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Could Francis Collins’ Faith Create Conflicts For His Potential Directorship of NIH?

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is probably best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project, though his discoveries of the Cystic Fibrosis, Huntington’s, and Neurofibromatosis genes are also extraordinary accomplishments. Dr. Collins is a world-renowned scientist and geneticist, and also a committed Christian. In his recent best-selling book, The Language Of God, Dr. Collins attempts to harmonize his commitment to both science and religion.

Some critics (such as Richard Dawkins) have expressed reservations about Dr. Collins’ faith, wondering if it might cloud his scientific judgment. Since Collins is rumored to be the most likely candidate for directorship of the NIH, and because I wanted to know if Dawkins et al. had any reason for concern, I decided to read The Language Of God.

First of all, Christians are a rather heterogeneous group – with a range of viewpoints on evolution, science, and the interpretation of Biblical texts. On one extreme there are Christians (often referred to as “young earth creationists” or simply “creationists”) who believe in an absolutely literal interpretation of the Genesis story, and see evolution as antithetical to true faith. Dr. Collins suggests that as many as 45% of Christians may actually be in this camp.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who embrace evolution, accept and promote scientific thinking, and understand the Bible to be a blend of poetry, allegory, and historical literature. While they see the Genesis account of creation as poetic, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings are considered to be more literal.

The good news is that Collins’ views are very representative of the scientific end of the Christian spectrum. In fact, he spends several chapters attempting to help creationists embrace evolution. He takes great pains to explain how irrational it is to deny the evidence we have (both from a genetic, and an archeological/basic science perspective) for evolution. He argues that evolution is not an enemy of faith, but rather an enlightening look at how God’s creative process works.

Collins also takes on “Intelligent Design (ID),” exposing it as a PR play, not a true scientific theory. He suggests that ID is an “argument from personal incredulity” expressed in the language of mathematics, biochemistry, and genetics. Furthermore, Collins explains that ID proponents have confused the unknown with the unknowable – there is no current “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained by evolutionary theory. We don’t need a “God of the gaps” to explain what we’ve yet to learn.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is Dr. Collins’ mathematical review of the incredibly low odds of the right blend of atoms/elements and the correct rate of expansion of the universe to occur by chance. He argues that certain atomic particles needed to be present in unequal and varying amounts at the earliest moment of the Big Bang to produce – eventually – the right conditions for life as we know it. He uses this analogy: it’s possible that a poker player could randomly obtain a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands. However, a more plausible explanation is that he’s cheating. In the same way, the universe could have come into being by coincidence, but it’s more likely that it was a coordinated event.

Collins’ argument for the existence of God is compelling to me. His explanation of why he chose to become a Christian is a little less so. Collins often resorts to lengthy quotes of C.S. Lewis in lieu of his own theological rationale – but I suppose we can forgive him for this. He is first and foremost a scientist, not a theologian, and his book simply reflects that fact. [Those interested in a more compelling theological rationale for Christianity might try Timothy Keller's,

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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45 thoughts on “Could Francis Collins’ Faith Create Conflicts For His Potential Directorship of NIH?

  1. mikekoz68 says:

    Sounds like he’s a logical scientist that can’t let go of his beliefs so has done everything he can to rationalise it. His god is his sacred cow.

  2. hatch_xanadu says:

    Thank you.

  3. mxh says:

    One of the more interesting parts of the book is Dr. Collins’ mathematical review of the incredibly low odds of the right blend of atoms/elements and the correct rate of expansion of the universe to occur by chance. He argues that certain atomic particles needed to be present in unequal and varying amounts at the earliest moment of the Big Bang to produce – eventually – the right conditions for life as we know it. He uses this analogy: it’s possible that a blackjack player could randomly obtain a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands. However, a more plausible explanation is that he’s cheating. In the same way, the universe could have come into being by coincidence, but it’s more likely that it was a coordinated event.

    That’s really not a good analogy. The universe only had to be made once. It could be that there are billions of other universes with different physical properties. It’s no coincidence that we’re int he one with the right properties since we couldn’t have existed in the other ones… that’s no explanation for God.

    I don’t like it when people try to merge science and religion (it taints the scientific process), but as long as it doesn’t bias his actions at the NIH (and so from from what I’ve read about him, I don’t think it will) he could be a good leader.

  4. I don’t worry about Collins as head of the NIH. I don’t believe that his religious beliefs would have any effect on his competence in that position. I’d go further: I’m much more concerned with NIH bosses who cowtow to politicians such as Harkin and Burton–we haven’t had any who have not done that, in the past 18 years–than I am about whether or not they believe in a cosmic puppeteer, as long as they ‘compartmentalize’ that belief, as Collins seems to do.

    There are problems with his logic, however. The ‘incredibly low odds’ hypothesis, regarding conditions for life in the universe (which has been argued by others) strikes me as a post hoc fallacy. What, for example, are the chances that any one of us exists, based entirely on reality?

