Francis Collins can’t help himself

Even though Collins is now director of the National Institutes of Health, the love of Jesus is still welling up inside him like an oil well that can’t be capped.  He’s now emitted another gusher.

I was under the impression that when Collins came aboard as NIH director, he was going to give up the public religious proselytizing, or at least his penchant for telling everyone the Good News: science proves the existence of God.  I was wrong.

Collins has just issued a new edited volume, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (HarperCollins, release date Mar. 2).

Here’s the publisher’s description:

“Is there a God?” is the most central and profound question that humans ask. With the New Atheists gaining a loud voice in today’s world, it is time to revisit the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith. Francis Collins, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of God and renowned physician and geneticist, defends the reason for faith in this provocative collection. Collins is our guide as he takes us through the writings of many of the world’s greatest thinkers — philosophers, preachers, poets, scientists — both past and present, including such luminaries as C. S. Lewis and Augustine, and unexpected voices such as John Locke and Dorothy Sayers. Despite the doubts of a cynical world, this essential companion proves once and for all the rationality of faith. . .

Francis Collins, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of God and renowned physician and geneticist, defends the reason for faith in this provocative collection. Collins is our guide as he takes us through the writings of many of the world’s greatest thinkers — philosophers, preachers, poets, scientists — both past and present, including such luminaries as C. S. Lewis and Augustine, and unexpected voices such as John Locke and Dorothy Sayers. Despite the doubts of a cynical world, this essential companion proves once and for all the rationality of faith.

It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that he’s going to prove, through the lucubrations of C. S. Lewis (!) and others, that faith is rational. This implies that we faithless are the irrational ones, but also that Collins continues to blur the line between science and faith.  Well, this all might be publisher’s hype, but it isn’t.  It continues in Collins’s introduction, which you can read here:

Faith and reason are not, as many seem to be arguing today, mutually exclusive.  They never have been.  The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Evidence! Down through the centuries, humanity’s greatest minds have developed interesting and compelling arguments abouth faith, based on moral philosophy, arguments about nature, and examination of sacred texts.  But outside of limited academic circles, these deeper perspectives are not heard from much these days. The goal of this anthology is to present some of these points of view, to spur on a more nuanced and intellectually rich discussion of the most profound questions that humanity asks: Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Does God care about me? And what, if anything, is the meaning of life?

Uh oh.  “Evidence”, with an exclamation mark!  What is the evidence?

As I began to absorb the arguments [of C. S. Lewis!],  the door to the possibility of God began to open, and as it did I began to see that the signposts had been around me all along.

Some of the evidence derived from nature itself. As a scientist, I was then and am now deeply invested in the idea that nature is ordered, and that science can discover it. But it never occurred to me to ask why order exists.  Going even deeper, I had never really considered the most profound philosophical question of all—why is there something instead of nothing. And if there are realities called matter and energy that behave in certain ways, what about those mathematical equations I had been so in love with as a student of quantum mechanics—why should they work at all? What, to use Nobel Laureate Wigner’s classic phrase, accounts for the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”? Could this be a pointer toward a mathematical mind behind the universe?

And then there was the Big Bang. . . .

If you’ve read Collins’s The Language of God, you already know where he’s going.

To posit a creator that is also part of nature provides no solution. Instead, one seems obligated [my emphasis] to yield to the logic of the cosmological argument (called Kalam by Islamic scholars) that there was a First Cause, a supernatural Creator outside of the laws of nature, and outside of time and space.

Yes, it’s all scientific, folks.  Logic and scientific evidence says that we must—we must—accept a supernatural creator.

The rest follows predictably.  Collins brings up the “fine-tuning” of the universe (“The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical constants] were to vary by even the tiniest degree, a universe capable of sustaining any imaginable form of life would be impossible.”)

God of the gaps!  Fine-tuning, therefore Jesus.  Collins is not a man who can live with doubt, with the idea that perhaps there is some deeper physical theory (or, indeed, the possibility of multiple universes) that might explain this “fine-tuning.”

And of course, we can get more scientific evidence for God from “The Moral Law”:

When we break this Moral Law. . .we make excuses, only further demonstrating that we feel bound by the law in our dealings with others. How can this be accounted for? If God actually exists, and has an interest in humans—a unique species with gifts of consciousness, intelligence, and free will—wouldn’t the existence of this law, written on all our hearts, be an interesting signpost toward a holy and personal God?

“Interesting signpost”? What he means, of course, is “EVIDENCE”!

Responding to the argument that morality could have evolved, since we see apparent rudiments of morality in our primate relatives, Collins simply asserts that evolution couldn’t lead us to admire altruists, or to perform altruistic acts ourselves.  Well, maybe, but reciprocal altruism could have evolved in small groups of interacting hominids. And there are many people, including myself, who think that morality comes from a combination of an evolved mentality and a non-evolved, social extension of that mentality to other people—indeed, to other species. (That’s the point of Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle.)  Collins claims that the New Atheists haven’t dealt with the subtleties of theology, but he surely has not dealt with the multifarious arguments for the secular development of morality.  And while he claims he’s “not arguing that the existence of the Moral Law somehow proves God’s existence,” that’s disingenuous.  He is, and he has done.

For myself, the arguments from the nature of the universe and the existence of the Moral Law led me, with considerable initial resistance, to a serious consideration of the possibility of a God who not only wound up the clock but who also has an enduring interest in a relationship with humans.

Enough is enough.  Collins is director of the NIH, and is using his office to argue publicly that scientific evidence—the Big Bang, the “Moral Law” and so forth—points to the existence of a God.  That is blurring the lines between faith and science: exactly what I hoped he would not do when he took his new job.

And to those who say that he has the right to publish this sort of stuff, well, yes he does.  He has the legal right.  But it’s not judicious to argue publicly, as the most important scientist in the US, that there is scientific evidence for God.  Imagine, for example, the outcry that would ensue if Collins were an atheist and, as NIH director, published a collection of atheistic essays along the lines of Christopher Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist, but also arguing that scientific evidence proved that there was no God.  He would, of course, promptly be canned as NIH director.

Or imagine if Collins were a Scientologist, arguing that the evidence pointed to the existence of Xenu and ancient “body-thetans” that still plague humans today. Or a Muslim, arguing that evidence pointed to the existence of Allah, and of Mohamed as his divine prophet.  Or if he published a book showing how scientific evidence pointed to the efficacy of astrology, or witchcraft.  People would think he was nuts.

Collins gets away with this kind of stuff only because, in America, Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition.  He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith.  He had his chance, and he blew it.  He should step down.

151 Comments

  1. Doc Bill
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Collins wrote: “For myself, the arguments from the nature of the universe and the existence of the Moral Law led me, with considerable initial resistance, to a serious consideration of the possibility of a God who not only wound up the clock but who also has an enduring interest in a relationship with humans.”

    Stephen Meyer, Dembski, Behe or any of the creationists could have written this. Meyer and others have bloviated, for example, that the Great Exalted Designer could be Anything, Anything at All, BUT (and there’s always a capitalized, italicized, underlined, bold, red BUT) for “me” it’s my personal God of the Christian Bible, etc, etc.

    No different than Nelson’s argument presented on this blog. Nelson stated, approximately, that for him a discussion of the Cambrian explosion is an intellectual exercise only and doesn’t really mean anything because Nelson believes the universe is 6000 years old.

    Thank you, not, Collins!

    Cue the Discovery Institute in 3, 2, 1 …

    • Nick
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      What is the purpose of appointing a ‘scientist’ with a religious conviction about the universe? Perhaps the whole thing is designed to water down science, beef up superstition and level the field of knowledge and understanding in order to change the scientific community’s perspective. It certainly does nothing for religion but it does affect science and scientists. Where I think Collins is totally mistaken is in believing that the ‘laws’ of nature somehow exist in the external world. They are nothing human constructs (ideas) to explain physical behaviour. They are not a priori and they don;t emanate from some off-world entity like the so-called ’10 commandments.

