In today’s New York Times you’ll find Sam Harris’s op-ed piece on Francis Collins’s appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health, explaining why he thinks Collins is a bad choice. When I read a preliminary draft of the piece, I was struck by the list of five slides taken from Collins’s lecture, and so I went to YouTube to watch it. (The link is below.) The slides are taken from a Berkeley lecture in which Collins aims to break down the walls between science and spirituality, areas that he says should not be “walled off” from one another.
After watching this talk (it’s about an hour long, starting at 6:00 and ending at 1:13:00, with the beginning and end occupied by introductions and questions, respectively), I am more certain than ever that Collins really does pollute his science with his faith. By speaking with the authority of a scientist, by discussing science at length, and above all by describing in the same talk the evidence for evolution and the “evidence” for God, acting as if they are of similar epistemic significance, he is confusing his audiences about the nature of evidence and the nature of science. (See his comment at 51:30 that “My role here is to tell you what I as a scientist and a believer have learned about science and what I have learned about my belief in the context of that and vice versa.”) It’s a disquieting performance, even more distressing because Collins is an affable and genial speaker, conveying his snake oil is with a dose of sugar. And it’s scary (but not incomprehensible) to see how a smart man has managed to convince himself of a set of superstitions that are completely unsupported by evidence.
Before I dissect his arguments, let me give Collins credit for one thing: he isn’t a straight-up wackaloon creationist. He recognizes that intelligent design is not science, and gives some arguments against it. He doesn’t do nearly as good a job as Kenneth Miller, but at least he tries, and that’s good. But then he undercuts the whole business by proclaiming that the evidence points to the hand of God on the tiller.
If you want to avoid having to watch the whole megillah, scroll forward until about 27 minutes in, when Collins starts laying out the “questions” that science cannot answer, e.g., What happens after I die? Is there a god?. Of course the implication is that faith can answer them, but he’s wrong. How can faith tell us what happens after we die? Do our bodies get taken to heaven? If so, do we show up with our bodies at the age at which we died, or as an infant, or as something in between? If we’re cremated, do we appear before St. Peter as a cinder? How can we tell for sure that we’re not going to be boiled in molten sulfur for eternity?
The whole tenor of Collins’s argument is that his acceptance of God is based on empirical evidence. In this sense he puts it on the same plane as his science, and this is the pollution that has always troubled me. (Look at Collins’s five slides, highlighted by Sam Harris, and see if they don’t look like flat assertions about reality.) Collins begins laying out the “evidence” for God at 28:39. It is, briefly, this:
1. There is something instead of nothing.
How does that prove there is a God? Physics tell us that something can indeed come from “nothing” (that is, the absence of matter). The origin of the universe is of course a problem that physicists are still working on.
2. Mathematics is “unreasonably effective”.
Well, how ineffective would it have to be before it didn’t point to God? Didn’t Gödel show that it wasn’t perfect anyway?
3. The Universe was put together by a mathematical mind.
How does he know this? Why do regularities in the Universe testify to the existence of a celestial being? After all, isn’t the suspension of regularities — that is, miracles — also taken as evidence for God? You can’t have it both ways.
4. The physical constants seem to have “precisely chosen values” that enable the existence and evolution of complexity.
Note the word “chosen”, which assumes what the argument is trying to prove. There are, of course, numerous scientific theories for why the values are as they are (and they don’t appear so “precise,” anyway). This work is in its early stages, and so Colllins is advancing a God-of-the-gaps argument — a form of argument that he pretends to abjure (see below). Since we don’t understand why the “constants” of physics are as they are, says Collins, their “precision” must constitute evidence for God. Note Collins’s assertion that scientific hypotheses like multiverses require more faith than do religious explanations
Too, there are already good scientific explanations for “fine tuning,” including Lee Smolin’s hypothesis that new universes are constantly coming into being (the “multiverse” theory), and those whose physical constants allow them to last a long time will eventually, though a process analogous to natural selection, enrich the population of universes with those having “tuned” constants. This is not a “desperation” or a “faith” move, as Collins implies; rather, as Sean Carroll has pointed out, multiverses are a natural prediction of some classes of physics theories.
5. The Big Bang shows that the Universe had a beginning. Therefore it must have had a creator; that creator would have to have been supernatural, and “that sounds like God.”
So much for all the physicists who are trying to figure out how the universe could have arisen through natural causes. Give up, folks — Collins says that he knows the answer!
6. The existence of a “moral law” (which Collins defines as the universal observance by humans of codes of right and wrong) can be understood only by the existence of a creator.
This is the most bizarre of all his arguments, and the one which most strenuously evades both science and reason. The existence of human morals can be understood as a result of either evolution, evolved rationality, or both. One common explanation involves the evolution of reciprocal altruism in small communities of hunter-gatherers. Another, advanced by Peter Singer and others, invokes rationality itself — recognizing that nobody has a moral claim to be special — and the extension of that in interdigitating societies. There are perfectly good non-God reasons for individuals and societies to adopt and adhere to moral codes. Collins pretends that these reasons don’t exist. Indeed, he cites the existence of “extreme altruism,” as demonstrated by Oskar Schindler’s saving Jews at risk to his own life, as evidence that altruism isn’t evolved. This shows no such thing. Some people choose to adopt children, a manifestly nonadaptive act, but that doesn’t show that the drive to be parents didn’t evolve.
The most inane and disingenuous part of Collins’s argument is his claim that without religion, the concepts of good and evil are meaningless. (Collins’s slide 5 in Harris’s piece: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”) That’s palpable nonsense. Good and evil are defined with respect to their effects and the intents of their perpetrators, not by adherence to some religious code. It is beyond my ken how a smart guy like Collins can make a claim like this, even going so far as to argue that “strong atheists” like Richard Dawkins have to accept and live their lives within a world in which good and evil are meaningless ideas.
There are, of course, also statements made without evidence, including this one: “God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul” And this (slide 4): “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God.” How does he know? What’s the evidence? Isn’t the distinction between the science slides and the faith slides being blurred here?
Look at it this way: suppose Collins gave a talk sketching the evidence for evolution, and then went on to say how “evidence” points to the past existence of a space alien ruler named Xenu, who kidnapped some of his people, preserved them in antifreeze, and transported them to Earth, where they were stored in volcanoes. The souls later escaped and are now wandering around, clinging to humans, and this is what causes all the trouble of the world. Only by detecting this soul-infestation with a fancy instrument, and subsequent deprogramming, Collins might say, can we root out these disembodied vestigial souls and find happiness.
If Collins said this, you might well think he’s a wack-job, too ridden with crazy ideas to hold down an important government job. But of course the beliefs I described constitute the theology of Scientology, and are no different in kind from the beliefs of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or of any other faith. The reason why it’s ok for Collins to profess evangelical Christianity is because Christianity is a superstition that is common and socially sanctioned.
The great irony of this talk is the contrast between Collins’s entirely reasonable dismissal of intelligent design as being based on God-of-the-gaps arguments, and his credulous acceptance of those same arguments when it comes to matters like morality, multiverses, and the so-called fine-tuning of physical constants. At one point he avers that scientists should not invoke supernatural causes if natural causes will do, but then abandons this stand when it comes to physics. Shouldn’t we give physicists a few decades to figure out why the “constants” are as they are, just as we gave biochemists some time to figure out how the flagellum evolved? Apparently not. Collins has decided that science will always be impotent before certain problems, whose continued existence must therefore prove God.
This kind of evasion and use of double standards is of course de rigueur for religious scientists who insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science.
If Collins continues to go around giving talks like this as head of the NIH, I will no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. He is polluting science with faith — and hurting public understanding of science — by pretending that empirical evidence points to the existence of God.