The panelists include two scientists who are Templeton Prize winners—Francisco Ayala and Paul Davies—as well as two scholars of religion—Elaine Pagels and Thupten Jinpa. Nothing in principle wrong with any of those people, but there is a somewhat obvious omission of a certain viewpoint: those of us who think that science and religion are not compatible. And there are a lot of us! Also, we’re right. A panel like this does a true disservice to people who are curious about these questions and could benefit from a rigorous airing of the issues, rather than a whitewash where everyone mumbles pleasantly about how we should all just get along.
Physicist Chad Orzel feels differently, arguing that it might be right for certain science and religion discussions to not include an incompatibilist:
In the end, I’m not convinced you need anyone on the panel to make the case that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. That idea is out there, coming from both sides of the science-religion split (and you’ll notice they don’t have any young-earth creationists on the panel, either). The interesting subject of conversation is not so much the absolute compatibility or not of science and religion—given that neither side is really going to budge on that—but rather how it is that religious scientists reconcile the supposedly incompatible sides of the issue. There’s some potential for interesting personal stories and psychological depth there—how do you maintain faith while practicing science when both religious extremists and other scientists are saying that’s impossible? That’s presumably what they’re aiming for with the panel, and given competent moderation, they could get something a lot more interesting out of that than they could by putting a militant atheist or a Biblical literalist on the panel.
Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education agrees:
Someone like Dawkins would stop the World Science Festival panel cold. The whole point Affirmative Atheists are making is that there is no dialogue to be had. Which means that the panel would descend into a metaconversation about whether there should even be conversations like the one they were supposed to be having. And that wouldn’t inform anyone.
I’ll grant in principle that there is a way to have a civil and informative dialogue about science/religion compatibility between people who think it exists and those who don’t. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it work, but surely it can be done.
Sam Harris thinks so, arguing that “values” are really objective, knowable “facts” about the well-being of conscious creatures—meaning science can tells us what we should value. As he explains in his TED talk, descriptions of how the world “is” can tell us how the world “ought” to be because “there are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing, and morality relates to that domain of facts. It is possible for individuals and even for whole cultures to care about the wrong things, which is to say it’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that reliably lead to needless human suffering.”
Not so fast, says physicist Sean Carroll, who disagrees with Harris’ thesis because:
Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the big-bang model and you believe in the steady-state cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale—but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.
If Collins speaks for science, Coyne seems to be arguing, then he should resign when his statements clearly go outside the bounds of scientific consensus. There being no scientific consensus around whether science and faith are compatible, he should not continue to be the government’s chief scientist.
But he isn’t the government’s chief scientist. His job isn’t to speak on behalf of science per se in the White House or in public. His job is to administer NIH, and in his free time, he can do as he likes. Science and religion has long been one of his interests, and he contributed an introduction to a book on the topic. Yes, it identifies him as director of NIH, but Coyne’s book and blog identify him as a professor at the University of Chicago, and no one pretends that Coyne’s comments in his private writings are official statements by one of the nation’s premiere research institutions. In Collins’s essay, a section entitled “My Own Perspective On Science And Faith” presents … his personal view on the topic. I disagree with it, Coyne disagrees with it, others are free to do the same.
But that’s not cause for firing him from a job that he seems to be doing just fine. He’s getting big budget increases for biomedical research, he’s continuing to expand access to newly derived stem cell lines, and nothing in Coyne’s bill of indictment suggests any faults in his administration.
Collins is director of the NIH, and is using his office to argue publicly that scientific evidence—the Big Bang, the “Moral Law,” and so forth—points to the existence of a God. That is blurring the lines between faith and science: exactly what I hoped he would not do when he took his new job.
And to those who say that he has the right to publish this sort of stuff, well, yes he does. He has the legal right. But it’s not judicious to argue publicly, as the most important scientist in the U.S., that there is scientific evidence for God. Imagine, for example, the outcry that would ensue if Collins were an atheist and, as NIH director, published a collection of atheistic essays along the lines of Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist, but also arguing that scientific evidence proved that there was no God. He would, of course, promptly be canned as NIH director.
Or imagine if Collins were a Scientologist, arguing that the evidence pointed to the existence of Xenu and ancient “body-thetans” that still plague humans today. Or a Muslim, arguing that evidence pointed to the existence of Allah, and of Muhammad as his divine prophet. Or if he published a book showing how scientific evidence pointed to the efficacy of astrology, or witchcraft. People would think he was nuts.
Collins gets away with this kind of stuff only because, in America, Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition. He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith. He had his chance, and he blew it. He should step down.