Debate: Francis Collins vs. Richard Dawkins on God

May 22, 2022 • 10:30 am

Here’s a new episode from “The Big Conversation” (sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation!) in which Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, debates—or rather discusses—a variety of issues with evolutionist and atheist Richard Dawkins.  The moderator is Justin Brierly.

The argument centers on religion, especially on what constitutes “evidence” for God.  You might ask, “Why on earth would Dawkins debate Collins, since there’s no chance that either will change their minds?” But I think Dawkins took the time to do this to show the intellectually depauperate nature of Collins’s “evidence” for God. That evidence includes the laws of physics, our appreciation of beauty, the moral behavior of humans, and so on. Collins is not a “sophisticated” theologian, but remember that he’s not a theologian but a scientist who came to believe in Jesus through observing a waterfall frozen in three spouts (“the Trinity”). Collins seems to have picked up most of his arguments for God from a combination of C. S. Lewis and more modern “apologetics”, like the “fine-tuning” argument for God based on physical constants.

Reader Rick, who sent me this link, says “I’ve watched most of this and Collins is irritating.  When Richard points out a contradiction in his God hypothesis, he simply shrugs it off and says God can be anything He wants.  What a copout!”

But more about that contradiction below. In the meantime, if you want to hear a discussion between two smart guys, one of whom is subject to delusions, have a listen to this 1½ hour video. Let me add that Collins is an amiable and likable fellow, and was friends with Hitchens, helping Hitch with his cancer treatment.  What puzzles me is how such an apparently nice guy can buy into a passel of religious nonsense for which there’s no evidence.

But click to listen. It’s a better discussion than you might think.

They begin by discussing covid: Richard thinks that the lockdowns were premature, but Collins extolls scientific community’s rapid response in creating the mRNA vaccines.

With that out of the way, it’s onto the Big Questions of religion.  Collins recounts his conversion from atheism to religion, saying that he found that “faith was more rational than atheism” given the nature of the world. As for why Collins became a Christian rather than a Hindu or Jew, he says that he “needed an anchor for his faith”, and found one in “Jesus Christ, a historical figure about which we know a great deal”. Of course that “great deal” is solely from the Bible, and many of us aren’t even convinced that the anchor for Collins’s faith even existed. It would have been better for Collins to admit that “the great deal” is found entirely in the Bible, and different accounts of Jesus say different things.

The bit where I think Collins’s argument for God starts going awry is in his discussion with Richard about evolution.  Richard asks Collins the penetrating question, “If God could do anything, why did he choose to produce humans via the tortuous process of evolution?” Couldn’t He have just poofed all life into existence, as Genesis describes? And given—and Collins seems to agree—that a perfectly naturalistic process of evolution via natural selection could explain the appearance of organic design, why did God choose a mechanism that made Him superfluous?” (The question doesn’t arise about whether Collins thinks that with the appearance of H. sapiens the purpose of evolution has now been fulfilled: we have a product that evolved into God’s image.)

Collins’s answer smacks of a posteriori-ism, making the necessity of evolution into a virtue. As Collins says, “Evolution makes me even more in awe of the Creator than if God had just poofed things into existence.” In other words, God had a Big Plan for creating humans, and that Big Plan was evolution. Isn’t that mah-velous?  But he doesn’t explain why going through this Big Plan is more admirable and elegant than poofing things into existence. After all, several lineages of Homo, as well as of hominins, went extinct.

Collins has a further response:  God is all about order, and wanted a Universe that follows elegant mathematical laws. (Collins notes that the existence of those laws themselves constitutes evidence for God.) Ergo, we had evolution, which followed physical laws.  But this conflicts with Collins’s later assertion that it would be foolish to presume anything about the mind of God. After all, until 1859, all theologians thought that God cared more for creating humans instantly than for “following mathematical laws”.

The fine-tuning argument—the notion that the laws of physics were set up by God to allow the appearance of life and God’s Chosen Species—is especially appealing to Collins, even though there are naturalistic explanations for it. But Richard notes that if there were any argument that would convince him of God, it would be one related to fine-tuning. However, he adds that, as Hitch would say, “Collins has all his work before him.” Even if “fine-tuning” were to constitutes some sort of evidence for a Creator who made physical law, it gives no credence to Christianity and Jesus, who are smuggled in by Collins as an afterthought.

