Science and Faith

Salon interviews Francis Collins, who as head of the Human Genome Project is arguably the world’s most important scientist, about how he can simultaneously be a man of science and an evangelical Christian. Interestingly, Collins does so while simultaneously staunchly defending evolution theory, dismissing Intelligent Design, and otherwise distancing himself from the anti-scientific talking points of many on the Religious Right.

Unlike so many of those players most invested in this culture war, Collins sees no inherent conflict between science and religion. Yet his book [The Language of God] is likely to alienate plenty of people on both sides of the debate. His frequent references to God’s almighty power might be difficult for secular readers to swallow. And his scathing critique of both Young Earth creationism and intelligent design probably won’t attract the hordes of readers buying Ann Coulter’s latest diatribe against evolution.

[…]

A lot of scientists say religious faith is irrational. Your fellow biologist Richard Dawkins calls it “the great cop-out.” How do you respond to these critics of religion?

Certainly this has been one of the more troubling developments in the last several decades. I think that commits an enormous act of hubris, to say — because we’re now so wise about evolution and how life forms are related to each other — that we have no more need of God. Science investigates the natural world. If God has any meaning at all, God is outside of the natural world. It is a complete misuse of the tools of science to apply them to this discussion.

So God is outside of space and time?

I would say so. And God is certainly outside of nature. So for a scientist to say, “I know for sure there is no God,” seems to commit a very serious logical fallacy. Frankly, I think many of the current battles between atheists and fundamentalists have really been started by the scientific community. This is an enormous tragedy of our present time, that we’ve given the stage to the extremists.

[…]

Obviously, you’re saying you should not read the Bible literally, especially the story of Genesis.

That also seems very threatening to many believers who have been led to believe that if you start watering down any part of the Bible, including a literal interpretation of Genesis One, then pretty soon you’ll lose your faith and you won’t believe that Christ died and was resurrected. But you cannot claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years old unless you’re ready to reject all of the fundamental findings of geology, cosmology, physics, chemistry and biology. You really have to throw out all of the sciences in order to draw that conclusion.

[…]

And the Resurrection? Do you believe that what was resurrected was the physical body of Jesus?

Physical body? We should be careful in terms of exactly what you mean by that. Does that mean the cellular structure was exactly the same as it was when he was alive? I don’t know. But I believe that he was resurrected in physical form and seen by witnesses whom he spoke to before he then ascended. That is the absolute cornerstone of the Christian faith.

The whole article (four pages, requiring one to click on a couple of advertisements if not a subscriber) is worth a read.

What’s interesting to me is that Collins, with the exception of the belief in virgin births and quasi-resurrection, is essentially a Deist moreso than what most of us think of as evangelical Christians. He believes in the natural world and just posits–with no evidence whatsoever–that it’s probable that a Greater Being set those forces into motion and, by and large, lets things evolve.

UPDATE: Interestingly, several hours later, all the blog commenters on this story listed at Memeorandum so far are from the Left. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of few on the Right reading Salon or what.

  • Ezra Klein is the most cordial, concluding, “[I]t’s rather nice to see a pointed critique of the sort of dogmatic atheism that too often passes for revealed truth because it cuts such a compelling contrast to James Dobson and Co.”
  • Amanda Marcotte, one of the bloggers at Klein’s former home, Pandagon, entitles her response, “Scientist goes home and relaxes by not thinking.” That should give you a clue as to the direction of the post.
  • Norbizness thinks Collins is ripe for the looney bin.
  • PZ Myers is just tired of seeing Collins give variations of the same interview over and over. His appraisal: “Collins the theist is no scientist. When he puts on the silly hat of a Christian, he also abandons the mindset of an honest scientist.”

UPDATE: Orrin Judd weighs in, ending the streak. He offers no overt commentary, but pairs excerpts from the Collins interview with one with SABRmetrics guru Bill James, along with Amazon links hawking both books.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anon says:

    He believes in the natural world and just posits—with no evidence whatsoever—that it’s probable that a Greater Being set those forces into motion and, by and large, lets things evolve.

    But isn’t that what it means to have faith?