      • Passerby
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

        Did you forget that many ‘scientists’ with religious convictions about the universe are the ones that started it all?

        • Rich
          Posted March 2, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          Pointing out that science arose from people with religious convictions is not saying too much. First of all, at the time science really kicked in, pretty much everyone was religious: primitive superstitions were all that we had. Second, we all know the history: the Church commissioned scientists to show how nature proves God’s existence and power, but when they started discovering otherwise, they Church began torturing and murdering them. So if your point is that somehow religion fosters science, well, in a way, sort of like Eminem’s mother fostered his musical career.

      • J.J.E.
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink

        “Did you forget that many ’scientists’ with religious convictions about the universe are the ones that started it all?”

        A perfectly valid analogy is with the 3rd Reich. Religion has long been ubiquitous, so much so that ANY endeavor is started by believers. Like Hitler’s Germany. And your “argument” has the same validity as generically blaming religion for the Holocaust. Religion isn’t to blame for the Holocaust and it isn’t responsible for getting science started.

      • Posted February 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        That’s a very good point and one that I often forget. The Universe has NO rules. We do. In this particular Universe we occupy things are the way they are. The Universe does not call hydrogen anything. It doesn’t care if E=MC2. It just happens to be that way. You should see some of the other universes. There’s one where E=M+C. It’s a very lay back place.

      • MadScientist
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

        What the appointee believes in is his own business as long as his beliefs do not interfere with his job and he (or she) does not use a government position to promote a particular brand of superstition. Collins is using his position as head of NIH as a selling point for his book which promotes his own religious cult and its notion that their particular god exists. There are many religious people in the public service, and most of them keep religion out of state matters.

      • Passerby
        Posted March 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

        Hitler’s Nazis weren’t started by religion. It was started by racism, and natural selection taken to the extreme.

        • Richard Cook
          Posted October 27, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          “Religion” doesn’t start anything, of course, religious PEOPLE start things. The argument here is that just because most early scientists were Christian does not mean that Christianity caused science any more than the fact that the vast majority of Nazis were religious means that Naziism was caused by religion. Naziism was not caused by “natural selection taken to the extreme,” it was caused by xenophobia, Jewish hatred fueled by Christian traditions, economic troubles, etc. Science was caused by human curiosity about the world, funded by the Church because they foolishly thought it would prove their idiotic beliefs to be true. When it did the opposite, the bloodshed began.

    • trutherator
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      Everybody always claims that intelligent design proponents are closet fanatical Christians trying to sneak up on everybody, as if just saying such spurious epithets were an argument against the substance of the obvious.

      But of course they never, ever bring up Antony Flew.

      Bloviating is a specialty of blowhards that blather their bile all over the blimey bog. Hiding their fear that there might really be a God, thinking that just denying he exists will make him go away…

      –trutherator

      • MadScientist
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

        That’s funny – the religious believe that a god exists as long as they believe it exists. It reminds me of a scene from Peter Pan in which Peter turns to the audience and asks them all to believe in fairies because if they didn’t believe, fairies like Tinker Belle would cease to exist.

  2. Bill
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Ah, I’m fed up with Collins. I read his ‘Language of God’ and was so disappointed – nothing challenging there just a whole load of personal revelation special pleading. Is this the best the theists can do?

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      So far, I’d say yes. It’s always this kind of crap.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Ahh but Bill…ONCE AND FOR ALL!

      “Despite the doubts of a cynical world, this essential companion proves once and for all the rationality of faith”

    • Ed
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I couldn’t really believe how feeble it was. Same thing with the Antony Flaw one.

  3. Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Collins — another fan of the Charles Fillmore school of logic.

    Everytime a waterfall freezes an angel gets its wings.

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    C.S. Lewis – one of the world’s greatest thinkers? Wowza.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Collins claims that the New Atheists haven’t dealt with the subtleties of theology

      C.S. Lewis has never presented any subtleties, nor has anyone else for that matter.
      Just a Gish Gallop of logical fallacies.
      Theology is the study of nothing.

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, not quite as stupid as the claims that Augustine and Aquinas were “great thinkers”, but all the same definitely in the category of “very badly wrong”. I could never stand C.S. Lewis – he reasons like one who is semi-comatose from large doses of a variety of psychotropic drugs.

  5. Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Well, look at the bright side. We do have someone who accepts science (albeit with some cognitive dissonance going on) who is wildly popular with the religious folks.

    So this pick could be seen as politically wise even if it infuriates the one tenth of one percent who even knows enough to be furious about what he says.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      One reaches a point where the distortions and lies are so pervasive that it’s not important whether the appointment was “judicious.” And besides, who cares if he’s popular with religious folks. We used to have an atheist as NIH director (granted, one who didn’t speak out publicly), and that wasn’t so bad, was it?

      • Posted February 24, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        “who cares if he’s popular with religious folks.”

        Idea: perhaps Dr. Collins might help us get Senator Inhofe’s vote on a NIH funding bill?

        I know; I am reaching. :)

      • Denis
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:27 am | Permalink

        If he had spoken out he’d have gotten his pink slip in short order. That is unfortunately the state of the states.

  6. ennui
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Ah, yes. The tripartate waterfall powers the windmills of his mind, which pump the moist, fetid, Christ-coated glurge to the surface and onto book shelves everywhere.

    Reasonable faith. Welcome to 1984.

    • Phoney Baloney
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Ooh, well put!

  7. Barry
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Last October, when the Pope appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, I expected to see much comment on the matter on the science blogs. But I don’t recall any discussion of it. Did it go without notice?

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Maybe so…I don’t think I knew that.

      I’d have thought Pontifical Academy of Sciences would be restricted to Catholics!

      • MadScientist
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        As far as I’m aware, Collins still claims to be catlick. The catlick church has a few oddball corporations such as the Vatican Observatory (the current main research facility is located on Mt Graham in Arizona). At any rate, the church does not always exclude non-catlicks from panels which are not devoted exclusively to religious matters. In rare instances the church even forms committees with representatives from other religions – the inter-faith panels.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 12:44 am | Permalink

      Does he still claim to be catlick? I thought he was Waterfall Jebus Evangelical?

  8. Neil
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Collins is Director of the NIH precisely because he is that rare breed of scientist who spouts faith. He is a puzzle to me, but relatively harmless I think.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Collins bugs me because his religious views and apologetics are almost exactly those I had at age 20 or so, and I expect a leading scientist who’s a bit older to be a helluva smarter than I was then.

      Or now, for that matter.

      He also gets most of his scientific points all wrong, too, which should embarrass the guy but apparently doesn’t.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        He also gets most of his scientific points all wrong, too, which should embarrass the guy but apparently doesn’t.

        This is a trend I have noticed from theists. No matter how stupid and no matter how they are shown to be wrong, it never bothers them.

    • Phoney Baloney
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      I disagree. He is only “relatively harmless” as long as the Christians in this country are emasculated and marginalized. Having an NIH director appointed by the President and spouting this treacly nonsense accomplishes exactly the opposite: It empowers them and puts them in the center of government. No, sir, the man is not harmless.

      • Neil
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Harmless, because Collins understands, knows and agrees to the validity of evolution. What mental compartmentalization or contortions he goes through in order to reconcile his intellect with superstitious beliefs, I do not know. As I said, the man is a puzzle to me.

    • Denis
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:31 am | Permalink

      Harmless? Spewing such utter nonsense from a pulpit that appears to have government sanction is in my mind anything but harmless

  9. stvs
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Collins is familiar with JBS Haldane’s critique of Lewis:

    In his attempts to defend Christianity, Mr. Lewis has also defended the beliefs in astrology, black magic, Atlantis, and even polytheism; for the planetary angels are called gods, perhaps in deference to Milton. Many sincere Christians will think that he has done no more service to Jesus than Velenovsky to Jupiter.