Richard adds the usual argument about how a a creator could come into being who ws so complex that he could bring into being the laws of physics. Collins responds that God could do it because he resides “outside of space and time.” Richard rightfully dismisses that notion as another a posteriori argument brought in without evidence to save God, noting that Collins’s “beyond space and time” argument “smacks of inventing a new cop-out instead of providing a proper explanation.”

Finally there’s Collins’s “contradiction,” which begins about 47:45 in the discussion. It is of course about theodicy. Why is there physical evil in a world created by an omnipotent and benevolent God? But Collins has a response, which I’ll call the “Let Her Roll Hypothesis”. It is this: God created the world so that it would obey his physical laws. And those physical laws simply allow for the existence of evil. Tectonic plates create earthquakes and tsunamis that kill innocents, cancers arise from mutations that obey physical laws, viruses evolve. In other words, God is more concerned with maintaining a Natural Order instead of mitigating suffering by interceding.

In response to Richard’s query that, if God can do miracles, couldn’t He have mitigated natural evil?, Collins says that miracles are a special case, to be used only in very special circumstances when convincing the world of God’s existence and power are overwhelmingly important. (One of these miracles, avers Collins, was the Resurrection.) Otherwise, it’s Let Her Roll, and if a kid gets leukemia, or a tsunami kills several hundred thousand people,  or a virus kills several million people, well, that’s just the byproduct of how God has chosen to run the Universe. It’s a remarkably sneaky but clever argument. (It could also be called “The Argument for the Rarity of Miracles.”) Evil, in other words, is simply a byproduct of God’s penchant for natural order and natural law, even if he could flout natural law if He wanted.

On to the query, “Where did the laws of physics come from?” (Dawkins says that if anybody would convince him of God, it would be that point.)  But he adds, why smuggle in Christianity and Jesus? Collins says that God was in a position to create the laws of physics because “God exists outside of into space and time.” (This doesn’t sound like a real argument to me.)

Richard responds that saying God is “outside time and space” is another a posteriori explanation, something that “smacks of inventing a new cop-out instead of providing a proper explanation”

The last part of the discussion is about human altruism, an altruism that Collins sees as evidence for God. In contrast, Dawkins sees it a carryover from the millions of years over which our ancestors lived in small bands in which reciprocal altruism (and kin selection) would have been adaptive. The “rule of thumb” to be nice and helpful to others, argues Dawkins, shows that “altruism” could have been a product of adaptive evolution.  The same goes for beauty, with Collins seeing human appreciation for music, art, and landscapes as evidence for God, while Richard notes that if birds can show a preference for beauty (this is Richard Prum’s argument for sexual selection), then so could humans.

My take? It’s an interesting discussion, but of course was doomed from the outset by both men holding incompatible worldviews. I have to say though—and call me biased if you will—that the ability of naturalism to solve scientific problems gives me a preference for Richard’s naturalism over Collins’s supernaturalism. In fact, Collins appears to believe in a lot of things for which there’s no evidence, like the Resurrection, and this detracts from his scientific worldview in other areas. Further, Collins appears to make stuff up as he goes along to buttress the weaknesses in his evangelical Christianity. But of course that’s the way theologians and regular believers have always operated.

In the end, the debate is a very clear demonstration of the philosophy of naturalism versus that of supernaturalism. To me, the ability of naturalism to explain the world (“we have no need of the God hypothesis”), plus the absence of miracles at a time when, one would think, Collins would find them especially useful (the world’s becoming more secular!)—all of this puts much heavier weight on the naturalistic side.

It’s hard to dislike Collins, but I am repelled at his uncritical approach to his religious beliefs.

54 thoughts on “Debate: Francis Collins vs. Richard Dawkins on God

  1. I mused about Collins’s book The Language of God on Panda’s Thumb here, back when he was appointed director of NIH. I remember calling him “credulous,” which I suppose is about the same as “uncritical,” but at least he compartmentalizes his religion and his science and does not let his religion interfere with his science. Why he suddenly converted on such flimsy evidence remains beyond me.

  2. Why do people believe in strange things? The lack of education and living in an insular environment will certainly entrap a fair share of minds, but when someone has all the education and is literally surrounded by atheist and agnostic fellow scientists, how does one still justify clinging to a delusion? I really don’t understand Francis Collins.

