The Language of God: Collins vs. Dawkins

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Francis Collins’ discussion of atheism is largely an attack on Richard Dawkins. Given that The Language of God is about biology, I suppose it would seem natural to attack an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins.

Collins’ first attack is that Dawkins, in The God Delusion, argues that evolution fully accounts for biological complexity so there is no more need for God. “While this argument rightly relieves God of the responsibility … it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution” (p.163). Because Collins holds a different view of God, he sees Dawkins’ argument as irrelevant to the god that he worships. Collins calls Dawkins’ “repeated mischaracterizations of faith” as betraying a vitriolic personal agenda.

Nothing could disprove Collins’ idea of God using evolution, but that doesn’t mean Collins’ idea is a good one, any more than positing that gravity works does not disprove that maybe God is sitting outside of space-time, pulling on the fabric of the cosmos to create the gravity wells that massive bodies appear to create. His argument is just as absurd as Intelligent Falling is for gravity and flies defiantly in the face of Ockham’s Razor, and yet Collins is the one calling out Dawkins on building straw men? With 38,000 brands of Christianity, how could Dawkins – assuming he was even talking to Collins face to face – have any idea which characterization of God Collins maintains? I’ll grant that Dawkins doesn’t pull punches, and he sometimes chooses words that bite intentionally; however, Dawkins shows (to me, anyway) remarkable patience dealing with Creationists, and he has often said and written that his goal is consciousness-raising.

Collins’ second attack is another Dawkinsian straw man: Religion is antirational. Dawkins describes faith as “blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (The Selfish Gene, p.198). Collins states that certainly doesn’t describe his view of faith, nor the view of most of his acquaintances. Collins then argues that serious thinkers throughout the ages “have demonstrated that a belief in God is intensely plausible” (p.164).

I’m not quite sure how much of a straw man this is, especially if you’re talking about the sects which think the Bible is inerrant and believe in stories about God stopping the sun so Joshua can kill more Amorites or loads of zombies walking into Jerusalem. That seems awfully irrational to me. Rational is given by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Having the faculty of reasoning; endowed with reason.” George H. Smith talks about reason at length (Section IV – Reason Versus Faith), and it seems that he and Dawkins are of one mind on this one: “Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason” (Atheism: A Case Against God, p. 59).

Dawkins’ attack most certainly does address the type of faith Collins possesses. Collins holds a belief that there’s a god who uses evolution as his amazingly slow, horribly inefficient, and almost infinitely error-riddled process of seemingly blind trial and error to create life; he holds this belief without a shred of anything we would call evidence. Sorry, but mapping the history of cosmology since the Big Bang to the creation myth doesn’t cut it for me. Finally, I wouldn’t say that a belief in God is intensely plausible, but I understand apologists attempts to persuade people that the existence of God is possible. Sorry again, but I want probable – not just possible.

Collins’ third attack is Dawkins’ objection that great harm has been done in the name of religion. Collins doesn’t deny this, but he asserts that evil acts committed in the name of religion don’t impugn the “truth of the faith” (p.164); those acts instead indict the humans practicing the faith.

We’ve discussed the whole “rusty container” thing before. But I can’t stop myself from commenting on “truth of the faith.” On what basis, or against what criteria, can Collins base the truth of his faith? I have a hard time getting around the circle: The Bible says there’s a God and this stuff is true, and God says the Bible is true. This Holy Circle of Logic makes for a nice t-shirt, really.

Collins’ last attack on Dawkins is that Dawkins’ claim that science demands atheism goes beyond the evidence. “If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence” (p.165). Atheism itself must be a form of blind faith.

First, I don’t recall Dawkins ever actually saying that science demands atheism; Dawkins usually goes only so far as to say that the existence is God is highly improbable. I won’t try to defend Dawkins’ thesis in The God Delusion further because, as far as philosophical treatises go, it falls short. Aside from that, science goes just as far as it can with the evidence; that is to say, it has found none, and not for lack of trying. This is certainly farther than Collins, who simply asserts with no evidence that God is outside of nature.

