Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dr. Francis Collins: DNA as God's Language?

I am mulling over posting this on Amazon (#743 at last count!) where about 380 people have already weighed in on "The Language of God: A Scientist Discovers Evidence of Belief" by the director of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins. Despite the moniker he grew up with proto-hippies who had moved in the Depression to the Shenandoah Valley (where The Shakespeare Wars reviewed by me here and Amazon on April 23, the Bard's birthday I remembered only yesterday! Ron Rosenbaum describes how in the titular hamlet there a marvelous theater recalling the BlackfrC.S.Lewis, Christianity, DNA, IWOSC, Occam's Razor. Medieval Philosophy, ontological proof, Religion and Science, Theodicyiars in Elizabethan London hewed in Virgina anew out of raw wood, built due to the philanthropic campaigning and local labors under the goad of one Ralph Cohen). Raised without religion, he drifted into what he might have called "soft atheism," that is, not from any solid intellectual conviction against the existence of a deity, but out of convenience or not analyzing his true beliefs rigorously enough. Well, as a student in his twenties he read C.S. Lewis' classic work of apologetics, "Mere Christianity." Lewis, you may recall, also followed the same path as Collins; although the Inkling and "Kolbitter" of Oxford grew up in the North of Ireland, few recall.

This will likely be the only book that I'll ever read that I can verify outside of Holy Writ that Newt Gingrich, Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame, and Naomi Judd have also enjoyed; their blurbs appear inter alia before Collins' text, somewhat undermining its rarified content if not its appeal to the ordinary folks, who surely need Collins' appeal to science married to faith as much as whatever Pasadenaean recalled my copy via its public library, in-- let it be recalled-- that heart of CalTech and The Skeptic magazine-- sponsored in turn by Penn & Teller! In my review, I focus upon Collins' use of Lewis' own argument to prove that the universe could not have been created ex nihilo. Or, as I read Martin Luther's phrase today, "ex Deo nobis est, non ex nobis"-- in my poor version: from God we exist; nothing comes from ourselves.

Do you think I should post this review below? Or will it only be rated according to my reactions and not the merit of the review itself? A problem built-in to the rating system, as I told the IWOSC crowd earlier this month, given the limits of Amazon's binary, thumbs-up, thumbs-down limitations. I'd love to improve it, but on the other hand as we know, it's futile to discuss religion dispassionately. As the Good Book parable reminds us, "pearls before swine" might be my haughty reaction to the brickbats flung my way by Scopes trial fanatics and proponents of a ten-thousand year old planet.

If you have suggestions for fine-tuning my response below, let me know...

Kindly rate the "helpfulness" of this review by its contents and not your bias. On Amazon, it's not whether you agree or disagree with the author or the reviewer. It's whether the review contributes to your understanding of what you could expect from the book before you decide to read it. Here's my guidance.

I can see from previous reviewers that their own beliefs colored their reviews. Trying to avoid this bias for my own comments, I will try for objectivity. Perhaps I am an ideal reader for this book. I share interests in religion and DNA- informed "genogeography" that range widely. My review sums up the pivot of Collins' own conversion which he makes the basis of his defense of theistic evolution. Early in the narrative, Collins shares his inspiration when encountering C.S. Lewis's argument that our own benchmark for right & wrong that we seek within ourselves points to a Moral Rule that is a universal, a irrefutable attraction to the Good which is planted by a supernatural force outside of ourselves.

Whereas Daniel Dennett, in ""Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (also reviewed by me late last year; the book appeared at the same time as Collins' work), might counter that such a leaning towards altruism gives us oldsters a shorter shelf life! That is, we sacrifice ourselves, stop consuming valuable resources, and get out of the gene pool, once we've done our job and reproduced. We're driven towards saving each other even though it's inexplicable or irrational. Collins takes the kinder, ethical alternative that may explain why we'd jump into a lake and save a baby even if we risked drowning, for instance. Collins assumes this inborn unselfish quality we all would recognize-- even if we emulate its nobility only imperfectly-- is prima facie evidence of a supernatural design beyond our ken but harmonious with our spirit.

He cites Lewis: God's the architect. We live inside the house, looking at the wall or ceiling, but from our knowledge have no way to understand the mind of the house's architect. But, where Collins loses me is in his next step. He posits therefore that this Law of Moral Nature cannot be explained as cultural artifact (e.g. enhancing our appeal for mates or our status in the clan) or (contra Dennett) evolutionary by-product.

He supports his theistic claim with Lewis. He argued that "if there was a controlling power in the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe-- no more than the architect of the house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?" (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952, pg. 21 as footnoted by Collins.) I stopped at this passage and pondered. The rest of the book builds upon this citation.

I found Lewis' argument intriguing. Yet, it did not convince me. I needed Collins to slow down and make sure we understood what he was so impelled by, but Collins wanders off for the rest of this short book into other topics. I wished he'd stuck with the veracity of Lewis' theological proof. Otherwise, why devote so much of a book ostensibly on DNA to the God behind such intricate patterns underlying the fabric of life itself? Since Collins uses this architect example so prominently as the "prime mover" of his own soul towards faith, it demands to be taken seriously by his readers. Yet, is Lewis' metaphor as compellingly persuasive to readers as it was to a twenty-something Collins?

