The Language of Ignorance
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.
And it is scathing.
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 of the more memorable experiences of my life occurred one day about 30 years ago while I was taking a drive in the San Gabriel mountains near Los Angeles, California. Having spotted something occupying the curb half of the driving lane ahead, I slowed down to move into the opposite lane of this narrow, twisting mountain road. As I drove slowly by, I looked at what turned out to be a group of a dozen or so squirrels huddled around a recently car-killed associate. They did not bound off the road into the bushes as my car approached. They just sat there, erect on their haunches, in a circle around their dead comrade. As I drove past, I received an overwhelming sense of their sorrow. They were mourning. A couple of them turned their heads to look at me as if saying, "Do you mind? We're praying here!"Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species’ behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.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.
It was a very touching scene and a highly spiritual experience, but I figure it probably had about as much to do with anything as would a vision of a frozen waterfall.
Collins’ sins against reasonableness do not end here. Somewhere during the course of his scientific career, he acquired the revolting habit of quoting eminent scientists out of context to give an entirely false impression of their religious beliefs. Misappropriation of Einstein and Hawking, while common enough in popular religious discourse, rises to level of intellectual misconduct when perpetrated by a scientist like Collins. Where either of these physicists uses the term “God”—as in Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice…”—he uses it metaphorically. Any honest engagement with their work reveals that both Einstein and Hawking reject the notion of Collins’ God as fully as any atheist. Collins suggests otherwise at every opportunity.
I wonder if there's some way for people who are deliberately mis-quoted, or their heirs, to sue people for twisting their words into something opposed to what was plainly meant?
If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, “The Language of God” provides the answer.Maybe it's just bullshit in mistaken service of bridging a culture gap? If so, I prefer Wilson's approach:
While the scientist believes in evolution, the evangelical Christian interprets the Bible as the literal word of God.Naa... That's the devil talking.
"I may be wrong, you may be wrong. We may both be partly right," Wilson writes.