The Strange Case of Dr Collins and Mr Harris

collins

http://www.genome.gov/10000779

sam_harris

http://www.samharris.org/

http://www.reasonproject.org/

manicstreetpreacher gives a narrative of the repeated verbal assaults on one of the world’s foremost religious scientists by one of the Four Horsemen.

A brief history of Francis Collins

Francis Collins is a Godsend to religious apologists.  He is a devout Christian who also happens to be a highly respected physical chemist with a highly impressive litany of achievements and contributions to science on his CV.  Not least of these was his heading-up of the Human Genome Project which was an international scientific research project with a primary goal to determine the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up DNA and to identify and map the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome from both a physical and functional standpoint.

language_god

Collins is clearly a highly intelligent, sane, rational man who has had a brilliant career as a scientist.  What’s more, he has not let his faith give credence to creationism or “Intelligent Design”.  In his 2006 book, The Language of God, Collins – as per the book’s subtitle – attempted to present scientific evidence for religious faith:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted. (p. 178)

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him.  He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.  (pp. 200 – 201)

However, one has to suspect whether this conversion was less a scientific discovery and more an emotional response:

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance.  As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over.  The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.  (p. 225)

In an interview with Time magazine Collins clarified that the waterfall was frozen into three separate strands, putting him in mind of the Holy Trinity.

Unsurprisingly, religious apologists the world over have held out Collins as a shining example of the supposed marriage between science and religion.

Apparently people like Collins prove that there is no conflict between believing that the Universe is 13.5 billion years old and that Homo sapiens share the same DNA as a fruit fly on the one hand, and on the other believing that the public torture and execution of a carpenter’s son over 2,000 years ago on the other side of the World is the only remedy that can cure the ailments of the human condition and that biscuits and sherry transform into said carpenter’s son’s flesh and blood in designated buildings on a Sunday morning.

Practically all the “flea” responses to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion have cited Collins as the exemplar of a scientist who has managed to square his science with his religious faith in direct contrast to the shrill and intolerant arguments of Dawkins that the two discourses are irreconcilable.

However, Dawkins is not the only one of the Four Horsemen who has delivered a series of tongue-lashings to scientists of this type who display a bizarre partition in their brains between faith and reason.

Ready, aim… FIRE!!!!!

Right from the word “go”, Sam Harris, American atheist author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has been highly critical of Collins and has used him as an example of how this supposed harmony of science and religion – that the two areas occupy “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) – is completely bogus.

letter_christian

In a 2005 article, Harris stated:

It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum.  There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.  Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria” served only the religious dogmatists who realize, quite rightly, that there is only one magisterium.  Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts.  Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn’t.  It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort…  There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.

When it was first published in 2006, most reviewers heaped praise on The Language of God. Harris’ treatment of the book could scarcely have been more a polar opposite.  In a damning review tellingly entitled “The Language of Ignorance”, Harris unleashed his first real volley against Collins.

On Collins’ pleas to NOMA:

[Collins] attempts to demonstrate that there is “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and evangelical Christianity.  To say that he fails at his task does not quite get at the inadequacy of his efforts.  He fails the way a surgeon would fail if he attempted to operate using only his toes.  His failure is predictable, spectacular and vile.  The Language of God reads like a hoax text, and the knowledge that it is not a hoax should be disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of intellectual and political discourse in the United States…

His book reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind…

According to Collins, belief in the God of Abraham is the most rational response to the data of physics and biology, while of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational.  Taken at face value, these claims suggest that The Language of God will mark an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of ideas.  Once Collins gets going, however, we realize that the book represents a breakthrough of another kind…

On Collins’ rather suspect understanding of the source of human morality:

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism.  Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.  In Collins’ view, therefore, the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God.  (Here, Collins performs a risible sprint past ideas in biology like “kin selection” that plausibly explain altruism and self-sacrifice in evolutionary terms.)…

Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be derivative of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution.  It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training.  If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning…

On whether atheists or believers are the more strident:

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists.  Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point.  Believers like Collins do not…

The book’s post-mortem was thus:

If one wonders how beguiled, self-deceived and carefree in the service of fallacy a scientist can be in the United States in the 21st century, The Language of God provides the answer.  The only thing that mitigates the harm this book will do to the stature of science in the United States is that it will be mostly read by people for whom science has little stature already.  Viewed from abroad, The Language of God will be seen as another reason to wonder about the fate of American society.  Indeed, it is rare that one sees the thumbprint of historical contingency so visible on the lens of intellectual discourse.  This is an American book, attesting to American ignorance, written for Americans who believe that ignorance is stronger than death.  Reading it should provoke feelings of collective guilt in any sensitive secularist.  We should be ashamed that this book was written in our own time.