As with his discussion of his version of Rev. Paley's venerable watchmaker analogy, Collins seems to ignore the similarity between this sort of theodicy and Anselm's Ontological Argument for the existence of a God "greater than which nothing can be conceived." Aren't we still trapped in our puny human efforts of trying to explain the vast processes of billions of years? If we cannot get past 10 to the minus 43 milliseconds after the annihilating Big Bang, in the absence of our ability to delve further back, why does this "gap" for Collins give way to a belief in a deity who started it all? How does Collins or Lewis know that the universe demands the absence of its maker from what has been made? Furthermore, the chances of finding an intricate mechanism on a desert floor as if it somehow evolved on its own outside of an external designer may defy probability, but the appearance of the watch or our own amazingly nuanced universe seems not to me to prove an "uncaused cause" that crafted the watch or ourselves. Sure, it's nearly overwhelmingly probable, but there still remains doubt. Chance could have triumphed, this once.

The problem with the Lewis analogy that so convinced a young Collins is that it assumes that a deity cannot be present within the system created, or for that matter has to be outside of the universe for the system to work. But we are making the rules that our God plays by. How can we succeed with such hubris? His assertions of theistic evolution that we cannot fully comprehend then come down more to "it's all part of God's mysterious plan" than a thoroughly investigated and exhaustively defended proposition that will convince skeptics wondering if maybe we are results of the 1-in-50-billion odds of our evolution by non-theistic causes, or one universe among many.

Collins applies Occam's razor frequently, but the fact that causes should not be multiplied without necessity does not always mean there cannot be multiplied causes. Of course, this is a short book for non-specialists. Surprisingly few endnotes, by the way, The author does take pains to remain clear in his explanations, to his credit. But, for such weighty matters, this leaves theological arguments that underly his scientific claims open to charges that he gives too superficial a foundation for his DNA-as-language theory. It's difficult to reduce such complicated material into a few pages, and when he tries to place a defense of the central claims of Christianity on top of science and DNA, it's too many messages for too small a medium.

Collins slips into the simpler explanation: God started it, since the universe is too intricate for chance or unguided design. But this fails to convince. It reminded me of Anselm's medieval "proof" for God's existence. That is, Collins edges near an a priori claim. He dismisses the multiple universes or the "hey, it just happened despite the odds" alternatives for the Anthropic Principle with insufficient consideration. This section is crucial. The subject is enticing. Collins genially presents the commonsense approach: God set it all in motion 14 billion years ago. Engagingly as Collins writes at this stage, his presentation is too brief. He embraces the theistic model too quickly. Without taking the other two possibilities of the Anthropic Principle seriously, Colloins does not fully explore why we need to take for granted the divine clockmaker as the accepted argument for evolutionary processes that unfolded ever since the Big Bang. He too complacently invites a clockmaker to wind it all up and let it tick away. This is not enough to support his claims that the best of the three Anthropic Principle models must be irrefutably that of theistic evolution.

However, intermittently, Collins' book makes complex theological and scientific subjects accessible for the non-theological, non-scientific reader. But it moves too quickly. Collins has the ability to expose false claims made by those too credulous in namby-pamby childish conceptions of deities, as well as those scientists too dismissive of the claims that faith and reason can join to expand our knowledge of the universe.

But here he needlessly complicates his argument. As a Christian, I suppose Collins felt he must testify. But his appeal for religion and science thus weakens. He clings too closely to his own model of religion, understandably as a believer but too restrictively as a scientist who seeks broader ground upon which to allow diverse religious and determinedly scientific proponents to meet and exchange ideas. Near the end he brings Jesus and the redemption/ substitution/ resurrection in as essentials for the religious truth of his assertions. I wondered why he had to make the deity so specifically incarnate in Christ's role. He states that His intercession was necessary to pay the human debt for our misdeeds, but fails to ask why people have had to be under the thumb of such a petty and vengeful taskmaster as the version we know incompletely as Yahweh. Collins by his faith accepts this, but this cannot convince a reader who does not share his belief.

The Anthropic Principle that we evolved in a universe fine-tuned for our evolution into creatures capable of appreciating our existence in that very universe can be fascinating if to me at least still unprovable. Collins seems to think the odds are against any evolution without a kickstart by a Creator. This part of the book, however debatable, shows Collins at his most lively. Curiously, the part on DNA I found comparatively dull. Still, his appendix raises relevant points about the film "Gattaca" vs. a probable future, genetic predisposition vs. predetermination, and pre-implantation genetic technology that are all explained clearly and concisely.

Collins is very convincing in explaining the shortcomings of Intelligent Design. He neatly proves why the "God in the gaps" approach to inserting "then a miracle occurs" into the Great Chain of Being fails as science constantly progresses and what we once thought Providence achieved only through intervention has been found to have a perfectly rational scientific explanation. Here he is at his best, and the book would have been more consistently convincing if he had left off his own Christian witness and kept to what a scientist who believes in God can bring to the debate that Dawkins and Dennett lack, and what creationists and ID proponents remain ignorant about from his genetic discoveries. The strongest feature of this short study is Dr. Collins' ability to sum up the strengths of theistic evolution.He offers an appealing counterargument to Dennett or Richard Dawkins who claim perhaps too smugly that belief in God and endorsement of Darwin cannot co-exist.

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