Monday, July 27, 2009

Sam Harris vs Francis Collins

Sam Harris has published an op-ed piece in The New York Times where he questions whether the religious beliefs of Francis Collins are compatible with science [Science Is in the Details].
Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. 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?
I'm not particularly worried about the possibility that Collins' beliefs will influence his decisions at NIH. I'm worried about the mixing of science and religion that occurs when a well-known Christian apologist is appointed to such a prominent scientific position.

It would have been far better to choose someone who was not publicly engaged in the science vs religion debate. NIH should be strictly neutral on this issue.


  1. I agree that NIH should remain strictly neutral, and Collins is religiously partisan on two counts: one, as you said, is that he is publicly involved in debate regarding science and religion, and the other is that his personal feelings will influence his decisions. Good luck finding a candidate that avoids the second-- maybe the best we could hope for would be a very strict secular scientific agnostic!

  2. Sam Harris has a one word answer to all of the world’s ills: religion.

    Thus, anyone who is religious is, a priori, part of the problem.

    Moreover, as evidenced at the following link, Harris himself is becoming a scientist not in order to conduct unbiased research but in order to attempt to evidence atheism: see the new (emergent) atheists.

    Also, FYI: interesting info on Collins is found here:
    John Horgan and Francis Collins.

    The New Atheists on Francis Collins.