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:

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 14
Atlas Shrugged: The Marketplace of Ideas
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
Atlas Shrugged: Screw You, Shakespeare
About Adam Lee

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