"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Phil... I mean, Francis Collins in NGM

I read Francis Collins book "The language of God" recently and found myself really resonating with his position regarding the relationship of Science and Faith. I was happy to discover this short interview in National Geographic recently. It's pretty brief, but he gives an interesting set of answers to a variety of pertinent questions. Below, I have posted a portion of the interview, but I found the entire interview to be pretty interesting. You can read the whole thing by clicking on the link above.

I am tempted to disable comments so I can be like Matt, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I know we run the risk of spreading this conversation out all over creation, but that's what blogging is all about, right? So Matt, if you want to enable commenting on your post as well, go for it.

So having said that, here's Phil... *dang it!* I mean, FRANCIS Collins:

Horgan: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It's the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don't you worry that science in general and genetics in particular—and your work as head of the Genome Project—are undermining belief in free will?

Collins: You're talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don't behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience—and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, "No, it's all an illusion, we're just pawns in some computer model." But I don't think that carries you very far.

Horgan: What do you think of Darwinian explanations of altruism, or what you call agape, totally selfless love and compassion for someone not directly related to you?

Collins: It's been a little of a just-so story so far. Many would argue that altruism has been supported by evolution because it helps the group survive. But some people sacrificially give of themselves to those who are outside their group and with whom they have absolutely nothing in common. Such as Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, many others. That is the nobility of humankind in its purist form. That doesn't seem like it can be explained by a Darwinian model, but I'm not hanging my faith on this.

Horgan: What do you think about the field of neurotheology, which attempts to identify the neural basis of religious experiences?

Collins: I think it's fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldn't trouble me—if I were to have some mystical experience myself—to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn't mean that this doesn't have genuine spiritual significance. Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, "Ya see?" Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, "Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!"

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Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"There are some fringe elements that say, "No, it's all an illusion, we're just pawns in some computer model." But I don't think that carries you very far."

It's a testament to the power of the computational theory of mind that the best rebuttal anyone has come up with to date is, 'Oh, well it's just seems so absurd!' Or, 'It's just more nonsense from those funny fringe-surfers out there.'

It's hard to respect Collins as a scientist when he so readily abandons the rigour applied to his work to his beliefs; in science you can't get away with statements like that unless you back them up with a substantial counterargument. It's not hard, or it shouldn't be for a scientist like Collins (and generally, he's a good one). It begins, 'The computational theory of mind is bunk because... [insert list of well thought-out arguments based on corroborating evidence]'.

1:06 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Well it was an oral interview. Besides it's probably not a bad theory to begin with. The question is: does it all end there? Personally, I would say if there is no God, then YES we are nothing more than complicated robots responding to our environment. Sure it's a real kick in the sack for all of humanity who really wants to think they are something special – tough cookies!

No God = no you.

1:23 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

" Sure it's a real kick in the sack for all of humanity who really wants to think they are something special – tough cookies! "

Is it really a kick in the sack though? I don't see what it changes. Life is still beautiful in some ways and ugly in others.

"No God = no you."

But why? How has individuality become dependent on life beyond the meat machine? I don't feel that I ceased to be me on the day I figured there was no God (in the traditional sense anyway). I don't know what it is that is so terrifying about this prospect.

3:48 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Strange...Collins thinks it's unsurprising that there are neurological bases to religious experiences, but maintains skepticism over evolutionary explanations of morality. Double standard, anybody?

1:51 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I must take Matt up on what his connexion between a robust doctrine of the afterlife and people who fly planes into buildings. That's neither here nor there, I think. Belief in a afterlife has also led to many selfless acts. And belief that this life is all there is, similarly, led both to very good and very evil acts. The belief in an afterlife, it appears, is neutral in moral psychology. Even (especially!) for the Christian, the afterlife should be irrelevant to morality.

1:55 AM

Blogger Matt M said...


I must take Matt up on what his connexion between a robust doctrine of the afterlife and people who fly planes into buildings.

I assume you're referring to Pinker's comment in the Time article?

