The Language of God, Chapter 3
By B.J. Marshall
Part 2 of this book, “The Great Questions of Human Existence,” covers topics of cosmology, life on earth, and unpacking the human genome. Chapter 3 begins by tackling cosmology, but Collins throws in a little prelude – a little homage to science. We should keep in mind that Collins’ point through all this is to find a way to reconcile faith and science. He’s not big into NOMA, but rather argues that science complements faith. Although he gets some things right, like he actually knows what a theory is (if I only had a nickel every time I heard someone say “But evolution is just a theory”…), several points of his prelude do a disservice to the layperson who might pick up this book. In this post, I hope to address these pain points.
First, let’s give credit where credit is due: Collins knows what a theory is. He distills it pretty concisely, saying “But over a long period of time, a consistent set of observations sometimes emerges that leads to a new framework of understanding” (p.58). He lists a few examples of these theories: the theory of gravitation, the theory of relativity, germ theory. I happen to think that English murders the word “theory,” because it has a different meaning in a scientific realm than it does in colloquial speech. In science, a theory is exactly what Collins describes; in other areas, a theory means something more like a hypothesis. “I have a theory on why my brownies taste like socks and are as hard as bricks.” My wife blames William the Conqueror for the reason why English is such a messed-up language that’s really difficult to use correctly.
He points out that science is not static, but I don’t really think his reasons are entirely correct. He states that scientists have a streak of “closeted anarchism” that hopes to disrupt the framework of the day. “That’s what the Nobel Prizes are given for” (p.58). Not quite, Collins: Alfred Nobel requested in his last will and testament that a series of prizes be awarded to those who have made “the most important … discovery” in physics, chemistry, peace, medicine, and literature. Closeted anarchists: no; revolutionaries: perhaps; investigators: certainly! While there certainly are revolutionary ideas that flip the scientific world on its head, I prefer Lawrence Krauss’ version better: “Scientists love mysteries / They love not knowing.” This is where the God of the Gaps becomes problematic; the Christian thinks (s)he has all the answers, where the naturalist is OK saying, “You know what? I don’t know the answer just yet.”
After briefly discussing revolutionary ideas that rocked the scientific world, particularly advances in physics and cosmology, Collins mentions how scientific theories are becoming increasingly more difficult to state. He cites Ernest Rutherford, a physicist who said something along the lines of “if you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, then it probably isn’t very good physics.” Since physics is becoming increasingly difficult and, especially for quantum mechanics, not intuitive, Collins states that, to “those who argue that materialism should be favored over theism, because materialism is simpler and more intuitive, these new concepts present a major challenge” (p.61).
Before I discuss why I think Collins is wrong, we need to eliminate some ambiguity in the term “materialism.” The web site Atheism: Proving the Negative has some definitions of positions that I think are pretty good. “Materialism” and something I immediately mistook it for – methodological naturalism are similar, but there are important differences; I’m glad I looked them up. Materialism is a metaphysical thesis about what the universe comprises; methodological naturalism is an epistemological thesis. The way I see it, the former describes what reality is while the latter prescribes how we apprehend reality. Given how Collins is all about trying to figure out how we can know the truth, I think he’s referencing the epistemological thesis and not the metaphysical one. I may be incorrect, but I will use this assumption to contrast methodological naturalism against theism.
I don’t think methodological naturalism is simpler and more intuitive than theism. First, it’s not simpler; theism is WAY simpler. Secondly, methodological naturalism is not necessarily intuitive. As far as simple goes, parents/aunts/uncles might be familiar with this. My friends with preschool-aged children tell me that, when faced with the infinite regress of “Why?” questions they get from their kids, they will finally give up and say, “Because God made it that way.” As it turns out, cognitive scientists have concluded that children prefer teleological explanations (teleology means “purpose”). Per that link: “The bias to view objects as ‘designed for a purpose’ probably derives from children’s privileged understanding of intentional behavior and artifacts.” At the time of this writing, my son is 16 months old. I am totally looking forward to answering his why questions. But not with a punt to the supernatural. I intend to ask him what he thinks is going on, and then I’ll either answer his questions or – if he’s up to it – we’ll research it online or conduct our own experiments in the kitchen.
I should take the time to mention that there are some things that I believe that are not based on methodological naturalism, like believing that other people have minds and that my senses are reliable at apprehending objective reality. Maybe I consider these basic beliefs. I’m new at this, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers.
Collins takes his assertion that materialism is in danger and loads it with a poor use of a notion he misunderstands: Ockham’s Razor. Collins says that Ockham’s Razor states “the simplest explanation for any given problem is usually best” (p.61). This idea actually involves eliminating unnecessary hypotheses from a solution. Again, what’s simpler in describing why magnets work – talking about these crazy invisible fields created by the flow of almost-equally invisible negatively charged particles that can attract and repel certain metals, or saying that some god made it that way? Every single time we’ve taken a look around us and thought that something was magical or supernatural, and then we look at that thing critically and finally figured it out, we discover some naturalistic explanation. The application of logic and the scientific method has a pretty kick-ass track record. Sure, science may be underdetermined, but theism? Explanatory Fail.
Collins makes one last point before moving on to the topic of cosmology. Seeing how the natural world made such a profound impression on him, he muses “Why should matter behave in such a way?” (p.62). He then quotes Eugene Wigner about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” I really don’t see why matter behaving in whatever way it behaves is unreasonable. I wonder what Collins thinks a universe would look like if every single thing could change willy-nilly at any time. George Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God discusses nature:
Natural law is based upon the limited nature of existence. Every entity has a specific nature, specific characteristics, that determine the capacities of that entity. A plant, for example, does not have the capacity to think, and a man does not have the biological capacity for photosynthesis. The capacities, abilities, and potential actions of any existing thing, living or inanimate, are dependent on its characteristics – and since these are always specific and determinate, their resulting capacities are also specific and determinate. The characteristics of an entity determine what an entity can and cannot do; limitations are an integral part of the natural universe, and they constitute the foundation of natural law.
Regularity in nature is the consequence of limitations; entities are limited in terms of their actions. No existing thing can randomly do anything at any time under any conditions. This uniformity in nature permits the systematic study of reality (science) and the formulation of general principles of nature (“laws”) which are used in predicting future states of affairs. While the particular scientific laws will change as man’s knowledge increases, the principle of natural law itself is a constant; it persists as a corollary of existence. (p.28)
Mathematics is perfectly reasonable because it is a systematic framework for figuring out a logically consistent universe.
Other posts in this series: