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Scientist-Believers: Troublesome Routes Across the Compatibility Chasm

I was a lifelong Christian until age 54. As part of my coming out as an atheist, the pastor at my church challenged me to review the work of believer scientists, to look at how they had found Christianity compatible with their scientific work. My review included representative work by William Pollard,[1] John Polkinghorne,[2] Francis Collins,[3] and I brought in Kenneth R. Miller[4] concerning one point. (The endnotes give an abbreviation for each work in brackets before the title, and I use these for easier reference in the text.)

Fair warning and confession: I am a psychiatrist, and have read a lot and thought deeply about the human mind and its biology, but I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher. What follows is my best shot, as a layman, at a difficult subject, based on careful thought and reflection.

How big a leap?

I thought a good starting point would be to look at how the competing worldviews address the fundamental unexplainable fact: Why is there anything at all? The default stance from a scientific point of view is that the universe is an unintelligent space-time-matter-energy terrain that somehow came into being on its own in ways we don’t yet understand, and which unfolds according to universal laws over great stretches of time, producing amazing beauty and complexity, including human thought and knowledge of good and evil, but also a great deal of pain and brutality. And of course there is a lot we still don’t know. As a scientific framework should, this starts with what we know, recognizes what we don’t know, and inquires from there. It builds a framework of understanding and research that is the best we have available to us.

Scientist believers take a markedly different approach by asserting that a disembodied, unevolved, uncreated, all-knowing, all-powerful intelligence which existed from all time (or before time, or created time) made and shepherds the universe. This is a huge leap beyond what we actually know, and in other ways differs from how scientists normally stake out an explanatory framework.

One way to support the contention would be to show that it simply must be so, logically or physically or some other way. But arguments like that, as far as I have read, are finished. Another way is to give clear, direct, evidence to show that your framework is true. As we all know, such evidence does not exist for theistic claims. Then there could be indirect evidence that would give us clues, and the believer scientists do assert this. I’ll be looking at those claims in some detail.

Theist scientists sometimes try to hedge the evidence question by saying God is outside of nature, so God is undetectable. Polkinghorne, for example, at times asserts that God’s action in the universe is invisible except as “discerned by faith” (LON p. 406). Pollard argues something similar (CP p. 84, p. 170), and Collins does sometimes (LOG p. 165) and not others (LOG p. 210). The problem is, if you claim God made and still guides the universe, then the results should be demonstrable, or else the claim is scientifically vacuous. At a minimum, the world should look as one would expect it to by tracing out the full implications of theism, but I don’t think it does.

There are other major problems with the theistic claim from the standpoint of scientific reasoning. It doesn’t actually explain anything. Asserting “God did this” says nothing about how he did it, and why things are just the way they are instead of the many other ways God conceivably could have created. In trying to explain the existence of the universe, it simply creates yet other mysteries: How did God come to be? If God was not made, how could he come to be on his own? If God could come to be on his own, why couldn’t a universe? Did God exist before time? Did God create time? If God created space-time, where and how did God exist in their absence? If God didn’t create them, what did? Why did God create at all? Some say God wanted or needed fellowship with beings like us, but why would a perfect being want or need that? Why did God create in the way he apparently did? If God is perfect, why is the universe so imperfect? How is an unembodied intelligence possible? How is an unevolved, unmade intelligence possible? How can an incorporeal being act on a physical universe? How can God be everywhere at once and know everything?

An explanatory framework usually takes existing knowledge and makes better sense of it. It should not normally contradict what is already known, unless, maybe, it can explain things better. But it seems to me that theism does the former without the latter. We don’t so far know of any intelligence that is not evolved from something much simpler, that is not embodied in a brain (or made by one), that is not finite, and that is not in a specific location. But theism’s assertions about God violate all of those with no explanation or proposed framework for how it could be. The best current evidence is that the brain is sufficient to explain the intricacies of the mind (a position endorsed by at least some Christian theologians[5]), which raises the question of how humans could have an immortal soul.[6] And it appears that physics is perfectly adequate to run the universe from start to finish, raising the question of how God would shepherd creation if the laws are already doing that. Theism does not provide an adequate answer, in my view, though the believer scientists do try, as I’ll address later.

