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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sam Harris on Francis Collins

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?

Harris concludes:

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.

55 comments:

Greg Egan said...

Thanks for such a calm, eloquent and well-reasoned post, Russell. (I don't often comment when I agree completely with something you write, but this was expressed with such tact and precision that I thought it deserved a spot of gratuitous praise.)

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Greg. Much appreciated. Jerry Coyne has also been writing a long blog post about this, over at Why Evolution Is True.

Anonymous said...

"But arguments to best explanation are only cogent if the best explanation is also a good explanation."

So let's apply this parsimony and economy of explanation (aka Occam's Razor) shall we?

Let's apply it to the Anthropic Principle and the fine tuning of our universe's physical characteristics as described in Martin Rees' "Six Numbers". Rees basically says that there are three responses to the statistically unlikely nature of the fine tuning and the incredible sensitivity of these values to the chance of matter or life forming:

A. Shrug of the shoulders, its trivial (implied by the weak anthropic principle)
B. Evidence of a Cosmic Design (implied by the strong anthropic principle)
C. There is an infinite number of parallel universes only a tiny fraction of which have, purely by chance, been created with the right physical constants to allow matter to form and life to develop. We just happen to be lucky enough to be in one that does (Many World theorem).

Parallel universes, Option #3, by definition can never be observed or visited and will forever remain non-falsifiable and therfore meaningless under the strict rules of Logical positivism as defined by Popper. As such, it is an explanation equivalent to "evidence for divine design". If a "parallel" universe could be visited or observed, it wouldn't be a separate universe at all but a different region of the same space-time. From the point of view of being non-falsifiable, "God" and "parallel universes" are equally valid explanations (even Schermer admitted as much in "Why We Believe").

Furthermore, multiple universes cannot in themselves provide an explanation for the fine tuning of the forces (Martin Rees' "Six Numbers") that make life in this universe possible. When the universe splits with each "quantum decision" made by an elementary particle both new universes are virtually identical to each other except for this single quantum difference that caused the split, all other attributes would be the same. As such, they would share the same physical laws, constants, etc. The quantum multiplication of universes would not result in changes in physical properties.

Lastly, the many worlds hypothesis is is not "elegant", as most successful physical theories are. Its a crude blunderbuss approach requiring a near infinity of universes to explain a few basic forces and characteristics, epistemological over kill. God is a much simpler explanation. Oddly enough, in this case, Occam's Razor works in God's favor.

Going back to Option #1, The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) basicly says "We are here because we are here." It's a tautology which solves nothing and provides no answers. If I am facing a firing squad and all 21 guns misfire (against astronomical odds) I have every right to wonder why. My amazement at being alive would be justified. To not wonder at my good fortune would show a lack of curiosity bordering on the bovine. Which violates at least the spirit of scientific inquirery.

By default,that leaves us with Option #2, God did it. In fact, the only way to deny Option #2 is by relying on the UN-scientific options: the non-falsifiability of parallel universes or the tautology of weak explanation.

Anonymous said...

"If we assume that a fine-tuning supernatural designer does exist, the logical conclusion to draw is that it is not a loving being."

When contemplating why evil exists in a world made by a benign deity, it helps to remember that God is not a behaviorist.

Evil comes in two flavors, physical evil (hurricanes, plagues, earthquakes, disease, old age, etc.) and moral evil (murder, theft, abuse, hatred, etc.). The first deals with the fact that the universe is often a painful and unjust place where the innocent suffer. The second deals with the evil committed by less than perfect humans on their fellows.

Moral evil is relatively easy to answer: God gave us free will to chose either good or evil. God did not wish to create a race of mindless, puppet automatons lacking the ability to chose. For all the evil done by man throughout history, our current situation is preferable to being a mindless slave. Those who would prefer otherwise in effect want to be slaves.

Furthermore, love isn't love unless it is freely given. For God to force us either by design or will to love Him always would result in the making love meaningless. God is not a rapist. As the Good Book says, "God is Love". The ability to chose evil (and all the resultant pain and suffering caused by men) was given to us for the sake of love. Do we pay too high a price for love? I honestly don't know. But the other alternative (quoting thought policeman O'brien in "1984") would be "God is Power". He could stop the gulags, concentration camps, etc. only by making the whole universe itself a concentration camp — with Himself as commandant.

