Two Masters

Recently President Obama, in what he must have known would be a controversial choice, selected the geneticist Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is an eminent scientist, and a capable administrator — indeed, his professional qualifications for the post are unimpeachable — but he has also become something of a celebrity outside the scientific community for his public embrace of Christianity, and for his vociferous advocacy of the view that science and religion are entirely compatible approaches to understanding the world.

Needless to say, this puts him sharply at odds with most scientists these days. The prevailing opinion — with which I fully agree — is that science and religion, far from being, to use Stephen Jay Gould’s magniloquent phrase, “non-overlapping magisteria”, in fact do address many of the same phenomena, and often make flatly contradictory claims. In an essay in today’s New York Times, the atheist gadfly Sam Harris explains why Dr. Collins’s religious beliefs ought to be a factor in considering him for one of the world’s most influential scientific positions.

We read:

…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, Mr. Harris asks, should these views be a matter of concern?

For his answer, read the rest here. Mr. Harris’s tone in this essay is one of polite disapproval — but if you want to see him take the gloves off, go have a look at Mr. Harris’s review of Dr. Collins’s book, The Language of God, here.

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  1. JK says

    Now don’t take me wrong here (mainly ’cause I don’t know) but sometimes people go to extraordinary lengths to “hide in plain sight.”

    Posted July 27, 2009 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    There you go again, JK.

    Posted July 27, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    I couldn’t care less what Collins believes about questions where evidence can’t be brought to bear, so long as he doesn’t pretend that his policy choices are “informed” by those beliefs.

    Also, while I don’t accept the Gouldian view about non-overlapping magisteria, one ought to be a bit careful in how one criticizes it. Some people hold that some of their beliefs are “religious” in nature, and some of those beliefs do, indeed, bump up against evidence-based scientific doctrines. Some people also hold that some of their beliefs are “scientific” in nature, and some of those beliefs do, indeed, bump up against non-evidence-based religious doctrines. But it isn’t always clear that the protagonists’ beliefs “really are” religious or scientific in nature. There’s plenty of unreflective believing going on, on both sides.

    Posted July 28, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink