Saturday, June 06, 2009

Francis Collins and the God of the gaps

Marcus French reviews The Language of God by Dr. Francis Collins. In this article, French describes Collins' conversion to Christianity from atheism. I wonder, however, how any skeptic could consider Collins conversion persuasive or compelling.

On the one hand, Collins says, "I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief." On the other hand, he says, "...if I could no longer rely on the robustness of my atheistic position..." It makes no sense to consider a position never seriously examined to be robust.

All apologetic arguments are weak, and the argument from moral law is among the weakest. French himself explicitly calls it an argument from ignorance, a "God of the gaps" argument: Collins turns to Christianity because he finds "no satisfactory explanation in Darwinian evolution" for the presence of moral law. But why do we teach to children precisely those fundamental ethical beliefs that C.S. Lewis (whom Collins references as key to his conversion) uses to support the idea of moral law, especially fairness and the mutual benefit of sharing? And why do we blame the parents, teachers and/or culture, not God, when those beliefs are not properly inculcated?

His qualifier is also weak: "... (especially when considering selfless altruism, which Collins describes as 'a scandal to reductionist reasoning')." I’m skeptical that acts of truly “selfless altruism” are particularly common; I’m skeptical too whether the term “selfless altruism” has definite scientific meaning, especially when you consider psychological or emotional satisfaction as a benefit. At best we have to infer selfless altruism; it’s not something we can observe directly. Collins should be enough of a scientist to understand that it is evidence, not inferences, that falsify scientific theories.

The inability to find an explanation of moral law in specifically Darwinian (presumably biological, genetic) evolution should not immediately turn one to a supernatural explanation; perhaps the scientific explanation might lie in scientific psychology, sociology, anthropology or some as-yet-undiscovered social science.

Collins seems to have examined the issue of moral law as superficially as he examined his own atheism before declares the defeat of naturalism and retreats to the supernatural.


  1. There are evolutionary models for various aspects of altruism, and selfless altruism does have a specific meaning in the field. Collins might not find them convincing, but he should explain why. While evolutionary biology is not my specific field, even the introductory courses and readings I have done on the subject make a fairly reasonable case for the evolution of altruistic behaviour. In particular, Dawkin's theories espoused in The Extended Phenotype are quite pertinent here, as it allows one to recast selfless altruism instead into the role of selfish manipulation by the party gaining from the altruism. While this might be unpalatable to those wishing to believe in a higher moral existence, the shift in reference frame immediately provides a more obvious evolutionary explanation.

  2. "make a fairly reasonable case for the evolution of altruistic behavior"

    I'm skeptical of these just-so stories. It seems people forget how most of our behaviors are learned. Yes, we likely do have an instinct to risk our own lives for our children and perhaps other close kin. But after that, I think culture and indoctrination are what extend that instinct.

    We learn that it's more pleasant to treat each other decently, so we do.

    I'm not arguing for a blank slate. But 150,000 years ago, if we came across a strange wounded man with a young woman and a baby, we would probably kill the man and child and take the woman.

    Culturally, we now have mostly figured out that that wounded guy might have valuable skills.

    So, culture makes our lives less nasty, brutish and short, rather than some instinct to be Ghandi.

    Maybe this is what Dawkins argues in The Extended Phenotype. Don't know.

  3. UnBeguiled: I am as skeptical as you are about specific scientific explanations for (supposedly) altruistic behavior, especially evo-psych bullshit.

    We do not, however, have to have a good specific theory — much less a perfect one — to condemn Collins in the strongest possible terms for abandoning the search for naturalistic, scientific explanation without even trying, especially in the face of any number of superficially plausible explanations, and, more importantly, compelling evidence falsifying a supernatural explanation.

  4. An important notion here is variability of the distribution of traits in a population, which in my view is the core insight of evolutionary theory and is the most difficult to incorporate into one's thinking. Traits that are multi-genically determined/influenced display considerable variability typically (modeled as) distributed normally. That means that, say, the distribution of altruism (or mutualism, or cooperation) that has a genetic component will have tails -- some out on the one tail will display altruistic behavior in greater degree than those in the middle of the distribution, and some on the other tail will display less. It's not a stretch to imagine that even "selfless" altruism, if it exists, is no more than the tail of a distribution of the trait.

  5. UnBeguiled,

    I was not talking about the "just-so" stories so rife within evolutionary psychology, but was instead talking about specific mathematical models for things like kin selection and mutual cooperative strategies through things like the iterated prisoner's dilemma. There are situations outside of close kin in which cooperation and altruism can have benefits given a certain social environment (in this case, the culture that you speak of, but that culture likely has evolutionary roots within our cognitive abilities).

    However, those models can be fairly idealized and abstract, so I can see how they might not always be entirely convincing for the whole of altruistic and cooperative behaviour that one sees within the animal kingdom. That is why I also brought up Dawkins' book, because he posits that no organism lives in isolation, and part of that organism's phenotype goes into manipulating the behaviours of other organisms as well.

    If we see a case of selfless altruism (say, for example, a dog that decides to adopt an orphaned kitten and provides milk, care, and protection for it, all at a fair bit of cost to the dog), the idea is that instead of wondering why the dog would evolve the behavioural characteristic for selfless altruism, we look at the problem from another angle. In this case, it is well accepted that the mothering instinct in a dog (and most mammals in general) is beneficial to the propagation of its genes. Likewise, an ability for the kitten to manipulate its parents into providing the care it desires is beneficial to its own survival and propagation (the level of manipulation for care by the child and the level of care the parents want to provide are also not equal, but that is beside the point here). I use the term manipulate not to indicate any maliciousness on the part of the kitten, but rather for lack of a less connotatively negative term. Anyway, so there is the propensity for overlap of the two behaviours. Instead of viewing the interaction between the dog and cat in the puzzling manner of why the dog would expend so much energy helping a kitten, we instead look at it from the perspective of the kitten successfully taking advantage of the dogs behavioural repertoire and manipulating it to its own advantage (thereby recasting the selfless altruism problem into a much more easily explainable phenomenon of selfish manipulation). Some species even seem to take this strategy to an extreme, such as cuckoos that practice brood-parasitism and caterpillars that successfully manipulate ant colonies into caring for and protecting them with chemical signals.

    Then again, as Larry points out, whether or not Collins accepts these and other theories as plausible does not excuse his abandonment of even trying to find a plausible explanation.

  6. Indeed, we can look not just at the distribution of traits, but also at the distribution of circumstances; traits that are adaptive under most circumstances can still be non-adaptive on the tail of the distribution of circumstances and still be selected for.

  7. Mozglubov,

    I don't think we disagree on any substantial issue.

    I was just offering a reminder that altruistic behavior is largely culturally determined.

    Is the capacity for that behavior based on biology? Certainly. Is culture somewhat based on biology? Certainly.

    But make food scarce, and all of us will raise the black flag and start slitting throats. That's based on biology too.


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