I recently received an email from someone who asked me what I thought of Francis Collins’s 2006 book, The Language of God. Let me say, first, that I have great appreciation for Collins. A committed Christian, he is head of the Human Genome Project and has done pioneering work in genetic research. I can identify with his indebtedness to C.S. Lewis, whose writings challenged Collins to rethink his own naïve atheistic arguments. He now writes with boldness, testifying to Christ’s transforming power in his life and to the power of the Christian worldview to give answers to life’s most important questions. One such question is the God and science issue: Collins has concluded that science and Scripture do not conflict but are in harmony with each other.
Collins, as you may know, holds to a BioLogos (theistic evolutionary/evolutionary creationist) view of life-“the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God” (p. 203). He’s not too keen on the “Intelligent Design” movement (which he pejoratively subtitles “science needs divine help”). I’m not sure that he’s correctly understood the ID movement, but let that pass. He does, however, help himself to three aspects of divine design in the book-indications of divinely powerful, intelligent activity in the universe in its fine-tuning, in biological evolution, and in the Big Bang. First, “for those willing to consider a theistic perspective, the Anthropic Principle [the universe’s fine-tuning that makes human life possible] certainly provides an interesting argument in favor of a Creator” (p. 78). The options, according to Collins, are three: (a) there’s a multitude of universes; (b) we’re incredibly lucky to get it right-first shot out of the box; and (c) the constants are finely-tuned-that is, designed! Second, Collins has referred to design in biology as well. He mentions this, perhaps most notably, in his discussion with Richard Dawkins in TIME magazine (2 Nov. 2006). Collins says, “I don’t see that Professor Dawkins’ basic account of evolution is incompatible with God’s having designed it” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1553986-2,00.html). Third, Collins acknowledges that the Big Bang itself points us to a Creator. So he’s on track with two of three major planks of the Intelligent Design movement.
That said, let me hasten to add that Darwin himself was no atheist when he wrote his Origin of Species (1859). At the end of this work, he assumes that a Creator got the evolutionary ball rolling: “To my mind, it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes . . . .” And again: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Ultimately, the issue isn’t creation vs. evolution, but God vs. no God.
Given Collins’s evolutionary perspective, I wonder about several issues. First, how do miracles fit in? Collins sees no problem here: “Miracles do not pose an irreconcilable conflict for the believer who trusts in science as a means to investigate the natural world, and who sees that the natural world is ruled by laws. If, like me, you admit that there might exist something or someone outside nature, then there is no logical reason why that force could not on rare occasions stage an invasion” (p. 53). He goes on to say that for a miracle to be a miracle, these must be uncommon. Miracles come on “great occasions”-at the “great ganglions of [spiritual] history” (p. 53). But, I ask, why limit miracles to spiritual history but exclude natural history? The first great miracle was the Big Bang-the very beginning of natural history. Why couldn’t we talk about the emergence of life as another such miracle? But in general, why restrict miracles to biblical history?
Another issue is this: Although Collins says that evolution can’t explain ethics, perhaps we should pause to ask, Why not an evolution of morality? (Some Christian thinkers like philosopher Terence Penelhum [in his Christian Ethics and Human Nature] believe that our animal natural is still with us from our non-human biological predecessors, and thus Penelhum rejects the historical Adam and our ancestor’s primal sin as well as Paul’s perspective on original sin.) Is the moral law encoded into our genome? Collins assumes that divinely-given objective moral laws are in place from the beginning; this must mean that DNA can’t be the “language of God” as far as moral instincts or intuitions go. Why can’t the naturalist, using Collins’ own logic, argue that ethical beliefs and sentiments have developed around the bundle of survival instincts possessed by humans? Collins dismisses naturalistic attempts to explain objective ethics in the same way he dismisses the purported reasoning of Intelligent Design advocates (“I can’t imagine how this gap could be bridged gradualistically; therefore there must be a God who intervened”). But it seems that here, Collins must acknowledge not only design but divine intervention: If human beings and their moral constitution can’t be explained evolutionarily, exactly when did hominids actually come to possess the image of God? Mustn’t there be some divine interventionist activity to explain it?
A third issue is deals with methodological naturalism: to avoid a God of the gaps, believing biologists should continue to seek material/gradualistic explanations for things. Collins writes: “ID is a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain.” He adds that its proponents have “made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.” I think that Collins misconstrues the God of the gaps (which I discuss this in my book Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion [Chalice Press]). The particular assumption here is that only naturalistic explanations should be sought; there can be no “science-stoppers,” as philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls them. This strikes me as question-begging: why can’t direct acts of God be allowed as explanations? Isn’t the Big Bang the ultimate “science stopper” for the naturalist? And how will Collins proceed to explain Jesus’ resurrection or the crossing of the Red Sea without inconsistency? I wonder where Collins stands on these issues, and how he seeks to reconcile the alleged conflicts.
I could add my disagreements with Collins’s views expressed at the end of his book regarding bioethics. He, for instance, doesn’t acknowledge the full moral status of the human embryo, which is certainly troubling. That’s a topic for another time, and I won’t say any more about it here. I did want to raise some of the God-and-science issues that Collins seeks to harmonize. I’m just not sure his particular approach is the most consistent way of going about it.