    1. To understand Collins, perhaps he is simply applying his very agile mind to rationalize the conclusion he adamantly desires. I detect something desperate in his who approach. Affable, but stubborn as a mule.

      1. It seems harsh, but I am reminded of some clinical delusions. There are cases where a person has alien limb syndrome, where they cannot recognize an arm as belonging to them. Or who can’t recognize faces and is convinced that their own face is that of a stranger, somehow sewn on to their skull. Perhaps there are things like that where there is this cognitive hole in ones’ mind and no amount of explaining can fill it. So show FC all this evidence that reality is naturalistic all the way down, and … nope. He just can’t see it.

    2. Michael Shermer wrote a book titled “Why People Believe Weird Things”… just sayin’…

  3. [ deep breath ]

    Click

    … or, tap,… as it were…

    Oh look, I can read the caption/transcript and cit the time down.

    Thank you, Richard Dawkins – you done good.

  4. “The Argument for the Rarity of Miracles” would seem to be an own-goal for God, seeing as how the more we understand about the real world, the less we need to turn to God as a reasonable explanation for anything.

  5. All of Collins’s arguments are circular.

    We see a world with mathematical order. So he invokes a God who wants mathematical order. That explains why the world has mathematical order.

    We see human altruism. So he invokes a God who wants humans to be altruistic. That explains why there is human altruism.

    We see a process of Darwinian evolution. So he invokes a God who wanted to create via Darwinian evolution. That explains why there is a process of Darwinian evolution.

    Et cetera.

      1. Indeed, that circularity appeals, because if Collins can’t dazzle with his brilliance, he must resort to baffling with bullsh*t. Having said that, I must admit that Collins and other religious apologists are quite adept at casuistry, which is likely part of their appeal, too.

    1. I am constantly amazed by apologists like Collins, who claim to have indisputable knowledge of God’s intentions and then have the authority to speak for Him. One would think that God should be able to speak for Himself. Oh, wait, he did! In the Bible…and the Koran, and the Vedas, and the Guru Granth Sahib, and the Lotus Sutra, and the Book of Mormon, and the Urantia Book, and the Course in Miracles, and…

      1. The standard way out of that difficulty is to say, “Well, for me, Christ made so much more sense.” Forcing the opponent to seem to be attacking the person ad hominem.

        1. And the fact that Christ “making more sense” aligns with their family religion when they were kids is purely coincidental.

        2. In which case, there’s nothing further to discuss, for the person has given up and conceded that “credit quia consolans.”

  6. As Collins says, “Evolution makes me even more in awe of the Creator than if God had just poofed things into existence.”

    So is Collins claiming that if God had just poofed homo sapiens into existence, Collins would be less likely to believe?

    I think there’s a tacit violation of the principle of noncontradiction underlying Collins’s contention.

    1. So is Collins claiming that if God had just poofed homo sapiens into existence, Collins would be less likely to believe?

      That would be a good question to ask him. The scientist lobe will do cognitive battle with the goddy lobe. Who will win?

  7. Does Collins think that ‘God exists’ is a true statement? If so, I wonder if he will support changing the constitution to allow it to be taught in public schools. After all, if he believes his religion to be true, then it follows that the constitution prevents a basic truth from being taught to children. Of course, we don’t teach things in school just because they are true, but this would be important. And if people argue for other religions to be taught as well, he may settle for a general notion of god to be taught in school, not a particularly Christian one.

    Or does he get around the issue with gibberish like, while it is true that god exists, it is not a scientific statement?

    I wonder what his response would be if someone were to put this to him.

    Now it might be an issue if a religion teaches that no gods exist, but we can’t please everyone 🙂

  8. The question about God really boils down to the question of whether humans are special or not. The rational agree that humans are just another species. The faithful cannot accept this and in order to do so deny any evidence to the contrary. GROG

  9. Collins’s answer smacks of a posteriori-ism, making the necessity of evolution into a virtue. As Collins says, “Evolution makes me even more in awe of the Creator than if God had just poofed things into existence.” In other words, God had a Big Plan for creating humans, and that Big Plan was evolution. Isn’t that mah-velous? But he doesn’t explain why going through this Big Plan is more admirable and elegant than poofing things into existence. After all, several lineages of Homo, as well as of hominins, went extinct.

