Science,  Secularism

Sam Harris, Francis Collins and God

Guest post by Andrew Murphy

What seems to be a brilliant choice as the new director for the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, has hit a roadblock with scientific skeptic Sam Harris. Harris’s books End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation have been best sellers.

In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Harris– while conceding Dr. Collins is a brilliant scientist– is most concerned that because of Collins’s Christian faith, genuine scientific research will be put jeopardy. Harris’s parting shot: “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”

If Dr. Collins was anywhere close to the belief system of say, the Institute of Creation Research or George Gilder’s Discovery Institute, Sam Harris, along with most Christians, would rightly share a concern about science being stifled, falsified or ignored in the name of theology. To Harris’ credit, he does acknowledge this.

Those unfamiliar with the work of Dr. Francis Collins should know that along with his partner, Dr. James Watson, he was responsible for one of the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Their work with the Human Genome project helped determine, identify and map the 25,000 or so genes that make up the building blocks of living organisms– work that in the long run could help eliminate cancer, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease. It takes Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to the next level, looking at evolution from a molecular and biological point of view.

But what Harris worries about is that Dr. Collins sees God in this work. This should calm his concerns right there. Collins’s work has done more to undermine the pseudo-scientific efforts of the creationists and Intelligent Design crowds than people give it credit for. If Collins has an axe to grind for theology, the Human Genome Project would not have got off the ground, at least under his leadership.

As Collins has written (pdf):

I mentioned the ancient repeats we share with mice in the same location showing no conceivable evidence of function, diverging at a constant rate just as predicated by neutral evolution. One could only conclude that is compelling evidence of a common ancestor or else God has placed these functionless DNA fossils in the genome of all living organisms in order to test our faith. I don’t find that second altern ative very credible.

In a debate with Richard Dawkins, one of Sam Harris’s Four Horsemen, Dr. Collins wrote:

Certainly science should continue to see whether we can find evidence for multiverses that might explain why our own universe seems to be so finely tuned. But I do object to the assumption that anything that might be outside of nature is ruled out of the conversation. That’s an impoverished view of the kinds of questions we humans can ask, such as “Why am I here?”, “What happens after we die?”, “Is there a God?” If you refuse to acknowledge their appropriateness, you end up with a zero probability of God after examining the natural world because it doesn’t convince you on a proof basis. But if your mind is open about whether God might exist, you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion.

Are these the words of someone willing to play fast and loose with the facts because of religion?

One could easily invert Sam Harris’ argument. Why is a dogmatic assumption that there is no God the proper position for a scientist? Even Richard Dawkins has been willing to compromise his atheism and admit in debates with Dr. John Lennox of Oxford University that, “A serious case could be made for a deistic God.”

The slippery slope Sam Harris finds himself on is this: if Dr. Collins’s work is somehow tainted because of his religious views, then Richard Dawkins is damaged goods as well since he is at least willing to be open to the idea of an Albert Einstein concept of a God.

Dr. Collins has proven throughout his professional career that he is a scientist first and foremost. Until the day comes that he compromises scientific research because of a theological belief, he should be left alone.

Opposing a man simply because he believes in God is not science, Sam.