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Francis Collins: A Methodological Materialist When He Feels Like It

Image credit: Illustra Media.

I’ve been looking back at Francis Collins’s influential bestseller The Language of God, which has been out for 15 years now. (See here.) In the book, Collins invokes a rule called methodological materialism (or methodological naturalism) to argue that scientists should not give up looking for a purely material cause for particular biological structures just because scientists have yet to discover one.

He writes that intelligent design proponents violate this rule, and that “ID is a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention in places that its proponents claim science cannot explain.” Its “proponents have made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.”

The suggestion here is that that design theorists are hobbled by a failure of the imagination, an inability to imagine how blind evolution could have achieved anything as sophisticated as the flagellar motor. But it is Collins and his fellow evolutionists who have been unable to imagine, much less demonstrate in the laboratory, a credible evolutionary pathway to the flagellum. They hadn’t when Collins wrote the book, and they haven’t in the intervening 15 years, either. Just the opposite: as researchers have learned more and more about the engineering sophistication of the bacterial flagellum, the possibility of a plausible unguided evolutionary pathway from simple primitive precursor to fully functional flagellum recedes further and further into the distance.

The situation suggests two possibilities: either (1) there is an unguided evolutionary pathway and scientists will eventually discover it or (2) there is no pathway apart from one guided by intelligence. By refusing to consider the second option, Collins commits the fallacy of begging the question.

Imagine a boy who tells a girl he could climb to Jupiter because a natural ladder stretches from our planet to it. The girl points out that nobody on earth has ever found such a ladder and there are good reasons to believe that it doesn’t exist — the constantly changing distance between the planets, the sun coming between them, etc. The boy shakes his head at her and patiently explains, “Your position is an argument from ignorance. Scientists are finding all sorts of new things in our solar system all the time. The moon is one step along the way. Then Mars. And the asteroid belt out beyond Mars — nobody knew a thing about that until a few years ago. You see, everything is falling into place.”

Collins’s suggestion that we are sure to find an evolutionary pathway for the bacterial flagellum isn’t that outlandish, of course, but it employs the same reasoning. He assumes that a mindless evolutionary pathway to the bacterial flagellum certainly exists (in the face of mounting contrary evidence), and he couples that assumption to the charge that any scientist skeptical of it eventually being found is simply giving up and invoking divine design — is, in other words, failing as a scientist.

Following Behe

But here is the odd thing, the thing that makes The Language of God such an interesting study. As we’ve already seen, Collins does not always commit this error. For instance, in his arguments for design from the origin and fine tuning of the universe, Collins makes the same kind of argument for design that Behe makes, inferring design as the best explanation of the current evidence in question. A critic could rightly note that Collins, in doing so, himself violates the rule of methodological materialism he invoked against ID.

This same criticism could be leveled against another design argument, in which he appeals to the Moral Law in the human heart as evidence of design. Collins critiques the other leading explanation for the Moral Law — that what we think of as the Moral Law are only survival instincts instilled by Darwinian evolution — and argues that a better explanation is that we are not just matter but also spirit.

To this, the thoroughly consistent methodological materialist could respond, “But Dr. Collins, just because we’re ignorant of a detailed evolutionary pathway to things like human altruism doesn’t mean we won’t ever find the pathway. You’re arguing from ignorance to design and an immaterial soul, and you can’t do that.”

Collins was right to ignore the artificial strictures of methodological materialism when he inferred design from the origin of the universe, cosmic fine tuning, and the Moral Law within. The objection that he only argued to design from our ignorance of an adequate material cause assumes ahead of the evidence that such a material cause exists. The truly scientific approach is to do what historical scientists routinely do: compare the available evidence, make an inference to the best explanation, and then see how that inference holds up in light of subsequent discoveries.

By insisting on that right in the realms of cosmology and human experience, one of the world’s leading geneticists has nudged us a step closer to the day when such an approach will be taken for granted, whether the subject be the first singularity or the first living cell.

Collins’s Theology

Collins does offer a theological argument for his selective application of methodological materialism and his belief that Darwinism is no threat to Christianity. He suggests that God fine tuned the initial conditions of the universe so perfectly that no further intervention was needed until he was ready to raise up one form, hominine, by investing it with an immortal soul that evolution could not instill. Collins contends that “humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature.”

On this view, God acted directly in the origin of the universe and in the origin and history of humanity, but his perfect wisdom meant that nature required no additional guidance or direction (or design) during the intervening 14 billion years. Collins suggests that anything less than such a “fully gifted creation” (I am borrowing physicist Howard van Till’s term) is unworthy of a God who is both omnipotent and omniscient.