    My favorite instance of Lewis’s nutty, nonsensical apologetics is from Mere Christianity, which amounts to equating Euclidean geometry with God theodicy:

    My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?

    Shorter Lewis: Straight lines, therefore God. From this, it’s almost fair to equate Lewis’s beliefs with those of a flat earther’s, like it never occurred to Lewis that “straight” lines are not “straight” on a sphere. Even light doesn’t travel in “straight” lines!

    And never mind that Lewis never takes the next step of identifying an all-creating God as the source of the cruelty and injustice he sees in the world.

    Anyone who cannot immediately spot the drooling illogic of C.S. Lewis’s apologetics is not an intellectually serious person. In fact, Lewis’s very high reputation among the Christian faithful is a pretty good argument against that faith.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      Off topic but related to geometry: you’d enjoy the section on non-Euclidian geometry in Underwood Dudley’s book Mathematical Cranks. Some Catholic Priest (who was the president of a small university) wrote some book that “established” Euclidian geometry (he was offended by Riemann, Einstein, etc. for religious reasons)

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      Lewis’s argument isn’t even original. It is all in Plato.

      • MadScientist
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        Then repeated by others including Aquinas (for whom I have absolutely no respect) and by Rene Descartes (whom I do respect, but not for his theology).

      • stvs
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Yeah, even many mathematicians, including Gauss, were cautious about publicly contradicting Kant, and most people never imagined that Kant could be plain wrong on so basic a point.

        But C.S. Lewis was writing after Riemann, Klein, and in the heyday of Albert F–king Einstein. Unlike the others cited who make the same argument, Lewis has no excuse for his ignorance. Except that he was blinded by an irrational superstition and warped logic in every way he could imagine to sustain it.

    • Ellen
      Posted October 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Thumbs up. You have no idea gow refreshing it is to read those words after wading through the sludgepools of pro-Lewis glurge that bespatter the internet. The persistent myth that Lewis was a ‘great thinker’ or an ‘incomparable logician’ has always stunned me; actually, he was barely a ‘thinker’ at all, of any stripe–a perusal of his most lionized writings reveals that pretty quickly to those who actually set some store by genuine logic as opposed to the Xtian apologetica variety. As an Oxford don, I’m quite willing enough to concede that I’m sure Clive Staples was no mental lightweight–but to point to his religious writings or his (in(famous) Lord/Liar/Lunatic trilemma as evidence of his ‘genius’ just goes to prove that where upholding of the Faith is concerned, the Faithfull appear to have very little power of discernment with regard to the intellectual wattage of their culture-heroes.

  10. Kirth Gersen
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I’m not convinced he was nominated strictly because of his faith — although I’m sure it didn’t hurt. We need to bear in mind that his ability as an administrator, by all reports, is highly exceptional (at least from what I gather secondhand — I haven’t personally worked with him). Is it possible, however unlikely, that he was selected because he was the best choice in terms of requisite skills? I don’t know, but I shouldn’t think we should discount the possibility, a priori as it were, because of his recent goofy publication.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      I don’t think anyone has claimed that he was nominated only because of his faith, though. He certainly is a very skilled scientist, and I doubt that anyone would claim otherwise. And he has a long history of this kind of nonsense that goes back much further than his “recent goofy publication.”

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        My post was primarily in reply to the assertion in one of the previous comments that “Collins is Director of the NIH precisely because he is that rare breed of scientist who spouts faith.” Certainly your own blog on the subject (witty as always — kudos) steered well clear of making any such claim.

      • Phoney Baloney
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        If Collins is a skilled scientist (obviously true), then he could have been hired to head up any number of programs at the NIH. He did not have to be appointed as the chief of NIH.

      • Kirth Gersen
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        “If Collins is a skilled scientist (obviously true), then he could have been hired to head up any number of programs at the NIH. He did not have to be appointed as the chief of NIH.”

        The point is that Collins is not only a skilled scientist, he’s also a highly able administrator. When it comes to a post that requires both of those skills, Collins might just be the best possible candidate — his unfortunate theism notwithstanding.

    • Milton C.
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      I actually agree with Kirth here. Although Collins making public statements about his faith isn’t the best professional move, he’s not explicitly making those beliefs the position of the NIH, either. Although everyone would surely say otherwise, I hardly think we’d see people like Jerry leading a public push for Collins to step down if he were an atheist writing about why God doesn’t exist as the NIH director. Jerry might still think it’s unprofessional, but I don’t think we’d be seeing the anger about it. Much of the anger with this issue is fueled by the culture war and not strictly maintaining professionalism.

      Collins is a great scientist and a great administrator, and until he puts out a press release on NIH letterhead proclaiming that science proves the existence of God, tis is all much ado about not liking Francis Collins.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, Milton, but you don’t have the slightest idea what I’d do in this situation. In fact, I’d say that he shouldn’t do it. If you’ve read what I wrote on this website about the NCSE and other organizations, I’ve clearly said that it’s not their business to say ANYTHING about the compatibility of science and faith. And I don’t think the NIH director should say anything about whether science proves or disproves God.

        If Obama made public pronouncements that science proves (or disproves) God, would that be ok?

      • Milton C.
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

        If Obama made public pronouncements that science proves (or disproves) God, would that be ok?

        I think that’s precisely where the fuzziness comes into play. Obama talks at length about how his faith guides his decision-making in his book(s), which he wrote while a prominent member of public office/presidential candidate. Where was the atheist uprising about him being unqualified for office on those regards? Where were the calls he “step down” as senator.

        The same issue goes both ways. Let’s look at PZ Myers (disclaimer, Pharyngulites – I love PZ;just using him as an example). Here’s a tenured faculty member at a public (read: government-funded) institution speaking out about faith while promoting himself using his position. Where’s the reciprocal uprising? (I acknowledge there is an argument here about the “magnitude” of PZ’s position, however, versus Collins’s).

        The issue isn’t whether or not Collins should get chastised over another. The point is that the tenor and the taken aback-ness of people when someone breaks the unspoken rule seems to be based solely on their previously held opinion of that person.

      • Milton C.
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

        In case I misconstrued it, Jerry, I actually agree with you whoelheartedly on the neutrality issue. Obama could (and should) be criticized when making such statements, as well.

        As for Collins, I’d love to see him back off the goddyness while in his position. But until I see him making such pronouncements on NIH letterhead and not in a personal book, I’ll be a bit more sane and withhold hasty judgment.

  11. Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    All of which further proves Nietzsche’s argument that Christianity dulls the mind.

  12. Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Notice yet another instantiation of the ‘New Atheism shock-horror’ trope from the publisher.

    “Is there a God?” is the most central and profound question that humans ask. With the New Atheists gaining a loud voice in today’s world, it is time to revisit the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith.

    The New Atheists! Ow, ow, help! They’re so loud! They’re deafening! I can’t hear myself think!

    While the Old Theists are totally inaudible. Right.

    Special rules much?

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Ugh, yeah. When I got the press release yesterday, my brain almost broke from The Stupid. And then I went and read his introduction to the book. Oh, good lord. I don’t recommend doing that.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Worse, when he finally gets around to naming the loudmouths, you’re not on the list and neither is Jerry. I’m tellin’ ya, its downright insulting.

      • Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        Ha! Like I’d expect to be. Jerry’s another story – so in his case it’s an insult!

  13. Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Oh and another thing – who says “Is there a God?” is the most central and profound question that humans ask? I say it’s not! I think it’s one of the sillier questions that humans ask.

    • mjwdiv
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      The founder of a pretty big set of religions (Siddhartha Gautama) agreed with you. I think Collin’s screed is lacking in nuance from a Buddhist perspective.
      Not surprising. At all.

  14. Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    the most profound questions that humanity asks: Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Does God care about me? And what, if anything, is the meaning of life?

    He forgot one! The list should go like this:

    Is there a God? If so, what is God like? And if so, how the hell do I know?

