“Solidly credentialed scientists can still have faith”

“Solidly credentialed scientists can still have faith” December 5, 2018

 

Cellular structure, illustrated
The structure of a cell (Wikimedia Commons public domain)

 

I’m looking back through some of the articles that I’ve published in the Deseret News, and think it occasionally alright to share one or two of them.  This particular column appeared on 15 April 2010:

 

One of the great scientific achievements of recent decades was the mapping and sequencing of human DNA completed by the Human Genome Project (HGP). During roughly the same period that that vast effort began to bear fruit (a working draft of the human genome sequence was announced in June 2000), resurgent and very militant voices of atheism also began to be heard more loudly than they had been for many years — claiming, among other things, that belief in God is a relic of the primitive past that should be discarded in our scientific age.

Somewhat awkwardly, though, it turns out that the leader of the Human Genome Project, an extraordinarily complex, cutting-edge, multidisciplinary scientific enterprise, is a devout and very serious Christian. Yet Francis Collins’ scientific credentials are impeccable. He holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale University and a doctorate in medicine from the University of North Carolina. He is a member of the elite Institute of Medicine and the elite National Academy of Sciences, and his research, first at the University of Michigan and then at the National Institutes of Health, has led to the identification of the genes responsible for such illnesses as cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington’s disease and Hutchison-Gilford progeria syndrome. 

How, despite a life obviously devoted to reason and empirical evidence, can Francis Collins be a believer? He was not reared in a religious home, and he reports that he became an agnostic soon after enrolling in college and then progressed to full-blown atheism during graduate school. But he still came to religious faith, as an adult. And in his book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (New York and London: Free Press, 2006), he explains why.

Essentially, obviously influenced by C.S. Lewis’ famous book “Mere Christianity,” Collins argues from the presence among humans around the world of a “moral law,” of fundamentally similar values. Notwithstanding cultural variations and differing applications of those values, they can quite properly be said to be universal. Where did they come from? To Collins, they point to the existence of something or Someone beyond simple matter in motion, much greater than mere agglomerations of purposeless molecules. He is also impressed by arguments for the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos for life, so far beyond what randomness would lead us to expect. Not surprisingly, therefore, he cites the eminent 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said, “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.”

As regards biology, Collins is a theistic evolutionist, and he is plainly unimpressed with the currently controversial intelligent design movement. Whether he has given that movement a fair hearing, however, is debatable. Utah State University philosophy professor Richard Sherlock has argued in an article titled “Mormonism and Intelligent Design,” published in the FARMS Review 18/2 (2006) that Latter-day Saints should not close the door on the claims of intelligent design without having given them serious consideration. Fortunately, at least one solidly credentialed Mormon biologist has already been reflecting on that topic for many years.

Frank Salisbury is a retired professor of plant physiology at Utah State University who earned his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. Among his numerous publications are such volumes as “Truth by Reason and by Revelation” (Deseret Book, 1965); “Vascular Plants: Form and Function,” with Robert V. Parke (Palgrave Macmillan, 1973); “The Creation” (Deseret Book, 1976); “Plant Physiology,” 3d ed. (Wadsworth, 1985); and “Units, Symbols, and Terminology for Plant Physiology: A Reference for Presentation of Research Results in the Plant Sciences” (Oxford, 1996). 

In fact, an article that he wrote for the prestigious journal Nature back in 1969 can be regarded as an early harbinger of the contemporary intelligent design movement. He had become excited about the complexity of DNA and of proteins, and his Nature essay argued that the probability of any enzyme appearing through mere randomness is vanishingly small.

More recently, Salisbury has published “The Case for Divine Design: Cells, Complexity, and Creation” (Springville, Utah: Horizon, 2006). In his book, this superbly qualified biologist presents a persuasive case that, while the scientific evidence doesn’t compel belief in an intelligent creator, a reasonable reading of the evidence is entirely consistent with such belief, and, for those inclined toward faith, can powerfully support it. 

In other words, though certain loud voices claim otherwise, believers in God have rational grounds for their belief.

 

I’m sorry to say that Frank Salisbury, whom I considered a friend, passed away on 26 December 2015.  There were still a number of conversations that I wanted to have with him.

 

 

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