John Horgan and Francis Collins - The Scientist as Believer

John Horgan, who wrote the article which I reproduced here, had occasion to interview Francis Collins who headed the Human Genome Project.[1] It was an interview from which some interesting, telling and typical statements came forth.

Interestingly, and or perhaps oddly, John Horgan mostly asked Francis Collins theological questions. I was not aware that scientists who were also believers were supposed to be instant theologians but apparently the atheist illogic is that believers should be all knowing because they claim that God is all knowing.

John Horgan stated,
“I must admit that I've become more concerned lately about the harmful effects of religion because of religious terrorism like 9/11 and the growing power of the religious right in the United States.”

This same sentiment has been expressed by virtually every new atheist activist type. Some were atheist activists before but where spurred on, many to stardom, by the attacks and some, such as Sam Harris, began his career as a professional atheist activist on the very eve of 9/11.

Yet, I do wonder if this was a reason or an excuse. Perhaps such an emotionally shocking event did cause them to be suddenly ceased upon by a specific concern about “religion,” “faith,” or—insert alternate term here. Yet, why religion, why faith, why God? Why not other motivating factors such as disputations over territory, struggles for power, fighting for resources, Darwinian struggle to survive as the fittest, etc.?
Had the failed to notice somewhat likewise events in the past? Had they not noticed that, for example, one of the many motivating factor behind Communism was, as explicitly claimed by its founders and leaders, atheism?

Why not make their living by writing, “The Atheism Delusion,” “Materialism is Not Great – How Atheism Spoils Everything,” “The End of Atheism,” “Breaking the Spell – Atheism as a Natural Phenomenon,” etc.

Why not make their living by writing, “The Politics Delusion,” “Territory is Not Great – How Resources Spoils Everything,” “The End of Darwinism,” “Breaking the Spell – Various Motivating Factor for Disputation as Natural Phenomena,” etc.

In any regard, Francis Collins point out the fallacy,
“What faith has not been used by demagogues as a club over somebody's head?...we shouldn't judge the pure truths of faith by the way they are applied any more than we should judge the pure truth of love by an abusive marriage…We shouldn't blame faith for the ways people distort it and misuse it.”

John Horgan stated,
“Many people have a hard time believing in God because of the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life filled with so much suffering?”

Francis Collins responds by stating,
“That is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with.
First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, and discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there.
I know I have learned very little about myself or God when everything is going well. Also, a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at God's feet. God gave us free will, and we may choose to exercise it in ways that end up hurting other people.”

Yet, John Horgan points out that,
“Physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.”

To which Francis Collins states,
“If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You can't blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that's not God's fault.
The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?”

I certainly do not know but I can suspect a few things about Steven Weinberg’s conclusions. Firstly, note the emotive level jumping from generic evil suffering to the Holocaust. I am not claiming that mentioning the Holocaust is somehow verboten and can also empathize having had some of my relatives murdered by Nazis.

Steven Weinberg actually stated,
“It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?”[2]

I do not know about a tumor’s free will but Darwinian mutations have provided tumors with the benefit of living by killing—once the host body dies the tumor dies too, just like us all.

I tend to argue that atheism does nothing about evil.
That is actually makes it worse by guaranteeing that it is for nothing—no ultimate purpose or meaning.
That it cannot be ultimately redeemed.
And that, actually, it serves a very beneficial purpose and meaning since it is for the enjoyment of the evildoer.
Moreover, if the evildoer gets away with it, they simply got to enjoy themselves, period.
However, now I will argue that, in a way, atheism is the ultimate answer to the problem of evil: atheism can simply make evil go away.

Steven Weinberg did not state whether he:
1) Outright rejects free will.
2) Rejects it only when it is considered as part of theology.
3) Accepts it within his particular atheistic worldview.
4) Opts for a predeterminism of some sort—no free will.
5) Or, other.

Yet, the bottom line appears to be:
If there is free will: evil is inevitable.
If there is no free will: evil is inevitable.
Therefore: evil is inevitable.

Yet, atheism can simply make evil go away by appealing to absolutely materialistic processes: evil is merely a part of nature. Steven Weinberg stated that “a certain capacity for pleasure would readily have evolved through natural selection, as an incentive to animals who need to eat and breed in order to pass on their genes.”
Likewise, evil is what we call suffering and suffering amounts to a particular bio-organism’s interpretation of certain sensations or bio-feedback. As Prof. Richard Dawkins stated when it was put to him this way, “your belief that rape is wrong is as arbitrary as the fact that we’ve evolved five fingers rather than six.”
His response was, “You could say that, yeah.”[3]
John Horgan further presses the point thusly,
“Some philosophers, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isn't fully in control of his creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase ‘God the semi-competent.’”

