I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing. However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it). You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website. It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
First he laid out several arguments for the existence of a creator of some kind – a deist god – all of which are interesting, and familiar to anyone who’s thought about these things with a scientific background, but all of which can be just as easily interpreted in naturalistic terms, and which ultimately therefore cannot be evidence either for, or against, a god of any kind. He mentioned Eugene Wigner’s note on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, and while I agree that it’s marvelous that math can be used to describe the universe and its many wonderous processes, it may well be that that’s just the way a universe has to be, or that perhaps we’ve only really explored the parts of physical existence which are easy to describe with elegant and simple mathematics. He talked about the so-called fine tuning of physical constants, so as to allow complexity, life, and intelligence to develop and persist, and even discussed the anthropic principle in that context – the fact that were the physical constants not just so, we wouldn’t behaving the discussion at all. Maybe we’re just lucky. Or maybe there are many universes, with different constants out there, that we simply cannot observe. These scenarios (fine tuning and the multiverse) are indistinguishable observationally, and so cannot be used as evidence either way. Perhaps most puzzling, he brought up the mere fact of existence as evidence of a creator. The universe apparently had a beginning, 13.7 billion years ago, in the Big Bang, and before that beginning, space and time as we know them are not valid. That in no way rules out a natural explanation for the whole process, or a natural existence before the Big Bang, even if we cannot observe it. There are plenty of things apparently outside our light cone, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or have natural explanations. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean they do have natural explanations either, and so the Big Bang is neither evidence for or against a creator.
All of those questions at least, I can relate to. I choose to believe that there are natural explanations for the things we cannot observe. If somebody else prefers to choose a supernatural explanation, I can’t really fault them for it, even if I disagree, because of the complete lack of evidence either way. But I start to become uncomfortable when people claim specific qualities for this unobservable being. Bertrand Russell’s teapot is the classic response: there are an infinite number of things which could possibly exist, but which are unobservable. How is one to choose among them?
I had a lot more trouble with his argument for a personal, theistic, Abrahamic god, and for Jesus in particular. He suggested that because humans almost universally have some sense of right and wrong, even if those morals are sometimes contradictory across cultures, that there exists some universal Moral Law, which can only be the product of God. This seems incorrect to me in so many ways it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m not convinced that moral or altruistic behavior can’t ultimately be explained in Darwinian terms, but even if it can’t that’s not convincing. We’re not purely genetic creatures. We pass our ideas down through the generations, and also laterally through our social organizations. Those ideas affect our behavior, and should also be considered as potential causes of our moral or altruistic behaviors. We empathize with other people, and to some degree can put ourselves in their position, and know what we would want were we there. Or perhaps the altruism displayed by Wesley Autrey is, like our inability to synthesize vitamin C, a defect (evolutionarily speaking – not socially) that isn’t serious enough to apply selective pressure. Or more damningly, one might point out that such acts of individual altruism are so striking precisely because they are so rare. Society scale altruism all the more so. How many examples can we muster from history of heroic moral behavior on the same scale as the unfortunately apocryphal story of the Danes universally wearing the Star of David while occupied by Nazi Germany? How many can we recall of grand moral outrages and crimes against humanity, or simply self-interested behavior couched in moral terms to soothe our tender sensibilities? Beyond that, humans aren’t the only animals to display some sense of right and wrong. Wolves know shame, and will sneak around when doing things they know they’re not supposed to. They even have puritanical sexual norms! I suspect that amongst intelligent social animals some kind of moral, or pseudo-moral behavior is fairly common, and as Robert Axelrod put forward in The Evolution of Cooperation, and other publications, an astonishing amount of cooperative behavior can actually be explained purely by assuming self-interested agents.
Again, I’m not suggesting this is evidence that God does not exist, but I don’t see how it can possibly be construed as evidence that He does. In the end, I think that the only purely rational position is one of fairly extreme agnosticism: any god which has been constructed or perceived as not to be subject to observation cannot be disproved. Conversely, any god which is brought into the realm of the testable and observable is doomed to become either a god of the gaps with an ever decreasing domain, or a god of deception perpetually “testing our faith” by arranging things so as to be incorrectly interpretable in a rational way… placing fossils in the ground of beasts that never lived. Changing the proportions of radioisotopes to produce false (but entirely self-consistent) dates. Putting each and every photon from the distant quasars apparently en route to Earth at the time of creation. Not that any of that would be beyond the ability of the omnipotent being Christians and others posit, but I agree with Collins that that’s not any kind of god that I could recognize and revere. Better by far, I think, to simply say “God is not observable. God, and faith, are not about observation. We have a choice of what to believe, and I choose to believe this.” Such a faith never has to worry about whether some new discovery or observation or understanding will contradict it. The strongest argument against that is, I think, of the form of Bertrand Russell’s teapot. I find it to be a compelling argument, but I’ll understand if others don’t.
