The Language of God: Prelude to Cosmology

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Part 2 of this book, “The Great Questions of Human Existence,” covers topics of cosmology, life on earth, and unpacking the human genome. Chapter 3 begins by tackling cosmology, but Collins throws in a little prelude – a little homage to science. We should keep in mind that Collins’ point through all this is to find a way to reconcile faith and science. He’s not big into NOMA, but rather argues that science complements faith. Although he gets some things right, like he actually knows what a theory is (if I only had a nickel every time I heard someone say “But evolution is just a theory”…), several points of his prelude do a disservice to the layperson who might pick up this book. In this post, I hope to address these pain points.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due: Collins knows what a theory is. He distills it pretty concisely, saying “But over a long period of time, a consistent set of observations sometimes emerges that leads to a new framework of understanding” (p.58). He lists a few examples of these theories: the theory of gravitation, the theory of relativity, germ theory. I happen to think that English murders the word “theory,” because it has a different meaning in a scientific realm than it does in colloquial speech. In science, a theory is exactly what Collins describes; in other areas, a theory means something more like a hypothesis. “I have a theory on why my brownies taste like socks and are as hard as bricks.” My wife blames William the Conqueror for the reason why English is such a messed-up language that’s really difficult to use correctly.

He points out that science is not static, but I don’t really think his reasons are entirely correct. He states that scientists have a streak of “closeted anarchism” that hopes to disrupt the framework of the day. “That’s what the Nobel Prizes are given for” (p.58). Not quite, Collins: Alfred Nobel requested in his last will and testament that a series of prizes be awarded to those who have made “the most important … discovery” in physics, chemistry, peace, medicine, and literature. Closeted anarchists: no; revolutionaries: perhaps; investigators: certainly! While there certainly are revolutionary ideas that flip the scientific world on its head, I prefer Lawrence Krauss’ version better: “Scientists love mysteries / They love not knowing.” This is where the God of the Gaps becomes problematic; the Christian thinks (s)he has all the answers, where the naturalist is OK saying, “You know what? I don’t know the answer just yet.”

After briefly discussing revolutionary ideas that rocked the scientific world, particularly advances in physics and cosmology, Collins mentions how scientific theories are becoming increasingly more difficult to state. He cites Ernest Rutherford, a physicist who said something along the lines of “if you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, then it probably isn’t very good physics.” Since physics is becoming increasingly difficult and, especially for quantum mechanics, not intuitive, Collins states that, to “those who argue that materialism should be favored over theism, because materialism is simpler and more intuitive, these new concepts present a major challenge” (p.61).

Before I discuss why I think Collins is wrong, we need to eliminate some ambiguity in the term “materialism.” The web site Atheism: Proving the Negative has some definitions of positions that I think are pretty good. “Materialism” and something I immediately mistook it for – methodological naturalism are similar, but there are important differences; I’m glad I looked them up. Materialism is a metaphysical thesis about what the universe comprises; methodological naturalism is an epistemological thesis. The way I see it, the former describes what reality is while the latter prescribes how we apprehend reality. Given how Collins is all about trying to figure out how we can know the truth, I think he’s referencing the epistemological thesis and not the metaphysical one. I may be incorrect, but I will use this assumption to contrast methodological naturalism against theism.

I don’t think methodological naturalism is simpler and more intuitive than theism. First, it’s not simpler; theism is WAY simpler. Secondly, methodological naturalism is not necessarily intuitive. As far as simple goes, parents/aunts/uncles might be familiar with this. My friends with preschool-aged children tell me that, when faced with the infinite regress of “Why?” questions they get from their kids, they will finally give up and say, “Because God made it that way.” As it turns out, cognitive scientists have concluded that children prefer teleological explanations (teleology means “purpose”). Per that link: “The bias to view objects as ‘designed for a purpose’ probably derives from children’s privileged understanding of intentional behavior and artifacts.” At the time of this writing, my son is 16 months old. I am totally looking forward to answering his why questions. But not with a punt to the supernatural. I intend to ask him what he thinks is going on, and then I’ll either answer his questions or – if he’s up to it – we’ll research it online or conduct our own experiments in the kitchen.

As far as intuition goes, who said that methodological naturalism had to be intuitive? If it were intuitive, why did it take so long to figure out germ theory? As a side note, would it really have been so hard for God to have revealed “WASH YOUR HANDS” to his chosen people? If something is not intuitive but is rather complex, I would still say that complexity does not necessarily mean that something is difficult to understand. For example, I think Michio Kaku does a wonderful job explaining time to the common person. I follow methodological naturalism because I think the scientific method is the best approach we have to apprehend reality is based on where the evidence leads to a more probable conclusion.

