Richard Dawkins & Francis Collins: Biology, Belief and Covid

Interesting conversation on the Unbelievable? show with two powerhouses of science.

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Cool! On a walk with bad reception but will be back.

Just finished it. The guy in the middle does a good job and mostly I liked hearing what Collins and Dawkins have to say though there are questions I’d have liked for both of them to answer. Ah well, they only had an hour and a half.

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Watching… up to 21:50 now, and we see Richard having the same difficulty as Bucky_Wood in “God Taking His own Time” not being able to see why evolution is a necessity. If I didn’t see why it would be a necessity then I wouldn’t believe either. But I do. Let me lay it out again…

  1. The results are NOT independent of the means.
  2. There is a difference between things which are product of design and those which are product of their own growth, choice, and self-organization.
  3. This difference explains why God would even bother with creating a universe governed by natural laws. Because that automation is the basis of an independent existence supporting self-organization, which is the first step towards the process of life.
  4. Life is not a magical addition to inanimate substance except in a dream world. It is a process of self-organization, growth and making ones own choices of what to do and become.
  5. When you understand this most basic nature of what it means to be alive then there is no other way. Any shortcut would also be a short-change on the very essence of life itself.

Dawkins asks… “why would you choose natural selection which has possibly the unfortunate property that it could have come about without you.”

But that is like asking why a parent would use a womb and fetal development to give their baby arms and legs since this could have come about without you. Yes… this is absurd. Because that didn’t come about without the parent any more than the physical universe and evolution came about without God.

Could the real question be why let the baby grow their own arms and legs when you can design your own robotic arms and hook them up yourself. After all if they don’t behave themselves you can threaten to take those arms and legs away from them because those limbs are really yours and not theirs at all. LOL

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Continuing on we get Dawkin’s ok with the idea of God as an experimenter and this constrasts with Collin’s idea of a God knowing everything that is going to happen ahead of time. Well both of these seem to me like 2 versions of Deism – one has God just watching because it is an experiment to see what happens and the other has God just watching his own design unfold. These seem more alike to me than different, and obviously I don’t agree with either – both putting everything on God alone. I believe in a God who created for an authentic relationship with participation of both creator and the created in writing the future together. Not a watchmaker who designs dead machines but a shepherd or teacher who hopes their flock will learn what He teaches.

Next Dawkins talks about the suffering involved and it being all about competition – all too typical of the author of “The Selfish Gene” who is old school ultra-Darwinist. Our understanding of evolution and biology has made some progress from such notions to reveal that cooperation is the most successful survival strategy, and without it we wouldn’t have progressed beyond bacteria and likely not even that far. And again this is about the nature of life itself… for there is no life without learning, and there is no learning without mistakes and failure. Subtract those from life and what is left but dead machines simply operating according to specification. Why do these people think a world of machines is such a great and wonderful place?

Next Dawkins says, “The Darwinian explanation so beautifully does away with any need for a top-down design.” But on that point I am in total agreement. I certainly don’t think the discoveries of science need to be treated as irrelevant to theology. What we see in nature should be taken just as much a revelation from God as scripture. So when we see such an absence of top-down down design being revealed then we should understand this is because God work of creation isn’t one of top-down design of everything. We seem to keep getting stuck in human metaphors and taking them too far – the metaphor of a king issuing commands, that of an artist molding figures from clay, and that of watchmaker designing a perfect machine. But who is this king issuing commands to? Must we believe the Bible is about magical necromancy making golems of dust and bone? And what kind of relationship can we expect between a designer and his machines?

That only got me to 26:40… LOL

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A civil discussion in which Dawkins came across as genuine in his questions and in which Collins treated him with respect and courtesy. Well done to all.

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This is where I object. I’m ok with evolutionary science being our best understanding of how complex life forms developed on earth and presumably in this universe, but it begs the question to say that it is how it develops in every possible universe. Do you believe angels to be a form of life?

Collins agrees that evolution is sufficient for complexity, but then makes pretty much the same point I did in my first post that this hardly means God didn’t create the universe with its natural laws which makes this possible. And… Dawkins concedes this is a better argument and the discussion shifts to addressing different arguments for the existence of God. But this is another area where Dawkins is only get my agreement because I don’t find any of those arguments convincing either. In fact, I think they are a bad idea altogether because they inevitably shift the object of ones faith from God, which I certainly think is true, to the premises of the argument which I think is only too likely to be false. And I see numerous ways in which I think they have distorted Christianity.

When Collins addresses Dawkins’ objection to God as an explanation, I don’t think Collins quite understood the objection. The point is that is you are solving a mystery by inventing an impenetrable black box. And as far the objective methods of science are concerned this is absolutely correct. We will never be able to know anything of the content of that black box by any of the objective means of science. For the endeavors of science that is a total dead end. It is not impossible for scientists to accept such a dead end for they did just that in quantum physics. But that requires extraordinary evidence.

