The Language of God: A Biologist in His Element (Sort Of)

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

This chapter is entitled “Life on Earth: Of Microbes and Man.” Right from the beginning, you should probably know that there’s a lot in this chapter that Collins gets right. It’s like how William Lane Craig is totally in his element when he talks about cosmology, because he’s an astrophysi … wait, that’s right, he’s not. (I couldn’t help but slam “The Case for a Creator” my parents got me for my first birthday post-deconversion. Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like “we think you’re wrong and we don’t want you to burn in Hell.”) OK, so it’s completely unlike that; Collins totally knows his stuff when it comes to the items in this chapter: DNA and evolution. In fact, Collins at one point asserts that “[t]he study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things” (pp.133-134).

That said, there are some things that he mentions in this chapter that should be addressed.

In his introduction to this chapter, he talks about how science has turned beliefs on their heads, giving the example of replacing the geocentric model of the solar system with a heliocentric model. He talks about how the theory of evolution has really done it in for creationists. “Science,” Collins says, “should not be denied by the believer; it should be embraced.” He continues to say how the elegance of life on Earth is reason for awe and for belief in God. To that, I answer as Douglas Adams did: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

After speaking to paradigm shifts, Collins addresses the mainstay of many theists: Paley’s Watchmaker argument. I have to give credit to Collins for adeptly dismantling this, though it is pretty low-hanging fruit. You know the one: You find a watch in a heath, and you know it’s complex (the watch, not the heath). Watches have creators. Well, life is pretty darned complex; therefore life has a creator. Collins dismantles it this way:

  1. Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons.
  2. Electric current comes from the power company.
  3. Lightning consists of a flow of electrons.
  4. Therefore, lightning comes from the power company (pp.87-88).

Collins spends a little bit of time refuting arguments that evolution would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In so many words, he tells the reader that order can increase in parts of a system while the total amount of disorder in the system never decreases. He warns the reader about falling into a god-of-the-gaps problem, where the reader might say something like, “Hey, science can’t explain life’s origins, so couldn’t we say that God stepped in to intervene?” I found it interesting how Collins plays to his readership: In that hypothetical question, Collins posits that God’s intention was to create a universe which would lead to creatures with whom God might have fellowship, “namely human beings.” Neanderthals may have had some form of spirituality, so why be so specific about human beings? Furthermore, if Collins holds evolution to be true, couldn’t God be desiring fellowship with species that come after us? And do people really think God would set things in motion with the Big Bang and then chill for 13.7 billion years until we came along for his fellowship?

After he’s done helping his readers avoid god-of-the-gaps arguments, he then says “there are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge” (p.93). Math and order – really? George H. Smith discusses order in Atheism: A Case Against God as this: “order is simply the manifestation of causality, and causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity” (p.150). The nature of an entity determines what that entity can and cannot do. To help explain this, Smith refers to H.W.B. Joseph’s “An Introduction to Logic”:

… to say that the same thing acting on the same thing under the same conditions may yet produce a different effect, is to say that a thing need not be what it is. But this is in flat conflict with the Law of Identity. A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between ‘a’ and V implies ‘a’ acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is ‘a.’ So long therefore as it is ‘a,’ it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is ‘a’ is something else than the ‘a’ which it is declared to be.

Order and design are not the same, which is something the theist may wish to assert given that God designed the universe. Design alludes to a designer, but order does not necessarily need an orderer. Smith asserts that order is “simply entailed by the nature of existence itself.” It makes sense, given order, that mathematics would work. If I have one orange, and I add another orange to it, I get two oranges. That is, unless there is no order and the Law of Identity fails to hold, in which case I may get a pimped-up Mini Cooper and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, after an hour of holding my very hopeful citrus, I got neither of those. Seems to me that, if order is a derivative of the Law of Identity, then mathematics is a derivative of order. And neither necessarily point to a god.

Now, to be charitable to the theist, I could see where one might say something like the following: If order is simply entailed by the nature of existence, and if God caused the universe to exist, then God caused order via his creation. To that, I would respond that we have a completely naturalistic explanation of order, even if we currently lack a scientifically proven explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. We certainly have naturalistic explanations for why there is something rather than nothing (the universe has zero total energy), but I’m not aware those ideas have been proven out. Furthermore, once again, just because a natural explanation is not yet proven to be true does not mean one can go claiming “God did it.”

For all the progress Collins makes toward getting his readership to stop clicking Answers In Genesis and actually understand why evolution is true, he makes a few key blunders about why anyone should believe in a god. The funniest thing is that my father read The Language of God before handing it to me. He said he understands how evolution may have happened, but he’s still hung up on micro- vs. macro-evolution, which is like being hung up on walking 200 yards vs. walking two miles. So, in the end, I really wonder how much progress Collins is actually making.

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.

  • penn

    The existence of mathematics in now indicates an omnipotent creator. Math is an abstract concept and every possible universe will lead to the exact same mathematics from the same axioms. It is logically impossible for it to be any other way.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The universe as we observe it defies mathematical principles – evidence that God did it.

    The universe as we observe it follows mathematical principles – evidence that God did it.

    What could be more logical?

  • hiero5ant

    “causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity.”

    Wait, what? Did Smith really say this?

    If a piece of copper fails to conduct electricity, then it turns out that it’s false that all copper conducts electricity. It doesn’t mean “this piece of copper fails to be identical to itself.”

    I’m sure I’m missing something, or else that is the single weirdest argument I have ever heard an atheist make.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    And do people really think God would set things in motion with the Big Bang and then chill for 13.7 billion years until we came along for his fellowship?