    I more or less agree with Collins. Science is about developing theories with predictive power, nothing more, nothing less.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Anon: True. It’s just an amazing thing for someone who has spent his life as a professional empiricist.

    That many brilliant, highly trained people are religious is a given. It’s interesting to see how they wrestle with the seeming contradictions in the faith vice reason parts of their lives, though.

  3. legion says:

    I’ve known a few atheists. Not a single one of them ever claimed to base their view on scientific principles – not one felt that science “disproved” God. Their position was based on faith – their own belief that there was not a supernatural intelligence that created or directs the universe.

  4. Science and Faith…

    Science and Faith…

  5. James Joyner says:

    Legion:

    Well, no. When there’s no evidence for something, one isn’t obliged to believe it nonetheless probably exists.

    Most intellectually honest non-believers are agnostic rather than truly atheist, which often has the connotation of near-evangelical belief in the non-existence of God.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    Their position was based on faith – their own belief that there was not a supernatural intelligence that created or directs the universe.

    Just so you’re aware of an atheist who doesn’t act on “faith”, I don’t believe in God for reasons both evidentiary and epistemological. First, I do not think that sufficient evidence exists to prove that a supernatural being created the universe (indeed, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that position). Second, I have never encountered a definition of God that wasn’t either (a) self-contradictory (“omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient”) or (b) made it impossible to ascertain God’s existence (“God is a being that exists outside of space and time”).

    If you assert that there is a God, the onus of proof is on you to prove his existence.

  7. LJD says:

    The interesting thing about faith, or belief in science, is that it is an intimately personal thing.

    I don’t know why so much time and energy is spent by some people trying to convince others that their belief is the correct one.

  8. What’s interesting to me is that Collins, with the exception of the belief in virgin births and quasi-resurrection, is essentially a Diest moreso than what most of us think of as evangelical Christians. He believes in the natural world and just posits—with no evidence whatsoever—that it’s probable that a Greater Being set those forces into motion and, by and large, lets things evolve.

    Well, what’s interesting to me is the lack of sophistication in your understanding of traditional Christianity — and I say that not even being a Christian myself. First off, the “created in seven days, and that means our normal 24 hour days, in 4004BC” branch of Christianity is not even a majority of evangelicals; remember that there aer evangelical Presbyterians, evangelical Methodists (like GWB), even evangelical Episcopalians and Catholics. You appear to be confusing “evangelical” with “Jerry Falwell Baptist.” Most Christians accept science and evolution, with perhaps an occasional little nudge for “miracles.”

    Second, saying he appears more or less a Deist except for believing the the virgin birth and resurrection is vacuous: that’s like saying a strawberry is more or less a banana except for being red and tasting different.

    And third, you manage two mistakes in one sentence in that last sentence. First, you state Collins’ believe in terms of probability — but in the article, it’s clear that Collins believes, and does so because of a “conversion experience.” Second, you toss in a little line about “with no evidence whatsoever” — but then, one who doesn’t believe in God does so on no evidence whatsoever. As Collins says, God is outside the system.

    Consider: posit for argument’s sake that there is a Superior Being capable of creating the universe. If you like, assume that it’s all a Matrix-like simulation, and we’re talking about the Supreme Programmer. Now, devise an experiment that can, whether or not the Supreme Programmer allows, prove that the SP exists. But if such an experiment existed, the SP could simply revise the system, treating it as a bug; the SP could even restore state from before the experiment and effectively erase all knowledge that the experiment ever took place or that the result had changed.

    Would an SP want to do that? I dunno, I’m not an SP. But I don’t think any experiment could confirm the existence of an SP who didn’t.

    Now, one can appeal to Occam’s Razor — but that’s simply a heuristic. Occam’s Razor is not scientific reasoning.

  9. legion says:

    Interesting… I’ve varied between laebling myself agnostic and deist – I believe in a higher intelligence in the universe, but I’m unsure whether it created (and exists outside of) the universe or if it exists within, perhaps as an embodiment of, our universe. I don’t, however see it as an entity that desires, or even comprehends, the idea of worship.