    Evolution is fundamentally incompatible with any popular version of theism, including all the God versions of Christians, Jews and Muslims. You can‘t have a benevolent deity that creates life where about 40% of species are parasites [1]. Collins isn‘t really paying attention to what that this means. When you begin to appreciate these facts as we understand them now, it‘s only going to get bleaker from there.

    Believing in a God because of a frozen waterfall is privileged and blinkered. As a modern Westener, you can appreciate nature as a pleasant scenery and customise your own God version to that. Of course nobody did that in the past, where God was associated with awe and fear, and where even his angels are terrifying entities. At night, the air is filled with blood sucking parasites. At day, predators, and venomous creatures hide in the bushes. Every river was filled with parasitic worms. Half of all humans who ever lived never reached adulthood, and they didn‘t exactly die peacefully in their sleep.

    Collins and other believers are not serious people. Their beliefs are not authentic to the religion they claim to believe in, but they evidently serve a personal psychological need, or a social one, and as evidence we only need to take it from them and run that against beliefs throughout history. It is preposterous to engage with them on factual matters. Their religion cannot be whatever they personally conjure up as answers in a moment. The standard question would be: so you‘re saying the Pope is wrong? So you‘re saying everyone in the past was wrong about God, but somehow you know it correctly: how did you find out?

    1_ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2556407/

  10. “In the end, the debate is a very clear demonstration of the philosophy of naturalism versus that of supernaturalism. To me, the ability of naturalism to explain the world (“we have no need of the God hypothesis”), plus the absence of miracles at a time when, one would think, Collins would find them especially useful (the world’s becoming more secular!)—all of this puts much heavier weight on the naturalistic side.”

    Agree of course. The epistemic basis of naturalism is being empirical, both in science and everyday life, and it’s eminently rational to be consistently empirical if you want to cope successfully with the world. So rationally we should all be naturalists, not supernaturalists. But who said people are always rational?

    In any case, I’m wondering: does naturalism (as opposed to supernaturalisms like theism) ever get specifically mentioned in this debate?

  11. If something exists outside of space and time, that can’t help explain the creation of anything. In order to create X, first there has to be a time when X doesn’t exist, and then there has to be a time when it does, and the creation must happen over the span of these times.

    Collins may be a great medical scientist but he’d make a lousy physicist. Or philosopher.

  12. Ever since Emmy Noether sorted out an apparent contradiction in Einstein’s general relativity, it gradually became apparent that the fundamental laws of physics either depend directly on symmetry principles or depend on symmetry via Noether’s theorem. Symmetry in Weyl’s sense, as it is construed by mathematicians and physicists, means that no god is mucking about with what goes on in the universe.
    Imagine a completely still lake: a crude metaphor for symmetry. Any ripple on the surface arises from a cause: a fish taking a fly, a gust of wind, a bird catching its prey. No disturbance means no cause means no god or other extraneous influence.
    Claims that a god is responsible for the laws of the universe simply expose the ignorance of the claimant with respect to modern physics.

  13. Collins’s argument is one of “personal incredulity” which, I think, is attributable to Richard Dawkins but not invoked here. He simply can’t bring himself to believe that the order in the universe (particularly the physical constants) can emerge without a creator. Well, for every person who believes that, there is another person who is perfectly happy to accept a naturalistic explanation for such order. I require much more than incredulity to postulate a creator. I require evidence.

    Collins was at his most vulnerable in claiming that God’s laws of physics run without supervision but that God intervenes in his (obviously flawed) creation when he deems it necessary. Here he is clearly trying to have it both ways. Dawkins called him out on that but Dawkins was very kind in his criticisms—probably because Collins was himself kind.

    In the end, the outcome was inevitable, two men with incommensurable points of view coming to the same conclusions that they held at the beginning. But there is a difference between the two. Dawkins is right and Collins is wrong.

  14. Apart from the substance of the debate, i was happy to see how well Richard looked. I hope he’s completely recovered from his stroke.

  15. Regretfully I heard Collins out (again), through gritted ears. Boy R.D. has patience listening to that nonsense from an allegedly smart person.
    D.A.
    NYC

  16. How sad and almost inexplicable that a genius sort-of scientist like Collins is so utterly ignorant about the historicity of Jesus. Read Bart Ehrman, at least, Francis! Carrier is probably too dense for Collins, but Robert Price and scores of others could help him not look so ignorant.

