Science Is in the Details

 

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by Sam Harris

PRESIDENT OBAMA has nominated Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. It would seem a brilliant choice. Dr. Collins’s credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project. He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion. In 2006, he published “The Language of God,” in which he claimed to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity.

Dr. Collins is regularly praised by secular scientists for what he is not: he is not a “young earth creationist,” nor is he a proponent of “intelligent design.” Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be.

But as director of the institutes, Dr. Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important that we understand Dr. Collins and his faith as they relate to scientific inquiry.

What follows are a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Dr. Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

Why should Dr. Collins’s beliefs be of concern?

There is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.

Dr. Collins has written that science makes belief in God “intensely plausible” — the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of nature’s constants, the emergence of complex life, the effectiveness of mathematics, all suggest the existence of a “loving, logical and consistent” God.

But when challenged with alternative accounts of these phenomena — or with evidence that suggests that God might be unloving, illogical, inconsistent or, indeed, absent — Dr. Collins will say that God stands outside of Nature, and thus science cannot address the question of his existence at all.

Similarly, Dr. Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr. Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

Sam Harris is the author of “The End of Faith” and co-founder of the Reason Project, which promotes scientific knowledge and secular values.

July 26, 2009

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