The Language of God: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Faith

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 10 introduces Collins’ concept of BioLogos, but first he gives an overview of Theistic Evolution (TE) and why it works to bridge science and faith. Although we’ve talked about TE previously, this chapter shows Collins laying out six premisses that support TE. He then has a short discourse explaining the conclusions he thinks follow from these premisses.

Premiss 1: “The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.” This premiss is difficult to accept if you acknowledge that the universe has zero net energy and could have, as Lawrence Krauss presents, come from nothing. It’s also difficult to accept this premiss if you think Hawking and Hartle might be onto something with their no-boundary universe model.

Premiss 2: “Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.” I find fine-tuning arguments to be incredibly arrogant; why must we place ourselves as the result par excellence of fine tuning? One could argue that our universe was fine-tuned for iPads. Life is incredibly rare, and iPads are more rare still, but hydrogen and helium are abundant. Shouldn’t we say that it’s more miraculous that we could wind up in a universe with so much hydrogen?

Premiss 3: “While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.” One might quibble over semantics, since I might have written “evolution by natural selection.” This premiss is one I’m willing to accept, except that he completely ruins this premiss later.

Premiss 4: “Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.” I think I understand what he’s trying to say, and I can accept that, but that’s only because I was charitable enough to rephrase his premiss to be clear. This premiss as stated is unclear and ambiguous, in my opinion. By saying that no special supernatural intervention was “required,” the reader might assume that a supernatural agent acted anyway, even though it wasn’t “required” to act. Also, the way this premiss is worded sounds like a supernatural intervention might have been required to set off evolution in the first place. While in either case the reader would be falling into an illicit contrast fallacy, Collins’ poorly worded premiss doesn’t help the reader.

Premiss 5: “Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.” Here’s another premiss I can accept pretty easily. I do wonder, though, how much his readers would have cringed if, drawing from his earlier chapters on DNA similarities, Collins said “sharing a common ancestor with the great apes, rats, and banana trees.”

Premiss 6: “But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.” Do I even need to comment on this one?

The conclusion is a polemic diatribe of suck that sounds like he rewrote Genesis for the 21st century:

“[a]n entirely plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent synthesis emerges: God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures (here’s where he ruined Premiss 3), God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.”

That intelligent people like Collins can find the Goddunnit explanation as plausible, intellectually satisfying, and logically consistent disappoints me. I shouldn’t say it baffles me, because I understand why people believe weird things. To me, the Goddunit hypothesis is not:

  1. Plausible: Assuming one were to looking for an inference to the best possible explanation, how does “an omni-being that is spaceless, timeless, noncorporeal yet magically and physically operates in space and time” fit that bill?
  2. Intellectually satifying: Goddunnit is a mystery. Answering a mystery with another mystery and thinking you’re done is just plain stupid.
  3. Logically consistent: Argument from Ignorance much?

Now that Collins has formally laid out TE, he’ll pose some critiques on why TE hasn’t been more widely adopted and present his BioLogos idea.

Other posts in this series:

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  • BJ Marshall

    Note: I think I’m confused by what I meant in response to the first premiss. I think the perhaps I meant to say the premiss isn’t difficult to accept given the no-boundary model and a universe with zero net energy. Possible typo? *shrug*

  • L.Long

    The idea of ‘somethin’ beyond kick starting the universe is an old concept and really of no real importance. As that makes S/He/IT out there and us in here. And that has nothing to do with the religion/science problem because the S/He/IT that xtains and others talk about is NOT THAT.
    Even the Great Isaac wrote a short story about that happening. You still wind up asking the ‘where did that S/He/IT come from?’ Deist have never had a real problem with science, it is the (insert religion) that have a problem with science. So TE is not necessarily BS but just irrelevant.

  • John Nernoff

    Again, “God” is never explained as to WHAT it IS, how it operates, where it can be found, what it looks like, etc. etc. as I question in another comment elsewhere here.
    Also, the fact that many more progeny are born than can possibly survive, most of them serving as eats for creatures higher up in the food chain (with a horrific holocaust of being hunted down remorselessly, with the attendant torture, the panic of escape and the finality and hopelessness of being eaten alive) necessarily rules out a good, kind and benevolent “God” even if there ever could BE a “God” in the first place.
    Collins’ special pleading and gerrymandering just cannot save this “God” under any circumstances.