I should take the time to mention that there are some things that I believe that are not based on methodological naturalism, like believing that other people have minds and that my senses are reliable at apprehending objective reality. Maybe I consider these basic beliefs. I’m new at this, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Collins takes his assertion that materialism is in danger and loads it with a poor use of a notion he misunderstands: Ockham’s Razor. Collins says that Ockham’s Razor states “the simplest explanation for any given problem is usually best” (p.61). This idea actually involves eliminating unnecessary hypotheses from a solution. Again, what’s simpler in describing why magnets work – talking about these crazy invisible fields created by the flow of almost-equally invisible negatively charged particles that can attract and repel certain metals, or saying that some god made it that way? Every single time we’ve taken a look around us and thought that something was magical or supernatural, and then we look at that thing critically and finally figured it out, we discover some naturalistic explanation. The application of logic and the scientific method has a pretty kick-ass track record. Sure, science may be underdetermined, but theism? Explanatory Fail.

Collins makes one last point before moving on to the topic of cosmology. Seeing how the natural world made such a profound impression on him, he muses “Why should matter behave in such a way?” (p.62). He then quotes Eugene Wigner about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” I really don’t see why matter behaving in whatever way it behaves is unreasonable. I wonder what Collins thinks a universe would look like if every single thing could change willy-nilly at any time. George Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God discusses nature:

Natural law is based upon the limited nature of existence. Every entity has a specific nature, specific characteristics, that determine the capacities of that entity. A plant, for example, does not have the capacity to think, and a man does not have the biological capacity for photosynthesis. The capacities, abilities, and potential actions of any existing thing, living or inanimate, are dependent on its characteristics – and since these are always specific and determinate, their resulting capacities are also specific and determinate. The characteristics of an entity determine what an entity can and cannot do; limitations are an integral part of the natural universe, and they constitute the foundation of natural law.

Regularity in nature is the consequence of limitations; entities are limited in terms of their actions. No existing thing can randomly do anything at any time under any conditions. This uniformity in nature permits the systematic study of reality (science) and the formulation of general principles of nature (“laws”) which are used in predicting future states of affairs. While the particular scientific laws will change as man’s knowledge increases, the principle of natural law itself is a constant; it persists as a corollary of existence. (p.28)

Mathematics is perfectly reasonable because it is a systematic framework for figuring out a logically consistent universe.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • jack

    Thanks for the clear-headed analysis and for the illuminating and entertaining links.

    Collins states that, to “those who argue that materialism should be favored over theism, because materialism is simpler and more intuitive, these new concepts present a major challenge”

    Collins loves to set up straw men so that he can flail away at them with specious arguments. I have never heard a scientist argue that naturalistic explanations, discovered through hypothesis-testing and winnowed by evidence, should be favored because they are simple. They argue that they should be favored because they comport with the available evidence. Theistic and magical “explanations” have no explanatory content whatsoever. They replace tractable questions about reality with intractable mysteries about ethereal, supernatural phantasms. You don’t need Ockham’s razor to dispense with such ideas… Ockham’s dull butter-knife will do just fine.

    And on the subject of labels for worldviews or philosophical positions, I have noticed that theists, New Age mystics and various other devotees of magical thinking seem to love to label us reality-based folks as materialists. I can’t help thinking that there is some political spin behind this, as in the Republican penchant for saying “tax relief” instead of “tax cut“, “death tax” instead of “estate tax”, etc. To label us “materialists” suggests a completely different definition of the word, and so denigrates us as greedy, hedonistic consumers who care only about money, self-indulgence and orgies at the shopping mall.

  • paradoctor

    If there is no god, then of course theism is absurd; but if there is a god, then again theism is absurd, for theism is a product of finite human minds, so it inevitably describes a finite human-like god; but a god, to be a god, must be infinite.

    So theism either absurdly over-describes a null god or absurdly under-describes an infinite god. Therefore theism is absurd.

  • BJ Marshall

    @paradoctor:

    I don’t think it follows that [products] of finite human minds must describe finite human-like [entities]. I created a general statement and applied the terms from your example; that is, I applied “theism” as the [product] and “god” as the [entity]. But consider this counter-example:

    The Large Hadron Collider is a product of finite human minds, so it inevitably describes a finite human-like atom-smashing kick-ass piece of scientific win.