God chose love instead of power, because a perfect world was to horrible to contemplate.

(cont.)

Anonymous said...

Physical evil is a bit trickier to address. Why do good and innocent people suffer? Why is suffering even possible? To make pain and suffering impossible, the universe would have to be perfect — and frozen in its own perfection. Since any change would mar its inherent perfection, such a universe would be a dead place where change and growth.

Perfection = completion = death.

It would be a dead place devoid of life. If moral evil is the price we pay for freedom and love, than physical evil is the price we pay for life.

There is a story that God created a perfect universe before He made our own. Not liking the results — a place of eternal death — he cast it aside and began work on the deliberately imperfect universe we live in. The first universe still exists.

It's called Hell.

But why do the innocent suffer and why do evil people prosper? Well this brings us back to free will. Even if the potential for free will existed, it wouldn't mean much if the universe had a built-in system of rewards and punishments designed to coerce behavior.

So does anyone wish that God was a Tyrant, using the physical universe as a system of rewards and punishments, and humanity reduced to the level of pigeons inside of a BF Skinner box?

And so we have a world where innocent children die or are born handicapped, people through no fault of their own suffer the pains of living, and evil people often live happy lives of material contentment.

But it beats the alternative. As I said at the start, God is not a behaviorist.

One of the many things I find baffling about Atheists is their claim to be "free" of control and superstition, unlike us poor sheep-like believers. You claim to desire freedom from control and freedom of thought above all else. Yet here God has set your mind free to chose and the universe free to be alive, without safety or security or guarantee. Neither the mind enslaved nor the universe frozen.

And yet you're not happy.

If God is not a behaviorist, the Devil most certainly is. This is apparent from the opening scene in Job where Satan bets God that Job is only good because he has been physically and materially rewarded. And that's the whole point of the story, whether we should be good no matter what or be good only if things are well. God's answer is as obvious as it is harsh. For those who would wish that God was a behaviorist, coercing them and making slaves of them, God has this to say, "Gird your loins like a man."

So stop your friggin whining. A free universe full of life is no place for pussies.

Besides, the goal was never the most perfect universe, but the most free. And here we are delecately blanced between chaos where freedom is meaningless and perfection where freedom is not possible.

Peter Hollo said...

Anonymous, one of the many problems with your argument is that "God" is only a simpler explanation (than anything) if you're coming from a very odd religious perspective. "God" is the biggest question-mark you can stick into any chain of causality. After all, where the hell did God come from? (This is the first religious interaction I had, at age 6, and no answer has been forthcoming.)

This regardless of the handwaving involved in Anthropic arguments in general, and the tenuousness of basing a belief in God on a questionable application of Occam's Razor to such handwaving. It's no more convincing here than when it was Pascal's Wager.

Peter Hollo said...

Meanwhile, Anonymous's rant has expanded, I see. Sorry dude, there is no God, so you might as well stop worrying and get on with your life.

386sx said...

When contemplating why evil exists in a world made by a benign deity, it helps to remember that God is not a behaviorist.

Okay thanks a lot dude. Thanks for helping us out with that, dude.

386sx said...

By default,that leaves us with Option #2

No it doesn't leave us with Option #2. Your strawmen have forgotten other options, like for example, "We just don't freaking know."

Russell Blackford said...

When the Logorrhoea Fairy bites you, it's usually a good idea to write your own post somewhere.

Anonymous said...

"It's no more convincing here than when it was Pascal's Wager."

If your looking for definitive proofs of God's existence I'm afraid you'll be a bit disappointed. Neither proofs nor disproofs of God's existence are possible, either logically or empirically.

Both theism and atheism are unfalsifiable/ untestable faith statements and as such are equally valid (or invalid) from a scientific point of view.

Anonymous said...

"We just don't freaking know."


That would be option A: Shrug of the shoulders, its trivial

Anonymous said...

"it's usually a good idea to write your own post somewhere."

But then you would have no chance to refute my argument, which I am sure you can do easily, yes?

Eamon Knight said...

Excellent analysis (and it helps that it confirms what I already more-or-less thought, as opposed to some rather stupid -- even downright bigotted -- commentary on Panda's Thumb ;-) ).

Only one complaint, directed not at you but at Sam Harris: 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.

