Time, Sunday, Nov. 05, 2006, posted in KJF 15 August 2009
There are two great debates under the broad heading of Science vs. God. The more familiar over the past few years is the narrower of the two: Can Darwinian evolution withstand the criticisms of Christians who believe that it contradicts the creation account in the Book of Genesis? In recent years, creationism took on new currency as the spiritual progenitor of "intelligent design" (I.D.), a scientifically worded attempt to show that blanks in the evolutionary narrative are more meaningful than its very convincing totality. I.D. lost some of its journalistic heat last December when a federal judge dismissed it as pseudoscience unsuitable for teaching in Pennsylvania schools.
But in fact creationism and I.D. are intimately related to a larger unresolved question, in which the aggressor's role is reversed : Can religion stand up to the progress of science? This debate long predates Darwin, but the antireligion position is being promoted with increasing insistence by scientists angered by intelligent design and excited, perhaps intoxicated, by their disciplines' increasing ability to map, quantify and change the nature of human experience. Brain imaging illustrates--in color!--the physical seat of the will and the passions, challenging the religious concept of a soul independent of glands and gristle. Brain chemists track imbalances that could account for the ecstatic states of visionary saints or, some suggest, of Jesus. Like Freudianism before it, the field of evolutionary psychology generates theories of altruism and even of religion that do not include God. Something called the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology speculates that ours may be but one in a cascade of universes, suddenly bettering the odds that life could have cropped up here accidentally, without divine intervention. (If the probabilities were 1 in a billion, and you've got 300 billion universes, why not?)
Roman Catholicism's Christoph Cardinal Schönborn has dubbed the most fervent of faith-challenging scientists followers of "scientism" or "evolutionism," since they hope science, beyond being a measure, can replace religion as a worldview and a touchstone. It is not an epithet that fits everyone wielding a test tube. But a growing proportion of the profession is experiencing what one major researcher calls "unprecedented outrage" at perceived insults to research and rationality, ranging from the alleged influence of the Christian right on Bush Administration science policy to the fanatic faith of the 9/11 terrorists to intelligent design's ongoing claims. Some are radicalized enough to publicly pick an ancient scab: the idea that science and religion, far from being complementary responses to the unknown, are at utter odds--or, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written bluntly, "Religion and science will always clash." The market seems flooded with books by scientists describing a caged death match between science and God--with science winning, or at least chipping away at faith's underlying verities.
Finding a spokesman for this side of the question was not hard, since Richard Dawkins, perhaps its foremost polemicist, has just come out with The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin), the rare volume whose position is so clear it forgoes a subtitle. The five-week New York Times best seller (now at No. 8) attacks faith philosophically and historically as well as scientifically, but leans heavily on Darwinian theory, which was Dawkins' expertise as a young scientist and more recently as an explicator of evolutionary psychology so lucid that he occupies the Charles Simonyi professorship for the public understanding of science at Oxford University.
Dawkins is riding the crest of an atheist literary wave. In 2004, The End of Faith, a multipronged indictment by neuroscience grad student Sam Harris, was published (over 400,000 copies in print). Harris has written a 96-page follow-up, Letter to a Christian Nation, which is now No. 14 on the Times list. Last February, Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett produced Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which has sold fewer copies but has helped usher the discussion into the public arena.
If Dennett and Harris are almost-scientists (Dennett runs a multidisciplinary scientific-philosophic program), the authors of half a dozen aggressively secular volumes are card carriers: In Moral Minds, Harvard biologist Marc Hauser explores the--nondivine--origins of our sense of right and wrong (September); in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (due in January) by self-described "atheist-reductionist-materialist" biologist Lewis Wolpert, religion is one of those impossible things; Victor Stenger, a physicist-astronomer, has a book coming out titled God : The Failed Hypothesis. Meanwhile, Ann Druyan, widow of archskeptical astrophysicist Carl Sagan, has edited Sagan's unpublished lectures on God and his absence into a book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, out this month.