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Someone should tell Collins the deductive arguments only disprove atheism.

Not in the same sense of the word, no. If it was proposed to turn me into such a thing, I would see that as an end of life, not a continuation of life.

Interesting perspective. I suppose in the resurrection we will be like the angels, and we will be unlike them. At the very least we’ll have a better understanding of their nature.

Exactly. It really comes down to what it means to explain something. On the other hand should we expect a complete explanation of everything? I don’t think so. So the problem becomes how to hold on to the mystery which is beyond explanation and what one should try to say about it. I myself am wary of attempts to render everything implicit into explicit facts and concepts.

I did appreciate (and sympathize with) Dawkins at the end as he was insisting that “to explain something is not to dismiss or belittle it!” And I’m sure Collins understands and agrees with that too - despite his failure to depart from that “dismissal” language in his attributions in the final seconds when there was no chance given to clarify.

What Dawkins might see as Collins putting up a conveniently impenetrable ‘black box’ is, I think, just Collins (and similarly-minded Christians generally) just declaring that they’re comfortable with the notion that there is stuff beyond the reach of empirical science. Whereas Dawkins would rather remain open-ended about the reaches of empirical science, and chooses not to view it as plausible that some things might, in principle, just not be the material world sorts of things that science can fully analyze.

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That was not my point, nor my struggle. It was, rather, that if we are the intent and focus of God’s work, why did He wait for 99.995% of life’s existence for us to appear? In other words, it does appear (to me) to be an evolutionary process put in place by God. But we may be nothing at all special in His original design. But my struggle is that I have always assumed the opposite.

I don’t think that was RD’s point. I think he was saying that “we are here. If God is behind this fact, why would He chose to deliver us here by evolution, which is such an easy way and is a way that could occur without His help?”. The parent needs the womb (dictated by evolution), whereas RD is saying that God could have done it in a more straightforward way.

Dawkins is saying that evolution does not require design, so I wish that they had delved back into the almost impossible concept of the operational aspects of the mitochondria, with proteins spinning with electron transfers and proton gradients, and such. These are more than just mysteries, but are rather the basis for concluding that something else had to be at work!

Yes. It is like explaining abhorrent, asocial behavior by looking at the life circumstances which contribute to them. It doesn’t excuse the behavior but it does give it context and perhaps makes it a little harder to dismiss as something we could never do.

I think there is something unavoidably mysterious about the way the cosmos, life and consciousness have self organized. There is also something mysterious in our intrapsychic experience. Perhaps they’re related but I don’t assume that. I do wish that religion was more about an open regard for and wonder at these mysteries and less about a shared insistence on holding to prescribed beliefs about what they mean.

If I may push back just a bit…

What else is a religious community suppose to coalesce around if not …

?

That said, I could wish along with you that said communities would be a bit more open-minded about the existence of other legitimate communities and individuals. Or something like that.

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I can sympathize with both sides on this one. Some of his science writings are good (obviously I don’t think “The Selfish Gene” is one of them), but his aggressive atheism is often obnoxious, while I think some of the attacks on him are totally dishonest.

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I’d love to hear more about the issue(s) they ended with, that of good v. evil as it can be explained (or not) by purely evolutionary selection. Collins clearly believes that “good morality” cannot be explained by evolution without design, and RD does. RD sees and compares it to historical facets of communities living in villages, where there is an advantage to good behavior. But he calls extreme goodness (Schindler e.g.) as a “misfiring” of evolution. Collins sees it as a hard-wired behavior from God.

So Collins must also see that evil is/was created in the same way, and for a clear purpose. I suppose that this is intuitive since there must be gradations of good as we head downhill…there can be no evil if there was not good to compare it to. I guess if God allows us to choose, then choosing good must mean that there is something other than good from which to choose? Much like a hole is the absence of dirt? Heat exists, but cold is the absence of heat, so good exists, but evil is its absence?

Ok… finally finished to the end!

Dawkins says “the teleonomic entity in the living world is the gene.” That proposition of his book “The Selfish Gene” is precisely why I don’t think this is such a great work of science. The genetic code, DNA and RNA are just encoded information and nothing more. It doesn’t even have the capability of replicating itself as he frequently suggests. Thus Dawkins’ anthropomorphizing genes, attributing things like teleonomy, selfishness, will, and intention is just absurd. It is like attributing such things to a book. Are these sources of information any less useful or without enormous far reaching impacts on the world? People have tried to tell me that Dawkins doesn’t really think this way, and yet Richard confirms that he does so in this very video. He may not go so far as to claim genes are conscious but He still goes too far. And no I am not saying that life is just a mechanical process playing out the laws of physics – quite the contrary. It is just his attempt to locate those things in these molecules which doesn’t make any sense. But I very much see all that teleonomy, will, intention, and even consciousness in the life process (to vastly different quantities/degrees) which uses those molecules to store information. And yet you can say that I am likely more aligned with Dawkins than Collins on this question, for I am not invoking anything non-physical/supernatural to explain these things. I have every expectation of a physical material explanation for all of them and can even see some of the bare bones of it.