This from someone who, last I heard, takes Rupert Sheldrake seriously? And flirts with ideas about reincarnation? I'd like to see how Harris reconciles that with his studies in neuroscience.

JefFlyingV said...

R. Blackford you have a well written assessment of Collins on your blog, but would you be writing as elegantly if Australia had promoted a Collins type to an equivalent government post?

For me it brings up questions about his scientific achievements. Is he just an administrator or does he set policy within the scientific community?

Eamon Knight said...

Anonymous Troll wrote: That would be option A: Shrug of the shoulders, its trivial

No that would be "It's an interesting question, but 'Magic Man dunnit' is not an informative answer". For reasons that Russell has already explained.

386sx said...

That would be option A: Shrug of the shoulders, its trivial

Well okay, but option A implies no desire to want to know. You are attaching all kinds of pejorative implications to option A in a (failed) attempt at glossing it over in favor of your other loaded deck of options.

Gruesome Rob said...

@Anonymous: "Both theism and atheism are unfalsifiable/ untestable faith statements and as such are equally valid (or invalid) from a scientific point of view."

Wrong. Without evidence, the Null Hypothesis holds.

Anonymous said...

"Parallel universes, Option #3, by definition can never be observed or visited and will forever remain non-falsifiable and therfore meaningless under the strict rules of Logical positivism as defined by Popper. As such, it is an explanation equivalent to "evidence for divine design". If a "parallel" universe could be visited or observed, it wouldn't be a separate universe at all but a different region of the same space-time. From the point of view of being non-falsifiable, "God" and "parallel universes" are equally valid explanations (even Schermer admitted as much in "Why We Believe")."

Not true. A mathematical and rigorous theory of multiple universes would do one of two things:

a) Make predictions mathematically equivalent to some other theory
b) Make predictions mathematically unique to this particular many worlds hypothesis

In the first case, we would see that "many worlds" is mathematically equivalent to some other model, in which case we have to start thinking a little more about the epistemology of scientific theories, but ultimately we would have two falsifiable scientific theories, either equally "likely." In the second, we have a falsifiable theory of many worlds. Either way, you're wrong.

We don't need to visit parallel universes if the premise that they exist has observable effects within our own.

--Dan L.

Anonymous said...

"We don't need to visit parallel universes if the premise that they exist has observable effects within our own."

If they could effect our universe then they would not be PARALLEL by definition. Instead,they would just be different regions of the same space time.

Steve Friberg said...

Hi Russell:

About Francis Collins, you write:

"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."

Given that Francis Collins has written extensively on what he believes, and given that many believe as he does, I can't say that your description rings true. You are, I think, offering a caricature. Sam Harris does much worse in his NYT piece. He misrepresents what Collins believes.

I suspect both of you are being sincere. You are reporting what you believe to true. But, if we are to be true in a scientific manner, more than just belief is needed. Understanding, backed by verification is needed.

Which brings me to an interesting perspective: you, and the new atheists as well, are at the leading edge of developing a new theology, one more meaningful to the modern world. It is the back and forth of ideas that counts, not initial starting positions and labels.

I think that what is happening, and it is a process going on for the last fifty years, is that the old enlightenment consensus - maybe we could call the academic consensus - has been shown to be shot through with illogic. Religion and science are only opposed if you misrepresent the language of the other side. With the older language of theology, that was easy to do. What is happening now, I think, is that a new and better theological language, one more meaningful in these times, is being forged by the new atheist wars.

josef johann said...

Russell, you say:

"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."

I don't think this is true. Collins appears to be uniquely vocal and active advocate for a collection of religious explanations such that his disqualification would not entail disqualification of just anyone with religious beliefs.

Jacob Wintersmith said...

Anonymous, regarding what you call Physical Evil, we're not asking god to eliminate every last tiny bit of possible suffering. You're entirely correct that doing so may be impossible even for a being with god-like powers.

However, there are many obvious ways a powerful god could greatly reduce the amount of Physical Evil we suffer. Get rid of hurricanes. Or malaria. Magically heal people who lost a limb in an accident. What's stopping your benevolent god from doing that?

amphiox said...

Anonymous said:

"Both theism and atheism are unfalsifiable/ untestable faith statements and as such are equally valid (or invalid) from a scientific point of view."