Dawkins and his army have a swarm of articulate theological opponents, of course. But the most ardent of these don't really care very much about science, and an argument in which one party stands immovable on Scripture and the other immobile on the periodic table doesn't get anyone very far. Most Americans occupy the middle ground: we want it all. We want to cheer on science's strides and still humble ourselves on the Sabbath. We want access to both MRIs and miracles. We want debates about issues like stem cells without conceding that the positions are so intrinsically inimical as to make discussion fruitless. And to balance formidable standard bearers like Dawkins, we seek those who possess religious conviction but also scientific achievements to credibly argue the widespread hope that science and God are in harmony--that, indeed, science is of God.
Informed conciliators have recently become more vocal. Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden has just come out with Evolution and Christian Faith, which provides what she calls a "strong Christian defense" of evolutionary biology, illustrating the discipline's major concepts with biblical passages. Entomologist Edward O. Wilson, a famous skeptic of standard faith, has written The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, urging believers and non-believers to unite over conservation. But foremost of those arguing for common ground is Francis Collins.
Collins' devotion to genetics is, if possible, greater than Dawkins'. Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute since 1993, he headed a multinational 2,400-scientist team that co-mapped the 3 billion biochemical letters of our genetic blueprint, a milestone that then President Bill Clinton honored in a 2000 White House ceremony, comparing the genome chart to Meriwether Lewis' map of his fateful continental exploration. Collins continues to lead his institute in studying the genome and mining it for medical breakthroughs.
He is also a forthright Christian who converted from atheism at age 27 and now finds time to advise young evangelical scientists on how to declare their faith in science's largely agnostic upper reaches. His summer best seller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press), laid out some of the arguments he brought to bear in the 90-minute debate TIME arranged between Dawkins and Collins in our offices at the Time & Life Building in New York City on Sept. 30. Some excerpts from their spirited exchange:
TIME: Professor Dawkins, if one truly understands science, is God then a delusion, as your book title suggests?
DAWKINS: The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God, is one of the most important that we have to answer. I think that it is a scientific question. My answer is no.
TIME: Dr. Collins, you believe that science is compatible with Christian faith.
COLLINS : Yes. God's existence is either true or not. But calling it a scientific question implies that the tools of science can provide the answer. From my perspective, God cannot be completely contained within nature, and therefore God's existence is outside of science's ability to really weigh in.
TIME: Stephen Jay Gould, a Harvard paleontologist, famously argued that religion and science can coexist, because they occupy separate, airtight boxes. You both seem to disagree.
COLLINS: Gould sets up an artificial wall between the two worldviews that doesn't exist in my life. Because I do believe in God's creative power in having brought it all into being in the first place, I find that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation.
DAWKINS: I think that Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp. But it's a very empty idea. There are plenty of places where religion does not keep off the scientific turf. Any belief in miracles is flat contradictory not just to the facts of science but to the spirit of science.
TIME: Professor Dawkins, you think Darwin's theory of evolution does more than simply contradict the Genesis story.
DAWKINS: Yes. For centuries the most powerful argument for God's existence from the physical world was the so-called argument from design : Living things are so beautiful and elegant and so apparently purposeful, they could only have been made by an intelligent designer. But Darwin provided a simpler explanation. His way is a gradual, incremental improvement starting from very simple beginnings and working up step by tiny incremental step to more complexity, more elegance, more adaptive perfection. Each step is not too improbable for us to countenance, but when you add them up cumulatively over millions of years, you get these monsters of improbability, like the human brain and the rain forest. It should warn us against ever again assuming that because something is complicated, God must have done it.
COLLINS: I don't see that Professor Dawkins' basic account of evolution is incompatible with God's having designed it.
TIME: When would this have occurred?
COLLINS : By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.