    As for atheism, my wife grew up an avowed atheist – she actively believed there was no god. Of course, several years ago she converted to Judaism, and she considers every step she takes on that path amusingly ironic…

    The interesting thing about faith, or belief in science, is that it is an intimately personal thing.

    I don’t know why so much time and energy is spent by some people trying to convince others that their belief is the correct one.

    LJD, I agree whole-heartedly. The only reason I discuss it at all is that I find it fascinating to see what others believe, not to convince anyone to follow my opinions.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Charlie:

    I say that he’s “essentially a Deist” because, unlike most Christians, he believes God largely refrains from interacting in human events. Obviously, believing in Jesus Christ as his personal savior means he’s not actually a Deist.

    It’s true that an omnipotent being who wanted us to act on reason in all things but the knowledge of his existence could manipulate the universe in such a way as to make testing his existence impossible. That, however, does not constitute proof that such a being exists and is in fact doing that. Indeed, Ockham’s Razor would seem to lead to the opposite conclusion.

    Regardless, I posted this article because it is the anti-straw man. I’ve taken the best case scenario scientist-Christian and let him speak for himself. I find it fascinating that he can reconcile faith and reason despite their inherent contradictions but am obviously not going to judge him a buffoon.

  11. Anderson says:

    When there’s no evidence for something, one isn’t obliged to believe it nonetheless probably exists.

    Why is there something rather than nothing? Science is not going to be answering that one any time soon.

    First, I do not think that sufficient evidence exists to prove that a supernatural being created the universe (indeed, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that position).

    “Proof” is for math class; “evidence” is for science and law. For that matter, there is no “proof” that killing someone in secret, so that you’ll never be caught, is wrong.

    Second, I have never encountered a definition of God that wasn’t either (a) self-contradictory (”omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient”) or (b) made it impossible to ascertain God’s existence.

    Assuming that it’s God we’re talking about, then what seems contradictory to us needn’t be contradictory to God. It’s contradictory to my 2-year-old that I love him but won’t let him eat nothing but candy all day. To put, say, the Holocaust on a similar level is certainly mind-boggling, but then, God is mind-boggling by definition. (Do not mistake this for an attempt at “proof,” btw; I’m not advocating that absurdity = proof, a la Tertullian.)

    As for the impossibility of ascertaining God’s existence, well, what do you expect exactly? Supernatural radar?

    I don’t know why so much time and energy is spent by some people trying to convince others that their belief is the correct one.

    Insecurity. It’s easier to believe something when everyone around you believes it. When your religion is openly challenged, that speaks to the doubt within you. Denominations that treat faith as an all-or-nothing proposition are especially vulnerable to this problem.

    Me, I drifted from thinking Nietzsche had it all figured out, into general skepticism, into skepticism of skepticism (Montaigne), and finally into being a self-proclaimed bad Christian. Needless to say, an unorthodox one–I belong to the Lutheran church, but if we were supposed to accept church dogma rather than figure it out on our own, I fail to see why we left the Roman Catholics in the first place.

    (Preview mode: damn, that’s a long comment. Sorry!)

  12. Bithead says:

    Consider the environmental movements of today… the global warming nonsense, for example.

    After watching THAT for a while, it doesn’t seem to take a great deal to come to the conclusion that if it doesn’t fit with their worldview, it isn’t science.

    How hard is it to apply that to other matters, then?

  13. Anderson says:

    the global warming nonsense, for example

    Is that like “the evolution nonsense,” or “the relativity nonsense,” or “the plate tectonics nonsense”?

  14. george says:

    Don’t forget that quantum mechanics nonsense – how could something be both a particle and wave?

    The fun thing is that so many people who think science is arbitrary beliefs use science based technology like computers to express their opinions …

  15. Steve Verdon says:

    Well, it’s just a theory….

  16. RJN says:

    The “Global Warming Movement” is a collectivist crock.

    We are warmer because the sun is hotter than it has been for one thousand years. I experienced one warming collectivist assuring me that “no, no, the warming isn’t from the sun, it is from CO2”.