Collins ends this section on atheism with the following:

So those who choose to be atheists must find some other basis for taking that position. Evolution won’t do (p.167).

Fortunately, there are plenty of them.

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://cgranade.blogspot.com/ Chris Granade

    Wonderful post, but I do want to nitpick at your endorsement of Luke’s criticisms of The God Delusion. It seems to me that Luke rather badly misrepresents Dawkins’ argument by couching it in terms of “explaining the explanation.” As far as I understand, Dawkins was making the point that in order for a hypothesis to be considered a good explanation, it must reduce the amount that is left unexplained. In particular, if we are trying to explain the existence of the universe, it doesn’t do to introduce something equally inexplicable. On the other hand, as in the arrowhead example that Luke cites, we are correct in considering a human arrowhead designer to be a decent explanation: since we already have empirical evidence that humans exist, there is less to explain if we hypothesize that humans made the arrowheads than if we make no such hypothesis. Moreover, the human arrowhead designer hypothesis offers predictive power, and hence provides new knowledge, while the god hypothesis offers no such power and can be described as “explaining exactly nothing,” to borrow Dawkins’ phrase.

  • Steven Carr

    But Dawkins is attacking a god that Collins does not believe in.

    Dawkins is attacking an allegedly good god who allegedly loves his creation while Collins worships a god who was the inspiration for Dr. Josef Mengele, letting people die from disease and starvation and breeding from the survivors to produce a master race.

  • L.Long

    Again we see the same old stuff about how science ‘cannot disprove g0d’ which is pure BS. The argument was and still is flawed as science does not have to disprove anything! It up to Collins to PROVE ‘g0d did it’.

    And yes atheism is a part of science. Atheism means ‘without g0d’ which is what science does, it shows that what we see in the natural world works and is predictable ‘without g0d’ but that is not the same as saying ‘there is no g0d!’ Some would say that ‘there is no g0d’ is a statement that POSITIVELY states no g0d so must be proved.
    So at its base science does not state there is no g0d but that g0d is irrelevant.
    If you REALLY truly believe in g0d and supposed miracles and g0d may well exist but that is irrelevant…when you get thrown off a tall building you WILL hit the ground really hard. Well at least no one has shown any exceptions that I know of.

  • Miss Phoebe

    I could concede to Collins that a god of some sort exists, but can he (did he?) ever make a case for the Christian god? And Jesus? Does he take miracles, the resurrection, and so forth, seriously? How can those fit in to a scientific world view?

  • colluvial

    Collins holds a belief that there’s a god who uses evolution as his amazingly slow, horribly inefficient, and almost infinitely error-riddled process of seemingly blind trial and error to create life

    I would agree with Collins that if there was a God, that it would be reasonable to assume this is the only way it could create life. The outcome of the complex interaction of organisms that do not exist isn’t yet knowledge and couldn’t be possessed by even an omniscient being. So God would need to use the same laborious process that the natural world on its own would.

    But if the outcome of a universe mediated by God and one mediated by natural processes is the same, wouldn’t we suddenly taken a sudden lunge forward in our understanding just by dropping the God thing? Then we wouldn’t have to explain what God is, where it came from, and how it works its magic – all far more intractable than explaining life without magic.

  • BJ

    @Chris Grenade:

    On the other hand, as in the arrowhead example that Luke cites, we are correct in considering a human arrowhead designer to be a decent explanation: since we already have empirical evidence that humans exist, there is less to explain if we hypothesize that humans made the arrowheads than if we make no such hypothesis.

    Neither Luke, I presume, nor I will say we disagree with Dawkins that a god almost certainly does not exist. I think Luke’s contention was that, if you tried to formulate Dawkin’s argument into a quasi-syllogistic form (as Luke does in the second part of that series) then you’ll see that Dawkin’s conclusion just doesn’t follow logically from the premises.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    colluvial wrote:

    The outcome of the complex interaction of organisms that do not exist isn’t yet knowledge and couldn’t be possessed by even an omniscient being. So God would need to use the same laborious process that the natural world on its own would.