    If there was a ‘coordinated event,’ what was its own origin? This merely adds another layer of complexity to a question that science doesn’t have a humanly satisfying answer to and never will (consider: ‘what came before time?’).

    I don’t know what ‘theistic evolution’ is, but no matter how much ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ apologists may squirm to hear it, evolution is a fundamental problem for religion: it doesn’t disprove God per se, but it makes God irrelevant to the development of life on earth.* In particular it denies ‘privileging’ of human beings, including that our existence was inevitable. Not much left for believers after that, unless we redefine belief in the pantheistic, Einsteinian sense, which is really defining it out of existence.

    Years ago I knew a very intelligent physician who joined the Jesuits. When questioned, he would respond something like this: “I know it’s irrational, but for me it’s a matter of faith, not science or logic. Let’s leave it at that.” To me, that was an honest statement by a believer who was also sophisticated in the modern, scientific sense. Attempts to ‘spin’ either science or religion in order to reconcile the two are doomed to failure, however well-intentioned their authors may be.

    *A nod to wunna my kids (Sam A.), who noticed that my previous argument was circular: “…evolution…makes God irrelevant to the process of evolution.”

  5. jonny_eh says:

    In one paragraph you commend Collins for exposing ID/creationism for the sham that it is. Collins dismisses it because it is a pure argument from incredulity. Then in the next paragraph, you find his argument that the universe is too perfectly attuned for complexity to be convincing. Yet, this is exactly the same argument from ID that he debunked, just moved from biology to astronomy, it’s an argument from incredulity.

    Just because we don’t know why physical properties are the way they are, it doesn’t mean we can’t find out, and with Collins’ philosophy, we NEVER will. What’s the point in investigating an unknown if ‘god did it’ has already explained it? Also, even if we cannot find out why things are the way they are, it does not mean it was created by the Christian God, or any god or gods for that matter.

    Putting this religious debate aside, shouldn’t we be more worried about his opinions about medicine? What does he think of CAM?

  6. daedalus2u says:

    I mentioned this over at Orac’s blog, but the “best” outcome would be to get CAM treatments, all treatments not backed up by scientific evidence as “religious practices”. As religious practices, the government is prohibited from sponsoring them by the first Amendment.

    The Catholic Church has already branded Reiki as a religious practice that is unacceptably at odds with the religious teaching of the Catholic Church. Who are we to disagree with their assessment?

    We should start using “faith based” to modify CAM. If there is evidence, then it is SBM, if there isn’t evidence then it is faith based CAM.

  7. David Gorski says:

    What does he think of CAM?

    Actually, I’d be curious about that question too.

  8. Dr Atwood,

    I agree with you on so many things, but here I’ve got to disagree:

    I don’t know what ‘theistic evolution’ is, but no matter how much ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ apologists may squirm to hear it, evolution is a fundamental problem for religion: it doesn’t disprove God per se, but it makes God irrelevant to the process of evolution. In particular it denies ‘privileging’ of human beings, including that our existence was inevitable.

    I’m not addressing theistic evolution, which is rather ill defined by it’s prononents, but the idea that evolution is a problem for religion.

    Nothing is problematic once you’ve said “I believe in a god that is both omniscient and omnipotent, with a plan that is too complicated for someone who is not omniscient and omnipotent to understand.”

    I’m not saying that sarcastically by the way, before thiests reading flame me from here to kingdom come.

    I think people (mostly religous people) fail to understand just what omniscient and omnipotent mean in the context of this kind of discussion. The creationists always talk about frontloading and and special creation and divine intervention.

    That’s all pretty stupid in retrospect. Why would a god who knows everything ahead of time, and is all powerful, ever need to intervene after the start? Wouldn’t needing to intervene anywhere imply that god was either not omniscient (couldn’t see the particular problem that justifies intervention ahead of time) or not omnipotent (saw the problem coming but couldn’t do anything about it)?

    One can argue that this kind of belief makes god a very hands off, or cold diety, rather than the bearded father figure in the sky. Or that this poses problems for free will. Yet it’s certainly not pantheism. In this context, I don’t think god’s relevance to evolution is a coherant question.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying EVERY religous belief can be reconciled with science. Nor am I saying this is what Francis Collins thinks. Just that there exists a subset of religous beliefs that can be reconciled with science.

  9. qetzal says:

    I agree that Collins may be able to keep his personal religious beliefs from unduly influencing his potential leadership of the NIH. However, I too would like to know where he stands on CAM, the vaccine manufactroversy, and similar issues where science is being subverted by politics and advocacy.

    Furthermore, I’m concerned that Collins has already shown an ability to make irrational leaps of faith that are not supported by evidence. For example, even if one believes that our universe appears fine-tuned, and that this is best explained by an intelligent creator, that’s no reason to believe in Christianity. Most major religions include creator dieties.

