This op.ed. by Sam Harris in The New York Times, commenting on the appointment of Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health, raises issues worth serious reflection. At the end of the day, I don't oppose this appointment, for reasons that I'll come to, but there's still cause for concern and something slightly absurd about the whole thing.
It's not just that Collins is a high-profile advocate for Christianity, and it's not that religious conviction automatically rules out appointment to high positions in national science bureaucracies. Nonetheless, it's fascinating, and a bit disconcerting, to see what Collins actually believes, in his own words, as contained in a series of slides that he used in a 2008 lecture. Harris quotes from these:
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?"
These are not the words of someone who embraces a liberal, non-literalist version of Christianity. Collins believes in a literal creator, in supernatural interference by the creator in evolutionary and human history, and in an objective, supernaturally-grounded moral law. His overall account of the world attempts to blend such ideas with an evolutionary picture of the world, but this creates a contrived and implausible hodge-podge. Note that his claims about free will, the immortal soul, and supernaturally-defined good and evil do not have any scientific basis - they are things that he believes despite his understanding of science, rather than because of it, though it must be noted, in fairness, that they are not plainly in conflict with established scientific findings in the same sense as a claim that the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
Wearing my hat as a moral philosopher, I am especially interested in Collins' commitment to an unlikely vision of absolute moral truths that are not grounded in human needs, desires, or interests, but in the commands of a supernatural being. He thinks that we've been "hoodwinked" by anything less. Well, it seems clear enough to me that we are indeed mistaken (though not maliciously "hoodwinked" by anybody) to some extent if we succumb to the frequent error that morality takes the form Collins seems to imagine. Folk metaethics very likely does see morality in this way, but folk metaethics is probably mistaken, whether an almighty law-giving deity exists or not. But what's so surprising about that? It's just one more element of the folk understanding of the world that turns out to be false when subjected to rational scrutiny.
I have subscribed for many years now to what is sometimes called the Antipodean error theory of metaethics (not because it involves errors about the Antipodes, such as the idea that summer is in the middle of the year in Australia, but because some of its leading exponents, notably John Mackie, have been Australian). But this theory in no way entails that morality is merely arbitrary; that we have no good reasons to engage in behaviour that approximates, in many ways, to one or other version of traditional morality; or that we have no good basis to give many moral norms our support (while subjecting others to rational criticism). Thus, I have no problem at all living within a worldview in which the folk metaethical picture proffered by Collins is an illusion. On the contrary, I believe that folk metaethics is ludicrous, and that Collins is jumping at shadows when he worries that it might not be true in the absence of a transcendent and almighty law-giver.
Whether such a law-giver exists or not, we have plenty of reasons to teach children to be kind rather than cruel, to cultivate (in ourselves as well as our children) the capacity to love others, to enact laws that deter individuals who'd use violence as their tool in social and economic competition, and so on. There is no problem in applied ethics or public policy that requires the truth of folk metaethics for us to inquire into it using reason. When we do so, we find plenty of reasons (plural) to identify deontic contraints within which we expect citizens to live, to enact certain laws, to promote certain virtues of character, and so on. Nothing about the rational study of morality suggests that morality takes the form of an absolute "law" such as Collins imagines, or that we are without guidance for our conduct if no absolute moral law exists. In short, Collins is as crude in his metaethics - and in his normative ethical theory - as a Young Earth Creationist is about biology and geology.
Harris alleges that he is not even consistent:
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.
Now, to be fair, I can't confirm this specific charge against Collins. I don't know whether it is accurate as a description of statements he has made in the past. However, it is all-too-plausible, since it perfectly matches what we see overall from many scientifically-inclined, yet literal-minded, theists: i.e., we see bold claims about the alleged evidence (fine-tuning or whatever) for a transcendent being ... combined with claims that this being is mysterious, unknowable, opaque to human understanding, or even whimsical. The latter claims are made whenever there is the possibility of testing claims about a being with specified powers and psychological predispositions. Of course, it is always possible to "explain" the presence of pain and suffering in the world, the millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw, and the flawed engineering of living creatures, on the basis that God has good but unknowable reasons for all of this. In other words, literalist believers can always play the mystery card. It provides a kind of catch-all pseudo-explanation for anything at all. But for precisely that reason, it can never explain why things are like this rather than like all the possible thats. In other words, it's a sham and a cheat.
Unless we cheat in some such way, Collins' views won't withstand scrutiny. If a "loving, logical, and consistent", as well as almighty, God wished to create beings like us (part of this God's "creative plan", according to Collins), then why spend billions of years setting things up, leading (predictably) to hundreds of millions of years of suffering in the animal world, not to mention the emergence of flawed designs, including the jury-rigged physiology of human beings? Why not just say, "Let there be Homo sapiens!" and have us appear, perfectly formed, and without our current unfortunate design features, such as the weird engineering of the laryngeal nerve? The whole story makes no sense. It's a mystery. We may as well throw our hands in the air.
And there's more. Why is this loving, logical, consistent, almighty being hiding away somewhere, never intruding into our phenomenal reality in any unambiguous way? What is the reason for the so-called "divine hiddenness"? It doesn't add up, and would never be accepted in a court of law or in any everyday thinking about causes and explanations. It's a mystery, they say ... but again, this is a sham and a cheat.
