George Johnson in SciAm offers some welcome clarity.
…there has been a resurgence in recent years of “natural theology”–the attempt to justify religious teachings not through faith and scripture but through rational argument, astronomical observations and even experiments on the healing effects of prayer….Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University astronomer and science historian, tells how in the 1980s he was part of an effort to produce a kind of anti-Cosmos, a television series called Space, Time, and God that was to counter Sagan’s “conspicuously materialist approach to the universe.” The program never got off the ground, but its premise survives: that there are two ways to think about science. You can be a theist, believing that behind the veil of randomness lurks an active, loving, manipulative God, or you can be a materialist, for whom everything is matter and energy interacting within space and time. Whichever metaphysical club you belong to, the science comes out the same…But what sounds like a harmless metaphor can restrict the intellectual bravado that is essential to science. “In my view,” Collins goes on to say, “DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God.” Evolutionary explanations have been proffered for both these phenomena. Whether they are right or wrong is not a matter of belief but a question to be approached scientifically. The idea of an apartheid of two separate but equal metaphysics may work as a psychological coping mechanism, a way for a believer to get through a day at the lab. But theism and materialism don’t stand on equal footings. The assumption of materialism is fundamental to science.
Furthermore, Collins’s claim depends heavily on what he means and what other people understand by words like ‘explain’ and ‘special’ not to mention ‘the Moral Law’ and ‘God.’ What he seems to mean there is that DNA sequence will never explain in a way that he (in common with many others) finds satisfying, convincing, psychologically and emotionally complete and adequate. He probably means, approximately, if I may interpret, that the human capacity to have a moral sense seems special in a different kind of way from a string of information. Well, yes. It does. Even an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’ (thank you Timothy Garton Ash) like me has that feeling. Human consciousness, complexity, awareness, aesthetic sense, imagination, empathy, hope, memory, anticipation, creativity, elaboration – all do seem special, and unlike (in some ways, though not others) the rest of nature. But the thing is, they would. That is to say that feeling is probably just a by-product of the complexity in question, and inevitable in any being with an elaborated information processing system. We feel special to ourselves because, to ourselves, we are special, and because a complex brain gives us the capacity to have thoughts about what our thoughts are like and how they are different from the thoughts of our cat or that spider or this rock. It would be difficult to have a brain of that kind without also having the thought that there is something special about it.
And then, if you think further about the other end of this discrepancy, this unexplanatory explanation, this explanation that doesn’t satisfy, things get difficult right away, because if the idea is that materialism can’t explain our minds and moral sense but God can, then one thinks about that god who created the universe with its hundreds of billions of galaxies each with hundreds of billions of stars, and one realizes that there’s precious little reason to think it’s Like Us or that we’re like it; little reason to think we’re the same kind of thing as that god only smaller and weaker. It seems to make much more sense to think that our ideas about the Moral Law and in fact our search for God would be of considerably less interest to this god than the ideas about the Moral Law of a flake of pepper would be to us. So, sure, to humans there does seem to be a strange and permanently puzzling gap between our consciousness and a material universe, but saying that God bridges that gap also does seem to be, as Johnson says, a coping mechanism rather than a genuinely convincing explanation.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, tells of his exasperation with colleagues who try to play both sides of the street: looking to science for justification of their religious convictions while evading the most difficult implications–the existence of a prime mover sophisticated enough to create and run the universe, “to say nothing of mind reading millions of humans simultaneously.” Such an entity, he argues, would have to be extremely complex, raising the question of how it came into existence, how it communicates–through spiritons!–and where it resides.
Well exactly – ‘while evading the most difficult implications.’ That’s just it. Answering ‘God’ isn’t an answer, because it just raises the same question all over again, but magnified exponentially. If it seems strange that we’re here, why would it not seem even stranger that God is here? Why is it that we’re mysterious but ‘God’ is quite enough? The God answer doesn’t answer the questions, it opens a whole universe of new ones. It seems to me a bit lazy and a bit dishonest to pretend that materialistic explanations are inadequate while the God one is just right.
Dawkins is frequently dismissed as a bully, but he is only putting theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No one who has witnessed the merciless dissection of a new paper in physics would describe the atmosphere as overly polite.
But of course that’s just what one is not supposed to do – to put theological doctrines to the same kind of scrutiny that any scientific theory must withstand. No no. No no no no. That’s insensitive, that’s offensive, that’s impermissible. People who do that are bullies and Enlightenment fundamentalists. People who give inadequate one-word answers that always consist of the same three letters, on the other hand, are not bullies at all but spiritual questers.