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:

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.

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    will never explain special human attributes such as knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God

    What first struck me about this statement is that it requires a fictional deity to search for fictional objects. “knowledge of the [m]oral [l]aw”? Seriously? Which moral law would that be? The one that says killing children is ok if they a) are your enemies’ or b) have used naughty words against you?

    And then there is the “universal search for [g]od”. What about the universal search for aliens? Or the universal search for sex? Or the universal search for perfect beer? Do we need [g]od to explain those as well?

    Collins is aware that evolution has rendered his god of the gaps immeasurably small, and the only way he can point to the deity’s continued existence is “moral law” and “searching for god”? OK, fine. God gave us this moral law that we can’t seem to grasp, and a desire to know more about him–like a long-dead ancestor who created a piece of pottery that’s been handed down for generations–perhaps useful in a limited sort of way and intriguing us to find out more about him. Interesting, but not exactly relevant to our lives. Can we please stop killing people over what they pretend to know?

  • http://atheistwiki.wikispaces.com Jon Jermey

    I must have missed out my knowledge of this Moral Law, because I don’t seem to have any. I’ve looked behind the couch and everything, but it’s nowhere to be found. Poor, benighted person that I am, I am reduced to making decisions on the basis of crude empirical guidelines like ‘Will it benefit me?’, ‘Will it hurt anyone?’ and ‘Will I get locked up for it?’

    I’ve approached a number of theists to see if I could borrow their knowledge of the Moral Law (capitals and everything) but I can’t seem to find one that functions in an effective and reliable way. What’s more, they’re all different and mutually incompatible, which seems a little odd for something supposedly supplied by an unchanging and universal deity.

    I’m worried now. Am I human? If knowledge of the Moral Law is the divinely-ordained sign of humanity, then clearly I must be some sort of mutant or throwback. Bugger!

  • BJ Marshall

    I’m afraid even the Moral Law itself is beyond reproach. The fact that we are imperfect practitioners of it – or even that we’re imperfect at even grasping the concept – shows that we are merely rusty containers trying to hold onto the pure waters of the Moral Law.

  • DSimon

    BJ Marshall, or alternately that the hypothesis of Moral Law isn’t valid for the same reason the hypothesis of phlogiston wasn’t valid: it’s an attempt at explaining a phenomenon with another phenomenon, but without any good way of identifying or predicting or isolating or generally figuring out anything about that latter phenomenon.

  • Joffan

    BJM, I needed to check briefly that you did indeed write the article before assigning your comment #3 into the satire category… a near miss for Poe’s Law.

    Under the “rusty containers” theory, I wonder, do we expect to find traces of that rust on DNA?

    Do we know whether Collins believes in a literal Adam and Eve (even if not a literal Garden of Eden)? How much rust would their DNA exhibit?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    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.

    For the win!

    I think the obvious theory here is theistic meteorology: Natural explanations of lightning, thunder, earthquakes and hurricanes don’t show that these things aren’t God’s instruments to punish sinners; rather, they show how he uses them to punish sinners. This hypothesis is already adhered to by quite a large number of Christians!

  • Rieux

    The “freeing” example that springs to my mind is the Tooth Fairy. Plenty of adults think they possess evidence that the Tooth Fairy is an imaginary construct; some might testify that they themselves have placed money under pillows, providing a material and natural (as opposed to immaterial and supernatural) explanation for the phenomena that so many TF believers can attest to. (The retort “But they’re just children” gets one nowhere; it’s the ad hominem fallacy.)

    But, following Collins, what does this purported evidence actually show? Assuredly not that the Tooth Fairy does not exist! Instead, it merely provides one explanation for HOW She achieves her purposes: She tinkers with parents’ minds, causing them not only to trade money for teeth, but to think it was their own idea. This realization should chasten us all: it suggests that the Tooth Fairy’s powers are prodigious indeed!

    I think the fundamental problem here is Collins’ total disregard for the basic principle of parsimony. Any evidence at all can be explained by a sufficiently ornate supernatural hypothesis, which is why Occam’s Razor is so ruthless to unnecessarily multiplied entities. The evidence Collins confronts renders God superfluous, which is a far more telling fact than he is willing to admit. Maintaining his faith with the excursion into “this just tells us HOW God did it” nonsense is exactly as silly as sticking to belief in the Tooth Fairy even after Dad shows you exactly how the under-the-pillow transaction actually works.

  • BJ

    Can one engage in an act of self-Poe? When I made the comment about rusty containers, it was to harken back to a metaphor Collins made earlier.

  • BJ

    @Ebonmuse: I think theistic gravity mirrors politics perfectly. It’s all about The Man keeping me down!!

  • Eric

    My DNA doesn’t dispose me to accept Euclid’s parallel postulate either, but when I first heard of the parallel postulate I remembered certain obsessions I had with triangular blocks before age five. Later on when I really read Euclid I was introudeced to the idea that he hadn’t proved theorem I3 because it might involve 3d mainpulations in what was only a 2d universe. I again remembered how I obsessed at age 4 that if I fliped a bloc it might not be able to lay on top of an obviously congruent block.

