The passion of Francis Collins

Francis Collins, nominee for NIH director Francis Collins, NIH chief nominee

By Jeremy Manier

This was a busy week for biomedical news. The National Institutes of Health got a new nominee for its director, Francis Collins; the NIH finalized new rules for funding of research on embryonic stem cells; and swine flu got a new quasi-official name: “Pandemic H1N1 2009.”

Of the three events, the naming of Francis Collins as NIH chief may have the biggest long-lasting effects. Pending his confirmation, Collins will take over NIH at a time of rebounding budgets fueled by recovery funds, setting the course for the world’s most powerful research body.

But Collins’ nomination is causing more controversy than I would have thought possible.

I’ve talked with Collins in his prior capacity as director of the Human Genome Project and more recently in connection with his interest in reconciling science and religion. Collins, an evangelical Christian, has drawn heavy criticism from scientific atheists like PZ Myers and our own Jerry Coyne. Myers clearly admires Collins’ organizational skills, but describes him as a “lovable dufus” when it comes to issues of religion and some scientific principles. Coyne says he “can’t help but be a bit worried” about some of Collins’ religious views, including his conviction that the evolution of humans was in some sense inevitable. The psychologist and author Steven Pinker said he has “serious misgivings” about Collins’ appointment, calling him “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.”

Based on my interviews with Collins and reading of his work, most of these criticisms seem unfair.

It’s certainly true that Collins wants to reconcile religion with, for example, evolutionary biology. And this is something that naturalists such as Coyne and Richard Dawkins say cannot be done. But time and again in my lengthy talk with Collins about his book “The Language of God,” he stressed that he’s never thought religion should modify what science shows to be true. “I believe in truth, and I think we shouldn’t be afraid of truth,” he said. “If you believe in God as the creator of the universe, that can hardly be threatened by our efforts to understand how nature works.”

As Chris Wilson wrote this week in Slate, “Most of the time, Collins starts with the science and then reconciles the religion with it.” For a scientist to take issue with this approach seems gratuitous, bordering on intolerant.

On the other hand, like many of the critics I take issue with some of the content on Collins’ website for his BioLogos Foundation. The idea that God affects evolution or other natural processes through unmeasurable influences on quantum events strikes me as a game of three-card Monte – “Oops, you thought God had to act through overt miracles, but actually he was hiding with Heisenberg the whole time. Thanks for playing.”

But even on the BioLogos site, Collins and his crew make some fair points. A section called “God’s Relationship to Time” claims that as creator of the universe, God also would have created time, and would exist in some sense outside of time. This is relevant to the question of divine action, since it raises the possibility that such influence does not consist of supernatural intervention but is part of a larger scheme that was “baked into the cake” of the universe from the start. This seems to me more fundamental than a simple case of three-card monty. It’s a question that thinkers from St. Augustine to Heidegger have grappled with. It certainly doesn’t suggest an “anti-scientific” mindset.

As Wilson notes, for the most part Collins targets issues that seem by definition to be unsolvable by science; he’s not squeezing God into gaps that science has not yet solved, and he’s not challenging any facts that science has revealed. For example, Collins is understandably curious about the origins of life, but he dismisses the idea that because those origins are still murky, they require a divine explanation. When it comes to hard-core biology, Collins does not look for answers in Genesis.

This indicates a species of faith that Collins’ atheist critics share. It’s the faith that the dogged pursuit of empirically solvable questions will lead to answers we can trust, and that most of nature’s interesting mysteries will yield to rational explanations. That’s the sort of faith that should serve an NIH director well.

4 Comments on The passion of Francis Collins

  1. Jerry Coyne // July 13, 2009 at 6:30 am //

    Oh dear, the equation of science with religion by a science journalist! Really, it doesn’t do the dialogue any good to that science is a “species of faith.” We trust in rational inquiry because it’s been proven to work, time and time again. It’s not “faith” to act, and expect results, based on a methodology that is known to work. That’s completely different from religious faith, which is trust based on personal revelation and dogma.

    Creationists and other science deniers are always saying that science is no better than religion at finding out “truth” because both are, in the end, based on faith. This statement completely misses the important difference between the two. It simply confuses matters to have them conflated on a science blog.

  2. Hey Jerry! So you think merely using the word “faith” means I’m equating science with religion? That didn’t occur to me, and it’s certainly not my meaning. By faith I mean simply “confident belief,” though “rational confidence” might do even better.

    We agree that confidence in the scientific method bears virtually no resemblance to religious faith. My point is that people like Collins (and you) possess a rational confidence in the scientific method, which the intelligent design people lack. Unlike Collins, they have no expectation that science will yield answers to difficult questions in biology. They harbor an irrational skepticism about the scientific method. But Collins is the sort of person who (normally) doesn’t give up on a scientific puzzle just because it’s hard.

    If religion has irretrievably sullied the word “faith” for you, I’m fine calling it “warranted optimism.”

  3. Jerry Coyne // July 13, 2009 at 11:02 am //

    “When it comes to hard-core biology, Collins does not look for answers in Genesis.”

    I guess he does in physics, though, for he imputes the laws of physics to divine cosmic tuning that created a universe in which the appearance of a God-fearing species was inevitable. There are, of course, scientific explanations for the appearance of “fine tuning.” We just don’t know at this point. I guess Collins’s “warranted optimism”, though, has led him to dismiss them.

    Collins has also concluded, from his empirical perception of a frozen waterfall, that God exists–not just God, but the Christian God:

    “I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”

  4. Well, now you’re equating science with religion. I used “warranted optimism” to describe Collins’ view of science, not his religious faith.

    Along with many physicists, I don’t think science is set up to explain where the laws of physics came from. I don’t despair of any answer appearing, though the multiverse idea strikes me as unusually weak, barely even science. If I had to bet I’d say I will die without science or religion ever giving a concrete answer about the origins of the laws of physics.

    Anyway, that Collins is willing to indulge in speculation on that score and talk about his conversion experience both seem irrelevant to his suitability for the NIH.

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