Polkinghorne and Collins both warn of such overreaching. Polkinghorne cautions that scientists should not use a priori beliefs (QP pp. 23-4), and not to stray beyond what they know or can know (QP p. 27), but then it seems that he does just that. Collins warns of how certain kinds of explanations only create a new mystery (LOG p. 91), but doesn’t recognize himself doing it. Here is something similar from Collins: “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside space and time could have done that” (LOG p. 67). “It’s impossible, so God did it,” is fine if you really know it’s otherwise impossible–but that hasn’t been shown. That makes this a God-of-the-gaps argument, which Collins also warns against (LOG pp. 92-3).

The full implications of their claims?

When you make bold explanatory claims, you own the full implications of those claims. So the claimed characteristics of the creator should match the characteristics of the creation and the method of creating it. Do they? The purported creator evidently chose a slow, unfolding method to bring the universe about. Polkinghorne says such a universe is of more value than one operated by a puppeteer, what he calls the free-process defense (LON pp. 445-6). Collins calls it “elegant” (LOG p. 201). He also makes the odd statement that this means of creation says nothing about the creator (LOG p. 107). On the contrary, I think it says an awful lot. Because there are other words besides “elegant” for this method of creation, if it was deliberately selected by an all-powerful, all-knowing, compassionate designer: clumsy, wasteful, imperfect, jerry-rigged, error-prone, and brutal.

Here’s a tiny sampling, in an extended quotation from another book:

Only 25 percent of the time will unprotected intercourse result in a pregnancy. Between 40 and 65 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. About 40 percent of the women develop complications, 15 percent of which result in chronic problems. The World Health Organization reports that worldwide over half a million women, 1,500 every day, die from pregnancy-related causes. WHO reported that 3.3 million births end stillborn and 4 million newborns die in the first twenty-eight days of life. Premature birth is a big contributor to this figure. Currently they estimate 40 percent of women worldwide receive prenatal care. The toll of natural pregnancy, as designed by God, in the absence of modern prenatal care, would be even higher. About 3 percent of live births have serious birth defects.”[7]

There are many other such examples of imperfection, error, and poor design that one would not think to attribute to the Great Designer unless there was a very good reason. Add this: Traditional Christianity and the scientist believers hold humanity as the real crowning purpose of creation. If so, by choosing to create us using billions of years of evolution, God put trillions of animals that can feel pain through countless instances of fear, illness, starvation, and painful death. And then add how many rounds of devastation and privation for humans in relentless waves of natural calamity that reside squarely in God’s column if he chose to create this way? And this: The terrible injustices we wreak on each other through ignorance, neglect, selfishness, and intentional evil. If you’re going to say God created all this and knew, more or less–some debate on that, I realize–how it would play out, you better have darn good reasons.

But what reasons?

Elegance. There are amazing achievements for an unintelligent universe to create on its own, from my point of view. But if you take the whole with all its downsides and say a Grand Designer who had other options did it? Not elegant.

A free creation is better than a puppet creation. As a science project, sure. If the suffering weren’t real, OK. And are completely free versus a complete puppet creation the only options? A lot of philosophers don’t think so. And not even Collins and Polkinghorne argue that. Free-process defense seems to describe deism, and sometime Collins also does (LOG p. 205). But they both also argue for a God who answers prayer (LOG p. 210, LON p. 446, QT p. 94) and does miracles (LOG pp. 47-54, QT p. 21). So it seems as if some puppet strings are allowed. I don’t see how you draw the line, and that undercuts the dichotomy Polkinghorne needs for claiming free-process defends God’s methods. Because if God wants to and needs to intervene at certain times, why not others? How much intervention is too much, and what’s the basis for deciding that?

A creation populated by free creatures outweighs the evil that results–and human choice is 100% to blame, anyway (CP p. 129, LOG p. 201, QT pp. 67-9). Perhaps this has some partial merit, and a number of philosophers keep criticisms of God targeted not at moral evil but at the apparently gratuitous evil of animal suffering and natural evil. But the responsibility part, I do not buy: God sculpts our limited, physicalist mind-brains on a fight-or-die grindstone of a world. He cannot then escape responsibility for the evil that results when finite, self-oriented beings form skillful intentionality in a world of shortage, danger, error, and damage.

God wants us to grow into the right kind of people through suffering (LOG pp. 45-6). Suffering might be noble and redemptive if earthly existence were like Olympic training, where everyone had a good start and a good shot, with full support and training along the way, and it was fully fair, just, and understandable. But for many it’s a soul-crushing horror show they get no tools or opportunity to understand, master, or be redeemed by. Worse, they may get so damaged they become part of the promulgation of evil.

