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Friday, November 24, 2006

Part Three: The key weaknesses, as spotted by reviewers

In discussions I have monitored, some readers have asked whether Collins is - as he is widely regarded - a theistic evolutionist or a deistic evolutionist, as some suggest. A theist typically argues that God holds the universe in being. A deist believes that God wound up the universe and let it go.

For example, to use an illustration from J.P. Moreland, assume that the universe is a clock: In a theistic universe, the clock is electric and is powered by God. In a deistic universe, the clock is mechanical. God made it, wound it up and walked away. Maybe he rewinds it now and then to keep it going.

Collins calls his own view BioLogos (pp. 203-11), to avoid making "theistic" an adjective and thus inadvertently diminishing the role of God (p. 203). Overall, philosophers chew this sort of thing over best. I was uneasy with Collins' ready willingness to suppose that if a detailed pathway for a given event, such as the origin of life, can be discovered, that means that life is not an argument for the existence of God ("this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith.", p. 93). That sounds more like a deist's problem than a theist's problem to me.

Why does Collins insist on intelligent design for the moral life but deny it for life in general?

Collins spends a fair bit of his book attacking intelligent design theory (especially pp. 181-95). It's quite clear that he does not understand what the ID guys are saying, as Discovery fellow Jonathan Witt notes in Touchstone:
Design theorists in biology do offer an extensive critique of Darwinian theory, but they also offer positive evidence for intelligent design. They argue from our growing knowledge of the natural world, including the cellular realm with which Collins deals, and from our knowledge of the only kind of cause ever shown to produce information or irreducibly complex machines (both found at the cellular level): intelligent agents.

Whether the flagellum (outboard motor) of the bacterium is irreducibly complex might be a harmless enough difference of opinion among specialists, but trouble looms just ahead. As Witt observes, Collins' denial of design in life drastically undercuts his other arguments, for which he relies heavily, disastrously, and anachronistically, on Lewis:
Collins critiques the other leading explanation for the moral law—that what we think of as the moral law is only an aggregation of survival instincts instilled by Darwinian evolution—and argues that a better explanation is that we are not just matter but also spirit.

To this, the thoroughly consistent methodological materialist could respond, "But Dr. Collins, just because we're ignorant of a detailed Darwinian pathway to things like human altruism doesn’t mean we won't ever find the pathway. You're arguing from ignorance to design, and you can’t do that."

Essentially, here is the problem: Having placed his faith in a yet-to-be-found detailed Darwinian pathway that shows that there is no design in life, Collins cannot then just walk away from the demand that he also place his faith in a similar yet-to-be-found detailed Darwinian pathway for the moral law that he values so highly as evidence for God, in a way that he thinks nature is not. The Darwinist demands that of him and his only response is to gesture at the works of a man who died long before evolutionary psychology waddled onto centre stage.

As noted earlier, Collins cursorily dismisses evolutionary psychology - much too cursorily considering how much literature has been written on it. It's all nonsense, yes, of course, but Collins does not give us anything like a clear account of how and why it is nonsense, as agnostic philosopher David Stove admirably does.

The decline of mainline Protestantism is poignant when we see an avowed Christian performing so poorly at a task that a clear-thinking agnostic who is not in such heavy debt to materialism performed with ease. This is part of the decline of the legacy of C.S. Lewis. Had Lewis lived, he would have minced evo psycho and served it up cold*. But he alas! is not alive, and many of his heirs have spent his legacy feeling good about themselves; they have not renewed it.

(*Note: Lewis does address evo psycho to some extent in The Abolition of Man, but most of today's key concepts (kin selection, selfish genes, memes) were undeveloped then. Stove, who died in 1995, does address them.)

Overall, Collins' denial of design in life would far better suit a thinker disposed to argue for a no-design pathway to morality (such as evolutionary psychology) than against such a pathway, as he genuinely wishes to do.

From an agnostic position, Roger K. Eberle makes points strikingly similar to Witt's:
Collins’ deduction that evolution cannot account for the Moral Law is just another gap. He reviews some of the modern evolutionary explanations for the evolution of the moral sentiments, but he dismisses them as inadequate, and then draws his conclusion. This is the fallacy of personal incredulity — "I can't think of how X can be explained naturally, ergo X must have a supernatural explanation."

Collins then compounds the problem with his arguments by asserting, without foundation, that altruism is unquestionably good, and that it can only be explained by the existence of the Moral Law. The fact that the goodness of altruism is a subjective judgment and open to considerable debate is ignored. Furthermore, he never addresses the studies that have shown that altruism is not unique to the human species, and he never explains why the altruistic behavior of a member of the group could not be something that evolved, initially, simply as a necessity for the survival of the group.
A similar point is made in David Klinghoffer's review.

