Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: The Language of God by Dr. Francis Collins

Book Review: Francis S. Collins The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. 2006. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The science curriculum is the battleground for one battle after another over creation and evolution. Nearly every school board must engage the issue; it is only a matter of when. If they exclude creationism, they risk alienating parents. Most school boards opt for a consider-all-sides approach, and please no one. Creationists object to what they perceive as an attack on God. Evolutionists object to the inclusion of creationism on any terms because creationism is not science. Declaring, “No serious biologists today doubts the theory of evolution,” Dr. Collins comes down firmly on the side of evolutionists, and fervently wishes certain Christians had not packed the word “creationist” with so much unnecessary baggage.

While finishing up a doctorate in physics, Dr. Collins changed his mind, earning a doctorate in biology and becoming a physician. His ideas incubated in both sterile laboratories and and the social messiness of the hospital. He is a committed Christian who believes a “satisfying harmony” is not only possible, but preferable. As an unimpeachable scientist, his views may help peace break out.

When Dr. Francis Collins stood with President Clinton before camera and microphones, the president said of the Human Genome Project, “today we are learning the language in which God created life.” Dr. Collins seconded, adding, “...we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

Presidents invoke god all the time for political purposes. But a world-renown scientist? It turns out Dr. Collins is in good company. In a 1997 survey, 40% of his colleagues in biology, physics and mathematics professed belief in a God “who actively communicates with humankind and to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer.” It is common knowledge that 40% of Americans consider themselves Christians. Belief in a personal God is as common among scientists as the general population.

Dr. Collins asks “Is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and the spiritual worldviews?” He wrote this book to explain why he believes the answer is a “resounding yes!”

Very few scientists have the status to address the question. Other scientists have attempted only to be dismissed as intellectually dishonest or worse. Dr. Collins establishes a ground rule, “Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world...”

Dr. Collins was raised with an apathetic attitude toward religion, first identifying himself as agnostic, and then under the influence of university, turned to atheism. He became convinced, along with 60% of his colleagues, that “everything in the universe could be explained on the basis of equations and physical principles,” concluding that “no thinking scientist could seriously entertain the possibility of God without committing some sort of intellectual suicide.”

Eventually, he realized his atheism was based on the weak “school boy” constructs. As a scientist, he determined to do better and seriously investigate God. A Methodist minister suggested he read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. The book changed his life. He could not escape the implications of “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.” He considered sociobiology's postulate that what we call morality developed to aid biological survival. Yet the theory could not account for sacrificial altruism, someone who willingly gives on behalf of someone else, with no foreseeable benefit to the giver. The argument that altruism provides indirect evolutionary benefit did not stand up to scrutiny. From there he boarded a logic train and, as he stopped at station after station, he arrived at a place where “faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief,” throwing him into a quandary. He paced the landing platform. “It seemed impossible either to go forward or turn back.” Finally, he took a leap of faith and thereby started an inner “war of worldviews.”

His inner war occurs on at least four battlegrounds, the same fields of doubt all of us have crossed at one time or another.
1. Isn't the idea of God just wish fulfillment?
2. What about all the harm done in the name of religion?
3. Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world?
4. Can a rational person believe in miracles?

Dr. Collins struggles as we do, as laymen on the same spiritual path, struggling with the same issues. He does not stand, as theologians and generals are wont to do, on a hill overlooking the battlegrounds. He shares the trenches with us, his readers.

We laymen are awed by the starry night sky, the intricate dance of the honey bee, or the blooming of a rose, and suspect the Psalmist may be right that “creation displays the handiwork of God.” But what awed Dr. Collins was the elegant beauty and simplicity of mathematical representations of physical phenomenon. He wonders, “Are these mathematical descriptions of reality signposts to some greater intelligence? Is mathematics, along with DNA, another language of God's?”

First Dr. Collins establishes a miracle as a “singular, exceedingly improbable, and profound event in history” that science is incapable of explaining. Then he considers the Big Bang and the question science has been unable to answer, “What came before the Big Bang?” Considering it more than a creationist gotcha question, Dr. Collins agrees with astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world...the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.”

Dr, Collins demonstrates that the big guns, including among others, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Hawking and Albert Einstein, firmly established “the existence of a universe as we know it rest upon a knife edge of improbability...our universe is uniquely tuned to give rise to humans.” Then he surveys the present state of scientific knowledge in physics, biology, chemistry. He makes a point that bears frequent repeating. If there is a God and “if God is truly Almighty, He will hardly be threatened by our puny efforts to understand the workings of His natural world.” When believers act if they must defend God they make God small indeed.

The corollary of improbability, “the God of the Gaps,” is a dangerous shoal for the ship of faith. If the gap is filled, where does that leave God? One tempting gap is the origin-of-life gap “given that no serious scientist would currently claim that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is at hand.” Another is the “woefully incomplete” timeline of the fossil record. Nevertheless, implications of the Human Genome Project, which he headed, makes a common ancestor a virtually inescapable conclusion.

The book is powerful if not original. Many authors have proposed a similar harmony of science and faith. In fact, Dr. Collins quotes some of them. Critics have a field day with many of these other authors, on the grounds that they are not true scientists, or if they are, they must be bad scientists. Dr. Collins' credentials are impeccable. He is well-armored against the spear of idiocy flung so carelessly at other scientists who have attempted to make many of the same points.

After making the case for evolution, Dr. Collins sympathetically refutes three current options in chapters every parent and school board should read:
1. Atheism and Agnosticism
2. Creationism
3. Intelligent Design

He proposes a fourth option he calls “BioLogos,” science and faith in harmony, concluding, “[God] can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate,and beautiful---and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.”

Finally, Dr. Collins bears his heart in an account of his own spiritual journey and personalized messages to believers and nonbelievers. In an appendix, he explores several current ethical dilemmas in science, and again argues that the very existence of these perplexing dilemmas indicate the universality of the moral law. For him, a harmony of science and faith is essential to optimal resolution of these dilemmas and any others that may come later.

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