Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Notes: The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

Francis S. Collins will be remembered as a significant figure in late 20thC/early 21stC science, and his name will forever be associated with the sequencing of the human genome - a project he took over in its infancy and saw through to completion.

Virtually all Collins' publications have been in scientific, medical and genetic research - except this one which is quite different. In the works of contemporary writers there is often an assumption that science and faith are inherently opposed to one another; this perceived tension comes both from atheistic scientists as well as creationists. Dawkins, of course, describes these categories as 'smarts' versus 'faith-heads' arguing that scientific understanding and intelligence is directly associated with an absence of faith. In short, atheists like him are clever and scientific while 'faith-heads' are unscientific simpletons. Collins has written this short and very straightforward book to directly refute such claims - not least by saying that all his scientific achievements have not eroded his faith in God; but rather led to his renunciation of atheism! Indeed he goes as far as describing his research as an act of worship!

But it is not only materialists who Collins confronts in his book. He is as scathing of so-called 'creation-science' as it is perhaps possible to be; and he calls on believers to encounter science on its own terms, rather than manipulate the data to fit their theological pre-conceptions. As he does so, he is sensitive to the charge that he is 'watering down' faith, that is retreating from solid Biblical theology in the wake of Darwin. In response to this obvious accusation he refers the reader to the hermeneutical debates about the Genesis narratives which date back at least as far as St Augustine (who didn't hold to literal young-earth creationism), who can hardly be accused of post-Darwin compromise! Science, for Collins, has helped believers see which ancient hermeneutical approach to those ancient texts is most appropriate. In Collins' view then, it is so-called creationism which has allowed scientific discoveries to shape their agenda, in that the burgeoning 'creationist' movement is a regrettable anti-reaction to Darwin, which has lead too many people of faith into an anti-scientific mindset.

'The Language of God' is Collins' attempt to call scientists to drop the idea that science can provide answers to the philosophical and theological questions of existence, for which its tools are totally useless. Likewise he calls on believers to retreat from the 'intellectual suicide' (sic) of expecting to derive scientific data from pre-scientific texts by using the poor tools of literalistic hermeneutics. He pauses for a few moments to consider Intelligent Design (ID) in his discussion, and is at least willing to consider it on its scientific attributes - only to rather witheringly dismiss it as bad-science, carrying all the flaws of earlier "God-of-the-gaps" theories, albeit with more sophistication. His preferred option, in his theistic-evolutionary perspective, is for a God-guided "fine-tuned" universe - designed specifically to facilitate the development of life. His basic description of this process is fascinating, and even exciting reading - accessible to a non-scientist like me.

Into this mix Collins also describes his own journey from atheism to faith, which took place in the company of his burgeoning scientific career and the writings of C.S. Lewis. Alongside some personal subjective spiritual experiences which he is happy to describe and hold up for the derision of atheists, he also refers to the arguments which for him were conclusive in his questions about theism. He hangs great weight on the persistence of altruism in the face of an inherently 'selfish' evolutionary system and his perception of a virtually-universal moral law. The story of the decoding of the genome, and some reflections on the possibilities for medical science, as well as some discussion on the ethical dilemmas it has produced conclude the book.

One of the remarkable things about this book is how straightforward it is. Collins has not waded deeply into philosophy, or Christian apologetics; neither has he written a book of such scientific technical density that it is out of the grasp of the lay-reader. Rather he has laid out his way of synthesising the mind and the spirit (to use that clumsy terminology) giving a helpful overview of both sides of the equation. Music, argues Collins, is something profoundly moving which can connect human beings in a deep, almost spiritual way, with its beauty, melancholy or joy. To measure music as being merely quantifiable vibrations in the air - is absolutely accurate, but misses their greater significance. Collins - from the viewpoint of the very pinnacle of contemporary scientific endeavour, argues that to forward a purely scientific and atheist account of the universe and the origins of life does exactly that; not merely to a tune, but to absolutely everything. Ultimately, in this I think he is persuasive.

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