This is patently untrue. Positive and negative claims are not equivalent in the scientific method.

Only positive claims require evidence to be considered valid. Negative claims do not require any evidence to be considered valid. In fact, they are valid as the default condition, and are only invalidated by the discovery of evidence in support of the positive claim. They are the null hypothesis.

If you want to claim that "there is a tooth fairy" the onus is on you to define what you mean by tooth fairy and provide evidence for its existence.

I do not need evidence to validly claim "there is no tooth fairy." The absence of evidence for a tooth fairy is enough for me to validly claim, provisionally, that there is no tooth fairy, until evidence to the contrary appears.

Steve Zara said...

Russell-

I have avoided posting on your blog recently as my posts have not seemed to contribute anything. But I think that this matter is important.

I believe that Collins' statements about his beliefs are important. I believe that they are profoundly in contradiction to his position a scientist of national importance in the USA.

He is making statements about scientific areas (such as the laws of physics) in which he has no qualification.

He is making statements about evolution
(that it will result in beings who can contain souls) for which he has no rational foundation.

By any scientific standards, he is simply bonkers. He is a joke.

Russell- I think you have missed the point about much that he has said. What should be questioned isn't that he has said philosophically questionable statements about the Big Bang, but that he, as someone trained in genetics, molecular biology and medicine, feels he can comment about physics based on religion.

So I have to disagree with you about his qualifications. I even (unusually) find myself in a more extreme position than PZ Myers.

Collins appointment will damage science and its reputation. I believe that his personal statements are sufficient evidence for his rejection of science and the scientific method.

I think there really are grounds for objecting to his appointment.

Athena Andreadis said...

There are other problems with Collins, beyond his bizarre version of Christianity (which is like the Ptolemean epicycles in terms of tortured logic; but I digress).

Collins is in favor of "big science" which not an effective mindset/modus operandi paradigm for biology, in which the devil's (sic) in the details. Also, as the head of the NIH he will make policy on the direction of research. He's not just an administrator who implements Congress or White House decisions. He will be asked to offer opinions on science and his opinions may well be implemented.

It's admirable to write fair and balanced reviews and meta-reviews, but how many here are working biologists in the US who depend on grants to do research? Harris's point about neuroscience is valid. Obama's choice was pragmatic, but made at the expense of not only principle but also substance.

Steve Zara said...

I do agree Athena. At some point, Collins' religious views will come into conflict with the principles of a particular research program.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous about "God & Problem of Evil":

Everything you argued against the problem of evil and arguing for God's goodness can be turned around and used to argue for God's evilness just as well. Or perhaps anything in beetween.

You claim that "moral evil is relatively easy to anwser" with God giving us free will. If free will is so simple please explain to the rest of the world?

-Anonymous2

Athena Andreadis said...
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Athena Andreadis said...

I have one more word to say to all those who are treating the Collins appointment as a philosophy exercise in objectivity: Lysenko.

To put it in another way: McCain and Palin would also have picked Collins as the head of the NIH. Post-Bush, the rest of the US scientific establishment gets renewed; we get sandbagged, to put it politely.

Yet a third way to look at it: Dawkins gets appointed as the archbishop of Canterbury. Calm, reasonable people argue that except for his views on god(s), he's otherwise qualified -- in fact, overqualified -- for the position.

goodgrieflinus said...

Steve Friberg

"What is happening now, I think, is that a new and better theological language, one more meaningful in these times, is being forged by the new atheist wars."

When the dictionary's been published, give us a link to Amazon would you? If it's anything like Karen Armstrong's language, I for one can't discern anything meaningful in it, so translation services will be useful. It's almost like the new theologians are retreating into Nadsat to avoid being understood. But they wouldn't do that, would they?

tomh said...

Steve Friberg said:
"Given that Francis Collins has written extensively on what he believes, and given that many believe as he does, I can't say that your description rings true. You are, I think, offering a caricature. Sam Harris does much worse in his NYT piece. He misrepresents what Collins believes."

Why don't you give some examples of this alleged misrepresentation? Given that Harris quotes extensively from Collins, how is he misrepresenting him? Collins believes in exactly what you seem to object to ascribing to him, a literal creator, supernatural interference in evolutionary history, and supernaturally-grounded moral law. His slide presentation, part of which is quoted by Harris, says exactly this, as do his other writings.