Strike two

Since then, Harris has taken every available opportunity to deride Collins as representing the nadir of NOMA and that his conversion to Christianity had little to do with his scientific career and everything to with a warm fuzzy feeling inside him that there just had to be something more.

The most recent episode of Harris’ crusade against Collins happened in a piece written in response to Collins’ nomination by US President Barack Obama as head of the National Institution of Health (NIH).  Harris had clearly not warmed to Collins one iota as he again unleashed his unique brand of cutting sarcasm and unanswerable logic:

Dr Collins is regularly praised by secular scientists for what he is not: 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…

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 should Dr Collins’s beliefs be of concern?

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 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.

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?…

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?

Naturally, Harris’ article provoked a furious response from goddycoddlers like Andrew Brown of The Guardian, who fumed on his blog:

Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris.  Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality.  He has, for example, defended torture, (“restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place”) attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene”; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them.  Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians…

To the extent that Harris has any argument at all – apart from that religious people are very wicked, responsible for the inquisition, the holocaust, George W Bush, Muslims, and other Bad Things – it is that as a religious man Collins must “sincerely believe that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible.”

So what?  Everything we know about believing scientists of Collins’ type suggests two things.  First that they love science: nobody could accomplish scientifically what Collins has (and, incidentally, Harris hasn’t) without an overwhelming passion for their work.  Secondly, that no scientific discovery could shake their faith, any more than science made Darwin an atheist.  All of the best arguments against God are theological.  It’s the second point that’s really important. What drives the tribal atheists like Harris mad is knowing that Collins won’t convert whatever science may discover.

So why object to Collins getting the job?  Since Harris does not, quite, dare to claim that Collins would, at the head of the NIH, somehow stop science from being done, he is reduced to suggesting that Collins would not approve of the results that Harris expects from scientific research. Quite apart from the question of whether this is actually true or whether the question will actually arise – Harris, too, might be wrong about what science will discover – it isn’t any argument at all against his holding the job…

[M]ilitant atheism, of the sort that would deny people jobs for their religions beliefs, doesn’t actually believe in real science at all, any more than it believes in reason.  Rather, it uses “science” and “reason” as tribal labels, and “religion” as a term for witchcraft. Any serious defence of the real, hard-won and easily lost enlightenment must start by rejecting that style of atheism entirely.  What use is it to be right about God and wrong about everything else?

Brown stoops to the common quote-mine/distortion employed by Harris’ opponents, that he endorses torture, when anyone who has read the relevant passage in The End of Faith will know that Harris does no such thing.  (See Harris’ “Response to Controversy” written in reply to these dirty tactics.)

American evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, Jerry A Coyne, wrote a suitably pithy rebuttal of Brown on his blog:

[Harris] did not say that Collins should be excluded from consideration.  Harris, like me, is simply worried about Collins using his status as NIH director to spread wacko religious ideas.  Harris has the additional concern (one that I don’t really share) that Collins might deflect research away from understanding the human brain and the behavior it engenders…

Brown goes on to make some bad arguments about the relationship between science and faith.  He gloats that no scientific discovery could ever shake Collins’s faith, “any more than science made Darwin an atheist.” (I’m not so sure about that one, actually.  Certain empirical observations might well have eroded Darwin’s faith: the death of his daughter Annie, for example, as well as his famous observations about the horrors of nature, like the ichneumon wasp, which to Darwin argued against the existence of a benevolent god.)  Thus, when Brown says that Collins need never abandon his faith because “all the best arguments against God are theological,” he’s just wrong.  The best arguments against God are empirical, most prominent among them the argument from evil.  As far as I can see — and yes, I’ve read theology — there has never been a better refutation of the idea of a loving and omnipotent god than the existence of horrible, god-preventable things happening to innocent people.  That’s an empirical observation, and the world didn’t have to be that way. Another, of course, is that prayer doesn’t work.  Yet another is the observation that God seems to heal some people, but sorely neglects those amputees.  Finally, the theistic God obstinately refuses to show himself to people, although he supposedly interacts with the world.