    I think humans have innate geometric untuitions. Maybe those intuitions can’t be fully brought out until we have the physical ability to cut rectangles diagonally or draw pictures, but they’re there and they are real.

    Likewise, humans are physically wired to have certain kinds of moral intuitions. I am a HUGE skeptic of evolutionary psychology, but I do believe that humans have a “cheater detector” module in their brains. Much work on the Wason Selection Task gives support to that position. I believe that humans have moral intuitions just as I had pretty good intuotions when playing with blocks. We also have innate intituitions about physics. Humans do less well there: See Aristotle’s well thought out, but mostly wrong, theories to see how well that worked out, though he did get basic dynamics right.

    We don’t have to have EVERYTHING encoded in our DNA. I did not have have to have my geometric intuitions encoded into my DNA, though surely I must have had something there to be amused that if you flip the block it can’t be made to rotate back upon itself. Surely there is some social cunstruction invloved. If I hadn’t lived in a society that made blocks like this for children to play with, I would not have made these discoveries before I encountered them in my formal education, and if no one had ever made blocks like this, such notions would never be a part of formal education.

    I think it’s similar with ethics. We have basic innate intuitions. These have their flaws and are shaped by social context. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be more systematic, make better judgments, chance the social context so we might make better judgements.

    Progress in morality is similar to progress in geometry and physics. We might just get there if we try.

  • TEP

    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.

    The search for Yahweh is far from universal. If you take any random person from history, they’ll be just as likely to be searching for Zeus or Osiris as they are to be looking for Collins’ particular mythological superbeing. And furthermore, what of all the people who aren’t searching for any gods? Something can’t be ‘universal’ if there are people it doesn’t apply to.

    Besides, what about the other ‘universal’ traits that humans have, that can’t be explained in terms of DNA?

    For instance, DNA sequence can’t explain the universal human desire to be able to fly unaided. Hence, we must conclude that a way to fly unaided must exist; or why would we ever experience the desire to fly unaided? In fact, I’d say that in general, it’s pretty universal to desire having superpowers. DNA can’t explain this desire, why so many people fantasise about having superpowers, write comic books about people with them, and even try to acquire them themselves by casting spells and the like. As a result, the desire to have superpowers makes no sense unless it really is possible to become a superhero and regularly save the world from evil supervillains. Hence, Superman must be based on a true story.

  • paradoctor

    Recently I was thinking about the Empress Josephine’s ring. Her husband Napoleon, Emperor of Europe, gave her a ring made of a wondrous metal, rare and precious, fit for an Empress:
    Aluminum.
    Since then electrochemists have figured out how to extract aluminum cheaply by the ton. We use it for baseball bats, patio chairs, airplanes, and soda cans. Aluminum is no longer a precious metal, but it is now a very useful metal. This is a gain, except from the Empress’s point of view. Now she – or her wannabes – must retreat to other metals, until those become cheap to make, and then she must retreat again.

    This reminds me of the God of the Gaps. Every time science comes up with an explanation for some natural wonder – the rainbow, say – then those who would explain everything in terms of God must retreat. Their “God of the Gaps” must hide within some gap in the explanation; but since science tends to fill in its explanatory gaps, the God of the Gaps must constantly retreat.

    Both Empress and Gap-God must retreat before advancing understanding. How curious a weakness! And how revealing a similarity!

  • BJ Marshall

    @paradoctor:

    I don’t think one has to happen before the other. In fact, Collins gives us an example of the causal arrow going the other way: We have advanced our understanding so far as to force theists to find new gaps for their gods. Whereas we previously had a large contingent adamant that evolution was against God, now we can see that contingent being chipped away as Collins says “See, evolution IS true AND there’s still room for your God.”

    As reason and evidence drag these theists kicking and screaming into the 21st century, we may at some point be able to say “You’ve moved your goalposts so far as to put them out of existence; time to do the same with your god.”

  • paradoctor

    Any sufficiently rationalized god is indistinguishable from a nonexistent god.

  • Kacy Ray

    Evolution is not “both a fact and a theory”. There is nothing “theoretical” about evolution. It is a fact supported by *evolutionary theory* which assembles all the known facts in order to explain (or attempts to explain) how the process works.

    Nothing, and I repeat NOTHING, can be both a fact and a theory. This is necessarily true, since no single fact can can simultaneously be a collection of facts (a pre-requisite for a comprehensive theory).

    I’ve said this over and over – we are being our own worst enemies by allowing theists to control the language this way. We are shooting ourselves in the foot.

    We need to stop allowing evolution to be regarded as a theory NOW. Evolution is happening in real time – it is observed in nature. It is not a theory, it is a fact.

  • BJ Marshall

    @Kacy Ray:

    I have a hard time seeing your argument as merely an issue of semantics. Words have different meanings in different contexts, so it seems to me that your complaint is similar to “Oh noes: someone is using “stick” as both a verb AND a noun! Nothing can be both a noun and a verb!!” Perhaps you could help me understand your point given these examples:

    Music theory. Music happens; I’m listening to it right now. There is also a theory of music, studying the language and notation of it and figuring out how it works.