His point - as I read it - was simply that religious beliefs don't necessarily lead to virtuous behaviour: religious folk can be good or bad, just like atheist folk.

4:20 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

And I tihnk that's fair enough. But let's be careful not to say - as Dawkins often does - that "Religion is bad: Look at all the bad things religious people do!" There's a further fallacy. We cannot say, "Because religious belief does not entail morality, religious belief is unnecessary for morality." Or more importantly, "Because religious belief does not entail morality, the content of religious belief is unnecessary for morality."

That is to say, despite the evil displayed by religious people, the content of religious faith might still well be necessary for morality.

10:07 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


The thing is: I have no religious faith, my view of the universe is a purely naturalistic one, yet I'm still a fairly 'moral' person - treat others as you'd want them to treat you is a pretty decent ground for morality, and not limited to those who believe in the divine.

Pragmatism, combined with innate human empathy, is really all you need.

7:57 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

But I never said it's impossible (or difficult!) for irreligious people to be moral. In fact, if Christianity is true, then the most immoral people should simultaneously be the most religious.

I am, however, saying that if an atheist wants to be a moral realist - if he wants to say that murder IS wrong and self-sacrifice IS good (is in the strong sense) - then he would have some trouble explaining exactly what kind of facts moral facts are. He might postulate moral facts that are like Platonic forms.

The theist, on the other hand, has a different (and I'm inclined to say, smaller) problem: the Euthyphro dilemma.

4:19 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Interesting... I'd not heard of the Euthyphro dilemma before, but now that you bring it up I believe we'd touched on it earlier. I have a question for you regarding a certin aspect of the arguement. How does this part of the Euthyphro dilemma hold up?

If (ii) morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God, then there is no reason either to care about God’s moral goodness or to worship him.

Why should there be no reason to care about God's moral goodness?

I guess the way I see it is that if God was in a vacuum he could not be called "good". He just is. The only reason we are able to say that God is good at all is that we were created by Him to recognize His character.

If morality is to have any foundation it MUST be the character of God. Then the argument goes, "but then morality is arbitrary!" I guess I don't see it that way. If Gods character is eternal and unchanging then the morality that flows from Him is the most solid foundation anyone could dream of.

Where in this line of reasoning does one get the impression God's "moral goodness" is of no value?

8:02 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Let's start at the beginning of the dilemma. Does God ordain things because they are good; or are things good because they are ordained by God. Most Christians, I think, avoid the first option because it implies that God is bound by some external source of morality. The second leads us to a theocentric view of morality: X is morally good because God has made it thus. And in a sense, it is guilty of the charge of arbitrariness. But the first option doesn't appeat to be free from this problem either. We're left wondering why X is good at all, such that God would ordain it. On the other hand, if can appeal to God's freedom in assigning moral goodness to whatever the heck He pleases.

As it happens, I'm more sympathetic towards thinking that X is good because God ordained it thus. Now, there is a possibility that what God thinks is good, I think is very bad. It's possible that God thinks torture is good. But that's a bullet I'm willing to bite. For better or for worse from my perspective, in the grand scheme of things God is the supreme moral arbiter. We might not like the moral decisions he's made...but tough.

And you might be right about us being built to appreciate God's moral values. Of course, as imperfect creatures our moral compasses are also somewhat skewed such that we cannot make infallible moral judgments. This sort of moral skepticism may be a safeguard against evidental arguments from evil. Maybe.

4:57 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I'm afraid I didn't really answer your question. Here's another attempt: The atheist might say that if God gets to arbitrarily define morality, what's stopping Him from defining torture into goodness? And I think this is a bullet we should be willing to bite.

4:58 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I guess where I'm starting from is having a pretty big effect on how I'm viewing that argument. The place I am starting is that God's character is eternal. There is not chance that his character will undergo a fundamental shift.

So my objection is that I do not believe it is possible for God to 'arbitrarily' define morality. God may indeed ordain certain things that are immoral for US to do, but His position of Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer affords Him an office that is above us as His creation.

