Philosopher Peter S Williams thinks both Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins overlooked a design inference, within the realm of evolutionary biology, which would go hand-in-hand with the argument from “fine-tuning” (which Dawkins himself described as “a good argument” for God during their debate).

The God Hypothesis is a prime example of [Dawkins’] own preference for ‘explaining complex things in terms of simple things.’ - Peter S Williams

Evolution

In “Biology, Belief & Covid: Can science and faith be reconciled?”, Justin Brierley hosts a friendly yet probing conversation between atheist zoologist Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins. As Brierley says, these distinguished scientists are ‘essentially in the same ball park when it comes to the evolutionary history of Earth …’ That ‘ball park’ crucially involves seeing neo-Darwinian evolution as what Dawkins calls a ‘Blind Watchmaker’[1], a physical process that isn’t informed by any goal-directed intelligence.

Brierley asks Dawkins: ‘At what point did you … come to the settled belief that God and science essentially don’t mix?’ Dawkins says this happened when he was:

About 16 …  My lingering religious faith had been based upon my wonder at the natural world; the beauty, the elegance of the biological world. So I retained a belief in some kind of creator because I felt that that level of complexity needed a designer; and then when I finally understood the full magnitude of the Darwinian explanation then that dropped away and I decided that there was no need for that. And not only no need for that, but it was actually counter to what I took evolutionary science to be about.

Whereas Dawkins believed in God on the basis of the appearance of design in biology until he learnt about evolution, Collins believed in evolution before he began asking questions about God; and he saw no reason to abandon belief in the former when he came to believe in the latter:

I was also pretty convinced there was no need for God at all … I went on to graduate school in quantum mechanics … and felt there was no need for anything else beyond that. My comeuppance … was going then to medical school, because I had this urge to see how science could apply to the human condition in beneficial ways … And then I realized there were questions that science wasn’t helping me with, like “Why am I here anyway?”, “What happens after you die?”, “Is there a God?”, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” And I began to realize I was a bit impoverished in the ability to approach those things. I set about therefore trying to understand how people had answered those questions, and quickly found myself in theological quarters and thought I would be able to shoot down all their arguments. To my surprise, and particularly influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis, I … came to the conclusion that faith was more rational than atheism for me …

 Brierley asks Collins why ‘the fact that there is an evolutionary explanation for the development of complex life does not necessarily exclude God …’ In response, Collins describes evolution as being ‘incredibly powerful as an explanatory science,’ and says: ‘I don’t see how that in any way excluded the possibility that there was a plan; it’s just that, for me, that steps further back.’

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Fine-Tuning

One place that Collins sees evidence for this ‘further back’ plan is in answering the question of why the universe exists, a question that leads him to the idea of creation by a God who ‘doesn’t require a way to have been begun.’ Another point of interest for Collins (among several others) lies in asking how to explain the ‘fine tuning’ of the basic physical structure of the cosmos, a highly unlikely structure described by ‘elegant mathematical laws’ specified by their distinct capacity for making biological evolution possible:

as I began to look around … there were in fact evidences (not proofs, we’re not given that) but evidences, even from science itself, that something seems interesting here about the nature of the universe, as if it – as Freeman Dyson once said, ‘almost knew we were coming.’

For Collins, then, evolution is a part of what Brierley calls a ‘holistic’ philosophical and scientific picture that provides warrant for belief in God. Collins doesn’t see the biological realm as a source of evidence for God, but he does see it as being consistent with his theism, a theism which he thinks is warranted by considerations outside the biological realm. When Dawkins states that ‘the Darwinian explanation so beautifully does away with the need for any kind of top-down design’, he is simply ignoring the evidence for design that Collins points to outside biology. It’s hardly ‘a betrayal of everything Darwinism … stands for’, as Dawkins suggests, to take account of one’s wider picture of reality when considering how to philosophically interpret evolutionary theory.

Dawkins concedes that the question of where the laws of physics (upon which evolution depends) come from is ‘a very profound’ question that’s ‘getting close to a good argument’; and he admits that he’s ‘not a physicist enough to understand’ discussions about the multiverse hypothesis as a response to that argument. Dawkins even goes so far as to state that ‘if somebody was going to convince me of the need for a God, it would be there’, i.e. in the fine-tuning argument (of course, as Dawkins and Collins agree, while the fine-tuning argument might lead one to belief in a creator of some kind, belief in the Christian God of ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘resurrection’ is a whole additional ‘trek’).

 

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The Blind Watchmaker?

Collins thinks that God ‘used this process’ of blind watchmaker evolution, and ‘knew full well how it happened - because of this ability to be outside of time …’ He sees this as ‘an amazing concept that brings together what I find to be really important questions about the something vs nothing and the meaning of life together with what I now as a scientist.’ In defence of pairing belief in God and evolution, Collins poses the rhetorical question of whether, given a God outside of space-time who ‘had the intention’ of bringing about the existence of ‘creatures with big brains’ interested in questions about reality beyond the material world, ‘wouldn’t evolution have been a very elegant way to do so’?