  15. Markus
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Fairy tails and god the same stuff!

  16. DocFreddy
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    The mental gymnastics involved in going from a Transcendent ‘creator-maintainer’ to the personal-type God represented by so called ‘Holy’ books is embarrassingly infantile intellectually, and fraught with transparent wishful thinking at every step.
    So the religiously inclined have two arguments to satisfy which require extreme intellectual and scientific heavy-lifting – 1) Does a Transcendent Creative Designer even exist and 2) if IT does how to match IT on any level with what is represented in the scriptures? Good luck with that!

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      That’s a very good point. Somebody mentioned CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Watching him try to construct Jesus on the Cross out of a sense of immaterial meaning is near hilarious. As I recall, it was pretty much because you were taught the gospel by a trustworthy Englishman and not by a shifty Hindoo or Mohammedan, so you could be confident that it was true.

      Pretty much how religion works to this day.

  17. Howard Littman
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Is god omniscient? Is god omnipotent? Is god ominbenevolent? Really? Then where was god during the holocaust?, the sunami, the hurricane of Haiti?, 9/11?

    • vic
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      This kind of question is just far too logical, and logic is parallel to religious belief. But you are right, of course! To believe that God saved a little boy from the Haitian earthquake, one must also BLAME God for the deaths and suffering of all the others. If god has absolute power and is loving, then, by taking a brief stroll through history, this is probably the best EVIDENCE that god does not exist.

    • Frich
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Did God ascribe these attributes to himself?

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      A by far more urgent and profound question is:
      Where did I leave my keys?
      I could swear I left them on the table last night.

    • Jeff Blackman
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      Is god an omnivore?

  18. Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Indeed. Unfortunately, Collins’s brain seems to be a big, muddled, boundary-less mess of Waterfall Jesus and science. Worse, he clearly wants to encourage others to engage in the same compartmentalization or whatever, and, in that process of compartmentalization, science will ultimately always lose, as faith, because of its unreasonable and irrational nature, will always take priority over any facts that contradict it.

  19. Jim Pearson
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    There are many arguments, based on logic, for both the existence and non-existence of a “first-cause” god. Although I strongly favor the “con” arguments, belief in such a god, by iself, does not irritate me. However, when theists like Collins insist that they are privy to that god’s intentions, likes, and dislikes, that does irritate me, because their knowledge is usually primarily based on an ancient book written and compiled by men who knew less about the universe than today’s average fourth grader. It is also irritating when theists assume that their arguments for a first-cause god also support the existence of the Christian God or, for that matter, the god of any religion.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Are there really? Or are there many arguments, based on logic, for both the existence and non-existence of a “first-cause” X? I can make sense of the latter, but not the former. In other words even if there are good logical arguments for a first cause, is there really any reason – logical or otherwise – to call that ‘god’? Is there a lot of reason to specify it at all? Is there a lot of reason to go beyond ‘something’ or ‘unknown’?

      • newenglandbob
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        In answer to Ophelia’s questions:

        No, Yes, No, No, No ;)

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I belatedly notice that Jim made the same point in the last sentence. But then the last sentence implies that the first one should be modified by removing the last word.

      F. Collins please note. God of gaps. First cause not ‘therefore God.’ Ditto waterfall; ditto something rather than nothing; ditto why order exists; ditto ‘fine tuning’; ditto ‘Moral Law.’

      Jerry already said this, I just feel like saying it again.

  20. Parenti
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t there something in the scientific work and views of Collins which poses a contradiction to his alleged faith? It may need to be ferreted out and publicized Otherwise, I see Collins as a dangerous man in his position, because of his influence on potential “believers.”.

    • Jeff Blackman
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      Fire him for his beliefs and he becomes an even more dangerous martyr for the faithful.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Parenti, the entire scientific (meta)method is in contradiction to his faith.

  21. Occam
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    On the face of it, Daniel Shenton should have been a more rational choice for the NIH post:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/feb/23/flat-earth-society

    At least, Mr. Shenton is quoting Descartes, Laplace, Hume, Locke, rather than Lord Peter Wimsey or The Chronicles of Narnia on behalf of his beliefs:

    http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/library/daniel_shenton_flat_earth_essay.pdf

  22. Gordon
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    We really should do a brain scan on Collins when he starts going off on his tangents. Then we would be able to say, Yup, see look here, his brain is shorted out and far too many loose connections. Then we could compare that to all the others that are a few bricks short of a load.

    What a tosh.

  23. Antonio Manetti
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    A debate betwen Collins and Fodor or Piatelli-Palmerini might be interesting — a theist who accepts evolution and two atheists who don’t.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Interesting?
      Try “excruciatingly embarrassing” for all concerned, especially the poor audience.

  24. Eric MacDonald
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone notice that he has a reading from Antony Flew in the section entitled “The Irrationality of Atheism.” How are the mighty fallen! (Of course, the question arises: Did Flew really write it?) Flew’s earlier book God and Philosophy is perhaps the most tenchant, succinct and eloquent survey of arguments for the irrationality of religious belief, and his short paper “Theology and Falsification” ends with the decisive question: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God.” I don’t think any religious thinker has offerred an answer to this question, and until they do, their arguments are really pointless. They are just griding gears.

    But it is risible – as others have already noted – to call C.S. Lewis (but lets add some of the others: Mother Theresa, Alister McGrath (mistakes about facts, inaccurate references and poor arguments – see his Twilight of Atheism if you want multiple examples), John Stott (a constipated fundamentalist Anglican apologist), NT Wright (a fundamentalist Bishop of Durham, and conservative biblical “scholar”), Keith Ward (interesting, but minor Christian philosopher), Dorothy Sayers, Art Lindsley (an apologist for CS Lewis!), and most of the others as amongst the world’s greatest thinkers.

    This is so laughable as to be embarrassing. If Collins finds his comfort in this ragbag of mediocrity (for the most part), and of out and out charlatanism (in the case of “Mother” Theresa and arguably Alister McGrath – his The Twilight of Atheism certainly counts as the sunset of a mind), well, good. But he shouldn’t use his high power position to sell this paltry stuff, and preface it with the most astonishing claim that the question, “Is there a God?” is the most profound question ever asked. Whoever told him that? Most religious philosophers tend to think of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as prior. But packaging this fluff with the imprimatur of his exalted position is clearly a misuse of power, and an embarrassingly amateur one at that. To do power well, you have to have a mind as well.

    Also, Francis Collins should read CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, where Lewis proves, without any doubt, the non-existence of god, and then goes right on believing. It is perhaps the most amazing example of going from atheism to theism in one page of complete confusion. If Francis Collins hasn’t noticed, then he needs to learn how to read. It’s a sad day for science and reason when a prominent scientist can dispense with reason and claim its virtue all at the same time. It’s not much wonder that the American public – and increasingly the Canadian public as well – is so confused. What we have here is undoubted irrationalism posing as the considered judgements of a prominent scientist. This guy needs to remember that science is one thing, philosophy is another, and religion isn’t on the intellectual map at all until it can answer Flew’s question.

    • Neil
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      The best line I saw about Flew is “religion is like bed-wetting–it is common at young age and people grow out of it, but for some it comes back in old age.”

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      I like John Paulos’ “Irreligion”, which turned out to be a very short book because there really wasn’t much to write about. There are only a very small number of arguments for the existence of a (presumably christian) god and they’re all nonsense. Of course all arguments for the christian god are equally applicable to all other gods which the christians claim do not exist.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      It’s not much wonder that the American public – and increasingly the Canadian public as well – is so confused. What we have here is undoubted irrationalism posing as the considered judgements of a prominent scientist.

      Exactly – and there’s a relentless flood of this stuff. (All this talk of the torrent of New Atheist books – that’s a dribble compared to the New Oh Yes We Are Too So Rational Theist books.) From Armstrong to McGrath and from Eagleton to Collins, we are told day in and day out that it is entirely reasonable and sensible and irreproachable to believe in ‘God’ and there is simply not a hint of a shadow of a ghost of a reason not to.

