Sunday, September 09, 2007

On one's knees in dewy grass

Here is the crucial moment in Francis Collins' book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief, often offered as a antidote to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion:

I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

Collins' scientific credentials are certainly in order. He led the drive to sequence the human genome, one of the great scientific triumphs of all time. And, like many of us, he has made a journey to a place of spiritual rest. But whatever it was that happened to him on that sunlit morning in the Cascades, it was not evidence for the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or for the Christian promise of' personal immortality -- all of which Collins apparently embraced as he fell to his knees. In fact, there is nothing in his book that would satisfy the scientific criteria for "evidence." Where the agnostic will humbly say "I don't know," Collins makes the leap of faith, "God did it."

As he has every right to do. And he is right when he says that science cannot contradict him. Scientific evidence cannot rule out a personal divinity who created the universe ex nihilo, or a God-man who rose from the dead, or any other event that is presumed to take place outside of natural law. Science by definition eschews miracles. Suffice it to say that the evidence Collins proffers for the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or for a loving personal God, is insufficient to convince anyone who is not predisposed to belief.

Now it must be said that Collins makes very few theological claims in his book, and those he does make are so couched in caution and proper scientific skepticism that the book can almost be read as an argument for disbelief. In particular, Collins has nothing to say about personal immortality, without which his Christianity would be much enfeebled, so much so that there would seem to be little point in adopting that faith. Few intellectual constructs are more universal or more dearly held than the idea that death is not final. When Collins fell to his knees and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, he bought into eternity whether he admits it or not.

But what exactly endures when Collins dies? The immaterial soul has been chased to its lair. The lair is empty. And Francis Collins, as a scientist, should know that as well as anyone.

Every somatic cell of our body carries a DNA signature of our uniqueness, inherited from our parents when a single paternal sperm plunged into a single maternal egg. We have recently seen the first mapping of a full diploid genome for an individual human, Craig Venter, whose team did the mapping. Genes have been identified linked to heart attacks, lactose intolerance, tobacco addiction, obesity, hypertension, blue eyes, fair skin, brown sticky earwax, antisocial behavior, and so on, not all of which are necessarily expressed. It is clear that a huge part of who and what we are is inherited materially from our parents. A part of what we are will live on in our offspring as genetically encoded information -- not quite the sort of immortality the typical Christian has in mind.

Another fundamental part of a unique self is a lifetime's worth of experience, stored as memories in the brain. Here too all of the evidence suggests that memories are encoded as modified synaptic connections among neurons. The July issue of Scientific American had an intriguing article on a first mapping of memories in the mouse brain -- small steps toward what will be in the next few decades the scientific equivalent of mapping the human genome. The evidence so far is incontrovertible: Memories are material. There is no way that the memories stored in our brains will survive the decay of our bodies.

So when all of those tens of trillions of our cells have decayed into molecules and recycled back into the material environment, what becomes of a self? There is zero scientific evidence for personal immortality. Quiet the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that the age-old dream of living forever is a consoling fiction.

Will that stop the great majority of humans from believing in life after death? Not likely. When a beautiful frozen waterfall is grounds for surrender to a package of neolithic thinking, then we might as well give up on the scientific quest and believe anything we please.

Which is not to say that the experience of a frozen waterfall is not cause for awe, wonder, celebration, praise. Such things have sometimes made me fall to my knees in the grass. That's part of who and what I am. It's part of who and what we are as human beings, inclined to self-transcendence. What part of that is genetic and what part memetic remains to be discovered.

Collins and Dawkins agree that reality is greater than what science has yet delineated. Collins gives our ignorance a name -- God -- and surrenders his curiosity to faith in a particular religion. Dawkins is content to whittle away at the mystery.

Further Reading

Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief. The evidence of belief presented by Collins is drawn almost entirely from the writings of C. S. Lewis. I would recommend going straight to the source, rather than having one's apologetics served up secondhand.

The Time Magazine debate between Collins and Dawkins can be read here.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.