But heaven makes that OK (LOG p. 46). That idea demeans earthly suffering as unimportant; makes mincemeat of the Gospel treatment of justice, suffering, and love; and it wrongly takes God off the hook for anything he might bring upon us in this life. Plus, if a perfect place like heaven is possible and we still have free will there, why is earthly existence, with its suffering and imperfection, necessary? If we can turn against God in earthly existence, why can’t we in heaven? How can human mental activity survive physical death?

God can’t be too obvious; he has to stay hidden and subtle so as not to overwhelm our free will (LOG pp. 33-4, LON p. 446, QT pp. 26, 94), and also to keep things interesting enough. There is a crucial difference between knowing of God’s existence and giving him love and worship, so I question this argument. And it’s a new one: God being too obvious wasn’t a drawback when big miracles occurred, or when Christians asserted evidence of God was everywhere in creation. And the compassionate God these scientists worship would not want to consign good people to the fires of eternal hell based on not being clear enough that he exists. He would want us to use our minds fully and to believe on sufficient reason, and he would make sure to supply it. No God worthy of our love would punish us for disbelieving due to lack of evidence, evidence he himself failed to provide.

When you consider that the God who chose this method of creation is not only to be all-powerful but all-compassionate, I find these reasons inadequate for justifying choosing the slowly unfolding, imperfect, and pain-filled path the universe has taken.

More implications: actual teachings, possible teachings

The scientist believers claim a comprehensive worldview and basically accept scripture and traditional Christian doctrine as is (CP pp. 19, 21, LOG pp. 175, 200-1, QT pp. 21, 85-9), so they need it all to fit together. But the evolutionary creation of humanity upends the traditional Christian understanding of sin and atonement. Traditional Christianity asserts that people are fallen from a perfect state and chose sin willfully to rebel against God. God created only good: people introduced evil. But this does not at all match the creation of humanity as we now know it. Evolution honed our awareness and expectations, intentionality and skill, on the stone of survival needs in such a way that sin is part and parcel of who we are. We are struggling animals, not fallen perfection, and this makes better sense of human failing than Christianity. Just as important, if God created us that way, he is at least a partner, if not perpetrator, of evil, not just natural evil, but the evil we bring on each other.

This should change how incarnate God approaches sin; at a minimum it should obviate addressing evil with eternal punishment. But Jesus’ treatment of sin and evil and their source and cure are not compatible with evolutionary development. It portrays a dualist understanding of human nature in which evil is an occupying force–and an invited one, at that–more than something built in that we struggle with. And his solution for evil is more like ridding the world of sinful trash than healing brokenness that is part of God’s handiwork. God Incarnate would not speak to us or about us this way, or threaten and condemn us to eternal punishment this way.

Polkinghorne apologizes for some of the problems in scripture this way: “Inevitably it [the Bible] expresses attitudes (to women, genocide, and slavery, for instance) which we cannot endorse today. Inevitably, its world view is in many ways different from ours, not least because of the discoveries of science about the structure and history of the universe” (FSU pp. 63-4). But why is it inevitable for the Bible to reflect only the culture and ethics of the times of its composition? If God is shepherding creation right along, and can make miracles happen when needed as the scientist believers state, why not promote truly divine attitudes and bring the divine message in line with the facts of the world from the first? I’m not saying Jesus should have preached E=MC2, but a true Incarnation would not be preaching from a damagingly mistaken model of human nature, threatening eternal hellfire for thought crimes and anger, or having hopelessly high expectations given our origins as struggling animals. And if God was helping us get things right from the getgo, why is there so much conflict and change in theology? Why does it so often trail scientific advance and cultural change, not lead? So for example, why couldn’t scripture convey messages like these? “We don’t abuse women; women are equal in the eyes of God.” “For the same reasons, we don’t own slaves.” And “we don’t kill gratuitously when we win in battle.”

