Thursday, 14 June 2012

Francis Collins - The Language Of God Delusion

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950)
I've been asked (or was it challenged?) to look at the book "The Language Of God" by Francis Collins, in which he attempts to argue that it is possible to reconcile Christian belief with science.

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to being appointed Director, he founded and was president of the BioLogos Foundation. Collins has written a book about his Christian faith, and Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The first impression is that this is merely another God of the Gaps book and, as such, shows the abandonment of science one would expect of someone who needs the compartmentalised thinking required to hold to a belief in magic, and to live a normal professional life simultaneously. It thus represents a substantive example of the delusional nature of religious faith and particularly the Abrahamic versions of it. But more of that possibly later, in a longer blog reviewing Collins' book in greater depth.

This blog deals with one example of how Collins uses tactics he falsely accuses his opponents of using: in this case, the straw man fallacy of setting up a parody of your opponent's argument and attacking that instead. I normally take this as indicative that the perpetrator knows, possibly subconsciously, that he is attacking an unassailable position or defending the indefensible, and is trying to fool either him/herself or the audience, or both. Of course, it is always possible that the perpetrator of these sorts of fallacy have themselves been fooled and that they are merely parroting things they've uncritically accepted without much thought. However, I think it would be doing Francis Collins' a disservice to assume he had been fooled in this way.

This example occurs in a section in Chapter 7 entitled Atheism:

Some have divided atheism into "strong" and "weak" forms. Weak atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods, whereas strong atheism is the firm conviction that no such deities exist. In everyday conversation, strong atheism is generally the assumed position of someone who takes this point of view, and so I will consider that perspective here.

I can't speak for all Atheists of course, but I, and almost all Atheists I encounter in Twitter or in the comments to these and similar blogs and elsewhere on line, seem forever to be saying that Atheism is merely acceptance of the fact that there is not a single piece of definitive evidence for the existence of any god, and that therefore there is no evidential reason to believe in any. But Dr Collins has seen fit to take what can at best only ever be a provisional conclusion based on that fact, as with all scientific conclusions, and to present it as a dogma, the easier to attack it.

One might as well present the absence of evidence that there is a car coming down the road before one crosses it as a dogma. As a scientist, Dr Collins would be aware that the basis for belief is evidence and that the only intellectually honest position to hold in the absence of evidence, is that there is no reason for belief. He should also be aware that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And so we see Collins set up his straw man - that atheism is the firm conviction that there is no god.

He then launches into an attack on Richard Dawkins with:

Dawkins's argument comes in three main flavours. First he argues that evolution fully accounts for biological diversity 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 special creation for each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His plan for creative evolution.

Er... no. It certainly doesn't do that. Nor does it disprove the notion that trillions of invisible pixies pushed genes around to produce elephants because Queen Pixie has a thing about big noses.

Clinton Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL (born 26 March 1941)
It does, however, do what Dawkins' claims it does and removes the need to include a god in the explanation of biological diversity and the evolution of humans. And the argument from design was, until Darwin's Origin, the strongest single argument for a designer god and is still the argument most frequently used by Creationists.

This is of course an example of the shifting goalpost technique. Claim your opponent hasn't succeeded in his argument because he hasn't answered a different question. Collins is also sneaking in a false dichotomy fallacy and a challenge to prove a negative - things he, one assumes, would never dream of doing in professional scientist mode. At least, not if he values his reputation for intellectual integrity and honest debate. No serious scientist would claim to be able to disprove anything, let alone a vague, ill-defined fanciful notion with no supporting evidence and which looks intentionally unfalsifiable. Failure to do so does not establish the claim as even credible.

Dawkins's first argument is thus irrelevant to the God that Saint Augustine worshipped, or that I worship. But Dawkins is a master of setting up a straw man, then dismantling it with great relish.

So, just who exactly is setting up a straw man and dismantling it here? Just where has Dawkins ever claimed to have dismantled Saint Augustine's or Collins' god with evolution? Dawkins has himself gone on record in "The God Delusion" as saying he is agnostic because it is impossible to ever be absolutely certain of anything.

But remember, Francis Collins is attacking the straw man he set up earlier - the parody that Atheism is the firm conviction that no such deities exist.