  17. Collins admits – as many of the cross worshippers do – that w/o the resurrection there’s nothing there. Which seem like some pretty spindly legs to base one’s view of everything on. They talk about unproven biblical supposedly historical events, events that are not only unlikely, but ahistorical with such certainty.

    RD doesn’t call him on the thousands of other religions (each with its own miracles). Or even some other glaring logic horrors in the arguments for god – RD went sooo easy on him.

    PCC (E) – actually I’ve always found Collins extremely easy to dislike.
    D.A.
    NYC

    1. I have come to think that for these highly intelligent Christians—such as Collins, Andrew Sullivan, Garry Wills, even Stephen Colbert—it comes down to a magnificent obsession with (the idea of) Jesus, who they conceive of as the perfect human who is also divine, the embodiment of unconditional love. Their lives hinge on their belief in the reality of his past presence on earth, the reality of his current existence in some (vaguely defined) other dimension, and in the promise that they will really meet him someday and thereafter bask in his perfect love forever. It’s difficult to argue against this strong force of obsessive love, however imaginary its object.

  18. “Collins has a further response: God is all about order, and wanted a Universe that follows elegant mathematical laws.”

    Why does God want order? Is that what His Mommy and Daddy taught him to respect? If God resides outside of space and time, why does he demean himself creating laws of physics? And why does he feel the need to impose natural order and natural law on his creations? Why not make more Gods, instead, so he’ll have some company? Or does God prefer to be surrounded by menial beings who can’t challenge him?

    “God created the world so that it would obey his physical laws. And those physical laws simply allow for the existence of evil.”

    So any humans and animals who suffer horribly because of this should merely put up with God’s big science experiment? Being omnipotent, God surely knew the amount of suffering his laws would cause, the vast amount of injuries and trauma. But apparently he’ll kiss and make them better in heaven!

    “Collins says that miracles are a special case, to be used only in very special circumstances”

    So when God gets truly bent of shape he breaks the glass case he keeps his emergency miracles in? What a pathetic creature God is! To hell with him.

    I will give Collins this credit: he’s the least harmful sort of believer, since he can at least compartmentalize his mind to do actual science, and he doesn’t seek to impose his religious beliefs on his profession. But most believers fall far short of his conduct.

  19. In this interview, he claimed that his standards for miracles are very high. So the evidence for the resurrection must be overwhelming 🙂

    In believing in the resurrection, his first struggle had been to believe in god, not the pantheist god but the supernatural one; the next had been to believe that Jesus was divine; after that, the resurrection was a non-problem. Brilliant!

    This is a silly characteristic of religion: once you bring in the ‘supernatural’ you can make stuff up to defend practically anything.

    For people like this, religion is less about finding explanations and more about believing.

    1. “In this interview, he claimed that his standards for miracles are very high.”

      Indeed, many people’s standards for miracles are “very high”.

      Clearly though, “absolutely stoned” will give the best experience.

      1. Stoned? How unkind. We should be grateful that Collins has figured it all out for us: first, you believe in God; next, you believe Jesus is God; then, it directly follows that the divine creature can die and pop back into the breathing world just in time for Easter.

        1. Re more recent ‘miracles’, since the year 1500, on the bar graph I recently found and thought very humorous, we initially for centuries have bars going slightly up and down, but all very high for the different years, denoting many miracles having happened. Then it drastically drops for 100 years or so. But then around 1990 it shoots up again to the earlier level.

          Well, the drop is the year of, and labelled, “the invention of the CAMERA;

          Then, the shooting back up high, is in the year of the invention of PHOTOSHOP.

  20. I have never really understood why the fine tuning argument is considered to be good evidence for god. Maybe I am missing something but it doesn’t seem to be fundamentally different to seeing a deer walking across a frozen river and saying that the deer couldn’t cross the river without the ice so the river must have frozen so the deer could cross. It may be true that life could not exist if the laws of physics and various fundamental constants were even slightly different to their actual values but they are what they are and therefore like the deer crossing the river we exist because we can.

    1. What cosmos would have us in it but exhibit no tuning?

      What, precisely, is the difference between “fine” and “coarse”?

    2. As to fine tuning, I was happy to hear Dawkins briefly bring up a point of importance which is often neglected here in this claim that it is some kind of evidence for the existence of god.