Jesus could have planted seeds about the correct understanding of how the universe unfolds, and how evolution created us the way we are. I grant this would be difficult and confusing for the times. But the Gospels portray him as intentionally obscuring important teaching for some greater good (Matthew 11:25-26, Matthew 13:10-17, Mark 4:10-12). Why not instead clarify difficult teaching about the true facts of the world’s workings? This would have been part prophecy, and part explanation for what evil really is and what God really does about it. Imagine 19th century Christians hearing Darwin’s new theory saying, “finally, those weird teachings in the Gospels make perfect sense,” instead of offering the resistance to it we still see today.

As a follow-on, Jesus might also have said: “God the Father and I understand where you came from and how you were formed; we understand the struggle with evil. That is why we are merciful. And that is why ideas like cutting off a hand as a solution for sin are unthinkable for us.”

Or: “We want you to learn that illnesses aren’t just in the body, but also in the mind. So there really aren’t demons inhabiting people; it’s the imperfect working of human minds that gives that appearance.”

Or: (for the sake of illustration, putting aside my concerns about souls and heaven): “And we know there are going to be those so damaged and twisted into evil that they simply cannot be healed despite our best efforts–and we will try everything. But even for these, eternal punishment would be unthinkable, and it is not our way. We want everyone that can join us to be in heaven; for those that can’t, it’s instant annihilation of the soul.”

Instead, the so-called discoveries of theology (Polkinghorne’s term ) have mainstream Christianity supporting the subordination of women, anti-Semitism, slavery, the racial inferiority of blacks, and apartheid, well into the 20th century at least.

Divine agency

I found myself in a confusing stew of claims about divine agency. Polkinghorne’s free-process defense implies a God who let the universe unfold on its own (LON pp. 445-6), but elsewhere he does not stick with that (LON pp. 446-7). He asserts that physical laws are so reliable there are certain things you cannot pray for (LON p. 446). But elsewhere he asserts God can work through a type of physics not yet known in order to exercise divine agency in real time (LON pp. 446-7). Similarly, Collins argues at one point that God set everything in motion from the beginning to achieve the exact desired outcome, instead of leaving things to the apparent chance of evolution (LOG p. 205). Sounds like deism. But elsewhere it’s theism, God working and communing with humans in real time (LOG p. 210). Deism gives God full responsibility for evil, but elsewhere Collins blames free human choice for the traditional Fall (LOG p. 201). Pollard divides miracles into two types: first, those that violate the laws of physics, like the resurrection (CP pp. 105-6). The others are achieved by God working within quantum physics in such a way that he can control things, while from the outside it would look like standard physics (CP, main thesis). Like his colleagues, he doesn’t accept every purported miracle in the Bible, like the creation story (CP p. 33). And in asserting the thesis concerning quantum, he states that God “imposes upon all creation a rigid conformance to His will and intention for it” (CP p. 124). This turns scientific predictability (not to mention human freedom) into an illusion, though he tries to claim otherwise. This seems like a pretty unscientific place for a scientist to land. And it’s the opposite of Polkinghorne’s free-process defense.

All three of these (and Miller) invoke some kind of purported indeterminacy in physics to grant entry to divine agency in real time. This was another confusing stew, because they do it in different ways, and contradict each other and, in some cases, mainstream physics. Pollard: Quantum indeterminacy allows for divine agency, and divine agency controls everything; there is no real freedom (CP, main thesis; p. 124). Miller: Quantum indeterminacy salvages human freedom from determinism (FDG, thesis of second half of book). Collins: Quantum indeterminacy refutes determinism (LOG pp. 78-80). But it’s not at all clear that they are right. There is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that is deterministic (Bohm’s), and many physicists buy this. One theoretical physicist puts it this way: “I would say that not only is a refutation of determinism essentially impossible, but not the slightest argument in favour of that idea is to be found in modern physics.” Another article states that particle motion under quantum mechanics “is at least as predictable” as that under classical mechanics. It’s good to remember that modern computer-type electronics is completely reliant on quantum behavior. So quantum mechanics is reliable and predictable enough to land planes and target inter-planetary probes. So asserting that God can control everything or even some things through quantum unpredictability is not solid.

Point for Polkinghorne: He rejects quantum mechanics as a place for God’s intervention or freedom. He correctly indicates it may be deterministic, and also says random isn’t freedom (LON p. 443). Point against Polkinghorne: Instead, he extracts the entry point for God and freedom in the (apparent) indeterminacy of chaotic systems (LON p. 440-4). But physics asserts such systems are fully determined, though too difficult for us to predict, so this would not support Polkinghorne’s claim. So he goes one step further, and asserts a hope or belief or guess that a type of physics will be discovered that will prove such systems are inherently, instead of only apparently, nondetermined, and thus salvage a place for divine agency and human freedom (LON, p. 445-8). Hoping science will catch up to how you think things ought to be seems like an odd spot for a scientist.