  25. Wayne Robinson
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    At least “The Language of Life” was sensible, even if “The Language of God” wasn’t.

  26. vic
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Funny how this stuff never ends. The word “evidence,” evidentially holds absolutely no (zero) meaning to anyone of these religious people who claim to possess it. The reason why is that evidence does not exist. So we are continually buried by an endless avalanche of circular logic that makes me so senseless and brain dead that sometimes I just want to become a God fearing bible thumper and watch Fox News until I fall asleep drooling on my autographed photo of Billy Graham. Okay, nothing could actually push me that far. But, seriously, if these people would merely stop claiming they have evidence they would take a giant step in the direction of what many of us refer to as “Reality.”

  27. CJ
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    “…But it’s not judicious to argue publicly, as the most important scientist in the US…”

    I’m not certain important is the appropriate word choice here and not merely because the twat Collins currently holds the position.

  28. Hans H. Krarup
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    The most dangerous consequence of belief in a deity is that believers tend to support any kind of antirationel, antiscientific propaganda that denies evident facts like the overwhelming proofs of Anthropogeneic Global Warming and lead politicians to fight most attempts to stop our soiling down of our planet, in general referring to the meaningless thinking that when god has created mankind in his own image, he would not permit man to destroy his creation.
    (That this, at the bottom of things, is a new example of the old sport of dancing around the golden calf, here represented by the resistance to any attempts to reduce our senseless belief in unlimited consumption in a limited world – I think that most people would try to deny it, but that nevertheless there is a great part of truth in it).
    On the other side quite honestly I also believe that life on earth would be better served by homo sapiens extinguishing themselves – but unfortunately it seems that it is most likely that in that case they will destroy the living condition to an extent that will extinguish most other species as well – at least the ‘higher’ ones. Anyway, in a cosmic perspective, as long as there is the least trace of the lowest forms of life left over, in a few hundred million years some higher forms will develop again, as they have done before. Hopefully, the result may be better next time!

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      More complex perhaps, since things tend to become more complex rather than less complex – but I have no idea what you mean by a “higher species”. If you got rid of all tetrapods, it would be silly to think that a tetrapod of some description must evolve again – one might, but this is no guarantee that one will. Tetrapods were the result of a very long series of fortuitous changes. The same goes for the mammalian brain – wipe out the mammals and a comparable organ may never evolve again.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

      Not true, to give one example John T Houghton was the co-chair of the IPCC and is also and elder at Aberdovey Presbyterian Church. He has been very effective in winning over evangelical Christians in the U.S. Global warming is now pretty much the faith of the Anglican church here in the U.K.

      Most theists I know are split evenly down the middle. The ones which are most sceptical are (perhaps no coincidentally) the ones with the greatest commitment to free market economics. The important point is that they have to make their objections based on scientific evidence. You can’t make any sort of sensible religious conclusion here, especially because -judging from the earth’s history – the deity clearly isn’t adverse to throwing a bit of climate change into the mix to stir things up a bit.

      • GM
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        The connection between faith and our self-destructive behavior as a species is really the biggest elephant in the room in the whole atheism vs faith discussion, and it is quite said that even people like PZ and Jerry Coyne, and the majority of people posting here either haven’t thought about it hard enough, or don’t have the guts to say it as it is. It is also the reason why scientists should actually come out and say that science is incompatible with God (and any set of superstitious and irrational beliefs) and not just maintain neutrality.

        Because the reason why AGW is a problem we created and we’re not going to do anything about, and why our global ecological overshoot (of which AGW is only a part, and not even the biggest one) is soon going to catch up with us, is that we fundamentally do not understand our place in the world and the connections between us and the physical environment we live in. And while it is probably because of that that we have created religion (i.e. we were too ignorant of these things when we live in caves so we made up God in our image to explain them), right now religion and its influence on the way we think about ourselves and the world is the single biggest impediment to us doing something to prevent the crash.

  29. Tronzu
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    “exactly what I hoped he would not do when he took his new job.”

    That was a stupid thing to expect, there was no basis for it.

    This was entirely predictable.

    • Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      He said ‘hoped’ not ‘expected’ – there’s a difference.

  30. Carl
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Since most of Americans buy into the imaginary sky daddy they will love Collins even more.

  31. MadScientist
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    “… the long-standing intellectual tradition on the side of faith.”

    That’s funny; I could have sworn that even some ancient Greek philosophers were convinced that in reality it was a case of a long-standing intellectually void tradition on the side of faith. The message of superstition remains the same: do not think, simply believe what we tell you – we have all the answers (though the sole answer to anything is “goddidit”).

  32. Milton C.
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    If Collins was the NIH director and an avowed atheist instead of a believer, would you still be upset about him publically talking about his (non)belief as you are here, Jerry?

    (I agree with you, actually, and I’m not just trying to hurl tomatoes at you. I’m genuinely curious.)

    • Milton C.
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Nevermind, I had overlooked where you already answered me. Oops.

  33. Rob
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    “And to those who say that he has the right to publish this sort of stuff, well, yes he does. He has the legal right.”

    “Collins gets away with this kind of stuff only because, in America, Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition. He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith. He had his chance, and he blew it. He should step down.”

    How dare he exercise his legal rights?!

  34. Ovy
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    As a philosophy student, I’m now grossly offended. The question “Does God exist?” isn’t the most profound, but rather, the most inane of my life. Whether he exists or not seems to be entirely beside the point — reality will continue to persist the way it does no matter how you answer the question. This is perhaps why the logical positivists would claim the question is nonsensical.

    If the most profound question of one’s life is whether or not a meaningless concept that can never be known is, in fact, true, then that ‘one’ has the most shallow of lives possible.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Hear, hear!

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      You’re right Ovy. This is not the most profound question, but, as a philosopher, you have to give it its due. All (or at least most) of the greats have discussed it: Aristotle, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein … I agree that the concept may be strictly meaningless, but the philosopher is obliged to show why. As the Logical Positivists found out, this is easier to say that to prove.

      The problem with Collins’ omnibus is that it chooses mainly second rate minds and calls them first rate, and suggests that it is time that the intellectual case be presented to the public in opposition to the New Atheists, who seem to be getting all the attention. Yet not one great philosopher after Locke gets a place in his book of evidence. That’s a sure sign of the weakness of his case. If Collins thinks there is an argument, he must present it. He doesn’t. So much for the intellectual case for faith. As a philosophy student, you should say this.

  35. Eric MacDonald
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I must say, I liked PZ Myers’ remark about Collins’ new book:

    It’s the same old drivel: CS Lewis, old chestnuts re-roasted on a dying fire …

    Stylish put down!

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Oh yes, he blew it!

    It is interesting that Collins, a geneticist, is so much an anti-scientist outside his specialty. All of those purported observations, “why is there something instead of nothing”, “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, “the Big Bang”, “the cosmological argument”, are known to be trivial misunderstandings.

    - “why is there something instead of nothing”.

    If we have a distribution of something, “nothing” is no member. Moreover, the simplest prediction of inflation is that the inflationary multiverse always existed. (As Linde notes, we can always push the sup inf of backward worldlines towards infinity. Moreover, a chaotic system forgets its history, so it is no inherent problem that it is unlikely to start out in its fixed point.)

    Vic Stenger manages to incorporate “nothing” in a distribution by the trick of noting that it can be defined by pushing our symmetry loving physics towards the ultimate symmetry state, total chaos. That this “nothing” (no laws, no anything) evolved to universal symmetries with symmetry breaking is due to the fact that perfect symmetry systems are observed to eagerly break their symmetry spontaneously. It is a fact of physics that “nothing” evolves into “something”!

    And this is consistent with the inflationary prediction above, of forgetting a likely effectively infinite history.

    - “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”.

    Deutsch notes that mathematics is empirical in method. QM means that proofs can’t be contained in our universe but are replaced with their algorithms. And those are empirically developed.

