Saturday, August 1, 2009

Francis Collins, Evangelical Christianity, and the NIH

So President Obama nominated Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. I've been debating whether or not to blog about this, because I'm ambivalent about the decision and because it's been so heavily covered already by other atheist bloggers and writers. But I read this story in Newsweek and felt that I should speak my peace about the subject.

On the one hand, we have a man who, through his passionate dedication to the study of evolution, puts the lie to the claim that 'Darwinism' draws a direct line to atheism. His attitude could give some creationists (ID supporters and otherwise) pause; in fact, it was partly through reading his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief that I was forced to (re-)recognize the validity of evolution and give up being a young-earth creationist. And his views on certain key issues are promising; for example, he supports the use of discarded embryonic tissue from fertility clinics for stem cell research, a practice which many Christians view as tantamount to murder (regardless of the fact that the tissue was already on its way to an incinerator).

On the other hand, he adopts a distinctly anti-scientific approach to investigation of the universe. He has declared that certain realms of inquiry, such as those involving human emotion and morality, are definitionally inaccessible to naturalistic science - that they can only be made sense of by referring to God. Because Collins' worldview is based on the supernatural, it will color any discoveries or decisions he makes. If we allow for the existence of an omnipotent being as an explanation for phenomena, we put unnecessary and damaging limitations on scientific inquiry. In fact, by asserting that the supernatural could be an explanation, we run into a situation where we can never prove that something supernatural wasn't involved, at which point we can't ever truly claim to have explained a phenomenon. After all, angels might be involved somewhere, perhaps holding our feet fast to the ground or pushing the planets about in their orbits. We'd never be able to show that they weren't. Science has to work within a purely naturalistic framework, or it can't get anything done.

The Newsweek story claims that "there is no evidence that Collins has ever shied from the pursuit of scientific truth" as a result of his religious beliefs. This doesn't seem entirely accurate. In a debate with Richard Dawkins, he said that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain (such as the values of certain physical constants favoring life), and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. (This is just a cop-out, of course; Collins simply defines God as 'a being beyond the universe' and never bothers to explain why we should ever assume such a being exists since we have no evidence that there is anything 'beyond the universe'. But I digress.) Essentially, Collins is claiming that we will never be able to find a purely natural explanation for the origin of the universe. Whether or not this means that he thinks investigation into the origin is worthwhile or not is unclear; it's always possible that he'll say that whatever explanation we discover is just "how God did it."

I'm not sure how I feel about Francis Collins as director of the NIH. He's certainly qualified for the position, and he's made important contributions to the progress of the study of genetics and genomics, but he's approaching science as a means of coming to understand the mind of God rather than simply learning about how the world naturally works.

A comment on the Newsweek article makes an interesting point:
[The] premise, that Collins should be judged by his work and not his faith, is a good one. But [the] conclusion is simply wrong: If we judge Collins' work, INCLUDING his book about religion, "The Language of God," then his credentials as a scientist are not so impressive. Collins reputation as a scientist is only impressive if you divide his works into scientific / non-scientific and judge him only on his scientific achievements. But that is hardly fair, because his book uses his scientific credentials to bolster his religious agenda. In "Language of God," Collins makes so many logical errors and rationalizations masquerading as rational arguments, it's an embarrassment to scientists everywhere.

Replace Collins' Christianity with Wicca, or Voodoo, Greek Mythology, or any other non-mainstream religion, and imagine the peals of laughter that would follow his book everywhere, or the howls of outrage if he were appointed to head the NIH! Imagine the ridicule Collins would suffer at the hands of his fellow scientists, and of Christians! Yet, by espousing one particular brand of mythology, the Christian religion, Collins remains untouchable, and opinions from the likes of respected journalists ... gloss over the glaring flaws in Collins' philosophy. (Comments continued on Craig A. James' blog.)
The second paragraph seems true enough. In a nation where the majority of the population embraces some flavor of Christianity, being a Christian counts in your favor, regardless of what position you're nominated for. The public would view a person of any other faith (or no faith) askance and would pay much more attention to how their superstitions affect their behavior and their choices. Only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism) gets this free pass.

I think it's this that really bothers me. Collins' faith gives him an undue extra bit of respect and consideration that his atheist colleagues don't get. Sure, he's a decent scientist, but it's hard to imagine that President Obama's nomination of a man of sincere faith to an influential science-related post isn't a mostly political move. It smells to me like the decision was made mostly to assuage the fears of the religious right. I'm willing to withhold judgment until we see what sort of decisions Collins makes, but I'm not too optimistic that he's not going to use his scientific bona fides to promote Christianity.

(For an interesting review/dissection of Collins' book The Language of God, check out this review from evolutionary biologist/philosopher Gert Korthof. There's another rather scathing review from Sam Harris as well.)