    Germ theory. There are germs; I most likely have loads of them in myself right now. There is also a theory of how germs cause disease. Perhaps this is a better example, because this theory is also called the “pathogenic theory of medicine.” There is no confusing the terms “germs” and “pathogenic theory of medicine.”

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Theory, as in theory of music is much closer to the colloquial use of the word, and stands it in relation to “practice”. It is a shame too because it lets people say things like ” Oh that’s fine in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice”. To which a scientist would say, “so modify the theory”.

  • Kacy Ray

    “I have a hard time seeing your argument as merely an issue of semantics.”

    Good, because this isn’t a semantic issue (in the classic sense). It’s an issue of fact that the statement “Evolution is a theory” is WRONG by definition. It appears that Ebon understands this at a subconscious level, without having yet explicitly understood the implications behind his two statements:

    “A fact would be a thing that one saw, like how the blow holes of whales moved”

    “a theory is more like a group of facts formed to make a clear view of the world and how it works”

    Nothing can simultaneously qualify as a singular fact (observation/phenominon) and a group of facts (observations/phenominons). So by making these two statements, Ebon indicated that he understood the distinction between a fact and a theory… but hasn’t yet *connected the dots* that nothing can simulanously be both.

    Your two example are actually perfect examples, and I’ll illustrate:

    “Music is a theory” = FALSE
    “Music is described using music theory” = TRUE

    “Germs are just theoretical” = FALSE
    “The relationship between germs and disease is described by germ theory” = TRUE

    or even…

    “Gravity is only a theory” = FALSE
    “Gravity is described by several different models, or *theories*. Some are more plausible than others, but most have at least some merit. These models are subsumed under the category *gravitational theory*” = TRUE

    So it should be clear that:

    “Evolution is a theory” = FALSE
    “Evolution is a fact, supported by theory” = TRUE

    And that’s my point. Every time we engage in discourse with anti-scientists who characterize evolution as “only a theory”, we are literally *allowing them frame the dialogue in a falsehood*, and thereby setting ourselves at a disadvantage right off the bat. We are capitulating a lie. We are letting them rig the debate. We are giving them an advantage they do not merit.

    That’s why I feel this is important. Convincing the fickle masses that reason and science are their friends is difficult enough without putting ourselves at such a disadvantage.

  • BJ

    Kacy: Before, I saw your argument as comparing “apples” to “fruits that are apple-ey.” I understand your point now and see that the difference isn’t as trivial as I originally saw it. You’ve convinced me. The words we use are important.

    Every time we engage in discourse with anti-scientists who characterize evolution as “only a theory”, we are literally *allowing them frame the dialogue in a falsehood*, and thereby setting ourselves at a disadvantage right off the bat.

    We might be able to clarify what we mean between instances of evolution and the model of evolution as supported by theory. However, I don’t think that correctly framing this terminology is going to solve the problem we face with anti-scientists; the problem as they see it is with the term “theory.” So they’re just going to move the question back a step and still say that what supports our view of evolution is “just a theory.” (Even Collins mentions that many people are OK with ‘microevolution’.)

    We need to move them to the scientific definition of theory: a model comprising facts in a way that creates a testable model that’s made validated predictions again and again. Their “theory” is the colloquial sense of a hunch or an idea, like “I have a theory about who killed Ms. Scarlet in the Library.”

    Perhaps your more clear wording between facts of evolution and the theory that supports it would give us a segue into discussing with Creationists why “theory” isn’t such a dirty word.

  • Kacy Ray

    You said: However, I don’t think that correctly framing this terminology is going to solve the problem we face with anti-scientists; the problem as they see it is with the term “theory.”

    I say: I agree, it will not solve the problem. But what it will do is keep them from framing the issue dishonestly, and us from having to justify why we keep regarding a theory (in *their* use of term) as fact.

    You said: Perhaps your more clear wording between facts of evolution and the theory that supports it would give us a segue into discussing with Creationists why “theory” isn’t such a dirty word.

    I say: My goal is to convince laymen that “theory” is actually a good word. You’ll never convince active creationist anti-scientists that a theory is a good thing, particularly since there is no actual scientific theory associated with their beliefs. So naturally, they want to convince the world that a “theory” is not a cohesive collection of facts and observations pieced together to form a functioning model, but a “best guess” from someone who just doesn’t want to have to account for their sinfulness.

    My preferred analogy for a theory is a terrain map. No map is perfect and fully complete, it cannot be (a perfect, fully complete map would be indisinguishable from the actual terrain that it is mapping), and it’s *not even supposed to be*. It’s supposed to serve as model one can look at in order to better understand the terrain one encounters.

    And if you see a road on that terrain that isn’t on the map – that doesn’t mean you dispense with the map. The map still serves a useful funtion, and only requires a slight modification. You’re not going to see every single tree and rock on the map. And as the situation on the ground changes (buildings come down, roads are built, new hills are found, etc.) then you update the map when those changes are discovered. You don’t just throw up your hands, crumple up the map, and toss it in the can every single time you encounter a railroad track that wasn’t on the map.

    If people would understand that this is *exactly* how a scientific theory works, we would have a much stronger position in the minds of laymen and in the battle for ideas. And frankly, anti-scientists would be completely screwed.