  17. BrianOfAtlanta says:

    I find it fascinating that he can reconcile faith and reason despite their inherent contradictions

    It’s only a contradiction if you let your faith masquerade as reason or your reason masquerade as faith. There is very little to no overlap between the two. Sure, it’s a narrow line to walk, but it’s an intellectually honest one.

    The ironic thing about the evolutionary debate is that evolution selects for faith.

  18. Tano says:

    A minor point – but I don’t think that Collins qualifies as the “world’s most important scientist” becuase he headed the genome project. Fact is, the genome project, while generating a very important and useful product, was not an example of cutting edge research, or even science – strictly defined. Rather it was an effort to apply a proven technology to a big project. It was more drudge work than innovation. We know how to sequence, now lets apply the method to this big genome…

    His competitor, Craig Ventor, at least came up with innovative ways to sequence more rapidly – so his effort was innovative at least in its technology. But there were no real new genetic concepts developed.

  19. Bithead says:

    Well, it’s just a theory….

    Ah.
    So you hold it to BE fact, your protests to the contrary, not withstanding?

    INteresting.

  20. george says:

    Ah.
    So you hold it to BE fact, your protests to the contrary, not withstanding?

    If you let go of an object and it falls, that it fell is a fact. If you think the next object you let go of will also fall, that is a hypothesis. If you say there’s something about mass which attracts other masses, it’s a theory.

    Simple, no? So yes, evolution, gravity, quantum mechanics, special relativity, Ohm’s Law, and just about everything in science are in the scientific jargon, theories. The controversy only comes in if someone says we shouldn’t teach theories in school, if only because suddenly you’d have thousands of unemployed physics, chemistry, electronics and biology teachers.

  21. Anderson says:

    Interesting news about the Sun’s temperature, RJN. Got a link for that?

  22. DavidV says:

    He believes in the natural world and just posits—with no evidence whatsoever—that it’s probable that a Greater Being set those forces into motion and, by and large, lets things evolve.

    This does not seem to be an accurate portrayal of Collins’ position. On the third page of the interview, he explains,

    The subtitle of your book refers to “evidence for belief.” What do you find to be the most compelling evidence that there is, in fact, a Supreme Being?

    First of all, we have this very solid conclusion that the universe had an origin, the Big Bang. Fifteen billion years ago, the universe began with an unimaginably bright flash of energy from an infinitesimally small point. That implies that before that, there was nothing. I can’t imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself. And the very fact that the universe had a beginning implies that someone was able to begin it. And it seems to me that had to be outside of nature. And that sounds like God.

    A second argument: When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants — the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc. — that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. That’s a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we’re here. And that does make you wonder — gosh, who was setting those constants anyway? Scientists have not been able to figure that out.

    I won’t clog up the comments with any additional quotations, but he makes several additional arguments, primarily based on the existence of Moral Law. The fact that you may disagree with Collins’ evidence does not mean he failed to present any. It seems unfair to essentially present Collins as a fideist, one who bases his faith on faith itself, when he actually presents several reasonable arguments for his religious beliefs.

  23. James Joyner says:

    DavidV:

    Ironically, though, he is basically employing the “God of the gaps” logic that he assails elsewhere. Our inability to explain the natural world is not evidence of a Creator, merely evidence of its incredible complexity. Literally every day, scientists learn a little more, removing some of this “evidence” for God.

    As for “I can’t imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself,” isn’t the same true of the Creator? Ultimately, one has to believe either that something simply always existed that wasn’t created by anything. I’m not sure why it’s harder to believe that random matter so existed than an omnipotent, omniscient being.

    None of this, however, is “evidence” in a scientific sense. It’s elementary metaphysics.

  24. Steve Verdon says:

    Bithead,

    You don’t understand sarcasm do you?

    Simple, no? So yes, evolution, gravity, quantum mechanics, special relativity, Ohm’s Law, and just about everything in science are in the scientific jargon, theories. The controversy only comes in if someone says we shouldn’t teach theories in school, if only because suddenly you’d have thousands of unemployed physics, chemistry, electronics and biology teachers.

    Pissing in the wind george, Bithead knows better. Heck, he probably made up his mind before he opened the editor.

