Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Francis Collins - A Case-Study In Self-Delusion.

This is the final blog dealing with Francis Collins' book The Language Of God. In this I look at the section in Chapter Ten headed What Is Theistic Evolution. Here is what Collins has to say:

Mountains of material, in fact entire library shelves, are devoted to the topics of Darwinian evolution, creationism, and Intelligent Design. Yet few scientists or believers are familiar with the term "theistic evolution", sometimes abbreviated "TE". By the now standard criterion of Google search engine entries, there is only one mention of theistic evolution for every ten about creationism and every 140 about Intelligent Design.

Yet theistic evolution is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers. That includes Asa Gray, Darwin’s chief advocate in the United States, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, the twentieth-century architect of evolutionary thinking. It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, including Pope John Paul II. While it is risky to make presumptions about historical figures, I believe that this is also the view that Maimonides (the highly regarded twelfth-century Jewish philosopher) and Saint Augustine would espouse today if they were presented with the scientific evidence for evolution.

What stands out here is that Collins is implicitly acknowledging the fallacy in his own argument. If it can be used to justify any faith in any god or pantheon of gods, it is not definitive evidence for any of them. It shows only that where a supposed gap exists in our knowledge or understanding, one can arbitrarily select a god, or indeed any other notion, and ascribe cause to it. It is nothing more than shaping your preferred god to fit the gap. Clearly, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians and all the other religions like Shintoism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Pastafarianists and former religions like Norse Pantheists, Quetzalcoatlists, etc, can't all be right. But they can all be wrong!

There are many subtle variants of theistic evolution, but a typical version rests upon the following premises:
  1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.
  2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
  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.
  4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.
  5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
  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 characterises all human cultures throughout history.

In other words, there are gaps in our knowledge and understanding, though some of these are maybe not as wide as Francis Collins seems to think. For example, memetics and memetic evolution is quite capable of explaining both the appearance of Collins' "Moral Law" and of religious superstitions. Unlike Collins' "God did it!" notion, memetic evolution also explains the differences as well as the similarities between cultures and cultural norms and ethics.

And of course Humans are unique. That's why they are a separate species. Every species is unique, by definition!

If one accepts these six premises, then an 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, 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 that these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

Of course this is pure conjecture. Collins had fitted his god in these gaps, some of which he is insisting are there merely as somewhere to fit his god. The only reason he seems to find it 'intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent' is because it gives him the answer he wanted, or rather, it arrives at the answer the argument was designed to arrive at from the outset because the argument is essentially circular.

Nowhere in his book has Francis Collins ever provided any evidential reason why we should accept his god in the first place, let alone agree that it perfectly fits the gaps created for it. The fact that we could fit any god in these gaps, or a celestial peanut butter sandwich if we were so minded, should tell us that there is a flaw in the logic.

What Collins has singularly failed to do is to establish his premise - that there is a god, and it is the Christian god. Hence, his conclusion is not only not intellectually satisfying, it is profoundly dis-satisfying and does not answer the question it purports to answer.

Nor is it satisfying to have to invoke special pleading to justify this god and to exclude it from normal logic as he does with 'God, who is not limited in space or time...'. No serious scientist would try to invoke special pleading for his pet theory to exclude it from the normal tests science rightly demands. It is revealing that Collins, like so many theists, believes his god requires a lower standard of proof than he would use for everyday things, in order to compete. With any other belief, this would smack of a lack of confidence.

This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world.

Except, of course, that no science theory would contain supernatural magic as part of the explanation, especially when far more parsimonious explanations are available.

It is also entirely compatible with the great monotheistic religions of the world.

Of course it is. That's what is was designed to be.

The theistic evolution perspective cannot, of course, prove that God is real, as no logical argument can fully achieve that. Belief in God will always require a leap of faith. But this synthesis has provided for legions of scientist-believers a satisfying, consistent, enriching perspective that allows both the scientific and spiritual worldviews to coexist happily within us. This perspective makes it possible for the scientist-believer to be intellectually fulfilled and spiritually alive, both worshiping God and using the tools of science to uncover some of the awesome mysteries of His creation.


This is not a scientific argument for a god; it is an exercise in rationalizing a superstition in the complete absence of any supporting evidence for it. It is a case-study in compartmentalised thinking and self-delusion.

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  1. Isn't Francis Collins the guy who discovered God in a waterfall? This kind of fluff is exactly what you would expect from him.

  2. Science demands an answer from its gaps in knowledge. Given that I demand physical evidence of a meme using the same standard you apply. Dawkins invokes it as a virus especially of religious people that transfers or jumps from mind to mind especially if you want to invoke the term "delusion" over someone. Collins is a scientist he has looked at the Genome and concluded that God of the gaps is the best explanation(higher intelligence that is versed in physics, chemistry, biology, cosmology, astro physics)that set in motion the universe and life therein. However I am willing to see evidence of the godless of the gaps that invokes special creation over Virus's of the mind that jump from brain to brain transferring ideas.


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