Inspiration or Artifice? Faith and Reason


From a presentation by Francis Collins at the Veritas Forum at the California Institute of Technology

Take a close look at the two images. What do they represent? We might say that one image represents science and the other represents religion (or faith). But which is which?

The images are similar, but one of them is manmade, and the other is something we find in nature. Do you know which is which? Is the manmade image the scientific one or the spiritual one?

I will answer these questions; at least I will answer them as they were described in a presentation given by Francis Collins, the manager of the Human Genome Project, at a Veritas Forum at Caltech University in 2009. In the process, we will explore the chief question examined by this eminent scientist: whether science and faith are compatible.

The image on the right is manmade; it is the stained glass, Rose Window at Westminister Cathedral. The image on the left appears in nature: is a view of DNA looking down its long axis. Remarkable it is that these two images appear to be so similar in color and design.

The manmade image is the “spiritual” one as it is incorporated into the design of a Christian cathedral, an homage to a Creator God. But, we could just as well view it as something artificial and, therefore, nothing but a manmade artifice of glass and other materials.

The natural image reveals a design that is maybe even more sublime in appearance than the manmade object, but it is the “natural” image. We could just as well view it as spiritual, the handiwork of a Creator God.

Art imitates life, and life imitates art as the saying goes.

People have created some incredible things, from enormous, awe-inspiring cathedrals to the Great Sphynx and Mount Rushmore, the Library of Congress full of millions of pages of books and cities that house millions of people and their enterprises. We wouldn’t call those natural. They might be spiritual in purpose, or not. Some might see spiritual significance and others might not.

For all the great and awe-inspiring things people have made, nature is not in jeopardy of being overshadowed in the awe-inspiring department. The human genome, for instance, contains 3.1 billion “letters” of DNA code, and that genome exists in every cell in the human body. Every time a cell divides, it copies the entire genome over again.

If a person decided to “read” the information in the human genome working at an average pace, she would need all of 31 years reading seven days a week and twenty four hours a day to complete the task!

Francis Collins was raised in a secular family and solidified his atheism in college where atheism was the reflexive view that prevailed in his college science studies. It was reflexive for him because he really didn’t question the atheism he embraced. It was simply part of the program. It went with the scientific study that was to become his life’s work, or so he assumed.

He didn’t question atheism until a gentle, dying woman asking him simply what he believed one day after sharing her belief in God. He didn’t have an answer because he had never really formulated a belief. He had adopted one without really examining any evidence and could not say why he believed what he believed.

Being a scientist, he was aware that his position was untenable. He vowed never to be at a loss for words if he was ever asked a similar question again. He relates that he knew what he wanted the answer to be, but he realized that he didn’t know why he came to that conclusion. So, he began to examine the evidence.

As he dug into the various world religions, he saw that there was much more to be examined than he had time to digest and assimilate on his own so he knocked on the door of a minister who gave him a book by an Oxford scholar who related his own attempt to examine the evidence. The scholar was CS Lewis, and Francis Collins didn’t get more than a few pages into the reading before he was impressed by the “great depth of thinking and reason to be applied to the question of God”.

He was surprised and bit daunted by the task, but he stuck with it. He previously thought that reason and faith were on “opposite poles”, but he discovered that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he began to realize that reason and faith go “hand in hand”, and this realization didn’t come easy for him.

He describes himself as “kicking and screaming most of the way because I did not want this to turn out the way that it seemed to be turning out.” The deeper he went, the more it seemed to him that the evidence, though it fell short of proof, was pretty compelling. “It certainly made me realize that atheism would no longer be for me an acceptable choice, that it was the least rational of the options.”

He points to several lines of evidence that were most compelling to him:

  • There is something rather than nothing;
  • The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”;
  • The Big Bang: and
  • The precise tuning of the constants in the universe.

I won’t try in this short piece to expound on each of these points, and Collins only does so briefly in his presentation. I will end on a few points that are keys to his conclusion that science and religion, reason and faith, are far from incompatible; they are perfectly compatible.

(The rest of the presentation focuses on DNA as the “language of God”. He observes that these points only led him to “Einstein’s God” – a deist God.[i] You can hear him describe his transition to belief in the God of the Bible if you interested by following the link in the text at the third paragraph of this article. You could also go on to listen to his analysis of DNA as the language of God as well if you are interested.)

He quotes G.K. Chesterton for the proposition: “Atheism is the most daring of all dogmas, for it is the assertion of a universal negative.” We may think of religion as being dogmatic, but atheism is no less so. Atheism is an a priori position. It is a presupposition asserted as if it were a self-evident, empirical truth. A person does not, and cannot, arrive at the position of atheism from observation, experience or science.

Francis Collins explains that God must (necessarily) be outside of and unaffected by and not limited to nature. A God that is capable of speaking into existence something out of nothing must, necessarily by immaterial and timeless to have created space/time. In this sense, God is super natural. Anything that does not have these qualities is not God.

Science, on the other hand, is limited, by definition, by nature. Science is the study of nature. All that science can know or reveal is nature. Collins says, therefore, “Science can’t speak anything about God.”

He illustrates this point from a debate he had with Richard Dawkins, an avowed and very vocal atheist of some intellectual muscle. Collins challenged Dawkins, “How is it possible from a scientific perspective to rule out categorically the presence of God?” By the end of the debate, Dawkins had to admit, on a purely rational basis, that he couldn’t exclude the possibility of a supernatural being, though he added with his characteristic wit, “But it would be so much grander and more complicated and awesome than anything humans could contemplate that it surely must not be the God we were all talking about.”

Collins jokingly remarks at this point that he wanted to shout, “Hallelujah! You believe!” drawing laughter from the audience.

But all levity aside, science can’t tell us about God. Collins observes, as I have as well, that scientists often would rather assume faith in other things before assuming God.

One of those things is the multiverse idea – that we live in one of an infinite number of universes that all have different values of those constants that, for our universe, are perfectly balanced on a knife edge to support life. We just happen to be in that one, unique universe. Collins admits that this theory is defensible “as long as you’re willing to accept the fact that you will probably never be able to observe those infinite series of parallel universes” which he adds requires a “leap of faith”.

In that way, science, as it is practiced by many in the 21st century, is a lot like belief in a supernatural God. Science can’t prove or disprove the multiverse theory, because the proof lies beyond the realm of this universe to which our science is limited. We can look at the stained glass window next to a bird’s eye view of DNA and see the inspiration and wonder of God; or we can see nothing but artifice and nature. Our choices don’t rest on science; they rest on “faith”. Neither are they incompatible with science for that same reason.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[i] Belief in the existence of a God on the evidence of reason and nature only, with rejection of supernatural revelation (distinguished from theism); belief in a God who created the world but has since remained indifferent to it. (From dictionary.com)

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2 Comments on “Inspiration or Artifice? Faith and Reason”

  1. Pete Says:

    Reblogged this on Walking In Christ and commented:
    Compelling piece that is well worth the read. Thanks to Navigating the Truth for posting

    Liked by 1 person


  2. […] A view of the world through the eyes of faith « Inspiration or Artifice? Faith and Reason […]

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