bad stories one hears on the evening news. "We love conflict and discord, and the harsher the better.... Harmony is boring" (p.204). This reason is just plain naïve. Perhaps a better explanation for why TE is invisible is that the "harmony" TE creates is baseless illogical drivel. It's probably for the best that TE is as invisible as Collins claims it is.

I would say that science does a far better job of creating harmony than religion. Yes, science is a messy process, and there are egos and strongarming that might get in the way, but it's a process that self-corrects over time to converge on one idea. We have one theory of evolution by natural selection, and one version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Religions make up different versions of what they want the truth to look like, so one ends up with over 30,000 denominations of Christianity. Imagine having 30,000 competing views of heliocentrism.

Collins' last idea on this is that TE just has a bad name. After all, "most non-theologians are not quite sure what a theist is" (p.203). Unfortunately, many of the terms used to bring science and evolutionary theory together have become full of baggage: one dare not use "creation," "intelligent," or "design." Collins thinks we need to start afresh by dusting off our old Greek-to-English dictionaries: BioLogos. Collins points out that scholars will recognize bios as the Greek word for life and logos as Greek for "word." To many believers (read: only Christians, naturally), the Word is synonymous with God.

So, given that the average non-theologian doesn't even know what a theist is, what part of catering to the scholars and well-read Christians sounded like a good idea to Collins? And why Greek? Collins doesn't understand his target audience; if I were trying to popularize his view of meshing God and evolutionary theory to the general populace, I would want to use words that my target audience understood.

In the next post, we see Collins defending Biologos against atheistic scientists who see this position as just another "God of the gaps" view.

Other posts in this series:

April 10, 2011, 1:08 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink3 comments

The Language of God: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Faith

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 10 introduces Collins' concept of BioLogos, but first he gives an overview of Theistic Evolution (TE) and why it works to bridge science and faith. Although we've talked about TE previously, this chapter shows Collins laying out six premisses that support TE. He then has a short discourse explaining the conclusions he thinks follow from these premisses.

Premiss 1: "The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago." This premiss is difficult to accept if you acknowledge that the universe has zero net energy and could have, as Lawrence Krauss presents, come from nothing. It's also difficult to accept this premiss if you think Hawking and Hartle might be onto something with their no-boundary universe model.

Premiss 2: "Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life." I find fine-tuning arguments to be incredibly arrogant; why must we place ourselves as the result par excellence of fine tuning? One could argue that our universe was fine-tuned for iPads. Life is incredibly rare, and iPads are more rare still, but hydrogen and helium are abundant. Shouldn't we say that it's more miraculous that we could wind up in a universe with so much hydrogen?

Premiss 3: "While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time." One might quibble over semantics, since I might have written "evolution by natural selection." This premiss is one I'm willing to accept, except that he completely ruins this premiss later.

Premiss 4: "Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required." I think I understand what he's trying to say, and I can accept that, but that's only because I was charitable enough to rephrase his premiss to be clear. This premiss as stated is unclear and ambiguous, in my opinion. By saying that no special supernatural intervention was "required," the reader might assume that a supernatural agent acted anyway, even though it wasn't "required" to act. Also, the way this premiss is worded sounds like a supernatural intervention might have been required to set off evolution in the first place. While in either case the reader would be falling into an illicit contrast fallacy, Collins' poorly worded premiss doesn't help the reader.

Premiss 5: "Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes." Here's another premiss I can accept pretty easily. I do wonder, though, how much his readers would have cringed if, drawing from his earlier chapters on DNA similarities, Collins said "sharing a common ancestor with the great apes, rats, and banana trees."

Premiss 6: "But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history." Do I even need to comment on this one?

The conclusion is a polemic diatribe of suck that sounds like he rewrote Genesis for the 21st century:

"[a]n entirely plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent synthesis emerges: God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures (here's where he ruined Premiss 3), God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law."

