Pharyngula

Collins on Fresh Air

Francis Collins was on Fresh Air this afternoon, and I listened. I was not bedazzled. Collins seems like a very nice fellow and he sounds sincere, but sweet jebus, what a load of tedious platitudes.

He made excuses for religion and how it can be accommodated by science, but wasn’t convincing to anyone who thinks at all beyond the superficial. Terry Gross tried to draw him out on why he believes, but we only got the same old tiresome nonsense. He claims that science is only valid in investigating nature, and that it is inappropriate for examining ideas beyond nature … which begs the question of whether there is anything beyond nature. We also hear that science and spirit are complementary and different tools, but of course we aren’t told how the tool of spirit is applied to anything. We’re told that the intricacy and complexity of the human genome instills a sense of awe, and that it represents a glimpse of God’s creative genius — again, begging the question. When asked whether it was appropriate for Clinton to bring up God in the announcement of completion of the human genome project, he answered that it was, because a majority of citizens believe in a god, and the public announcement ought to reflection on its meaning in a larger sense.

There were a few comments that were simply ludicrous. He tried to justify faith as valid with a Bible definition, citing something from Hebrews: “Faith is the evidence of things not seen”. He seemed impressed that it uses the word “evidence”; it’s a non sequitur. Telling us that the god-soaked authors of the Bible thought faith was a kind of evidence is not convincing that it actually is evidence.

Oh, and when he tried to explain what “evidence” supports his version of theistic evolution, all he had to offer were the old canards from his book, the “knowledge of right and wrong” and fine-tuning of the universe. Ho hum.

So, drivel and fallacies. It was not a rewarding listening experience.

Collins has done good science, but I don’t think the existence of good scientists who also believe in God is any kind of refutation of the existence of a conflict between science and religion. I’m sure there are also a lot of great athletes in wheelchairs, but that doesn’t mean paralysis and amputations don’t conflict with performance. Only the religious seem to find their handicap an object of praise and glorification and veneration, rather than an obstacle to overcome.


You can also find some comments on both the Dawkins and Collins interviews at Arbitrary Marks.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey, OM
    March 29, 2007

    From the original post:

    He made excuses for religion and how it can be accommodated by religion, but wasn’t convincing to anyone who thinks at all beyond the superficial.

    Shouldn’t that second “religion” be some other word?

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    March 29, 2007

    bean:

    Are you saying Collins’ theism is not merely an annoying personal habit but a crippling handicap?

    In that it effectively forbids him from working on interesting, legitimate and probably rewarding problems, such as the evolution of moral behavior, then yes, his theism is a handicap. He’s made science and faith compatible by drawing a line around the former to leave a margin for the latter, and in his professional capacity, he can only work within that line, even though it does not include all our current body of knowledge let alone all currently viable hypotheses.

  3. #3 Brownian
    March 29, 2007

    I’d like to hear for once exactly how religion answers questions ‘beyond nature’ or of spirituality. Explaining something by saying “because that’s what God wants” is about as useful as saying “because dirt is brown.” Even as a child I was never satisfied with religious answers.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    March 29, 2007

    One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless

    “The situation is hopeless, but not serious”
    — Ancient German proverb. Well, not ancient, but I forgot the author. “Not serious” carries the connotation of “funny”.

    Well, actually, that’s a bad example, because — unlike your example — it’s not doublethink.

  5. #5 David Marjanovi?
    March 29, 2007

    One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless

    “The situation is hopeless, but not serious”
    — Ancient German proverb. Well, not ancient, but I forgot the author. “Not serious” carries the connotation of “funny”.

    Well, actually, that’s a bad example, because — unlike your example — it’s not doublethink.

  6. #6 Sastra
    March 29, 2007

    Jess wrote:

    “I don’t think the existence of good scientists who also believe in God is any kind of refutation of the existence of a conflict between science and religion.”
    What? Where did you take your logic course?

    No, that works. The methods or conclusions in science can conflict with the methods and conclusions in religion even if individuals happily manage to straddle the two by compartmentalizing. There may be very good chemists who also use homeopathic cold remedies because when it comes to their personal lives they relax their standards and stop doing science. They continue to take the medicine their mothers once gave them because it’s familiar and “it seems to work for me.” That wouldn’t mean that homeopathic chemical theory isn’t in severe conflict with modern chemistry, nor would it mean it’s getting genuine support from good chemists. The “good chemist” would only be considered a “bad chemist” if he claimed that homeopathic chemistry was good science, and was endorsing it AS a chemist. (Of course, being as sloppy as he is might mean the “good chemist” is also a hypocritical “bad man.”)

