Giberson Interviews Collins

On the subject of science and religion, Karl Giberson and Francis Collins are not among my favorite commentators. That notwithstanding, this interview actually manages to be pretty interesting. Giberson’s questions are in bold face, Collins’ answers are in regular type.

You seem like a mirror image of the fundamentalists who struggle with this, as I certainly did in college. Fundamentalists like me grow up with a lot of confidence in biblical literalism and then they encounter evolution, so they are bringing their prior biblical commitments to this new problem. You were interpreting the Bible before you knew there was a biblical issue. You had enough confidence in evolution that when you read about origins in the Bible, you would read as we do today when it comes to those biblical passages that seem opposed to heliocentricity–we don’t think of a moving earth as a problem so we don’t even notice the biblical references.

Right. I will say, though, that I think evolution is a much tougher problem for a believer to get comfortable with than heliocentricity. Evolution comments on our biological nature, and that’s a lot closer to the “image of God” concept than whether the Earth floats around the Sun or the other way around.

Collins is making an important point here. In his book Tower of Babel Robert Penncok remarked that evolution is godless in the same sense that plumbing is godless. Other pro-evolution commentators have expressed similar sentiments. This statement is only true in a very trivial sense. Godlessness in plumbing is acceptable because absolutely no one is inclined to see anything of cosmic significance in the vagaries of pipes and water flow, or to find a supernatural explanation for a clogged drain. Evolution, by contrast, addresses subjects of far more fundamental significance, and posits things that are not at all what the world’s major religious traditions have told us to expect. Many people expect to find God and the supernatural implicated in our arrival on Earth, and therefore believe that any explanation leaving God out must be fundamentally flawed.

But aren’t you cheating to compare evolution to physics? Evolution is this gigantic, complicated tapestry of interwoven bits of explanatory power. But this big tapestry of evolution is filled with holes. It still hangs together, of course, but it does have holes. For example, evolution requires the invocation of common ancestors that we don’t have any fossil record for; we don’t really know anything about them, other than indirect dna inferences. A layperson is understandably skeptical when they are told that there’s this tree of life going back to a common ancestor and all these life-forms are on the tree but we have no direct evidence for most of them and we have to infer them hypothetically. Doesn’t it bother you that there are so many missing pieces in the puzzle?

Should people doubt the existence of electrons because they’ve never seen one? A lot of what we know to be true about physics is also inferred. I know it bothers people who are not really convinced yet about the consistency of evolutionary theory, but the much-emphasized gaps do not represent any real threat to the overall framework. And is the absence of a fossil representation of a specific organism all that troubling when you realize that fossilization is extremely unlikely to have happened?

Based on the DNA sequences of many mammals, we can now predict the genome sequence of the common mammalian ancestor. And it’s breathtaking that you can actually look now at the dna sequence, which is a fossil record of its own, of an organism that is long since gone, but that we and all other mammals are descended from.

Evolution may seem from the outside to have a lot of complexities, and certainly there are lots of details we haven’t worked out–and for anybody to say there are no arguments would be a total mistake. But nearly all scientists agree upon descent from a common ancestor, gradual change over a long period of time, and natural selection operating to produce the diversity of living species. There is no question that those are correct. Evolution is not a theory that is going to be discarded next week or next year or a hundred thousand years from now. It is true.

Pretty hard to improve on that. Well said, Dr. Collins!

When we talk about the enduring character of American anti-evolutionism, it seems to me the best way to understand that goes back to something that is as old as Aristotle. Aristotle talked about knowledge that we get from thinking and from experience. He also noted another category that I think is the most important–social knowledge.

We are all part of social groups, and people we trust tell us things. I believe in evolution because people like you that I trust have told me it’s true. I’ve never done a genome sequence; I’ve never done a fossil dig. So what do I–Karl Giberson–really know about evolution? All I know is that people I trust say it’s true and people that I have less confidence in say it is not. But how are people outside the scientific community supposed to navigate this complex web of social authority, to try and figure out which voices they should listen to, and which voices they shouldn’t?

Consider credentials. On paper the credentials of the better creationists and id people are like yours and mine. Take you and Michael Behe. You both have PhDs. You have both done research and published articles. So if somebody wants to put Behe up against Collins and say, “Well, here’s a guy and I like what he says. And here’s another guy and I don’t like what he says. And you’re asking me to follow Collins over Behe? Well, why should I do that?”

This is another important point. Questions about the age of the Earth are pretty abstract. I’ve read books about radiometric dating and I have had knowledgeable people explain to me the mechanics of the process, but I have never personally tried to date a rock or dig up a fossil. I trust scientists, and more importantly I trust the process that produces scientific findings, and that is why I accept that the Earth is very old.