    How does Collins justify his Christian beliefs? I’ve read his famous waterfall epiphany, and from a rational perspective, I find it laughable. I’d actually respect Collins more if he’d simply said that he thinks God revealed Himself to Collins at that moment, rather than arguing that the beauty and complexity of it all compelled his belief. (Although, to be fair, Collins might argue that his sudden appreciation of the waterfall’s beauty, etc., essentially was God revealing Himself.)

    I do think this is relevant to leading the NIH, and particularly relevant to the topics that are dear to this blog. Collins has demonstrated that he can be converted to a belief that is not rational. If he limits his conversions to Christianity, I’m OK with that. But how do we know he won’t be converted to an irrational belief in ‘life energy’ or water memory, or (perhaps more likely) the healing power of prayer?

    His comments on ID are somewhat reassuring, but I’d feel better if we knew his position on some of these other topics.

  10. “it’s possible that a blackjack player could randomly obtain a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands”

    That would be an amazing feat, even if the player was cheating, due to the fact that a straight flush is a poker hand, and a blackjack hand building towards a straight flush would bust on the third card.

    That analogy is more akin to saying that if in the history of every hand of poker ever dealt to every poker player who ever played the game (throughout all time, past and future), a single poker player once obtained a straight flush in 50 consecutive hands (with not cheating by anyone) and no one else ever repeated the feat, that it must have been due to the intervention of God rather than one single, highly improbable occurrence.

    —————————————————————————————————–

    The whole argument regarding the probability of the universe being a coordinated event is nothing more than intelligent design coupled with an anthropic perspective fallacy with a little personal incredulity and god of the gaps thrown in: It looks intelligently designed, the end conditions are too perfect to result in my ability to exist and observe it all without it being designed, I don’t find it likely it could have happened by chance, and I don’t have any more plausible explanation for how or why it happened, so God did it.

    —————————————————————————————————–

    If a piece of hale lands on a blade of grass in the middle of a golf course, what are the odds of it landing on that specific blade of grass out of millions of others without divine intervention? Well, if had landed on a different blade of grass, we could still ask the same question, and if it had landed in the sand, we would not have a blade of grass hit by a piece of hale to talk about.

    —————————————————————————————————–

    Whether or not some deity was the cause of the birth of the universe via initiating the big bang and all the laws of the universe the came with it is a god of the gaps position you can take if you want, but once you believe in a deity that “stirs the pot” on occasion and uses “cheat codes” to bypass the physical laws of the universe and intervene in its natural operation, or believe in an actively directed universe, you have jumped the shark regarding science, as there is no scientific evidence to support these notions.

  11. “Nothing is problematic once you’ve said “I believe in a god that is both omniscient and omnipotent, with a plan that is too complicated for someone who is not omniscient and omnipotent to understand.””

    You also need to add that this god is also so mysterious that it has gone to such great lengths to hide its existence from the universe itself that it seems unlikely it wants to be known, if it does exist. :)

  12. The question, “If god, why your god and not someone else’s god?” never seems to get answered by people trying to claim a “rational” belief in a god.

  13. Harriet Hall says:

    Physicist Victor Stenger thinks the universe originated because “nothing” is less probable than “something” by the laws of quantum physics (where particles can appear out of nowhere). He even has equations calculating that “something” is more probable than “nothing” by a factor of 2. He can’t prove it, and other physicists disagree – but it’s an intriguing idea. And of course it doesn’t explain why there is a reality where the laws of quantum physics can operate.

    He has written several books, including one where he shows that a traditional personal God who intervenes in the life of individuals and answers prayers has been conclusively ruled out by the evidence.

  14. But back to the main point, I think we all realize it’s unlikely at this time that any atheist is going to get any high level government post.

    Sometimes I am more bothered by scientists who attempt to reconcile their faith with science rather than just maintain a cognitive disconnect, which each philosophy cordoned off in different parts of their brain.

    Practical questions:

    What is his position on science based medicine and the role of science in medicine?

    What’s his position on “CAM”, or rather, what is his position on health and medical practices that have not been scientifically validated, especially those that have already been subjected to rigorous scientific investigation and have still failed to be validated?

    What’s his position on the power and value of prayer in health and healing?

    How do his religious views affect his positions on various health/medical issues?

  15. whitecoattales,

    You’ve got me there, in a way…but not really! Such thinking (which I applaud, by the way) inevitably leads to endless paradoxes (to which you already began to allude). Consider: hmmm, if through his omniscience God foresaw humans evolving, then humans could have come into existence not by His intervention but entirely by the process of evolution as we know it; not inevitably in a cause-effect sense, but inevitably only in the sense that it was foretold. But wait a minute: if God is also omnipotent he must have DONE the foretelling, because if he hadn’t there would be events distinct from his control, and then he wouldn’t be omnipotent.

    I remember reading, perhaps in one of the recent ‘new atheism’ books, a cogent argument that omniscience and omnipotence are logically incompatible. You started to make that argument above, I believe.

