Up to now, I've had nothing to say about the nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, mostly because, outside of his work with the Human Genome Project, I have little knowledge of his views and abilities. However, I have been keeping an eye on what skeptics and secular thinkers have to say about the man, and the reaction has been largely mixed.

On one hand, Collins' scientific background is exemplary and shows him to be a serious, dedicated man of science and a highly-capable administrator. The Human Genome Project was a massive successful public push to map the genes of mankind, and Collins played a major role in bringing the effort through the difficult moments. As Sam Harris points out in this morning's op-ed in the New York Times,
(...) he is not a "young earth creationist," nor is he a proponent of "intelligent design." Given the state of the evidence for evolution, these are both very good things for a scientist not to be.
That said, Collins continues to hold non-empirical views which absolutely pollute his ability to provide the scientific leadership this country desperately needs. Among his beliefs:

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?
Here is a man, incredibly intelligent and capable who holds a belief in utter nonsense. Christian moral law required for morality? Nonsense, and this line of thought has been disproven outside of apologetic circles repeatedly. There are many good explanations for morality and altruism without resorting to the supernatural and the divinely inspired.

Why are Collins's views so important here? I'll quote Harris at length:
Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc. 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 is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States. This isn’t surprising, as very few scientific truths are self-evident, and many are counterintuitive. It is by no means obvious that empty space has structure or that we share a common ancestor with both the housefly and the banana. It can be difficult to think like a scientist. But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.

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.

Similarly, Dr. Collins insists that our moral intuitions attest to God’s existence, to his perfectly moral character and to his desire to have fellowship with every member of our species. But when our moral intuitions recoil at the casual destruction of innocents by, say, a tidal wave or earthquake, Dr. Collins assures us that our time-bound notions of good and evil can’t be trusted and that God’s will is a mystery.
Science is about taking nothing at face value and regarding personal assumptions and non-empirical beliefs as poison to the process of discovery. How can a man whose own stated beliefs include the theological assumption that man cannot have morality without a belief in the supernatural possibly dedicate his resources to neuroscience and psychology and evolutionary biology? Disciplines which are clearly arguing, with substantial empirical evidence, that behaviors deemed 'moral' are the result, not of divinely-imposed morality, but of evolutionary behavior which encouraged the growth of stable society. How can a man holding these assumptions possibly lead an effort in which theological dogma and supernatural explanations must be discarded in order to make significant progress? I have a hard time believing that he can.

(posted on my blog: davenichols.net)

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Tags: Biology, Evolution, Francis Collins, Religion, Sam Harris, Science

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