Francis Collins, new Templeton Prize winner, pushes woo in a Scientific American interview

May 22, 2020 • 2:00 pm

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.

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, right, received the Templeton Prize for his work to de-escalate mistrust between scientists and people of faith.Andrew Harnik / Pool via Reuters

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.


h/t: Paul

45 thoughts on “Francis Collins, new Templeton Prize winner, pushes woo in a Scientific American interview

  1. There are decent explanations for our moral code, consciousness, free will, sin, etc without bringing up god. A study of any of the some 40 systematic theologies of the main Christian beliefs shows how theologians make up stuff that seems believable until we examine reality. Science pretends to be honest, of course it is not honest in many cases since humans are involved with their vested interests, but at least it usually does not, or is supposed not, to just claims things so there … believe it or else.

  2. Concur with your assessment, especially the last sentence. A throw-back to the 60’s “Right On, Brother!”

  3. Collins: “Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other.”

    One wonders whether there is free will in heaven, and whether, in consequence, people do terrible things in heaven.

    “Innocent people die as a result. You can’t blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that’s not God’s fault.”

    Suppose some laboratory created AI robots with “free will”, let them loose, and the robots ended up killing people, would anyone accept the “not my fault” excuse?

    Isn’t there a legal doctrine around what could be reasonably foreseen? (On which point, isn’t God omniscient?)

    1. “Innocent people die as a result. You can’t blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that’s not God’s fault.”

      So much for the omnipotent or omniscient god. Right back to Epicurus. With a god like that, who needs the devil?

    1. Amen! that he sounds like a fool, but I didn’t expect better of him because I was already familiar with his inane religious beliefs. However, now that I think about it, I recall the first time I heard him dilate on his religious beliefs (in a radio interview years ago,) and I, too, had expected better. It’s painful to read him or hear him expound on such meaningless, mindless nonsense.

  4. Yeah, Collins seems like a nice enough fella; I hope he does something worthwhile (viz., nonreligious) with the dough.

    Better him than me, I suppose. I mean, a guy like me, you hand me a million three, I’m like to piss right through it — though I’d piss through it in style. 🙂

  5. Collin’s thinking simply leads you over a cliff before you take three steps. He says religion lead to morality. Therefore, morality leads to Trump. If he attempts to argue no then tell us how he got here. Religion in this country is exactly how we got Trump. The real steps are – religion leads to republican and that leads to trouble, lots of trouble.

  6. “Templeton Prize >>winner<<”

    I would dispute the notion of “winning” a Templeton Prize. Of course it’d be futile but it is an unusual prize that can be won whose basis is promoting the supernatural, and only one particular version of the supernatural.

  7. I seem to remember that Collins once said something to the effect that research into consciousness was pointless, because consciousness was instilled by God and therefore not accessible to human investigation.

    This caused some consternation among the many researchers who were being funded by the NIH to look into this precise problem. But Collins seems not to have let his personal convictions interfere with his scientific integrity. Thanks for that at least.

  8. An open question to Dr. Francis Collins:

    “Dr. Collins, Why will God not heal any adult amputees? And, is it wrong for such individuals to pray to God for such a miracle?”


    Dawn Flood

  9. Collins: “…An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and of time and…”

    –and idle speculation and spending an entire career in the dull and pointless land of Maybe/Maybe-notsville.

    As for science in support of theology, if there’s one thing the theologically minded should learn from the past, it’s that science progresses, and theology doesn’t. So when it progresses, your theology will sink into the quicksand of history.

    1. Progress is a normative term of value. In that case, one could suggest that science has led to “bad” outcomes, like global warming.

      Instead of using the loaded term “progress”, science is the most reliable method of gaining knowledge. Knowledge is neither good nor bad.

      1. Yes — ‘progress’ is a loaded or overloaded term.

        I think progress can (and, as you point out, should) be clearly defined to restrict it to the sense of simply knowing more about a given subject today than 500 years ago.

        And yes, it is also important to point out that the ‘upward’ trend is only discernible from a considerable distance. Up close it’s a bunch of false turns, odd detours and a vast mass of blind alleys. Its unpredictability should be emphasised, and the idea “following science” must be balanced by the fact that the ‘cutting edge’ is often wrongly identified. Following science means following a vast amount of science that’s been well established for decades or centuries.

        And there are times when I’d avoid using the term ‘knowledge’ too. Philosophers & theologians have built trapdoors everywhere around that too!

  10. “I’m sure I’d enjoy having a beer with the guy—until the conversation turned to God.”

    There’s no amount of beer that would make me talk about God. I’d pass out first. 😉

    1. Oh, I don’t know, Paul. After a couple of pints I could just about lay the whole law down about God. And after another couple of pints I might manage to put Old Nick back in his box as well.

    2. It could be fun if we brushed up on many of the purported gods and their capricious behaviors through time and place.

      Giving the matter the full seriousness it deserves would undoubtable lead the the inexorable conclusion that no gods exist, including his preferred model.

      Some of the stories are fun though.

      1. I’m sure it has been said here before, but I wish that young children were taught about mythologies and religions of the world; how they are similar and how they are different; how they have melded together and how they have determined some beliefs to be heretical; how much pain and suffering many have caused, etc. It might make it harder to fall for one particular religion and god.

  11. Why is free will always associated with morality? It is an unsupported assumption of the free will argument. The hell with morality.

    Once I accepted that I rape and pillage with abandon because I don’t believe in god, I then asked, why haven’t I been caught and punished. The only logical answer is that god must be looking out for me.