As Collins puts it, “ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image.” Thus, between the origin of matter and man, he suggests, we have a good theological reason to consistently apply the principle of methodological materialism.

But in making this argument, Collins treats God’s relationship to time in a manner inconsistent with his treatment of this subject in Chapter 3. There he notes that the God of Christianity invented and transcends time, both past, present, and future. He makes this point to explain how God could exist before the Big Bang and how he could know that his finely tuned new universe would one day lead to the evolution of planet Earth and human beings.

But he seems to overlook the fact that this theological point militates against his criticism of intelligent design theory for positing a God who can’t get the design right the first time, at the origin of a “fully gifted” universe. If the I Am is outside of time, if he stands over past, present, and future, then those interventions occurred in the eternal present of the “I Am” whether they occurred “all at once” 14 billion years ago or at different points throughout the history of the universe. 

Also notice how blithely Collins equates the designer’s ongoing involvement in creation with incompetence. In a similar vein, Kenneth Miller, whose book Finding Darwin’s God Collins recommends, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the God of intelligent design theorists “is like a kid who is not a very good mechanic and has to keep lifting the hood and tinkering with the engine.”1 But this characterization not only assumes without demonstration that information-rich structures such as living cells, organs, and organisms can be generated by the law-like processes of physics and chemistry alone, however well engineered; it is also theologically blinkered. What if the creator isn’t the disinterested God of modern deism? What if he likes to stay involved? What if he doesn’t want to wind up the watch of the cosmos and simply leave it to crank out everything from supernovas to sunflowers? What if his relationship to the universe is more like a gardener to his garden? What if he wants to get his hands dirty?

God’s Chances

Collins’s synthesis possesses another crucial shortcoming. It undercuts either God’s sovereignty or the random element at the heart of Darwinian theory. The relevant passage is in Chapter 10, where Collins asks, “How could God take such chances? If evolution is random, how could He really be in charge, and how could He be certain of an outcome that included intelligent beings at all?” The answer, he continues,

is actually readily at hand, once one ceases to apply human limitations to God. If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans, right to the moment of your reading this book — and beyond.

This being the case, Collins concludes, we who are “limited … by the tyranny of linear time” would think evolution “driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.”

OK, but if the evolutionary process is only apparently random and in fact was entirely specified by God through his foresight, skill, and use of secondary causes that he himself designed, then the evolutionary process doesn’t actually involve Darwinian randomness and what Collins has proposed is as good as saying that all of life’s diversity was intelligently designed by God, albeit purely through the use of secondary causes. 

In an earlier chapter Collins blamed Darwinian evolution for supposed bad design (like the backward wiring of the eye), but if every physical event unfolded according to a plan hard-wired into the universe from the beginning, then God is every bit as responsible for the backward wiring of the eye as if he had designed it directly. Collins can’t have his cake and eat it too.

Collins’s High Tradition

These contradictions and evidential problems ultimately undo Collins’s effort to synthesize modern Darwinism and orthodox Christianity. And yet he has in The Language of God done something very important for a man of his stature in the scientific world. In some cases, happily, he violated the dogmatic rule of methodological materialism by allowing himself to consider design as the best explanation for the origin of the universe, the fine tuning of the physical constants, and the Moral Law within the human heart.

In granting himself this freedom, Collins is returning to the foundations of the scientific revolution. Modern science was born of the twin convictions that the universe is the rational product of a rational mind, and that its maker was not bound at every turn by the deductive syllogisms of an earlier age, meaning that the best way for a scientist to determine how the Creator did things is to turn to nature, patiently scrutinize it, and follow the evidence even when it overturns a cherished theory.

Collins has not always lived up to that high calling, particularly in his stunted engagement with the best evidence and arguments for intelligent design in biology. In many places The Language of God and in his subsequent writings read like rapidly prepared Cliff Notes of the work of Darwinian biologist Kenneth Miller, whose anti-ID apologetics is itself marked by strawman attacks on design arguments and a failure to effectively engage the best counterarguments of pro-design scientists such as Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, William Dembski, Douglas Axe, and Stephen Meyer. But at his best in The Language of God, Collins does engage the natural world in this same high tradition of the founders of modern science, refusing to be bound by a question-begging methodological rule and, instead, following the evidence where it leads — in at least two or three cases, even to intelligent design — even if he rarely if ever lacks the candidness to frankly confess this.


  1. Kenneth Miller quoted in Paul Nussbaum, “Evangelicals Divided over Evolution,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (May 30, 2005).

Editor’s note: This essay is a substantially revised and updated version of a book review that first appeared in Touchstone Magazine.