DAWKINS : I think that's a tremendous cop-out. If God wanted to create life and create humans, it would be slightly odd that he should choose the extraordinarily roundabout way of waiting for 10 billion years before life got started and then waiting for another 4 billion years until you got human beings capable of worshipping and sinning and all the other things religious people are interested in.
COLLINS: Who are we to say that that was an odd way to do it? I don't think that it is God's purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation ?
TIME: Both your books suggest that if the universal constants, the six or more characteristics of our universe, had varied at all, it would have made life impossible. Dr. Collins, can you provide an example ?
COLLINS: The gravitational constant, if it were off by one part in a hundred million million, then the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang would not have occurred in the fashion that was necessary for life to occur. When you look at that evidence, it is very difficult to adopt the view that this was just chance. But if you are willing to consider the possibility of a designer, this becomes a rather plausible explanation for what is otherwise an exceedingly improbable event -- namely, our existence.
DAWKINS : People who believe in God conclude there must have been a divine knob twiddler who twiddled the knobs of these half-dozen constants to get them exactly right. The problem is that this says, because something is vastly improbable, we need a God to explain it. But that God himself would be even more improbable. Physicists have come up with other explanations. One is to say that these six constants are not free to vary. Some unified theory will eventually show that they are as locked in as the circumference and the diameter of a circle. That reduces the odds of them all independently just happening to fit the bill. The other way is the multiverse way. That says that maybe the universe we are in is one of a very large number of universes. The vast majority will not contain life because they have the wrong gravitational constant or the wrong this constant or that constant. But as the number of universes climbs, the odds mount that a tiny minority of universes will have the right fine-tuning.
COLLINS : This is an interesting choice. Barring a theoretical resolution, which I think is unlikely, you either have to say there are zillions of parallel universes out there that we can't observe at present or you have to say there was a plan. I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling than the bubbling of all these multiverses. So Occam's razor -- Occam says you should choose the explanation that is most simple and straightforward -- leads me more to believe in God than in the multiverse, which seems quite a stretch of the imagination.
DAWKINS: I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine. What I can't understand is why you invoke improbability and yet you will not admit that you're shooting yourself in the foot by postulating something just as improbable, magicking into existence the word God.
COLLINS: My God is not improbable to me. He has no need of a creation story for himself or to be fine-tuned by something else. God is the answer to all of those "How must it have come to be" questions.
DAWKINS: I think that's the mother and father of all cop-outs. It's an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from. Now Dr. Collins says, "Well, God did it. And God needs no explanation because God is outside all this." Well, what an incredible evasion of the responsibility to explain. Scientists don't do that. Scientists say, "We're working on it. We're struggling to understand."
COLLINS: Certainly science should continue to see whether we can find evidence for multiverses that might explain why our own universe seems to be so finely tuned. But I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That's an impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as "Why am I here?", "What happens after we die?", "Is there a God?" If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn't convince you on a proof basis. But if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion.
DAWKINS: To me, the right approach is to say we are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God--it's that that seems to me to close off the discussion.
TIME: Could the answer be God?
DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.
COLLINS: That's God.
DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small--at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case.
TIME: The Book of Genesis has led many conservative Protestants to oppose evolution and some to insist that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
COLLINS: There are sincere believers who interpret Genesis 1 and 2 in a very literal way that is inconsistent, frankly, with our knowledge of the universe's age or of how living organisms are related to each other. St. Augustine wrote that basically it is not possible to understand what was being described in Genesis. It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God. Augustine explicitly warns against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If you step back from that one narrow interpretation, what the Bible describes is very consistent with the Big Bang.
DAWKINS: Physicists are working on the Big Bang, and one day they may or may not solve it. However, what Dr. Collins has just been--may I call you Francis?
COLLINS: Oh, please, Richard, do so.
DAWKINS: What Francis was just saying about Genesis was, of course, a little private quarrel between him and his Fundamentalist colleagues ...
COLLINS: It's not so private. It's rather public. [Laughs.]