The second objection from the Dawkins school of evolutionary atheism is another straw man: that religion is antirational. Dawkins's definition of faith is "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence" [Ref: R.Dawkins, The Selfish Gene 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) 189.] That certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers throughout history, nor of most of those of my personal acquaintance. While rational arguments can never conclusively prove the existence of God, serious thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to C.S.Lewis have demonstrated that belief in God is intensely plausible. It is no less plausible today. The caricature of faith that Dawkins presents is easy for him to attack, but it is not the real thing.

1 Complete trust or confidence in someone or something
2 Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof

Oxford English Dictionary (On-line edition)

Clearly, Dawkins is using the second definition here in The Selfish Gene. Whatever definition Collins is using does not seem to have made it into this definitive reference work on the meaning of English words.

Shifting goalposts again? Can't defend 'faith' by showing it to be rational or evidence-based, so re-define it, and appeal to the authority of those who were never able to produce any evidence to justify it either, but could put up a 'plausible' rationalisation of belief without evidence in, as always, the locally popular god. Those who were never too fussy about using a false dichotomy fallacy and presenting it as an intellectually honest argument.

Dawkins's third objection is that great harm has been done in the name of religion. There is no denying this truth, though undeniably great acts of compassion have also been fuelled by faith. But evil acts committed in the name of religion in no way impugn the truth of the faith; they instead impugn the nature of human beings, those rusty containers into which the pure water of that truth has been placed.

Interestingly, while Dawkins argues that it is the gene and its relentless drive for survival that explains the existence of all living things he argues that we humans are far enough advanced to be able to rebel against our genetic imperatives, "We can even discuss way of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.[Ref: Ibid. 200-201]

Now here is a paradox: apparently Dawkins is a subscriber to the Moral Law. Where might this rush of good feeling have come from? Surely this should arouse Dawkins's suspicion about the "blind pitiless indifference" that he argues is conferred on all nature, including himself and all the rest of humankind, by godless evolution. What value should then attach to altruism?

An object lesson in how to dance around a difficult point - the undoubted evil caused by religion - then cover it up by pretending your opponent has inadvertently argued for something else. Of course, Dawkins has nowhere argued that humans are blindly and pitilessly indifferent. In fact, a great deal the The Selfish Gene is devoted to explaining how genes, which have no emotions or intelligence, so can never be accused of having motives and making moral judgements, non-the-less have no options but to look as though they act selfishly. This is emphatically not the same as arguing that they are genes for selfishness and Dawkins is at pains to point out that it is by acting in alliance, by being co-operative, that genes ultimately succeed, and how they built successful gene-replication machines in the first place.

But there is a even more gaping flaw in Collins' argument here. He is presenting his Moral Law as something inexplicable, which indeed it may have been to his inspiration, C.S.Lewis, though that ignorance did not excuse Lewis' leap to the conclusion that it must have been the god his parents told him about (see C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 3). However, Collins cannot be allowed the plea of ignorance which we can grant to Lewis, for one simple reason: the quote he attacks is from the very chapter in The Selfish Gene in which Dawkins introduced the world to the idea of memes and memetic evolution.

The concept of memes and memetic evolution has revolutionised so much of our thinking and our understanding of human history and cultural development, and is more than capable of explaining moral development in human societies as a Darwinian evolutionary process. The notion of Moral Law is a major plank in Collins' platform. It would be astonishing if he was unaware of a major scientific development like memetics which destroys it as an argument from design, just as Darwinian evolution destroyed the argument from design as an explanation for bio-diversity and human evolution.

Science has closed yet another gap in which theists such as Collins sit their god, which has been carefully crafted to fit it as perfectly as a puddle fits it's hole. It is unfortunate for Collins that this gap is the one he seems to like the most. His failure to recognise its closure is a striking illustration of compartmentalised, delusional thinking, as was his dependence on the God of the Gaps fallacy in the first place.

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  1. Colin Connaughton28 January 2014 at 16:03

    From what I read above of Collins' rebuttal of Dawkins' arguments, I wonder if he actually read 'The God Delusion' properly:- in its entirety and a thoughful way in which it deserves, and perhaps requires, to be read. Dawkins explains in TGD how altruism emerges from the evolutionary process in a convincing way.

    Collins seems to me to blatently misrepresent Dawkins arguments in TGD.

    1. Yes. He's setting up a straw man to throw his stones at.

  2. Here's how I describe it: Most atheists talk like strong atheists, but since 99% of them would actually be willing to change their minds, given a compelling reason or piece of evidence, then they are in fact weak atheists.


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