The Language of God: Clarke’s Goalposts

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

At this point, Collins mentions, “godless materialists might be cheering. If humans evolved strictly by mutation and natural selection, who needs God to explain us? To this, I reply: I do” (p.140).

In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain special human attributes such as knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates (p.140-1).

Does Collins mean to imply that DNA sequence should be able to explain knowledge of the Moral Law or this universal search for God? Dennett and others have posited that religious belief may come from some hyperactive agency detector in the brain, so perhaps DNA could eventually point to that. Even if Collins were to shy away from the fallacy of confusing the unexplainable with the unexplained, is it really reasonable to think that DNA sequences should point to knowledge of the Moral Law?

You’ve probably all heard of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Theistic Evolution seems to me to follow a sort of parallel argument: Any goalposts moved sufficiently far enough away are indistinguishable from no goalposts at all. If science were to come up with completely naturalistic theories that explained every single thing in the entire universe (or multiverse, if there happens to be one), all that would do for the ardent theist is give a complete account of how God operates. The goalposts of “how God operates” will have been moved so far away as to be indistinguishable from “there is no God.”

Collins’ position for why he needs God to explain us appears to me to take the following format, with implied premisses in parenthesis:

  1. A certain naturalistic theory obtains truth.
  2. That naturalistic theory cannot explain certain things about what it means to be human.
  3. (Those certain things do, in fact, need explanations.)
  4. (Invoking a God is the only way one could explain those certain things about what it means to be human.)
  5. (Therefore, God exists.)
  6. Freeing God from [actions performed by the naturalistic theory] does not render God obsolete; rather it shows us how He operates.
  7. Therefore, the naturalistic theory and my belief in God are harmonized; I should write a crappy book about that!

Here I should take a few minutes and explain that Collins gives his readers an overview of what a theory is. It’s in a section entitled “Evolution: A Theory or A Fact,” Collins defines a theory as “fundamental principles underlying a science, art, etc.: music theory, theory of equations” (p.142). I have to admit I have misgivings about that false dichotomy and the poor wording. Evolution is both a fact and a theory. A fact would be a thing that one saw, like how the blow holes of whales moved, while a theory is more like a group of facts formed to make a clear view of the world and how it works – a view one can test. I hope my definitions are better, especially considering that I tried to define each term by only using monosyllablic words. (I bet you all had to go back and re-read them, didn’t you?)

Back to invoking both theories and God, here’s an example for the new position I like to call Theistic Gravity:

  1. Gravity exists, and the theory does a pretty decent job accounting for how objects are attracted to each other.
  2. But, alas! Gravity cannot explain the immense joy of the Double Rainbow or why I am so moved by a frozen waterfall.
  3. The existence of God could surely explain those things.
  4. Freeing God from making sure everything falls back down to earth does not render God obsolete; rather it shows us how He operates.

Feel free to add your own Theistic [naturalistic theory] in the comments.

This concludes Part Two of Collins’ book. His next part, “Faith in Science, Faith in God” is where he tries to synthesize science and faith. “Now that we have laid out the arguments for the plausibility of God, on the one hand, and the scientific data about the origins of the universe and life on our planet, on the other, can we find a happy and harmonious synthesis?” (p.142).

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators
Atlas Shrugged: Too Much of a Good Thing
Atlas Shrugged: Horseshoe Theory
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 15
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.