For instance God may indeed ordain torture, but you can bet your money that His blessing of such an event would not be out of spite or hatred. Such a circumstance could only flow out of His perfect knowledge of the situation and His desire for love justice and redemption to rule the day.

Now for a human to engage in torture becomes much more problematic as humans do not possess a perfect knowledge of any given situation. The 'possibility' that we could be in error in our judgment should be enough to prevent any person from being willing to carry out such an act.

One other thing to consider is that it is possible for God to approve of a given event without that event being in harmony with his character. Look at the cross of Christ for instance. You have brutal torture occurring within the will of God. Is that to say that the fundamental nature of our God is one of torture? I would think not.

Any evil or undesirable situation is first the result of free agents acting in revolt against God's character. Often times God is backed into a corner and the only option left to prevent further evil is wrath and judgment. It's a messy situation he allows it to unfold willingly but one cannot say that he is responsible for the situation. It hurts like all heck to set a broken bone, but but no one is going to call the doctor evil for doing it.

So it would appear I rambled a bit there as usual, but the point I'm trying to get across is I see there being a subtle difference between considering God's ordained acts to be the arbiters of morality, vs. considering God's unchanging character to be the arbiter of morality. Does that make any sense?

12:14 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Some brief comments.

First, the issue of God's character. We say that God is eternally loving, merciful, etc. But - and here's the rub - who defines what it is that makes something "good", such that we call God good? If God's moral attributes - love, mercy, generosity, etc. - are "good" based on some OTHER standard, then it would appear that Godis subservient to that standard. So, it appears that God, as moral arbiter, chooses what it means for any being - including Himself - to be good. This falls for the charge of arbitrariness, but it's a bullet I'm willing to bite.

If you don't think that God can arbitrarily define morality, then here's your problematic question, "Why is the senseless torture and slaughter of innocents morally reprehensible?" My answer is, "Because God said so." Your answer has to be something else. You have to go on and ask, "Why did God say so?"

Furthermore, if God has ordained torture to be wrong under all circumstances, then even God should not be exempt from his own rules. Hey that sounds sort of Kantian.

2:06 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Hey Revvvvvvd,
I have been thinking quite a a bit about this topic over the last couple days and I'm afraid this rabbit trail has the potential to mushroom into a very complicated philosophical/theological quagmire. (At least for me it does.) Thus I am going to try and side step that aspect of the conversation for now.

When you say My answer is, "Because God said so." Your answer has to be something else. You have to go on and ask, "Why did God say so?"

My answer would obviously be an appeal to His character. I could go further with that and have things get truly mind bending, but unless forced I will just leave it at that. We both agree that "Because God says so" is enough to define morality for us, but I would simply go one step further and state that He says so, because of who He is. In my mind this sidesteps the arbitrary accusation, but I'm probably missing something.

who defines what it is that makes something "good", such that we call God good?

Again we both agree that God is the final answer in this, but there is a slight difference in our semantics. You would say that we can call things Good because God 'says' they are good. I would again simply go one step further and state that God 'says' something is good because it is in conformity to His eternal character.

if God has ordained torture to be wrong under all circumstances, then even God should not be exempt from his own rules.

This brings me to my third point. If whatever God says is good really is good only by virtue of him saying it is, then the charge of arbitrariness stands. But the question must then be asked: Can God say anything that is in violation of his character? If one answers no, then where does the ultimate source of good then come from? It would seem to be the unchanging character of God.

So after reflecting on all of that I guess what I've been struggling to articulate is that the statement "Good is good because God says so" is true, yet incomplete. I would assert that "God says good is good because the eternal character of God affirms it's goodness."

You will find that all the goodness in this world is only good if it reflects the character of God. The only reason we can perceive this is because we are made in His image. Though we are corrupted and often call things good in relationship to our own broken character they will not give us true peace and joy. Only by our spirit (I'm using this in a sense more in line with monoism. I've become more sold on that concept recently) yielding to the urgings of God's spirit.

Are we getting closer?

12:44 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Erm...in short, you've not escaped the charge of arbitrariness.