Athena Andreadis said...

Collins' own words: Biologos, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. He had to resign when chosen to head the NIH, because of the strict conflict-of-interest rules.

sailor1031 said...

Russell: this is I think the best explanation I've seen as to why Collins is problematical. Thanks a lot for writing this.
I'm especially intrigued by this:
"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."
When precisely in human history did this event occur? under what circumstances? where is any even halfway reliable record of this planet-shaking event? and i don't mean the talking snake story which nobody, not even Coillins, believes.

sailor1031 said...

Oh and to Anonymous:

God wants you to shutup now!!

Quine said...

Russell, I find myself between your position and that of Steve Zara, but probably closer to Steve. Obama made this appointment in view of both professional credentials and political considerations. I can only object to the low level of philosophic understanding shown by the comments Dr. Collins has made. As PZ also wrote today, I could only make it a little over 40 min into the Berkeley talk. All we can do at this point is to write to him (Dr. Collins) and let him know that we will be watching to make sure he keeps his religious delusion to himself and out of his work at the NIH.

jennyxyzzy said...

Collins most definitely is problematic, but I don't think it is reasonable to automatically remove him from consideration for the post. Rather, when appointing him, it should be made clear that if he steps over certain boundaries (such as making decisions based on his faith alone), that his position will be in jeopardy - if he really is capable of maintaining the cognitive dissonance required, then there is no other objection to the guy holding the post.

Anonymous said...

Only positive claims require evidence to be considered valid. Negative claims do not require any evidence to be considered valid. In fact, they are valid as the default condition, and are only invalidated by the discovery of evidence in support of the positive claim. They are the null hypothesis.

Theistic and athesitic claims are not scientific claims (as neither can be tested or falsified). Instead, they are philosophical claims. The default philosophical claim is not the negative position but the neutral one, "I don't know". All other claims, positive or negative, would require evidence for validity.

Hypothetical: we discover a sealed box. We cannot open the box nor can we measure or examine it or touch it in any way. Thus any statement made about the box's contents would be untestable and unfalsifiable.

I claim that there is something in the box (what exactly that something may be is irrelelvant). You claim that the box is empty. Neither one of us can present the slightest evidence supporting our position.

The default claim in this situation (and in all non-scientific situations) is "I don't know".

Steve Zara said...

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.

This is a statement I have a real problem with. I don't believe any latitude need be allowed at all. This is a scientific position. It requires a first-rate scientist. Not just a technician, but someone who understands how science works and makes sensible statements about that subject. Collins clearly fails that test. This is equivalent to appointing someone who believes (and has said in public statements) that Roswell was an alien visitation as the head of NASA.

Collins has no business saying anything religious about fine tuning or the purpose of evolution, or the god-given nature of morality, in public. It is bad science, bad philosophy and it is also bad politics.

Elentar said...

Of course, the fine tuning argument runs into the problem of sterility much like the ontological proof runs into the problem of theodicy. If the universe was built for the purpose of creating life, and specifically, intelligent life, why is there so little of it, and why is nearly all of the universe so inhospitable to life?

I think the problem of sterility is like theodicy but worse by several orders of magnitude, so I am always astounded when believers try for fine tuning.

goodgrieflinus said...

Fine tuning is superficially attractive as a pointer to an intelligent creator, but it has far too many problems, IMO.

It's very easy to imagine a universe which is 'tuned' more finely from the *macro* point of view. If one is talking about the fine tuning of the *constants* discovered by physics, one would have to show that the arrangements of these constants are *actually* in their maximally efficient configuration before one could accept that the universe is indeed fine-tuned. This is far from being evident. In other words, one would have to demonstrate that a better universe couldn't be created with different constants. Quite a tough assignment, that.

Steve Zara said...

I think there could be an argument that a reality that looks so dodgy that the question of fine tuning arises is a good indication that no omnipotent supernatural creator was involved.

It is as daft as the single survivor of an air crash claiming that the plane was 'fine tuned' for them to be alive.

But anyway, Collins should shut up making religious statements about areas of science. At least those that he isn't an expert in. I have no objection to him discussing the nature of angels, but he looks an idiot when he discusses fine tuning.