For many people not immersed in a pro-science environment, pro-evolution arguments can often sound like, “Don’t listen to your guy with a PhD listen to my guy instead!” The creationists know this, of course, which is why they are so keen to debate all the time. The problem is often (though certainly not always!) not that anti-evolutionists are chronically opposed to gathering facts and evidence, it is that they are listening to the wrong people, and consequently have a distorted view of what the facts are.

Here’s Collins’ answer:

Well, that is a fundamental problem we’re facing in our culture, especially in the United States. It’s why we have such a mismatch between what the scientific data would suggest and what many people believe about things like the age of the Earth and about whether evolution is true or not.

If you ask about data-driven questions, about what is true and what is the evidence to support it–you would want to go to the people who are the professionals who spend their lives trying to answer those questions and ask, “Is there a consensus view?” So you ask, “What is the age of the Earth?” Well, who does that work? It is the geologist and the cosmologists and the people who do radiocarbon dating. It is the fossil record people and so on. So you ask, “Is this an unanswered question?” And the answer you would get is that the issue is settled. The age of the earth is 4.55 billion years.

But of course, that’s not the way things are. Our society is polarized because the materialist perspective that guides science is assumed in many instances to be an over-arching worldview that excludes anything outside the material world. Large numbers of people in our very religious society are suspicious of this.

This negative reaction to scientific consensus is not about the facts. It’s actually about an atheistic worldview that people fear is behind the claims of science. They’re worried about that–afraid–and therefore ready to reject anything that sounds like it might be colored by that materialistic perspective they assume is hidden there. So they look for other sources of authority, like the biblical literalists who say the earth is only a few thousand years old.

I think this is largely correct. Anti-evolutionists are putting their trust in the wrong authorities, and they do this in large part because they fear challenges to their religious faith. Where I disagree with Collins is that I think they are right to be afraid (to the extent that a materialistic perspective is anything to be afraid of.) Learning about and understanding science really does tend to challenge traditional religious faith, to the point where many people are moved to give it up altogether. Indeed, fundamentalist religious faith is flatly impossible to maintain in the face of science.

Here’s an interesting fragment from Collins:

But it’s an awful circumstance we’ve put young people in. Many of them, raised in conservative Christian homes and taught that evolution is wrong, send emails to me every week. They are in crisis, trying to figure out whether the church that seems to be lying to them about origins is lying to them about everything else. The God of all truth cannot be served by such noble lies, and yet the church has been caught up in that, despite its best intentions.

If I may channel my inner PZ for a moment: Yes the church is lying to them about everything else. And I definitely don’t credit the church with the best intentions.

One more from Giberson:

One of my theologian friends once said, in great frustration over this issue, “I wish they had never put the Bible in the hands of ordinary people.” It seems to me that we need to take more seriously the teaching ministry of the church. We encourage people to read the Bible on their own, but certain misunderstandings are bound to emerge with that approach. Young people are going to read Genesis and think of Adam and Eve as real biological parents of the human race.

Those silly Protestants. How ridiculous to think normal people can read and understand the Word of God for themselves. You need clerics and scholars to tell you that Genesis actually means almost the exact opposite of what it plainly says.

I have no problem with the idea that the Bible can often be difficult to interpret, but that is because I have no doubt that the Bible is an anthology of ancient documents that are purely human in origin. If you are inclined, however, to see the Bible as the holy and inerrant Word of God, I would think that Giberson’s remark here is pretty offensive. Does it make sense that God’s word would be written in a style so opaque that if a normal person tries to read it, he will come away with ideas that are almost the exact opposite of the truth? Is it really asking too much that God might have expressed himself a bit more clearly?

These were just a few highlights. There are lots of other interesting nuggets, so go have a look!

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Beidler
    July 24, 2009

    Jason,

    Thanks for posting this as well as your measured response. Great job, despite our disagreements on some things.

  2. #2 Richard Wein
    July 25, 2009

    Good points, Jason. I’d just like to add one thing. Collins writes:

    “Our society is polarized because the materialist perspective that guides science is assumed in many instances to be an over-arching worldview that excludes anything outside the material world.”

    I think this assumption is encouraged by those accommodationists like Collins who insist that supernatural explanations are a priori excluded from science. This allows IDists to deploy the “they would say that, wouldn’t they” argument: yes, most scientists reject intelligent design, but their methodological naturalism forces them to reject it regardless of the evidence, so their authority is worthless on this topic.