What you're really saying is that goodness is defined by God's character, instead of God's ordination. I'm willing to concede that. Example?

God declares love to be good because God is love.

What we lack is a justification for the proposition "Love is Good" outside of God. What we DO have is a sort of, "What ever God is, is good" sort of idea.

So, your appeal to God's character does not escape the charge of arbitrariness. If God's character included selfishness and sadism, God would STILL be good. How else would you judge God's morality?

(To the atheists, this has become more of an intra-faith theological conversation rather than a free-for-all. Apologies.)

8:01 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

By the way, I'm glad you've fallen in line with monism.

8:02 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Right. It would appear we are in total agreement... kinda. I would say that God's character can only be called arbitrary if one posits the idea that other possibilities for God's character could EVER have been possible.

This gets into the realm of eternity. If God's character is eternal his character never has and never will be anything other than what it is. It takes all the wind out of the arbitrary charge by stating: God's character just is. It never had any possibility of EVER being anything other than it is.

I think part of my issue is regarding what definition of arbitrary I've had in my head as I've been thinking through this conversation. I've been using something like this definition:

Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle

When perhaps you are using this one:

deciding by one's own discretion

It makes a pretty big difference wouldn't you say?

Now the rabbit hole I hesitated to go down on my last comment is this: What defines God's character? I would suggest that our character is developed by the choices we make regarding our submission (or lack there of) towards God combined with the biological suit we have been given. I suppose that problem once again comes down to an inability to conceive a being with no beginning. I just can't do it.

9:55 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Well...there are fine distinctions between our ideas. But the problem lies with the ways we think about causality. We think that if thingds aren't "determined" (in some mechanical sense), then they are arbitrary. The problem of God's freedom is even knottier than that of human freedom.

We cannot say that God's freedom is "caused" by anything outside of God. So, within our intellectual constraints, it appears that God's freedom is random or whimsical, as you put it. But, the agent causationists want to say that "agency" is a valid causal mechanism (next to randomness and determinism). I'm not sure what I think about this agency stuff. But suffice to say that God's morality isn't caused by anything outside of God so there is a sense in which it is arbitrary (and may appear whimsical).

Anyway, enough of that. I have a more unsettling question for you. I see that you talk about God being eternal...doesn't open theism require you to believe in a God who resides within time? Or at least, one who "moved" into time upon the creation of the Universe?

1:07 PM

Blogger Alex said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:59 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Whoa! This is going to be a problem for the cosmological argument. It sounds to me like the implications of this "everlasting sequence" stuff is that an infinite chain of causes is possible. Or, similarly, that infinite regress is possible. I definitely don't want to say that.

Granted, the eternality (or lack thereof) of God is up for grabs, and I've not really given this much thought (my assessment of open theism revolves around my assessment of libertarianism), but surely to speak of a sequence without a beginning flies in the face of all the traditional arguments for the existence of God. I know open theism is attractive because of the problem of evil...but perhaps this is too big a price to pay?

By the way, haven't you converted from libertarianism? If you have, then open theism doesn't seem open to you (no pun intended). Unless my thoughts on open theism are far too simplistic.

I must confess why I'm not a libertarian. Two reasons: (a) In psychology, determinism is sort of assumed. No one really argues about it. (b) I don't understand what I've read on libertarianism.

Something else should be said of libertarianism. I don't want to say that it's not a non-option. It's a perfectly live option. I just don't get it, but that could just be me. I mean...(he's the ad hominem argument for libertarianism), some really bright people are libertarians. Plantinga and Hasker (from the Christian camp) aren't stupid. Robert Kane (what are his views on God?) and Thomas Nagel aren't stupid either. So, Alex, don' be too quick to abandom libertarianism (if you have). Maybe you'll understand it better than I have.

9:38 PM

Blogger Alex said...

This is going to be a problem for the cosmological argument.

Now why do you say that? He is not trying to say that the universe is infinite per-se. He's claiming that God's character is sequential. I see this as a benefit to conceiving how an infinite God can step into a sequential creation.

this "everlasting sequence" stuff is that an infinite chain of causes is possible. Or, similarly, that infinite regress is possible. I definitely don't want to say that.