That intelligent people like Collins can find the Goddunnit explanation as plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent disappoints me. I shouldn't say it baffles me, because I understand why people believe weird things. To me, the Goddunit hypothesis is not:

  1. Plausible: Assuming one were to looking for an inference to the best possible explanation, how does "an omni-being that is spaceless, timeless, noncorporeal yet magically and physically operates in space and time" fit that bill?
  2. Intellectually satifying: Goddunnit is a mystery. Answering a mystery with another mystery and thinking you're done is just plain stupid.
  3. Logically consistent: Argument from Ignorance much?

Now that Collins has formally laid out TE, he'll pose some critiques on why TE hasn't been more widely adopted and present his BioLogos idea.

Other posts in this series:

April 3, 2011, 5:39 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

The Language of God: Intelligent Design

The Language of God, Chapter 9

By B.J. Marshall

The subtitle to this chapter is "When Science Needs Divine Help," which immediately sets up a couple of problems. First, is Collins asserting that Intelligent Design (ID) is science? Second, where does divine help fit in with the application of the scientific method? In response to the first, Collins concludes that ID is not science. He doesn't really address the second problem. That second problem brings to mind a quote by J.B.S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

Focusing on that first problem, we want to see whether ID is a valid scientific endeavor. According to Collins, the ID movement rests upon three propositions:

  1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God (p.183)
  2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed, since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature (p.184)
  3. If evolution cannot explain irreducible complexity, then there must have been an intelligent designer involved somehow, who stepped in to provide the necssary components during the course of evolution (p.186)

Collins doesn't really address the first claim at all. He states right up front that Phillip Johnson, the founder of the ID movement, was more interested in defending the faith than by a "scientific desire to understand life (he makes no claim to be a scientist)" (p.183). Referencing the "wedge document," which "was originally intended as an internal memorandum but found its way onto the Internet" (p.183), Collins concludes that ID is not science. It fails to make predictions, is an unfalsifiable position (Collins says one couldn't verify it "outside of the development of a time machine" (p.187), and makes no claims providing a mechanism by which the postulated supernatural interventions would give rise to complexity. (Here's another example of where double-standards apparently elude Collins. His own position, that every naturalistic explanation just shows you how God works, seems to be an unfalsifiable position; even if we were to somehow explain the Moral Law, that would just show you how God works.)

The proposition Collins seems to be refuting here is "ID is science." He doesn't address the proposition as stated of whether evolution promotes an atheistic worldview. I found this very interesting, given that this would have been a perfect time for Collins to once again drive home his thesis of theistic evolution. He tore down Johnson's claim without ever reminding readers of the alternate case that is the main thesis of this book. Fail.

Collins does a much better job addressing the second proposition. He addresses the problems of irreducible complexity with examples such as the evolution of eyes, the bacterial flagellum, and the human blood-clotting cascade. He also talks about the suboptimal design in eyes, which seems problematic. Ultimately, he concludes that claims to irreducible complexity are just arguments from ignorance.

Collins also fails to properly address the third claim (so he's batting 0.33). All he says in response to this claim is that ID proponents haven't specified who this designer might have been "but the Christian perspective of most [not all?!] the leaders of this movement implicitly suggests that this missing force would come from God himself" (p.186). I shouldn't be surprised, but Collins did not address how this third proposition fits together into a framework that makes no sense given the first two. Proposition 1 states that evolution promotes an atheistic worldview, so ID would want to be done with the concept entirely, right? Then they backpedal a bit and say, "Well, maybe evolution works, but - look at Proposition 2 - it's fundamentally flawed!" Then they backpedal even more and say "OK, evolution's flawed but - look at Proposition 3 - our god, I mean, ahem, an intelligent designer could step in and fix that flawed, atheistic system." But, then the system wouldn't be atheistic anymore, since some god is mucking around with evolution.

So one can see how ID is getting really close to the edge of where Collins wants to take theistic evolution, but ID just can't seem to cross that line. And the next chapter will bring us there. Collins concludes this chapter on Intelligent Design with an exhortation. He starts by citing William Dembski, who said in "The Design Revolution":

If it could be shown that biological systems that are wonderfully complex, elegant, and integrated - such as the bacterial flagellum - could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (and thus that their specified complexity is an illusion), then Intelligent Design would be refuted on the general grounds that one does not invoke intelligent causes when undirected natural causes will do. In that case, Occam's razor would finish off Intelligent Design quite nicely (p.194 of The Language of God).

