This is the fourth in a six part discussion between BioLogos vice-president Karl Giberson and founder Francis Collins, co-authors of The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (note: Francis Collins' work on this project was completed prior to his appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health). The conversation first appeared as "Evolution, the Bible, and the Book of Nature" in Books and Culture and took place during a conference at Azusa Pacific University in 2008.
Karl Giberson: What do you think of this project that the Discovery Institute has launched, with a laboratory where they want to do genuine scientific research, with their own in-house scientists? That’s a very strange development.
Francis Collins: It is very hard for me to imagine what they will do. Science by its very nature ought to be unfettered by any particular perspective on what these right answers are supposed to be. And yet here you are setting up this scientific circumstance that has as its goal to support intelligent design theory. That is counter to the way that science has to be conducted. And furthermore, as everybody has pointed out, intelligent design has this major fundamental flaw. It has no predictive value that anyone can discern. And it has no scientific strategy to demonstrate the correctness of its position because it’s implying divine supernatural intervention, which by definition science isn’t really able to establish. It’s the wrong set of tools.
I respect the sincerity and the passion of people like Douglas Axe who are driven to make this happen, but I don’t think it’s driven by a scientific motivation.
KG: But are you being completely fair? Their rejoinder, I think, would be that what you’ve just described as science is kind of a mythology. Science isn’t really that open-minded. In reality, there are a whole set of very wide-ranging theoretical ideas that aren’t really on the table when you go into the laboratory. You go in working within a framework, with a paradigm of some sort, and you put the pieces together within that framework. But you don’t really acknowledge it as a framework.
The ID people don’t want to do their research within this framework of naturalistic evolution. They want to check that and say instead that, “Well, we’ll do similar research except we’re not going to insist that everything we consider has to fit within this naturalistic paradigm. We are going to go outside this paradigm and see whether we notice different things.” Historical cases have been made that paradigms are sometimes misleading. For example, the paradigm that there couldn’t be change in the heavens caused people to miss data for many centuries about new stars. The ID people would say that you wouldn’t see the design in nature because you work under a paradigm that excludes that possibility.
FC: I would say again, though, as a person who has spent his whole career in science, that I don’t see that’s really a rift. Sure, we have paradigms that we use to try and organize things, but one of our goals is to upset these paradigms.
If a number of laboratories did different kinds of experiment and said, “Hey, wait a minute, here is some data suggesting that evolution is wrong, that it is not capable of explaining something,” that would be such a lightning rod for excited investigation. This idea would not be ignored because it wasn’t consistent with a reigning paradigm. I just don’t see that’s how science operates.
And the other problem with ID is something else that you mentioned. If what they’re setting out to do is to try to uncover things that might be actually better understood from an ID perspective, how would that work? Again, the fundamental premise of intelligent design is that there were supernatural interventions to explain irreducible complexity. And how, from a scientific perspective, are you going to catch those in the act when they are, by definition, supernatural? Science is really not set up to investigate those claims. You’ve got a mismatch of the approach. You’re using a set of tools that are categorically wrong for trying to demonstrate your premise.
KG: When we talk about the enduring power of creationism, it seems to me the best way to understand that goes back to something that is as old as Aristotle and that‘s the different ways that people get knowledge. Aristotle talked about knowledge that we get from thinking, and of the knowledge we get through experience, but there’s another category which I think in many ways is the largest and most important category – social knowledge.
We are a part of a social group and people you trust tell you things. The fact that I believe in evolution derives from the fact that people like you that I trust have told me that it’s true. I’ve never done a genome sequence, I’ve never done a fossil dig. So what do I—Karl Giberson—really know about evolution? All I know is that people that I trust have told me that it’s compelling and have made arguments that I buy and people that I have less confidence in have tried to challenge those things. Now, how are ordinary people supposed to navigate this complex web of social authority, to try and figure out which voices they should listen to, and which voices they shouldn’t?
Consider credentials. On paper the credentials of the better creationists and ID people are like yours and mine. Take you and Michael Behe. You both have Ph.Ds. You have done research and published articles and so on and so forth. Now your work is more significant that his, but it’s not likes he’s never done any work. So if somebody wants to put Behe up against Collins and say, “Well, here’s a guy and I like what he says. And here’s another guy and I don’t really like what he says. And you’re asking me to pick Collins over Behe? Well, why should I do that?”
FC: Well, that is a fundamental problem we’re facing in terms of our culture, especially in the United States. It’s why we have such a mismatch between what the scientific data would suggest and what many people believe about the age of the earth and about whether evolution is true or not.
In a rational world, if you’re asking about a particular data-driven question, about what is true and what’s the evidence to support it, about a problem related to the natural scheme of things—you would want to go to the people who are the professionals who spend their lives trying to answer those questions and ask, “Is there a consensus view?” So if you ask a question in that regards—“What is the age of the earth, for example?”—well, who does that work? It is the geologist or the cosmologist and the people who do radiocarbon dating and all kinds of other dating. It is the fossil record people and the paleontologists and so on and you would say, “Is there actually a sense that this is an unanswered question? Or do we have a pretty satisfying answer?”
And the answer you would get to the question about the age of the earth is: “This is pretty much a settled issue – 4.55 billion years, plus or minus a very small, uncertain percentage. This is the answer you come to from multiple different directions. And then, you would also say, “But there are some fringe folks out here – what are their credentials to answer this scientific question?” And one would quickly see that the creationists of the world who are arguing that this is all wrong do not come from that kind of strong, science, data-based, evidence-based perspective. They’re coming at this from a very different view that is not anchored in the facts of the matter.
So you would say, “Ok, then the answer appears to be that the age of the earth is 4.55 billion years and it is not 6,000.” But of course, that’s not the way things are. Our society, because of the polarization between the materialist perspective—which is assumed in many instances to not just be about nature, but is also intended to be an over-arching worldview that explains anything outside the material world, large numbers of our very religious society are suspicious right down to the core of what those groups are putting forward and having an agenda on. It’s not about the facts, but it’s actually about trying to invoke a atheistic worldview and they’re worried about that, afraid about that, and therefore ready to reject anything that sounds like it might be in some way colored by that non-scientific perspective which they assume is hidden there. So they’ll migrate, looking for other sources of authority and again, I’m a believer and my ultimate authority is God, and believers do need to take that view, otherwise your faith doesn’t mean very much, so you look for a God representative around you to tell you the truth and you go to the church or some organization that seems to be representing itself as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ and you get sometimes a very different message that is nicely packaged and even maybe reinforces your view that those academic scientists over there have an attitude that they’re trying to put something over on you and pretty soon, you have what appears to be a large group of people associating themselves with an answer to the question about the age of the earth that is driven on the basis of a real distortion of the facts but carry God’s authority with it in a fashion that compels people to sign on. That’s what we’re seeing and it’s a very strange dynamic, but it’s clearly very effective on the part of those who are taking that view, that “I’m going to tell you God’s truth”, you gotta listen to somebody who’s saying that.