    Nevertheless, you are certainly correct that pantheism is not the only solution to attempting to reconcile science with religion. My favorite is the Great Trickster: the earth really is only 6000 years old, and everything happened exactly as documented in the Bible. But God made it look as though this wasn’t the case by arranging to make things appear exactly as science has, so far, discovered. (He uses this scheme as an intelligence test).

    In all seriousness, as soon as religion invokes special consideration for humans–whether by assuming that we were inevitable, by preaching that our prayers are answered, by assuring us that no matter how unknowable God’s plan may be, it is (take your pick: wise, all for the best, loving, forgiving, a teaching opportunity, a retribution for our sins, an eye for an eye, vengeful), etc., it can no longer be honestly reconciled with science. And without any of those invocations religion loses its appeal for the vast majority of people.

  16. Calli Arcale says:

    Well, if one believes in an all-knowing God, one could argue that intervention isn’t necessarily fixing things that went wrong but simply steps in the process. In the analogy of a watchmaker, the watchmaker has a series of steps to go through before he has produced a watch. In this philosophy, when an omniscient deity intervenes, it is not because of things going wrong but because the creation isn’t finished yet. This philosophy is most common among those who believe in predestination.

    Another philosophy is that while an omniscient and omnipotent God obviously knows everything at this very moment in time, and could do anything He wanted to, He chooses not to for the sake of allowing free will.

    Yet another philosophy is that the creator God isn’t entirely omniscient, but this is less common among people of the Abrahamic faiths (the most prominent of which are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). You find this philosophy more commonly in eastern religions than in western ones; most other religions aren’t as troubled by the idea of God not being entirely in control of things.

    One major problem with many criticisms of theists is the tendency to believe that all or even most theists are best represented by fundamentalist Christians. Yet the majority of theists in the world are not fundamentalist Christians, and indeed, are not Christian at all. By framing the “is there a God?” question strictly in terms of Christianity, I think one is giving short shrift to the many other religions that exist. That is to say, concluding that because the fundamentalist Christian God makes no sense to you, there must be no God, is rather silly in light of the many other religions there are available. It is not a very scientific argument. A more scientific argument is that an immaterial Creator God is irrelevant to science, therefore science can have no position on the subject. It simply doesn’t matter.

    This is why I am bothered by attempts to “reconcile” religion and science, from both sides. It does a grave disservice to both. They cannot be reconciled. They can coexist in peace, and it is quite possible for a person to have faith in God and be a scientist, but that is not quite the same thing.

    Personally, I believe in God, the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth, etc, etc. However, when it comes to science, that isn’t important. If I make a conclusion about an object because of my faith, then my conclusion is not scientific. It is spiritual, or theological, or just plain an opinion. But it is not a scientific one, and should not receive any special respect.

  17. Consider: hmmm, if through his omniscience God foresaw humans evolving, then humans could have come into existence not by His intervention but entirely by the process of evolution as we know it; not inevitably in a cause-effect sense, but inevitably only in the sense that it was foretold. But wait a minute: if God is also omnipotent he must have DONE the foretelling, because if he hadn’t there would be events distinct from his control, and then he wouldn’t be omnipotent.

    I think I’m missing something in the argument on this one.
    Is the implication that “ergo believers as you have described are still opposed to evolution”, “ergo humanity cannot be inevitable without being opposed to evolution”, “ergo this description is scientifically indistinct from ‘no god’, and contains logical discrepancies that make it untenable”, or none of the above?

    I remember reading, perhaps in one of the recent ‘new atheism’ books, a cogent argument that omniscience and omnipotence are logically incompatible. You started to make that argument above, I believe.

    This is a stronger anti-religion argument. I was indeed alluding to it above. Personally I’m one of those maddening non-overlapping magisterists. Whatever relevance religion may have for people on a personal level, it’s not relevent to science.

    Nevertheless, you are certainly correct that pantheism is not the only solution to attempting to reconcile science with religion. My favorite is the Great Trickster: the earth really is only 6000 years old, and everything happened exactly as documented in the Bible. But God made it look as though this wasn’t the case by arranging to make things appear exactly as science has, so far, discovered. (He uses this scheme as an intelligence test).

    I personally hate “God the trickster” as an argument for religion.

    In all seriousness, as soon as religion invokes special consideration for humans–whether by assuming that we were inevitable, by preaching that our prayers are answered, by assuring us that no matter how unknowable God’s plan may be, it is (take your pick: wise, all for the best, loving, forgiving, a teaching opportunity, a retribution for our sins, an eye for an eye, vengeful), etc., it can no longer be honestly reconciled with science. And without any of those invocations religion loses its appeal for the vast majority of people.

    Aha! I think this is where we have diverged in the first half of the comment. I don’t at all see special considerations for people as important to religion. Nor do I see it as necessary that any such plan be wise, or for the best, etc.

    My ethnic background makes me much more familiar with the eastern religions Calli alluded to. I don’t agree with you at all that such invocations are neccessary to appeal to the majority of people.

    They certainly are common in the various Abrahamic religions, but they are by no means necessary.