      And, in more detail, that is the point that Guth (the father physicist–his son is a serious and successful mathematician researcher), thought up the idea of inflation, most of whose specific models imply the existence of a multiverse (not likely the quantum Everett distinct one), in order to solve a very important question in fundamental cosmology. Within hours he had also been able to solve another such problem as well, with the inflation hypothesis.

      Nobody then was discussing the multiverse with possibly different fundamental constants in ‘universes’ not ours, as something that would explain fine tuning if and whenever inflation has some direct observational evidence.

      So this is no “Jerry-rig” for atheists’ benefit!

  21. Dawkins completely wins the argument at 48:27 by pointing out that Collins wants it both ways: both miracles AND consistent natural laws. The rebuttal from Collins: miracles happen when God deems it important enough to intervene, but otherwise we’re on our own.

    Dawkins mentions the example of saving a child’s life. God can save the life of a child, but he doesn’t. Collins finally gives us an answer to that classic conundrum: to God, the life of a child is just not important.

    And by extension, what about the millions of children worldwide who die every year, obviously through no fault of their own? God could save every one. He doesn’t. Why? They’re just not important.

    1. “Importance” is one thing.

      But in Nature, we are all truly, as George Harrison wrote very profoundly (IMHO), “really only very small and life flows on within you and without you.”

      1. “I look at the world and notice it’s turnin’
        With every mistake we must surely be learnin’.”

        (or close to that) G. Harrison

  22. I would ask why god allows different religions that kill others based on their religions as justification

  23. I’m an atheist and long time listener to the Unbelievable Podcast (though not so much lately).

    Even having listened to (and debated) countless Christians defending their faith, I still found Collins’ arguments excruciating – almost all of which were versions of ad hoc/make-virtue-of-necessity reasoning, combined with facile dismissals of the actual problems he was dealing with.

    1. Collins claims this is just the sort of universe we would expect a God would create. As if proposing a God would predict a universe like ours. Yet how in the world would it follow that a Perfect Being, a concept that inherently suggests self sufficiency, would find the need to create anything at all? Worse, why would if follow that an IMMATERIAL Perfect Being would create MATERIAL beings in a MATERIAL world? That’s a whole bunch of Ad Hoc poured in between the a posteriori reasoning leading back to a Perfect Creator!

    2. Collins argues that all the “natural evil” – disease, earthquakes etc – are of necessity. God wanted to create a realm with natural laws, and therefore things like tectonic plates shifting and killing people, and disease etc, are a necessary result of these laws we have to put up with to live in a law-governed universe.

    This is a total non sequitur. The Being he proposes as creator is All Powerful! This is generally taken to mean God could do anything logically possible. There is NO logical necessity that some set of laws governing a realm MUST entail such dangers. There is no logical contradiction contained within the proposition of “A world without earthquakes” any more than there is a logical contradiction in “A world without small pox” or “A world without malaria” and on and on. If God wanted to create a realm of existence for us without these dangers – e.g. a world that does not rely on dangerous plate tectonics – it follows by definition He could have simply “spoke it in to being” without contradiction. Collins, like most Christians, ALWAYS have to reason backwards: since this is the world we find ourselves in, and since they hold it is the creation of a Perfect Being, well the features of this world MUST be necessary. They forget God’s omnipotence at every convenience. Suddenly it’s “God change the way physics works, you know!”

    3. In an achingly obvious making-virtue-of-necessity, Collins argues that God using evolution to create life, and human beings, makes sense. After all, it’s such a beautiful and elegant system, God can just start the ball rolling, sit back and it works on it’s creative manner! How much more wonderful could God be?

    Richard Dawkins rightly, of course, pushes back on this pointing out that natural evolution of necessity entails terrible suffering and death. Collins breezes over this by again claiming it’s all of necessity if God is going to create a world with ordered laws (no it’s not, see above), and again Collins just thinks it’s such an elegant process, befitting a God.

    The callousness of this response to the magnitude of suffering caused by natural evolution, including diseases, is frankly jaw-dropping. The “elegance” one may find in how something works can hardly be used to dismiss the suffering it causes. If someone introduced Tuberculosis in to a school classroom, would we turn a blind eye to this evil simply because they can describe the process by which Tuberculosis infects it’s hosts as “elegant?” Does Collins look at a child dying in agony from rabies and see only the “elegance” of natural selection in action? If Collins would eradicate rabies if he could, as any decent person would, why in the world impute goodness to a Creator who chose a method of creation that would entail just such scenarios of suffering? When, being Omnipotent, God could have created us and other forms of life without this suffering? The very definition of “evil person” entails one who chooses to produce gratuitous suffering!

