Religion Does Pollute Science

Thanks to PZ Myers for the links to this Jerry Coyne piece on Francis Collins (Obama’s choice for NIH Director) lecture at UC Berkeley. (And a review by Sam Harris.)

Dr. Collins will have more responsibility for biomedical and health-related research than any person on earth, controlling an annual budget of more than $30 billion. He will also be one of the foremost representatives of science in the United States. For this reason, it is important that we understand Dr. Collins and his faith as they relate to scientific inquiry.

Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

Scary – thoughts to follow, afer this paraphrase of Collins story: (Note that Harris, Coyne and Myers all quote the five/six bullets – presented in slides and elaborated in speech.)


Compare – York Minster Rose Window
With – End View of DNA
Can take a  s
piritual view ?
[Post Note – My hero Jacob Bronowski makes a very similar observation about the symmetrical beauty of the end view of DNA in “The Ascent of Man”]

Home-schooled (non-religious). Agnostic >> Quantum Physics & Mathematics >> Atheist >> Biology (digital nature) >> Med School >> People >> Death >> Comfort >> Decision-making rigour >> Why believe anything ? >> CS Lewis (Mere Christianity) >> Plausibility of God >> Doubting atheism >> Faith might be a rational choice.
[So far so good.]

Limits of Naturalism – Questions self-evidently not amenable to science
Why is there something rather than nothing ?
Why am I here anyway ?
What happens after I die ?
Is there a (supernatural) God (ie outside natural science) ?

Pointers / suggestions against strict atheism.
(Critics note – Collins doesn’t in fact present these as scientific theses or assertions. Just “pointers” notice. Though later he clearly does talk of his Christian faith in a personal God in a scientific context with much greater certainty.)

  • There is something rather than nothing.
  • Amenability of nature to pure / elegant maths – a mathematical “construction” by design.
  • A beginning – the big-bang / expansion – creator has to be super-natural otherwise infinite regress of first cause (the something rather than nothing).
  • Fine tuning argument – evolution of human complexity “planned into” physical constants. Cannot be coincidence – either infinite parallel multiverses (explaining nothing) or laws set “on purpose”. ie anthropic arguments.
  • The Moral Law – CS Lewis “right & wrong”. Radical altruism (Oskar Schindler / Dirk Willems).

He’s not a philosopher, but …. Kant. >> Jesus >> Faith >> Colbert Q&A !

Evolution is a very sound theory (as sound as Gravity). Evolution does not violate the 2nd Law (of Thermodynamics). DNA is the main “fossil record” with high certainty. Specific examples in human chromosome-2 & pseudogene evidence.

Dawkins God delusion >> GK Chesterton >> See Time Magazine “God vs Science” >> The “kind of god” is the key issue of supernatural possibility >> (Jose ?) Ayala >> St.Augustine’s Genesis (ie without Prejudice – ie Boundary to nature always being pushed back) >> No to “Young Earth” Creationism, No to Intelligent Design, No to “irreducible complexity” arguments, No to “god of the gaps”.

God’s plan – presented as Collins thesis:
(claimed by the America Science Affiliation)

Almighty God, who is not limited in space and time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago, with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.

God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most expecially that creative plan inlcuded human beings.

After evolution had planned a sufficiently advanced “house” (the human brain) God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (The moral law), with free will and with an immortal soul.

We humans used our free will to break the moral law leading to our estrangement from God (Adam & Eve). For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.

If moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as right or wrong; good or evil. It’s all an illusion. This is a profound consequence of the atheistic view.

What to call this “Theistic Evolution” ?
Bios (Life) Logos (The Word) …. “speaking life into being”.


Some (but not all) of that is scary.

In a large measure, the issues that turned Collins towards theistic belief are the issues that leave me interested in metaphysics and fundamental physics – but no less certain of evolutionary explanations of the cosmos on all levels – including human nature and ethics / moral law.

(1) The “something rather than nothing” – first-cause / creation – question, and that something including the fundamental axioms and laws ?

(2) The “anthropic” & “fine-tuning” views that suggest our place may be special in some pre-ordained teleological sense ?

The emergence of something complex from nothing (nothing material) is not difficult to accept – but that doesn’t explain an event that “started”  the cosmos and/or time – or any “medium” in which that event occurred. Time and causation are in fact the problematic concepts, where our common sense views are probably flawed. Whatever our metaphysical foundation, we will never get a scientific view from the other side of that event – all metaphysics must suffer from this super-natural hole in its foundation. But that does not say we cannot continue to approach it scientifically, from our side, asymptotically pushing back the boundaries of the knowable world and re-organizing the known world as we do so.

The anthropic question suffers from two problems – one is the illusion of fine tuning which may well be a result of an existing error in quantum / gravitational physics that throws all our calculations out (a la Island). In fact the inelegance is a clue to the error itself. the second is the priviledged human perpective which tends to forget that evolution here or in any supportive environment could have evolved non-human forms of higher intelligence.

None of the other issues about pre-ordained planning and moral laws are an issue. It is quite credible to take the evolutionary view that these emerged. After-life and soul too seem to have little evidence that cannot be rationalized with evolved psychology, and shared consciousness ? This view does not in any way destroy their value or sense of purpose toward greater goods, in fact it surely makes them all the more awesome and treasured. Such teleology is itself evolved in higher-intelligence-nature, quite closely related to Collins own point about evolution being (more than) consistent with the 2nd Law.

The very existence of the fundaments of nature must remain ineffable and awesome – “god given” if you like. Some measure of “faith” in a metaphysical basis – contingent faith in the Augustinian sense – is perfectly reasonable and pragmatic. And god knows, we can all use prophets prepared to teach us the state of the art and significance of our evolved moral laws. If in doubt follow the wise … and learn … but take care worshipping idols.

I am also pretty cool with a “word” metaphor for that ineffable god-head – the source of nature. I happen to have an epistemic metaphysics,  fundamentally algorithmic, significant informational view of fundamental physics which can explain anything and everything evolving from nothing (a la Hofstader or Rowlands say).

But there is absolutely no argument to turn that into a scientifically justified belief in an omniscient, omnipotent (fallible or infallible), pre-planning or ongoing interventionist personal God, beyond the origin of the fundamental laws and axioms (whatever that means).

I too am a creationist in part, in the same sense as Collins – there is (always will be) something supernatural to explain – even Dawkins seems to have a chink on that score. God is an OK metaphor for faith in this this awesome, ineffable, supernatural “first-cause” of nature itself – bearing in mind that cause itself is something that needs explaining anyway. It’s why I care enough to be neither agnostic nor even atheist, but rather non-theist – there is no god in the natural world, whether there is a super-natural one or not. That fact in itself should create doubt that there is even likely to be a supernatural one, other than as a pragmatic metaphor for that which remains to be known at the original boundaries of existence.

But oh dear; … He this, His that … entangled with his ongoing scientific thinking – that is scary Mr Collins. Downright woolly thinking. It belies the limits to his areas of scientific and philosophical expertise.

Pragmatically, as was suggested when Collins was first nominated – perhaps he is a good political compromise “theist” to have in a US position of scientific power – more than palatable to moderate, (even less-moderate) believers. Perhaps there is a bigger picture here ? Less chance of a Dawkins (dare I say a Ditchkins) turning science into an ill-informed, one-sided and bloody crusade against opposing faiths ? Science pollutes religion too.

4 thoughts on “Religion Does Pollute Science”

  1. Ah interesting.

    Saw your other comment on PZ Myers. I know what you mean. He covers most of my agenda – but he is often one of those on the same scientific fundamentalist tack as Dawkins and the like – so I have to temper what he actually says – as I do here.

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