    I think the real problem is that theism simply fails to describe what the divine is. The National Catholic Almanac defines god negatively, that is, by describing what he is not: without beginning or end, without limit in perfection, not finite, not visible, etc. Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica: “Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.”

    Any being completely characterized by negation is really indistinguishable from no being at all.

  • Brock

    Other theologians have stated that any attempt to describe god at all necessarily limits god, and therefore it is impossible to say anything at all about him. Again, BJ’s argument applies; a concept which cannot be described or defined in any way is essentially meaningless.

  • Dan L.

    Great post. A couple comments (uncritical):

    -The assumption that our senses are good guides to objective reality is not a good assumption. They are and have been terrible guides to objective reality.
    -This doesn’t matter so much for methodological naturalism (MN), because MN leans very heavily on intersubjectivity — mutual confirmation by independent sources. Even if our senses are unreliable, we can hope that nature can’t fool all the people all the time.
    -This last bit does require the assumption of other minds. I think the notion of “properly basic” beliefs is stupid, though. If my “properly basic,” you mean humans are hard-wired to believe it, then sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s true or even all that basic. But I think you can justify the assumption of other minds through a sort of weak version of MN. What’s more reasonable, that other people look and act like you because they are like you, or because they’ve been cleverly contrived to do so? Sticky philosophical problem nonetheless.
    -I like your take on the efficacy of mathematics. From my perspective, it’s a self-justifying conclusion. Our number system works very well at describing our universe, but that’s hardly surprising. If it didn’t work well, we would either have a different number system that DOES describe our universe, or no number system at all. In the first case, philosophers would still ask, “But why does it work so well?” In the latter case, they wouldn’t be able to ask the question at all. It’s not actually any different than “Why is there something rather than nothing?” which is not actually any different than “Why is there this instead of something else entirely?”

    The bit on Ockham’s Razor was really good. I’d love to see a whole post dispelling the misconception that “the simplest explanation is the best.”

  • Scotlyn

    BJ – I can testify from experience that if you let your 16-month-old run riot (within supervised reason) in your kitchen at an age when HE would love to, it will be a good way of making sure he is still there at 16 years old, when YOU would love him to. By that time, if you play your cards right, he should be able to turn out a decent homemade pizza, without the flour going everywhere, and even wash up after.

    And may I recommend any of the BBC’s excellent sitcom “Outnumbered” (most of the episodes easily found on youtube) to split your sides laughing while picking up tips on how NOT to answer children’s why questions. For a wee taster try What would Jesus Do?

  • jack

    Scotlyn,

    Thanks for that link. Hilarious! I have one more little question to add to the list, asked by Matt Groening many years ago through one of his comic strip characters: “If god is everywhere, does that mean he’s in the toilet?”

  • kennypo65

    The best thing about science is the fact that a scientist will not hesitate to say, “I don’t know.” Religion claims to have all the answers, but they really only have one: goddidit. This is patently ridiculous. The answers are out there, science will find them, not theism.

    P.S. Michio Kaku is this generation’s Carl Sagan, he rocks.

  • BJ Marshall

    I understand that the senses can be fooled (think Gettier problems), but is it a bad assumption to think that the senses are at least pretty reliable most of the time? I like your statement about confirmation from multiple sources, but I could see a problem with that. It reminds me of Paul saying how Jesus appeared to 500 brethren at once. (Feh! Hopefully, I’m misunderstanding your meaning there somewhere.)

    The concept of basic belief for me is the epistemological equivalent of saying “the buck stops here” to avoid an infinite regress. It’s simply a belief which is not itself based on any other belief. I think my beliefs in 1) my ability to apprehend objective reality and 2) the existence of other minds are OK assumptions to make.

    For the record, Outnumbered is freaking hilarious!

  • John Nernoff

    “Infinite God”? I’ve been thinking about the infinite regress claim (see Wiilam Lane Craig). It is asserted there is an uncreated first mover (which “everyone” knows as “God”). This is because an actually infinite universe (in time) could never have gotten to this point in time since infinite amounts of time would have interfered with the completion process to “now.”

    However, let’s go back 100 years. Then, the same claim would have to have been made — that infinite time before then would have to have elapsed and it is shown this cannot have been. Infinite time and occurrences would still not have been complete by 100 years ago.

    So let’s go back a billion years. Same thing. The world (universe) a billion years ago would not have occurred since infinitude before then would still be occurring and no completion to that point would have been possible.

    OK. o back 100 trillion years. Same argument. It couldn’t have existed.

    My conclusion from all this? Nothing exists.

    Clearly this is absurd. There is something specious about Craig’s no actual infinity argument.