Okay, this really burns my onions: the latest National Geographic has a piece by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in both the paper and online version: “Why I’m a man of science—and faith.”
Aside from science popularizers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Collins is probably America’s most visible (and certainly its most powerful) scientist—and he’s also an evangelical Christian. I’ve written before about how his faith creeps into what he tells the public about science. He’s baldly claimed, for example, that our instinctive and distinctive human morality could not have evolved or developed by culture alone, so God’s behind it. And he wrote a book, The Language of God, that describes not only his conversion to Jesus after encountering a frozen waterfall, but also argues that things like morality and the “fine tuning” of the universe cannot be understood by science, but only by faith.
Well, Collins has now managed to sneak his Christianity-infused science in to the pages of a respectable magazine. He gets to answer three questions about his faith and his science, and the answers are even worse than usual. To wit:
Are science and religion compatible?
I am privileged to be somebody who tries to understand nature using the tools of science. But it is also clear that there are some really important questions that science cannot really answer, such as: Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are we here? In those domains I have found that faith provides a better path to answers. I find it oddly anachronistic that in today’s culture there seems to be a widespread presumption that scientific and spiritual views are incompatible.
Here he’s espousing the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) reconciliation rather than the “god-of-the-gaps” reconciliation (but see below), but note that what he’s saying is that science and religion are not compatible but complementary. I hate having to to address this issue yet again, but I have no choice.
First, science can answer, at least in principle, answer those hard questions; it’s just that Collins and his fellow believers don’t like the answers. Why are we here? Because of the Big Bang, the laws of physics, and evolution. Why is there something instead of nothing? Well, if you conceive of “nothing” as a quantum vacuum, then the answer is that such a “nothing” is unstable and will produce a universe. But of course you can ask Collins the reverse question: why must nothing rather than something be the default state? Why couldn’t the Universe or its antecedents (or a multiverse) have been around for eternity? Finally, if Collins says the answer is God, where did God come from? Theologians love to sneer at that question, but it remains trenchant. For if they answer that God, by definition, was always around, well, one could say the same thing about the Universe! Was God just hanging around in empty space (not a quantum vacuum), twiddling his Metaphorical Thumbs until, after a long eternity, he decided, “Hey, why don’t I make a Universe!”?
But what’s really ludicrous about Collins’s response is his claim that “faith provides a better path to answers”. It doesn’t, for faith has no way to verify that any answer is right. Saying that “there is something rather than nothing because of God” is not an answer. It’s an untestable guess. At least science has some answers (re the quantum vacuum) that are testable. And “Why are we here?” seems to me to be answered more adequately by saying “because life originated through material processes and then evolved” than by saying, “Well, a God whose existence I can’t prove must have done it.” The second part of that answer, about evolution is true; and the first is actually addressable by science.
In our children’s lifetime, I think, science will have demonstrated an origin of life in the lab under early-Earth conditions. When we do that, then Collins’s question “Why are we here?” will have been answered to our satisfaction. It could have happened through pure, natural chemistry and the subsequent evolution of naturally-originating and replicating molecules.
Finally, different religions give different answers to these “why” and “meaning” questions. Could Collins tell us why his answer (a creation by the Abrahamic God) is superior to that of the Inuit, Muslim, or Hindu answers? Science will eventually converge on one answer (if it can find an answer), but religion never will.
When people think of those views as incompatible, what is lost?
Science and faith can actually be mutually enriching and complementary once their proper domains are understood and respected. Extreme cartoons representing antagonistic perspectives on either end of the spectrum are often the ones that get attention, but most people live somewhere in the middle.
Seriously, “mutually enriching and complementary”? How is that? What does religion have to add to science these days, given that most scientific advances are made by atheists? Certainly science “enriches” religion, but does so by showing that its epistemic claims are wrong. The “dialogue” between science and religion consists in reality of a one-way monologue: science tells religion that its claims are wrong, and religion then grouses or, if it’s of a liberal bent, eventually accepts the science, rationalizing that of course that’s the way God would have done it all along.