    The accommodationist version of methodological naturalism undermines the authority of science. And to some extent that’s deliberate. Accommodationists want to undermine the authority of science with respect to moderate religious beliefs (like those of Collins), and they don’t see that in doing so they’re also undermining it with respect to more extreme religious beliefs (like ID/creationism).

  3. #3 Jerry Coyne
    July 25, 2009

    In the end, both Giberson and Collins seem to be telling people what kind of religion they must have: a faith that does not contradict the “book of nature.” But who are they to say what the Bible really “means”? When accommodationist like these say that science and religion are on the same page, they are referring to forms of religion whose validity is explicitly denied by many of the faithful.

  4. #4 RBH
    July 25, 2009

    Jason, you wrote

    I trust scientists, and more importantly I trust the process that produces scientific findings, and that is why I accept that the Earth is very old.

    And that’s just what the ID movement is aiming to undermine, as are at least some old-style creationists. Asked what he learned in John Freshwater’s 8th grade science class, one student testified under oath

    Science can’t be trusted. Science can’t teach us anything.

    (And the Scienceblogs commenting facility is still borked.)

  5. #5 Alex
    July 25, 2009

    In addition to the point made in comment #2, I’d add that the extreme opposite of this perspective is prevalent among some anti-accomodationists, i.e. they think (for ideological reasons) that science has authority on matters where it is clearly inadequate. For example, Jerry Coyne thinks that the the logical problem of evil constitutes scientific support for atheism (see http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/07/11/eugenie-scott-dissembles-about-accommodationism/ ).

    If you look at the pattern of people who claim that the supernatural can’t be tested scientifically, and at those who claim that it can, on the former side you’ll almost always find sophisticated religionists (like Giberson, who claimed that a sudden appearance of the face of Jesus on Mt. Rushmore can only be explained scientifically by invoking erosion). On the latter side you’ll find atheist scientists (and creationists), who want to expand the magisterium of science to where (it seems to me) it can’t work.

  6. #6 J. J. Ramsey
    July 25, 2009

    Jerry Coyne: “In the end, both Giberson and Collins seem to be telling people what kind of religion they must have: a faith that does not contradict the ‘book of nature.’”

    Gee, horror of horrors! If people are going to have their religions, having them be ones that don’t contradict said book is a darned sight better than the alternative.

    Jerry Coyne: “When accommodationist like these say that science and religion are on the same page …”

    When do the accommodationists ever go that far? They have made very clear that religions that make fact claims contradicted by facts on the ground are not compatible with science. That much is clear from the YouTube video of Eugenie Scott that you and Mooney have both seen. The accommodation offered by the accommodationists has always been very conditional. They accommodate the religions that in turn accommodate the facts.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    July 25, 2009

    Godlessness in plumbing is acceptable because absolutely no one is inclined to see anything of cosmic significance in the vagaries of pipes and water flow, or to find a supernatural explanation for a clogged drain.

    Speak for yourself. Back during my college days, we pulled a clog out of a floor drain which I’d have sworn came straight from R’lyeh.

  8. #8 J C Bell
    July 25, 2009

    Endless dispute???
    How can there be an endless dispute over such simple matters as the Hebrews of ~2600 years ago making a simple typographical error at the town of Byblos where they substituted “Yom” for the correct term “Yawm”?

    “Yom” being a period of 1 day.

    “Yawm” being the Sumerian period of 3 X 60^5 Years (an even number in the Sumerian sexegesimal mathematics) and a period of ~2.3 Billion years in our present decimal mathematics.

    And 6 Yawms are equal to ~13.8 Billion years, as stated by the Sumerians ~6,000 years ago as being the age of the Universe, -in close agreement with modern science.

    If you will just take the time to correct simple typographical errors and translational errors (such as the example I just gave) that have crept in over the last 6,000 years, you will see that the original “Bible” and modern science are in close agreement. It is only recent “Bibles” ( <3,000 years old Bibles ) that are in disagreement with modern science.

    So where is the “Endless Dispute”?
    -Except in some uneducated persons minds.

    ~

  9. #9 Michael
    July 26, 2009

    Googling on J C Bell’s comment led me to this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zecharia_Sitchin

    Fairly amazing stuff. One could lose one’s mind in this bizarro universe. (See http://www.sitchiniswrong.com/ — I think I will escape now. Someone spending their entire life proving that SIWOTI.)

  10. #10 Crandaddy
    July 26, 2009

    Richard Wein,

    You write:

    I think this assumption is encouraged by those accommodationists like Collins who insist that supernatural explanations are a priori excluded from science. This allows IDists to deploy the “they would say that, wouldn’t they” argument: yes, most scientists reject intelligent design, but their methodological naturalism forces them to reject it regardless of the evidence, so their authority is worthless on this topic.