    Chaitin notes that mathematics is quasi-empirical in substance. To decide the last practically computable bit of Chaitin’s constant (or any equal Turing equivalent to the halting problem) one can roll a dice.

    Mathematics is effective because empirics is.

    - “the Big Bang”.

    Proves that there are no creators or first causes as in “the cosmological argument”. We now know that our FLWR universes are zero energy. Such universes can spontaneously quantum tunnel from a pre-universe, but thermodynamically there can be no third universe or other agency involved.

    Collins are full of it, and it ain’t science.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      It’s curious that when Collins uses this kind of theological argument to support the existence of God, accommodationists and the faithful say “right on,” but when atheists criticize the very same arguments, they’re told that theology has moved on and they’re attacking strawmen.

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        This is what is astonishing. But theologians are shape-shifters. They slip and slide and fit their arguments to the moment. It’s not consistency, it’s contingency. Whatever the needs of the moment. This is what apologetics is all about. You respond to the challenges right now. Tomorrow is another day, another argument.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      “proofs can’t be contained in our universe” – proofs can’t ultimately be contained in our universe. (Because QM algorithms can still prove results, even when there isn’t enough bits in our universe to record every step in that proof.)

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      Victor Stenger repeatedly points out in at least two of his books that the universe did NOT start as a singularity. Hawking has been saying the same thing for two decades.

      And of course, religious apologists like Collins ignore knowledgeable people on such subjects and just continue making their lameass arguments.

    • GM
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      That’s because of the way science is mistakenly understood in our society. There are two ways to look at science and scientists:

      1) Science is a set of methodological rules for understanding the world around us (with an associated body of knowledge generated by this methodology) and scientists are people whose thinking obeys these rules and who use it to advance our understanding further and further

      2) Science is a profession as any other and as long as you do a good enough job of “doing science” while you’re at the bench on in front of the computer screen, you are a good professional and there is no problem.

      I prefer definition #1 because it is true to what science has developed from historically. However, people like Collins who are good scientists when doing experiments, analyzing data and publishing papers, but who after they’ve done all that go to church to pray, do not fit this definition and they therefore aren’t real scientists. The problem is that society as a whole, due to the widespread (and deeply anti-intellectual) vision of science as something a lot closer to definition #2, classifies such people as “scientists”, which does not help us at all…

  37. Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    A lot about C S Lewis here – if you want a thorough examination of his claims that finds them wanting, see John Beversluis’s excellent C S Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      Yes, an excellent book. I meant to get back to you on my reading of it. Can’t remember the precise question now. Perhaps you can remember. However, his point, mentioned above, that Lewis lost his faith, and found it in confusion, is, I think, decisive. Of course, Lewis’ is a third or a fourth rate mind, when it comes to things like theology/philosophical theology. That’s what is so disturbing about Collins’ reliance on him. He is third, fourth, fifth rate. Why is this scientist taking him seriously? As PZ says (also quoted above): “It’s the same old drivel: CS Lewis, old chestnuts re-roasted on a dying fire …” Great!

  38. steve
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    In “God, The Failed Hypothesis” by Victor J, Stenger, the fine tuning argument is examined.

    Stenger notes that the assumption that all the parameters that specify the broad features of the universe are independent is “grossly erroneous” and that probabilities that are calculated based on this assumption are meaningless.

    In a study where he varied the 3 parameters that control the lifetime of a star across 10 orders of magnitude around their present values he found that over half of the stars will have lifetimes in excess of a billion years which allows for the production of heavy elements and for the formation of life on planets around these stars.

    His conclusion is that the universe is “certainly not fine-tuned for this characteristic”.

    Stenger has also examined astronomer Fred Hoyles prediction that the production of carbon would not occur with sufficient probability unless that probability was boosted by the presence of an excited nuclear state of C12 at about 7.7 MeV, which is also used in support of fine tuning.

    And finally, in his paper “Using a Mathematical Model Based on Established Physics and Cosmology”: A mathematical model of the natural origin of our universe is presented. The model is based only on the well-established theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. It is not unique and no claim is being made that this is actually how the universe came about. It is presented to counter the assertion that science cannot provide any plausible explanation for the origin of the universe.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:30 am | Permalink

      Now ask yourself why Stenger’s monkey God program only restricted itself to 3 parameters (what about the cosmological constant problem ?!?!). Most cosmologists do regard fine tuning as a problem and seek models such as chaotic inflation to explain it. Stenger seems to be the only one who doesn’t think it’s a problem; which should tell you something.

      • steve
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

        Obviously Stengers book does much better at explaining this than I ever could.

        The final paragraph of his his paper “Using a Mathematical Model Based on Established Physics and Cosmology” gives you a sense of his dry, wry writing style:

        “In short, the natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention–not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God.”

  39. Occam
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    And now for something completely different.
    Of Francis Collins, Jerry wrote: He had his chance, and he blew it. He should step down.
    Fat chance.
    But a resignation has taken place today. It is exceptional enough to deserve a mention in these pages, and in this context. English-language media barely reported it, with the exception of a brief but largely accurate piece in the NYT.
    Margot Kaessmann, Lutheran bishop of Hannover and President of the Evangelical Council of Churches in Germany, i.e. the country’s top Protestant leader, has resigned from both these positions.
    She had been caught on Saturday night driving with 0.154% blood alcohol (a criminal offence under German law). She didn’t deny, she didn’t dither, she didn’t try to cover up, she just owned up. Despite considerable support in her own diocese and the German public at large, she tendered her resignation, saying: “My heart tells me very clearly that I cannot remain in office with the necessary authority. I would no longer have in the future the same freedom that I have had to name and judge ethical and political challenges.”
    An outspoken and popular if controversial figure, she was the first German woman to be ordained a bishop ten years ago, and had been at the helm of the Protestant church for just 120 days. A mother of four, she divorced her husband, risking her career, when she found him having an affair (typically, after she had undergone surgery for breast cancer, four years ago). I have been following her trajectory from afar for 25 years with great interest.
    Margot Kaessmann had her chance, and she blew it, at least by her own rigorous lights. She did step down.
    Call it courage, call it honesty, call it character, call it consistence, call it just plain decency.
    Rare enough, especially from the guardians of Christian morality.
    (Let’s imagine a man in the same situation. A politician, a cleric, a high judge, whatever.)

    Now, imagine Francis Collins examining his ethical dilemma…

  40. Neil
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    As an atheist, I am disturbed by the opinions, and in some cases outright hostility, expressed by some here. Surely, in a free society, we have the right to hold silly beliefs as long as we don’t try to impose them on others. IMO, Collins holds some silly beliefs, and I can’t imagine how he reconciles them with his admirable science knowledge. But, he is certainly no idiot, and it is unbecoming of atheists to call him names because we don’t agree. He seems to understand and accept evolution as much as I do, if not better, so I will not engage in a “culture war” mentality against him.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but if you give public lectures and write books about your silly beliefs, and about the bogus scientific “evidence” that supports God, then people have the right to criticize those beliefs. Or are we supposed to shut up if we disagree with Collins?

      In case you hadn’t noticed, there is far more on this thread than name-calling. There also happens to be a lot of discussion of philosophy, and of that “scientific” evidence.

      • Neil
        Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        There is no “scientific evidence” on god either way. God is simply an unnecessary hypothesis, to which some people, like Collins, need to cling, probably for emotional reasons. There is scientific evidence on evolution, but on this there is no disagreement between Collins and atheists.

        We’ve got to know our enemies. They are the forces of ignorance, not Collins.

    • steve
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      if not better, so I will not engage in a “culture war” mentality against him.

      Not to worry, if you won’t wage war against what Collins et al represent, they will have no problem bring it to you.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure why everyone who addresses Collins feels the need to pay lip service to “his admirable science knowledge”.

