December 9, 2012

Review Corner

And now for something completely different. After three Randian books, I read -- at the suggestion of a good friend of this blog -- Francis Collins's The Language of God. Collins attempts to sell belief to scientists and science to believers. Before we begin, it is worth noting that he is something of a Hoss. From his Amazon page:

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., helped to discover the genetic misspellings that cause cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease, and a rare form of premature aging called progeria. A pioneer gene hunter, he led the Human Genome Project from 1993 until 2008. For his revolutionary contributions to genetic research, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, and the National Medal of Science in 2009.

The book is very well written and I enjoyed it. As I confessed to my recommender, in 11 years of Catholic school education, I received exactly one semester of intellectually rigorous theology. He and another good friend did hard time with the Jesuits. I wish I had encountered more. The most enlightening spiritual parts of his book may be the C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine quotes. I've read a little Lewis and Zero Augz.

What the book did really well is sell science to the believer. Most of the text is devoted to providing a theological context to evolution and the big bang. Collins is no friend of Creationism, Intelligent Design, or Young Earthers (Senator Rubio, line one...) I confess that most people I know accept every word of his. It matches what I was taught in Catholic schools. I never saw science as the enemy to belief.

I found it less convincing in the converse: selling belief to the scientist. To Collins belief is self-reinforcing and the arguments sound circular. I don't know that this is bad -- that's what faith is right? Once it is demonstrable, it ceases to be faith -- no salvation for "Rock, Hard." He certainly provides a framework for the scientist to accept belief, but I didn't find the Tolkien-finally-breaks-down-Lewis argument.

I was troubled by the denial of human qua human greatness. I argue this on Facebook with my atheist buddies. Bushels of Carl Sagan quotes about how we are the hair on a bacteria of a flea of the dog that is the universe -- and why do we think we're so damn special? A lefty buddy asks me to prove that we are the only animal with free will. I suggest "deferred production" and he comes up with the example of a slime mold that leaves some bacteria to grow. Yes, JC, I admit it: us and slime mold, we're the great creatures endowed with free will and reason.

Collins does score by pointing out that:

By any estimation, the biological complexity of human beings considerably exceeds that of a roundworm, with its total of 959 cells, even though the gene count is similar for both. And certainly no other organism has sequenced its own genome!

Yet he later provides a long C.S. Lewis quote that ends :
But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods.... They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, "This is our business, not yours." But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives. We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.

My belief was always more defined by "render unto Caesar..." we are completely free to operate in the material, mammon sphere if we behave well. We're adjectives now?

I am not comfortable telling a guy like Collins, or my many believing friends of liberty not to believe. The Richard Dawkinses and even sadly the Christopher Hitchenses and Penn Jilletts can be as tiresome to me as TV preachers. Many people accept democratic capitalism under a rubric of love-thy-neighbor, I choose a render-under-Caesar appreciation of reason and consistent philosophy.

Very interesting read -- four stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at December 9, 2012 10:31 AM

Oddly enough, more than six years ago, I was part of a discussion on this very same book, but from the other side of the coin - from the theological half. JK, you write that though Collins did well is sell science to the believer; selling belief to the scientist, not so much. I humbly propose that he didn't do as great a job of selling science to the believers as you might think. Here's that 2006 discussion:

The blog, Pura Locura, is no longer active, but here are the major actors:

Pablo (blogging as "pableezy," as the original name of the blog was "Pableezy's Sheezy," and you may make of that what you will), proprietor of the blog, and a nice guy. His was a youth leader at a church near here that was once theologically sound, and then embraced postmodernism.

John (blogging as J-Lou), a former youth leader in the same church, an adherent of the Emerging Church Movement of Brian McLaren, a theological liberal, and most recently a proponent of "Social Justice" with urban youth.

Steve (blogging as "steve w" in this discussion), senior pastor of the same church.

Yours truly (blogging at the time as "Qoheleth," and often addressed simply as "Q").

Most of the other incidental participants were young adults and college-age commentors who were a part of the youth group Pableezy and J-Lou had led. I will apologize in advance both for the lack of grammar and youth-oriented writing (none of the participants there had the advantage of holding a copy of the Three Sources Stylebook) and for the theological underpinnings that some may find tedious. Think of it as another side of me that I don't inflict on my blog-brothers over here, if you would.

So, I wasn't all that impressed with Collins' book from that side of the coin, either.

Posted by: Keith Arnold at December 10, 2012 12:37 AM

Superb. For the internet, I'd call that great grammar and spelling.

It's a big world, isn't it? Thanks for the link.

Posted by: jk at December 10, 2012 11:04 AM | What do you think? [2]