As I reported two days ago, NIH head Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, just nabbed the lucrative Templeton Prize, usually given to people who are both science minded and blather on about the “Big Questions”: metaphysical “why” questions like “Why are we here?” or “What is our purpose?” Designed to exceed the Nobel Prize in dosh, the prize enriched Collins by a cool $1.3 million. Below is a photo of his press conference and the announcement of the award, in which Collins, unlike Tr-mp, is setting a good example by being properly masked.
Before I proceed to take apart Collins’s “theology”, such as it is, let me say that by all accounts he’s a really nice guy. Remember when he helped Christopher Hitchens get the best cancer treatment, even though Hitchens mocks and reviles everything Collins holds sacred? I’m sure I’d enjoy having a beer with the guy—until the conversation turned to God.
Apparently there was an NPR interview with Collins yesterday, but it isn’t online yet. I’ll link to it when it appears. But if you want a precis of his views, John Horgan interviewed Collins for Scientific American in 2006 and, as far as I know, Collins’s form of Christianity hasn’t changed since then. (You can read about it in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents evidence for Belief.) Horgan has (excuse the metaphor) resurrected the interview to mark Collins’s prize.
Now the “evidence for belief” in Collin’s book and this interview is both thin and unconvincing, and in fact doesn’t go beyond C. S. Lewis in sophistication or novelty. Collins, for instance, argues that the fact that humans have a “Moral Law” constitutes strong evidence for God, as an innate morality could have been bequeathed only by God. That, of course, is ridiculous: not only could evolution instill rudiments of morality, but there’s a cultural veneer on our evolutionary legacy, born of human experience, that can spread from society to society. And, of course, moral dicta are not universal, and I shouldn’t have to mention variations over time or among societies to show that.
Collins notes that he believes in the Resurrection, but avers that God uses miracles sparingly. But that’s one of them, and it’s curious that if God resurrected Jesus so that humans could be saved by their Christian faith, why Collins doesn’t think strongly that Christianity is the “right” religion? He goes on at length about Christianity not being privileged with the unique truth about God? But if there are many “right” religions, why his adherence to Christianity?
Further, Collins explains immorality—those who break God’s law—as a result of God’s having given us free will. This is, of course, not compatibilist free will that coxists comfortably with determinism, but libertarian free will. This is what his fellow evangelicals, who are many, believe as well. Those who claim that most people who espouse free will are really compatibilists are wrong.
Collins and Horgan:
Horgan: 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?
Collins: That is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with. First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, 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.
Horgan: The physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, has written about this topic. He asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.
Collins: 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?
Once again, we have to deal with the idea that God gave people free will so they could freely choose whether or not to accept Jesus (I suspect this would be Collins’s take). And if you make the wrong choice, you’re punished unto eternity? That then turns into the question of why God did this. Why is free will so important? For surely God knew that this would lead to untold suffering, so why couldn’t He just give people a form of free will that allows them to choose a saviour, but doesn’t allow them to commit moral evil? Or can’t He give you that form of free will? I thought he was omnipotent!
Well, it’s all obscure, of course (Collins doesn’t answer). But when it comes to physical evil: tsunamis, earthquakes, childhood cancers, and other bad stuff that doesn’t result from human “choice”, well, it’s all very murky—but God has his reasons!
Horgan: Some theologians, 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.”
Collins: That’s delightful–and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and of 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.
Here we have a watertight edifice that can’t be refuted. Collins has enough “evidence” to know that God exists, gave us morality and free will, but he’s not quite sure why. But he is sure we have libertarian free will. Why? Because twins tell us! Apparently Horgan is also a libertarian free-willer, at least judging by the following exchange. (My emphasis.)
Horgan: Free will 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?
Collins: 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.
Why, exactly, do the differences between identical twins in thought and behavior give any evidence for free will rather than the non-goddy explanations like “learning and experience” (or somatic mutation)?
And with that I’ll stop, because Collins is just spouting boilerplate Lewis-ian Christianity for the masses. And if I do say so myself, his views are theologically unsophisticated. But I’ll take that back, for to deem any form of theology “sophisticated” is to commit a profound error of thought.