We can always dismiss rational conclusions about the nature or existence of God by insisting that God's ways are not as our ways, that God's goodness is not the same as human goodness, that God acts for mysterious reasons, or even on whim, etc. Fine. But this is not the sort of thing that anyone should actually believe. Rather, it's the kind of contrivance that you endorse when you are already committed to belief in this being - on grounds that are not especially rational, or on no grounds at all but simply because you were socialised into this belief - and you are then determined to hold onto that belief at all costs. It's a desperation move. It is certainly not the kind of belief that you come to by looking at the evidence dispassionately. Instead, it's allowing your preconceived worldview to mould your opinions, rather than starting again from ordinary kinds of evidence and ordinary standards of reasoning.
So what if the fine-tuning argument did suggest that the universe has been designed for life? Actually, this seems a bit odd. It's best understood as a kind of argument to the best explanation:
P1. The physical constants are such as to allow for the development of highly complex things (such as living things).
P2. The best explanation for this is that the physical constants were chosen by a supernatural being.
C. Therefore (probably) the physical constants were chosen by a supernatural being.
Hence, C1. A supernatural being exists
But arguments to the best explanation are only cogent if the best explanation is also a good explanation. It's no use arguing along these lines if the supposedly best explanation is only the best out of a very bad bunch, and we really don't have any good explanation at all. The work of a supernatural being in choosing the physical constants is actually the kind of explanation that we can't count as good, since it relies on something that we've never encountered and which seems to cry out for some further explanation (such as a well-corroborated, or at least testable, theory of supernatural beings, but this is exactly the sort of thing that religious apologists typically will not commit to ... we are confronted, instead, with claims about a mysterious, unexplained, uncorroborated, untestable, unprecedented supernatural being).
And if a supernatural being did choose the physical constants, why act in such a way? If this being resembles the orthodox Abrahamic God, it could have created a far more hospitable universe in an instant.
But let all that go. If we assume that a fine-tuning supernatural designer does exist, the logical conclusion to draw is that it is not a loving being. Rather, it appears to be callous, irresponsible, perhaps even insane by our standards. Yet, believers such as Collins leave themselves no scope to say this, since they are committed to a Christian account of reality in which their particular supernatural designer, the Abrahamic God, must be considered supremely praiseworthy.
Harris alludes briefly to such problems, but he concentrates on a different point that is actually more relevant to the science funded by the NIH:
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?
There's the rub. It's one thing to be grateful that Collins is not a Young Earth Creationist or a proponent of Intelligent Design, but science comes into potential conflict with religion at many other points. In particular, the most scientifically plausible understandings of the evolutionary origin of the mind, and of its relationship to the brain and its functioning, cannot plausibly be reconciled with the account offered by Collins - that, at a recent stage of the evolutionary process, God supernaturally granted our ancestors free will, immortal souls, and the moral law. As we discover more about ourselves, this picture is likely to become even less plausible, but is Collins likely to support science that will make these discoveries?
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?
For all that, I do not think that Collins should be disqualified from appointment as director of the NIH. First, it is unlikely that this one appointment will have significant adverse effects on scientific attempts to understand human nature, and Collins may well find ways to reconcile (at least in his own mind) his Christian image of the world and whatever findings emerge in future from the field of neuroscience. The problem is not so much that biomedical research will be hindered in any significant way by this particular appointment.
Moreover, Collins is clearly qualified for the job, having worked successfully as head of the Human Genome Project. If he were disqualified, we would have to disqualify huge numbers of other people who combine strong scientific backgrounds with religious beliefs. It wouldn't end with the directorship of the National Institutes of Health, but would apply to many other high-level roles in public policy management. Vast numbers would be ruled out of contention. That is just too unpalatable, politically, to be realistic. No doubt there comes a point where a candidate's religious beliefs clash so plainly with established scientific theories that it is untenable to offer him or her a senior post involving science policy. But a great deal of latitude must be allowed before that point is reached. To act otherwise is totally unrealistic and politically unacceptable in any society that gives (even) lip service to ideas of social pluralism, freedom of religion, etc., let alone in the religiose United States of America.
In short, we can't realistically or reasonably protest against Collins as a suitable appointee to head the NIH.
Nonetheless, when we look at what Collins actually believes it becomes clear that it does not reconcile in any straightforward way with the emerging scientific picture of the world. Collins believes things that do not follow from the evidence. Instead, they are speculative claims that are meant to preserve the truth of (a form of) evangelical Christianity, even in the face of evidence. The evidence does not support such contentions as that we possess free will in any theologically interesting way, or that we have immortal souls or access to an objective moral law. It certainly does not support the idea that we were given these spooky things at a late point in evolutionary history by the specific supernatural act(s) of a god.
There is nothing in the observations of evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and others with relevant expertise, to suggest that our psychological nature or our cognitive and affective capacities have any supernatural origin. On the contrary, there is every prospect that these things have naturalistic causes. In any event, scientists and philosophers quite legitimately look for such causes.
Collins' theological claims do not collide with science as plainly and directly as does Young Earth Creationism. The clash is not so plain, or so likely to be disastrous for scientific practice, that it will undermine his ability to head the NIH. Accordingly, I do not protest the appointment.
Nonetheless, Collins' overall worldview, as summarised in his lecture slides, is that of man with a desperate account of our place in the universe. He appears determined to hang on to a belief in human exceptionalism and a supernatural component to our nature, despite all the evidence. His actual views are a weird mix of legitimate science and traditional evangelical doctrine.
By all means appoint him, since he is qualified for the job, cannot be disqualified on any fair and realistic basis, and may well carry out his duties with distinction if the circumstances suit. I wish him the best. But this discussion shows, again, how difficult it is for full-on religious believers (not deists or non-literalist liberals) to reconcile their theological commitments with real science. The result is ugly and contrived, and it should seem absurd to anyone who doesn't begin with a determination to protect prior theological commitments.