    And why weren’t angels company enough? Aren’t they wiser, more puissant, and therefore more able to understand their god, and thus provide better company?

    Also, God can keep the oranges. I’ll take the chick and the car.

  • Samuel

    “The funniest thing is that my father read The Language of God before handing it to me. He said he understands how evolution may have happened, but he’s still hung up on micro- vs. macro-evolution, which is like being hung up on walking 200 yards vs. walking two miles. ”

    I think the problem is he can conceptualize seeing something having a different fur color, but he can’t concieve it slowly getting to be so that it is its own population.

    In all due fairness, forming new species is difficult. It generally requires a large number of little steps and it is hard to see how the steps would lead to a seperate species. And if you look at them all at once and with hindsight (ignoring the mutants and failures) it tends to look like a pattern.

  • NoAstronomer

    “And do people really think God would set things in motion with the Big Bang and then chill for 13.7 billion years until we came along for his fellowship?”

    And if god (or whatever) did have the patience to sit around for 13.7 billion years then I’d think he’d want us to have a longer life span than the three score plus ten (is that right?) he gave us.

  • BJ Marshall

    @hiero5ant: Here is the context in which the Smith quote occurs (p.50):

    The crux of the teleological argument—and its fundamental error—lies in the assumption that order presupposes conscious design (where “order” refers to the regularity in nature). This is demonstrably false. It is true that order exists in the universe, that there is regularity in nature, that entities will behave in the same way under the same circumstances—but it is not valid to infer from this the existence of any master designer. On the contrary, order is simply the manifestation of causality, and causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity.

    To exist is to exist as something, and to be something is to possess specific, determinate characteristics. In other words, every existing thing has identity: it is what it is and not something else. To say that something has determinate characteristics is to say that it has a limited nature, and these limits necessarily restrict its range of possible actions. The nature of an entity determines
    what it can do in a given set of circumstances. In An Introduction to Logic, H.W.B. Joseph writes:

    … to say that the same thing acting on the same thing under the same conditions
    may yet produce a different effect, is to say that a thing need not be what it is. But this is in flat conflict with the Law of Identity. A thing, to be at all, must be
    something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between ‘a’ and V implies ‘a’ acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is ‘a.’ So long therefore as it is ‘a,’ it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is ‘a’ is something else than the ‘a’ which it is declared to be.

    I think you’re actually correct in your assessment of the copper piece. You said:

    If a piece of copper fails to conduct electricity, then it turns out that it’s false that all copper conducts electricity. It doesn’t mean “this piece of copper fails to be identical to itself.”

    It’s precisely because order exists in nature (copper acts in a coppery way), that we can use that order to construct propositions that lead in a logical way to conclusions such as “all pieces of copper conduct electricity.” If our testing of a copper piece proves that it doesn’t conduct electricity, then we either amend our conclusion (“all pieces of copper conduct electricity” is now out the window) or we falsify a premiss (“this is, in fact, not a piece of copper”). Either way, you’re applying logic.

  • Roger3

    A very similar argument to the copper one is used in Logic by Wilfrid Hodges. It’s probably the single best book on logic ever written, IMO. It’s cheap (<$15 on Amazon, 19.95 from Penguin) and written by a theist, so I like to give it to my theist friends.

  • David Evans

    Like other contributors I am uneasy about Smith’s use of the Law of Identity (and not only because he quotes Nathaniel Branden as an authority). If quantum mechanics is correct there are uncaused events all around us, and effects not strictly determined by causes, without violating any law of logic.

  • Alex Weaver

    “causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity.”

    Wait, what? Did Smith really say this?

    If a piece of copper fails to conduct electricity, then it turns out that it’s false that all copper conducts electricity. It doesn’t mean “this piece of copper fails to be identical to itself.”

    I’m sure I’m missing something, or else that is the single weirdest argument I have ever heard an atheist make.

    Above and beyond that, isn’t the argument either wrong, or both trivial and tautological?

  • BJ Marshall

    Learning from others is one of the main reasons I’m grateful to Ebonmuse for letting me guest blog. I think I’m missing something, and I’d appreciate any help in getting me to understand this.

    I understand Smith to be saying that, because there is order in nature – acorns don’t spontaneously turn into philosophers – we can state propositions and use logic to make arguments and conclusions about objective reality. Stated a different way, if the Law of Identity did not hold, we couldn’t use logic or make causal claims because everything would be in flux. You couldn’t say that all rocks fall to earth, because some rocks might spontaneously turn into pigeons that poop on statues. I need some help seeing why this is wrong. I suppose one could make the statement “All rocks fall to earth unless they turn into things that don’t,” but I see no use in that sort of “logic.”

    Addressing the quantum is beyond my skill level, but I want to toss this out here for comment. I think even the quantum level shows the relationship between the Law of Identity, causality, and logic – even if this is just in the consistency of a particular wave function. Just using the classic two-slit experiment as an example, the interference pattern occurs regularly in repeated experiments. The regularity of the results of this experiment shows me that there’s something to the Law of Identity. I guess I’m seeing that, apart from being deterministic, it’s sufficient for the Law of Identity to hold if things are probabilistic over regularly probability functions. For example, if you were able to correctly determine the Feynman sum over histories for how any particular wave function would collapse, you’d be able to predict the outcome with a fairly high level of certainty.

  • John Nernoff

    People have too much time on their hands, hence the Law of Identity was formulated.

    Given enough paper, a philosopher can prove anything.

    That “God” needs fellowship definitely proves the point that “God” is nothing more than a man in the sky. The only real question is whether he trims his beard or not.


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