    Calli: I absolutely agree with

    A more scientific argument is that an immaterial Creator God is irrelevant to science, therefore science can have no position on the subject. It simply doesn’t matter.

  18. Esattezza says:

    Dr. Atwood, I’m not sure I understand what is inconsistent about the scenario you mentioned. Where’s the paradox? God is both omniscient and omnipotent and therefore created a universe in which he knew humans would evolve. One would then wonder whether he laughed when he foresaw how much debate the question of his existence would cause. But then, we’re anthropomorphizing god, so we’re bound to be wrong.

    And yes, I know, I’m speaking like a believer, though I’m agnostic about the existence of some higher power and atheist about the existence of a Christian, or Christian-like god. This is an important point. I was raised Roman Catholic, so, try as I might, I can’t let that manner of speaking go. (though I gave up capitalizing He, His, and Him when speaking about God – it seems far too pretentious *dodges a lightening bolt*.)

    Which brings me to… qetzal:

    “Furthermore, I’m concerned that Collins has already shown an ability to make irrational leaps of faith that are not supported by evidence. For example, even if one believes that our universe appears fine-tuned, and that this is best explained by an intelligent creator, that’s no reason to believe in Christianity. Most major religions include creator dieties.”

    Now, maybe you have more information about Collins’ faith than I do, so the following statement may be nullified, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Collins chooses to believe in Christianity because it is comfortable. It is the norm in our society and probably what he grew up with. From Val’s description (thank you, by the way, Val), Collins clearly reads the Bible in the least threatening way to science and, I would guess, takes all Christian teachings with a similar grain of salt. Though your beliefs may be inconsistent with it’s teachings, much good can come from being a part of an organized religion. For example, many of my dearest friends from high school are people I met when I joined a Christian youth group years after I’d abandoned Christian teachings. I would in no way assume that Collins’ beliefs represent a tendency towards logical inconsistency. Though, I must echo others’ postings and wonder about his position on issues like faith-based CAM (I like that one daedalus!) and vaccines.

  19. Esattezza says:

    Oh! I meant to comment on that too! Dr. Atwood, how does arguing that humans were inevitable make a religious belief inconsistent with science? The fact is, we’re here and, with an N of one, if one chooses to argue that God created the world in such a way that humans would come into being, the science would support them, however inconsequentially.

  20. You also need to add that this god is also so mysterious that it has gone to such great lengths to hide its existence from the universe itself that it seems unlikely it wants to be known, if it does exist.

    *shrug* You seem to be saying “The universe in front of me is consistent with my understanding of ‘universe with no god’, ergo god is unlikely”

    What would the universe look like with a god? The answer would seem to depend on which god, of which you have, basically, an infinity to choose from.
    Why would it different? I don’t think any answer to that question is particularly satisfying.

    The question, “If god, why your god and not someone else’s god?” never seems to get answered by people trying to claim a “rational” belief in a god.

    I’m not sure if that was aimed at my comments or not,but in case it goes: I’m not arguing a “rational” belief in god, just the existance of an irrational belief that is reconcilable with science.

    On introspection, I hold a variety of irrational beliefs. From anecdotal experience, anyone who I’ve known well enough to ask the question, including athiests claiming to be rational, holds some subset of irrational beliefs. It’s very easy for people to be irrational, at least some of the time.

  21. Esattezza says:

    Oh, and Calli (i’m bored at work, can everyone tell?): The philosophy that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and concerned with free will is in conflict with the idea of a benevolent God, not that your argument said anything about god having to be benevolent, but many people feel he should be.

  22. Val Jones says:

    Many of you have asked about Dr. Collins’ opinion of CAM. That is a great and important question. I have sent him an email, inviting him to comment on that very subject in a podcast interview with me. Fingers crossed that he gets the email (had to send it through his BioLogos site) and takes me up on the offer. Stay tuned…

  23. ennui says:

    I too am interested in Collins’ views on CAM and the efficacy of prayer, but also some areas of evolutionary psychology–moral psychology, neuroscience, the psychology of transcendental religious experience, etc.

    If Collins sees ethics as non-reducible edicts from god, and minds/souls as distinct from bodies, and epistemology as a multiple-choice question, then I would argue that his religious views are not orthogonal to some basic scientific premises. They do, in fact, conflict, despite some clinging to notions of NOMA.

    I do not pretend to know how this would affect specific areas of research, but once you abandon materialism, reductionism, and evidence in pursuit of some magical triune waterfall, who knows to where it leads?

  24. Joe says:

    Although I dislike philosophy, this is an interesting discussion. I am interested in the practical nature of calculating the probability that the Universe could happen to exist without a designer. Such calculations are loaded with unknowable values which are then guessed.

    I don’t know how Collins arrived at his result. However, in Michael Behe’s silly book (Darwin’s Black Box, pp. 93-4) he suggests that it would take 1,000 billion years for a particular protein to evolve in a genome that contains 30,000 “gene pieces” that are recombining. The calculation involves raising 30,000 to the fourth power. However, if one considers recombination a local process that works on 20 “gene pieces” one calculates it only takes 70 years for the protein to evolve.

