Sunday, March 27, 2011

Francis Collins and the Language of God

(This article is published in the April issue of WASHline, and it is reprinted with a few additional links.)

Dr. Francis Collins is Director of NIH and was in charge of the Human Genome Project to sequence the human DNA. He wrote a book, Language of God (Free Press, 2006), about his belief in Christianity. The book jacket calls him "one of the world's leading scientists." The cover says, "A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief."

I'll spoil the book's ending by saying that no evidence is presented. Collins argues that science is not inconsistent with his belief in God. But his argument assumes, as all such argument have, that God is hiding from us and doesn't want to show any objective evidence of his supernatural activity. He does that because it's part of his Plan. Any questions? No? Good.

After reading the book, I can only be astonished at the amount of cognitive dissonance that Collins must have. One would expect that a good scientist would take efforts to examine his beliefs, especially before writing a book about them. Collins doesn't seem to notice the remarkable contradictions in his book.

His reputation is as a scientist requires that his ideas shouldn't stand unchallenged. I will address three particular problems in his book:

1) "Evolutionary Culling" and CF patients: On p. 131, Dr. Collins gives a sincere defense of evolution, saying that harmful mutations are "rapidly culled out of the population because they reduce reproductive fitness." That is a reasonable but cold-blooded description. But only a few pages earlier on pp. 112-116, he talks about his work on cystic fibrosis. This disease causes a painful death to children before they reach the age of 10 unless they have treatment. Dr. Collins and his students and collaborators found that CF is caused by an error of a single amino acid in one protein.

These children with CF are being "culled" by evolution for a genetic defect. The question is, then, why would a benevolent god fail to prevent a painful death for young children? Could the god not know that the disease could be prevented by fixing one amino acid? Couldn't the god actually fix it? Or didn't the god care enough to bother?

Dr. Collins should be complemented for his work to understand CF. He is not at fault for not knowing how to solve the inconsistency between evolution and a benevolent god. The problem is that Dr. Collins as a scientist doesn't point out this obvious, important, and problematic inconsistency. His discussion of his approach for reconciling this problem could have been one of the valuable contributions of the book, but it isn't mentioned.

2) Praying over whether to be head of the Human Genome Project: On p. 119, Collins discusses his meditation on whether to become director of the Human Genome Project. He writes, "I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not 'hear' God speak--in fact, I have never had that experience. But during those hours, ending in an evensong service that I had not expected, a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer."

Does anything about this experience indicate supernatural guidance? It looks like he just made a decision based on his understanding of the importance of the project, the high visibility, and his confidence in his ability to accomplish it. It was a decision that required serious thought, but why did he think God was involved?

3) The Moral Sense and the eye: Collins repeatedly says that "The Moral Sense," the human understanding of right and wrong, is evidence of divine intervention in human development or the difference between humans and chimps. But he observes that it doesn't depend on having the right kind of religious belief. It is also imperfect in many people.

On p. 190-191, he says that the development of the human eye is not evidence of Intelligent Design, since the eye is imperfect and could develop in a stepwise process. So can't the Moral Sense be compared to the human eye? The human moral behavior could have developed in a stepwise process from our primate ancestors, following the same process that produced the eye. Imperfect human morality isn't a corruption of a divinely perfect system, but rather a product of a process that gradually improves it.

Dr. Collins is a good scientist and administrator in his specialty. But only someone who is already a believer would find his book convincing. I hope he continues his job at NIH. As far as his theology goes, god bless him, and good luck with that. But I hope that he keeps a watch on his reputation as a scientist, since some people may use his endorsement of religion in ways that he doesn't anticipate or endorse.

A longer rebuttal of the book is given in a book by George Cunningham, Decoding the Languarge of God. Here's the Amazon link on Cunningham's book, with lots of favorable comments and a few remarks from offended Christians:

If you think that Francis Collins's attitudes don't matter, here is a link to a talk that was recently given at the AAAS. The speaker, Elaine Ecklund, gave Collins as an example of a Christian believer who was a scientist.

The AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion has occasional public lectures, and the videos can be viewed online. The lecture in Dec. 2010 was called "What do Scientists Believe? Religion Among Scientists and Implications for Public Perceptions". Speakers were Elaine Howard Ecklund, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Director, Religion and Public Life Program, Rice University, and Author, Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Oxford University Press, 2010; and Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR Religion Correspondent, and Author, Fingerprints of God: In Search of the Science of Spirituality, Riverhead Hardcover, 2009.

Bill Creasy is secretary of WASH and coordinator of the Baltimore chapter.


lucette said...

Francis Collins has his own definition of intellectual integrity. More power to him. LOL
(Obama should not have appointed him Director of NIH.)

Don Wharton said...

Lucette, I agree that he was not the best choice because of this intellectual confusion. There are some people who argue that having scientists who are believing Christians protect science from the criticism that science and Christianity are in conflict. Where they differ science and belief ARE in conflict. It might be to secularism's advantage to clarify and emphasize the nature of that conflict.

lucette said...

Don, Francis Collins makes decisions (probably final) about research on stem cells. His religious ideas will definitively interfere with his scientific judgment.
I don't think that science needs to be protected but rather religion. Furthermore, "that science and Christianity are in conflict" is not just a criticism that should be avoided. If Christianity does not want to be in conflict with science, Christianity must adapt to the scientific discoveries.
Secularism constantly clarifies the errors of Christianity. Have you read Dawkins?

Don Wharton said...

Lucette, of course I have read Dawkins. There are very few of his works that I have not read. I fully support the relatively furious attacks on religion from Dawkins and others. I am a bit troubled by your suggestion that science does not need protection from the attacks from Christianity. I like the optimism of that view but I fear you vastly underestimate just how insane the wider political process now is. Clear thinking secularists are vastly outnumbered by the zombie xian dingbats who vote with no objective evaluation of factual outcomes for themselves and their children.

lucette said...

My "optimism" is based on the fact that science is international. If American scientists want to cover themselves with ridicule, it does not affect science. But it might transform the US into a third world country, unfortunately.