  • Tacroy

    “But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.”

    Hahaha! I love that! Especially since I took a course on human universals recently, and the instructor pointed out that the idea that religion is something you can pick like a different hat is really weirdly specific to modern religions.

    The vast majority of human religions throughout history haven’t been religions, they’ve been part of the natural world. If you asked pretty much anyone in ancient Greece, for instance, what religion they followed they would have looked at you like you were crazy; they didn’t even have a specific name for their religion! (no seriously, try to look it up – we call it the “Hellenistic religion” nowadays, which is just a fancier way of saying “Greek religion”)

    Sure, there were specific cults and practices and temples dedicated to specific Gods, but their existence was simply not in question; they all lived on top of Mount Olympus, and would occasionally come down and mess with people. This was pretty much accepted as fact.

    If you asked a hunter gatherer in the middle of the African desert a couple thousand years ago what his religion was, he wouldn’t have known what the heck you were talking about; but if you asked him how to stay safe in the Savannah he’d probably tell you to avoid tigers and angry spirits, and have tips on doing both. Angry spirits (or some analogue) would have been just as much a fact of life to him as lions.

    So no, the search for God only characterizes Abrahamic cultures throughout history, and in fact AFAIK Judaism don’t really have much of a tradition of searching for God either (he’s kind of a jerk, so why would you go out looking for him?) so it’s pretty much just Christianity and Islam that do it. All the other religions pretty much just take it for granted that things like gods and spirits exist.

  • Ben G

    Really hate that my first comment is a nitpick, but it’s spelled ‘premise.’ Just sayin’ :/

  • Ben G

    Although, now that I have gone and checked, I guess I owe an apology for that as I see that ‘premiss’ is apparently an acceptable alternative spelling of the word. How bizarre.

  • Syn

    I haven’t ever seen ‘premiss’ so my reaction was the same as Ben’s above. Anyway, Collin’s premises (2) and (6) above are just nonsense. Argument #2 – the universe being fine-tuned for life – is just plain tautological. In any universe that doesn’t permit life, no one will be around to take note of the fact. And #6 – We’re us! We’re special! There isn’t any reason to think that we could not have arrived at our intellect purely through evolution. We haven’t explored the intellects of other animals enough to know how similar they actually are to us. As for humans having a unique moral capacity, he must be joking.

  • Joe

    @Syn “As for humans having a unique moral capacity, he must be joking.”

    Sadly, this is typical of molecular biologists like Collins. They completely ignore or dislike animal behavior and behavioral ecology as fields. They only accept research with gigantic sample sizes and tiny, tiny confidence intervals!

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

    It’s kind of interesting watching how carefully he chooses his wording – he never quite commits gross scientific impropriety, but definitely picks ways to imply that science can support what he’s saying. Yet all he’s done is create a scenario that fails to meet any scientific criteria while avoiding a commitment to any proposed theology, save weak deism. One could just as easily replace “god” with “Bob Saget” and produce the same arguments, because he never produces any reason nor support for god having any properties at all; such properties only pop up suddenly, conspicuously, in his conclusion. A mere work of fiction written this badly would be panned mercilessly by the critics, and rightfully so.

    Science isn’t concerned with what kind of speculation can be fit into gaps in our knowledge; because the point is all about producing new knowledge, such speculation requires something testable or explanatory. Collins provides neither. Moreover, the premise of a deity requires countless explanations and properties of its own, none of which are in evidence, making the idea needlessly complex and running far behind all theories of abiogenesis.

    His claim that humans are distinctly different from the other animals by virtue of “spirituality” can certainly be considered contentious, however, especially if he cannot define spirituality in a meaningful way, nor demonstrate how other animals lack it. It might be fun watching him trying to demonstrate that wolves, for instance, do not expect some reaction from mere wishful thinking, nor engage in pack selection based on imagined traits of a supernatural pack leader. And people think animals are stupid…

    So his bridging of the gap between faith and science consists of something which lacks pertinent properties of either, but instead contains only those properties not specifically excluded by either, at least until he can abruptly sneak them in once past the point where he should have been justifying them. Presumably, this satiates the religious folk trying desperately to find scientific legitimacy so they can be considered part of the “real world,” but only if they don’t understand science in the first place. Collins’ bastardization of it solely to pander, however, deserves contempt.

