Cliff’s Edge - God’s Errors?
Every morning at dawn the farmer comes out and feeds a chicken. Thus, every morning when the farmer arrives, the chicken (to the degree that chickens can be thus programmed) opens its mouth expecting food. One morning, though, instead of feeding the chicken, the farmer lops off its head.
A cowboy buys a horse and decides to train it to live without food. For 30 days straight he kept the equine from eating. The cowboy assumed that he succeeded: the horse could live without food. On the thirty-first day, the horse died.
Despite their triteness, both stories show that the link, the continuity, between the past, the present, and the future isn’t as firm as we like to, and even need to think, that it is. The accounts teach that the past, or even the present, do not provide solid justification for conclusions that we draw about the future, regardless of how often those conclusions turn out correct.
Even though much of what we assume about the future is based on the past or the present, we often don’t have definitively good reasons for those assumptions. Just because your car started every morning for the past eight years, doesn’t prove that it will tomorrow. Just because you never got hit by lightning in a thunderstorm doesn’t guarantee you won’t get hit in the next one. And just because your spouse has been faithful so far doesn’t mean he (she) will always be so.
What, anywhere, in any biblical depiction of creation, Old Testament or New, gives the slightest indication that error, of any kind anywhere, was involved in the creation of life?
Though we have no choice but to live by making assumptions about the future based on the past or the present, when it comes to science, this long-acknowledged problem, known as the problem of induction, presents a powerful reason why Christians should not bow in obsequiousness every time science makes a claim about evolutionary events that they say happened millions, even billions of years beyond our reach.
For example, Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the leader of the Human Genome Project. Collins is also known for his “unshakable faith in God and Scripture.” In 2006, he came out with the highly-acclaimed and New York Times bestseller The Language of God, in which he makes a case for the compatibility of faith and science, even if the science happens to promote billions of years of Darwinian evolution. Collins found no contradiction between his Christian faith, which, one assumes, is shaped by his “unshakable faith in God and Scripture,” and the theory of evolution, or now, more precisely, The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis.
Talking about Darwin’s claim that natural selection accounted for evolution, Collins wrote: “In the mid-nineteenth century, Darwin had no way of knowing what the mechanism of evolution by natural selection might be. We can now see that the variation he postulated is supported by naturally occurring mutations in DNA. These are estimated to occur at a rate of about one error every 100 million base pairs per generation.” Collins argues that Darwinian natural selection, “the elegant mechanism of evolution,” is how God created life on earth.
But this “elegant mechanism” is based on genetic mutation, “one error every 100 million base pairs per generation.”
Error? God created life on earth through the use of errors? Never mind that everything in the Genesis creation account points to the entire creation process being carefully and precisely made by God. What, anywhere, in any biblical depiction of creation, Old Testament or New, but especially in the Genesis account, gives the slightest indication that error, of any kind anywhere, was involved in the creation of life?
Worse, these errors weren’t just sideshows, peripherals that just happened along the way; they were not like superfluous words that an author edits out before finishing the final product. On the contrary, according to Collins, these errors constituted the precise means and methods God used for the creation of life in all its wonderfully adapted and various forms. (“And God said, Let the HspB5 gene mutate, and it was so.” “And God said, Let the ABO gene mutate, and it was so.”)
With no disrespect intended, only the most seditious reinterpretation of the texts could allow for what Collins suggests. If he’s correct, it’s as if the point of the story about the boy who cried wolf was that it’s just fine to keep sounding false alarms. Even if the Genesis story were meant allegorically, what’s the point if the allegory itself conveys a message that completely conflicts with the reality it’s supposed to be allegorizing?
The idea of rationalistic scientists objectively following the evidence wherever it leads has long been known to be a myth.
Collins is making the same epistemological mistake as the chicken and the cowboy: assuming that the past must resemble the future. Because errors (mutations in DNA) exist now, he’s assuming that they must have in the beginning as well. However, from a logical or a scientific perspective that’s not a necessary conclusion; from a biblical standpoint it’s flat out wrong.
But it’s science!
So what? The commonly promoted idea of cold hard rationalistic scientists objectively following the evidence wherever it leads has long been known to be a myth, at least among those who have studied the history and philosophy of science. The practice of science does not originate in some transcendental and objective realm that delivers unalloyed truth to humanity. Science is the work of scientists, subjective human beings; as such it comes burdened with all the prejudices, foibles, fears, and presuppositions of everything human. And this subjectivity includes the eminent Francis Collins, whose only chance to escape, at least somewhat, the über-subjectivity of empirical epistemology is in the scriptural account of Genesis (the closest thing we have to a transcendental and objective realm that delivers unalloyed truth to humanity), which—despite his “unshakable faith in God and Scripture”—he has, unfortunately, rejected for a model that, in every conceivable way, contradicts the Word of God on the question of human origins.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This piece is adapted from his next book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.
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