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Best Explanations

Scientist Francis Collins presents evidence for belief in God.

By 10.25.06

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This review appears in the October issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

The Language of God:
A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief

by Francis S. Collins
(Free Press, 304 pages, $26)

RECENTLY ASTROPHYSICIST and stalwart Darwin-defender George Coyne lectured before the largest scientific organization in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As he railed against biological arguments for intelligent design (ID), I wondered what Coyne thought of the now-mainstream design arguments in his own field.

Luckily Francis Collins, who led the race to map the human genome, rose to the microphone and broached the subject for me. Collins probed Coyne as to why gravity is so "finely-tuned." That is, if the force of gravity was a tiny fraction smaller (one part in 10 to the 14th power) the universe would have kept expanding without forming galaxies (and thus we would not be here); yet if gravity were the same tiny fraction greater, matter in our universe would have glommed together and not expanded outward to form galaxies, stars, and planets (and thus we would not be here). And gravity is only one of many instances of fine-tuning. What Collins wanted to know was whether Coyne thought this evidence suggested luck or design.

It was a thoughtful question, but Coyne evaded it, saying it was not really a scientific issue. I left feeling unsatisfied-like Whitman after hearing the learned astronomer-and I suspected Collins did too.

My suspicion was confirmed by Collins's new book The Language of God. Although he is a medical geneticist by training, Collins gives an excellent lay treatment of the argument for design in physics and cosmology. Given the heat of the current debate over Darwin's theory in biology, it may surprise many readers to learn that mainstream physicists and cosmologists have been discussing design in their disciplines for decades-please, no one alert the ACLU!

While in the 19th century most scientists thought the universe was eternal, the rise of Big Bang cosmology in the 20th changed things. Today, cosmologists generally agree there was a beginning to the universe followed by a period of rapid expansion. Concurring with many other scientists, Collins concludes that an intelligent cause is the best explanation for the Big Bang and fine-tuning.

The logic he employs is common in science. It is called Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). Take his treatment of the fine-tuning problem. Of several competing hypotheses, Collins asks which one best explains the physical evidence: Sheer chance that our universe has the right parameters to be habitable; multiple universes with various constants exist, but we got the good one; or the game was rigged (designed)? As the odds are terribly against chance, and because these hypothetical multiple universes are completely unobservable, Collins uses Occam's razor (ironically, a favorite tool of skeptics) to infer design. Collins adds:

One must leave open the door to the possibility that future investigation in theoretical physics will demonstrate that some of the fifteen physical constants that so far are simply determined by experimental observation may be limited in their potential numerical value by something more profound, but such a revelation is not currently on the horizon.
Thus, according to Collins, science is always capable of changing, so this argument for design is not a knockout. Still, design is not asserted here merely to fill a gap in our knowledge. Rather, based upon current evidence, Collins argues that intelligence is the best explanation currently available.

Now in a later chapter, Collins opposes intelligent design arguments in biology. But the interesting thing there is that while he invokes certain methodological principles to rule intelligent design out of court in biology, he has already violated those rules in his design arguments in cosmology and physics.

Collins gets hung up on a common misperception about ID in biology, namely that it is an argument from ignorance. Collins thinks ID theorists look at nature, see extraordinary complexity, and conclude God-musta-done-it. He writes:

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action.... This could be an appealing hypothesis, given that no serious scientist would currently claim that a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life is at hand. But that is true today, and it may not be true tomorrow. A word of caution is needed when inserting specific divine action by God in this or any other area where scientific understanding is currently lacking.... Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps.

But this is hardly the ID argument. Rather, ID maintains that certain aspects of nature exhibit positive signs of intelligence. For instance, ID theorist Stephen Meyer-employing the same IBE logic as Collins-recently contended in a peer-reviewed biology journal that intelligence is the best explanation for the information embedded in the DNA molecule. DNA exhibits informational properties; and in our uniform experience, whenever we see such properties and can discover their origin, they always turn out to have been the product of intelligence. Moreover, scientists have failed to show how information in DNA can be generated by a mindless cause. Consequently, Meyer argues, we are justified in inferring an intelligent cause for genetic information.

One could try to counter this argument with evidence, but it accomplishes little to mischaracterize it as an argument from ignorance. Meyer's argument is based upon knowledge of what it takes to engineer information-rich systems, not upon a lack of knowledge. Collins allows as much for his arguments but not for others. There are "good reasons" to infer an intelligence behind nature, Collins writes, "including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge." (Emphasis added.)

Collins cannot consistently employ design logic in physics and cosmology and then say that such logic is invalid in the biological realm. In biology, Collins should have retained the sound logic and high standards of critical judgment he used to skewer the cosmological prophets of scientific materialism. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

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About the Author

Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst at the Discovery Institute.