When Collins says “most people live somewhere in the middle,” he means that most Americans accept the bulk of science (except perhaps evolution and the Big Bang), but also accept superstitions like God, Heaven, miracles, and the afterlife. But that’s just a mixture of rationality and superstition, not a rational and coherent stance. As P.Z. Myers once said, such a view doesn’t mean that you’re standing on some inclusive middle ground, but are only halfway to crazy town.
You’ve said that a blooming flower is not a miracle since we know how that happens. As a geneticist, you’ve studied human life at a fundamental level. Is there a miracle woven in there somewhere?
Oh, yes. At the most fundamental level, it’s a miracle that there’s a universe at all. It’s a miracle that it has order, fine-tuning that allows the possibility of complexity, and laws that follow precise mathematical formulas. Contemplating this, an open-minded observer is almost forced to conclude that there must be a “mind” behind all this. To me, that qualifies as a miracle, a profound truth that lies outside of scientific explanation.
I doubt that many physicists would agree that it’s a “miracle” that there’s a universe at all. If there was an eternal multiverse, then our own universe with the proper physical laws becomes inevitable. If not, well, then what Collins is saying is the same as saying that whatever hand we draw at bridge, it’s a miracle.
Frankly, it’s offensive (and antiscientific) when Collins claims that “an open-minded observer” must conclude from the “fine tuning” argument that there is God. Such blather impugns every physicist (and that’s most of them) who thinks that there’s a physical answer to the fine-tuning argument—but we may never know it. Or, at bottom, the answer might be “that’s just the ways the laws of physics are.” Saying that the answer must be “God” because of the Argument from Frozen Waterfalls is nonsensical. It’s caulking the gaps in our knowledge with unsubtantiated and superstitious claims. Remember that God or demons used to be the default explanation for lightning, mental illness, the orbits of the planets, magnetism, the remarkable design-like features of organisms, and so on. The “fine tuning” argument is just the latest version of this natural theology.
And here we see not a NOMA-ish complementarity, but the bald claim that religion provides answers about the Universe not accessible to science. In this case, God is the explanation for fine-tuning: the laws of physics allow us to exist because God made those laws. And here Collins distorts science in a way that’s harmful to public understanding. Does he not know that physicists have addressed the fine-tuning problem? Has he read Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll’s non-theistic response to his argument?
Here we see, in the pages of National Geographic, America’s most powerful scientist telling the public—and that magazine has a huge audience—that God is the “open minded person’s” best answer to “why is there a universe, and why it has order.” That, dear readers, is a corruption of science by a public official who should know better. Collins has averred—and I document this in Faith versus Fact—that god-of-the-gaps arguments are treacherous, for those gaps may narrow as science advances, squeezing out God. Yet here he adduces such a gappy argument for the Universe. He does the same thing for morality. Because he don’t understand how humans could evolve (or acquire through secular culture) instinctive feelings of morality, and sometimes behave altruistically, God must have done it. But, as I show in my book, there’s suggestive evidence that morality can evolve through both evolution and the rationality that we also evolved.
Why did National Geographic publish this kind of stuff, using theology to answer scientific questions? It is, of course, because of the penchant of “scientific” magazines and organizations (viz., The American Association for the Advancement of Science) to coddle religion under the misguided (or at least unproven) idea that if we say that religion is compatible with science, or even useful to it, religious people will be more willing to embrace science. But of course there’s no evidence for that idea, and some evidence against it. (Recent surveys, for example, show that people who reject global warming and evolution on religious grounds are even more obdurate when they know more about the scientific consensus on these issues!)
In the interests of fairness, I ask National Geographic to allow me to answer three questions as well, in a short piece called “Why I am a man of science—and no faith.” Or if that’s too provocative: “Why I am a man of science—and naturalism.” What do you think the chances are that they’d allow me to write such a piece?
Slim to nil, I’d say, but when I get to Boston I’ll put my offer in the comments on Collins’s piece. (They’re in the upper right bit of Collins’s piece. If you wish to comment on his piece, I’d urge you to weigh in in that section. (The existing comments are a mix of naturalism and goddy-coddling.)