Thursday, July 30, 2009

Francis Collins, the New Atheists, and God

Obama’s recent nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health has spurred a bit of apprehension in the scientific community. Not for any lack of credentials–he has quite a lot of those. He is a distinguished geneticist with a PhD in physical chemistry. He has been a major contributor to genetic research for the last twenty years. He discovered the genetic markers for several diseases. He led the effort to map the human genome.

He is also an evangelical Christian.

While there are notable scientists and intellectuals who advocate the compatibility of science and religion (Brown University’s Ken Miller, for example), others scoff at the idea. They see religion and science as fundamentally contradictory, faith as something akin to a bad habit or superstition that will disappear with enough scientific training. Richard Dawkins, a biologist and outspoken atheist, claims that “science is corrosive to religion”. He is among a growing number of vocal critics of religion called the New Atheists (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are some others), who regard religion as pervasive, obnoxious, and downright dangerous to society. So it comes as no surprise that they should have strong reservations about the Collins nomination.

Harris makes his doubts clear in this recent op-ed in the New York Times. While Harris has the habit of hastily dismissing any argument for religion–and in doing so often overlooking the complexities of the issue–he does raise several good points here. The first is about the scope of scientific inquiry. Collins has said “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.” This is a surprisingly decisive statement for a scientist who has been pushing the bounds of knowledge about the very thing that makes us human: our DNA. And many scientists would argue that while it may not be able to answer all our questions about human nature, science can surely inform the discussion. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, would certainly think so. In the past few years he has been investigating the origins and evolution of moral intuitions, and is one of many scientists in the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience that have been trying to accomplish exactly what Collins seems to say they can’t.

The second and perhaps more troubling notion is Collins’ complete dismissal of a morality without God. He has said:

“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…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?”

The idea that morality becomes an illusion if it is the result of evolution is, in my view, just plain wrong. We have evolved faculties of perception, emotion, desires–none of which become less “real” when we discover that they were selected for over time. My instinctual fear in reaction to a loud noise may have evolved because it helped my ancestors escape predators, but that does not imply that I am not scared! In fact, it is precisely because of the reality of these evolved faculties that they have made a difference, and thus are still around today. Morality, if it has evolved, does not suddenly disappear.

Furthermore, the notion that God is the source of our “moral law” is troubling because it can quickly turn into (and historically has been used to support) a deeper implication: that without God we can have no morality, and by definition one must believe in God to be a good person. Frankly, this is absurd. You don’t need to look very far to find plenty of counterexamples–history provides an abundance. Empirical tests also provide support: when asked to make judgments about a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas, religious people and atheists tend to answer the same way. Religion just doesn’t seem to have any sort of monopoly on good behavior. While I doubt that Collins actually holds this extreme view, his statements could be used to support it.

So, do Collins’ beliefs matter? Given his history of scientific excellence and leadership, there is little reason to think that Collins will use his appointment to promote his beliefs, or that his religion will interfere with his ability to be an effective director. However, he is in a profoundly influential position as policymaker and spokesperson for science, and will undoubtedly face some decisions with real ethical implications. Some of the most heated bioethical debates are found particularly in his own field of biomedicine: stem cell research, genetic engineering and testing, human enhancement. He will very likely have to confront these issues in the first few years (if not months) of his appointment, and I don’t think I’m the only one uncomfortable with him letting his religious beliefs determine the morally correct course of action. It seems appropriate, then, for the scientific community to press him on how his religion will effect his decision making for the NIH.

Some further links:

A 2006 debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.
Godless Morality
, a paper by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer

1 comment:

  1. I jumped to the beginning of your posts on religion, and wonder what you are talking about in the later ones I have just read where you seem to think it possible to find religion and science compatible in some way. You must be teasing us!

    I agree with you utterly on this one, and the Collins citation shows he is two faced about it, as any scientific believer has to be. What he is unable to see is that he is unreasonable too, and is using post hoc rationalizations, because he can hardly be unaware of the work you cite, and the work I meant in my comment on your most recent post. Modern psychology has shown we are all experts at rationalizing our emotional inclinations.

    Sociality is sufficient to explain good and evil. Good is social (prosocial as some say) and evil is antisocial. Sociality was selected by antisocial animals being expelled from the pack, and dying or reverting to solitary life. What remains is the social ones. When the process is not yet complete, there is still a mixture of social co-operators, and selfish free riders, who have to use cunning and tactics to persuade the co-operators they are pulling their weight when they are not. They are the evil ones.

    You will notice that in the last few hundred years we have adopted an economic morality that is a reversion to the solitary animal--individual competition. It is a good way to promote ultimate social destruction.