FAITH Magazine September-October 2006
The Language of God
" …it is rare for a scientist to offer a testimony of faith in God. For that scientist to be one of the world’s most renowned is rarer still. For his testimony to be so lucid and compelling, combining reason and revelation, science and spirit, is unheard of.” So says the blurb on the back cover of "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief", by Francis Collins and published in July by Free Press. It is a suitable acclamation for a remarkably good book on faith and science, which comes to publication providentially ahead of Richard Dawkins’s autumn offering, The God Delusion. It is interesting that the book’s first quotation is from Dawkins, against whose way of thinking (“that a belief in evolution demands atheism”) Collins fires an immediate and robust broadside. Thesignificance of the book has not been lost on the Sunday Times (June 11th) and Nature (July 13th), both of which publications have commented on its arrival with enthusiasm.
Dr Francis Collins is a prominent geneticist, who heads the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, which led the international Human Genome Project to unravel the whole of human DNA. In June 2000 he and Craig Venter of the rival commercial project were able jointly to announce the entire sequencing of the human genome. It is highly significant, then, that this scientist of world-wide prominence has now chosen to write a book debunking the myth, often centring on Darwinian evolution, that faith and science are in irreconcilable conflict. Collins, not overly religious as a child or young adult, came to a strong Christian faith later in life, as a doctor, and he recounts this conversion, and what led to it in his professional career. As a genetic scientist, he has marvelled ever moreat the beauty of creation, manifested particularly in the human DNA sequence. He is quoted as saying, “When you have for the first time in front of you this 3.1-billion- letter instruction book that conveys all kinds of information and all kinds of mystery about humankind, you can’t survey that, going through page after page, without a sense of awe. I can’t help but look at those pages and have a vague sense that this is giving me a glimpse of God’s mind.”
Collins is very keen in his book to explain how a number of other viewpoints with regard to the faith- science debate are untenable. He first tackles atheism and agnosticism, giving special attention to rebutting Richard Dawkins’ arguments for considering religious faith as anti- rational. The second option that he dispels is ‘creationism,’ or, more precisely, ‘young-earth creationism,’ that is, a literal reading of Genesis which sees all of the material universe coming into being, complete, in six days of twenty-four hours’ duration. He mounts an impassioned appeal to advocates of young-earth creationism, urging them to see that abandoning an ultra-literal reading of Genesis and embracing the body of scientific evidence in favour of cosmological and biological evolution need not threatenin any degree their faith in the Creator. The third option that, again, he argues against most vigorously is the so-called Intelligent-Design proposal. Discussing at length three biological structures that ID supporters cite as evidence of ‘irreducible complexity’ (and therefore the need, they say, for divine intervention), Collins shows how ID remains no more than a modern version of a ‘god of the gaps’ hypothesis, which posits a “clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life” and therefore completely unsatisfactory. Elsewhere in his book, Collins explains why Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of science and faith avoiding conflict by staying out of each other’s way—his so- called “non-overlappingmagisteria"— is unacceptable too, since it “inspires internal conflict, and deprives people of the chance to embrace either science or spirituality in a fully realized way.” Collins adopts a fourth option: “the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific and spiritual world views”. His idea is essentially ‘theistic evolution’—belief that God has established evolution as the mechanism by which He has introduced complexity and diversity into the biological sphere of life on earth. Collins coins his own term for this idea: ‘BioLogos’, a clumsy term, perhaps, but intended to express the harmony between the biology and the idea of Creation by the Word of God.
He addresses the issue of the so-called ‘randomness’ of genetic mutation in the Darwinian evolutionary process—as we have also in previous editions of this column and in our November 2005 editorial. But he seems to trip himself up here. He asserts that since we do not know the future, “evolution could appear to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective (outside of space and time) the outcome would be entirely specified…. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process” (ch. 10). Once again we would say that the idea of any lack of ‘entire specification’—that is a lack of intrinsic intelligibility in matter—is flawed. Theconcept of ‘the future’ arises from the contingency of created existence—it implies that material entities do not contain within themselves the realisation of their own potential— but it does not mean fundamental unintelligibility.