    And of course, Collins like most Christians seems to “know what God would do” whenever it’s convenient – e.g. “this universe, and evolution, totally makes sense as something God WOULD do.”
    But when confronted with troubling “why would God do X” examples well, then, God is suddenly too mysterious and “who are we to know the mind of a God, what God would or should do?”

    As Sam Harris, Dennett and others have pointed out this is “playing tennis without the net.”

    And it’s just so tiresome. Christians are continually the best arguments against their own religion.

    1. And to think, all this cognitive cacophony is due to one (among many) ancient collection of stories to tell ’round the campfire – how many words is the Bible anyway?

  24. On “Presuppositions”

    At one point the conversation turned to whether a Supernatural God makes for a good “explanation.”

    Richard Dawkins pointed out that using God is a facile form of explanation – it “magics away” the problem. Yes! I was very happy to see Richard push on that.

    Unfortunately at that point Justin Brierley (who I respect quite a lot as a generally fantastic host!) did what he does very often in these discussions. Brierley suggests…by asking in a leading question…that Dawkins as an atheist and “materialist,” will never be satisfied with a supernatural explanation (hence rejecting them a priori in a biased fashion). The implication being that the Christian is open to supernatural truths where the atheist has by bias or a priori conviction, become blinded to their possibility. So it’s not that the atheist is actually being more reasonable – it’s really just a question of bias, or “different presuppositions.”

    Unfortunately at this point Richard seemed to sort of acquiesce and say, well, yes maybe he has a sort of (rational) preference for a Darwinian type explanation.

    Playing Monday morning quarterback, I would much rather see a push on the “magic away” characteristic of supernatural explanations.

    The point needs to be made that supernatural explanations are not rejected a priori: they are held under deep suspicion due to their very liabilities as “explanations” and in how that liability has continually played out through history.

    A “supernatural” cause is functionally equivalent to “magic.” (That’s why when you look up definitions for “magic” you will see “supernatural power.”) It simply allows one to posit a cause, absolving one of explaining HOW the cause works. In other words “Here’s a thing I want to explain; I now posit an entity that simply has the power to do that thing” – e.g. cause lightning, disease, whatever)

    But if you have no idea how the supernatural “works” then you can’t give any account of it’s limitations! It therefore can “do anything” and be used as an “explanation” for literally any observation. And an “explanation” that is consistent with any observation is an explanation that predicts no particular observation. It means not only that such explanations give no predictive power – of the type that would justify the inference we have gained “knowledge” – it means that countless logically contradictory entities can be posited to “explain” every observation, leading to epistemic chaos!

    It is a strength, not a limitation, inherent in explanations like the process of evolution, that “knowing how it works” places limits on what we can expect to observe! Whereas religious believers tend to see this strength of “material/natural explanations” as a liability “Ha, your world view can’t ‘explain’ X, while ours can!” Well, of course if you use facile supernatural ‘explanations’ you can ‘explain’ anything. That’s a bug of supernatural explanations, not a feature!

    Since we are not omniscient, we have to build justifications, knowledge, on a sense of practicality and usefulness, by looking at the liabilities for knowledge that any type of “explanation” brings.

    We can explain the flips of coins via the laws of physics and probabilities – why after so many flips it will be to our view “random.” Someone could propose that, if we are flipping five different quarters, a supernatural being is influencing the flipping of one of those quarters. However, as it happens, the quarter flips with exactly the same expected “randomness” of heads and tails as all the other quarters. “But that’s how the supernatural entity decides to flip that quarter” comes the ad hoc reply. Well, that MAY BE TRUE, but unfortunately this supernatural being has decided to flip the quarter in a way that is indistinguishable from the “random numbers” what we’d expect of normal physics, we are left without the ability to actually justify any confidence in the truth of that claim. The useful heuristic of parsimony (we can’t accept every logically possible proposition – we need to ween out the plausible and the useful) justifies rejecting the explanation.