None of us “militant atheists” want to deny Collins his job because of his faith.  And it’s just dumb to say that we don’t believe in real science.  I do real science every day.  As for labeling religion as “witchcraft,” well, are the two forms of superstition really so different?

Brown’s overall complaint seems to be that Harris’s writings are so popular — that “hundreds of thousands of people bought the books, and perhaps the ideas in them.”  I suspect Brown’s books haven’t sold nearly as well, though (no surprise!) he won a Templeton Prize for religious journalism.  I do feel sorry for Brown, though:  it can’t be pleasant to write a Guardian column where most of your commenters rip your arguments to shreds.

Harris: 3 – Collins: Nil

Harris hit back at his critics with this superb piece witheringly entitled “The Strange Case of Francis Collins”.  I can only recommend that it is read in full, particularly as Harris puts into print arguments that he has previously made in debates and lectures.  I quote the following to whet your appetites:

Debunking the “argument from admired religious scientists”:

This prayer of reconciliation goes by many names and now has many advocates.  But it is based on a fallacy. The fact that some scientists do not detect any problem with religious faith merely proves that a juxtaposition of good ideas/methods and bad ones is possible.  Is there a conflict between marriage and infidelity?  The two regularly coincide.  The fact that intellectual honesty can be confined to a ghetto – in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc – does not mean that there isn’t a perfect contradiction between reason and faith, or between the worldview of science taken as a whole and those advanced by the world’s “great”, and greatly discrepant, religions.

What can be shown by example is how poorly religious scientists manage to reconcile reason and faith when they actually attempt to do so.  Few such efforts have received more public attention than the work of Francis Collins.  At the time of this writing, Collins seems destined to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.  One must admit that his credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist, and the former head of the Human Genome Project.  He is also, by his own account, living proof that there is no conflict between science and religion.  In 2006, Collins published a bestselling book, The Language of God, in which he claims to demonstrate “a consistent and profoundly satisfying harmony” between 21st-century science and Evangelical Christianity.  Let it be known that “consistency” and “harmony” can be in the eye of the beholder.

[A]s director of the institutes, 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 to understand Collins’ religious beliefs as they relate to scientific inquiry.

On whether deism can really can support theism:

Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion?  Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in a way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.

On the rationality of Collins’ theistic world view:

[Collins] says that of “all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational”.  I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus.  I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified.  Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus?  And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief is Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?…

Collins has since started an organization called the BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate “the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life.”  BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation, a religious organization that, because of its astonishing wealth, has managed to purchase the complicity of otherwise secular scientists as it seeks to re-brand religious faith as a legitimate arm of science.

Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards?   Not a chance.  In fact, we can be confident that his scientific career would have terminated in an inferno of criticism…

On the insurmountably high standard of evidence for miracle accounts:

Even for a scientist of Collins’ stature, who has struggled to reconcile his belief in the divinity of Jesus with modern science, it all boils down to the “empty tomb.” Indeed, Collins freely admits that if all his scientific arguments for the plausibility of God were proven to be in error, his faith would be undiminished, as it is founded upon the belief, shared by all serious Christians, that the Gospel account of the miracles of Jesus is true.  For a scientist, Collins speaks with remarkable naïveté about the Gospel account being the “record of eyewitnesses.”  Biblical scholars generally agree that the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written several decades after the events it purports to describe.  Of course, no one has access to the original manuscript of Mark, or of any of the other Gospels: rather, there are thousands of fragmentary copies of copies of copies, many of which show obvious errors or signs of later interpolation.  The earliest of these fragments dates to second century, but for many other sections of the text we must rely on copies that were produced centuries later.  One would hope that a scientist might see that these disordered and frequently discordant texts constitute a rather precarious basis for believing in the divinity of Jesus.

But the problem is actually much worse than this: for even if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity.  Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century.  I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favorite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus.  Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materializing objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and skeptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god.  The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.  Collins’ faith is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba – and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel – somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.  It is on this basis that the future head of the NIH recommends that we believe the following propositions:

  1. Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days.

  2. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven” – where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings.

  3. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and skeptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on mother’s knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos.

  4. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will be consigned to a far less desirable fate, best left unspecified.

  5. In the meantime, God/Jesus may or may not intervene in our world, as He pleases, curing the occasional end-stage cancer (or not), answering an especially earnest prayer for guidance (or not), consoling the bereaved (or not), through His perfectly wise and loving agency.