DAWKINS: ... It would be unseemly for me to enter in except to suggest that he'd save himself an awful lot of trouble if he just simply ceased to give them the time of day. Why bother with these clowns?
COLLINS: Richard, I think we don't do a service to dialogue between science and faith to characterize sincere people by calling them names. That inspires an even more dug-in position. Atheists sometimes come across as a bit arrogant in this regard, and characterizing faith as something only an idiot would attach themselves to is not likely to help your case.
TIME: Dr. Collins, the Resurrection is an essential argument of Christian faith, but doesn't it, along with the virgin birth and lesser miracles, fatally undermine the scientific method, which depends on the constancy of natural laws?
COLLINS : If you're willing to answer yes to a God outside of nature, then there's nothing inconsistent with God on rare occasions choosing to invade the natural world in a way that appears miraculous. If God made the natural laws, why could he not violate them when it was a particularly significant moment for him to do so? And if you accept the idea that Christ was also divine, which I do, then his Resurrection is not in itself a great logical leap.
TIME: Doesn't the very notion of miracles throw off science?
COLLINS: Not at all. If you are in the camp I am, one place where science and faith could touch each other is in the investigation of supposedly miraculous events.
DAWKINS: If ever there was a slamming of the door in the face of constructive investigation, it is the word miracle. To a medieval peasant, a radio would have seemed like a miracle. All kinds of things may happen which we by the lights of today's science would classify as a miracle just as medieval science might a Boeing 747. Francis keeps saying things like "From the perspective of a believer." Once you buy into the position of faith, then suddenly you find yourself losing all of your natural skepticism and your scientific -- really scientific -- credibility. I'm sorry to be so blunt.
COLLINS: Richard, I actually agree with the first part of what you said. But I would challenge the statement that my scientific instincts are any less rigorous than yours. The difference is that my presumption of the possibility of God and therefore the supernatural is not zero, and yours is.
TIME: Dr. Collins, you have described humanity's moral sense not only as a gift from God but as a signpost that he exists.
COLLINS: There is a whole field of inquiry that has come up in the last 30 or 40 years -- some call it sociobiology or evolutionary psychology -- relating to where we get our moral sense and why we value the idea of altruism, and locating both answers in behavioral adaptations for the preservation of our genes. But if you believe, and Richard has been articulate in this, that natural selection operates on the individual, not on a group, then why would the individual risk his own DNA doing something selfless to help somebody in a way that might diminish his chance of reproducing? Granted, we may try to help our own family members because they share our DNA. Or help someone else in expectation that they will help us later. But when you look at what we admire as the most generous manifestations of altruism, they are not based on kin selection or reciprocity. An extreme example might be Oskar Schindler risking his life to save more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers. That's the opposite of saving his genes. We see less dramatic versions every day. Many of us think these qualities may come from God -- especially since justice and morality are two of the attributes we most readily identify with God.
DAWKINS: Can I begin with an analogy? Most people understand that sexual lust has to do with propagating genes. Copulation in nature tends to lead to reproduction and so to more genetic copies. But in modern society, most copulations involve contraception, designed precisely to avoid reproduction. Altruism probably has origins like those of lust. In our prehistoric past, we would have lived in extended families, surrounded by kin whose interests we might have wanted to promote because they shared our genes. Now we live in big cities. We are not among kin nor people who will ever reciprocate our good deeds. It doesn't matter. Just as people engaged in sex with contraception are not aware of being motivated by a drive to have babies, it doesn't cross our mind that the reason for do-gooding is based in the fact that our primitive ancestors lived in small groups. But that seems to me to be a highly plausible account for where the desire for morality, the desire for goodness, comes from.