Of course, one cannot expect Dembski to just let ID die, but that's as separate an issue as the fact that Collins has pushed God so far back that Occam's razor can't even touch it. Collins instead focuses on the question of what happens to a believer's faith when one can no longer give God a resting place in ID. Take away ID, and where does that leave God?

Enter what Collins calls BioLogos.

Other posts in this series:

March 27, 2011, 10:40 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: Clarke's Goalposts

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

At this point, Collins mentions, "godless materialists might be cheering. If humans evolved strictly by mutation and natural selection, who needs God to explain us? To this, I reply: I do" (p.140).

In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain special human attributes such as knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates (p.140-1).

Does Collins mean to imply that DNA sequence should be able to explain knowledge of the Moral Law or this universal search for God? Dennett and others have posited that religious belief may come from some hyperactive agency detector in the brain, so perhaps DNA could eventually point to that. Even if Collins were to shy away from the fallacy of confusing the unexplainable with the unexplained, is it really reasonable to think that DNA sequences should point to knowledge of the Moral Law?

You've probably all heard of Arthur C. Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Theistic Evolution seems to me to follow a sort of parallel argument: Any goalposts moved sufficiently far enough away are indistinguishable from no goalposts at all. If science were to come up with completely naturalistic theories that explained every single thing in the entire universe (or multiverse, if there happens to be one), all that would do for the ardent theist is give a complete account of how God operates. The goalposts of "how God operates" will have been moved so far away as to be indistinguishable from "there is no God."

Collins' position for why he needs God to explain us appears to me to take the following format, with implied premisses in parenthesis:

  1. A certain naturalistic theory obtains truth.
  2. That naturalistic theory cannot explain certain things about what it means to be human.
  3. (Those certain things do, in fact, need explanations.)
  4. (Invoking a God is the only way one could explain those certain things about what it means to be human.)
  5. (Therefore, God exists.)
  6. Freeing God from [actions performed by the naturalistic theory] does not render God obsolete; rather it shows us how He operates.
  7. Therefore, the naturalistic theory and my belief in God are harmonized; I should write a crappy book about that!

Here I should take a few minutes and explain that Collins gives his readers an overview of what a theory is. It's in a section entitled "Evolution: A Theory or A Fact," Collins defines a theory as "fundamental principles underlying a science, art, etc.: music theory, theory of equations" (p.142). I have to admit I have misgivings about that false dichotomy and the poor wording. Evolution is both a fact and a theory. A fact would be a thing that one saw, like how the blow holes of whales moved, while a theory is more like a group of facts formed to make a clear view of the world and how it works - a view one can test. I hope my definitions are better, especially considering that I tried to define each term by only using monosyllablic words. (I bet you all had to go back and re-read them, didn't you?)

Back to invoking both theories and God, here's an example for the new position I like to call Theistic Gravity:

  1. Gravity exists, and the theory does a pretty decent job accounting for how objects are attracted to each other.
  2. But, alas! Gravity cannot explain the immense joy of the Double Rainbow or why I am so moved by a frozen waterfall.
  3. The existence of God could surely explain those things.
  4. Freeing God from making sure everything falls back down to earth does not render God obsolete; rather it shows us how He operates.

Feel free to add your own Theistic [naturalistic theory] in the comments.

This concludes Part Two of Collins' book. His next part, "Faith in Science, Faith in God" is where he tries to synthesize science and faith. "Now that we have laid out the arguments for the plausibility of God, on the one hand, and the scientific data about the origins of the universe and life on our planet, on the other, can we find a happy and harmonious synthesis?" (p.142).

Other posts in this series:

January 30, 2011, 10:40 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Language of God: Size Doesn't Matter

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins describes how "the study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (p.133-4). There are a lot of ideas in this chapter to unpack, so I'd like to start by reviewing Collins' material on DNA at a high level: size and broad similarity. It would be my hope that, even if Creationists only heard some of the material in this chapter, they would quickly see the flaws in Intelligent Design.

