The Language of Ignorance

 

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By Sam Harris

Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled The Language of God. In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. The Language of God reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.

Most reviewers of The Language of God seem quite overawed by its authors scientific credentials. This is understandable. As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind. Lest we think that one man can do no lasting harm to our discourse, consider the fact that the year is 2006, half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old, our president has just used his first veto to block federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds, and one of the foremost scientists in the land has this to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain):

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, 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.

After finding himself powerless to detect any errors in the philosophizing of C.S. Lewis (an ominous sign), Collins describes the moment that he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

If this account of field research seems a little thin, don’t worry—a recent profile of Collins in Time magazine offers supplementary data. Here, we learn that the waterfall was frozen in three streams, which put the good doctor in mind of the Trinity.

It is at this point that thoughts of suicide might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual integrity of his fellow human beings. One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. But it was not obvious to him as he knelt in the dewy grass, and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, I fear that it will not be obvious to many of his readers.

If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything. Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins—because Italy did win the World Cup. Collins alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.

While the mere sighting of a waterfall appears to have been sufficient to answer all important questions of theology for Collins, he imagines himself to be in possession of further evidence attesting to the divinity of Jesus, the omnipotence of God and the divine origin of the Bible. The most compelling of these data, in his view, is the fact that human beings have a sense of right and wrong. Collins follows Lewis here, as faithfully as if he were on a leash, and declares that the moral law is so inscrutable a thing as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. 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.

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? 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.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn’t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?

Collins case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality. In Collins view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God. (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like kin selection that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.) A moments thought reveals, however, that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Forget morality—how did nature select for the ability to write sonnets, solder circuit boards or swing a golf club? Clearly, such abilities could never be the product of evolution. Might they have been placed in us by God? Smoking cigarettes isn’t a healthy habit and is unlikely to offer an adaptive advantage—and there were no cigarettes in the Paleolithic—but this habit is very widespread and compelling. Is God, by any chance, a tobacco farmer? Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits,  which were themselves products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training. If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.

Having established that our moral sensitivities are God-given, Collins finds himself in a position to infer the nature of our Creator:

And if that were so, what kind of God would this be? Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and started the universe in motion about 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God, if I was perceiving him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the Moral Law this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment of goodness. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.

I hope the reader will share my amazement that passages like this have come from one of the most celebrated scientists in the United States. I find that my own sense of the moral law requires that I provide a few more examples of Collins’ skill as a philosopher and theologian…

On the question of why God simply doesn’t provide better evidence for his existence:

If the case in favor of belief in God were utterly airtight, then the world would be full of confident practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world, where the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?

One is tempted to say that it might be more interesting than a world unnecessarily shattered by competing religious orthodoxies and religious war, only to be followed by an eternity in hell for all those who believe the wrong things about God. But, to each his own.

How does Collins settle the problem of theodicy—the mystery of why there is evil and misfortune in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly benevolent God? He takes it very much in stride:

Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at least as chaotic in the physical realm as they would be in interfering with human acts of free will.

But why was God obliged to make cell division susceptible to the perversity of cancer? And why couldn’t an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly benevolent God perform as many miracles as He wanted? There isn’t time to entertain such questions, however, as Collins must solve all outstanding problems in the science of cosmology:

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

It is worth pointing out the term “supernatural,” which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term “magical.” Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical.  If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can’t I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself.  As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.

The major and inescapable flaw of [the] claim that science demands of atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence. If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove His existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason.

Is disbelief in Zeus or Thor also a form of blind faith? Must we really disprove the existence of every imaginary friend? The burden of producing evidence falls on those making extravagant claims about miracles and invisible realities. What is more, there is an enormous difference between acquiring a picture of the world through dispassionate, scientific study and acquiring it through patent emotionality and wishful thinking—and only then looking to see if it can survive contact with science.

Consider the following fact: Ninety-nine percent of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. There are two very different questions one could ask about a fact of this sort, if one wanted to assess the reasonableness of believing in God. One could ask, “Is this fact compatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God?” Or, one could ask, “Does this fact, alone or in combination with other facts, suggest that an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God exists?” The answer to the first question is always, “well, yes—provided you add that God’s will is utterly mysterious.” (In the present case, He may have wanted to destroy 99% of his creatures for some very good reason that surpasses our understanding.) The answer to the second question is “absolutely not.” The problem for Collins is that only the second question is relevant to our arriving at a rational understanding of the universe. The fact that a bowdlerized evangelical Christianity can still be rendered compatible with science (because of the gaps in science and the elasticity of religious thinking) does not mean that there are scientific reasons for being an evangelical Christian.

Collins sins against reasonableness do not end here. Somewhere during the course of his scientific career, he acquired the revolting habit of quoting eminent scientists out of context to give an entirely false impression of their religious beliefs. Misappropriation of Einstein and Hawking, while common enough in popular religious discourse, rises to level of intellectual misconduct when perpetrated by a scientist like Collins. Where either of these physicists uses the term God—as in Einstein’s famous God does not play dice—he uses it metaphorically. Any honest engagement with their work reveals that both Einstein and Hawking reject the notion of Collins God as fully as any atheist. Collins suggests otherwise at every opportunity.

In his role as Christian apologist, Collins also makes the repellent claim that the traditional lore about Galileo’s persecutions by the Church is overblown. Lest we forget: Galileo, the greatest scientist of his time, was forced to his knees under threat of torture and death, obliged to recant his understanding of the Earth’s motion, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life by steely-eyed religious maniacs. He worked at a time when every European intellectual lived in the grip of a Church that thought nothing of burning scholars alive for merely speculating about the nature of the stars. As Collins notes, this is the same Church that did not absolve Galileo of heresy for 350 years (in 1992). When it did, it ascribed his genius to God, who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions. Collins clearly approves of this sordid appropriation, and goes on to say that all the fuss about Galileo was, in the end, unnecessary, because the claims that heliocentricity contradicted the Bible are now seen to have been overstated. (And what if they weren’t overstated? What then?) It is simply astonishing that a scientist has produced such a pious glossing of the centuries of religious barbarism that were visited upon generations of other scientists.

If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, The Language of God provides the answer. The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already. Viewed from abroad, The Language of God will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society. Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse. This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death. Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist. We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

August 15, 2006

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