Thursday, April 17, 2008

Francis Collins, again

I haven't posted in a while, but this Pew Research interview with Francis Collins presents a good opportunity.
For Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, scientific knowledge complements rather than contradicts belief in God. In his 2006 bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins argues that advances in science present 'an opportunity for worship,' rather than a catalyst for doubt. Recently, the Pew Forum interviewed Dr. Collins about his views on science and religion.
For the most part, I'll just present Collins' answers unless there is some ambiguity.
If you see God as the creator of the universe – in all of its amazing complexity, diversity and awesome beauty – then science, which is, of course, a means of exploring nature, also becomes a means of exploring God’s creative abilities. And so, for me, as a scientist who is also a religious believer, research activities that look like science can also be thought of as opportunities to worship.
As I've said a number of times previously, the most sympathetic interpretation I have found for religious faith — other than dismissing it as an unconscious externalization of subjective experience — is that the subject matter of religion is outside empirical determination and is therefore not relevant to the material world. This seems to be more or less Collins' position, although I doubt that he would put it that way. This first answer suggests this position, namely that science explores nature and since God created nature, i.e., the universe, science explores "God's creative abilities." It doesn't seem to matter in any real sense whether "God created the universe" has any real meaning or truth value. Science certainly explores nature. The rest is outside of the realm in which we can say what the sentence means.
One can look at Genesis 1-2, for instance, and see that there is not just one but two stories of the creation of humanity, and those stories do not quite agree with each other. That alone ought to be reason enough to argue that the literal interpretation of every verse, in isolation from the rest of the Bible, can’t really be correct. Otherwise, the Bible is contradicting itself. …

If Augustine, who was one of the most thoughtful, original thinkers about biblical interpretation that we’ve ever had, was unable to figure out what Genesis meant 1,600 years ago, why should we today insist that we know what it means.
This is another subject I've written about. How should one do religious epistemology, i.e., how does one decide which statements to believe. Collins acknowledges that there is a problem, and he doesn't have an answer. But that doesn't seem to bother him. If I were confronted with a doctrine that included a number of self-contradictory statements, along with other statements that contradicted current ethical principles or empirical evidence, I would be bothered — or at least concerned about finding some approach to deciding which statements to believe. So I don't understand why being in such a situation doesn't bother Collins. But that seems to be the religious answer to everything. The less sense something makes, the more it confirms the mystery.
If God has any meaning at all, God is at least in part outside of nature (unless you’re a pantheist). Science is limited in that its tools are only appropriate for the exploration of nature. Science can therefore certainly never discount the possibility of something outside of nature. To do so is a category error, basically using the wrong tools to ask the question.
This brings us back to the first point: belief in God is outside science. But since science investigates everything which is within human experience, belief in God refers to something which is outside human experience. If that's the case, it doesn't matter whether one believes or not since we are unable to experience what belief is about. To my mind, that's a good definition of either fiction or meaninglessness.

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