To which Francis Collins responds,
“That's delightful-and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.”

This is a point that I will not belabor here since I will tackle it in the near future with regards to arguments made by Quentin Smith. Suffering comes up again later in the interview.

But what of the question of free will in an absolutely materialistic universe? John Horgan asked about that,
“Freewill is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It's the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don't you worry that science in general and genetics in particular and your work as head of the Genome Project-are undermining belief in free will?”

Francis Collins states,
“You're talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically!
Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don't behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience-and free will.
I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe
elements that say, ‘No, it's all an illusion, we're just pawns in some computer model.’ But I don't think that carries you very far.”

John Horgan asked,
“What do you think about the field of neurotheology, which attempts to identify the neural basis of religious experiences?”

Francis Collins explains,
“I think it's fascinating but not particularly surprising. We humans are flesh and blood. So it wouldn't trouble me-if I were to have some mystical experience myself-to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn't mean that this doesn't have genuine spiritual significance.
Those who come at this issue with the presumption that there is nothing outside the natural world will look at this data and say, ‘Ya see?’ Whereas those who come with the presumption that we are spiritual creatures will go, ‘Cool! There is a natural correlate to this mystical experience! How about that!’”

This is where the erudite elucidations of the preeminent jack of all trades, John Cleese, comes in to play:

This is where all of Sam Harris’ studies in neuroscience will bring him to naught. He is studying to become a neuroscientist not in order to become an unbiased researcher but in order to attempt to prove his particular brand of atheism (See the “Pseudo-Scientific Complex” section of The Sam Harris Trivector). It may one day be shown that God designed us with a receptor in our brains that allow us to perceive God, to perceive other dimensions and or non-physical entities.
Back to, and ending with, suffering as John Horgan asks,
“I'm really asking, does religion require suffering?
Could we reduce suffering to the point where we just won't need religion?”

Francis Collins retorts thusly,
“In spite of the fact that we have achieved all these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top.
So the death rate will continue to be one per person, whatever the means.
We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I don't think we'll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most for something more.”

I would be interested in asking the following questions:
Does atheism require suffering?
Could we reduce suffering to the point where we just won't need atheism?
Atheist, to this very day in which the problem of evil is dead, still, in virtual ubiquity, claim that evil and suffering are the best evidence of God’s non-existence.
What if they could no longer play upon our fears?
What if they did not gain numbers by benefitting from human suffering?
What if they no more encouraged others to blame God for their suffering to the point of having them reject God only to keep on suffering but this time with the disadvantage of not having God to blame for it any longer?

For the reasons outlined above; the fact of evil and suffering in the world is one of the very best reasons for rejecting atheism.

Steven Weinberg stated:
“I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go, when we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world, because we will still be left with the question ‘why?’
Why this theory, rather than some other theory?
For example, why is the world described by quantum mechanics? Quantum mechanics is the one part of our present physics that is likely to survive intact in any future theory, but there is nothing logically inevitable about quantum mechanics; I can imagine a universe governed by Newtonian mechanics instead. So there seems to be an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate.
But religious theories of design have the same problem.”

[1] John Horgan, “Francis Collins The Scientist as Believer,” National Geographic, Feb 2007, p. 34-39
[2] Steven Weinberg, A Designer Universe?
[3] At 4:56 into Dawkins Interview with Justin Brierley

1 comment:

  1. I disagree with you a lot of the time (I'm one of those sappy Christian Humanists, neither of one and chastised by both!) but thanks for this thoughtful post. It brings up an issue that always annoy me when it comes to this debate about science and God.

    I think we have to remember that context is important - when the idea of scientific enquiry was first 'thought up', if that's the right way to describe it, the existence of God was irrelevant. It was treated either as a given that It existed, or It didn't. The purpose of science was to find out the how behind the world, to find out the methodolody of (if it existed) God. Whilst I know most people find the intrinsic order in Nature good reason to become atheists, *perhaps* that is more due to certain ideas about God that aren't necessarily 'true' (let's say theologically).

    There is also the fact (though clouded by less well-informed and less honest apologists) that science has nothing to say on the matter of God's existence (though it may well tell us something about what God is like, which is another matter...) in that sense. Order is there because there is a God, or because there isn't. It doesn't really help establish anything in either direction.

    I will now return to lurking and occasionally tutting (and laughing. With you, I promise!), but it's quite fun reading a theist with as much chutzpah (more, dare I say, given the current zeitgeist) as the 'New' atheist.