Aside from the problem of how it might occur, what about evidence that ongoing divine agency does occur? First, the question of miracles. This would naturally be a tough area for scientists to tread in, and the results bear that out. All of these scientist believers accept miracles as true and as proof of God’s activity in the world, especially key miracles from the New Testament (like Jesus’ physical resurrection on earth) (CP pp. 105-6, LOG pp. 47-54, 221-4, QT pp. 21, 86-7). And on what evidence? Scripture, primarily. This introduces the first set of problems. They pretty much uncritically accept the New Testament as sound historical evidence. Polkinghorne remarks on some of its weakest elements as validation of its authenticity (QT p. 21, QP pp. 37-47). And he invokes Paul as additional authentication, but wrongly, I think. He states Paul wouldn’t claim resurrection if the tomb wasn’t empty (QP p. 45). But from what I have read of Paul and commentary, he went to quite a bit of trouble to support a resurrection with a new body in heaven, and clearly distinguished this from the corpse being resurrected on earth (1 Corinthians 15). Collins makes astonishing statements about the Gospels being the accounts of eyewitnesses (LOG pp. 175, 223), and how any manuscript concerns have been put to rest (LOG p. 223), and that Jesus’ life is as well attested as Julius Caesar’s (LOG p. 224). Here they have abandoned historical and manuscript criticism, a true cousin of science, and accept without concern accounts that cannot be reconciled with each other, were written decades after the fact by unknown authors using unknown sources, at a time when such stories were eagerly accepted and spread uncritically, for which we have thousands of conflicting versions dating to decades, if not centuries after they were written. Yet, they are willing to accept some parts but not others (CP p. 66, LOG p. 83, LON p. 446), to use modern knowledge to interpret some of it (CP p. 66, LOG p. 83, FSU p. 64), but not to apply known rules of science to other parts, and it is not clear what allows them to draw these distinctions.

In largely accepting scripture as is, they are admitting a type of evidence that is as supportive of the miracle claims and validity of any other religion as it is of Christianity. Then they are left, it would seem, only with personal and community religious experience as the specific support for Christian belief and scripture. And these are notoriously subject to misinterpretation and, sadly, misuse (the witch-burning example addressed later would be one example). These are also types of evidence that don’t specifically support of Christianity–adherents of all religions experience similarly deep, personal confirmation of their beliefs. Rather, what you were taught as a child, and what religious-cultural influences surround you, seem to be the biggest determinants of what rings true. Imagine Polkinghorne giving up his Cambridge chair to become an Imam.

The end result is that these scientists accept stories of astonishing violations of physical laws on evidence they would find laughable in any other sphere. They don’t address the rarity or nonexistence of well-documented miracles since Biblical times, if ever. They don’t convincingly address why they accept some miracles (the resurrection) and not others (the creation story). If miracles can happen, how do we rely on the predictability of physical laws as the basis for scientific conclusions? Collins accepts C. S. Lewis’ idea that miracles occur at key spiritual junctures in history (LOG p. 53). When Jesus killed off a fig tree for having no fruit, when it wasn’t even in season, what key spiritual end was furthered?
Is there evidence of daily divine responsiveness and creative activity besides the outworking of natural laws? Believers would say this is in the eye of the beholder, which, of course, cuts both ways. We only have the interpretation of personal experience to go on while subject to various kinds of bias in perception, categorization, memory, and reporting.

And what about the efficacy of intercessory prayer? Besides benefiting the one who prays, does it effect real change for the events or persons prayed for? Sorting this out is also subject to a number of different kinds of bias, and has not been verifiably shown. But the concept itself is problematic. Does God want or need us to pray for good things to happen? If it’s “want” but not “need,” isn’t it then just for the benefit of the pray-er and not actually efficacious? If God actually needs our prayers, doesn’t that imply a limit to God’s power? Is the limitation actual or self-imposed? If actual, that would seem to contradict theistic claims of God being all-powerful. If self-imposed, this paints an odd picture that includes scenarios where God could and would intervene except for the lack of prayer. What about situations no one knows to pray for? What about situations where huge amounts of prayer appear unanswered? This seems to contradict either God’s compassionate nature, or the teaching “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22), or both.

