Sunday, January 21, 2007

Francis Collins on stem cells and faith

Discover interviews Francis Collins in this month's print edition. Collins is the Director of the Human Genome Research Institute (part of the NIH). According to the article,
A devoted Christian, Collins defends evolution and embryonic stem cell research in his new book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Collins' opening answer seems to sum up his position.
We live in an unfortunate time when the Richard Dawkins crowd says religion is silly, and other people say evolution is silly. Most people don't agree with either extreme. The dominant position in the past for most working scientists was a middle ground: You use the tools of science to understand how nature works, but you also recognize that there are things outside of nature, namely God, for which the tools of science are not well designed to derive truth. The middle-ground position is that there is more than one way to find truth, and a fully formed effort to try to answer the most important questions would not limit you to the kinds of questions that science can answer, especially the eternal one: Why are we here, anyway?
I wish I had a chance to talk to Collins. My first question would be what he means by "there are things outside of nature." Normally we use the term nature to refer to the natural world. To say that there are things outside of that world is perplexing on its face. Are these things with which we can have contact? If so, what sort of contact? Does that contact involve natural phenomena? If not, is the implication that part of ourselves is outside nature as well? Otherwise, how does our contact with something outside nature enter our experience? In other words, is he saying that there is a transition from things outside nature to things within nature? If so, how and where does that transition occur? If not, i.e., if our experience of what is outside nature is also outside nature, what does that really mean? Isn't that selling nature short?

The second issue I would discuss with him is the meaning of truth. I've gone on about that in the past, so I won't repeat it other than to say that from my perspective truth refers to a relationship between an idea in our heads and nature. He seems to mean something different by the term.

I would agree with him about his final point, namely, that there are questions that science is not designed to answer. I don't think there is an answer to the question, "Why are we here?" So I wouldn't expect science to be able to answer it. I also don't think science is designed to answer ethical questions or questions about what is a good life.

In my view science has a very narrow scope. As Collins says, science is designed to answer questions about how nature works. Besides ethical and value questions, it is also not designed to answer mathematical questions (such as whether Goldbach's conjecture holds — in my view pure mathematics isn't science since science is the investigation of how the natural world works) or constructive questions (such as what would a computer program that can beat any human Go player look like—in my view the constructive arts like computer science and engineering aren't science either). Nor is science designed to answer predictive questions such as whether we will destroy civilization by our carelessness with the environment or whether a terrorist will explode a dirty nuclear bomb in the next 10 years.

Even though science is not designed to answer these questions, I wouldn't say that any of them are outside of nature. (I include mathematics as part of nature in that we do it, and we are part of nature. I don't know what Collin's position is on whether these question are part of nature.) So I don't see the fact that there are questions that science is not designed to answer an argument for a faith-based religion, which is the position he holds. These sorts of questions should be discussed and considered by those of us who are interested in them. (Some questions, such as the one about a dirty bomb, are unanswerable except by letting time pass.) That's a lot different from saying that faith provides answers for them.


Robert Elliott Smith said...

Great post, Russ. I've shared it with a number of people.

But I do think there is one response to Collins' paragraph that you overlooked - the tacet assumption in his phrase "namely God".

Certainly, since this is describing how "most scientists" thought in "the past", it should be "namely some supernatural force or other", or at most "some God(s)", since most scientists probably believed in vastly different Gods. Some were even Hindus, for Christ's sake!

And many probably believed in something that didn't include the anthropomorphic assumptions of the word "God".

The point is that without this chauvinistic assumption, Collins argument holds for faith in just about anything. Rendering his entire argument pretty toothless.

sushil yadav said...

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





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