    Collins seems to be straddling the good scientist / bad scientist category by almost but not quite saying that science supports the existence of God.

    The evidence is that there is plenty of good science done by people who believe in God. In what way is that a handicap.

    Like the chemist who takes homeopathic remedies, it’s only a handicap if you try to be consistent, and forget that your personal idosyncrasies are not to be taken as seriously as you take your science.

  7. #7 ganv
    March 30, 2007

    As a scientist who roughly shares the Christian viewpoint that Collins describes, I thought I would post a couple of ideas here:

    First a strategic point: American science education needs serious help, and anti-science viewpoints taken by many creationists is one of the big reasons for this. People like Collins are among those best situated to redress this problem because they have the science right and are not a threat to the core theistic viewpoint of the creationists. You may not like some of his beliefs, but you have to admit that Collins has much more likelihood of influencing creationists to consider the data than the direct frontal assault by Dawkins or PZ Meyers has of having a similar effect.

    Second a point about Philosophy: Collins is not a philosopher of religion, neither is PZ Meyers, or me, or most anyone else who posts on this blog. Many here seem to underestimate the difficulty of seeing philosophical beliefs from another person’s viewpoint. We are used to scientific ideas where the relation between measurement and theory can be made pretty concrete–maybe there are a lot of steps, but each step can be made concrete. But when you ask questions like ‘Do other minds exist?’ or ‘How ought humans live?’, you can’t give answers with anything like the concreteness that science offers. What we all do in practice is develop semi-coherent answers to these questions built around a variety of assumptions from our upbringing and our observations of the world. The atheist viewpoint has semi-coherent answers to these questions just as Collins and I do and none of them is based on science alone. It takes hard work to appreciate how a different semi-coherent philosophical belief makes sense to someone, and it seems that most here don’t make the effort.

    I find a viewpoint like Collins describes to be quite an asset in my scientific work. The existence of something like a mind behind the laws of the universe provides motivation that simple laws might exist and that I might be able to understand them. When approached without dogmatism, the connection to a long tradition of people seeking to live morally upright lives has many advantages in making the everyday decisions in life.

    Well, this got longer than I planned, but for what it’s worth…

  8. #8 Ray
    May 19, 2007

    I am a fly developmental biologist who also uses and writes many of the computational tools used by the Genomics community (one that Collins is a part of). I listened to both the Dawkins and Collins segments on NPR and read many of the comments above. I feel that many people who are against religion believes that the logical part of their brain makes up the totality of the human experience. This I believe then leads people to think that there is no room for anything else which is our logic cannot understand. I believe that while rational thinking is paramount, our emotions and our spirituality are just as valid parts of human existence. Are emotions and spirituality likely to have some physical basis, yes. Does that fact make them less valid than our logic? I believe not.

    The fact is that while we hold logic as the quintessential human ability and it has brought us quite far in terms of scientific understanding, it is not the essence of being human. What is worse is that while we extol our rational abilities, we fail to see its shortcomings. For example, almost all of science is based on reductionism, breaking down complex processes into bite sized, human digestible pieces. It works amazingly well, which probably suggests that at some level, the universe is modular. However, there are so many areas (at least in biology which I study) that I can see which are not so modular. Which suggest that we might be approaching the limits of reductionistic approaches. Gene regulatory networks is one example. Right now we are not even close to being able to fathom how such a complex network of regulatory factors can control the development of an single celled embryo into a complex adult. Can we ever do that? I don’t know, maybe. What I know now is we crave simplification thru abstraction. You see this at every level from computer science to biology. We simplify and simplify. In biology, many times we don’t understand something so we over-state our results to fit our simple model. Trust me, this happens all the time.

    My point is that I feel our limit brains can only take us so far in terms of our understanding and this fact is well reflected in our need to use a reductionistic approach to science. However, at the same time we have no humility about our own limitation and believe that because we can’t understand something, it must something else that we can grasp with our mind.

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