  12. I picked up on the allusion to miracles, and an aspect that always strikes me. If god performs a genuine miracle then that, by definition, must interfere with our understanding of the physical, natural world. If it doesn’t then it’s not a miracle. If this happened on a regular basis then we couldn’t live normal lives, because we’d we constantly wondering if our day to day reliance on cause and effect might be disrupted. Science couldn’t progress because it would have an arbitrary and inexplicable factor to deal with. I’d argue that if this has happened even once in the history of mankind then our ability to trust to principles that we as normal and consistent would be undermined.

  13. “One of the world’s most powerful scientists …”

    Which explains why he believes in more impossible things than I ever can.

  14. Collins, like all of them dodges questions or gives insufficient answers.
    I don’t believe he is intelligent, there must be a scam going on.

    As for the proposition that people need difficulty and sufferings to learn to know themselves and god, that is the most asinine thing I have ever heard.
    Despite his claims about himself it is obvious that a life of ease does enable people to pursue an introspective exploratory life.
    That what monasteries and nunneries were for. All religions have system set up to relieve ‘seekers’ from the daily drudge that takes up all their time and energy so they can focus on meditation and prayer day in day out.
    People working from dawn to dusk or who have to endure relentless suffering don’t go ‘seeking’, they can’t
    Collins is a moron.

    As for god appearing every time someone did something evil being ‘impractical’ then how about just once a week, or month, or year, or ever, just to ‘be good’.
    But no, never anything.
    Collins is weak minded.

    As for being given free will and therein lies the problem. Why?
    He says “Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other.”
    How? How can ‘free’ will ‘lead’ anything anywhere. It isn’t logical.
    Determinism ‘leads’ people (possibly) free will does not.
    Free will or otherwise it is the conditions of the world and of a life that lead people to whatever contingencies there are.
    Free will answers nothing. It is a bogus get out of jail free card.
    One of many bogus, erroneous get out of jail free cards they use all the time.

    This supposed free will, if it exists and it can be given subverts gods supposed omnipotence in the process.

    It is all such utter bull twaddle.
    I don’t don’t believe Collins is intelligent. You can’t say stuff like that. it is ridiculous. And especially more so for someone who has actively thought about it. as he has.
    Good grief.

    1. It is possible to be intelligent and have a blind spot in one area. The trick is to compartmentalise the blind spot off from the intelligent, logical, thinking part of the brain.

      1. That must be the case I just can’t see how if one were to honestly appraise that particular belief in the same way you do all others.
        I understand many just beliefs wouldn’t be appraised as they don’t really manifest in important ways, but Collins says he was an atheist (I doubt it) and id aware of the ongoing issues such that he must occasionally review said belief.

        Wilful ignorance perhaps, but id some thinks stupid things when they have been pointed out that means they are stupid, imho.

        Unless he has a state like being in love. That state of mind leaves rationality at the door.

  15. His answers illustrate once again the curious ability of the mind to accept anything for an answer if it just barely sounds plausible. The belief is carried by a fuzzy cloud of assumptions. As it turns out, this isn’t affected at all by the importance of the questions (you’d think that when it involves the Creator of the Universe, it’s somewhat important).

    Richard Feynman discusses this in the famous interview about the feeling of magnets and Aunt Minnie slipping on ice.

    It may not be surprising that common believers don’t think it through. However, it is astonishing that theologians and other professional religious “thinkers” exist as a recognised group when their musings are obviously not any more advanced. What justifies their existence, or the prize, if it is obviously not their insights? Their worth and rewards rest entirely on their social role as religious opinion leaders.

  16. Asking ‘how’ we are able to ask ‘why’ questions is science.

    Asking ‘why’ we are able to ask ‘how’ questions is religion (or motivated reasoning).

  17. Are there reasons that I should be tremendously impressed with Collins as a scientist? I’m not very knowledgeable in biology, and maybe have missed things in what I’ve read about him, and am quite sure he is very competent as a scientific administrator/organizer.

    Ask me that about Atiyah, Serre, Grothendieck,… in mathematics; ask me that about Einstein, Dirac, Witten, a few recent Nobel winners in theoretical physics, I think I can make a reasonable response with specific huge advances these people have made for human intellectual accomplishment, described maybe vaguely but reasonably correctly. Even Darwin, Mendel, Crick.

    I’m sure Collins wrote a perfectly fine Ph.D. thesis, did perfectly acceptable research to end up with a full professorship in Michigan. And I haven’t tried very hard to specifically look up his detailed research accomplishments. But is his work isolating particular genetic material as related to specific diseases some kind of huge advance that few others could have done?

    Lionizing AS a scientist a very effective scientific administrator, someone who for example is excellent at recognizing and encouraging talent, doesn’t appeal to me, despite the latter’s importance. How important and original is what he did as scientist, relatively speaking? Would the history of biology really be much different had he chosen a different career? … even, had one of many other possibles headed NIH?

    The scientific administration is neither here nor there when asking whether that person’s apparently quite disjointed superstitious beliefs are worth considering when pondering one’s own rejection of similar. I just don’t feel like using my time to read his book(s) on this.

    1. Google Scholar

      Typed in “Francis Collins”

      There are results.


      I have a tiny screen. When I’m in front of a big screen I’m going to look for some sort of entry, h-index, etc. like there is for Feynman, Einstein, et al.

    2. I agree that Collins’s religious views seem nonsensical to me, but, he’s got his right to have them, as long as I’m free to have my freedom from religion views. He’s otherwise very admirable for his huge contributions to science and medicine.

      1. Firstly, as a reply to me, let me remind you that I did not question anyone’s right to have any opinion they wish to have aboout anything. Freedom of thought is pretty obviously desirable.

        You refer to “his huge contributions to science”. My remarks just asked whether in fact the hugeness of his contributions were to science itself and not entirely to the organization and administration of science.

        Perhaps you could explain, if it were science itself, restricting yourself to the ones which were huge. Thanks in advance.

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