    So for the same reasons, when it comes to supernatural explanations including God, the atheist isn’t rejecting them out of mere bias or a priori commitment to “materialism.” No…any proposed supernatural explanation may well be true. Just like it’s logically possible – it may well be true – that there is a “streak of tigers” waiting outside my door to eat me at this moment, or a squad of aliens ready to abduct me. But the liabilities of “believing something just because someone can propose the idea” are so obviously destabilizing and dysfunctional, that it makes sense to base our beliefs and actions on propositions with actual evidence or usefulness…even IF the result we may miss a “truth” that we can’t justify believing anyway. The atheist is rightly highly skeptical of supernatural explanations due to the inherent epistemic liabilities.

    And of course not only do supernatural “explanations” have these inherent liabilities of being “able to explain any observation, while reliably predicting none, or being unparsimonious” – these liabilities have played out graphically through history, where one vaccuous supernatural explanation after another has fallen to more reliable and powerful natural explanations. So there is both an epistemic case and an inductive historical case for being deeply skeptical of supernatural explanations, and for preferring natural explanations.

    1. I don’t know much about Collins and I did not listen to the Dawkins discussion, but I have spoken to people who said similar things. I usually focus on what motivates them to believe. With many people, it was not their desire for an explanation; their desire for belief was nothing more complicated than just a desire to believe, probably for cultural and psychological reasons. In their post hoc rationalization, I thought they were being disingenuous:

      1) Their appeal to the supernatural was for salvaging aspects of their religion; when confronted with accounts of the supernatural from other religions, contemporary shamans, and ancient literature, they were not at all convinced; but could not come up with reasons to exclude all else but the miracles of their own religion. Much of what they said was based on loose use of language, language that they had not considered until they were questioned; but they did not accommodate similarly loose language in other belief systems.

      2) When pressed, they could not explain what they meant by supernatural; to define the concept they had to first define what ‘natural’ meant in a way designed to exclude what they wanted to be supernatural. In effect, they were saying that there are things they want to be supernatural and things they don’t. No matter how bizarre, why would it not be a natural event that we don’t understand? How do we demarcate what’s natural? It seems that ‘supernatural’ is a concept that does not hold up under close examination.

      3) Even within their own religions, there were some claims of supernatural events they rejected as implausible; even within Christianity, they rejected some miracles. Why? So the miracles they like are more plausible?

      4) When asked if they could be wrong about their belief in God, they were confused; it seemed that they did not want to admit the possibility of their being wrong. When asked how they can be sure they are not wrong, they couldn’t come up with an answer, except for their belief in Christ, which even they didn’t think was a good answer at that stage of the conversation.

      1. Agreed about the often loose use of language, and really just inchoate ideas.

        In response to how much suffering and injustice there is in the world terms like “Free Will” and “The Fall” and “A Broken World” are raised more like incantations, like magic terms that just
        smokescreen the problems away.

        Ask a believer what actually explains how nature seems to operate in a way that is often just hostile to human and animal well-being and you get these sort of handwaves to a “fallen world” and “this is not the world as God meant it to be…but sin entered the world, so here we are.”

        Well…how exactly did this work? It wasn’t humans who created all this stuff, it was God cursing humankind for Adam and Eve eating from the tree, right?

        “Oh no, not really that way, it was more God warning Adam and Eve that sin had entered the world due to their disobeying Him and eating the fruit.”

        Well…what the heck does that mean? “Sin entering the world?” Is “sin” some sort of conscious creative entity that somehow re-made many animals in to carnivores, re-designed otherwise harmless bacteria and viruses in to virulent pathogens, re-made how the earth works so plate tectonics cause earthquakes, weather now causes hurricanes and tornadoes? And put this all together in to an inter-related, complex, working ecosystem? That seems to ascribe to “sin” the type of creative powers normally ascribed to God…so what the heck is this “sin?” And is there any reason to think it’s not still operating? If so, what are it’s powers? Is it causing diseases like COVID? If so, how can that help us understand and combat such diseases, if there are mysterious supernatural forces behind it we can’t study or predict?

        And on and on…

        They don’t feel at all obliged to put these pieces together because…well…that’s what You Materialists Do. You think that such causal explanations are necessary, we believers don’t.

        So they just posit any wisp of a supernatural idea that acts a balm to a moment of cognitive dissonance and move on. Christian pastors, writers and theologians have handed them the cure:

        Feeling anxious about some horrible evil or suffering in the world wondering why God would oversee such things? Intone the phrase “Free Will” and take two “The Fall” incantations at night, and sleep it off.

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