    Behe also overlooked the fact that the “gene pieces” can undergo point mutations as well as recombine. Furthermore, populations grow geometrically. For example, my grandparents married in 1924, 74 years (four generations) later they had more than 50 descendants. That is, four generations is not merely four opportunities for evolution.

    In short, probability calculations rely on guessed values, and arbitrary assumptions about what factors are in play.

  25. David Gorski says:

    Physicist Victor Stenger thinks the universe originated because “nothing” is less probable than “something” by the laws of quantum physics (where particles can appear out of nowhere). He even has equations calculating that “something” is more probable than “nothing” by a factor of 2. He can’t prove it, and other physicists disagree – but it’s an intriguing idea. And of course it doesn’t explain why there is a reality where the laws of quantum physics can operate.

    Yeah, I read that in his book. I have to say that it was absolutely the weakest argument in his book, which was otherwise OK. It didn’t convince me at all. Lots of handwaving and assumptions.

  26. Joe says:

    One little thing. I have the photo with 50 members of my family; but I forgot to subtract those spouses that married-in, and are not descendants of my grandparents. A rough count shows my grandparents (in 1998) had just over 30 descendants. It doesn’t materially change the argument.

  27. “*shrug* You seem to be saying “The universe in front of me is consistent with my understanding of ‘universe with no god’, ergo god is unlikely””

    *shrug* There’s a difference between that statement and the statement, “The universe in front of me presents no evidence to suggest the existence of a god, therefore I find no reason to believe that there is one.”

    “I’m not sure if that was aimed at my comments or not,but in case it goes: I’m not arguing a “rational” belief in god, just the existence of an irrational belief that is reconcilable with science.”

    It was aimed anyone who empirically derives a non-specific belief in a god based on their perception of the wonders and complexity of the universe and then translates that observationally derived belief in a non-specific creator with the adoption of any specific religion claiming divinely reveled &/or specific knowledge such as Christianity, Mormonism, Judaism, Muslimism, etc. It wasn’t intentionally aimed at you, but it may or may not apply to you.

  28. I apologize for helping sidetrack the discussion to anyone only interested in the question of whether Francis Collins’ faith would impact his ability to be a good director of the NIH.

  29. Wholly Father says:

    Some of us find his spiritual beliefs and scientific approach incongruous, but that is our problem, not his. It seems to me that this is a man with a long history of scientific achievement and leadership. I, personally don’t have sufficient familiarity to decide, but there should be sufficient, objective information to make a judgment about whether Dr Collins possesses the qualifications and skills to direct the NIH.

  30. epersonae says:

    “In fact, The Language Of God may embolden other Christians to join the Science-Based Medicine movement by offering them a rational way to allow faith and science to co-exist. I hope that scientists who hold atheist or agnostic religious views will embrace this small group of evolutionary theists as religious moderates who fully support scientific orthodoxy.”

    I think this might be the most important point, and one that ought not be forgotten in the philosophizing over whether there could be an omnipotent and omniscient god.

    Most Americans are Christians, although they may not think a whole lot about the particulars of their faith(s). If they can see public figures who are part of their religious culture, but also committed to the scientific method, then that could be a big step for promoting science and science-based medicine. Trying to nitpick through their religious convictions doesn’t do non-theists or the general interests of scientific education any favors.

    I feel like I’m not quite saying this the way I want to, but hopefully I’ve got the gist of it out.

  31. qetzal says:

    Esattezza wrote:

    Now, maybe you have more information about Collins’ faith than I do, so the following statement may be nullified, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Collins chooses to believe in Christianity because it is comfortable.

    That seems not to be the case. Collins apparently believes not just in the existence of (a) God, that belief in Christianity is rationally correct. You can read more (from admittedly critical reviewers of Collins’ book) here and here.

    I acknowledge that I haven’t read Collins’ book myself. I’m reacting to others’ criticisms. But if those criticisms are accurate, Collins’ rationality is seriously comprimised when it comes to Christianity. And if so, who’s to say that it won’t be similary comprimised in areas more central to the NIH?

  32. ennui says:

    Can we all at least agree that, if appointed, Collins should cut his ties to the Templeton Foundation, and turn over control of the BioLogos website to others?

  33. Zetetic says:

    Val Jones – Getting Dr. Collins to answer some well thought out and very pointed questions about CAM is a good thing – BEFORE the politicos get to him!

  34. I, too, apologize for sidetracking the discussion, but it’s a fascinating topic. A few clarifications, then silence:

    …how does arguing that humans were inevitable make a religious belief inconsistent with science?