Beauty, intelligibility, life-friendliness: arguing from design

Collins cautions his believer readers not to put trust in arguments that rest on likely temporary gaps in knowledge (LOG pp. 92-3). Instead: “There are good reasons to believe in God, 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” (LOG p. 93). Polkinghorne similarly asserts: “Yet the rational transparency and beauty of the universe are surely too remarkable to be treated as just happy accidents” (QT p. 12) and “Science is possible because the universe is a divine creation” (QP p. 8). It used to be all too obvious from the beauty and complexity of the universe and life, that there must be a designer. Now we know amazing complexity can arise through the outworking of dumb physics. But Collins and Polkinghorne circle back and assert the argument in a different form: orderliness and intelligibility in the universe, and the success of mathematics at describing things, prove a designer did it. Neither of them defends this except Polkinghorne poetically, and there is no reason to suppose that an uncreated universe would be disorderly, unintelligible, or immune to math.

Collins and Polkinghorne both invoke another design argument, by asserting that the “wildly improbable” (LOG p. 74) life-friendliness of the universe argues for a divine creator (QT pp. 12-4, LOG pp. 71-8). As Collins puts it, “The chance that all of these [basic physical] constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal” (LOG p. 74). This appears to be another God-of-the-gaps argument–we know too little to be able to make this fantastic leap from the fact that we do exist to the conclusion that we really shouldn’t, or even were divinely made.

  1. We don’t know if any other set of constants and laws are even possible. We also don’t know that the constants can vary independently from one another. They may all be causally related to one another or to some more fundamental feature. We used to think there were as many as 40 fundamental constants, including the boiling point of water. Now we know that this derives from quantum mechanics, and the number of fundamental constants is now down to six or so.[13] So this universe may be the only way it can go.
  2. It may not be that our universe is as special as we think; there could be many others that are special or interesting in different ways. Life could arise through different means or different chemistries or different physical laws, if those even exist.
  3. There may be standard physical mechanisms for producing multiple separate universes with different laws. If so, the existence of one like ours would no longer be unexpected. We might never be able to detect the other universes, but we may able to prove they should be there.
  4. A very unlikely outcome does not allow you to say the cause wasn’t random. The fact that this universe exists cannot be used to prove we were divinely created.[14]

Human special-ness: arguing from design, incredulity, or gaps?

Polkinghorne and Collins claim certain human abilities are beyond naturalistic or evolutionary explanations, and are therefore proof of God’s divine hand: Knowledge of the moral law, longing for God, transcendent experiences (LOG pp. 23-5, 35-38, 228-9, QT p.14, Polkinghorne Belief in God in an Age of Science, Yale, 1998, pp. 18-19). Polkinghorne says he believes that physics and space-time-matter-energy are all there is, but then he goes to a lot of trouble to say that really can’t be all there is, because then we would be automata, and “… I believe that we know as surely as we know anything that we are not automata” (LON p. 448). He rests his assertion on a type of physics, chaotic systems, notoriously difficult to predict but thought to be fully deterministic nonetheless. On top of this, as I mentioned before, he guesses or hopes that there might be some other kind of physics we do not yet know of, that will preserve his idea of human freedom. Meanwhile, other theologians simply accept the physicalist relationship between brain and mind–without the new physics not yet known–that Polkinghorne cannot yet bring himself to do.[15]

Polkinghorne again: The fact that we can understand such things as quantum physics and cosmology, “regimes that are remote from direct human encounter and whose understanding calls for ways of thought quite different from those of everyday life … undermines the invocation of Darwinian evolutionary process as an all-sufficient explanation” (QP pp. 7-8). He seems to mean that natural selection could only explain knowledge directly related to survival and reproduction. Perhaps that’s a forgivable misunderstanding for a physicist. What about for arguably the most famous geneticist in the world, and the head of the NIH?

Collins and Polkinghorne together assert that awareness of right and wrong, and the longing for the divine, are also unexplainable in evolutionary terms, and therefore proof of God (LOG pp. 23-5, QT p.14).[16] “Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness” (p. 23). To me, if there is any contrast with other animals, it is that we can rise both higher, and sink way lower, than they can. And so are we that much different? A reviewer points out that “monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks.”[17]

And Collins himself unintentionally undercuts the purported high morality of humans. He tries to downplay the meaning of the horrible abuses ascribed to Christianity, citing witch-burning as an example.