First, to lay some groundwork: There is a common misconception made particularly among Creationists that atheism necessarily follows from believing in evolution. This argument is as logically flawed as saying that atheism necessarily follows from believing in gravity, eschewing the entirely-poorly publicized view of Intelligent Falling. Granted, I think evolution poses difficult challenges to theism, but evolution is not theism's death knell. Atheism is a lack of a belief in god(s); the strongest form of atheism takes it one step further to declare "there are no gods." That's basically it. One could hypothetically be an atheist and still believe in the Tooth Fairy, The Loch Ness Monster, or the efficacious treatment of homeopathy. Or, more to the point of evolution, an atheist could believe in Intelligent Design so long as the designing was done intelligently by some space-faring aliens. So long as you don't believe in a god, you're an atheist; this is despite all the other nonsense you might believe. Of course, Collins wants you to see that, too. He's trying to harmonize science and religion, so it would do him no good whatsoever to make all these compelling assertions about the validity of evolution if he thought you were going to jump ship and become an atheist.

Now, that being said, Collins called the genome "the book written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being" (p.123). Although we still don't know how abiogenesis occurred, Collins appears to be incorrect in waxing poetic about DNA's crucial role. It appears that RNA, acting as simple enzymes, might have paved the way for life to begin. But even beyond waxing poetic, Collins treats DNA as something sacred, as "uncovering this most remarkable of all texts was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship" (p.3). And, although Collins has admonished his readers to steer clear of god-of-the-gaps arguments, he states that "DNA... seems an utterly improbable molecule to have 'just happened'" (p.91). Indeed, Collins confesses that he is "in awe of this molecule" (p.102) and regards the "digital [sic] elegance of DNA" as "deeply satisfying" (p.107). (Since DNA is based on four letters, it's really a Quaternary system.) It's probably that deep sense of awe that one can only get through belief in god.

Regarding the size of the genome, Collins makes the observation that a surprisingly small portion of it actually codes for proteins. There are only about 20,000-25,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. Collins states that the total amount of DNA used by those genes to code for protein is about 1.5-2.0% of the total genome. Collins notes that some observers have been insulted at this. Surely as monarchs of the animal kingdom, we should be special! Well, these observers contend, perhaps "our complexity arises not from the number of separate instruction packets, but from the way they are utilized. Perhaps our component parts have learned how to multitask" (p.125). He disappointingly never expounds on whether genes can multitask, so we're left wondering. Answer: at least some can.

To quell the righteous indignation of some, Collins offers an analogy by way of the language used to write books. He goes on to say the average educated English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. (Actually, that is a very low estimate, as Stephen Pinker in "The Language Instinct" points out that the average high school graduate knows about 45,000 words; it might even be 60,000 if you count proper names.) Collins says these words can be used in simple ways (owner's manual) or really complex ways (James Joyce's Ulysses). Unfortunately, I think the analogy fails in a way that subverts Collins' intent. If you want to bring the faithful around to seeing how evolution (unplanned, no ultimate goal, no creator) works, then it doesn't do well to relate it to a construct (language) whose entire function hinges on the intent of, and usage by, intelligent actors. I think I would have offered the reader an analogy of chemistry: you got some protons, neutrons, and electrons to form a few basic building blocks. From different combinations of these, you get the periodic table. For the theoretical physicists in you all, you could even punt to the different vibrations of strings a la Superstring Theories.

Regarding the similarities, Collins mentions that humans are all about 99.9% the same DNA-wise. This certainly makes me feel better, since my hometown was jokingly known for its residents meeting their future spouses at family reunions. He points out that this fits well with the fossil record, which places us in East Africa about 100,000-150,000 years ago to a common set of founders about 10,000 in number. Now, before you get all antsy, making your way to AnswersInGenesis (I can't bring myself to link to it) to refute the fossil record, I want to tell you we will disregard for now this line of evidence; we're really interested in seeing how Collins can back up his claim that DNA alone is sufficient to demonstrate evolution.

Back to just DNA. Here's a nifty table!