Another thing which they talk about is Dawkins objection to miracles as inconsistent with Collins idea of a God who likes order and these amazing natural laws that can accomplish so much. And again my position is closer to that of Dawkins. It is not a logical inconsistency but it is an inconsistency of character. And in my mind it is just a little bit too much like the idea of the creationists that God made the universe and the earth in such a way as to tell us endless lies about the age of the earth and what happened in the origin of the species. Likewise, everything we see is telling us that things follows these laws of nature – that this is the way things work. So I think the real problem is in the definition of the word “miracles” as violations of these laws of nature. I fully expect that all of them are consistent with physics, chemistry and such with scientific explanations, at least in the short run. I say in the short run because the laws of nature are not a causally closed system and do not really give explanations for why they ultimately happened but really only explains how they happened.

Next they discuss morality and altruism connected with argument of C. S. Lewis for the existence of God. The mediator asks where does this instinct to protect the most vulnerable come from, and Dawkins mentions Collin’s claims that this uniquely human altruism requires a divine explanation, and says he finds this unconvincing. Well I have to agree with Richard, though I must say that this is quite at odds with his “selfish gene” ideas. Thus we have this contrast between Dawkins’ claim that these are successful evolutionary strategies for conditions which no longer apply, and Collins thinking that God is better explanation that a misfiring of evolutionary genetic remnants. Put that way, and I think the problem is partly due to looking at things too much terms of the science of biology. For I see a median position afforded by the belief in the human mind and its linguistic life organization of concepts which have as much importance to the mental life of human beings as genes have for biological organisms. I can quite agree that an instinct for altruism can find its roots in the evolutionary strategies of communal organisms, but I think the human mind can and has taken this much farther with our abstract conceptions.

Collins argues that while the rules may vary, all human societies still have rules about what is right and what is evil – though I share some of Dawkins’ skepticism about this. But Richard particular objects to the need for any supernatural component, seeing no need for anything beyond a description of different human behavior. I tend to likewise define “evil” as a pursuit of desires at the expense of the well being of others. This is not to say this is always so clear cut and there is a relative aspect to this in the comparison of what is desire and necessary for well being – meaning you don’t expect others to sacrifice more important things for what is less important to yourself. So it does seem definable in terms of behavior as Richard suggests without any need for the supernatural.

The mediator raises the question of the supposed “is-ought” boundary, saying there is difference between observing the fact that we have these rules and accepting that there is some imperative requiring us to abide by them. Richard snarks that he hopes we are not taking our rules from the Abrahamic religions, and points out that our standards of morality have been improving over time, which he seems to think is evidence that our morality is coming from us.

Perhaps it is from a list of questions he wants covered but he asks if morality is just what our culture delivers to us. It is not what Dawkins said, and in fact, his very claim that morality has been improving suggests quite the opposite. I guess I am largely in agreement with Dawkins here, that we should question the authoritarian based morality handed to us by religions and should be asking whether we really ought to abide by such rules simply dictated to us. What Dawkins’ doesn’t say and I would add is that we can frankly find our imperative in measurable reasons why some behaviors are better than others – measurable in the sciences of medicine, psychology, and sociology on the effect they have upon the well being of people.

Collins complains that he has trouble seeing it as a purely evolutionary consequence with no deeper meaning. I certainly believe it does have a deeper (even supernatural) meaning, and I have already explained why it isn’t solely derived from evolution – even though I agree with Richard that nothing supernatural is logically implicated. With the talk of “generosity” and “forgiveness” I would quite agree that the origin isn’t evolution or biology but linguistic concepts and reasoning pretty much as Dawkins suggests. And the explanation why is rather simple – for we simply ask and decide what kind of world we would prefer to live in.

With all these agreements I have with Dawkins, why am I not an atheist like he is? My reasons for believing are simply different that the ones he has found unconvincing. And I even think his science is a bit limited. I found it a bit humorous to see how Collins’ final superb question had Dawkins fumbling rather clumsily: “Why do we admire it?” None of Dawkins’ references to weak evolution explanation of origins for the altruistic behaviors even addressed the question. I don’t think it requires God to explain it, but it does take more than biology. We are more than just biology even without bringing anything supernatural into it.

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This line of reasoning supports the notion that science does not have a total explanatory ability. Perhaps of greater relevance is the way we can think and transcend our “biological” selves and consider, explain, accept, deny, show intention, choose, in ways that cannot be the product of anything but our selves, our personhood, that goes to the question of good and evil (detailed discussion would be lengthy, and a number of opinions allude to this).

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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