On the other hand can you conceive of a finite chain of causes? Or finite regress? I think that's why Greg is saying the situation must be determined on other grounds.

but surely to speak of a sequence without a beginning flies in the face of all the traditional arguments for the existence of God.

Could one question the meaning of "beginning" or lack thereof when speaking of an eternal sequence? Does the eternal aspect necessarily rule out the concept of beginnings or non-beginnings? Or am I just talking nonsense here? It kind of feels like I am, but I'm not sure!

Also could you give me a very brief example of how an eternal sequence flies in the face of all the traditional arguments for the existence of God? I guess I am not familiar enough with them to see where this applies.

Now regarding libertarianism I'm not sure exactly where I come down on that debate as of yet. I feel I must reject it in the strictest sense as I really don't see how we can be free to choose to do ANY number of possibilities. As I see it we can only choose to react to impulses which are felt. I'm not convinced we have much influence over which impulses we feel on a moment by moment basis. But then there's the element of choosing between felt impulses. We would say that our preferences dictate which way we will choose. Is there any aspect of our constitution that is able to influence our character thereby over time modifying our preferences?

Does God speaking to our heart manifest it's self as a felt impulse? Does any part of our constitution have the ability to respond or reject that impulse thus taking one small step down the road of defining our character?

I admit really don't know what I'm talking about here. I've only examined compatiblism and libertarianism to the extent I've read about them on wikipedia and I'm sure I've forgotten most of that.

Good talking to you.

6:57 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

For philosophy, at least, Wikipedia is a good place to start. The standard online encyclopedias of philosophy (Stanford and the IEP) usually take a particular stand on the issue, instead of providing a general overview of the issues involved.

Anyway...one version of the cosmological goes thus:

It appears, everything has a cause. And yet if that's true, we can keep asking, "What caused that?" That is, if *everything* has a cause, we would be led to infinite regress. Which, so we think, is impossible. That is, an infinite sequence of events is impossible. QED, God cannot be an infinite sequence. I think.

Also, it's hard to see how a God who *is* an infinite sequence is simple. And we want God to be simple. Read Dawkins' new book to find out why. Or more straightforwardly, Mawson's introduction to philosophy of religion.

If this isn't much of a response it's because my brain has turned to slag today.

1:49 AM

Blogger Alex said...

(NOTE:) This a revised version of the comment I posted above but deleted. I ran the quote I used from Greg past him and he asked me to make a few minor textual changes, thus the posting of this revised comment.

Hey Revvvvd,
doesn't open theism require you to believe in a God who resides within time? Or at least, one who "moved" into time upon the creation of the Universe?

Funny you ask that. I Just finished up a little email correspondence with Dr. Boyd on that very topic. I was reacting to his blog entry here, in which he posits the idea that God is sequential.

My struggle was how can God be sequential if He's eternal? Does not a sequence imply a beginning? To which he replied:

You CAN"T conceive of sequence without a beginning. But neither can you
conceive of it WITH a beginning. This is what's called a "Kantian Antinomy." Neither alternative is imaginable, yet both alternatives exhaust the logical possibilities.  So the issue has to be decided on OTHER grounds. I go with everlasting sequence alternative because;

A)the biblical narrative presupposes it with every verb it applies to God;

B) nothing in the bible supports the timeless model;

C) all the arguments Plato and co. ever give for thinking perfection entails timelessness are fatally flawed;

D) the timeless model creates many many paradoxes (contradictions?) that the timeless sequence model avoids. E.g. how does a timeless God interact in sequence with beings who ARE in sequence?  How are we to conceive of God timelessly and eternally knowing and relating to a world that BEGAN n time? How are we free if our future is, from ANY perspective, already OUT THERE as a settled reality?  How does the timeless God BECOME a human being?  Etc.

Pretty revolutionary stuff to my mind, but so far it seems to make a lot of sense.

7:50 PM


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