02 August 2009

Francis Collins and the The Biologos Foundation: Trying to justify religious tradition with science. Part 1.

In the past few days I've posted several links to critiques of Francis Collins. Here I offer my thoughts on Collins. In later parts, I will review Collins The Language of God and his wooly-headed, woo laden Biologos Foundation.

Here are some statements, highlighted in other articles I've linked you to in the past, given by Francis Collins, current nominee to head the National Institutes of Health.
Do they seem like the statements of a person who is mixing his religion with science? Are these the forumulations of a person whose religion interferes with more evidence based scientific reasoning? It seems that way to me. And that I think is a reason to worry. (These quotes are from talk he gave for the Veritas Forum.)
(Note the extreme sloppyness of his thinking. In comic book writing we call this ret-conning. That is old material is brought into current continuity by some poorly thought out contrivance. In this way people can feel as if the time invested in old stories was worth while, while justifying-maybe- the new direction/developments in the story telling. Only very rarely do fans find this sort of thing enjoyable. It is deemed credible by fans even less often than that.)

Here is Collins on the origin of the Universe,
“Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Collins is clearly out of his depth relying more on the conclusions of fellow Templeton prize winners than the physics community at large. He is in fact just making it up to suit the conclusions his faith demands. He is too knowledgable and intelligent to adopt the simple creationist model (the one that demands instant creation and a six thousand year old earth) so he has come up with a version for the educated masses that still hanker after some religious "truth." If you like the idea of a sky daddy, but cannot really get on board with the obvious nonsense that a literal reading of desert based tribal mythology is, the warm, soft language of a Collins may be just what the doctor ordered.

While the scientific evidence certainly suggests that the universe is indeed 13.7 billion years old, it is incredibly hard to use science to justify anything else said by Collins in this quote. On the evidence there is no need to assume (and the assumption is completely unjustified by the evidence) an Almight God. That is getting way ahead of the facts. And saying that the universe is fine tuned for life is a somewhat risible argument. Whatever you want to call it it isn't rigorous reasoning. People who say the universe is fine tuned for life are not really thinking it through. Fine tuned compared to what?

Taking the long view, the universe is anything but fine tuned for life. Life so far as we know is actually quite rare, and my not often get the time necessary to flourish beyond the very simple. Astroids, comets, black holes, novae all pose very real threats to the stablity of solar systems and the individual planets of which they are comprised.

Looking more locally at the history of two other planets in our own solar system we see again that the universe is not terribly conducive to life. Mars once had many of the atmospheric constituents we currently think important for the origin of life. Certainly it had flowing water. What happened? Perhaps life did arise there (an may in microscopic form continue to go about its business) but its small size insured that those same atmospheric constituents bled off over course of eons. With the thinner atmosphere no substantial greenhouse effect to raise temperatures. The planet cooled and complex multicellular life never had a chance. Looking to the inner solar system we find Venus, in size very similar to Earth. It had and has no problem holding atmospheric gases, but a runaway greenhouse effect has created surface temperatures hot enought to melt lead. There is little chance we will find life there, though perhaps Venutian thermophiles await us on our sister planet? I won't hold my breath though.

The rest of the planets also offer incredible hurdles to the evolution and origin of life (Earth it must be said has been no different in this regard). Ours only seems to exist in a goldilocks zone because our of our vantage point in history. But numerous times life on our planet has nearly been wiped out, by extra-terrestrial impact (comets or meteors) or by volcanic eruptions that have cause large scale climatic change. The persistance of an evolutionaryly successful species (and by this I simply mean a long existing species) is about a million years. Some last incredibly longer, some not nearly so long. It remains to be seen where our own species will fall out on the curve. The persistance of life seems more to do with luck than anything else. Certainly we could not with a straight face say that the history of life indicates any thing like a supernatural caretaker or a divine plan lurking in the chaos of history natural or otherwise.

More from Collins:
Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

How can anyone make this statement in so authoritative a manner? Here the unproven, unsupported, even unhinted God is stated as bold fact, followed by the bald assertion of the existance of God's plan. How can Collins know any of this? How can he claim that God used evolutionary selective pressures to do any specific creating? How does it make any sense to suggest that humans were a part of this creative plan?

First one has to establish that there actually is a god of any kind before one can make any statement about said being's intentions, plans and mechanisms by which the aforementioned are carried out. Once establishing a deity you would have to go through a lot of work to see precisely which deity it was. A difficult research programme to say the least.