    And immediately after that you write:

    The accommodationist version of methodological naturalism undermines the authority of science.

    I’m curious as to how this is not a case of the a priori exclusion you’ve just mentioned.

    It seems that your definition of science would have to be normative (i.e. that I would be rationally obligated to accept “the authority” of it). As happens to be the case, I reject methodologial naturalism as a comprehensive view of “science” (definitive extent debateable–hence the scare quotes). Why should I think otherwise?

    Either you must formulate your definiton in the form of an argument so that I would be rationally obligated to accept it, or you must admit that your own definition admits of the a priori prejudices your purpose is to attack. These are the only two possibilities I see.

  11. #11 Sigmund
    July 26, 2009

    Is it any wonder that Miller and Collins are so spectacularly unsuccessful at convincing evangelicals of the fact of evolution when their basic message of religion/science compatibility boils down to the idea that “evolution is perfectly compatible with Christianity so long as you change your version of Christianity for my one” be it Roman Catholicism or liberal Protestantism (Collins beliefs are called evangelical but they don’t appear particularly similar to the currently accepted notion of that denomination and are much more similar to liberal protestantism).

  12. #12 Richard Wein
    July 26, 2009

    Crandaddy. All I’m doing is rejecting the imposition of an arbitrary limit on science, and pointing out an unfortunate consequence of attempting to impose such a limit. I don’t see how my doing so can be described as an “exclusion”.

  13. #13 imissbubby
    July 26, 2009

    Darwinian Evolution is the religion of atheism masquerading as science. Darwinism is a religion, not science. It was not based on science when Darwin wrote it and still isn’t. There’s isn’t one shread of proof humans evolved from one common ancestor. Why are we still holding on to 1800′s mythology?

  14. #14 imissbubby
    July 26, 2009

    Darwinian Evolution is incompatible with Christianity because Christianity is based on proof and DEvolution is irrational.

  15. #15 MartyM
    July 27, 2009

    imissbuddy….

    I think you are out of your league here. You haven’t said anything the folks here have not responded to before. One has to be very specific around here. Those kind of blanket statements are cast out with out any consideration.

  16. #16 Savage
    July 28, 2009

    imissbudy: “.. Christianity is based on proof ..”

    Where is your proof?

    MartyM is correct; “you are out of your league here.”

    Totally out of your league.

  17. #17 terrymac
    July 28, 2009

    They are in crisis, trying to figure out whether the church that seems to be lying to them about origins is lying to them about everything else. The God of all truth cannot be served by such noble lies, and yet the church has been caught up in that, despite its best intentions.
    I can never figure out whether they are telling lies or if they really believe what they say.

  18. #18 Andrew
    July 31, 2009

    The attempts by Christians to interpret the bible using evolution and often scientific theories is bound to lead to disappointments; This is because of the fact that most scientific theories are not cast on stone: The old scienific theory of determinism was struck out in one stroke, by the uncertainty principle
    On evolution I have no logical idea about what its all about;

    I think DE-EVOLUTION is more logical to me. We have destroyed our planet that now we can only live shorter;
    If viruses kill all of us are they more superior to us as human beings?

    If natural disaster finish us, is nature more superior to us?

    We have enough nuclear arsenals to annihilate the humanity so many tomes over!
    DE-EVOLUTION MAKES more sense.
    And why is it that the earth is so hospitable in a hostile universe:

    We all are left wondering like Stephen HAWKING in his book, brief History of time:
    ‘If big bang lead to the universe and our earth, it leads us to just imagine the very likely possibility of a superior being who intended to create beings like us’

    Scientific textbooks are littered with numerous happy improbable accidents: Big bang,formation of first living organism , the Cambrian explosion. name them. Yet the predictions of the universe are gloomy just like they would have predicted the impossibility of life to exist on earth, yet here we are.

  19. #19 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    August 12, 2009

    The weight of evidence reveals no cosmic teleology, and as such teleology contradicts natural selection, creationist evolution isn’t compatible with science.Jason, this is the teleonomic/ atelic argument.
    This contradicts my Facebook friend Dr.Scott, who in her book on creationism v. evolution states that t’is a philosophical point rather than a scientific fact, ut that contradicts the findings of Ernst Mayr and Grorge Gaylord Simpson.
    Jason, please bring this argument to the fore as it so underpins my other Facebook friend Dr. Coyne, who so deftly dismisses Giberson and Miller’s far-fetched arguments in “Seeing and Believing.”
    Jason, thank you for your work in illustrating also that creationist evolution is such an oxymoron and- such a scam!

  20. #20 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    August 12, 2009

    but

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