Francis Collins and science


There has been a brouhaha in the blogosphere over the appointment of Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. Many militant atheists have complained that Collins, who is a Christian, should not be given such an eminent scientific post, because he is an avid proselytizer for the belief in the harmony of science and faith (he even has a website on the subject). You can predict who the most vocal complainers are--people like PZ Myers and Sam Harris, for example--and their complaints can be taken with the usual mountains of salt. In fact, Andrew Brown of the UK Guardian newspaper began his commentary on this controversy with a scathing critique of Sam Harris:

Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris. Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality. He has, for example, defended torture, ("restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place") attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: "We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene" ; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them. Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians. ("Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion").
There is no question that the bigotry of Myers and Harris play a clear role in their objections to Collins's appointment. And yet, my feelings on this subject are somewhat complicated by the fact that while I, like Collins, believe that science and faith can be compatible, I am not sure that I am in Collins's camp when he gets down to specifics. The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that Collins has been described as an evangelical.

First and foremost, I should make it clear that I think that if Collins has shown himself to be a qualified scientist, then his religious beliefs should be irrelevant. The fact that he publicly states his views on religion should also be irrelevant, in my view. (The blogger who posts to the "Evolution is True" blog has actually complained about scientists "who insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science"! Apparently, according to this objection, Christian scientists are supposed to keep their religious views as deep, dark secrets that they never reveal to the world.) I think that Collins's work as a scientist should be judged solely on its own merits alone, so these objections about his public expressions of faith strike me as ridiculous. If he is a qualified scientist, then he has earned the right to hold the job.

On the other hand, aside from his qualifications for the job, I also think that Collins poses a difficult problem if he is presented as some sort of spokesman for the harmony of science and religion. As I mentioned, I myself am a strong believer that science and faith can be compatible, to the extent that religious faith embraces a rationalist understanding of the world. Collins does believe in evolution--if he did not, he would certainly not be qualified for the job, since serious biology is impossible without an acceptance of evolution. The question is, how does Collins believe that God plays a role in evolution or other scientific processes? Collins spends an inordinate amount of time on his website trying to reconcile science with the mythological tales in Genesis, which I don't really see the point of. The Genesis stories were attempts by people with a primitive scientific understanding to understand the world and God's role in its creation. They are nice stories, and they provide interesting ideas into the human condition, but to assign them an authoritative role beyond that just complicates matters. It would be a lot easier if people just stopped trying to justify Geneis or trying "reconcile" Genesis with science; I think there is simply no need to do so. There is nothing to "reconcile" because Genesis is not science.

It also gets complicated when he tries to reconcile the idea of divine "Sovereignty" (that is to say, supernatural interventionism) with evolution. The problem here is that he gets rather vague on this subject. At one point, he clearly affirms the idea of an interventionist deity and at the same time seems to be taking the Deist position:
the creator can act outside the created physical laws. However, we must not say that miraculous events outside the laws of nature are the only instances of God’s involvement. For this reason, BioLogos requires no miraculous events in its account of God’s creative process, except for the origins of the natural laws guiding the process.
The first sentence of the above quote affirms the existence of miraculous events, but then the second sentence seems to come straight out of Deism. However, later in the same text, he then backs off of this seeming Deism completely and leans toward something somewhat closer to process theology, in which God is constantly involved in creation through "influence"; unlike process theology, however, he still affirms divine omnipotence, believing that God merely "allows" the world to exist in freedom outside of his/her control:
BioLogos does not seek a concept of a God who is involved at certain times and who only observes at other times. In harmony with theism, BioLogos affirms a God who is at all times involved, yet who still allows a degree of freedom to the creation....

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation.
I haven't studied Collins's views in great enough detail to know comprehensibly what he is arguing, but based on these statements it appears that he is suggesting that God a) created the world through omnipotent intervention; b) has influenced the world through a subtle, below-the-radar act of continuous influence; c) may get involved from time to time through more direct acts of intervention.

One of the reasons that I rejected the idea of a supernatural interventionist God is not just that it violates my understanding of a rational, orderly world, but also that it poses immense problems for theodicy; but of course the latter objection is a completely separate moral problem and isn't relevant to the question of how divine action could be consistent with science. Collins seems wedded to the idea of a supernaturally interventionist God, and this is where I part with him. I think it is important to recognize that there can be more than one potential way of reconciling faith and science, and Collins's approach is not the only one.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

That a person believes in an interventionist God doesn't mean that he or she is incompetent to deal with matters of science. Collins has demonstrated himself to be a very competent scientist who believes in evolution and has shown no signs of being like the anti-science folk that messed things up the last go round.

So, in this case much of the hullabaloo has been anti-religion bias.

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree, Bob. I was going beyond the question of his qualifications and just addressing whether I agreed with the way he sought to reconcile faith and science, but I certainly don't consider that relevant to whether he should hold that office.