COLLINS: For you to argue that our noblest acts are a misfiring of Darwinian behavior does not do justice to the sense we all have about the absolutes that are involved here of good and evil. Evolution may explain some features of the moral law, but it can't explain why it should have any real significance. If it is solely an evolutionary convenience, there is really no such thing as good or evil. But for me, it is much more than that. The moral law is a reason to think of God as plausible -- not just a God who sets the universe in motion but a God who cares about human beings, because we seem uniquely amongst creatures on the planet to have this far-developed sense of morality. What you've said implies that outside of the human mind, tuned by evolutionary processes, good and evil have no meaning. Do you agree with that?
DAWKINS: Even the question you're asking has no meaning to me. Good and evil -- I don't believe that there is hanging out there, anywhere, something called good and something called evil. I think that there are good things that happen and bad things that happen.
COLLINS: I think that is a fundamental difference between us. I'm glad we identified it.
TIME: Dr. Collins, I know you favor the opening of new stem-cell lines for experimentation. But doesn't the fact that faith has caused some people to rule this out risk creating a perception that religion is preventing science from saving lives?
COLLINS: Let me first say as a disclaimer that I speak as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Executive Branch of the United States government. The impression that people of faith are uniformly opposed to stem-cell research is not documented by surveys. In fact, many people of strong religious conviction think this can be a morally supportable approach.
TIME: But to the extent that a person argues on the basis of faith or Scripture rather than reason, how can scientists respond?
COLLINS: Faith is not the opposite of reason. Faith rests squarely upon reason, but with the added component of revelation. So such discussions between scientists and believers happen quite readily. But neither scientists nor believers always embody the principles precisely. Scientists can have their judgment clouded by their professional aspirations. And the pure truth of faith, which you can think of as this clear spiritual water, is poured into rusty vessels called human beings, and so sometimes the benevolent principles of faith can get distorted as positions are hardened.
DAWKINS: For me, moral questions such as stem-cell research turn upon whether suffering is caused. In this case, clearly none is. The embryos have no nervous system. But that's not an issue discussed publicly. The issue is, Are they human? If you are an absolutist moralist, you say, "These cells are human, and therefore they deserve some kind of special moral treatment." Absolutist morality doesn't have to come from religion but usually does.
We slaughter nonhuman animals in factory farms, and they do have nervous systems and do suffer. People of faith are not very interested in their suffering.
COLLINS: Do humans have a different moral significance than cows in general?
DAWKINS: Humans have more moral responsibility perhaps, because they are capable of reasoning.
TIME: Do the two of you have any concluding thoughts?
COLLINS: I just would like to say that over more than a quarter-century as a scientist and a believer, I find absolutely nothing in conflict between agreeing with Richard in practically all of his conclusions about the natural world, and also saying that I am still able to accept and embrace the possibility that there are answers that science isn't able to provide about the natural world--the questions about why instead of the questions about how. I'm interested in the whys. I find many of those answers in the spiritual realm. That in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist.
Thanks to Martin Gill for the
"God Vs. Science" was the featured debate in the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine between well-known scientists Dr. Francis Collins, who is a Christian, and Dr. Richard Dawkins, who is an atheist. The article reported a lively exchange between these two scientific heavyweights who answered questions from a moderator about various controversies involving religion and science. Skeptics and believers alike should read the original article ( http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1555132,00.html ). However, this essay will summarize the important points of the Time article and offer skeptical commentary.
In the first exchange, Dawkins and Collins apparently agreed that the proposition "God exists" is either true or false. Dawkins indicated that science is appropriate to the task of answering the question, but Collins disagreed: "From my perspective, God cannot be completely contained within nature, and therefore God's existence is outside of science's ability to really weigh in."
Collins started on the wrong foot by doing a little question begging; he assumed God's existence from the outset without presenting any evidence for the inference. But he also left the backdoor open for science to weigh in on God's existence. By saying that "God cannot be completely contained within nature," he implied that God can be partly contained within nature, which makes God open to scientific analysis. On the other hand, Collins implied that God is partly contained outside nature. Since we are part of nature, how could we ever get outside of it to see that there is anything on the other side? It is common for religious apologists like Collins to talk about things "outside nature" or "the supernatural," but they always seem to fall short in presenting any evidence that anything "supernatural" exists. By inventing a category called "supernatural" and relegating hypothetical things to it, they apparently hope to protect those things from the requirement of evidence.
