Francis Collins is an unusual scientist. A physical chemist and doctor who rose to prominence as the leader of the Human Genome Project, he has recently been appointed by President Barack Obama as head of the NIH, the largest biomedical funding and research organization in the country. Collins is unusual because along with this undoubtedly distinguished scientific credentials he brings another kind of background to the job; that of a pious, church-going Christian. A few years ago Collins published a book that argued for a scientific basis for belief in God, and not just a theological one. Needless to say, his views have caused concern among a number of atheist scientists and secular scientists in general.
It is one thing to be a deist, namely someone who believes in the kind of abstract God embodied in the laws of nature who could have set the universe in motion and then let it run its course without interfering, but quite another to be a proper theist, a person who believes in the kind of material God that most people who believe in God invoke, one who helps out or doles out punishment in daily life and personal matters. Collins seems to be more of a theist. And therefore his appointment to the NIH again raises a question which has fomented reams of arguments, and sometimes almost violent argument, on blogs and in books. The central question is; can a scientist truly be religious? Since this question immediately gets you into a morass of conflicting views and definitions, I will simply state my one line answer to the question in this specific context; from an empirical standpoint of course you can be religious and a scientist, as demonstrated by the existence of many religious scientists like Collins. But from a philosophical standpoint, you then have to accept that there is some very strange compartmentalization in your mind that allows you to essentially sustain two opposite and clearly conflicting paradigms simultaneously, one paradigm in which faith without evidence is positively eschewed and another in which faith without evidence is positively extolled. As an aside, it is a fascinating scientific question how such compartmentalization can occur.
Collins has come under fire from, among others, one of my favorite writers Sam Harris, whose controversial book The End of Faith made a compelling case against religious faith. In a piece in the New York Times, Harris criticizes Collin's views, best enumerated in his book, which essentially proclaim that God must exist since some things are beyond the scope of science. Both Harris and me find this kind of reasoning remarkably simple-minded. How does someone know that things that are beyond the scope of science today would always be so? For instance Collins quips that God must have adjusted the values of the so-called fundamental constants of nature (such as Planck's constant, the speed of light etc.), since life seems to depend on an incredibly precise fine-tuning of their values. But how do we know that science is never going to provide an answer for their origin? If "God" is simply a place card for "we don't know" then it sounds fine, but Collins seems to actually imply some kind of interventionist God here.
More importantly, does such a belief in God mean that we should automatically stay away from certain things and not apply critical questioning to them because they have been declared by religions to be supernatural by definition? Even Collins will admit that pushing any question under the rug by default by declaring that it is beyond the purview of science is completely antithetical to rational inquiry.
Harris is particularly concerned about Collins's enunciations about neuroscientific research. The last few decades have provided spectacular and remarkable insights into attributes that were for many years considered almost mystical, things like human emotions, love and the nature of faith itself. But in recent years, science is gradually opening a window into these attributes, answering questions like; What happens when someone is praying? How does the brain look when it is experiencing intense emotion? Studies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are making significant headway into answering such questions and detecting common patterns of neuronal activity that are at play. Collins essentially says that there is something special about faith and human emotions and that God injected these qualities into human beings at some point in our evolution. Would Collins then have us not explore the scientific basis of such human attributes by assuming that they are beyond scientific inquiry? These questions worry Harris and some others like evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, and they worry me. Some of Collins's statements from a set of slides that are cited by Harris and Coyne really sound preposterous.
Is it dangerous to have a bona fide Christian heading the most important biomedical research agency in the country, and one of the most significant of its kind in the world? In spite of the above concerns I would say not per se. I would say that Collins should be given the benefit of doubt. After all, there does not seem to be a shred of evidence that his religious leanings have affected his capacity for objective scientific judgement. The NIH is a scientific organization and Collins's leadership of it should be judged purely based on his handling of the science. We should not care as much about what he says as about what he does. In the absence of evidence that his religious views are affecting his ability to allocate funding for specific kinds of research, he should be closely watched but not condemned.
At the same time, I share Harris, Coyne and others' sense of unease for a totally different reason; Collins's appointment might unfortunately have the disastrous side effect of enabling creationists and proponents of intelligent design to clamor and push their agenda for turning science and religion into convenient bedfellows. Creationists might make Collins's appointment a case for asserting that not only is religion compatible with science but it's even necessary, as purportedly exemplified in the highest echelons of science policy and research. Collin's appointment may sadly make it easier for the creationists to weasel their way into sensible scientific debate. For this reason the appointment may cause problems, and we will have to make sure that Collins is constantly watched and criticized wherever appropriate. The price of scientific freedom, it seems, is indeed eternal vigilance.
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