    On a lighter note, “a polemic diatribe of suck” is one of the best descriptions I’ve seen for a week ;-)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Premiss 6: “But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law…

    It’s hard to top Sam Harris’ response to this.
    The strange case of Francis Collins

    According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human beings:

    Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.(Collins, 2006, p.23)

    One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such “dramatic contrast”??? How badly must human beings behave to put this “sense of universal rightness” in doubt? While no other species can match us for altruism, none can match us for sadistic cruelty either. And just how widespread must “glimmerings” of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.[11]) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.[12]) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They might.[13]) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

  • Miss Phoebe

    Does Collins ever explain how his view of the world proves that the God behind everything is the Christian god?And if god gave humanity souls at some point (when?) it seems a rather backhanded gift if most humans will never get to heaven because they don’t believe in Jesus.

  • Joaquin Consonant

    Although, now that I have gone and checked, I guess I owe an apology for that as I see that ‘premiss’ is apparently an acceptable alternative spelling of the word. How bizarre.

    Hmm. I was starting to think maybe it was a deliberate misspelling (pre-miss) for this particular context.

  • John Nernoff

    Syn: Argument #2 – the universe being fine-tuned for life – is just plain tautological. In any universe that doesn’t permit life, no one will be around to take note of the fact.

    N: This is the anthropic argument and it is a fair analysis.

    What I find peculiar is the fact that “life” (as far as we know about ANY life) didn’t appear until a billion years after the earth was formed, or, some 8 billion years after the universe erupted from the Big Bang.

    Please! “God” waited around 8 billion years after fine tuning his little ant farm for proto-bacteria to form, and waited an additional 4 plus billion years for his prize creation, DOLPHINS to show up??

    And what’s with dinosaurs ruling the earth instead of the Popes for some 250 million years?

  • Syn

    Syn: Argument #2 – the universe being fine-tuned for life – is just plain tautological. In any universe that doesn’t permit life, no one will be around to take note of the fact.

    N: This is the anthropic argument and it is a fair analysis.

    Not sure what you mean by a “fair analysis”. The premise is indistinguishable from the “intelligent design” argument. Anyway, comparing our universe – the only one we know about – with imaginary universes in which no life exists or life came to exist alot sooner doesn’t seem to be too productive. I would like to ask Collins: if a universe exists in which there is no life, does that mean it wasn’t created by god? And I would like to note that we have absolutely no idea when life emerged in this universe.

  • stag

    To me, the Goddunit hypothesis is not:

    1. Plausible: Assuming one were to looking for an inference to the best possible explanation, how does “an omni-being that is spaceless, timeless, noncorporeal yet magically and physically operates in space and time” fit that bill?
    2. Intellectually satifying: Goddunnit is a mystery. Answering a mystery with another mystery and thinking you’re done is just plain stupid.
    3. Logically consistent: Argument from Ignorance much?

    …says our poster, Mr B J Marshall. I want to respond to a couple of these.

    1) I think the plausibility of the God hypothesis is denied unreasonably by atheists (I am not an atheist). What are the other candidates? Multiverse? Well, we can plump for either infinite coexisting universes, or an infinite series. The first, it seems to me, confuses mathematical models with physical reality; the second doesn’t explain anything at all – why is the whole infinite series of finite universes there? In other words, the first is an explanation, but a mistaken one, the second is no explanation at all. The idea that since the universe has zero net energy, it may come from nothing as from a cause, again confuses mathematical values (zero) with physical realities. A mathematical value does not “cause” anything. So, it seems to me that physics has not come up with anything nearly as plausible as an infinitely powerful spiritual being – God – who rather than being a mathematical quantity actually possesses the power the create the universe (‘in time’ – for want of a better phrase), or infinite universes (‘from eternity’), from nothing. The only thing that stops this from being at least “plausible” to you is that you do not acknowledge your own spiritual nature. If you acknowledge that spiritual beings exist, then God becomes an excellent, very plausible explanatory hypothesis.