    That destroys the meaning of ‘omniscient’. Rends it to shreds, buries it, and then stomps on the grave. Omniscient does, in fact, imply knowing that which has not yet happened. You won’t find many Christians who contest this understanding of the word; indeed, it’s central to some of their arguments.

    The view of God as omniscient yet stuck in the present with limited knowledge is very, very odd. Yet even supposing one were to accept this definition, it does not at all imply that God would need to use a trial-and-error process to derive complex life. Based on an understanding of physical laws and relevant processes, it is quite possible to engineer your way up a chain of more and more sophisticated devices. This is no less true of life than it is of technology. The fact that the actual lifeforms we observe are so haphazard, derivative, inefficient, and incomplete is strong evidence against the concept of intelligent design — by any agent, not merely God.

    BJ wrote:

    I think Luke’s contention was that, if you tried to formulate Dawkin’s argument into a quasi-syllogistic form (as Luke does in the second part of that series) then you’ll see that Dawkin’s conclusion just doesn’t follow logically from the premises.

    It seems to me that Luke is misunderstanding Dawkins’ writing pretty severely. As Chris and the commenters at Luke’s blog point out, the “formalization” of Dawkins’ viewpoint being made does not match what the man himself evidently believes. Further, it seems to actively conflict with the overall points he was making. You can explain this by claiming that Dawkins had logical errors in his argument, sure. You can also explain it just as easily by stating that the formalization being produced is vastly oversimplified to the point of being outright laughable.

    Let’s take a more direct approach to Luke’s objections. In part II, he claims explicitly that “The obvious problem here is that Dawkins’ argument is totally invalid. No laws of logic would allow you to deduce that conclusion for those premises.” Those premises refers to a summary of six points that Dawkins collected from his previous writing up to that point.

    The conclusion we are trying to prove is that “God almost certainly does not exist”. Let’s see what it looks like without using any of the premises Luke was referring to:

    P1. There is no known evidence for the existence of God.
    P2. One judges the existence of entities based upon whether there is evidence for their existence.
    C. God almost certainly does not exist.

    *sweats* Phew. Tough argument there. Must have taken me hours to construct that, right? (This is merely to show that formalizing a valid argument is trivially simple. The real work in any argument is setting the premises in such a convincing way that the conclusion is not merely sound, but also undeniable.)

    Now, what sort of argument would we build from the six points that Dawkins presented, to demonstrate the same conclusion?

    P1. One of the primary justifications for God is as a means of demonstrating how the complex, improbable appearance of design occurs in the universe.

    P2. Human intuition generally leads us to infer that occurrences of the appearance of design are coupled with the existence of a designer, in this case God.

    P3. The intuition exists as a means of explaining the complexity of the object in question. It would be no better an explanation than nothing at all to postulate that an entity which itself has no evidence for its existence, and is more complicated than the object being explained, is the source of that object.

    P4. Natural selection provides a clear example of how simpler self-replicating objects can produce more complicated ones using merely physical laws over the inevitable course of time.

    P5. There is no evidence for God.

    P6. The likelihood of the existence of an entity is dependent on the strength of the evidence of its observable effects and interactions.

    P7. God is more complicated than the entities being explained by his actions/effects.

    P8. A natural explanation based on real, verifiable processes is far more likely than a hypothetical explanation based on no evidence and the lack of even a proper definition of the entity being presented.

    C. God almost certainly does not exist.

    Did you catch the trick here? This complicated formalization is merely a superset of my initial, simpler argument. Premises 1 and 2 in the first case are merely renumbered and reworded as 5 and 6 here.

    In case the point is not clear, this shows that it is incredibly easy to construct a logically valid argument from the premises and other associated statements Dawkins makes in the original context. Attacking Dawkins for not setting up a formal philosophical argument in this manner is puerile. Representing his views as logically invalid because he doesn’t do so is ridiculous.