    Evolution demonstrates that humans were not inevitable, plain and simple. We are a highly unlikely accident, just as is every other species. Evolution, moreover, needs no outside help to account for us. The most that can be offered by religion is an explanation for the origin of the first self-replicating molecule, since we haven’t yet figured that one out (a godda-the-gaps argument). God using cheat codes on any regular basis is specifically refuted by the randomness of molecular bases for genetic changes (it couldn’t be proven, of course, that he has never done this, and I can already hear potential rebuttals involving ‘designed’ environmental mutagens and selective pressures, but I’m not biting); God merely having ‘created’ evolution and then sitting back and watching is superfluous (violates Ockam’s razor) and doesn’t account for the specialness of human beings, which I will continue to argue (see below) is central to religions that have large numbers of adherents, East, West, or anywhere else.

    Where’s the paradox? God is both omniscient and omnipotent…

    Let’s see: Because God is omniscient, he knows that the future will be x. But if he is omnipotent, he could change x to y at any time. But if he were to do that, he would betray himself as not having been omniscient. OK then, in order to honor his omniscience he decides not to change x to y. But wait: now he’s become a slave to his omniscience, which means that he can’t be…omnipotent. And so on.

    A corollary:

    …He chooses not to for the sake of allowing free will.

    If God is omniscient, he already knows what you will do, so he isn’t really allowing free will. Unless, of course, he decides (he’s omnipotent, so he can) to suspend his omniscience for the sake of allowing your free will. Oops. :-)

    My ethnic background makes me much more familiar with the eastern religions Calli alluded to. I don’t agree with you at all that such invocations are neccessary to appeal to the majority of people.

    I’m not an expert on world religions, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that those with substantial numbers of subscribers have this in common: they provide magical explanations and comfort to people, ie, ‘special considerations.’ Trying not to sound too preachy, but there is much shakier ground under the argument that Asians, for example, don’t seek such comfort from the universal tragedies of life than there is under the argument that Western religions have such features not because they are peculiar to the West or to Abrahamic religions, but because they are quintessentially human. The particulars differ, of course.

    Something I do know about Eastern religions is this: both Hinduism and the Dalai Lama profess reincarnation. That, obviously, serves the same comforting function for its believers as Heaven does for Roman Catholics: we don’t really have to die. I don’t know if Buddhists in general believe in reincarnation, but if they do we don’t have a lotta religious people left to account for…

    I personally hate “God the trickster” as an argument for religion.

    That was a joke; but you knew that. ;-)

    Personally I’m one of those maddening non-overlapping magisterists. Whatever relevance religion may have for people on a personal level, it’s not relevent to science.

    WCT, I completely agree with what I suspect you mean and what Calli wrote: that it’s possible for some people to both believe and to be real scientists. I’m satisfied that Collins is one of those people, which is why I wrote what I wrote first. That, however, is what I called ‘compartmentalizing,’ and is not ‘non-overlapping magisteria,’ which implies that the two magisteria do not logically clash. While it may be possible to design a religion that does not logically clash with science, the reality is that those religions that appeal to the vast majority of religious people in the world DO clash with science, and they do so precisely because they profess a specialness of human beings.

    I agree with Calli and with my Jesuit friend that “They cannot be reconciled” in a rational way. Collins isn’t that honest with his feelings, but I still think he can do the NIH job.

  35. Esattezza says:

    Dr. Atwood (and anyone else who’s interested), I would love to discuss this further, but also feel bad about hijacking the comments section here, so I have posted on the topic of God and belief on my own blog over at http://esattezza.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/religious-skepticism/

  36. daedalus2u says:

    If we could get him to draw a bright line between faith based treatments and science based treatments (which he might be willing to do), then the argument could be made that faith based treatments are sufficiently “religion-like” that the government has no business supporting them.

  37. Chris C says:

    Val Jones
    The material world is best understood through scientific inquiry, the spiritual world cannot be tested or understood by science. Matters of conscience, morality, and a yearning for answers to questions that may not be resolved empirically (What happens to us after death? What existed before the Big Bang? Is there a soul?) are matters best left for religion.
    I disagree with the placement of morality as a non-scientific or religious/spiritual matter. I would contend that morality is very much a matter for science and empiricism. Morality depends on what it is that people want more than anything else (which can be determined, and is most likely to be happiness), and which behaviours and lifestyles can best fulfill those desires (something which can also be empirically determined.) If humans do desire happiness, then what is moral will by definition be those behaviours and lifestyles which best fulfill that desire because there would be nothing else we would want more than this.

    On a more general note, there is also the matter that if something cannot be answered by scientific inquiry, then there is no reason to believe that anything else can answer it, so there is no reason to place it within the domain of religion. If, alternatively, the issue has no possible objective answer, well then there is still no reason to place it within the domain of religion given that it would be a matter for the individual.