How many scientific laws would be violated by such a scheme?  One is tempted to say “all of them.”  And yet, judging from the way that journals like Nature have treated Collins, one can only conclude that there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts these convictions in an unfavorable light.

Harris answers his critics who label him as intolerant:

Some readers will consider any criticism of Collins’ views to be an overt expression of “intolerance.”  Indeed, when I published an abbreviated version of this essay in the New York Times, this is precisely the kind of negative response I received.  For instance, the biologist Kenneth Miller claimed in a letter to the Times that my view was purely the product of my own “deeply held prejudices against religion” and that I opposed Collins merely because “he is a Christian.”   Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown called my criticism of Collins a “fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution.”  Miller and Brown seem to think that bad ideas and disordered thinking should not be challenged as long as they are associated with a mainstream religion and that to do so is synonymous with bigotry.   They are not alone…

Harris tears NOMA a new one:

The world’s religions are predicated on the truth of specific doctrines that have been growing less plausible by the day.  While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been entirely settled, any naïve conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind’s obvious dependency upon the brain.  The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life events, etc, all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain becomes untenable the moment we realize that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these specific capacities in a living person.  Does the soul of a completely aphasic patient still speak and think fluently?  This is like asking whether the soul of a diabetic produces abundant insulin. What is more, the specific character of the mind’s dependency on the brain suggests that there cannot be a unified subject lurking behind all of the brain’s functionally distinct channels of processing.  There are simply too many separable components to perception and cognition – each susceptible to independent disruption – for there to be a single entity to stand as rider to the horse…

On how Collins still can’t get his mind around the evolutionary explanation for altruism:

Collins’ case for the supernatural origin of morality rests on the further assertion that there can be no evolutionary explanation for genuine altruism.  Because self-sacrifice cannot increase the likelihood that an individual creature will survive and reproduce, truly self-sacrificing behavior stands as a primordial rejoinder to any biological account of morality.  In Collins’ view the mere existence of altruism offers compelling evidence of a personal God.  But a moment’s thought reveals that if we were to accept this neutered biology, almost everything about us would be bathed in the warm glow of religious mystery.  Does our interest in astronomy owe its existence to the successful reproduction of ancient astronomers?  (What about the practices of celibacy and birth control?  Are they all about reproduction too?)  Collins can’t seem to see that human morality and selfless love may be elaborations of more basic biological and psychological traits, which were themselves products of evolution.  It is hard to interpret this oversight in light of his scientific training.  If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.

On how the marriage between religion and science is preventing potentially life-saving stem cell research:

There are, of course, ethical implications to believing that human beings are the only species made in God’s image and vouchsafed with “immortal souls.”  History shows us that concern about souls is a very poor guide to ethical behaviour – that is, to actually mitigating the suffering of conscious creatures like ourselves.   Concern about souls leads to concerns about undifferentiated cells in Petri dishes and to ethical qualms over embryonic stem cell research.  Rather often, it leads to indifference to the suffering of animals believed not to possess souls but which can clearly suffer in ways that three-day old human embryos cannot.  The use of apes in medical research, the exposure of whales and dolphins to military sonar – these are real ethical dilemmas, with real suffering at issue.  Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence – when, for years they have been the most promising door to medical breakthrough – is one of the many delusional products of religion, which has led to one of its many predictable failures of compassion.  While Collins appears to support embryonic stem cell research, he does so after much (literal) soul-searching and under considerable theological duress.  Everything he has said and written about the subject needlessly complicates an ethical question that is – if one is actually concerned about human and animal wellbeing – genuinely straightforward.

Obama really should think this one through again:

The Obama administration still has not removed the most important impediments to embryonic stem cell research – allowing funding only for work on stem cells derived from surplus embryos at fertility clinics.  Such delicacy is a clear concession to the religious convictions of the American electorate.  While Collins seems willing to go further and support research on embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), he is very far from being a voice of ethical clarity in this debate.  For instance, he considers embryos created through SCNT to be distinct from those formed through the union of sperm and egg because the former are “not part of God’s plan to create a human individual” while “the latter is very much part of God’s plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others” (Collins, 2006, p. 256).   There is little to be gained in a serious discussion of bioethics by talking about “God’s plan.”  (If such embryos were brought to term and became sentient and suffering human beings, would it be ethical to kill them and harvest their organs because they had been conceived apart from “God’s plan”?)  While his stewardship of the NIH seems unlikely to impede our mincing progress on embryonic stem cell research, his appointment seems like another one of President Obama’s efforts to split difference between real science and real ethics on the one hand and religious superstition and taboo on the other.

Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”  One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the NIH.  Understanding human wellbeing at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” – questions like, Why do we suffer?  How can we achieve the deepest forms of happiness? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, constitute “atheistic materialism”?  Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?

As if Collins was not punch-drunk enough, Harris was also less than complimentary about Collins on his recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher:

The sound of silence

Ouch.  So what has Collins said in response to this repeated and sustained assault on his intellectual credibility?   As far as I have been able to discover, nothing.

Supporters of Collins will surely argue that he has better things to do that dignify the rantings of a militant atheist with a response.  This interpretation of Collins’ silence may have some mileage.  However, the other side of the argument is far more persuasive.  Under British civil law at least, an opponent’s silence in the face of your allegations constitutes implicit agreement to them.

So, compare Collins’ non-response to that of Richard Dawkins after this:

In A Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins explained that the question “Name a genetic mutation that has lead to an increase in information in the genome?” is exactly the question that only a creationist would ask.  Dawkins refuses to debate creationists because it would supply them with the oxygen of publicity since sharing a platform with a prominent evolutionary biologist would give the impression to the general public that there was a serious issue worth debating, when of course there is not.  For the creationists, winning or losing the debate itself is irrelevant; the fact that a debate has gone ahead at all is victory enough for them.

During the above interview, recorded at his Oxford home in 1997, Dawkins tumbled to the fact that they were creationists, paused while thinking how to deal with the situation (not to mention containing his anger), before asking them to stop the tape.  After asking them off-camera to leave his house, reluctantly, Dawkins continued with the interview.  He was then shown the finished tape by a colleague about 12 months later and the producers had spliced the tape together to make it appear that Dawkins was stumped by the “information” question and then gave an evasive answer.

Dawkins’ response – in total contrast to Collins – was to clear his reputation and get his side of the story out into public domain.  He contacted the Australian magazine The Skeptic to help him locate the production company who had conducted the interview and the result was this excellent article by Barry Williams.  As Dawkins explained:

As it happens, my forthcoming book, Unweaving the Rainbow, has an entire chapter (“The Genetic Book of the Dead”) devoted to a much more interesting version of the idea that natural selection gathers up information from the environment, and builds it into the genome.  At the time of the interview, the book was almost finished.  That chapter would have been in the forefront of my mind, and it is therefore especially ludicrous to suggest that I would have evaded the question by talking about fish and amphibians.

If I’d wanted to turn the question into more congenial channels, all I had to do was talk about “The Genetic Book of the Dead”.  It is a chapter I am particularly pleased with.  I’d have welcomed the opportunity to expound it.  Why on earth, when faced with such an opportunity, would I have kept totally silent?  Unless, once again, I was actually thinking about something quite different while struggling to keep my temper?

As Williams concludes:

Most scientifically literate people, and even many of those whose understanding of it is slight, have long recognised creation ‘science’ for the infantile religious dogma that it is, so this crude propaganda is unlikely to have a great deal of lasting effect on them.  But those who have little understanding of science, and particularly those who have trusted the creationists’ claim that they are engaged in science, have had their trust betrayed.  The nature of the calls we have received from people who have seemingly swallowed this line leave us in no doubt that that is precisely what has happened.

This is not the way of science – it is the way of political propaganda – yet another blatant example of “telling lies for God”.

(For further reading, see the creationist production company’s response to Williams and Williams’ counter-response.)

Similarly, Dawkins and other prominent atheist scientists were duped into recording interviews for the documentary-film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a loathsome piece of creationist propaganda released in 2008 and headed-up by American game show host and Intelligent Design proponent, Ben Stein.

Dawkins, Michael Shermer and P Z Myers thought that they were taking part in a film that addressed the intersection between science and religion, to be called Crossroads.  However, Expelled turned out to be a ham-fisted attempt to discredit the scientific establishment by making out that it was deliberately silencing advocates of “Intelligent Design Theory” by removing them from their positions at their institutions, while making the truly shocking claim that Darwinian evolution had a direct influence on Hitler’s eugenics programme and the Holocaust.