      By all accounts, he’s probably a decent scientist and almost certainly was a great scientist in his early years. And he’s certain a great aggregator of credit and also a skillful administrator. But I think we should avoid such lip service as it smacks of buying into arguments from authority. Not to mention that Collins is clearly a guy who benefits from the Matthew effect. Science is much less of a meritocracy than most of its successful practitioners would have everyone else believe.

      Following is an analogy I believe is appropriate. Some science teams are like playing one-on-one hoops. A single individual goes out an plays the game for themselves. (Theoretical popgen can be this way.) Usually, however, science teams are like pickup basketball games. A group of people work very hard together, and maybe one of the players is the “captain”. This is especially true for young professors or collaborations between postdocs and grad-students, though some silverback professors also do this.

      Sometimes, a science team is like a high school or even college team. There is a very involved coaching (or coaching staff), who are analogs to the PIs. Usually, they clearly can’t actually do the things that the players on the court do, but they have a great deal of knowledge about how to direct the game. The players (students and postdocs) do all the “real” work. This is the way most successful senior PIs in genomics work. (the ones that aren’t consortium leaders, that is)

      Finally, you have professional teams. They have coaches, players, administrative staff, and owners. The owner may or may not have much actual knowledge about anything that actually goes on on the court. But they manage large organizations to be able to carry out the work of a professional team.

      In his later career, Collins was like a basketball team owner. Any given owner may have once been a star player or even a star coach. But then again, sometimes the owner is just a George W. Bush (for the Texas Rangers baseball team). Before automatically worshiping at altar of “OMG, he’s totally an awesome scientist!!1!” just because he’s first or last author on some of the most important papers of the decade, stop and think about this analogy.

      Collins is important to the scientific enterprise and he has done great service. But simply being the PI in these huge projects does not automatically mean he has his finger on the pulse of the practice of science anymore. He certainly has to have SOME skill, but it may be just business management.

      This rant is really just a venting of my frustration with the trope: “well he IS a great scientist”. It isn’t directed a Neil necessarily, but his post was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Surely, in a free society, we have the right to hold silly beliefs as long as we don’t try to impose them on others.

      Of course, but no one is claiming that Collins doesn’t have the right to hold silly beliefs. But (as Jerry points out) he doesn’t just hold them, he very energetically argues for them; he makes strong claims about them; he writes books and gives lectures about them. Other people get to dispute them. That’s what we’re doing. We ‘have the right’ to do that.

      • Tulse
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        he doesn’t just hold them, he very energetically argues for them

        And does so while holding an official government position, and one of the highest science posts in government, thus at least implicitly suggesting that these positions are not at variance with the position of the Administration.

        As Jerry said, I think the accommodationists here wouldn’t be nearly so sanguine if Collins were discussing his belief in Scientology or Santeria or Asatru. It is only because Christianity is culturally acceptable that such talk from the government’s official health scientist-in-chief is seen as uncontroversial by so many.

    • GM
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      See my comments above

      1) Religion is a lot more harmful than it seems to be, and not a lot more fundamental level than most people usually think about it (which is why they fail to perceive the danger)

      2) Collins is, simply put, not a scientist, because a real scientist thinks like a scientist 24/7/365. While Collins turns his scientific thinking off for large portions of the day

      • GM
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        *and on a lot more fundamental level

  41. Jon H
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Was this written before he took his post, or does he just not have enough work to do?

    Perhaps he should step down to devote his time to his true passion.

  42. Posted February 24, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that he’s going to prove, through the lucubrations of C. S. Lewis (!) and others, that faith is rational. This implies that we faithless are the irrational ones

    How does this follow? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is a good case for faith being rational – it wouldn’t be called faith if it were, but it doesn’t mean that because the faithful are rational that the faithless aren’t.

  43. Passerby
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    … I find it funny. This whole website is all about “Why Evolution Is True”, but all there is here are attacks on articles and books Creationists write. When are you actually gonna show “Why Evolution Is True”?

  44. Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Collins should be canned as the director of the NIH. Not only is he incompetent in his logic but a disgrace to thinking people across the world. Anyone who is dumb enough to put forth such stupid assertions, is obviously not fit to lead the biggest funding agency for science in America.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Bah. The only relevant question is how well he is performing in that position. Free thinkers should be the last to apply thought tests.

      • Vlad
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I disagree, Ken.
        This is no longer a thought test. It is a behavior test. Publishing an anti-science book while serving as something like the chief scientist of the US is public behavior!
        (Especially, if his position as the NIH director is actively used to market said book.)
        I think the criticism is fair. This guy should not represent the scientific community of this country. But, more to the point, he should not be in a position to determine the direction of biomed research of the NIH.

      • GM
        Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        So the public image of science matters nothing?

  45. Cordwainer
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    If there is evidence for God then this can be settled with relative ease. I look forward to reading Francis Collins’ article in the next issue of Nature or Science. Title: “Evidence for a first-cause deity (with beard) sighted at Big Bang”. New data from Hubble Space Telescope consistent with Christian God, etc. Figure 1? There’s something to be said for peer review, and fallacies (autism linked with MMR, HIV not linked with AIDS) are shot down, albeit eventually.

  46. Sigmund
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting that Collins takes the last refuge of the fatheist – NOMA – and concludes that it is, in fact, a barrier to the religious.
    “In the twenty-first century, many seem to have concluded that the spiritual experience and the life of the mind ought to occupy separate domains, and that disruptions, conflicts, and disenchantments will result if the firewall comes down. Surely humanity’s ongoing search for truth is not enriched by such limitations.”
    Presumably we’ll hear the accomodationists criticize Collins for roasting this particular sacred cow.

    • chris
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 3:37 am | Permalink

      It’s the Maginot Line syndrome Sigmund, their guns are designed to only point in one direction.

  47. Posted February 25, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Oh lordy!

    For such a smart man Collins is astonishingly stupid.

    I don’t understand him at all – why is he so scared of doubt? Of gaps? Are these not the things that drive forward intellectual curiosity?

    I hate not learning something new every day. But I’d hate thinking there wasn’t anything left to learn even more.

    Collins should step down.

  48. newenglandbob
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Victor Stenger is on Point of Inquiry with DJ Grothe:

    The New Atheist, Part 1 of 3:

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/victor_stenger_the_new_atheists_part_one/

  49. Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Shhh, stop complaining about Collins – don’t you realise how big a favour he’s doing us? After all, we all know from framing that loudly proclaiming a view is the worst way to spread it, so the more Collins argues that science and faith are compatable the more the public will believe that they aren’t!

    • Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Nononono, that applies only to atheists, of course. Tut tut – read chapter 1 again.

  50. Vlad
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Ok, so is there a mechanism by which we, in the US, can influence Collins’ continued employment as the director of NIH. Where can one find a solid petition to sign?
    So far I only found this:

    http://firefranciscollins.com/

    However, I find the text of the petition somewhat lacking…

    • acharyavidyasagar
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Jerry Coyne:
      1.
      Is it fair to say that he is using his office? Could he not of said the same things even if he were not occupying that position. Do his statements carry weight because of his office? If so, for whom?

      2.
      But this may be exactly what he wanted to do.

      3.
      He has exercised that right.

      4.
      I am not sure if it is judicious or not. But I would agree it is not very scientific.

      5.
      Maybe now. Maybe not fifty years from now.

      6.

      Maybe nothing terrible would happen if this happened fifty years from now.
      7.

      Only scientifically awakened people would. Not all people.

      8.

      But that happens to be the case. Unless and until Christianity is replaced by an equivalent socially sanctioned superstition (which is bound to happen) one can’t stop this. One can/should always protest and criticize and condemn. We may be grateful for that. Even this is not possible in societies that have and/or acquiring nuclear weapons.

      9.

      I rather doubt that the director of NIH is the chief scientist of the American government.

      10.

      He isn’t the only one, nor even the only scientist..

      10.

      According to the first statement in this piece, Collins is using it, not blowing it.

      11.

      That, in the system, is for him to decide.