Dawkins indicated that before the theory of evolution it was thought that the idea of God was required to explain the complexity, purpose, beauty, and elegance of living things. But the theory of evolution showed that the God hypothesis was unnecessary for the explanation. Collins responded by saying that a God, being "outside of nature" and therefore "outside of space and time," could have designed and activated evolution itself at the moment of his creation of the universe. Collins fails to consider all the consequences of inventing a realm or a being "outside of nature." One important feature of nature is its orderliness. If God were "outside of nature," wouldn't he be "outside of orderliness"? If so, then this would preclude him from having all the wonderful behavioral tendencies, such as perfect goodness, which are often ascribed to him. Collins is fond of saying that God is "outside of space and time." What does this mean? Does it make any sense to say that something exists outside space and time? When we apply the word "exists" to something, don't we mean that we can observe it or its effects in space and time? Have we ever observed anything outside space and time? Collins seems to be caught in the quicksand of contradiction. Even if one entertains for a moment the odd notion that God could exist "outside time," this seems to lead to a conclusion that he couldn't do anything, including the particularly spectacular act attributed to him, i.e. creating the universe.
Time is the measure of change. If there is no time, there is no change. If there is no change, there is no action. If there is no action, there is no creation. If God were to exist outside of time, he would be impotent to do anything at all! By insisting that God exists "outside of nature," Collins nearly makes his supernatural compartment so small that there isn't enough room for God.
In response, Dawkins indicated that it would be odd if God chose to create humans through a 14-billion-year process of evolution. Collins responded by saying that this roundabout way of producing humans would not be an odd course of action for a God not having the purpose of making "his intention absolutely obvious to us." Collins postulates a sort of subtle God who doesn't want to give us too much information about his existence. Responding further to Dawkins, Collins said "If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?" What would be so wrong with God's "posting obvious road signs"? Collins implies the answer, i.e. by doing so, God would simply be forcing us to believe in him!
Collins seems to endorse the dubious notion that giving clear unambiguous information to people would be forcing them to take a certain course of action. If we were to emulate the God whom Collins envisions, we would dispense with any "obvious road signs" and would withhold clear information from adolescents about the connection between smoking cigarettes and getting lung cancer so that they wouldn't be forced to forgo smoking. Rather than addressing the subtle God that Collins imagines, Dawkins challenges the traditional God. He is certainly correct that the inefficiency of evolution, not to mention its "errors of design," is inconsistent with the traditional idea of God as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being. This traditional kind of God would be more likely to operate through Creationism, but this hypothesized mode of operation is not supported by the evidence of biology, genetics, geology, and cosmology.
Collins and Dawkins then offered their differing views on the "fine-tuning" of our universe. According to this idea, if any of a half dozen of the "physical constants" of our universe had been just slightly different in value from what it actually is, then life as we know it, including human life, would not exist. The terminology gets a little confusing here. How can something that is a constant be different from what it is? When physicists and cosmologists talk about a "physical constant," they mean a physical factor which has a certain value (represented by a particular number) which is constant throughout all times and places in our universe but which might possibly vary across different universes, if there were other universes. A physical constant would have the same value throughout any given universe, but might vary from one universe to another.
Dawkins proposed two possible explanations for the values of the physical constants we find in our universe. One is that these constants couldn't be any different from what they are; they simply are what they are. The other is that our universe is just one of a very large population of universes. Within this great mulitverse environment, there are bound to be some universes that have the physical constants at just the right values to support the development of life, and we find ourselves in one of them. Collins dealt with the improbability of the physical constants, life, and human life by suggesting that a super-being selected the physical constants to be what they are. God "tuned" the universe to make life possible. In supporting his own explanation, Collins ignored the first hypothesis mentioned by Dawkins and attempted to dismiss the second. He said that the application of Occam's razor leads him to favor the God-as-tuner hypothesis. Dawkins responded by saying that the God hypothesis, although not impossible, is actually more improbable than the universe which it is designed to explain. Nevertheless, he advocated keeping an open mind when he said "It's an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from."
