Posted by: salamandercandy | August 7, 2006

My $0.02 on Francis Collins

Francis Collins, the Head of the Human Genome Project, has recently written The Language of God, on his experiences as a scientist and an evangelical Christian. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read his recent interview at Salon.com (via Pharyngula). Collins is not a creationist; he believes in evolution by natural selection over billions of years. Unlike most biologists, though, he also believes in a personal God who performed the miracles described in the New Testament. His complete acceptance of both science and the Bible feels a little odd and contrived to me, but it is a valid position to take. In fact, I’m going to posit that his outspoken stance is a very good thing for the public perception of science.


I do not share Dr. Collins’ theological beliefs, but there is no scientific evidence that can prove them wrong. Unless your religion includes flat-out rejection of sound science, as in the “intelligent design” movement, Dr. Collins is absolutely right that science and religion are compatible. Science remains mute on the issue of whether God exists. Therefore, agnosticism is the only truly rational position, and both atheists and believers are equally irrational in the leaps of faith that they take. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being irrational sometimes. To live, we must often act on assumptions about which we not are absolutely sure. I just wish both camps would acknowledge their irrationality more often.

Furthermore, the process of science assumes that miracles do not occur, and seeks to explain observations without relying on the supernatural. This is definitely not the same as saying that science has proven that miracles do not occur. I don’t think there is very good evidence for, say, the virgin birth of Jesus, so Dr. Collins is being a little silly for believing in it. But he is not being anti-scientific, unless he starts using the virgin birth as a scientific explanation (for example, if he tries to explain polymorphism on the human Y chromosome by invoking occasional virgin births of males, accompanied by the divine creation of brand new Y’s).

I am not a Christian, and I would be happy to see Christianity fall by the wayside, along with other mythologies that no one actually believes anymore (however, I certainly would not want religion to disappear, and I would hope that humans will continue to embrace the lessons and stories of Christianity, just as we value the teachings of the ancient Greeks without actually believing in Zeus). I suspect Christianity is here to stay, though, at least for a while, so people like Francis Collins are essential for reminding Christians that the words of Darwin and Jesus are not in conflict. The last thing we want is billions of believers who are aggressive towards science, because they perceive it as a threat to their faith.

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Responses

  1. I’m not sure about the way you frame ‘atheism’ vs. agnosticism. Of course, any debate about that is a debate about semantics, so I’ll just say that my personal preference for the meaning of agnosticism falls back to the man who coined the word, Thomas Huxley. For Huxley, it had to do with scientific method and the nature of knowledge (gnosis). You only know things for which you have evidence; without evidence, there is no knowledge. Huxley meant that any positive statements of ‘existence’ must be based on evidence at hand, and because there is no evidence for the existence of god, there is no knowledge of god’s existence. Therefore, although I think Huxley would agree with you that agnosticism is the rational choice, I think he might disagree with you as to why; that is, Huxley would never have argued that science is mute on the existence of God. What I like about Huxley’s notion of agnosticism (which has been lost in a haze of fence sitting) is that it is scientific in its orientation by asserting that there is no god because there is no evidence of god, but were evidence for god’s existence to emerge, it would reverse our knowledge. Science isn’t mute, but rather says you cannot study something that does not evidentially exist, because it cannot be observed/experimented upon/measured.

    Apologies to Huxley for imputing, projecting, and otherwise putting words in his mouth. And apologies to Salamander for splitting hairs, because in general I agree with your post.


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