Eamon Knight said...

Anonymous the Evangelist wrote: Hypothetical: we discover a sealed box. We cannot open the box nor can we measure or examine it or touch it in any way. Thus any statement made about the box's contents would be untestable and unfalsifiable.

If your god indeed lives permanently sealed inside a box, then you might be correct that we should all be properly agnostic about its contents. But this is a considerable bait & switch: the God you were preaching at us above is (allegedly) active in the world, revealing himself in his creation, through the Bible he inspired, (especially) through Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son, and through the Church. There damn well *ought* to be evidence of that, and in fact there is a whole industry of apologetics that constantly proffers claimed evidence. You, in fact, have attempted to do so on this thread, in the form of the Fine Tuning Argument.

We say: we have seen the evidence presented, and consider it at best unpersuasive (and much of it is far worse than that); we consider that their is also significant negative evidence, eg. the Problem of Evil (against which you have done no more than to present the Standard Excuses); we conclude (for the present, and always revisable in the event of fresh evidence) that at any rate *your* god (and similar entities proposed by related sects) is very unlikely to exist. And as the sign on the bus says: we stop worrying and enjoy our lives.

This is a rational conclusion on the evidence (mostly: lack thereof). Continued attempts to paint it as a "faith position" are simply disingenuous.

Richard said...

I'm not sure I'm understanding folk-metaethics.

"God told us to do X" is an issue of fact.

"We should do what God says", is an ethical assertion. It doesn't seem like it can be derived from claims about god, either.

They could take it as an axiom, but the claim seems to be that ethics are universal.

So, are folk-metaethics be complete even given the existance of a law-giver?

Also, are there good links to read about the antipodean error theory of metaethics? My google-foo seems to be failing me.

Richard said...

The fine-tuning argument seems like a shell-game played with shifting definitions of 'God'.

It's defended as, "I can prove that 'God' exists for some sense of the word," and then practiced as, "There's a single, male-ish, all-knowing, super-intelligent being out there who loves us and screws with the universe to make us happy, but only if we assert certain, very-specific fact claims about events in the desert 2000-ish years ago."

One of these things is not like the other.

philosopher-animal said...

One quibble on some otherwise excellent remarks.

It is certainly contentious to claim that objective morality is implausible in the light of science. Now, if you mean simply that morality would disappear if there were no humans, etc. that's fine, I agree with that. However, that does not rule out an objective morality in the sense that the moral status of something is independent of any particular human or of human whim, etc (except in the bizarre self referential pathologies which I'll ignore).

Consider a sports analogy: the sports we know and love would be annihilated with our species. But that does not change the fact that many of them have rules which do not depend on whim. (That their implementation (e.g. a strike zone) often does is another story, of course, but not what I'm talking about.)

Moreover, this is is all compatible with ethics being relational in some deep sense. For example, in places and times of lack of vegetables (say, amongst the Inuit 500 years ago) vegetarianism might not be ethically required whereas now it might be. (The example doesn't particularly matter, but the idea is sound.)

Anonymous said...

From another anonymous... "Both theism and atheism are unfalsifiable/ untestable faith statements and as such are equally valid (or invalid) from a scientific point of view."

Wrong, atheism is falsifiable. If it exists, your god could prove it's existance and show that the athiests are wrong. I suppose you know why it chooses not to :)

sailor1031 said...

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."

Interesting but stooooopid! The world we see today, and it is this WORLD we are talking about not the universe, is the result of evolution of both the geological world and the biologic world. The geologic evolutionary state is what it is because of the way the planet was formed which determined the chemical composition and ultimately the geologic form of the planet. No magic here. No intelligent external fine-tuning; it simply is what it is. Different entry parameters and the planet might have been a gas giant or a small rock or a large chunk of frozen methane (all within the same set of rules). There are enough of them out there, after all!! No proof here of an intelligent direction. The biologic planet we see is the result of countless random genetic mutations. Again no fine tuning, no intelligent direction. It simply is what it is. Different parameters would have produced a different planet and different or NO species. We are the result, not a purpose! This is what we learn from science. If one wishes to make extraordinary claims which oppose the findings of science then surely some evidence, not just an unsupported opinion, is required. Note I do not ask for "extraordinary evidence" just 'some' evidence.