Animal Protein Coding Genes Random Segments between Genes
Chimpanzee 100% 98%
Dog 99% 52%
Mouse 99% 40%
Chicken 75% 4%
Fruit Fly 60% ~0%
Roundworm 35% ~0%

The significance of that table is this: If you asked a computer to construct a tree of life based solely on similarities of DNA sequences of multiple organisms, you'd get (courtesy of this site):

Tree of Life, made only through DNA evidence

The DNA similarities also show that genetic mutations that do not have deleterious effects on survival will accumulate over time - the stuff quite arrogantly dubbed "junk DNA." Indeed, mutations in coding regions of genes are observed far less frequently, since the deleterious effects of these are more pronounced.

If these genomes, Collins asks, were created by some intelligent designer, why would these particular features appear? Collins poses more challenges to Creationists, and we'll address them in the next posts.

Other posts in this series:

December 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

The Language of God: Grandeur in Life

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

The last part of this chapter is a brief but pretty thorough overview of DNA and how it works. He gives a short background going through genetics (Mendel and Garrod), the discovery of DNA (Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty), and the discovery of DNA's structure (Watson and Crick). He then goes through several pages describing how DNA works.

He ends this chapter with a brief section he calls "Biological Truth and Its Consequences." He points out how people who subscribe to the "argument from design as a compelling demonstration of God's role in creating life" might find the content he describes in this chapter unnerving. Such an unsettled reader might protest: "Enough! Your naturalistic explanations are taking all the divine mystery out of the world!" (p.108). To this, Collins replies that there is plenty of divine mystery left, citing how "many people who have considered all the scientific and spiritual evidence still see God's creative and guiding hand at work" (p.108). Collins concludes that evolution can and must be true, and he adds that evolution doesn't say anything about the nature of its author. Science gives believers even more to be in awe about.

I found this concluding section problematic, despite being well-pleased with Collins' primer on DNA. Collins' reply to the unsettled reader left me with two questions. First, what exactly is the "spiritual evidence" that people have considered to be God's hand at work? I'm not talking about abiogenesis, the seemingly fine-tuned universe, or even the empty tomb - those appear to me to be all physical phenomena. I'm not even sure how one would go about validating such "spiritual evidence," or even being able to attribute it to any God rather than, say, an advanced space-faring race. Sounds to me like anyone subjecting their "spiritual evidence" to the Outsider Test for Faith would fail.

Second, I question the claim that "many people" have come to believe in God by considering the scientific and spiritual evidence. One point of contention is that we don't know how many "many" is, and this sounds similarly dodgy like The Discovery Institute's "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" petition versus the humorous counter-petition from the National Center for Science Education, "Project Steve." (Here is a very good piece comparing the two.) My other point of contention with this claim is that it's really fallacious: An argument is no more or less true simply because "many people" believe in it. If that were the case, the earth would still be flat. Given that more than one billion people believe in Islam, maybe that means Islam is true.

I find it a bit humorous that things we don't understand fall into a "divine mystery" category. I find myself defaulting to "natural mysteries," but that's only because "Every mystery / Ever solved has turned out to be / Not Magic". There's so much to life that we don't understand, and I think that's awesome. I don't need to find fairies at the bottom of my garden to appreciate its beauty.

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December 12, 2010, 10:16 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink2 comments

The Language of God: On Darwin

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

Collins spends only three pages discussing the history of Darwin's publishing his theory of evolution through natural selection, but there are a few points that I want to discuss concerning how Collins (and apologists in general) lift quotes, provide misinformation, and arrange material to help guide the reader to draw certain conclusions. Now, I'm not saying that atheological counter-apologists - if I may use such a phrase - are immune from committing these same errors. I am saying that, as a critical reader, it is important to notice these things. Or, at least, it's important to ask a few questions.

One such question is, "Did [whomever the author is attributing a quote] actually say that?" One example is when Collin cites Darwin's last sentence in the last chapter (Recapitulations and Conclusions) of "On the Origin of Species":

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (p.98-9).