In some unusual cultures the law [of good and evil] takes on surprising trappings–consider witch burning in seventeenth-century America. Yet when surveyed closely, these apparent aberrations can be seen to arise from strongly held but misguided conclusions about who or what is good or evil. If you firmly believed that a witch is the personification of evil on earth, an apostle of the devil himself, would it not then seem justified to take such drastic action?” (LOG p. 24)

If I’ve read the Gospel correctly, the answer would be no, that it’s a distortion of Christian teaching in any time. But Collins seems to see this horror as OK in its cultural context, simply the law of moral behavior taking on “surprising trappings.” In one fell swoop, this seems to be as good an illustration as any of, first, how discerning divine teaching is treacherous, and most pertinent to the current point, how we should be careful about giving too much credit to human morality. If witch burning is carried out in the name of religion, and can be termed an application of moral law even in the 21st century, isn’t this rather an argument for our advanced cognitive capacities justifying what no animal would stoop to?

Back to morality in the context of evolution: It’s a good rule of thumb that when you have a sound explanatory structure, build on it until you’ve truly exhausted it. You would expect the head of the NIH to be the cheerleader-in-chief for this guideline when it comes to evolution, the framework that, even in his own view, binds all of biology together. And it applies perfectly to the morality question. For to say God gave us our moral sense is to bail out on fully exploring what evolution could bring. First, it neglects a solid body of observations showing continuity with other animals that gives a beautiful scientific unity to evolution in this area. What differences there are may be explained by our advanced development of intentionality and self-awareness, which also have evolutionary roots.

Second, Collins’s bail-out neglects plausible mechanisms for how evolution could have given us our moral sense. These just require recognizing a well-known facet of Darwinian evolution: Natural selection coupled with cultural and psychological elaborations on evolutionarily developed capacities give us the ability to do much more than focus on survival and reproduction. Once there is a sex drive, it drives us toward sex even when reproduction is not possible. Once we are driven to understand the world so we can protect ourselves, we have curiosity about, and the capacity to successfully understand, things not directly related to protection, like quantum physics and cosmology. And once you are driven to care for others in your family or group, through several evolutionarily sound paths,[18] that drive can extend itself far and wide. I don’t believe Collins doesn’t know this, and his failure to allow for it in the case of morality is a puzzle. I have to mark it down to some form of the argument from personal incredulity, or an unintentional God-of the-gaps position, to the effect that evolution is not robust enough in this area. Whatever its source, it is significant for one of the most senior scientists in government, wielding a huge research budget, to write off the potential for further scientific inquiry in areas of such importance, touching on psychology and mental health, sociology, anthropology, and ethology.


I don’t think you can make a coherent worldview that handles the full implications of both science and traditional, theistic Christianity. The methods and data and conclusions conflict at just about every turn. Over and over, in ways small and large, these scientist believers cut corners and carve out loopholes for belief in God that they warn others against and would recoil from in their scientific day-jobs.


[1] William G. Pollard, [CP] Chance and Providence: God’s Action In a World Governed by Scientific Law, Scribner, 1958, accessed via www.archive.org/details/chanceandprovide028224mbp, accessed 1/15/12.

[2] John Polkinghorne, [LON] “The Laws of Nature and the Laws of Physics,” in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action; ed. Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, C.J. Isham; Vatican Observatory Publications and The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1993; [QP] Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, Yale, 2007; with Nicholas Beale, [QT] Questions of Truth: Fifty-One Responses to Questions About God, Science, and Belief, Westminster John Knox, 2009; [FSU] Faith, Science, and Understanding, Yale, 2001.

[3] Francis S. Collins, [LOG] The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief, Free Press, 2006.

[4] Kenneth R. Miller, [FDG] Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, 2000, Harper.

[5] For example, Nancey Murphy, “The Problem of Mental Causation: How does reason get its grip on the brain?”, , accessed 1/22/12.

[6] Nancey Murphy is said to propose a way this might occur which respects her acceptance of physicalist-monism for the human mind-brain. I have not read the book, but only a review of this book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? Cambridge, 2006. I also read a secondary source that says Polkinghorne has attempted the same.