    [Note to Bithead, that is more sarcasm.]

    A second argument: When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants — the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc. — that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. That’s a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we’re here. And that does make you wonder — gosh, who was setting those constants anyway? Scientists have not been able to figure that out.

    We don’t need scientists to figure “that” out. Logically, observing the anthropic principle (which is what Collins is talking about above) is evidence for naturalism, not supernaturalism.

    Link.

  25. Bithead says:

    You don’t understand sarcasm do you?

    Oh, I dunno… I blew one right by you….
    ;->

  26. DavidV says:

    James and Steve:

    I realize you both disagree with the validity of the evidence put forward by Collins. (Though I’m sure he would disagree with your disagreement…)

    I’m merely objecting to the statement that Collins “just posits—with no evidence whatsoever—that it’s probable that a Greater Being set those forces into motion and, by and large, lets things evolve.”

    When a scientist lists several pieces of evidence (Big Bang, Anthropic Principle, Moral Law) as a reason for his beliefs, it seems a mischaracterization to state he has no such evidence merely because you feel his arguments are specious. The simple fact that you feel the need to rebut indicates that Collins did indeed present evidence supporting his argument. Addressing part of that rebuttal…

    Ironically, though, he is basically employing the “God of the gaps” logic that he assails elsewhere. Our inability to explain the natural world is not evidence of a Creator, merely evidence of its incredible complexity.

    I would argue that the existence of inexplicable elements in the natural world could be evidence for God. If, theoretically, God does exist, and does act upon the natural world in a supernatural manner, then there should be “God-shaped gaps” in the natural world… Areas that cannot be explained except by divine intervention.

    As you point out, the alternative explanation is that we simply do not yet understand the phenomenon in question, so it would be foolish to base one’s faith solely on the assumption that the scientifically inexplicable equals the supernatural. However, such “God-shaped gaps” in the scientifically explicable could reasonably be considered among other reasons for belief in God.

  27. Bithead says:

    DavidV;

    Reasonable.

  28. Steve Verdon says:

    I realize you both disagree with the validity of the evidence put forward by Collins. (Though I’m sure he would disagree with your disagreement…)

    Disagreeing with the argument about the anthropic principle is akin to disagreeing with 2+2=4. Note that Ikeda and Jefferys offer a mathematical proof. The only way around it is to reject one of their assumptions which is itself problematic. So feel free to disagree, but you’ll have to understand when I consider you (or anybody else) to be completely irrational about that specific topic.

    When a scientist lists several pieces of evidence (Big Bang, Anthropic Principle, Moral Law) as a reason for his beliefs, it seems a mischaracterization to state he has no such evidence merely because you feel his arguments are specious. The simple fact that you feel the need to rebut indicates that Collins did indeed present evidence supporting his argument.

    I limited my comments to the anthropic principle alone. As for his interpretation of the big bang and Moral Law, those are more dicey, IMO.

    I would argue that the existence of inexplicable elements in the natural world could be evidence for God.

    It could also be evidence for the flying spaghetti monster as well. “Could be evidence” is not the samething as, “It is evidence.”

    If, theoretically, God does exist, and does act upon the natural world in a supernatural manner, then there should be “God-shaped gaps” in the natural world… Areas that cannot be explained except by divine intervention.

    How do you determine something is a God-shaped Gap vs. a simple gap in our knowledge? 150 years ago, the gap in terms of something like atoms probably would look like a God-shaped Gap to many. Now, it is old news, filled in by scientists pursuing knowledge while not invoking the supernatural.

    However, such “God-shaped gaps” in the scientifically explicable could reasonably be considered among other reasons for belief in God.

    When you have found a way to do this, call up the Discovery Institute, they’d love to hear from you…especially given all the stunning failures to date.

  29. James Joyner says:

    DavidV: I agree with Steve here.

    Again, though, Collins SPECIFICALLY REJECTS the “God in the gaps” thesis in the interview. But he implicitly relies upon it and you do so explicitly.

    The existence of a supreme being is, ultimately, not subject to falsification. But faith is not evidence; it’s just faith.