Certainly, there’s no logical contradiction between someone having the intention that a certain goal be realized on the one hand, and the idea that they may realize that goal indirectly by initiating a physical process that has the desired result. There’s no need to choose between saying that the soup in the microwave is heating up because its molecules are being excited and saying that the soup is heating up because I want my dinner. Both explanations provide compatible aspects of the truth.

hole in one

Is our universe a “hole-in-one”?

However, things become more problematic if the physical process mentioned in explaining the realization of a goal involves a highly unlikely statistical component. For example, suppose I’m standing on a golf course and form the intention that my golf ball should enter a certain hole I see way off the distance. I could ignore the rules of golf, walk over there and drop my ball into the hole. Releasing my ball from just above the hole would initiate a physical process that results in the ball entering the hole. While the location of this process suggests design, the process itself (an unsupported body falling under gravitational attraction) offers no evidence of design.

Alternatively, I may choose to hit my ball with a golf club, thereby initiating a rather more chancy physical process. This alternative process certainly could attain the desired result. However, it is highly unlikely that this process will attain the desired result, unless the way in which I hit my ball is carefully informed by intelligence with the intention of achieving the desired goal. In other words, this physical process has to be shaped or informed by design to attain the outcome in question (seeing someone hit a hole in one is an observation that warrants a design inference, and this explanation supplements the physical description of the event in question).

The Role of Complexity

Dawkins asserts that: ‘The Darwinian explanation is a powerful antidote to the feeling that we all have … that when things are complicated, they need to be put together by somebody in a top-down design kind of way.’ However, its not the mere occurrence of a complex event that signals design, but the occurrence of a specified complex event. As Dawkins himself argues elsewhere:

‘specified complexity’ takes care of the sensible point that any particular rubbish heap is improbable … in the unique disposition of its parts. A pile of detached watch parts tossed in a box is, with hindsight, as improbable as a fully functioning, genuinely complicated watch. What is specified about a watch is that it is improbable in the specific direction of telling the time …[2]

What is specifically complex about a hole in one is that, of all the contingent locations on or over the course that a golf ball starting on the T could have ended up (that’s complexity), it ended up in one of the few places from where it would fall into a hole (that’s specification).

In response to design arguments that apply the concept of specified complexity within biology or cosmology, Dawkins notoriously complains that this means inferring an additional complex entity that therefore requires further explanation. However, on the one hand, this objection applies to, and is thus contradicted by, such uncontroversial design inferences as that a golfer is probably responsible for a hole in one, or that an author is probably responsible for a book. On the other hand, when it comes to God as a candidate designer, Dawkins’ objection begs the question against the traditional idea of God as a being who isn’t ‘a big complex thing’ in the requisite sense (because the essential nature of God isn’t a contingent arrangement of parts). In other words, Dawkins’ unfortunately fails to see that the God Hypothesis is a prime example of his own preference for ‘explaining complex things in terms of simple things.’

Divine Luck, or Design?

While natural selection retains those blindly occurring mutations that happen to be beneficial, these beneficial mutations must first of all appear before they can be selected. Hence, we need to ask if the hypothesis of ‘blind’ evolution is akin to suggesting that the movements of a golf ball around a golf course at or below par happened because a blind-folded golfer was intermittently taking random swings with their club. If so, then although Collins’ combination of divine intention with a blind evolutionary process uninformed by goal directed intelligent design would remain a possible description of reality, it wouldn’t be a plausible description.

The question for Collins is whether he thinks God was simply lucky to be able to know that evolution would result in the emergence of big-brained creatures interested in religious questions? Was evolution a divine ‘experiment’ as Dawkins puts it (albeit one with a known outcome)?[3] If there was more to the story than that, the process of evolution itself apparently exhibits evidence of design, evidence that joins with the evidence from cosmic fine tuning, and metaphysical issues such as the existence of something rather than nothing, to provide additional evidence that can be philosophically interpreted as supporting the God Hypothesis.

Watch the debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins on The Big Conversation

Author of Outgrowing GodA Beginner’s Guide to Richard Dawkins and the God Debate (Wipf and Stock, 2020), Peter S. Williams (MA, MPhil) is ‘Assistant Professor in Communication and Worldviews’ at NLA University College in Norway. His website is www.peterswilliams.com

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Penguin, 2006, 30th anniversary edition).

[2] Richard Dawkins, OP-ED, Free Inquiry, October/November 2004, Vol. 24 No. 6, 11-12. See: Peter S. Williams, ‘The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement – A Critical Review’, Philosophia Christi (Volume 9, Number 2, 2007), 

[3] Note that while postulating multiple experimental trials may ease the tension between statistical complexity and intentionality, such a move parallels the multiverse objection to the argument from cosmic fine-tuning, and that both responses commit the ‘inflationary fallacy’ of postulating additional probabilistic resources without any independent evidence. How would you respond to someone who said there might not be an author of this article because if there were enough monkeys randomly typing away on typewriters for long enough they could in theory produce the same text?