[7] George C. Cunningham. Decoding the Language of God: Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer? A Geneticist Responds to Francis Collins. Prometheus, 2009, p. 205.

[8] I found it hard to believe, but Collins actually offers the argument that if God’s presence were clear and certain, “How interesting would that be?” (LOG p. 34) Philosophers seem to like to name the arguments for and against God. Would this be the argument from boredom?

[9] Polkinghorne wrote an entire book making the case for a “cousinly” relationship between quantum physics and theology, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, Yale, 2007. I think the case fails early on, when Polkinghorne lists what to him are understandable but acceptable differences, and to me are fatal. Key among these (pp. 7-15):

  • God can insert revelation into theology. This introduces a subjective, or at best a community dialog function to validate new ideas that are in the end untestable, in stark contrast to science.
  • Theology has to keep true to its founding roots, events, or insights. Science can abort adherence to past ideas that are proven wrong.
  • Theology lacks the “secret weapon of experiment” (p. 9). In its place, “in all forms of subjective experience” including “the transpersonal encounter with the sacred reality of God,” “their valid interpretation depends ultimately upon a trusting accepting acceptance rather than a testing analysis” (p. 9). Another distinction fatal to any true kinship, in my view.
  • In science, “No unshakable reliance is to be placed on supposed a priori certainties, but evidence is demanded if expectations are to be revised” (pp. 23-4). He claims analogy to writers of the New Testament, who “were forced to affirm the even more perplexing fact of their encountering qualities both human and divine in their experience of Jesus Christ. . . .”, leading “the Church eventually to Trinitarian and incarnational belief” (p. 24). Yet the creation of the universe by an all-powerful, disembodied spirit is asserted on no direct evidence, and the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ divinity is given the status of fact. The contrast in the types of data and basis for claims allowed in science versus theology is indeed stark.
  • Polkinghorne rightly notes that in science, there tends to be consensus at least at some level–perhaps in the worst case, on what the disagreements are and what data is needed to resolve them. He contrasts the “challenging and perplexing” (p. 13) disagreements in theology and admits that “These clashes seem to exceed anything that could be explained simply as culturally diverse ways of expressing the same underlying truth.” (p. 13) “These clashes” include centuries of arguments and libraries of books, fundamental questions of ethics unsettled, schism, and move on up to various sorts of violence and war. Quite different from science.

[10] Jean Bricmont, “Determinism, Chaos and Quantum Mechanics”, accessed 1/18/12

[11] Wikipedia, “Determinism,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinism#Quantum_world, “Quantum world” subsection, accessed 1/19/12

[12] He also embraces C. S. Lewis’s trilemma concerning Jesus, that Jesus’ claims to be God made him either Lord, lunatic, or liar–purportedly forcing belief if you rule out liar and lunatic. But I think there are two other reasonable options. Jesus could have been mistaken, as he was about the imminent arrival of the end times, or those claims could have been put in his mouth by later traditions.

[13] Richard Carrier, “Response to James Hannam’s ‘In Defense of the Fine Tuning Design Argument’ (2001),” https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard-carrier-finetuning/, accessed Jan 17, 2012

[14] Theodore M. Drange , “The fine-tuning argument revisited (2000)”, https://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore-drange-tuning-revisited/, accessed October 2, 2011; Victor J. Stenger, “The anthropic coincidences: a natural explanation”, in The Improbability of God, Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, ed., Prometheus, 2006; Michael Ikeda and Bill Jefferys, “The anthropic principle does not support supernaturalism,” in The Improbability of God, cited above; Richard Carrier, “Response to James Hannam’s ‘In Defense of the Fine Tuning Design Argument’ (2001),” cited above.

[15] Nancey Murphy, op cit.

[16] Part of this is Collins’s strange claim, endorsing a view of C.S. Lewis, that it would be impossible for us to be born with desires that cannot be fulfilled, so the desire for God must be because God exists (LOG p. 38). I don’t have to work too hard to find a bunch of desires I have that cannot be fulfilled, and I think this idea stretches credulity. But it is not the main contention.

[17] Sam Harris, “The Strange Case of Francis Collins”, , accessed 1/14/12.

[18] Examples include kin selection, reciprocal altruism (and the related concept, cooperation–see Okasha, Samir, “Biological Altruism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/altruism-biological/, accessed April 24, 2012), and the desirability of a positive reputation. See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

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