Once again, the response by the atheist scientists was in total contract to Collins’ silence.  Dawkins explained:

Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred.  It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could.  I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be.  I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet.  Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws.  So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist.  I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar – semi tongue-in-cheek).  The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett).  My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe).  Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen.  That, for goodness sake, is the creationists’ whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella!  Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity – and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently – comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

P Z Myers’ explanation:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!  It was kind of weird – I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in.  I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend.  The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

Dawkins and Myers taped this conversation immediately after the premier of Expelled:

And the team at RichardDawkins.net put together this highly amusing parody of Expelled:

Michael Shermer’s side of the story:

Ben Stein came to my office to interview me about what I was told was a film about “the intersection of science and religion” called “Crossroads (yet another deception).  I knew something was afoot when his first question to me was on whether or not I think someone should be fired for expressing dissenting views.  I pressed Stein for specifics: Who is being fired for what, when and where?  In my experience, people are usually fired for reasons having to do with budgetary constraints, incompetence or not fulfilling the terms of a contract.  Stein finally asked my opinion on people being fired for endorsing intelligent design.  I replied that I know of no instance where such a firing has happened.

In the same vein, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education set up the website, Expelled Exposed dedicated to exposing all of the lies, half-truths and deceptions in and surrounding Expelled.  This included the real explanations as to why the ID proponents featured in Expelled really lost their academic tenures.

For example, Caroline Crocker claims she was fired from George Mason University because she mentioned Intelligent Design in a class she was teaching.  However, the evidence says otherwise.  While there may have been grounds to fire her with cause, Crocker was not fired and continued to teach her course after student complaints; in addition, she did not just “mention” intelligent design, but rather was teaching demonstrably false creationist material.

Harris himself responded to an Alternet article published in 2007 that portrayed him as an evil maniac by selectively quoting his written work and comments made in a 90 minute telephone interview as well as New York Times journalist Chris Hedges’ allegations with the previously mentioned  “Response to Controversy” and this addendum following his Truthdig debate with Hedges.

Why then – when reputable scientists and Harris himself have gone to inordinate lengths to preserve their reputations when they feel that have been misrepresented – has Collins not said a word in reply to Harris’ charges?

The only reasonable conclusion can be that Collins must think that Harris has at least represented his views fairly – notwithstanding his drastic disagreements – and has nothing to say in response.

In conclusion – a false dichotomy that is only harming human progress

I am in total agreement with Sam Harris.  Collins’ religious faith is a personal matter that has no place in public life and certainly no place if he is appointed as head of the NIH.  His fundamental misunderstanding of the evolutionary explanation for altruistic behaviour in humans is a veil over his scientific vision that has been imposed as a direct result of his religious faith.  I can only hope that he will not suffer the same faith-induced myopia when it comes to the progress of potentially life-saving stem cell research.

Apologists will of course continue trotting out Collins in support of their assertion that there is no conflict between science and faith.  Collins is simply the latest in a long list of examples from the “Argument from Admired Religious Scientists”.

Isaac Newton was a devoutly religious man, as most people were in his day.  He actually wrote more on theology than physics, but can anyone name one of his theological achievements?  Newton also expended a great deal of time and energy on the defunct pseudo-science, alchemy.  Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, was also an avid supporter of the phlogiston theory.  Charles Darwin’s scientific partner, Alfred Russel Wallace, enjoyed nothing better than a spiritualist séance once he was done examining biological specimens in the laboratory.  James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix of DNA has recently had his reputation as a scientist destroyed for expressing pseudo-scientific, racist views in an interview with The Sunday Times.

A brilliant career as a scientist is clearly no guarantee against believing in nonsense.   I hope that the same standards of common sense and reason that have been applied to the above examples will one day be applied to scientists like Collins.

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9 Responses to “The Strange Case of Dr Collins and Mr Harris”