Although Dawkins seems to present the two best currently available alternatives to Collins' God hypothesis to explain the life-enabling values of the physical constants of our universe, he and Collins both seem to accept without any skepticism the proposition that our universe is improbable. But how can they just assume this? In my opinion, they do this through a misapplication of probability theory. In the debate they used the "gravitational constant" as an example. They correctly noted that if the gravitational constant (G) were different by one part in a hundred million million, then life, as we know it, would not be possible in our universe. One can imagine a range of values from X to Y, within which G is included (X?G?Y) and within which life is possible in our universe. Conversely, one can imagine a set of values outside the range of X to Y (i.e. Y) for which life is not possible in our universe. Dawkins and Collins jump to the conclusion that, since the former range of values is so small compared to the latter set of values, our universe must be really rare or improbable.
Not only do they ignore the idea that some other kind of life ("life as we do not know it") might be possible outside the X to Y range and the idea that there is an infinite number of values between X and Y for which life might be possible in our universe, more importantly, they also assume that they know something very important about a population of universes. In order to conclude that a particular item with some feature is improbable, one must know at least two facts about the population from which the item is drawn as a sample. One must know how many items with the feature are in the population and how many items without the feature are in that same population (or alternatively, how many items altogether are in the population). One can then draw valid inferences about the probabilities of different samples. The problem is that neither Dawkins nor Collins nor anyone else knows these facts about any possible population of universes from which our particular one might have been drawn as a sample.
In fact, we do not know that any other universes exist at all! Without knowledge of other universes, Dawkins and Collins misuse probability theory to conclude that our universe is rare. Because they start with an unwarranted assumption, their further speculations along these lines can't go very far. Even if we knew that a universe supportive of life was improbable, which we don't know, purposeful selection among possible universes (the God hypothesis) is a worse explanation of our particular universe than is random selection.
More must be said about Collins' contention that the application of Occam's razor supports the God hypothesis over the multiverse hypothesis. It doesn't. The God hypothesis is less parsimonious than the multiverse hypothesis for two reasons:
1. it invents a totally new type of entity, a supernatural
being "outside time and space," which is not necessary with the
latter hypothesis, and
2. it leads to the classic problem of infinite regress. If there must be something outside our universe, i.e. God, to explain the existence of our universe, then there must be something outside of God, i.e. "Z," to explain God. Then something is needed to explain "Z," ad infinitum.
At one point in the debate Collins said that those who interpret Genesis in a literal way reach conclusions at odds with the findings of science, especially on the age of the Earth and the way in which species are related. Alluding to St. Augustine and commenting on the book of Genesis, Collins said "It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God." It is just as likely or more likely that the writer of Genesis intended his narrative to be an accurate account of what happened during creation than that he intended his narrative to be metaphorical, figurative, or allegorical. Collins is able to avoid the conclusion that the Bible is very likely not the "word of God" by adopting a nonliteral interpretation. Dawkins suggested that in defending evolution from his fundamentalist colleagues Collins was simply having an in-house quarrel, something he should just avoid.
The debate then turned to a discussion of miracles. The Time moderator asked: "Dr. Collins, the Resurrection is an essential argument of Christian faith, but doesn't it, along with the virgin birth and lesser miracles, fatally undermine the scientific method?" It would have been better had he phrased his questions the other way around and asked if the scientific method undermines or throws off the claims of the Resurrection, the virgin birth, and other miracles. Nevertheless, Collins responded that if one accepts God's existence, then it is not unreasonable to expect that God might occasionally intervene in the world in a miraculous way, and that if one accepts that Jesus was divine then the Resurrection is "not a great logical leap." But these are big "ifs," and although Collins tries to show that they are plausible, he offers no good evidence to show that they are probable.