So, I found a copy of the first edition of On the Origin of Species at both TalkOrigins and Project Gutenberg. Neither copy of the first edition contains the words "by the Creator." I was sure to check multiple sources in order to corroborate evidence - I consider Project Gutenberg a neutral source, whereas I'm sure Creationists could argue that Talk Origins is biased. Richard Dawkins mentions the omission of "by the Creator" in this video. There are web sites that mention Darwin being pressured to include "by the Creator," but I cannot substantiate or corroborate those claims yet. I did get a distinct sense that Darwin was writing in a similar vein as Laplace, when the latter told Napoleon he "had no need of that hypothesis [of God]".

While I fully grant that Darwin's subsequent editions of "Origins" included "by the Creator," I found it interesting that Collins simply took this for granted. Honestly, though, I imagine most people take the "by the Creator" part for granted. The concept of natural selection is difficult enough for people to wrestle with; the lay reader probably doesn't know or care about differences among editions. But that raises another point: The reader - at least Collins' intended audience - probably just takes his word for it, thus falling prey to an argument from authority.

Another example of lifting quotes is the dreaded ellipsis (...). Collins uses is when describing how Darwin did not see the conflict between evolution by natural selection and religious belief.

"I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.... A celebrated author and divine has written to me that 'he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws' (p.98)."

The part Collins omits involves a comparison to how the great discovery of the law of gravity was attacked by Leibniz. OK, not a terrible thing to exclude, since a Leibniz attack doesn't affect the context or meaning of the passage being quoted. But it's still good to check. Of course, the "celebrated author" still misses the point. Darwin's point was to show that populations of species change over time. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection doesn't have anything to say about abiogenesis, which is what the "celebrated author" seems to purport. To me, it seems that Collins includes this quote about the "celebrated author" as a red herring.

Finally, Collins talks about how Darwin's personal beliefs "remain ambiguous" and seemed to vary throughout the last years of his life (p.99). First, I'm not sure whether Collins wants to paint Darwin in a bad light here, as if changing one's beliefs is a bad thing. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but a less charitable person might not. Collins drops two quotes here with no context:

"At one time, [Darwin] said, 'Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.' At another time [Darwin] wrote that he was greatly challenged by 'the extreme difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity for looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflect I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called a Theist' (p.99)."

I want to first address the typical misunderstanding between (a)gnosticism and (a)theism. Many videos are around that cover this topic, but here it is in a nutshell. (A)gnosticism is a position about knowledge; (a)theism is a position about belief. Here's how one can break it down:

Now that's out of the way, I want to discuss these two quotes that Collins tosses about. Even if we concede that agnosticism and atheism are not compatible (which I wouldn't normally do), there's no way of telling which quote came first. Was Darwin agnostic/atheistic before or after he was a Theist? I found the Theist quote on page 93 of Darwin's autobiography, but the surrounding context for this quote doesn't look so good for Collins. Immediately following that sentence, Darwin continues:

"This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the Origin of Species; and it is since that time that it has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker. But then arises the doubt - can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions? May not these be the result of the connection between cause and effect which strikes us as a necessary one, but probably depends merely on inherited experience? Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake."

I encourage you to check out that link because the quote I just provided comes with footnotes. It includes an exhortation by Emma Darwin to her son, Francis, to not include a portion of the above so as to avoid pain to Darwin's religious friends. So, Darwin questioned childhood indoctrination, eh? Why didn't Collins say anything about that?? Interesting.

While this section didn't have much to do with the overall theme of Collins' book - the successful harmonization of science and belief - I'd like to conclude this post with some observations that might help the critical reader:

  1. Question sources: I find it very helpful to take an obscure portion of a quote and Google it. I get better results then when I Google themes like "Darwin Agnostic" and "Darwin Theist."
  2. Quote mining: I find it helpful not just to find out the correct attribution of a quote, but to also read the surrounding paragraphs or even pages.
  3. Corroborate: Similar to what I did to confirm that the first edition of "Origin" did not include "by the Creator," it isn't enough to just find a single source that agrees with your hypothesis. In addition, the source that does agree with your hypothesis might itself be of dubious merit. (For example, I wouldn't give much credence to the evidence for UFOs by looking at a web site entitled "Uncle Bob's Story of His First Sober UFO Encounter.")

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December 5, 2010, 11:03 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink30 comments

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