Looking at the history of life on Earth, one has got note that the presense of humans was never ever guaranteed. Stephen J. Gould had gotten at least that much right. The history of life is replete with contingency. Wipe most of life off the face of the planet and it is unlikely that the selective environment that led to Homo sapiens would ever repeat itself, just as after the Cretacious/Tertiary extinction event, the enviroment never again produced the suite of selective pressures, or starting conditions that gave rise to the dinosaurs a hundred and fifty million years earlier. Collins and his directed evo ilk seem blissfully ignorant of the fossil record and its implications for life. They have no sense of contingency, indeed the seem to have no sense of the fossil record at all.

This argument about humans being the sole purpose could be made equally of any modern organism. I could use the same logic just as defensibly in the following way: God's plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of life on our planet. Most especially that creative plan included Coleopterans (beetles). Of course no one would take this terribly seriously even though the it seems in sync, however slightly, with the facts. There are vastly more species of beetles than there are any other animals after all. Perhaps the universe was fine tuned for the arrival of beetles?

Have I mentioned that Francis Collins really just likes to make stuff up?
Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Does Collins not realize that he has just set the whole of Christian thought on the rails? Science is not settling for this "answer" and is in fact already in the process of elucidating the evolutionary processes, and precursors that lead to human moral reasoning. Neuroscience, evolutioanry psychology, and evolutionary biology in general, are demonstrating that our morality has arisen largely from precursors found in nature. There was no moment of ensoulment and knowledge of good and evil per se, (there is at least no evidence of such a thing) but a graduated series of changes over time.

In any event science is elucidating many of the hows and whys of both our good behaviors and our bad, which appear to have roots in our shared evolutionary biology, and the cognitive apparatus selective pressures have created. Not only that but neuroscience will likely continue to erode clasical notions of free will but how that all falls out is far from clear. Why does Collins assume he has a firm grasp on these future developments? How exactly does he justify the authority with which he invests his baseless wooly-headedness?

I really cannot believe he said the following:
Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement"

I for one would really love to hear Collins unpack this. When were we observing the moral law? At what point in the course of our history would it make sense to begin looking for our fall from grace in the annals of our natural history? He seems to think there is such a place. What evidence does he have for the assertion?

Was it perhaps when our ancestors were helping to drive the pleistocene megafauna into extinciton? Or perhaps after the near extinction of our species around 70,000 years ago when a supervolcano is thought to have reduced human populations to around 15,000 individuals? What about Neanderthals? They seem to have had a sufficiently "advanced house," their brains were quite a bit larger than our own. Did they have this knowledge of good and evil? What about Homo erectus? How far do Collins and his friends at Biologos want to take this kind of reasoning? Since their thinking isn't limited by facts, logic or evidence I suppose the folks at Biologos could go on making it up to their hearts content. Which they will no doubt continue to do to the delight of millions.

But why Jesus as the salvation? I mean all we see when we look back at the history of our species is natural events, one after another. Why would our fall from grace look so natural, in fact be so easily disguised by natural events, extinctions, super volcanoes, climate changes, our less than stellar treatment of other species etc and the solution be so obviously super natural? Why is the Garden of Eden a metaphor and Jesus not? I'd love to hear the explanation for this but I don't expect anything cogent to be offered.

And here is Collins trotting out the utterly sophmoric:
Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

This is a fine example of a classic logical fallacy, the argument from adverse consequenses. It goes something like this. If something bad would happen because proposition x were true then x obviously cannot be true. If this kind of "logic" actually worked there would be no bad things at all. Think about disease diagnosis and you will see how silly Collins is being here. My doctor just told me I have cancer, but if I did that would be bad therefore; I cannot possibly have cancer. That statement makes precisely as much sense as Collins statement above.

Say it were proven though that human moral and ethical intuitions were in someway the products of evolutionary processes. So what. Would the fact that such phenomena were products of material processes make them somehow less real, less worthy of our attention. Does that mean that our sensiblities are really an illusion? No. It would simply mean that our faculties have arisen by natural means.

If we've been hoodwinked it has been by the shamans of the gods talking ahead of the evidence and speaking with an authority they have not earned.

Labels: , ,


At 11:44 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your view on the universe not being "fine tuned for life". AIDS, the now famous swine flu, famine, drought, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, i could go on and on. Makes Mars - the dry desolate planet - sounds appealing, eh?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home