    Kimball Atwood
    I don’t know what ‘theistic evolution’ is, but no matter how much ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ apologists may squirm to hear it, evolution is a fundamental problem for religion: it doesn’t disprove God per se, but it makes God irrelevant to the development of life on earth.* In particular it denies ‘privileging’ of human beings, including that our existence was inevitable. Not much left for believers after that, unless we redefine belief in the pantheistic, Einsteinian sense, which is really defining it out of existence.
    Completely agree. I have a few questions for people who support theistic evolution: Firstly, if you accept evolution then when did souls some into existence? Did life always have them, or did they just pop into existence the moment humans arrived? Secondly, if Genesis is not to be taken literally then why did god send himself to die for a symbolic sin committed by a metaphorical character? If Genesis did not happen, when, how and why did original sin enter the world? If there is no original sin, then what was the point of Jesus given that his mission was inherently tied to original sin?

    Both of these are a problem for the Christian who wishes to hold to evolution and deny a literal account of Genesis.

    Esattezza
    Where’s the paradox? God is both omniscient and omnipotent…
    Well can god violate his omniscience? If he can, he is not omniscient. If he cannot, he is no omnipotent.

    Calli Arcale
    Another philosophy is that while an omniscient and omnipotent God obviously knows everything at this very moment in time, and could do anything He wanted to, He chooses not to for the sake of allowing free will.
    The free will argument doesn’t work. Free will fails to do what it is designed to do: absolve god from responsibility. An omnipotent god would necessarily be responsible for free will to begin with. This god would be responsible all the parameters of existence that can influence ones choices to begin with, from human nature, to the environment within which we act, to the very concepts themselves: morality, sin, evil, rape, murder, love, charity, and so on. Not only that, he would be responsible for the concept of choice, and even the concept of concepts! So even if we had free will it would still be contingent on the parameters of existence which shape our choices, and which god is perfectly and necessarily responsible for.

    whitecoattales
    Personally I’m one of those maddening non-overlapping magisterists. Whatever relevance religion may have for people on a personal level, it’s not relevent to science.
    The problem with religion is that is inherently trespasses into science; it inherently makes scientific claims, even if not directly.

  38. Totanaca says:

    (What happens to us after death? What existed before the Big Bang? Is there a soul?) are matters best left for religion.

    Who says existential questions are even important? Knowing would be nice and would end a lot of arguments and possibly assuage some fear of death. Other than that, these questions just provide employment for philosophers and popes. That is the only obvious result that I can see. Moreover, there is a downside to asking questions you have no practical way of resolving. It just leads into a miasma of speculation and the religious have too much to speculate about already. Actually, I don’t think religious people should even be heard on the existential questions because they don’t have a good track record on simple mundane questions such as should I beat my children? Or, does God answer prayers? What if we did discover that the implications of dying were far worse than the horrible ideas people now hold about hell? There is this optimistic bias we humans have that solving the puzzle of death would provide nothing but good outcomes. It is like entering a whore house with an expectation you are headed for an incredibly nice experience. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows who you might get saddled with and what disease they might be burdened with.

  39. Tsuken says:

    @ Kimball Atwood:

    Years ago I knew a very intelligent physician who joined the Jesuits. When questioned, he would respond something like this: “I know it’s irrational, but for me it’s a matter of faith, not science or logic. Let’s leave it at that.”

    This is exactly what I have long thought: faith is not science, and should not need to be “proven” or “backed up” by scientific study.

    While I admit to coming from the position of a dirty non-believer, it seems to me that those who appeal to (pseudo) science to “prove” their deity exists, must have a bit of a problem with their faith – compared with someone who just believes.

    In a way, I can respect the position of someone who looks at the evidence, listens to the scientific arguments … and responds “that’s all well and good, but I believe that …” in a way I can never respect someone who distorts, ignores and manufactures bollocks cloaked in the guise of science in order to “justify” their beliefs – and even less so, when the pseudo-science is used not only to justify belief, but to further an anti-science agenda and religious indoctrination.

  40. Dr Benway says:

    Oh the poker-player argument. Meh.

    Problem is, we don’t know how many hands were dealt before this universe appeared.

    Collins has defined himself as the go-to guy when you want the science-religion combo. Not a bad gig, as there are a lot of people interested in promoting the notion that the evidential tests of corroboration, falsification, logic, and parsimony, somehow work even better when you include Jesus or the Force –e.g., the Templeton Foundation, the Bravewell Collaborative, and NCCAM. Rich, pro-vitamin anti-pharma bastards presently corrupting the Institute of Medicine and academic medicine generally.

    So… will Collins have the balls to shut down NCCAM?

  41. bolese22 says:

    I do not think that his religious beliefs will negatively impact his job. I for one, who teaches Biology/Chemistry, have never let my religious beliefs impact my teaching. I teach EVOLUTION…I do not and will not EVER teach ID, but I still have religious beliefs. I have come to grips with the fact that my religion and my scientific beliefs do not always mesh with each other….but I for one (as our government says it does) separate my religion from my “state” (teaching job).

    I must state for the record though that I totally believe in Evolution, and got answers from my pastor at a young age that allowed me to hold both a belief in evolution and in religion. I know that it is not Logical to believe in both, but old “habits” are hard to release.

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