The confluence of these objections from theists and a non-theist underlines the fact that Collins fails to address the problem of the origin of the Moral Law adequately in a contemporary way.

Why not universal Darwinism - for all the universes?!

A related problem is that, both in his book and elsewhere, Collins speaks against the "multiverses" hypothesis. According to multiverses theory - which is taken quite seriously by many cosmologists as an alternative to the apparent fine tuning of our universe for life - our universe is a random survivor of Darwinian evolution among a zillion flopped universes.

Collins argues that multiverses defy Occam's Razor (scientists should prefer the simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts). But he does not explain why the Darwinism he believes in so strongly should not be subjected to the same critique, as applied to life forms. If Darwinian pathways look increasingly like an unlikely explanation today, we are simply urged to put our faith in the idea that Darwinism will explain everything some day in the unspecified future.

The same roadblock looms in Collins' musing on the origin of life. He thinks that tomorrow may bring a materialist explanation of the origin of life (p. 93). And that's one less job for God. Therefore, we should not trust that the origin of life provides evidence for God.

These arguments sound straight from the 1960s, and they fail to meet today's central challenge: The problem is not with what we don't know; it is with what we do know. For any fact of the universe whatever, we might conceive of some materialist account. But the question is, is our account plausible? At what point of implausibility should we actively investigate non-materialist accounts?

Yes, it is quite likely that the origin of life will be much better understood in the future. But what if better understanding makes the non-Darwinian or non-materialist origin of life increasingly obvious? Has science failed? Is science at an end? Yes, if science's only purpose is to prove Darwinism or materialism. Otherwise, well maybe the journey is just beginning. But one gets no sense that Collins even acknowledges these difficulties, because his thinking has largely been shaped by the state of the questions when Lewis was alive and writing.

Only a materialist needs to defend an implausible materialist account, a fact that Collins clearly understands for the origin of the universe. Then why does he hold out hope for such an account of the origin of life? His work reads as though it is risky enough for him to admit to being a religious believer (his predecessor Watson, as we have seen, was a vociferous atheist). He dare not go as far as to seriously consider the case for design where it would actually matter, in his own work.

The country that Collins would like to roam with Lewis no longer exists

In "Through a Glass Darkly," David Opderbeck summarizes the overall problem:
It's difficult to understand the distinction Collins makes between cosmological/moral and biological design argments. On the one hand, he says the appearance of fine tuning, the emergence of mind and reason in humans, and the human moral sense are not explainable only by naturalistic causes, and support belief in a creator-God. On the other hand, he says that arguments from the appearance in design in biology are merely worthless God-of-the-gaps arguments.

I can't see the principled distinction here. In fact, the argument from human mind, reason and the moral sense is a type of biological gap argument.

Opderbeck points out that even if we understood completely how these processes worked, "the extraordinarily low probability of how they played out suggests an intelligent purpose beyond mere chance," and adds, "But the same could be said of biological design arguments such as the argument from irreducible complexity."

Collins has argued at various points that apparent imperfections in nature point to an inept designer, but, as Opderbeck cautions, that is an argument against God as a supreme creator in general, not against intelligent design theory in particular. (Design could, of course, be intelligent without being perfect and a supreme creator might never have intended a design to achieve goals identified by other intelligences as "perfect." So it is not clear how such an argument is even as relevant to intelligent design theory as such.)

My sense is that Collins' type of theistic/deistic evolution has fallen on hard times. It started out as a protest by thoughtful scientists against the view that knowing how something happens in nature means that "God never dun it." But it has devolved into a sort of opposition to intelligent design theory, even though intelligent design theory - or similar ideas - are really the only game in town if you think that there is actual meaning, purpose or design in the universe. That is why one evolutionary biologist recently advanced a proposal to flunk all ID-friendly students. He did not bother to consider the case of students who say they believe in God but assure everyone that there is no evidence of God's work in the design of life. One does not, after all, blow up the house to kill a mouse.

The main difficulty is that Collins writes as if he does not understand that the territory he wishes to occupy no longer exists, as it did in Lewis's day. Darwinists and other materialists have annexed it. Witt and Eberle, speaking from opposite sides, at least know what today's map looks like.

Collins is said to be concerned that intelligent design theory may provoke a war between science and religion. As an alternative to what , exactly? When a materialist textbook author argues that students who are sympathetic to the intelligent design of life should be flunked, we must ask, does Collins agree with him? Whatever he answers, he is in a war over disputed territory whether he likes it or not. He can only avoid the war by remaining safely irrelevant.

Next: Part Four: The scribbling tribe of reviewers divides into several parts
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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