      12. With all that, I share Jerry Coyne’s shock and disappointment that Francis Collins, occupying such a prestigious science-related public post, lends his name to denominational God-talk,

      V. V. Raman
      February 25, 2010

    • GM
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Not easy, because a lot of people will be afraid to stand up against him. Even tenured professors are highly dependent on NIH grants, so few of them will think it is a good idea to become enemies with him over religion, furthermore the majority of them are too busy writing grants, publishing papers, serving on committees, reviewing other people’s papers and grants, consulting biotech companies, and a myriad other things to ever sit down and think about how Francis Collins’ beliefs influence science as a whole. And tenured professors are about as independent and having little to lose if they do this as it gets.

      So it simply won’t happeb

  51. Michele
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree with Collins, but I think he is good at his job and a good biologist. His theological writings are a distraction, but everyone has a right to a hobby.

    And as far as Evangelicals go, his theological view is a lot less dangerous and much more scholarly than most of the stuff foisted on the American public these days, which in general is a caricature of both science and Christianity.

    He supports evolution and encourages reading about God, and thought. Scarily enough, thought and reading theology are actually discouraged by many Evangelical churches these days, which instead support a theology of blind Biblical literalism (the Christianity of Huckabee and his ilk) which is what leads to evil nonsense like not teaching evolution in church, nor believing in global warming, and opposing gay marriage.

    While I am a non-believer myself, I always think the arguments theistic scientists make are more interesting than the New Atheist “THERE’S NO GOD” stuff.

    Though I do think John Polkinghorne is better. The physicists seem to do better than the biologists at that sort of stuff, e.g. Sagan vs Dawkins on the other side.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 25, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Although I lack your interest in the ideas of scientifically-trained theists, I agree with your assessment of Dr. Collins’s latest offering. His audience is evangelical Christians, and his intent is to confront fundamentalism. When, in his introduction, he compares atheists and Ken Hamm, it is by way of disparaging Ken Hamm. Nobody friendly to naturalism is going to buy this book.

    • Sigmund
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:28 am | Permalink

      I think you are mistaken in saying the new atheists state “Theres no God”. I think this is one of the key points that distinguishes the new atheists from the old atheists. I was reminded of this point a few weeks ago when PZ Myers posted an old video of Bertrand Russell being interviewed about God in which he came across far more ‘strident’ and sure of claiming the non existence of God than any of the new atheists. I suspect the reason for this is due to the fact that ‘new atheism’ is primarily a scientific rather than a philosophical based movement and as such it deals with evidence in favor or against particular hypotheses rather than absolute proof.
      Most of the new atheists I have heard on the question will say that there is no evidence against the idea of a non intervening deistic ‘God’. That is in contrast to the huge amount of evidence against intervening Gods and the claims made on their behalf.

      • Notagod
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        ..no evidence against the idea of a non intervining deistic ‘God’.

        Yes, in the same way that there is no evidence against the idea of a non intervening ‘Dog’ or, ‘Frog’ or, ‘Dirt Clod’.

  52. Miranda
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    “Collins brings up the “fine-tuning” of the universe (“The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical constants] were to vary by even the tiniest degree, a universe capable of sustaining any imaginable form of life would be impossible.”)

    God of the gaps! Fine-tuning, therefore Jesus.”

    Actually, I think he was just going for: “Fine-tuning, therefore Intelligence.” Getting logically to Jesus is a whole ‘nother step, and both Collins and you know that.

    Is the counter-position, “Fine-tuning, just luck” or “Fine-tuning, just one of many multiverses” a more intellectually satisfying position?

    • Occam
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:52 am | Permalink

      At least a position that would avoid the gross teleogical fallacy of Collins’ “conclusion”:
      A: we’re here.
      B: we think we have identified a number of pre-conditions (≈ physical constants) in the universe which allow for our being here.
      C: therefore the universe was designed in such a way that we should be here.

      C is really what Collins is stating, in the context. But C does in no way follow conclusively from A and B. Adding “intelligence” to C is just adding another layer of fallacy, a particularly unwarranted one.

      “Luck” or “multiverses” are workable, testable hypotheses, at least in principle.

      But there comes worse. How can a scientist state categorically which forms of life are not at all imaginable without seeing that he is exploding position C?

      • Sigmund
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:13 am | Permalink

        The fine tuning argument is nothing but the old fashioned argument from design applied to the realm of physics rather than biology. Indeed it’s a principle plank of the Intelligent Design movement and it’s physicist supporters like Guillermo Gonzalez.
        Not only that but its directly contradictory to theistic claims of miracles – you cannot claim that the universe is fine tuned such that any slight deviation in the known physical constants would render current forms of matter impossible while simultaneously claiming that the same laws of physics can be changed at the whim of an intervening God with little consequences to the universe.

      • Occam
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:52 am | Permalink

        Precisely. Nicely worded, and brutally blunt.
        But the more troubling question is: how can the ‘chief government scientist’ utter such ineptitudes? Is the U.S. government’s scientific doctrine already pandering to the 79% who believe in miracles, according to the Pew survey?
        If so, why not rely on miracles and cut back on everything, from health insurance to protective armour to seatbelts?

      • Miranda
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        ” — “Luck” or “multiverses” are workable, testable hypotheses, at least in principle.”

        Barely.

  53. Posted February 28, 2010 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Maybe Collins’s God can get the NIH a budget that does more than keep up with inflation. God knows, Collins sure as shit hasn’t managed it. Haha. We thought he might be better than that useless wasteoid, Zerhouni…


14 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] encore les mêmes réactions, y compris par Coyne et [...]

  2. [...] has a new book due out soon. Jerry Coyne has already covered it more interestingly than I can here, but this quote from Collins really got me. The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical [...]

  3. [...] has a new book due out soon. Jerry Coyne has already covered it more interestingly than I can here, but this quote from Collins really got me. The conclusion is astounding: if any of these [physical [...]

  4. [...] Collins personal story – Encountering Jesus | Facebook I was just reading about him here: Francis Collins can’t help himself Why Evolution Is True __________________ Economic Left/Right: -3.25 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.90 omnia dicta [...]

  5. [...] Jerry Coyne’s response pretty much nails it: I was under the impression that when Collins came aboard as NIH director, he was going to give up the public religious proselytizing, or at least his penchant for telling everyone the Good News: science proves the existence of God. I was wrong. [...] [...]

  6. [...] Reason for Faith, which claims to prove “once and for all the rationality of faith.” As Coyne writes on his blog: Enough is enough. Collins is director of the NIH, and is using his office to argue publicly that [...]

  7. [...] Jerry Coyne, somewhat militant atheist, yesterday argued that Francis Collins, "the most important scientist in the US" according to Coyne himself, should resign. [...]

  8. [...] Francis Collins can’t help himself Even though Collins is now director of the National Institutes of Health, the love of Jesus is still welling up inside [...] [...]

  9. [...] Heddle who reminded me of Coyne this week by drawing attention to his further complaints. Coyne said this week that Collins’s Christianity disqualifies [...]

  10. [...] your faith brings scorn – occasionally ridiculous scorn – from your colleagues (see: calls for Francis Collins to step down as head of the NIH for making unrelated comments outside of a [...]

  11. [...] Immunology to Francis Collins: You’re not helping A while back I wrote about Francis Collins’s new edited collection, Belief: Reading on the Reason for [...]

  12. [...] opposition to that research comes from his own confrères: conservative Christians wielding the very same “moral law” that Collins sees as given by God.  Do tell us, Dr. Collins, why is your reading of The Moral Law better than that of these [...]

  13. [...] of Chicago biologist, Jerry Coyne, says it is in this post from last year where he is commenting on why, Francis Collins, the director of the National [...]

  14. [...] has no problem with discrimination against a scientist because of religious belief. Coyne took strong exception to NIH director Francis Collins’ public discussion of his Christian beliefs: Collins gets [...]

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