In particular, I’ll offer my own interpretation of the biographical sketch that Collins gave of himself, and of his conversion to Christianity, and how he chose what to believe, and a bit of my own experience, which parallels his but with a different outcome.
Francis Collins was raised in a non-theistic household on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley, by hippies 20 years before their time. Home schooled until 6th grade, he did not develop strong spiritual beliefs of any kind until some time in college or graduate school, at which point he found himself to be an atheist/agnostic by default, without having thought deeply about spiritual questions. After getting a PhD in physical chemistry, he became enamored with the suddenly rich and potentially tractable field of biology, and found he had a desire to help people, instead of simply understanding quantum mechanics, so he went to medical school. While a resident, he often encountered terminally ill people who were comforted by their faith. One day, he was confronted by a dying woman, in a gentle, straightforward, and simple way, about his own beliefs, and was disturbed to discover that he hadn’t really done much research into the field. He embarked on a survey of world religions and spirituality, which was difficult and alien, and ultimately sought the help of a minister, who directed him to read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. After much thought and contemplation, he decided while on a hike in the Cascades to accept Jesus.
I was raised in a non-theistic household surrounded by farms in the San Joaquin Valley, by a hippie wannabe and the son (and grandson) of Seventh Day Adventist missionaries. Homeschooled until the 3rd grade, I explicitly identified myself as an atheist as soon as I was asked about it at school at the age of eight, and was harassed by Christians because of my beliefs for the next ten years. I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and many other science shows on PBS. I was motivated to do well in school by the prospect of escaping my small hometown and finding people I could better relate to, which I did at Caltech. Underprepared by my rural high school and without my previous motivation, my academic performance was mediocre, and I sought fulfilment from non-academic pursuits, including visceral experiences of the natural world, and study of things including religion, unrelated to my field. Now I see that my purpose in life is to help facilitate the Universe’s persistent, joyful and deep understanding of itself, which relates to all kinds of interesting things: creating a sustainable human civilization and acting as responsible stewards of the terrestrial biosphere, searching for extraterrestrial life and intelligence, fostering artificial intelligences and technological prostheses for human intelligence and compassion. Reducing the suffering of and increasing the opportunities for humans, and all the other earthlings, around the world.
I’ve had an adversarial relationship with religion for almost my entire life. It doesn’t sound like Collins did. I can’t deny that religion has its charms: eternal afterlife and earthly community among them. There’s no evidence for the afterlife, but the community and its benefits are manifest. Had I not been harassed by religionists for a decade as a kid, maybe the attraction of that community would be more difficult to resist. Maybe I would be more prone to seeing the positive aspects of religion in the world, instead of the negative ones that Dawkins so often points out. Maybe in the evidentiary vacuum, I would have chosen to believe in a creator in exchange for an earthly community, instead of going with Russell’s teapot.
Maybe if there had been vibrant, moral, and supportive naturalist communities available to Francis Collins when he embarked on his spiritual journey, he would have chosen them instead of Christ (and if he’d been born in China 600 years ago maybe he would have become a devout Buddhist…). We as atheists and agnostics and pantheists and naturalists have proven abysmally bad at creating communities, compelling moral frameworks, and inspiring visions of what the future of humanity and the earthlings can be. It doesn’t have to be that way. In part, the problem is it has only so recently become socially acceptable to be a naturalist, and even now it is only really acceptable in very small subsets of society: the scientific community is one of them. We should be working to create those communities, to make them friendly to families, to make them a network available wherever your work might take you, since we tend to move around a lot, and to make them open and inviting to naturalists with no formal scientific training. Given the lack of evidence either way, is it so shocking that most people make the more socially comfortable and rewarding choice? Is that choice not, at some level, entirely rational?
Although I disagree completely with the evidence that was presented, I think that what Collins is doing is profoundly positive. His talk was (like Dawkins’) pitched to the choir for the most part. This kind of talk doesn’t really convert anyone who isn’t already deeply ambivalent about their beliefs, and most of the people in the audience didn’t seem ambivalent. Given that, all of the Christian rhetoric which was presented was pretty harmless. Instead I think the most salient part of the conversation was the strong statements in favor of evolution, against intelligent design, and for a cosmos which is as revealed by scientific inquiry, couched in hopefully palatable religious terms. I also deeply appreciated his repeated statement that there does exist such a thing as a principled agnostic, someone who is actively reserving judgment, after considering the options. This kind of necessary criticism and reframing of issues can only be done by someone who is an insider – when it comes from Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, or me, it is dismissed out of hand, and probably always will be, no matter how well founded they are. Almost nobody seems to be saying loudly and charismatically that religion and science do not have to be in opposition, because as with the abortion debate both sides are afraid of a creeping death if they give any ground. Instead we should be looking for as much common ground as we can find. If we can come to the same actions through different rationales, does it really matter how we got there?