  1. Richard Morgan Says:

    For as long as there have been scientists, it has been no secret that what used to be called “boffins” are perfectly capable of having one mind set in the laboratory and another in front of a can of beans and a can-opener.
    Who has never heard the expression “the absent-minded scientist”?
    Claiming that one’s religious beliefs might disqualify a person as a scientist is rather like saying, “I wouldn’t trust him driving car – he believes in God.”
    So even from a very simplistic point of view, Harris’ criticism of Collins’ nomination as head of the NIH is quite simply not valid.
    But Harris becomes unpleasantly insidious:
    “If one didn’t know better, one might be tempted to conclude that religious dogmatism presents an obstacle to scientific reasoning.”
    But apparently “one” does know better, so what is the point in making this remark in the first place?
    I think we all know what his point is.
    It so happens that I agree with Harris in rejecting any claims of scientific evidence for God. There’s plenty of post hoc “scientific evidence” to satisfy the Christian paradigm, but certainly not proofs. (That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?)
    My real gripe with Harris is his dishonesty by omission.
    The problem of “why smart people believe stupid things” (for Harris and others, believing in God is considered a “stupid thing”) has been studied in some depth, and is well-documented.
    Cognitive scientists (as Harris well knows) have provided adequate explanations, which all boil down to “this is what brains do”. And there is not a shred of evidence which demonstrates that religious beliefs spill over into and interfere with work in the laboratory. I too would be worried if I caught Collins praying over his Petri dishes!
    The reverse is sadly true : YEC/AiG/ID extremists are trying (with too much visible success alas) to hi-jack the scientific method and twist it round their beliefs. But this is an entirely different problem.
    My doctor is Muslim.
    My car mechanic is an atheist.
    My postman is a Catholic agnostic (Don’t forget I live in France).
    But I have never had the impression that my health, or my car or my mail are in any particular danger because of these varied beliefs.

    So why is Harris avoiding, or hiding these facts? I know he has read Shermer, Gardner, Pinker, Noelle and many more.
    The answer is simple : Harris, like everybody else on this planet, has a personal agenda. Which makes him dishonest. The pope’s press office has done it, Harris does it, I am sometimes guilty of doing it myself when my Tax Inspector gets too curious.

    Let’s admit it – it would be almost disastrous for Harris if Collins, as head of NIH did a thoroughly good job. Some militant atheists just don’t want to see theists succeed in non-religious endeavours.

    The only real problem I see is the fact that Collins has published “The Language of God”, and this could be a headache for his press agent. A question of “image”. And we all know how important “image” is in the USA.
    But since millions of Americans believe that the Earth was created just before breakfast and that Christ will return not long after the end of the next baseball World (sic) Series, Collins’ image will suffer mostly in the halls of academe.
    How sad that some “smart people” (Harris) can stoop to doing “stupid things” (manipulating information by omission).
    But I suppose that that also is part of what brains do.
    *SIGH*

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      I don’t think Harris is quite accusing Collins of not being able to drive a car simply because he believes in God. But he has expressed concerns that he will abuse his position as head of the NIH to, as Jerry Coyne put it, “spread wacko religious ideas”.

      Collins’ faith has clearly prevented him from properly understanding the evolutionary explanation for altruism in humans.

      I hope it doesn’t lead him to block stem-cell research because his faith tells him that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception.

      Have you watched the video of Collins’ lecture properly? About 35 mins through he tells the story of Dirk Willems, who in 1569 was escaping across a frozen lake with a guard in pursuit. The guard falls though a hole in the ice and is about to drown. The Dirk turns around and hauls the guard out of the lake. The guard then takes him back to his captors and four days Dirk is executed!

      Collins says pretty much that he must have been under the guidance of the Holy Spirit because there was no discernable benefit in him rescuing the guard, particularly in light of what subsequently happened to him

      And what about the guard’s actions? Isn’t God somehow responsible for that? Or is that because the guard used his “free will” and God was not involved?

      This is yet another God of the Gaps. Human social behaviour is a scientific question. What is the point in filing it away in the God drawer where it will never properly be explained?

      As an aside, it would be truly disturbing if your aeroplane pilot said, “I’m not going to avoid that hurricane because I have absolute faith that the Lord will see me through it without the need for any action on my part.”

      Just a thought. But a statement like that would prevent me from flying with a religious wack-job.

      • Richard Morgan Says:

        Interesting.
        I was doubting Harris’ honesty, and you reply with another attack on Collins.
        OK
        Whatever floats your boat…..
        But you haven’t made a case for poor ol’ Sam.

        “But a statement like that would prevent me from flying with a religious wack-job.”
        But you’d feel ok with an atheist wack-job : is that what you’re saying?
        OK
        Whatever crinkles your wrinkles…

      • Richard Morgan Says:

        “it would be truly disturbing if your aeroplane pilot said, “I’m not going to avoid that hurricane because I have absolute faith that the Lord will see me through it without the need for any action on my part.”
        Of course it would! Why did you bother saying that?
        Is there one single case of a faith-head pilot behaving in that way?
        On the other hand, you may want to check the figures on alcohol-related aviation accidents involving pilots. Will you now want to start campaigning against alcohol? Bring back the Prohibition? Of course you won’t.
        Where are all the cases of professionals letting their faith interfere dangerously with their professional judgements? Straw man.