    2)I think it is less mysterious than your other options – provided again that you don’t reject the existence of the (broadly speaking) spiritual out of hand. All God needs to be, in terms of rational cosmology, is an infinitely powerful non-material being that bestows being upon the finite universe or the infinite succession thereof. Mathematical infinities can’t do that.

    3)I think, in terms again of rational cosmology, you are very shaky ground claiming that God, understood as in (2), is logically inconsistent with the postulates of physics. “Ignorance” or otherwise is not the issue (we are, strictly speaking, ignorant about some of the theories proposed in the physical sciences – multiverses, says, or Higgs fields, or string theory). Are you talking about consistency, or not? These theories are consistent – we are engaged in plausible conjecture. Why is it automatically different, even for an atheist, and strictly from a cosmological viewpoint, in the case of God?

  • BJ Marshall

    @stag:

    Thanks for your comments! Let me try to address each in order.

    1. I think we might be speaking past each other on this first point. How does an omni-being that is spaceless, timeless, and noncorporeal that operates physically and temporally in space and time fit the bill as plausible?

    Who would have thought it plausible that photons can interfere with themselves, demonstrated by the interference pattern you can see on the famous two-slit experiments? The difference is in the demonstrations.

    Now I’ll grant you that the frontrunners in physics, like all the various types of string theories, seem highly implausible. In fact, there have been some people like Massimo Piglucci (author of “Nonsense on Stilts” and co-host of the Rationally Speaking podcast) who think string theory isn’t even science because it might not be testable or falsifiable. But I’m looking forward to seeing whether those crazily implausible hypotheses can be borne out by the evidence. And, if they aren’t, then I hope scientists will discard or modify the ideas appropriately.

    Let’s contrast that with your assertion of spiritual nature. You’re right; I don’t acknowledge a spiritual nature, because I have no reason to justify such a belief. Could you please demonstrate this to me and maybe give me some justifiable reasons to believe?

    2. Let me start this one by quoting you:

    All God needs to be, in terms of rational cosmology, is an infinitely powerful non-material being that bestows being upon the finite universe or the infinite succession thereof. Mathematical infinities can’t do that.

    That’s all God needs to be? Wow. That’s like saying all my wife needs to be is a 5’10″ playboy-playmate accountant tax-attorney ironman-triathlete gourmet-chef super-nanny! Now demonstrate to me that’s the case, and I’ll be one happy hubby!! (Note: My wife is none of those things, and I’m still VERY happily married.)

    You’re right that mathematical infinities can’t do anything. Math is our way to model the observable universe; it isn’t actually the observable universe. Now, one needs a logically consistent basis for an argument, but it can’t stop there. It needs to be validated through observation. For example: I can posit to you that all rocks fall consistently to earth at 4.0 m/s2. That’s logically consistent. However, observation tells you I’m wrong: it’s actually 9.8 m/s2.

    You can posit to me a tri-omni, extraspacial, extratemporal god, but I’m going to need that claim to be backed up demonstrably. (I also believe the traditional characteristics of god are logically incoherent, but I’ll ignore that for the sake of our argument.)

    3. The Goddunnit hypothesis is a logical fallacy. Period. The inability for a hypothesis to hold its own does NOT validate alternate hypotheses. Hypotheses stand and fall on their own merit (or lack thereof). The fact that physics hasn’t answered some question about the universe does not mean that positing God DOES answer it any more than it justifies me to posit that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Odin, or Shiva did it.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I think the plausibility of the God hypothesis is denied unreasonably by atheists (I am not an atheist). What are the other candidates?

    The other candidates are legion actually – some as unreasonable as goddidit, some quite a bit more reasonable. You need to demonstrate that goddidit is reasonable beyond your say-so and an appeal to another unreasonable concept (spiritual beings – by which I assume you mean supernatural beings). Your argument sounds a lot like, “If you just accept that my argument is reasonable, then it’s reasonable.”

    If we were to use Occam’s Razor, goddidit would not survive. You’re needlessly multiplying infinite entities into the equation and adding more mysteries and questions than you are purporting to solve by moving the question back a couple of steps and introducing new ones in the same process.