    It might have been missed, so I’ll also highlight and repeat this: what is the point of all those excess premises? After all, it was so simple to construct a much smaller yet still logically valid argument. They’re there to increase the strength and weight of the conclusion, to impose its obviousness upon the reader’s mind.

    Sorry for the verbosity; Luke really strikes me as the monstrously pedantic sort. He probably doesn’t deserve so many words in response to trivial misunderstandings like “Dawkins thinks all explanations require an explanation”.

    If anyone were to wonder why many ordinary people don’t “get” philosophy, this kind of nonsense is precisely it.

  • archimedez

    I recall reading in The God Delusion a couple of years ago that Dawkins would put his own level of conviction that God did not exist at 6 on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being “certain,” and 6 being “almost certain.”

    I have been for some time inclined to agree with “almost certain,” instead of “certain,” though I would put it much higher than Dawkins’ 6 out of 7. Based on what I’ve read about the evidence for the origins of various religions that have a God or gods, and taking into account all the scientific evidence that I’ve been exposed to over the years in the various sciences, and all of the absurdities, inconsistencies, contradictions, and failed empirical claims and violations of physical laws in religious texts, that the evidence that God is a mythological (not real) entity is so overwhelming that for simplicity I’d be inclined go with 99.9 (repeating) percent certainty that the God/gods of the major religions do not exist in reality.

    This almost seems too timid. For example, would I say that there is a 99.9 (repeating) percent certainty that Santa Claus does not exist? How about Zeus? The tooth fairy? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? I feel 100% that none of these entities, as described, exist in physical reality. And when I think about it, these latter entities are quite a bit less absurd and outrageous as the versions of God described in the Bible and Quran. I feel like I would have a more realistic chance of winning a lottery where there is only one winning ticket out of 5 million sold, than that God exists. So why not just simplify and round up to 100% certainty that God does not exist?

    (The god of deism is a different matter. It is so ill-defined that it is unclear how one would begin to consider its empirical plausibility).

    While many different gods (as spiritual entities; I don’t mean humans who claim to be gods) in different religions have been posited, the odds that any particular God or gods exist(s) become reduced as the number of gods increases, and as the number of mutually exclusive or inconsistent properties attributed to the gods increases.

  • BJ

    @kagerato:

    Your two premises are fine. I might change the argument a bit to read:

    P1: We know that any A exists because we have evidence of its existence or its effects.
    P2. If God exists, then we would have evidence of God’s existence of God’s effects in the world.
    P3: We do not have any such evidence of God.
    C: Therefore, we do not know God exists. (Or, one might say more firmly that God does not exist.)

    See, even with my expanded syllogism, it’s not too verbose, right? Yet Dawkins, in the six points he laid out, doesn’t address the core issue at all. He really beats around the bush. In trying to reach the conclusion that “God almost certainly does not exist,” he talks about explaining complexity, intuition, and noting that physics lacks the “crane” (vs. “skyhook”) that evolution has given to biology.

  • BJ

    I should probably also note that I haven’t addressed the issue of “explaining the explanation” because I never saw Dawkins making that mistake. Premise 3 of his argument actually argues against it:

    “The temptation [to infer actual design from perceived design] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer… It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable [than the design itself]…”

    When I read this, I see Dawkins as saying that people might want to ask “Who designed the designer?”, but that this question rests on the faulty assumption that the appearance of design means that it actually was designed.

  • http://wading-in.net/walkabout Just Al

    Finally, I wouldn’t say that a belief in God is intensely plausible, but I understand apologists attempts to persuade people that the existence of God is possible.

    I know you didn’t actually agree with the “possible” argument here (the linked post did,) but it has its own flaws. Even conceding that something is possible is only arguing that humans are not omniscient, which is not exactly a contentious issue. It doesn’t actually address existence in any way. Since there can be no such thing as “negative evidence” or “disproving” something, such arguments are, literally, for the virtues of nothing (rather than “something”.)