  2. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Sorry, I forgot to address the question of Harris’ honesty (or otherwise) in my last post.

    How has Harris been dishonest? I know that we approach everything with our bents and our biases, but I can’t see how Harris has been dishonest.

    I’m not even accusing Collins of being dishonest, just that his scientific judgement on certain matters has been skewed by his religious faith.

    OK, I’ve never come across an aeroplane pilot who said that he would aim his plane into a storm because he has faith that the Lord would save him, but there are still plenty of people who still think that prayer is the only cure and refuse conventional medical treatment:

    http://richarddawkins.net/article,2742,-Teens-death-blamed-on-faith-healing,CNN

    • Richard Morgan Says:

      “I can’t see how Harris has been dishonest”

      My real gripe with Harris is his dishonesty by omission.
      Cognitive scientists (as Harris well knows) have provided adequate explanations as to how a person can have one mind set (scientific) when working as a scientist whilst holding a belief in a Creator God.
      This all boils down to “this is what brains do”.
      There is not a shred of evidence which demonstrates that religious beliefs spill over into and interfere with work in the laboratory or elsewhere.
      Harris is exaggerating and exploiting Collins’ beliefs in a shameful attempt to discredit him – for base political reasons.
      Yes, I know that in the USA, people are used to this kind of thing, but for a “clearthinker” it is inadmissible.
      And please bear in mind that I agree with S.H. on many points, and disagree with Collins when he tries to use science to prove God.
      Christian or atheist, I require and expect scrupulous honesty.

      • manicstreetpreacher Says:

        Harris understands full well the cognitive partition between being a scientist and believing in a theistic god.

        One of Harris’ heroes is Isaac Newton, yet he is no less scathing about Newton wasting much of his time and energy on theology rather than spending it more constructively on physics.

        There may well be rational explanations at the level of the brain for someone to believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that such an entity actually exists.

        Speaking of dishonesty by omission, Christians constantly cite the Christian abolitionists as proof of the goodness of their religion (DR!), while neglecting to mention the Bible’s repeated endorsements of slavery in both Old and New Testaments and the fact that Christians carried on the practice with recourse to the Good Book and the fact that Wiburforce’s opponents in the late 18th century were themselves Christians!

        In addition, DR chastises the German intellectuals for supporting Hitler and the Nazis, while conveniently “forgetting” that the established Catholic and Protestant Churches could not aid Hitler enough and the Holocaust had its roots in a long-running traditional of anti-Semitism. Hitler was inspired by the founder of Protestant Church, Martin Luther’s screed on The Jews and Their Lies. The clue is in the title.

        Christian or atheist, I require and expect scrupulous honesty.

        Quite.

  3. Richard Morgan Says:

    “One of Harris’ heroes is Isaac Newton, yet he is no less scathing about Newton wasting much of his time and energy on theology rather than spending it more constructively on physics.”
    Moving the goal posts?
    Nowhere does Harris complain about Collins “wasting time”.
    Nowhere does Harris doubt Newton’s physics.
    Harris just lies by inuendo and omission.

    “but that doesn’t mean that such an entity actually exists.”
    I’ve said that myself a thousand times, Ed.
    I wonder why you have chosen to repeat it here….?

    “Hitler was inspired by…”
    LOL
    Are you sure he was “inspired” rather than simply using it to defend his prejudices? You make it sound as if Hitler read Luther’s “screed” one day and suddenly thought, “Darn it! Yes, he’s right – I’d better eliminate all the jews.”
    Inspired?
    Really?
    Come on….

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      I think Harris has judged Collins and Newton by the same standards.

      I don’t think he has lied at all by positive statement, innuendo, omission or whatever technique you like.

      Yes, Hitler was most definitely “inspired” by the anti-Semitism that pervaded his European Catholic upbringing. Whether he was himself a believer or not (and there is some debate on this point) he was indoctrinated with the prejudices of his time and certainly pandered to those of the population during his rule.

      In addition to Luther, another one was The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a crude forgery by the Tsarist secret police that details Jewish plans for world domination, which gets a glowing approval in Mein Kampf.

      Check out the article below on Hitler’s library. There was very little about paganism and rather a lot about religion and theology:

      http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200305/ryback

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