Anonymous said...

Hypothetical: we discover a sealed box. We cannot open the box nor can we measure or examine it or touch it in any way.

If you can't measure or examine it in any way, how did you discover that it was a sealed box? The same way you discovered God? - Maybe God is an unexamanable sealed box. :)

Anonymous said...

with that. However, that does not rule out an objective morality in the sense that the moral status of something is independent of any particular human or of human whim, etc (except in the bizarre self referential pathologies which I'll ignore).

Consider a sports analogy: the sports we know and love would be annihilated with our species. But that does not change the fact that many of them have rules which do not depend on whim. (That their implementation (e.g. a strike zone) often does is another story, of course, but not what I'm talking about.)


I'm not sure what you mean by whim, but the rules are certainly the result of particular individual(s). There is nothing "objective" about the infield fly rule -- 'tis just a social agreement among the players... much like morality, I think :)

Anonymous said...

slight editing by me,

Hypothetical: I discover a God. I cannot measure or examine it or touch it in any way. Thus any statement made about the God would be untestable and unfalsifiable.

I claim that there is something to the God (what exactly that something may be is irrelelvant). You claim that my discovery of the God is unjustified because I cannot measure it, or examine it in any way. I cannot present any evidence supporting my claim and you point that out.

The default claim in this situation should be ignored as epistemologically void.

... I like this hypothetical better. :)

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I was very heartened to find this blog and this post. It is reassuring to see someone critiquing Collins' religious ideas at length while still upholding the principle that it just plain wrong to oppose his nomination on the basis of his religious beliefs.

In fact there is no way to reconcile the line in the sand that has been drawn by Harris, Dawkins & Co. with the words of Thomas Jefferson: "All men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."

Steve Zara said...

In fact there is no way to reconcile the line in the sand that has been drawn by Harris, Dawkins & Co. with the words of Thomas Jefferson: "All men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."

There is. People should be free to profess and maintain their opinions in matters of religion, but it should be acceptable to make religious views part of the qualification for a job.

The idea of promoting a Raelist to head of NASA would be ludicrous.

Collins only gets off, it seems to me, because his religion is mainstream.

Mariano said...

Sam Harris has a one word answer to all of the world’s ills: religion.

Thus, anyone who is religious is, a priori, part of the problem.

Moreover, as evidenced at the following link, Harris himself is becoming a scientist not in order to conduct unbiased research but in order to attempt to evidence atheism.

http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/05/atheism-new-emergent-atheists-part-2-of.html

Also, FYI: interesting info on Collins is found here:
http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/04/john-horgan-and-francis-collins.html

http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2009/05/new-atheists-on-francis-collins.html

Anonymous said...

The selection of Collins to head the NIH is by far the most grievous decision made by Obama's young administration.

Mariano? The idea is to get people who are fully devoted to SCIENCE (and therefore the understanding of the natural world) into positions that require a thorough SCIENTIFIC understanding undiluted by religious or supernaturalist bunk. Even you may agree that religion and related fantasies have never once contributed to the storehouse of scientific knowledge thus far obtained, and are certainly not likely to contribute anything in the future, EXCEPT as a consistently contrarian voice which, if it does anything at all, impedes scientific progress through a constant program of misinformation.

Why in flaming herbs do you imagine the NIH must have anybody of Collins' stripe to direct it? Can it possibly be because you suppose that religion is essential to health? Show us ONE example where religion or religious thinking has ever managed to increase our knowledge of medicine or the biological realm, let alone with physics or astronomy or anything else human beings have ever actually learned about their universe.

Nope, sorry, you can't invoke, say, the monk Mendel for practicing anything other than science...as Collins cannot rest upon anything related to his religious beliefs in assisting him in his human genome research. In EVERY case where scientific advances have been made, those advances were accomplished on the solid foundation of science DESPITE any idiosyncratic belief systems held on the part of the investigators. The big problem with Collins - as Harris, Blackford, Myers and numerous others have plainly and exhaustively pointed out - is that he goes around inveigling his personal religious notions AS IF THEY WERE VALID SCIENTIFIC CONCLUSIONS.

That is the behavior of an evangelist, not a scientist. I do not like the idea that an evangelist heads the NIH. The NIH needs sober science to operate properly, not religious fantasies.