    Collins’ third attack is Dawkins’ objection that great harm has been done in the name of religion. Collins doesn’t deny this, but he asserts that evil acts committed in the name of religion don’t impugn the “truth of the faith” (p.164); those acts instead indict the humans practicing the faith.

    This is the same as saying that people doing bad things does not mean they cannot do good things. Such a statement is awe-inspiring, I admit, but misses the point that it is not about whether “faith,” as anyone wants to define it, has potential, but whether it has actual value. Since Collins cannot demonstrate effectively where those who did bad things actually departed the faith (they themselves could produce the scripture that supported their decisions,) he is only making a personal value judgment on what faith really is. Making the jump from subjective opinion to objective fact is what anyone should be looking for, measuring how “faith” results in overall improvement, but all we ever get is untestable assertions.

    It’s been noted before, but it’s simply confirmation bias on a grand scale. “Good” behavior is caused by “faith,” but “bad” behavior is the fault of human nature. Except faithless people still do good things, so obviously faith isn’t the sole instigator of good behavior, nor is it preventing bad behavior. It’s exactly like crediting “blue” for good works – those who are bad obviously don’t truly understand the nuances of blue, but blue is still a force for good. Yeah, whatever.

  • BJ

    @Just AI:

    Collins talk of the evil acts committed in the name of religion smacks of the No True Scotsman argument. You know, where someone asserts that all Scotsmen are brave, but then – when encountering a scot who is a coward – simply says that the coward is not a true Scot. Evil acts committed in the name of the faith are obviously aberrations of the faith whereas good acts done in the name of the faith show the goodness of the faith.

  • Ben

    I feel like some of these arguments were not addressed. I rationally believe that there are enormous amount of proofs for the existence of God. I would love to get some thinking feedback from an article called “five indisputable proofs of God?”

    http://www.dsoat.wordpress.com

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

    I would love to get some thinking feedback from an article called “five indisputable proofs of God?”

    Indisputable? really? I am afraid they are all arguments from ingnorance, without a single coherent premis worth addressing. Go and read some of the essays on ebonmusings, you’ll find counter arguments to better “proofs” of god’s existence. By the way the point about clothes is just silly.

  • BJ Marshall

    @Ben:

    Given that your question is way off the topic of this book review, I’m likely to think of you as a spam-bot. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if you answer me one question:

    What is the single best reason you personally believe in a God?

    If you answer that question, then we might have a conversation.

  • Eurekus

    At least Collins picks on somebody his own size and holds up as good as anybody can under the atheistic weight of argument. I have respect for him but his strawman arguments are typical of any theist. I’ve noticed this about Collins and every single theist whom chooses to believe despite a strong contrary argument, they seem to have an underlying psychological need to believe. Perhaps we should focus on this ‘need’ in other posts.

  • Dave

    I’ve been reading this rebuttal thread for a while and finally got curious enough to order a copy of the book. Unfortunately, I seem to have ordered 2 copies. I guess God wants me to give a copy to a friend, or read it twice, or something. He does work in mysterious ways.

  • Eurekus

    Dave

    Since you’ve already bought it twice, I’ll pay you for your second book. I’d hate to give the publishers of this nonsense even more moola.

  • Dave

    Thanks for the offer Eurekus, but I already gave it away to a Christian co-worker of mine. It was a pretty entertaining exchange actually, something I would have gladly paid $9 to see. The people I work with always suspected I wasn’t in the club, but they got it confirmed when one day when I was reading Daylight Atheism on my iPhone while I was sitting on the can at work, and I left my phone behind. It must have been something really profound. Well, someone turned it into the security guard and he brought it to me. But he’d obviously noticed what I had been reading and commented on it to someone, because people were giving me these horrified looks over the next few days, and 2 people commented to me “you grew up in northern California, didn’t you”, like that would explain it all. So when I brought this book in and offered it to my coworker, he about fell out of his chair. Great stuff.

  • Eurekus

    Dave

    Hilarious. I too love stirring the religious, it’s so easy to do. Like you, I don’t even have to try.
    I’ll share it one day on a suitable thread.


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