The debaters expressed different views on the origin of altruistic feelings and behavior. Collins said that there is a good explanation for some altruism; it either involves helping family members who share our DNA or it involves helping others whom we expect to help us later in return. But he said that there is not a good naturalistic explanation for altruism of the type exhibited by people such as Oskar Schindler who provided safety to Jews during the reign of the Nazis. It appears that people sometimes risk their lives and in the process also their genes in order to help strangers from whom they have no expectations of help in return. Collins implied that this altruism is a sign of God's existence and a gift from him. Dawkins asserted that altruism in these cases is a kind of carry-over from ancient times when altruism had survival value for people living in small clans. Going beyond altruism, Collins then pointed to the existence of "moral law" or the "absolutes � of good and evil" within the human species as evidence for the existence of God. This morality among humans is supposed to show that beyond just being a creator of the universe, God cares about us. Dawkins responded that good and evil don't exist as independent entities but that good and bad things simply happen to people.
Collins' "moral law" argument is another variation on the "God of the Gaps" theme. If science doesn't yet have a complete description of a phenomenon, then there must be a super-being behind the scenes who is responsible for whatever is in the gaps. A big problem with this approach is that it tends to put a damper on further investigation. Besides that, Collins has an obligation to present a positive case for God's existence and not just rely on the current apparent weaknesses of rival hypotheses. Collins' idea of a "moral law" is premature and far too rigid when one considers the variability in moral rules across different geographic areas, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. There are moral principles because humans are constantly deciding on how they should behave, especially towards each other, and there are some commonalities in these moral principles, but there is hardly a "moral law." In fact, the absence of a "moral law," a universally agreed upon set of moral rules, is more compatible with God's nonexistence than with his existence. Wouldn't an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God have revealed a universal moral code to all peoples from the very beginning of our species and reinforced it with booster training sessions each generation?
When he tried to explain why he supports the opening of new stem cell lines, in contrast to a great many other religious people, Collins presented a confusing, almost incoherent discussion of the relationship of faith and reason: "Faith is not the opposite of reason. Faith rests squarely upon reason, but with the added component of revelation." Part of the difficulty here is that "faith" has several different meanings and unfortunately Collins isn't clear about which meaning he intends. "Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence. It is this latter meaning that goes against Collins' platitude that "Faith is not the opposite of reason." Reason involves believing propositions on the basis of evidence or in proportion to the available evidence. Thus, if not strictly the opposite of one another, faith and reason are certainly incompatible. And how does adding revelation to the mix help at all? Revelation is not a separate way of knowing immune from the light of reason. One must still look at the evidence to evaluate a claim that a "holy book" contains "revelations" from a supreme being.
In his concluding remarks Collins indicated that he is interested in many "why" questions for which he believes answers may not come from science but from the "spiritual realm." In his concluding remarks Dawkins indicated his doubt that the future discoveries of science would support any of the beliefs of the traditional religions, beliefs that he regards as parochial, but nevertheless worthy of some respect. And on that conciliatory note, the debate was concluded.
Who won the debate? From the perspective of style or mode of expression, perhaps Collins won. At times, Dawkins seemed to come across as a bit testy and abrasive. He not only referred to fundamentalists as "clowns," but several times he accused Collins of presenting "cop outs." Collins, on the other hand, seemed more self-assured and gentlemanly in his interpersonal style. From the perspective of content or validity of argument, Dawkins won the debate hands-down. He made many points that Collins seemed helpless to rebut. Collins failed to show that he has found a satisfactory conciliation between religion and science, between faith and reason, or even that such a project is possible. Overall, the debate provided useful insights into the currently hot, but perennial issue of science versus religion.