November 27, 2015
Sam Harris: The Language of Ignorance
Posted on Aug 15, 2006
By Sam Harris
In this essay, the bestselling secularist author of “The End of Faith” delivers a scathing review of “The Language of God,” a new book by Human Genome Project head Francis Collins that attempts to demonstrate a harmony between science and evangelical Christianity.
Francis Collins—physical chemist, medical geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project—has written a book entitled ?The Language of God.? In it, he attempts to demonstrate that there is ?a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony? between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity. To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts. He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes. His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile. ?The Language of God? reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States.
Most reviewers of ?The Language of God? seem quite overawed by its author?s scientific credentials. This is understandable. As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind. Lest we think that one man can do no lasting harm to our discourse, consider the fact that the year is 2006, half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old, our president has just used his first veto to block federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds, and one of the foremost scientists in the land has this to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain):
According to Collins, belief in the God of Abraham is the most rational response to the data of physics and biology, while ?of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational.? Taken at face value, these claims suggest that ?The Language of God? will mark an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of ideas. Once Collins gets going, however, we realize that the book represents a breakthrough of another kind.
After finding himself powerless to detect any errors in the philosophizing of C.S. Lewis (a truly ominous sign), Collins describes the moment that he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ:
If this account of field research seems a little thin, don?t worry—a recent profile of Collins in Time magazine offers supplementary data. Here, we learn that the waterfall was frozen in three streams, which put the good doctor in mind of the Trinity?
If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything. Let us say that I saw the same waterfall, and its three streams reminded me of Romulus, Remus and the She-wolf, the mythical founders of Rome. How reasonable would it be for me to know, from that moment forward, that Italy would one day win the World Cup? This epiphany, while perfectly psychotic, would actually put me on firmer ground than Collins—because Italy did win the World Cup. Collins? alpine conversion would be a ludicrous non sequitur even if Jesus does return to Earth trailing clouds of glory.
While the mere sighting of a waterfall appears to have been sufficient to answer all important questions of theology for Collins, he imagines himself to be in possession of further evidence attesting to the divinity of Jesus, the omnipotence of God and the divine origin of the Bible. The most compelling of these data, in his view, is the fact that human beings have a sense of right and wrong. Collins follows Lewis here, as faithfully as if he were on a leash, and declares that the ?moral law? is so inscrutable a thing as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. According to Collins, the moral law applies exclusively to human beings:
One wonders if the author has ever read a newspaper. The behavior of humans offers no such ?dramatic contrast.? How badly must human beings behave to put this ?sense of universal rightness? in doubt? And just how widespread must ?glimmerings? of morality be among other animals before Collins—who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes—begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn?t these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?
Collins? case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism. Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality. In Collins? view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God. (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like ?kin selection? that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.) A moment?s thought reveals, however, that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery. Forget morality—how did nature select for the ability to write sonnets, solder circuit boards or swing a golf club? Clearly, such abilities could never be the product of evolution. Might they have been placed in us by God? Smoking cigarettes isn?t a healthy habit and is unlikely to offer an adaptive advantage—and there were no cigarettes in the Paleolithic—but this habit is very widespread and compelling. Is God, by any chance, a tobacco farmer? Collins can?t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution. It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training. If one didn?t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.
Having established that our moral sensitivities are God-given, Collins finds himself in a position to infer the nature of our Creator:
I hope the reader will share my amazement that passages like this have come from one of the most celebrated scientists in the United States. I find that my own sense of the moral law requires that I provide a few more examples of Collins? skill as a philosopher and theologian…
New and Improved Comments
This month, we're marking 10 years of uncompromising, challenging and truly independent journalism here at Truthdig.
Help us celebrate — and set our sights even higher — over the next decade by counting among our network of Truthdig supporters.
SUPPORT TRUTHDIG Thank you!